The Book of Human Emotions: From Ambiguphobia to Umpty - 154 Words from Around the World for How We Feel - Tiffany Watt Smith 2016


The passengers climb in and then out again, never making eye contact. They leave a purse or a magazine, occasionally spunk, on the seats. In Martin Scorsese’s film Taxi Driver, it’s the lack of human connection in bustling New York that fosters Vietnam veteran Travis Bickle’s contempt of the city. He might not call himself lonely, but he knows he is alone, and it is this total alienation that ultimately provokes him to act out his violent fantasies.

There is a long tradition of suspicion toward those who choose to be alone. “Solitude produces ignorance, renders us barbarous, feeds revenge, disposes us to envy, creates witches, dispeoples the world,” wrote John Evelyn in 1667, parodying his culture’s excessive fear of the intentionally solitary. Worse still, it encouraged “mental fornication” and masturbation, since the lonely “have… no passions, save the sensual.”

In the final decade of the eighteenth century, however, a rebellious group of Romantic poets and painters deliberately sought loneliness out. Today we might speak of loneliness as a feeling of dejection and disconnection, something we should avoid. What the Romantics called loneliness, however, described the physical condition of solitude, which could give rise to transformative spiritual and emotional experiences. In Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings Mountain Landscape with Rainbow (1809) or Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (1818), a solitary walker is absorbed by the vast craggy wilderness around him, his back turned to the viewer and in that way, isolating us too. Being “lonely” in nature, he surrenders to feelings of awe, wonder and terror at its sublime majesty—all the petty worries of ordinary life, and even a sense of an independent self, ebbing away.

In the middle of the nineteenth century, however, the meaning of the word “loneliness” shifted from a description of physical isolation, to depict a painful emotion. Characters in Victorian novels, uprooted from family and friends and forced to seek their fortunes in grimy, overpopulated cities, began to talk of their dejection. It was the first time people described themselves as “being lonely” while still being surrounded by other people. By the end of the century, the modern metropolis, rather than the countryside, had become firmly installed as the main source of loneliness, with sociologists such as Georg Simmel calling cities places of “utter lonesomeness” that produced a “feeling that the individual is surrounded on all sides by closed doors.” Travis’s isolation in Taxi Driver is a direct inheritance of this fin de siècle nervousness about the anonymous and rapacious city breeding the isolation that gives way to madness and DESPAIR.

In twenty-first-century Britain, politicians decry an “epidemic of loneliness” in our cities. Rising divorce rates, people choosing to live alone, increased use of computers, the supposed solipsism of our culture and a lack of community identity are all blamed. Social media, thought to replace in-person interaction with a poor digital substitute (it’s hard to make eye contact even on Skype or FaceTime), is held up as a problem, so that according to a survey by the Mental Health Foundation, it’s the young, rather than the elderly, who are most at risk of loneliness. And the stakes are high: in one study by the Chicago neuroscientist John Cacioppo, loneliness was found to increase the odds of an early death by 14 percent, twice the risk for obesity. His study found that extended isolation from family and friends caused feelings of desolation and APATHY. These feelings bring an urge to self-medicate with the warm hug of TV and sugary foods, causing other health problems; but they might also lead to mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and dementia too.

But there is another kind of loneliness, which neither the Romantics nor the neuroscientists talk about. It is the dark, cramped feeling of not being understood that can strike even in the midst of a busy family life. In Japan, hikikomori (withdrawn) is a condition afflicting mainly adolescent, middle-class males. The psychiatrist Tamaki Saito, who coined the term, believes around seven hundred thousand men in Japan suffer from it. The precise causes are not quite understood, but feeling alienated from your family’s values or the career path they have planned for you seems to trigger a desire for sufferers to isolate themselves entirely, cutting off all contact with family and friends and refusing to leave their room, sometimes for several years. In hikikomori, then, one feeling of loneliness gives way to another. And reminds us that loneliness is not only a feeling that comes when we are lost in the great wilderness of the world, but also comes when we feel hemmed in by its expectations and desires.