Solitary

Photo from Cisco, and I can name three dozen ways in which I know this is a staged image that has nothing to do with what a real prison visitation would be like. About the only thing they got right is the slip-on shoes.

It may be possible to be brave with others, but in fear, as in illness, each of us is alone.

Masha Gessen, “The Political Consequences of Loneliness and Isolation During the Pandemic,” The New Yorker

Nora and I get out as much as we can. Every Tuesday and Saturday, we go to the Historical Society to deliver the meals that our neighbors have requested. I go in to town most weekdays to pick up the mail. It’s been about two weeks since I’ve been into Rutland for a supermarket visit, and I miss it enormously, the simple fact of people-watching now revealed to be one of the most crucial commodities a supermarket provides.

On Sunday evening, we held our distancing picnic, the second time we’ve done it. I put out our patio chairs on the lawn, each chair seven feet from its nearest neighbor. Our friends from up the road stopped by with their own picnic baskets and their own beverages, and the ten of us sat and talked in our giant circle like some demented New Age ceremony. Normal conversations don’t happen in groups of ten; ten people naturally subdivide into two or three or four simultaneous groups, each with its conversational gravity drawing its participants close. Now we’re all engaged in a public-speaking club, like Toastmasters, our conversations turned into sequential pronouncements.

Zoom is worse. The practices of turn-taking are subtle, watching someone lean forward as they’re about to speak, watching someone turn their eyes down and shake their head in subtle disagreement that ought to be surfaced. None of that is available in our low-res, un-edited, poorly framed meeting space. People just don’t understand the amount of professional support required to make video look good. (I guess we do now, after a month of watching late-night TV shows shot on a single rigid-mount camera in the host’s rec room.)

It’s been about sixty years since the anthropologist Edward T. Hall developed his ideas on what he called proxemics, or the study of the social uses of distance. In his 1963 book The Hidden Dimension, Hall posited that there were four zones that we used for different kinds of interactions:

  • Intimate (touching to 18 inches), for those with whom we’re “closest”
  • Personal (18 inches to 4 feet), for interactions among “close” friends
  • Social (4 to 12 feet), for interactions among “more distant” acquaintances
  • Public (12 feet and beyond), used for addressing those who are “remote” from us, like theater or political audiences or a lecture hall

The way we describe our relations with the people in our lives, as close or distant or remote, is directly drawn from millennia of human relations. We find it hard to replicate those emotional relationships when we can’t manage physical relationships that match. Our circle of 7′ chairs was over twenty feet in diameter: I was sitting on the porch, and Sarah directly across from me was all the way out at the edge of the road. That’s no way to sustain a friendship, though it’s better than the phone.

Political commentator Masha Gessen had a smart essay in The New Yorker yesterday, from which the quote at the top is taken. She writes about how the work of meaningful thought is powered by the cyclical engine that spins between the intake of social engagement and the compressive chamber of solitude. Without both, solitude becomes loneliness, deprived of fuel. She writes:

I am much more worried about lonely educators and lonely politicians, lonely writers and lonely economists, lonely architects and lonely filmmakers, lonely organizers and lonely artists, and all the other lonely people whose job it is to imagine the future. 

I know that I’m finding it a lot harder right now to work on my fiction, on unearthing the communication between me and another complex and not entirely predictable human. It’s a lot easier to write in essay form, responding to a delimited condition, trimming away the extraneous to focus on a unified theme. Even my writing is lonely.

I was awfully good at essays. At the precise identification of a phenomenon, at naming its salient characteristics, on specifying the relationships between them. I made a career, from grade school onward, of writing in response to the essays of others. The world of essays is a closed circle of automatons, artificial intelligence in bounded communication with its peers.

The dissertation was a liberation from that. I lived for a full year with a high school full of kids and teachers who surprised me every day, who broke my carefully framed understandings over and over through the simple fact of being unclassifiable. And then I spent a second year writing about them, in a mode of storytelling that I hoped gave them the latitude to speak on their own behalves as I chased behind them and highlighted some particulars that I thought were interesting. The writing of that book was a continuation of the dialogue, in which their actions caused me to think about some new thing on the fly.

But I soon found that professions aren’t usually dialogic. We write not about what people are doing, but about policies, about procedures, about projections, about categories and constructions that have been fixed and cannot be questioned. The professions are mostly conducted in essay form, efforts to reduce risk and ambiguity, to declare certainty. I was once told by a good friend that he watched me lose a job in the final interview. “They wanted answers,” he said, “and you gave them stories.”

The dissertation itself was contentious. My committee, who were in on the game from the start, thought it was revelatory; one colleague who ran the sponsored research office said “I had a lot of problems with it as the culmination of an academic study. If you wanted to write fiction, you should have said so.” Even then, I was mistaken about what academic life was for. I wanted to open possibilities, and the profession wanted to construct precision. A simple, fundamental conflict of purpose that could never be resolved, and was never actually named.

But people who can’t surprise us aren’t really people at all. That’s why the work of fiction has been such a blessing. My characters surprise me every time I sit down. If they don’t, then I’m writing an essay, and I know that it’s become a bad day at the desk, an artifice all of my own creation.

I like essays. I’m good at them. But they aren’t enough, not any more. In the fourteen months I’ve been writing the little essays on this website, I’ve simultaneously written two novels. They’re the leavening that allows the writing to rise. But for the past couple of months now, it’s all been hardtack, all matzo—the intellectualized ritual sacrifices that once were set apart to remind us of our good fortune, now become our daily lives.