Loneliness as a Way of Life

by Tom Dumm, Professor of Political Science; Chair of the Political Science Dept.

Loneliness by Thomas Dumm

Loneliness as a Way of Life came about as a result of a confluence of intellectual interests and personal experiences joined together to result in the transformation of a book about individualism into a book about what it means to be alone in the world. The chapters address, in increasingly personal terms, different dimensions of what I think of as being a distinctively modern phenomenon, that of loneliness as a central experience of contemporary life. In the prologue to the book, I reread some key scenes in the Tragedy of King Lear to introduce the subject, and to pick up on a key thread that seems to run through the experience of loneliness -- what I call the problem of the "missing mother."

In the main body of the book, after an overview of the subject in the first chapter, I examine three elements of modern loneliness, "Having," "Loving," and "Grieving." In each of these chapters, I try to illuminate these elements of experience by using famous works of literature and film, combined with personal reflections, to describe what it is like to be lonely. In chapter two, on "having," I briefly discuss my father's life as a salesman, but also Arthur Miller's The Death of a Salesman, and (in what I think is a surprising reading) the lonely role of Pip, in Melville's Moby-Dick, comparing the experiences of selling, and what it might fell like to be at risk of being sold. In Chapter Three, on "loving," I reflect upon the loneliness of family life, beginning with the familiar struggles of my own marriage and raising of kids, then reflecting on the Wim Wender's film from the early '80s, "Paris, Texas," and finally a reflection on my own past, being raised in a larger family in which my mom was herself unable, at times, to cope. In the chapter on "grieiving," I reflect on the exeprience of loss, thinking with Freud, Emerson, DuBois, and Judith Butler, along with describing the experience of losing my wife to cancer. I ask what at first might seem a strange question: is it worse to die when the political regime in power is one that is unable to cope with the traumatic events of loss, and instead lashes out, as opposed to a peaceful regime, that somehow seems to have integrated its loss. The epilogue to this book offers, not necessarily a way out of loneliness, but a reflection on how to think and write one's way through it. I describe a trip I made to Ethiopia with my older brother, and what happened after.

This is a strange hybrid of a book, but it is designed to try to make accessible some difficult thinking about a very serious subject -- how we live, and how we face loss.

Some questions

1. Is there a fatherly equivalent to the phenomenon of the missing mother? And what might insight into the loss of the father add to the discussion of loneliness?

2. Is loneliness any different than alienation, or is there something more to it than that?

3. What would it mean to imagine that Ismael, the narrator of Moby-Dick, is black? is, in fact, Pip?

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