In “Alone” the Beautiful South sing “Alone, alone
Half an hour is seven hours
One day is several months
A month is a calendar
A year can be a decade spent
And we only smoke when bored
So we do two packs a day
And we’ve lost the difference
Between bored and lonely anyway”.
The above is one of my favourite songs, however the Beautiful South are wrong to conflate (as they do in the above lyrics) the state of being alone with that of loneliness. Loneliness is a morass into which one can sink and drown while being alone can be a wholly liberating experience.
In much distopian literature the life of the individual is tightly curtailed by the state and/or society. This regulation frequently manifests itself by preventing or, at the very least severely curtailing his ability to enjoy the state of being alone. In “Brave New World” the Savage, John is informed by the World Controler that the inhabitants of Brave New World are conditioned to “hate solitude” and that the happiness of the community is achieved through “community, identity stability”. The result of all this conditioning is a populace devoid of any real emotion and a society in which nothing (including the individual) possesses intrinsic value.
In that other great distopian novel, Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” the state as personified by “Big Brother” monitors the activities of it’s citizens via the ever present telescreens. The invasive telescreen destroys the capacity of the inhabitants of Orwell’s distopia to experience the joy of being alone, a state of being which Winston Smith vaguely recollects and wishes to recapture. Orwell describes Winston’s response to visiting the room above the junk shop in the prole’s quarter’s as follows
“but the room had awakened in him a sort of nostalgia, a sort of ancestoral memory. It seemed to him that he knew exactly what it felt like to sit in a room like this, in an armchair beside an open fire with your feet in the fender and a kettle on the hob; utterly alone, utterly secure, with nobody watching you, no voice pursuing you, no sound except the singing of the kettle and the friendly ticking of the clock …”.
In the above passage Orwell describes the yearning of the individual for privacy, not to be a mere cog in a totalitarian machine but to enjoy that precious private space which we, as human beings require to flourish.
I do not deny the obvious truism that human beings are social animals. As Donne beautifully puts it “No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as a manor of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
People need one another. We benefit from social interaction whether that consists of meeting friends for a drink or participating in charitable activities. It is wonderful to be surrounded by those we care about and to experience the pleasure of good conversation. All of this is important and part and parcel of living a rich and fulfilling life. We do, however need those quiet moments alone when the mind can wander, one can relax with a good book or simply enjoy a stroll alone with nothing other than oneself and nature for company.
Returning to those lyrics of the Beautiful South. It is incorrect to regard loneliness and being alone as one and the same thing. I can be extremely content with only myself for company and not feel lonely in the remotest sense of the word, however I have been in crowded rooms full of people with whom I have little (if anything) in common and have longed to be in the company of friends or (perish the thought) to be alone without the necessity of exchanging “polite meaningless words”.
As I write this I am alone accept for the presence of my dog and the sound of the birds singing and the rain pattering which reaches my ears through the open window. I am however happy to be alone. Later today I’ll meet a friend for a drink which I’m looking forward to. As I say it is all about living a balanced existence.