Living Painfully Lonely Lives

Living Painfully Lonely Lives

Solitude and Isolation

In the 2000 film Cast Away, Tom Hanks plays an obsessive, clock-watching businessman, Chuck Noland, who by an unexpected misfortune finds himself stranded on an isolated Pacific island. Noland copes with his four years of social disconnection and loneliness in part by befriending a volleyball, which he names Wilson. He jokes with Wilson and confides in Wilson and mistreats Wilson, and at one point he even kicks his companion out of their cave like an angry spouse. When he finally and irretrievably loses his volleyball to the ocean currents, he cries, “I’m sorry, Wilson!

Many of us might have had daydreams of fantasys about living alone, far from the commotion and pressure of modern life. But we should watch what we wish for, because in fact most of us would not fare well in such isolated conditions. This has been shown time and again: people who live lonely and disconnected lives, even smack in the middle of a modern metropolis, are more depressed, more suicidal and have more physical illnesses than the rest of us. Such longing is especially poignant at holiday time. The lonely are in effect emotional throwaways.

And how do emotional castaways cope? What cognitive tools do we have to salve the pain of loneliness? We might well do precisely what Chuck Noland knew intuitively to do. We “invent” people to keep us company, humanizing anything we can humanize, pets, supernatural beings, possibly even something as unlikely as avolleyball.

There is a more unsettling possibility, as well. If the human mind is wired to make lonely people hunger for connection, as these studies show, then the inverse is probably also true. That is, people who are not lonely, who are secure in their circle of friends and family, may be more likely to dehumanize strangers; they have no motivation to make further connections. So perhaps it’s not entirely fanciful for an emotional castaway to befriend a volleyball, but for most of us the greater risk may be treating real flesh-and-blood humans as playthings.

Nicholas Epley, Adam Waytz, and John T. Cacioppo at The University of Chicago have conducted interesting empirical research about loneliness, which you can read here: Link.

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Joan Didion: Life Changes in the Instant

Joan Didion: Photography by Annie Leibovitz

Joan Didion Receiving the 2007 National Book Foundation Award

The National Book Foundation commemorated the literary achievements of Joan Didion at its 2007 awards ceremony in New York City. Didion received the 2007 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters for her “Outstanding achievements as a novelist and essayist.” Didion won the National Book Award in 2005 for her last book, The Year of Magical Thinking.

Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Cunningham presented the medal at the 58th National Book Award ceremony and dinner. Harold Augenbraum, Executive Director of the Foundation, said, ” Joan Didion is one of the keenest observers and finest prose stylists of our time.”

Joan Didion Speaks: The National Book Foundation Ceremony

Biographic Notes

Joan Didion was born in Sacramento, California. She spent most of her childhood there, except for several years during World War II, when she traveled across the county with her mother and brother to be near her father. Her family had deep roots in the West; family tales of pioneer days informed her first novel, as well as her later memoir, Where I Was From.

Didion was a shy, bookish child, although she pushed herself to overcome her shyness through acting and public speaking. In her final year at The University of California, Berkeley, she won an essay contest sponsored by Vogue Magazine. The first prize was a job in the magazine’s New York office. Didion remained at Vogue for two years, progressing from research assistant to contributing writer. At the same time, she published articles in other magazines and wrote her first novel, Run River (1963).

In 1964, Didion married John Gregory Dunne, an aspiring novelist who was writing for Time Magazine. The couple moved to Los Angeles with the intention of staying for six months and ended up making their home there for the next 20 years. The pair adopted a baby girl who they named Quintana Roo, after the state on the eastern coast of Mexico.

The atmosphere of California in the 1960s provided Didion and Dunne with plentiful opportunities for writing in the personal style, becoming known as the New Journalism. The personal mode of writing was also associated with the writers Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, Hunter Thompson and Gay Talese. Didion’s essays on the 1960s counterculture were collected in her book Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968). It was published to critical acclaim and is considered to be one of the signature works of that decade. Didion’s second novel, Play It As it Lays (1970), which was set among the aimless souls adrift at the edges of the film industry, captured a mood of alienation that had crept over the film colony by the time of the decade’s ending.

Working together for the first time, Didion and Dunne wrote the screenplay for the motion picture, Panic in Needle Park (1971). Set among homeless drug addicts in New York City, the film introduced film audiences to the actor Al Pacino. Their work on the film was much admired and they became one of Hollywood’s most sought-after screenwriting teams. Together, they wrote screenplays for the film adaptation of Play It As it Lays (1972); a remake of A Star is Born (1976), starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson; the film version of her husband’s novel True Confessions (1981); and Up Close and Personal (1996) with Robert Redford.

In late 2003, Didion’s daughter, Quintana, fell gravely ill. Soon after returning from a visit to their comatose child in the hospital, her husband, John Gregory Dunne, suffered a fatal heart attack. Joan Didion wrote a searing account of her journey through grief in her novel The Year of Magical Thinking. At the time she finished the book, her daughter appeared to be recovering from her illness, but by the time the book was published, Quintana had died.

Joan Didion with her Husband, John Gregory Dunne

The National Book Award in 2005

The Year of Magical Thinking was published to widespread acclaim and received the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2005. “There’s hardly anything I can say about this except thank you,” said Didion, praising her publisher for supporting her while she wrote her acclaimed best seller. The 70-year-old Didion, who had never won the National Book Award, had long been admired by many distinguished authors for her precise, incisive fiction and literary journalism. However, The Year of Magical Thinking brought her a substantially larger readership, with booksellers saying that her book was especially in demand from others who have lost a loved one or knew someone who had.

Joan Didion pressed on through her sorrow. She wrote a stage adaptation of The Year of Magical Thinking, which appeared on Broadway this year, directed by David Hare and starring Vanessa Redgrave. Her first seven books of nonfiction have been collected in a single volume, We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live.

In 2005, Didion appeared at the Chicago Humanities Festival and provided reflections about The Year of Magical Thinking, as well as some about some of the feelings that were evoked by the events described in her book. She described the almost immediate dramatic, life-altering effect that she experienced: “The notion that I could control things died hard…I do not believe in an afterlife; I wish I did.” In her account, Didion contemplated how the rituals of daily life were fundamentally altered when her life’s companion was taken from her.

Her initial struggle to begin writing about the thoughts and feelings of grief, sorrow and utter isolation aroused by this tragic experience began with four magnificantly dignified short lines:

Life changes fast.

Life changes in the instant.

You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.

The question of self-pity.”

Joan Didion: Life Changes in the Instant

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Alone in a Crowd: The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

Girlie Show: The Solitude of the Self

Girlie Show: Edward Hopper (1882-1967)

Like most eminent artists, Edward Hopper’s paintings portray not only an image of the world, he also communicates a frame of mind.  In Hopper’s case, that state of mind is the sense that each of us is ultimately and unconditionally alone in an indifferent universe.  Nevertheless, middle-class decorum is always preserved by the people in his paintings; there are no Edvard Munch-like screams of spiritual angst in Hopper’s paintings and prints.

People are never smiling in Hopper’s paintings; in fact, they show no emotion at all. In Edward Hopper’s world, everyone is lost in an unending rut of work overtime, rattling El trains, cheap fluorescent diners, and bad dates.  Everything has fallen tensely quiet, and this anxious, disquieting mood haunts even the urban landscapes, in which the only person around is you, the viewer.   Here every man is an island. Hopper has become perhaps the most famous and beloved American artist of the past century by picturing the disquieting film noir isolation lurking within the glass-and-steel heart of our modern metropolises, the frustrating paradoxical feeling so completely alone when we’re so together.

Lonely men in shirt sleeves sit on the curb outside vacant stores and peer down at cracks in the pavement.  Or they prop themselves upright in lawn chairs, beside deserted highways and stare vacantly into the empty distance.   Are they coming close to the limit of what they can tolerate?  Or are they still looking for something out of life, something that has already passed them by, unseen?   It’s impossible to tell, for Hopper paintings tantalize, raise questions and leave us speculating about the meaning of their mute dramas.

Women are also nearly always isolated, cut off from human contact; they often appear to be just waiting.  Dressed up in what seems her best outfit, a 1920s twenty-something sips coffee alone at night in a brightly lit diner.  She has taken the table closest to the door, kept on her hat and coat, and only removed the glove from the hand that lifts her cup.  There is no one else around. Has she been stood up by her date, or is she, in the old phrase, all dressed up with no place to go?

The figures in Hopper’s paintings simply cannot connect, make connections or emotionally relate to each other.  Hopper painted the feeling that is familiar to most of us, the state of melancholy sadness embedded in existence, in our intimate knowledge of the solitude of the self.  In one picture, a young husband is hunched over his newspaper, while his wife who looks elegantly dressed for a night out on the town, distractedly looks away, fingering the keys of an upright piano.

In Hopper, even the strutting burlesque club stripper of Girlie Show (1941), garishly festooned with pasties, G-string, and heavily rouged cheeks, looks vacantly into the air rather than at the faces of her unseen clientele.

Michael Dirda has written a more extensive piece about Hopper’s work in The Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription).

Interested readers can look through The Edward Hooper Scrapbook, compiled by the Smithsonian American Art museum.

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