HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

December 8, 2008
From Liberty Street

Isolation

John Turner


It's hard to be by yourself for long in a large city without encountering the Robinson Crusoe question: what does it mean to be completely alone?

In the city, of course, you're not literally alone. You're surrounded by hordes of people. But none of them know who you are, care who you are, or would even notice if you were suddenly to vanish. You are psychologically nothing, at least as far as others are concerned. The only thing that gives you substance is what's going on in your own head. It's a condition to put you on your mettle.

You can, if you wish, fool yourself by going to your room and turning on the TV. Then brightly colored, cheerful people will appear to speak to you. But it's an illusion. They can't see you, don't want to see you. With them, it's all one way: from them to you. Nothing goes back.

I think often of a line from one of Matthew Arnold's poems: "In the sea of life enisled, we mortal millions live alone."

So what can we make of our aloneness?

Yesterday, walking down Century Boulevard, I entertained myself with a fantasy. Supposing I should be condemned to live forever in hotels within a couple miles of the Los Angeles Airport. I could check into whichever hotel I chose, but I could stay there only a week before I had to move out and not come back until six weeks had passed. There are more than enough hotels around here to guarantee that, under those conditions, I would always have a room, and, in truth, a fairly luxurious room. But what would my life be?

In the city, you can make certain little connections -- with the young woman who makes your Subway sandwich, for example. She has been trained to speak to you in a certain way, so that's what she does. Her patter provides a fake humanity. Yet, you can see in her face that there's nothing in her words except, perhaps, some weariness and contempt.

From where I am sitting, right now, I can see structures containing hundreds of thousands of people. More people are within the range of my eyesight now than can be found in most American cities. Yet, they are nothing to me and I am nothing to them. It's not that I don't wish them well, in the abstract. I do. But what is such wishing worth? It has, actually, no human companionship in it. So far as human contact is concerned, I'd be better off in a tiny village of twenty-five people. Then everybody in the town would know who I was. They might like me or detest me, but they would know who I was.

The move from that village to where I am now is the story of the human past. It's going to continue and, as a result, a larger and larger percentage of us is going to be alone among millions. I don't think we know what to do about that.

I don't care how much money you have to buy stuff in Target, or Macy's or even Nieman Marcus, it won't matter much if you don't have anybody to show it to, if all you can do with it is take it back to your hotel room and, then, decide what to do with it when you have to move out in a couple days.

Perhaps we'll learn to live alone. We'll have more and more artificial contacts, more doormen and maids saying, "Good afternoon, sir," and fewer and fewer real interactions. Maybe, after more decades, more centuries, we would be startled if anyone were to ask what we were really thinking, really feeling. The possibility of empathy will be gone, replaced by emotions we derive from fictional situations we observe on electronic screens. That could be good, less messy. That could be human destiny.

I can almost imagine its being good. Just a few days alone here in the Renaissance have allowed me to establish routines which begin to seem comfortable. Who knows? If I were here a year, or in the Marriott, or the Sheraton Gateway, or Crowne Plaza, or Embassy Suites I might get addicted to those routines. I might come to love them. But, then, again, I might not.

I have no ability to predict humanity's future, and no wisdom to say what it ought to be. But I'll admit, I'm bigoted enough to hope it won't be my Los Angeles, spreading and spreading forever till every spot on the earth is consumed. Can I sketch out, right now, a better mode of being than Los Angeles presents? Probably not. But I'm not going to feel too guilty in saying I hope we'll be inventive enough to find something else, something that involves more tea and toast and sitting with others trying to figure out what it's all about.


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