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  • On the Dream Bridges between Loneliness and Solidarity
  • P. J. Brendese (bio)
Thomas Dumm . Loneliness as a Way of Life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008. 193 pages, $23.95 (cloth). ISBN: 978-0674-0-3113-5.

You are not alone in your loneliness. Tragically, this realization will not necessarily make you any less lonely. In a distinctive and provocative work, Thomas Dumm's Loneliness as a Way of Life takes as its subject the inescapable loneliness that haunts modernity. Modern loneliness is inescapable in part because any attempt to avoid it by being less alone entails running headlong into a world constituted by that very loneliness. The irony of shared loneliness recalls familiar examples like David Reisman's The Lonely Crowd and the "Inamorati Anonymous," the community of isolates in Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49. For Dumm, loneliness manifests itself in the "weakness of our attachments to each other and hence to our lives in common (ix)." He prefaces his study by stating his guiding intuition: loneliness has "permeated the modern world" to the point that it achieves expression in our "inability to live with each other honestly and in comity" and has infected even our most intimate relationships, making them "estranged and isolating (ix)." In a world shot through with loss, we are fated to encounter loneliness as "the experience of the pathos of disappearance (34)" that attaches to "the unhappy removal from a life lived in common with others. How we are removed from the presence of others would constitute a politics of loneliness (28)."

Far from apolitical, loneliness informs what we take to be political concerns, and even underlies how we parse the distinction between public and private. "In a political sense, loneliness may be thought of as a sign perhaps the most important sign, of the ghostly presence of an almost effaced distinction between the public and private realms of life (29)." For Dumm, the ubiquity of loneliness can be attributed not only to its capacity to overstep and blur the border between public and private, but also to its ability to destabilize the very self that perceives that border (28). Disappearance and its attendant pathos give rise to a radical self-doubt that makes loneliness a "side-effect" or aftershock of tectonic Cartesian questioning (35). The experience of another's disappearance is shattering because it betrays one's sense of reality as untrustworthy. It causes the sense of self to dis-integrate and become "something that we no longer recognize as ourselves (34)." On that loss of self, Dumm writes: "I want to claim that being present at the place of our absence is what it means to experience loneliness (16)."

Deeper than "the sociological terms 'alienation' or 'anomie,' …[l]oneliness may be thought of as foundational, in the sense that in the end we all understand ourselves as being alone in the world (29-30)." His is not an emancipatory project that presumes the possibility of an escape from loneliness. Rather, Dumm seeks to "understand better the existential situations" of loneliness in order to "renegotiate the terms of our confinement (25-6)." And although he desires an incarnation of democracy that would be a "means toward the end of developing a more robust sense of the connections between self and other," he recognizes a "great paradox" that "in the experience of liberal democracy…loneliness is a both a fulfillment and disruption of its possibility (31)." To some, the local streams of Euro-American liberal individualism might appear as veins flowing directly into the heart of this darkness. Dumm chooses a more unconventional route, instead investigating what he calls the "structural situations in which the feeling of loneliness comes to the fore, out of which people react or respond to their lonely condition (25)."

In chapters entitled "Being," "Loving," "Having," "Grieving," and an epilogue, "Writing," Dumm moves between different sites of loneliness. In the first, "Being," Dumm acknowledges the ambitious nature of his project by registering a space between our experiences of loneliness and our ability to express them. "So it remains for me to do what I acknowledge may not be possible -- to describe what cannot be described, to define...

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