“Loneliness is personal, and it is also political,” Olivia Laing wrote in The Lonely City, one of the finest books of the year. Half a century earlier, Hannah Arendt (October 14, 1906–December 4, 1975) examined those peculiar parallel dimensions of loneliness as a profoundly personal anguish and an indispensable currency of our political life in her intellectual debut, the incisive and astonishingly timely 1951 classic The Origins of Totalitarianism (public library).
Arendt paints loneliness as “the common ground for terror” and explores its function as both the chief weapon and the chief damage of oppressive political regimes. Exactly twenty years before her piercing treatise on lying in politics, she writes:
Just as terror, even in its pre-total, merely tyrannical form ruins all relationships between men, so the self-compulsion of ideological thinking ruins all relationships with reality. The preparation has succeeded when people have lost contact with their fellow men* as well as the reality around them; for together with these contacts, men lose the capacity of both experience and thought. The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.
Hannah Arendt by Fred Stein, 1944 (Photograph courtesy of the Fred Stein Archive)
What perpetuates such tyrannical regimes, Arendt argues, is manipulation by isolation — something most effectively accomplished by the divisiveness of “us vs. them” narratives. She writes:
Terror can rule absolutely only over men who are isolated against each other… Therefore, one of the primary concerns of all tyrannical government is to bring this isolation about. Isolation may be the beginning of terror; it certainly is its most fertile ground; it always is its result. This isolation is, as it were, pretotalitarian; its hallmark is impotence insofar as power always comes from men acting together…; isolated men are powerless by definition.
Although isolation is not necessarily the same as loneliness, Arendt notes that loneliness can become both the seedbed and the perilous consequence of the isolation effected by tyrannical regimes:
In isolation, man remains in contact with the world as the human artifice; only when the most elementary form of human creativity, which is the capacity to add something of one’s own to the common world, is destroyed, isolation becomes altogether unbearable… Isolation then becomes loneliness.
While isolation concerns only the political realm of life, loneliness concerns human life as a whole. Totalitarian government, like all tyrannies, certainly could not exist without destroying the public realm of life, that is, without destroying, by isolating men, their political capacities. But totalitarian domination as a form of government is new in that it is not content with this isolation and destroys private life as well. It bases itself on loneliness, on the experience of not belonging to the world at all, which is among the most radical and desperate experiences of man.
This is why our insistence on belonging, community, and human connection is one of the greatest acts of courage and resistance in the face of oppression — for, in the words of the beloved Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue, “the ancient and eternal values of human life — truth, unity, goodness, justice, beauty, and love — are all statements of true belonging.”
The Origins of Totalitarianism is a remarkable read in its totality. Complement it with Arendt on the life of the mind, how we humanize each other, the difference between how art and science illuminate human life, and her beautiful love letters.
“Words belong to each other,” Virginia Woolf observed in the only surviving recording of her voice. “Words are events, they do things, change things,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote many decades later in contemplating the magic of real conversation. The poet David Whyte marveled at “their beautiful hidden and beckoning uncertainty” as he set out to reclaim the deeper meanings of everyday words. But what do words actually do — what is their responsibility to us and ours to them?
That’s what Susan Sontag (January 16, 1933–December 28, 2004) explores in her spectacular 2001 Jerusalem Prize acceptance speech, published as “The Conscience of Words” in At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches (public library) — the indispensable posthumous anthology that gave us Sontag on moral courage and the power of principled resistance to injustice, literature and freedom, beauty vs. interestingness, and her advice to writers.
Susan Sontag by Hujar
Sontag begins by weighing the elasticity of language and the way in which words can expand meaning as much as they can contract it:
We fret about words, we writers. Words mean. Words point. They are arrows. Arrows stuck in the rough hide of reality. And the more portentous, more general the word, the more they also resemble rooms or tunnels. They can expand, or cave in. They can come to be filled with a bad smell. They will often remind us of other rooms, where we’d rather dwell or where we think we are already living. They can be spaces we lose the art or the wisdom of inhabiting. And eventually those volumes of mental intention we no longer know how to inhabit will be abandoned, boarded up, closed down.
What do we mean, for example, by the word “peace”? Do we mean an absence of strife? Do we mean a forgetting? Do we mean a forgiveness? Or do we mean a great weariness, an exhaustion, an emptying out of rancor? It seems to me that what most people mean by “peace” is victory. The victory of their side. That’s what “peace” means to them, while to the others peace means defeat… Peace becomes a space people no longer know how to inhabit.
Reflecting on the complete name of the prize that occasioned her speech — the Jerusalem Prize for the Freedom of the Individual in Society — Sontag reflects on the writer’s relationship to words as a tool of personal agency:
It isn’t what a writer says that matters, it’s what a writer is.
Writers — by which I mean members of the community of literature — are emblems of the persistence (and the necessity) of individual vision.
And yet because “there are contradictory impulses in everything,” as Sontag herself so poignantly observed a quarter century earlier, there is a dark side to this notion of individual vision. In a passage of particular timeliness amid our age of identity and self-broadcasting, Sontag, who lived through “the century of the self,” writes:
The unceasing propaganda in our time for “the individual” seems to me deeply suspect, as “individuality” itself becomes more and more a synonym for selfishness. A capitalist society comes to have a vested interest in praising “individuality” and “freedom” — which may mean little more than the right to the perpetual aggrandizement of the self, and the freedom to shop, to acquire, to use up, to consume, to render obsolete.
I don’t believe there is any inherent value in the cultivation of the self. And I think there is no culture (using the term normatively) without a standard of altruism, of regard for others. I do believe there is an inherent value in extending our sense of what a human life can be. If literature has engaged me as a project, first as a reader and then as a writer, it is as an extension of my sympathies to other selves, other domains, other dreams, other words, other territories of concern.
In a sentiment almost countercultural today, as we watch entire careers be built upon rampant opinion-slinging, Sontag considers the true task of the writer:
A writer ought not to be an opinion-machine… The writer’s first job is not to have opinions but to tell the truth … and refuse to be an accomplice of lies and misinformation. Literature is the house of nuance and contrariness against the voices of simplification. The job of the writer is to make it harder to believe the mental despoilers. The job of the writer is to make us see the world as it is, full of many different claims and parts and experiences.
It is the job of the writer to depict the realities: the foul realities, the realities of rapture. It is the essence of the wisdom furnished by literature (the plurality of literary achievement) to help us to understand that, whatever is happening, something else is always going on.
Sontag’s words radiate an aching recognition of our contemporary tendency to form instant opinions and to mistake for informed opinions what are really reactions to reactions. She observes:
There is something vulgar about public dissemination of opinions on matters about which one does not have extensive first-hand knowledge. If I speak of what I do not know, or know hastily, this is mere opinion-mongering.
The problem with opinions is that one is stuck with them. And whenever writers are functioning as writers, they always see … more.
Attesting to literature power to reinstate nuance and celebrate what the poet Elizabeth Alexander calls “multivocality, polyphony, gumbo yaya,” Sontag adds:
If literature itself, this great enterprise that has been conducted (within our purview) for nearly three millennia, embodies a wisdom — and I think it does and is at the heart of the importance we give to literature — it is by demonstrating the multiple nature of our private and our communal destinies. It will remind us that there can be contradictions, sometimes irreducible conflicts, among the values we most cherish.
Susan Sontag’s diary meditations on art, illustrated by Wendy MacNaughton
Out of this recognition of multiplicity and complementarity arises the highest task of literature, as well as its greatest reward. Centuries after Hegel, one of her great influences, admonished against the peril of fixed opinions, Sontag writes:
The wisdom of literature is quite antithetical to having opinions… Furnishing opinions, even correct opinions — whenever asked — cheapens what novelists and poets do best, which is to sponsor reflectiveness, to pursue complexity.
In a sentiment of especial relevance today, as we increasingly struggle to live with wisdom in the age of information, Sontag echoes her hero Walter Benjamin’s timeless ideas about the crucial difference between information and illumination and considers the ultimate task of the storyteller:
Information will never replace illumination… Let the others, the celebrities and the politicians, talk down to us; lie. If being both a writer and a public voice could stand for anything better, it would be that writers would consider the formulation of opinions and judgments to be a difficult responsibility.
Another problem with opinions. They are agencies of self-immobilization. What writers do should free us up, shake us up. Open avenues of compassion and new interests. Remind us that we might, just might, aspire to become different, and better, than we are. Remind us that we can change.
At the Same Time is a terrific and timely read in its totality. Complement it with Sontag’s abiding wisdom on the power of music, the role of silence in creative work, storytelling and what it means to be a moral human being, how photography helps us navigate complexity, and her spectacular Letter to Borges.
“The most regretful people on earth,” Mary Oliver wrote in her exquisite meditation on the central commitment of the creative life, “are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.” The past century has sprouted a great many theories of how creativity works and what it takes to master it, and yet its innermost nature remains so nebulous and elusive that the call of creative work may be as difficult to hear as it is to answer.
What to listen for and how to tune the listening ear is what the trailblazing physicist David Bohm (December 20, 1917–October 27, 1992) explores in the 1968 title essay in On Creativity (public library) — his previously unpublished writings on art, science, and originality, edited by Lee Nichol.
Bohm, who maintained a lively affinity for the arts in his forty-five years as a theoretical physicist, argues that the creative impulse in both art and science aims at “a certain oneness and totality, or wholeness, constituting a kind of harmony that is felt to be beautiful.” He writes: