- Editor’s Introduction
the idea to put together an issue on loneliness, which is coming out during the far-too-persistent COVID-19 pandemic that has forced many of us to isolate and socially distance and has made loneliness a fact of life in a way it had not been earlier, did not grow out of these experiences. Rather, it was initially intended as a reconsideration of the ideas about loneliness in American culture that were presented in a set of significant books: David Riesman’s now-classic, 70-year-old The Lonely Crowd; Christopher Lasch’s 40-year-old The Culture of Narcissism; Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, which appeared 20 years ago; and Sherry Turkle’s more recent Alone Together. In her book, first published in 2011, Turkle calls attention to the disconnection that has followed the redefining of “social network” in a digital environment, and to the slow breakdown of civil society and its reconstitution in a more atomized, siloed form within which individuals, increasingly “linked in” to a seemingly global population, are tangibly isolated and feeling ever more lonely. Much earlier, and with typical prescience, Hannah Arendt warned of the dangers of this in The Origins of Totalitarianism, wherein she wrote that the “terror of the tyrannical regime can rule absolutely only over men who are isolated against each other” (1966, 474).
While the state of solitude can be highly valued and self-selected—think of Thoreau’s Walden or Virginia Woolf’s Room of Her Own— its superficially related state of being alone and in a state of loneliness is hardly that. Loneliness can be a weapon that is brutally employed, as on the prisoner held in solitary confinement or the dissident in exile. Isolation and loneliness are structurally imposed upon members of a society rendered unwelcome or invisible due to their age, race, class, or physical ability. Religion recognizes the “still, small voice” that characterizes an individual’s private communication with God, [End Page vii] but it also imposes excommunication on those who transgress against accepted rules and mores. Art and literature explore and often extol the experience of solitude, and illuminate how we may find company within ourselves when it is not to be found elsewhere, but they also vivify the inhumane horrors of imposed isolation, of utter loneliness.
This special issue touches on many, if not all, of these aspects of loneliness and, to a lesser extent, solitude. The fact that it is being published during a time in which we are, by necessity, urged to be alone unfortunately makes this issue even timelier.