Showing posts tagged loneliness

“Our best and truest memories are invariably suffused with gratitude.”

Daniel Berrigan, S.J., from his introduction to The Long Loneliness by Dorothy Day

(Photograph by Bing Wright. Thank you, Mr. Wright and 1stdibs.)

Tom Junod on “the essence of Hoffman’s art”

[Philip Seymour Hoffman] often played creeps, but he rarely played them creepily. His metier was human loneliness — the terrible uncinematic kind that has very little to do with high-noon heroism and everything to do with everyday empathy — and the necessary curse of human self-knowledge. He held up a mirror to those who could barely stand to look at themselves and invited us not only to take a peek but to see someone we recognized. He played frauds who knew they were frauds, schemers who knew they were schemers, closeted men who could only groan with frustrated love, heavy breathers dignified by impeccable manners, and angels who could withstand the worst that life could hand out because they seemed to know the worst was just the beginning. And what united all his roles was the stoic calm he brought to them, the stately concentration that assured us that no matter whom Philip Seymour Hoffman played, Philip Seymour Hoffman himself was protected.

That’s what I thought, anyway — in reading the early reports of his death, I was surprised that he’d battled the demon of addiction, because I’d always confused Hoffman’s mastery with detachment, and assumed that he had lived by Flaubert’s charge to live an orderly life so that he could be violent and original in his work. But I shouldn’t have been surprised, and — here’s that contradictory and complementary response again — I wasn’t. I’d never met Philip Seymour Hoffman, never knew anyone who knew him, never even read a passably revealing magazine profile of him. All I really knew was that he was a character actor who came as close to being a movie star as character actors ever get, and that he played the lead in more Hollywood movies than any other portly, freckly, gingery man in human history. And that, in its way, is all I, or anyone else, needs to know.

— from “Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Final Secret” by Tom Junod (Esquire)

Him

It’s him I want to write about. He who once walked with me across an empty soccer field on a Sunday morning. He who once offered to teach me how to swim. He whom I turned down because I was too shy, too skeptical, too proud. I could have walked with him across a few more spaces, a few more Sundays. But now my mind goes to Her, Spike Jonze’s love story between a man and his operating system. This man goes for long walks, too. With her, the artificially intelligent OS in his pocket-size computer, he is no longer alone.

I watched the movie with my sister—she who kept smirking at the goings-on between sad, mopey Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) and efficient, empathetic Samantha (the OS voiced by the breathy and breathtaking Scarlett Johansson). Odd to speak of empathy coming from a non-human. But she tells him, “I have intuition. I mean, the DNA of who I am is based on the millions of personalities of all the programmers who wrote me. But what makes me me is my ability to grow through my experiences. So, basically, in every moment I’m evolving, just like you.”

It’s that trope in myth and literature. We create things in our image. Our creations grow to resemble—or reassemble—us. Genesis. Pygmalion. Frankenstein. In this movie, though, no one is a monster. Everyone is a flawed beauty, essentially incomplete, always evolving. At some points, even I was baffled by Her. What these lovers do for—or to—each other can get creepy or ridiculous. But who are we to judge? In the name of love, or in our ongoing affairs with our precious gadgets and favorite websites, we may have done crazier things than Jonze could have ever imagined.

And there are few things crazier than walking away from something good. So I go back to him. Some years ago, a man I was attracted to offered me swimming lessons. He and I were on our second semi-date. That morning, I took him on a walking tour of my alma mater. We talked and walked on tree-lined pavements, on footpaths scaling weed-ridden hills. We were crossing the soccer field when the conversation veered toward the fact that I had never learned to swim. He didn’t think it was such an embarrassing deficiency. He just said, “I can teach you how.”

He wasn’t a swimming instructor, but there was casual confidence, a no-big-deal sincerity in his voice. My aw-shucks way of thanking him and declining the offer meant only that I was uncomfortable with the physical intimacy such lessons would entail. Sure, two adult gay men in a pool, one teaching the other how to do backstrokes, wouldn’t be a Vatican-shaking scenario. Still, was I falling way too fast for this tall, lean, funny, articulate man? Or was I overanalyzing his motives? Was he just being polite? What lurked behind those cheerful eyes? What lay beneath the surface of those cool waters?

A few days ago, I thought about him again while I was posting these lines by Natalie Angier: “If you never learn to swim, you’ll surely regret it; and the sea is so big, it won’t let you forget it.” She was writing about science as a “great ocean of human experience.” I was thinking of swimming as the great fusion of science and art. The science of buoyancy and breathing. The art of letting go. I’m not exactly drowning in regrets, but once in a while my thoughts drift back to him, to all that great unknown—what bodies and minds can do.

In Her, there are some good jokes about the advantages of not having a body. My sister and I came up with more. Lucky Theo, he won’t have to worry about his partner’s health care or fashion emergencies. Isn’t that convenient? Dating your OS means less maintenance, lower costs. You can shut her down any time you want. The two of you can travel abroad and incur airfare and hotel expenses only for one. She won’t get fat, wrinkly, or sick. Love won’t have to be so messy or painful.

Her reminds me of Galatea 2.2, the geeky, melancholy novel by Richard Powers. In this version of man’s love affair with his machines (or with himself), the main character, also named Richard Powers, takes part in an experiment to teach a network of computer programs how to read and analyze the great works of literature. The net’s name is Helen. Richard talks to Helen, reads to her, feeds her Shakespeare, Joyce, Brontë, the Bible, and even his own life’s story. She learns to respond—with empathy and humor. In the end, he says, “She loved me, I guess.” But did he love her?

I realize that both Theodore and Richard are men who can’t seem to make their relationships last. Their relationships with women or with machines. These men’s tales embody that old yarn about everything, everyone, not sticking around long enough. After all, even the best operating systems need updating, or they become passé. Snowflakes fall in Her, every lovely speck unique and fragile. Theodore’s friend, Amy, tells him: “We’re only here briefly. And while I’m here, I want to allow myself joy.”

I had joy walking with someone some years ago. Sometimes I can even imagine joy as I swim in my dreams. On the next-to-last page of Galatea 2.2, a scientist says, “Why do we do anything? Because we’re lonely.” In the final moment of Her, all this loneliness flows into silence. On top of a building, Theodore sits beside his friend, a flesh-and-blood companion, as they gaze at the shimmering city and unfolding sky. Alone and not alone—that’s how I’ll always think of him.

Ain’t easy being me

Lines that crossed my mind while looking at Tumblr pics of Andrew McCarthy and thinking how it was to adore him in the 1980s and to identify with his Kevin Dolenz character in St. Elmo’s Fire:

I, too, was in love with a girl at the time. At least, I thought it was love. Two girls, really—or three, if you extend those messy glory days to the early 1990s. I couldn’t quite admit it to them or to myself. Yeah, I was a closet straight slut. Who knew? Now I’ve become this bona fide gay middle-aged single man still wondering whether, as Kevin quips, love is an illusion. Perhaps time is the illusion.

Yeah, it’s time: I should be preparing now for work. Didn’t get out of the house for a week: pesky flu, bad weather, crappy mood. Sky turning gray again. I’m still in no mood to go out, to get my butt off this chair. Ah, but enough. Got to get back to work. The other day, while flipping through An Open Book, the memoir of my favorite book critic Michael Dirda, I found this timely D. H. Lawrence quote: “Work is best, and a certain numbness, a merciful numbness.”

Got to gather my wits, my stuff—books, notebooks, folders, photocopies, detritus of the mind, remains of the day. Got to get dressed—for work, for the world, for that certain numbness. Got to get back into my George Mode, as in the opening passages of A Single Man. Got to get up, clean up, shave, check in the mirror. To borrow Isherwood’s words: “What [I see] there isn’t so much a face as the expression of a predicament.” And “yet there is no question of stopping. The creature we are watching will struggle on and on until it drops.”

And now I hear rain starting to fall again. Sure, bring it on. Just what I need. Make this day even grayer, more inconvenient. Get me stuck in the gloom. Plunge me back into inertia, nostalgia. Into whatever the hell the next days will be all about. Ah, but why think about the future? Stay calm. Just breathe. Live now. Tumblr. Whatever.

Yeah, Andrew McCarthy. I’ve been reading his book, The Longest Way Home. My swoony adoration is turning into sober admiration. Look at him now. Ageless heartthrob charms. Unquestionable writing gifts. I get his need to write more and travel far so he can seek solitude and find his way back to the solace of staying connected. I get why he doesn’t get himself sometimes. Or why he doubts what he gets: “Maybe the idea of who I was, who I wanted to be, simply didn’t match up with the person I had become. Was this just a midlife crisis, was I simply a walking cliché?”

Am I simply a tumblring fool? Does it even matter what I write here, how I choose to seek or spurn connection, why I bother with illusions? Does love or work or numbness have to be so hard? In my early twenties, Kevin Dolenz spoke for me. He spoke to a generation of young writer types suppressing their romantic idealism with glib, cynical self-absorption: “Me? Oh, you know, it ain’t easy being me.”

I’m happy for Andrew McCarthy. At 50 (51 next month), he’s got it made. Loving, lovely wife and kids. Stimulating careers as actor, director, and writer. Jobs that let him ask questions and explore places without sounding foolish or petty. A life that leaves him alone when he needs to have what Paul Theroux calls the “lucidity of loneliness.”

It’s just another one of those days—lines crossing my mind, the push and pull of stray quotes, of past and present selves, alter egos, alternate destinations. Does it even matter where I go from here or who I echo next? Mr. McCarthy is just three months older than I am. I’ll let him speak for me for now: “Just show up. Be the best version of myself every day for the rest of my life. That’s what I’m committing to. Easy.”

So why do you like traveling alone?

“I don’t know, I guess I’m just more of a loner than most people are. I’ve traveled with my kids and family, and it’s great, but at heart, traveling is just like a laboratory for me. You put yourself in a vulnerable state, I think it’s a really good thing. And you get very lonely when you travel alone, and I think that’s a good thing. People go to great lengths not to be lonely, and I think that’s silly. I find being lonely on the road to be much more tolerable and much more informative than being lonely at home. I don’t think there’s any reason to avoid being lonely.”

Andrew McCarthy (Details)

The lucidity of loneliness

“The writer Paul Theroux was a great influence on how I chose to travel, and he has always made a strong point for going alone. Only in the ‘lucidity of loneliness,’ as he calls it, can we see what we came to see and learn what it is we came to this spot to learn.”

Andrew McCarthy, The Longest Way Home

(Photograph: Self-Portrait by Nathan Wirth. Thank you, Mr. Wirth and Behance.)

Al Nada*

An
epic
of
flowers
told
as
drops
of
dew.
.
Stories
I
tell
to
the
fingerprints
:
left
to
mark
a
dream
of
loneliness

A flower is never alone.

Nadine Rachid Laure Touma, in The Space Between Our Footsteps: Poems and Paintings from the Middle East, selected by Naomi Shihab Nye

*Al Nada—“dew” in Arabic

Love was taking her
What she had now was too precious and flammable to share with anyone. She knew that some night with Ted it would burst and blaze, and it would rise in her again and again, would course in her blood, burn in her face, shine in her eyes. And this time love was taking her into pain, yes, quarrels and loneliness and boiling rage; but this time there was no time, and love was taking her as far as she would go, as long as she would live, taking her strongly and bravely with this Ted Briggs, holding his pretty cane; this man who was frightened by what had happened to him, but not by the madness she knew he was feeling now. She was hungry, and she talked with her friends and waited for her steak, and for all that was coming to her: from her body, from the earth, from radiant angels poised in the air she breathed.
— from “All the Time in the World,” in Dancing After Hours by Andre Dubus
(Photo: Thank you, Klub Lotus.)

Love was taking her

What she had now was too precious and flammable to share with anyone. She knew that some night with Ted it would burst and blaze, and it would rise in her again and again, would course in her blood, burn in her face, shine in her eyes. And this time love was taking her into pain, yes, quarrels and loneliness and boiling rage; but this time there was no time, and love was taking her as far as she would go, as long as she would live, taking her strongly and bravely with this Ted Briggs, holding his pretty cane; this man who was frightened by what had happened to him, but not by the madness she knew he was feeling now. She was hungry, and she talked with her friends and waited for her steak, and for all that was coming to her: from her body, from the earth, from radiant angels poised in the air she breathed.

— from “All the Time in the World,” in Dancing After Hours by Andre Dubus

(Photo: Thank you, Klub Lotus.)

A light, damaged and bruised
Corrigan told me once that Christ was quite easy to understand. He went where He was supposed to go. He stayed where He was needed. He took little or nothing along, a pair of sandals, a bit of a shirt, a few odds and ends to stave off the loneliness. He never rejected the world. If He had rejected it, He would have been rejecting mystery. And if He rejected mystery, He would have been rejecting faith.
What Corrigan wanted was a fully believable God, one you could find in the grime of the everyday. The comfort he got from the hard, cold truth—the filth, the war, the poverty—was that life could be capable of small beauties. He wasn’t interested in the glorious tales of the afterlife or the notions of a honey-soaked heaven. To him that was a dressing room for hell. Rather he consoled himself with the fact that, in the real world, when he looked closely into the darkness he might find the presence of a light, damaged and bruised, but a little light all the same. He wanted, quite simply, for the world to be a better place, and he was in the habit of hoping for it. Out of that came some sort of triumph that went beyond theological proof, a cause for optimism against all the evidence.
“Someday the meek might actually want it,” he said.
— from Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann
(Photo: Thank you, inkebook.)

A light, damaged and bruised

Corrigan told me once that Christ was quite easy to understand. He went where He was supposed to go. He stayed where He was needed. He took little or nothing along, a pair of sandals, a bit of a shirt, a few odds and ends to stave off the loneliness. He never rejected the world. If He had rejected it, He would have been rejecting mystery. And if He rejected mystery, He would have been rejecting faith.

What Corrigan wanted was a fully believable God, one you could find in the grime of the everyday. The comfort he got from the hard, cold truth—the filth, the war, the poverty—was that life could be capable of small beauties. He wasn’t interested in the glorious tales of the afterlife or the notions of a honey-soaked heaven. To him that was a dressing room for hell. Rather he consoled himself with the fact that, in the real world, when he looked closely into the darkness he might find the presence of a light, damaged and bruised, but a little light all the same. He wanted, quite simply, for the world to be a better place, and he was in the habit of hoping for it. Out of that came some sort of triumph that went beyond theological proof, a cause for optimism against all the evidence.

“Someday the meek might actually want it,” he said.

— from Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann

(Photo: Thank you, inkebook.)

Loneliness drifting
No shame in saying that I felt a loneliness drifting through me. Funny how it was, everyone perched in their own little world with the deep need to talk, each person with their own tale, beginning in some strange middle point, then trying so hard to tell it all, to have it all make sense, logical and final.
— from Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann
(Photo: Thank you, verapb.)

Loneliness drifting

No shame in saying that I felt a loneliness drifting through me. Funny how it was, everyone perched in their own little world with the deep need to talk, each person with their own tale, beginning in some strange middle point, then trying so hard to tell it all, to have it all make sense, logical and final.

— from Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann

(Photo: Thank you, verapb.)

(Reblogged from verapb)

Geoff Dyer on Chet Baker: “How easy, how addictive”

He was a man who seemed always to be leaving. You’d arrange to meet and he’d show up three or four hours late, or not at all, or he’d disappear for days, weeks at a time and leave no number or explanation. And the surprising thing was how easy, how addictive it was to love a man like that, how you felt a sense of abandonment that was akin to companionship—so close did he bring you to the loneliness that everyone carries around them, the loneliness you glimpse in the imploring faces of strangers on a half-empty subway. Even after they had made love and he slipped from her, even then, minutes after coming, she felt herself losing him. When some men made love to you your body bore the imprint of passion like a child growing in your womb. They could be gone for a year and still your body felt full of them, full of their love. Chet left you feeling empty, full of longing for him, full of hope that next time, next time …  And by the time you realized he could never give you what you wanted he was the only thing you wanted. She felt tears nettling her eyes and thought back to something a friend of Chet’s had once said to her about his playing, that the way he held notes made you think of that moment just before a woman cries, when her face becomes brimful of beauty as water in a glass and you would do anything in the world not to have hurt her the way you have. Her face like something so calm, so perfect, you know it can’t last but that moment, more than any other, has something of the quality of eternity about it: when her eyes hold the history of everything men and women have ever said to each other. And then you say to her ‘Don’t cry, don’t cry,’ knowing those words, more than any others in the world, will make her weep …

— from But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz

Love ends their long loneliness
She was sometimes amazed at what she was able to do and say in his presence, because of their love. She came to admire him so much that his love for her affected her own self-esteem: She liked herself better because of him. And since he clearly felt the same, there was a kind of infinite regress of love and respect underlying their relationship. At least, that was how she described it to herself. In the presence of so many of her friends, she had felt an undercurrent of loneliness. With Ken, it was gone.
She was comfortable describing to him her reveries, snatches of memories, childhood embarrassments. And he was not merely interested but fascinated. He would question  her for hours about her childhood. His questions were always direct, sometimes probing, but without exception gentle. She began to understand why lovers talk baby talk to one another. There was no other socially acceptable circumstance in which the children inside her were permitted to come out. If the one-year-old, the five-year-old, the twelve-year-old, and the twenty-year-old all find compatible personalities in the beloved, there is a real chance to keep all of these sub-personas happy. Love ends their long loneliness.
— from Contact, Chapter 9 (“The Numinous”), by Carl Sagan
(Thank you, imgur, for the photograph of Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan.)

Love ends their long loneliness

She was sometimes amazed at what she was able to do and say in his presence, because of their love. She came to admire him so much that his love for her affected her own self-esteem: She liked herself better because of him. And since he clearly felt the same, there was a kind of infinite regress of love and respect underlying their relationship. At least, that was how she described it to herself. In the presence of so many of her friends, she had felt an undercurrent of loneliness. With Ken, it was gone.

She was comfortable describing to him her reveries, snatches of memories, childhood embarrassments. And he was not merely interested but fascinated. He would question  her for hours about her childhood. His questions were always direct, sometimes probing, but without exception gentle. She began to understand why lovers talk baby talk to one another. There was no other socially acceptable circumstance in which the children inside her were permitted to come out. If the one-year-old, the five-year-old, the twelve-year-old, and the twenty-year-old all find compatible personalities in the beloved, there is a real chance to keep all of these sub-personas happy. Love ends their long loneliness.

— from Contact, Chapter 9 (“The Numinous”), by Carl Sagan

(Thank you, imgur, for the photograph of Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan.)

Carl Jung on loneliness and mystery

… As a child I felt myself to be alone, and I am still, because I know things and must hint at things which others apparently know nothing of, and for the most part do not want to know. Loneliness does not come from having no people about one, but from being unable to communicate the things that seem important to oneself, or from holding certain views which others find inadmissible. The loneliness began with the experiences of my early dreams, and reached its climax at the time I was working on the unconscious. If a man knows more than others, he becomes lonely. But loneliness is not necessarily inimical to companionship, for no one is more sensitive to companionship than the lonely man, and companionship thrives only when each individual remembers his individuality and does not identify himself with others.

It is important to have a secret, a premonition of things unknown. It fills life with something impersonal, a numinosum. A man who has never experienced that has missed something important. He must sense that he lives in a world which in some respects is mysterious; that things happen and can be experienced which remain inexplicable; that not everything which happens can be anticipated. The unexpected and the incredible belong in this world. Only then is life whole. For me the world has from the beginning been infinite and ungraspable.

— from “Retrospect,” in Memories, Dreams, Reflections

When a rough man bears blossoms
Add to [these financial difficulties] the peculiar torture of loneliness. I say loneliness, and not solitude; I mean the loneliness a painter has to bear who in some unfrequented region is regarded by everyone as a lunatic, a murderer, a tramp. This may be a slight misery, but it is a sorrow none the less—a feeling of being outcast, particularly strange and unpleasant, though the country ever be so stimulating and beautiful.
What you wrote me about the painter Serret greatly interests me. Such a man, who finally produced something with pathos, as the blossom of a hard and a difficult life, is a wonder, like the black hawthorn, or, better still, the crooked old apple trunk that at a certain moment bears blossoms which are among the most delicate and most virginal things under the sun.
When a rough man bears blossoms like a flowering plant—yes, that is beautiful to see, but before that time he has had to stand a great deal of winter cold, more than those who afterwards sympathize with him can know. The artist’s life, and what an artist is, that is very curious. How deep it is—how infinitely deep!
— Vincent van Gogh, from Dear Theo: The Autobiography of Vincent van Gogh (edited by Irving Stone with Jean Stone)
(Photograph by dabacahin.)

When a rough man bears blossoms

Add to [these financial difficulties] the peculiar torture of loneliness. I say loneliness, and not solitude; I mean the loneliness a painter has to bear who in some unfrequented region is regarded by everyone as a lunatic, a murderer, a tramp. This may be a slight misery, but it is a sorrow none the less—a feeling of being outcast, particularly strange and unpleasant, though the country ever be so stimulating and beautiful.

What you wrote me about the painter Serret greatly interests me. Such a man, who finally produced something with pathos, as the blossom of a hard and a difficult life, is a wonder, like the black hawthorn, or, better still, the crooked old apple trunk that at a certain moment bears blossoms which are among the most delicate and most virginal things under the sun.

When a rough man bears blossoms like a flowering plant—yes, that is beautiful to see, but before that time he has had to stand a great deal of winter cold, more than those who afterwards sympathize with him can know. The artist’s life, and what an artist is, that is very curious. How deep it is—how infinitely deep!

Vincent van Gogh, from Dear Theo: The Autobiography of Vincent van Gogh (edited by Irving Stone with Jean Stone)

(Photograph by dabacahin.)

Toni Morrison: “The hurt of the hurt world”

… Back beyond 124 was a narrow field that stopped itself at a wood. On the yonder side of these woods, a stream. In these woods, between the field and the stream, hidden by post oaks, five boxwood bushes, planted in a ring, had started stretching toward each other four feet off the ground to form a round, empty room seven feet high, its walls fifty inches of murmuring leaves.

Bent low, Denver could crawl into this room, and once there she could stand all the way up in emerald light.

It began as a little girl’s houseplay, but as her desires changed, so did the play. Quiet, primate and completely secret except for the noisome cologne signal that thrilled the rabbits before it confused them. First a playroom (where the silence was softer), then a refuge (from her brothers’ fright), soon the place became the point. In that bower, closed off from the hurt of the hurt world, Denver’s imagination produced its own hunger and its own food, which she badly needed because loneliness wore her out. Wore her out. Veiled and protected by the live green walls, she felt ripe and clear, salvation was as easy as a wish.

— from Beloved