Originally published on the History of Emotions blog, June 2018.
A few weeks ago, I was disturbed by a loud banging coming from outside my flat. Living on an estate in central London, random noise isn’t a rare occurrence, but this felt somehow different. No-one had seen Phil, my neighbour, for a couple of days – not unusual in itself as despite (or perhaps because of) living physically close to each other, we all tend to keep ourselves to ourselves – but pensioner Phil had been facing some serious health issues, and the noise was coming from his flat.
Poking my head out of my door, to be joined by those of the other neighbours on my floor, I saw the police smashing open Phil’s door, battering it with the same ram they would use when raiding a drug dealer’s den. We instantly all knew what had happened – the details confirmed to us a few minutes later. At some point in the previous 48 hours Phil had fallen, and in his weakened state he had died where he lay, alone.
The violence required to enter his home seemed incongruous with his gentle, calm and friendly nature. Phil’s front door hung from its hinges and next to it you could see the straw fedora that he always wore hanging on a coat hook (he was a stylish man!). Phil had no relatives that we were aware of, and apart from the occasional conversations he would have with some of us – displaying a genuine interest in our lives – very few social interactions. The council would hold his body for up to ten weeks while trying to locate any family, meaning any funeral or memorial was left in limbo. By that evening his door had been repaired and padlocked, with most residents in our block returning home oblivious of any of the events that had taken place there. It all seemed like a bleak, sad and lonely end to a life lived just a few metres from mine.
Living and dying alone, virtually unnoticed, in the centre of a huge bustling metropolis, the solitary nature of Phil’s death (and life) seemed to exemplify modern, urban, loneliness. This is a growing epidemic, one that murdered Labour M.P Jo Cox had highlighted, inspired by her own experiences of isolation. The seriousness of this emotional state resulted in an anti-loneliness commission being set up in her name, and a formal governmental response that includes a ‘minister for loneliness’, specifically appointed to tackle the issue.
Loneliness, we are told, is as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, twice as harmful as obesity, affects one in four of us and can increase the chances of early death by 20%. While Britain has been voted the loneliness capital of Europe, the rest of north-west Europe, North America and Japan report similarly high levels. Japan even has an anti-loneliness industry, with anti-loneliness cafes, hugging chairs and fake friends for hire as means to ease some of these negative effects.
The causes of modern loneliness seem logical – as urbanisation slowly shifted populations from smaller, tighter, rural communities into more anonymous city existences, social ties and support systems broke down, and incidences of loneliness increased. Mid-twentieth century artists such as Edward Hopper captured this atmosphere of loneliness in the modern metropolis. His 1942 piece Nighthawks is perhaps the most well-known example. Three customers sit in a late-night diner on an empty New York street. In true urban style, they don’t appear to be interacting, looking at or even acknowledging each other’s presence. Even the waiter is busying himself with his own tasks. As a viewer you are placed outside, also separated and removed from the subjects inside. Hopper later admitted that ‘unconsciously, probably, I was painting the loneliness of a large city’.
The Beatles Eleanor Rigby also depicts this condition of urban loneliness, as experienced in post-war Britain. Written in 1966 its themes seem particularly relevant to this article. Its ongoing resonance has resulted in a commemorative statue, and a bidding war for the deeds of a Liverpudlian grave belonging to an Eleanor Rigby, despite Paul McCartney’s insistence that his protagonist was a fictional character.
Alongside changes in work patterns, family breakdowns, the rise of individualism, increased longevity, the growth of secularism and the emergence of social media, it is the unprecedented and dramatic rise of the single person dwelling, particularly prevalent from the mid-twentieth century, that has been particularly blamed for increasing incidences of isolating loneliness. Cities like Stockholm report that 60% of their households are now single-person dwellings, with parts of New York’s Manhattan approaching a staggering 94%. Articles abound that study this contemporary phenomena of lone living, but as historian K.D.M Snell points out, historical studies on loneliness itself are few and far between – and that in order to properly address it as a serious social issue, historical perspectives are crucial.
Loneliness in History
Prior to the late 18th century, ‘lonely’ wasn’t a subjective emotional state, but instead a means to describe isolated places rather than people. While the OED defines the word ‘loneliness’ as ‘the condition of being alone or solitary’, and places it as emerging at the end of the sixteenth century, its root word ‘lone’, meaning a state of being ‘without company’ precedes this by three centuries. For the OED actually feeling lonely – the negative ‘sense of…dejection arising from want of companionship or society’ – appeared in the 19th century. The timing of this shift, from an objective state of ‘aloneness’ to a painful and unwanted emotional reaction to it, aligns with historian of the emotions, Tiffany Watt-Smith’s mid-century positioning of it as reflecting the social dislocations of the period. She also acknowledges that the physical proximity of others does not necessarily limit incidences of loneliness. Modern urban loneliness can occur when surrounded by people, and the mid-Victorian era was when this experience was first reported.
Yet the idea that loneliness is a uniquely modern emotion doesn’t quite sit right. The emotional state of loneliness – experiencing the distress that estrangement, rejection or the painful awareness of separateness from others can cause – can be seen in literary representations going back centuries, even if the word itself is rarely used. The revenge of Frankenstein’s monster was partly motivated by a powerful desire for companionship: ‘I am an unfortunate and deserted creature; I look around and I have no relation or friend on earth’. A hundred years earlier and Robinson Crusoe’s near thirty years of isolation was also marked by a need for social interaction – for just ‘one fellow-creature, to have spoken to me and to have conversed with!’. The Wanderer, an old English poem found in the 10th century Exeter book (but likely to have been composed much earlier), is an elegiac meditation on loss, and the loneliness of the exile. It uses wintery images as metaphors for the isolation, melancholy and depression caused by the loss of home and kin. For the speaker, a warrior who refers to himself as ‘the friendless one’, ‘there is none living to whom I dare clearly speak of my innermost thought’. While the word ‘loneliness’ isn’t used, even in modern translations, it is clear that this is the emotional state he is experiencing.
Loneliness vs. Aloneness
These examples of exiled, marooned or alienated characters suggest that loneliness is an involuntary state, contrasting with the idea of solitude – something people can choose to seek out. While existing alone during the prehistoric, ancient and early modern periods could often be a physically dangerous condition – made vulnerable to life’s ravages by a lack of social sustenance – the opportunities for lone living were also limited. Unless pursuing religious or spiritual solitude, extended family, community and kin provided essential physical and emotional support for many. Choosing to be alone could in fact provoke suspicion. Writing in 1677, diarist John Evelyn felt that solitariness could ‘dissolve’ the world – threatening the very existence of life – as it ‘produces ignorance, renders us barbarous, feeds revenge, disposes us to envy, creates witches and dispeoples the world’.
Seeking out solitude as part of a spiritual life crosses many cultures and historical periods. The rishis of Vedic India, the Sibyls of ancient Greece and various Christian ascetic hermits all valued the power of ‘aloneness’ as a means of initiating transformative spiritual experiences.
Introspection and melancholy were prized emotions for some British elites of the Georgian period, but were not necessarily states they wished to experience personally. As a means of demonstrating their own elevated emotional capacities, a brief craze among 18th century wealthy landowners saw ‘ornamental’ hermits paid to live a solitary life in their gardens, often for years – an early forerunner for the garden gnome!
While being alone can lead to feelings of isolation, the element of choice connected to these examples of ‘aloneness’ is what defines and differentiates them from the involuntary state of loneliness.
It turned out that my neighbour Phil did have family. The council managed to locate them 6 weeks after his death. It also turns out that his brothers had been trying, for some time, to track Phil down. They wanted to reunite with him and their estrangement was actually something Phil had instigated, no doubt for a variety of reasons, several decades ago. His solitary life was not, it seems, something forced upon him, and his desire to live as he did, with minimal social interaction, was something he perhaps valued. His funeral was attended by many of his long-lost family, and by several people from his London existence who had known and appreciated his gentle nature and his occasional calm, unobtrusive interest in their lives. Phil’s death and life was not necessarily the lonely one that I had imagined. Instead of exemplifying modern, urban, and involuntary loneliness it was perhaps a choice that reflected his own desire for solitude and aloneness.
Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness, A Call to Action
Katie Hafner, Researchers Confront an Epidemic of Loneliness, NY Times
George Monbiot, The Age of Loneliness, New Statesman
Ami Rokach (ed.) The Correlates of Loneliness (Sharjah: Bentham Science Publishers, 2017)
Tiffany Watt Smith, The Book of Human Emotions: An Encyclopedia of Feeling from Anger to Wanderlust. (London: Profile Books, 2016)
K. D. M. Snell, The rise of living alone and loneliness in history, Social History, 42:1, (2017),pp.2-28
Barbara Taylor, Are we more lonely than our ancestors? BBC