In recent years loneliness has been much in the news. Prior to Covid-19 it was regularly described as an epidemic. Now that we are in the middle of a real global health crisis the language has changed. For some people, most likely those with secure incomes and comfortable homes, social distancing and enforced isolation bring “solitude”, a much happier condition than loneliness. The contrast is insisted on, and social media crowded with people discovering the joys of solitariness. Sara Maitland, who lives alone in rural south-west Scotland, has instructed us to “savour solitude, it is not the same as loneliness”.
The solitude/loneliness distinction is modern, a product of the late 19th century. For millennia “solitude” did service for both. In 1621 the Oxford don Robert Burton, in his Anatomy of Melancholy, summed up centuries of thinking when he described solitude as a scene both of “profitable Meditation and Contemplation” and debilitating depression. The ambiguity was not incidental; even the most beneficial solitudes were said to carry serious risks. Religious solitaries were prone to acedia (a mixture of ennui and gloom). Reclusive scholars and poets struggled with “fevered imaginings”. Robinson Crusoe’s solitude was marked by stoical busyness and spiritual enlightenment, but also by overwhelming misery at his aloneness. Solitude is both eternal and protean; it is far more various in its forms and meanings than is captured by the solitude-loneliness opposition. It is also political – and never more so than now.
In 1951 Hannah Arendt produced one of the most compelling versions of the solitude-loneliness distinction. In The Origins of Totalitarianism she described solitude as being “alone together with oneself”, a self-companionship rooted in the thinking process which, following Socrates, she defined as internal dialogue. The rise of totalitarian terror replaced this “two-in-one” solitude with loneliness, as terrorised people became “isolated against each other”, and deserted by their alter egos as rational thought gave way to ruthless totalitarian logic: a simultaneous loss of “self and the world”. Totalitarianism fostered an absolute loneliness: “destructive of all human living-together”.
For Masha Gessen, writing recently for the New Yorker, Arendt’s account has a “piercing resonance” with our current situation. While the US is not a totalitarian regime, at least not yet, Gessen nonetheless finds much to fear politically from quarantine isolation which, as in Arendt’s account, has disconnected her from her thinking self, leaving her in a “sad and stupid” state of lonely passivity. Public space has become treacherous; collective action very hazardous. “What happens to politics at a time like this?”
In the weeks since Gessen’s article appeared, the police killing of George Floyd has brought angry multitudes on to city streets all over the world. The majority are young, many are wearing face masks. They are nonetheless risking their health; black lives matter too much to stay away. And what does their bravery earn from our UK government? Yet another official inquiry, the seventh in two decades, this one headed by a Johnson loyalist who declares that institutional racism does not exist. Again: “What happens to politics at a time like this?”
For Arendt and Gessen, loneliness comes when people lose contact with their thinking selves, when terror and panic replace solitary thought. But this is too cerebral. Liveable solitude is underpinned by care. The classic account of this comes from the British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott. In 1958 Winnicott described the capacity to tolerate solitude, or even to enjoy it, as a developmental achievement of early childhood, acquired through the experience of receiving care from a parental figure, usually the mother. As a small child matures, this caring figure is internalised to serve as an inner presence, a self-companion, when the child is alone. To be “alone” is a “two-in-one” condition, to adapt Arendt’s phrase. “The state of being alone,” Winnicott writes, “paradoxically always implies that someone else is there.” For a person who has had no reliable carer, solitude is unendurable. “A person may be in solitary confinement and not be able to be alone. How greatly he must suffer is beyond the imagination.”
Today many people are suffering in just this way. Some have never received the care that makes aloneness tolerable, while many others find the care-giving presence crumbling under the pressure of enforced isolation. People with chronic illness or disabilities; homeless people and those with psychological disorders; older people in care homes: here we have a loneliness crisis. The historian of loneliness Fred Cooper warns that for many Britons Covid-19 is an “existential threat”, pitching them into deadly isolation. Cut off from friends, family, anyone who makes them feel part of a shared humanity, people are losing a lifeline with vital psychological significance. “Support bubbles” may be mitigating this for some, but they bring risks and are not available to many of the neediest. Mental health providers are hearing much about this; suicide rates are climbing.
But there is another level of loneliness today, one affecting everyone in this country, as we look to our government to get us through this crisis, and find no care at all.
As with Trump in the US, the care-lessness of Boris Johnson, Dominic Cummings and their cheering squad can be seen as an “existential threat” to every Briton. Tens of thousands have not survived this threat, and many more will die from it or emerge damaged in a host of ways. The unconscionable delay in lockdown, followed now by rapid easing contrary to scientific advice; infected hospital patients returned to care homes; the fiascos surrounding PPE and test-and-trace; the disproportionate number of deaths of BAME people, many of whom work in frontline services: the realities are terrifying, and the terror goes deep, exposing our vulnerability not just to disease but to the heartlessness of the powerful.
The dangers of solitude are real. Care, past and present, mitigates them. Contemplating the likelihood of a second wave of Covid-19, we are collectively lonely. Long years of neoliberal austerity have paved the way, asset-stripping the NHS and care services, hollowing out the welfare state.
The pre-Covid loneliness “epidemic” was mostly a proxy for this assault on care. According to David Vincent, author of the recent A History of Solitude, rates of self-reported loneliness among older people have changed little over the last 60 years. There has been an increase in life changes (of jobs, marital status, geographic location) that can trigger bouts of loneliness, especially among younger people, but even here the figures are far below those publicised by media and government. So why the headlines about loneliness as the “plague of our times”? The answer lies with the demolition of services and institutions that have the public good as a core value, from youth clubs and day centres to public libraries and, above all, “social care”. The hypocrisy of governments that talk about loneliness while systematically destroying key sources of social connectedness is breathtaking.
Now we have a genuine loneliness crisis. And in this crisis, we are turning to each other. The huge upwelling of mutual aid and volunteer action across Britain has been wonderful to witness, as civil society seeks to provide what the government does not, from food and other essentials to psychological support and PPE for health and care workers. Black Lives Matter has brought solidarity to the streets. Kindness to strangers is everywhere, except among those whose commercial interests this government serves – corporations, banks, profiteering landlords – who are urged to show “compassion” at this difficult time. Flying pigs come to mind.
Shokoufeh Sakhi is an Iranian exile in Canada who in the 1980s spent eight years in a Tehran prison, two in solitary confinement. Sakhi has blogged about the emotional connections that allowed her to survive those years. Locked down recently in Toronto, she has reflected on how caring about people during the pandemic has meant physically distancing ourselves from them while remaining aware of their needs: “When was the last time we collectively stayed conscious for this long about the effects of our actions on other people? Can we give that proper recognition? Recognising the presence of an ancient feeling, our care for others? In this are the seeds of our empowerment and a global solidarity.”
• Barbara Taylor is principal investigator on the Wellcome Trust funded research project, Pathologies of Solitude, 18th–21st Century.