Amherst Magazine

Loneliness as a Way of Life

By Professor of Political Science Thomas Dumm. Harvard University Press.

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Reviewed by Rand Richards Cooper ’80

Thomas Dumm has written a book with a forlorn title, Loneliness as a Way of Life. There’s something contradictory about a writer this erudite and, in a certain sense, dry, taking on a topic as elusive, personal and fundamentally moist as an emotion. “Why,” Dumm begins by asking, “would someone who has devoted so much of his adult life to the study of politics write a book about loneliness?” In fact, loneliness has long informed books of popular sociology, from David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd, in 1950, to Robert Putnam’s 2001 bestseller, Bowling Alone. Much more than an emotion, loneliness is both an individual predicament and a social condition—and, as such, a rich topic for political theory.

The loneliness Dumm investigates comprises “our inability to live with each other honestly and in comity, the estranged and isolating forms that our relationships with our most intimate acquaintances sometimes assume, [and] the weakness of our attachments to each other and hence to our lives in common.” His credentials for tracking these forms of isolation include one nobody would wish to possess. In 2003, Dumm’s wife, Brenda, died of a rare form of lung cancer, leaving him a widower with two young children. And thus his book, “the result of a lengthy and sometimes convoluted intellectual and emotional journey.”

Dumm’s method is to open a chapter with a series of inviting questions. “Why do we find such pain in the experience of being alone? Where does this pain come from?” Closely argued readings of novels, plays and films help shape his answers. Reading the opening act of King Lear, Dumm interestingly asserts that Cordelia’s search for autonomy through an honest understanding of love makes her “the first lonely self” and thus “our first modern person.” His treatment of Moby Dick engages the mystery of Ishmael’s “shattered identity” and proposes a somewhat eccentric solution. And in a chapter titled “Getting,” he examines Death of a Salesman in the context of American capitalism, saving high praise for Arthur Miller, “that brilliant son of twentieth-century America who recognizes the terrible price of our imperious desire for commodious living.”

Surveying things political, Dumm discerns his theme in Hannah Arendt’s insight into how totalitarian rulers cultivate “a widespread, almost universal loneliness” among their subjects and also in the Bush administration’s war on terror, which he condemns as “a politics of blocked grief.” Elsewhere, he addresses his readers directly and personally. “I suspect that if you have picked up this book,” he writes, “you are asking pertinent questions about what it means to be lonely.” But Loneliness as a Way of Life is not a self-help book. Dumm’s excursions into the personal are few, his memoirist’s voice formal to the point of reticence. Recalling a set-to with his children, for instance, he describes “trying to overcome the intergenerational transmission of anger.” (In my household, that means being mad as hell at your kids, and feeling bad about it.) The same formality lends poignant grace to Dumm’s account of accompanying his dying wife “in our ongoing encounter with the vivid knowledge of a coming end.”

All in all, I wish there were more of the personal here; I’d rather spend time with the author’s mother (who had nine children—nine!—and eagerly welcomed her maternity stays as restful holidays) than with his critique of Judith Butler’s gloss on Levinas’ concept of faciality. Loneliness as a Way of Life is dauntingly abstract in places. Its high walls of erudition, built with citations of Gramsci, Foucault and Benjamin, might be easier to scale if its sentences weren’t braided from such slippery strands of contemporary literary theory. How to get a grasp on “being present at the place of our absence,” “the historically contingent inevitability of individual embodiment,” “a dissettling of engenderment” or “the deeply situated Antigone, whose complex kinship becomes the site of a social contestation”? Dumm also has a weakness for wordplay and the poetic-etymological riff. “The community of those who have nothing in common is made common to us through these modes of separation and commonness”: such riddling sentences can make even the most intrepid reader feel lost and, well, a bit lonely.

Still, I appreciate Dumm’s valiant struggle “to describe what cannot be described, to define that which exceeds definition.” He closes his meditation with a profound question: “What are we to do with our selves in the face of our losses?” His own answers are concrete and hopeful: to be engaged politically; to raise his children and send them out into the world; to read and write; and to be at home, as much as possible, with his loneliness. Quoting Emerson’s resounding exhortation from “Experience”—“up again, old heart!”—Dumm offers his own summary of how we heal: “The heart turns, overcomes its losses, and moves forward.”

Cooper is a former visiting writer at Amherst.