In Defence of Isolation

Jeremy Paxman appears to lose his classic hardheadedness in his review of Jonathan Coe’s new novel. In fact he seems to be channelling Madeleine Bunting or Neal Lawson.

If someone asked you to identify the great human characteristic of our age, what would you say? Gender equality? Wealth? Social mobility? Sexual freedom? It seems to me the answer could just as easily be solitariness. This, surely, is one of the oddities of the present: at a time when there have never been more of us crowded onto a small island, it has never been easier to be isolated.

The biggest household change mapped by sociologists is the steady growth in single-occupancy dwellings. You can travel to work alone, spend your day communicating with others only by screen or telephone, eat a solitary lunch in your workplace (if you have one), and then return home for a ready meal for one and a screen in a darkened room. Communal travel on trains or buses is for losers, the mechanised bubble of the motorway for the successful. And it is not just that the automobile is superior to the omnibus. Autolatry is the religion of the age, autoeroticism its romance, autocide the freedom we cry out for. Being alone may not be the same as being lonely. But it sure as hell makes it a lot more achievable.

No one does loneliness better than Coe, and I’m sure his new book is very good. But to me those sweeping paragraphs bear little or no relationship to reality. When my father left university he could afford to get a flat on his own. The property bubble and subsequent collapse has meant that most people I know live in HMOs or with their families. It’s rare that you meet someone who can afford to live alone. 

Similarly, most people work in cramped and noisy offices, which they reach on slow, crowded commutes. A generation ago there were cubicles to give a measure of privacy and separation, but the standard layout today is a hub which four or five people share, in a big room filled with hundreds of people. Walking the streets can mean fighting your way through pedestrians. Using public services or going out socially often involves standing in snaking queues or in small, packed rooms.

If you seek company, the phenomenal breadth in communications technology means that it’s faster and cheaper to communicate with friends and loved ones. Social networking and dating sites make it easier than ever to meet new people. 

Society has many problems, but lack of company is not among them: we are not atomised but ground together in unhappy solidarity. The dangers of isolation are a big theme in contemporary writing. We haven’t yet got over the Victorian perception that solitude is unnatural, illicit, self-indulgent, masturbatory and dangerous. No doubt in long periods it is dangerous. Therapists will warn you against ‘self-isolating’. I know that people become people through people and that, contra Sartre, hell is not others: hell is you.

True, this can be a lonely world, but loneliness can also be found in company. People can be lonely because they can’t afford to leave their parents’ house, or because they are trapped in a relationship they can’t get out of. Loneliness to me was smoking a cigarette on the balcony during my evening data entry job in Sheffield, and seeing the rain caught in the streetlight. I know in theory that the idea that everyone has a single soulmate – The One – is probably false, but you still feel it in your instincts. People spend their lives looking for magical connection, and on that subject I can offer little advice.

Being alone is good for the soul. If you spend too long at work, what takes it out of you is not just the hours but the people. One thing that came up during the library debate was Ophelia Benson’s contention that silence is expensive, while noise is cheap. A similiar rule applies here. Solitude is expensive. Company is cheap. And if you can’t handle your own company, why should you expect anyone else to? 

Let go of the idea that fulfilling experiences are only available in groups, as if heaven was a paintballing weekend or writing workshop. Let go of the faith that relationships, families and friendships will always be easy to live with. An empowered citizen should be able to socialise, but they should also be able to separate themselves from the world. For there have been hundreds of hours of rambling around the city or writing and reading with Blue States blasting from the Dell that I’ll never consider wasted.


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