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Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Strangers in Strange Lands, Part I

by Steve Neumann

To live alone one must be a beast or a god, says Aristotle. Leaving out the third case: one must be both — a philosopher.

Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols

One of the dilemmas I find most interesting about the human being is the ways in which it navigates the Scylla and Charybdis of solitude and sociability. 

As C.G. Jung noted in his autobiography, the intricate choreography of individuation — of becoming an individual differentiated from one’s familial and social milieu — means that “one is always too close and too far.” In other words, one needs solitude in order to “find oneself,” but at the same time one’s interactions with others can be equally helpful in realizing things about oneself. And Julian Baggini thinks that “even when left alone, we are always in the company of someone whose depths we have not fully plumbed.” So whether in relationships with others or engrossed in our own inner lives, in the busiest cities or the most desolate terrain, we always seem to be strangers in strange lands.

The first thing I would like to do is distinguish between being alone and being lonely. The state of being alone is usually the result of an intentional choice: you may want to be by yourself in order to experience and explore your feelings; you may want to get away from your work group in order to think through a problem; you may want to have solitude in order to defuse your anger when fighting with a partner. And so forth. The state of being lonely, on the other hand, is usually experienced as an unwanted imposition: your partner suddenly ends your long-term relationship; a temporary illness prevents you from socializing with your friends; you may even be unfortunate enough to experience the loss of your family through a catastrophic illness or accident. Of course, this dichotomy isn’t surprising. We’ve all experienced moments of aloneness and loneliness, and we know the difference between the two states. 

I’d like to explore the antithetical character of our existential predicament in three sections: Love and Loss, Society and Solitude, and Philosopher, Poet and Pariah.

I. Love and Loss

Questions of aloneness and loneliness are perhaps most pertinent in the context of romantic relationships. In Plato’s Symposium, Aristophanes couches his praise of the god Love in the following manner:

...the original human nature was not like the present, but different. The sexes were not two as they are now, but originally three in number; there was man, woman, and the union of the two...

Aristophanes goes on to state that the original humans grew in might and strength and threatened to challenge the gods; so Zeus decided to split them in two. But that didn’t go so well, either:

After the division the two parts of man, each desiring his other half, came together, and throwing their arms about one another, entwined in mutual embraces, longing to grow into one, they were on the point of dying from hunger and self-neglect, because they did not like to do anything apart...

Each of us...is always looking for his other half...And when one of them meets with his other half...the pair are lost in an amazement of love and friendship and intimacy, and would not be out of the other’s sight, as I may say, even for a moment: these are the people who pass their whole lives together; yet they could not explain what they desire of one another...

In slightly different language, what was described nearly 2,500 years ago by Plato could easily pass for a description of the experience of romantic love in our time. And though we may be inclined to say that this account is more representative of teenagers’ love, I think we also have to admit that many of us adults have experienced it, too. And while Aristophanes’ rendition may or may not be an attempt at a veridical explanation, we may safely assume — given the advances in scientific knowledge since Plato’s time — that the intensity of this “need” to find one’s “other half” is biologically determined rather than divinely decreed. 

And here we might indicate two further subdivisions of the attraction of love with regard to relationships: being “in love” with someone versus “loving” them. To me, the former implies a somewhat involuntary state akin to Aristophanes’ account that is characterized by an inexplicable (or at least irrational) need to be preoccupied with the other person; whereas the latter involves a much more intentional stance toward the other, and which may even entail the need to spend time away from them.

Again, I think most if not all of us have experienced this difference. As a personal example, several years ago I serendipitously met an Italian woman of the same age, newly transplanted from Milan, and I was immediately struck by her beauty, intelligence and charisma. As she would later say, we both experienced the colpo di fulmine. And when, toward the end of what would be a satisfying but all-too-short affair, we talked about the difference between being “in love” and “loving,” she told me that the Italian term for the former was cotto — cooked or baked. I still chuckle when I think of that expression.

The feeling of being in love, of being cooked, is characterized by a delightful synchrony that devolves into a dissonance of equal intensity when two lovers are separated by the most mundane activities of life. But the flip side of romantic love, the “loving another person” part, is described by the late poet Denise Levertov in her aptly entitled poem, The Ache of Marriage:

The ache of marriage:

thigh and tongue, beloved,   
are heavy with it,   
it throbs in the teeth

We look for communion
and are turned away, beloved,   
each and each

It is leviathan and we   
in its belly
looking for joy, some joy   
not to be known outside it

two by two in the ark of   
the ache of it.

Once the initial thunderbolt of attraction subsides, the real work begins — if the two partners wish to remain together. Marriage, whether with a member of the opposite sex or the same sex, has been described by many colorful metaphors and adjectives throughout the ages, including a cramped ark and the monster leviathan here by Levertov. As award-winning journalist Anneli Rufus, author of Party of One: The Loners’ Manifesto, writes:

I’m married. To a loner. That makes two of us...As writers, pursuing a solitary profession, we hole up silently in different corners of the house. Mean as it feels to admit, each of us secretly applauds when the other goes out on errands, leaving the whole house empty save one, though neither of us wants those errands to last long.

Even self-confessed loners, who value aloneness as their defining desideratum, don’t want to be lonely indefinitely. And while each of us, loner or not, seeks to establish a protean equilibrium between closeness and distance, none of us wants to experience loss. Indeed, we try to avoid it at all costs. When we lose someone close to us, specifically someone of value to us, our imagination seeks to compensate for that loss. Some have speculated that this is the genesis of religious belief, or at least of the belief in the soul’s survival of physical death, where the griever retains the hope that she will see her beloved again in some form, despite death’s apparent finality. And though the nature and function of dreams is vigorously debated, Nietzsche’s conception of the dream with regard to this issue seems prima facie reasonable to me:

In the ages of a rude and primitive civilisation man believed that in dreams he became acquainted with a second actual world, herein lies the origin of all metaphysics. Without dreams there could have been found no reason for a division of the world. The distinction, too, between soul and body is connected with the most ancient comprehension of dreams, also the supposition of an imaginary soul body, therefore the origin of all belief in spirits, and probably also the belief in gods. “The dead continues to live, for he appears to the living in a dream”: thus men reasoned of old for thousands and thousands of years.

The contentious issue of dreams aside, we seem to have inherited our reactions to both attachment (presumably as a means of propagating our genes) and separation (resulting in negative emotions, presumably because of the strength of attachment needed to propagate our genes in the first place). But there seems to be a significant difference between the two: namely, whereas we have incorporated an ethical component in our execution of the heuristics of romantic love — in the sense of overcoming or disobeying our evolutionarily-dictated drives — we seem to lack a comparable element in our handling of grief.

Or do we? Could we consider the compensating activity of the human imagination with regard to the creation of afterworlds a kind of overcoming of our instinctual affective reactions to loss? Or is this creative compensation an instinct inherited from our animal cousins? Consider the following account of animal grief:

[Chimpanzee] Flint became increasingly lethargic, refused food and, with his immune system thus weakened, fell sick. The last time I saw him alive, he was hollow-eyed, gaunt and utterly depressed, huddled in the vegetation close to where Flo had died...There he stayed for several hours, sometimes staring and staring into the water. He struggled on a little further, then curled up — and never moved again.

Jane Goodall, Through a Window

Does Flint the chimpanzee have the cognitive structure to imagine afterworlds where he will be reunited with his beloved Flo? Does Flint dream of Flo and other conspecifics that have died? Is he even conscious in the way that we believe we are? We may never know for sure, but as recently as a year ago, there was a report that chimpanzees are self-aware to a degree. And a couple of years earlier than that, there was the report of a chimpanzee named Dorothy who had died:

United in what appears to be deep and profound grief, a phalanx of more than a dozen chimpanzees stood in silence watching from behind the wire of their enclosure as the body of one of their own was wheeled past...As they wrapped their arms around each other in a gesture of solidarity, Dorothy's female keeper gently settled her into the wheelbarrow which carried her to her final resting place...

And, finally, consider an animal a little further removed from our genetic lineage:

Elephants remember and mourn loved ones, even many years after their death. When an elephant walks past a place that a loved one died he or she will stop and take a silent pause that can last several minutes. While standing over the remains, the elephant may touch the bones of the dead elephant (not the bones of any other species), smelling them, turning them over and caressing the bones with their trunk...

Though I remain skeptical that non-human animals have imaginative capacity or self-consciousness to the extent that we do, these and other accounts of animal response to loss make me think that our human imagination is still congruent with our evolutionarily-imposed impulses, and thus lacking a concomitant ethical component evident in our response to love and romantic relationships.

Next time: “Society and Solitude” and “Philosopher, Poet and Pariah.”

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