The Rhetoric of Singleness
Being single and being lonely are not the same thing—but our culture insists on conflating them.
Photograph courtesy Hemera/thinkstock photos.
The following article is adapted from Michael Cobb’s Single: Arguments for the Uncoupled, out now from New York University Press.
Over the last few years of researching cultural tropes about singleness, I often recalled the snide description of correspondence from the lovelorn in Nathanael West’s 1933 novella, Miss Lonelyhearts, about an “Aunt Agony”-style columnist who reads letter after letter about social isolation: “And on most days he [Miss Lonelyhearts] received more than 30 letters, all of them alike, stamped from the dough of suffering with a heart-shaped cookie knife.” Likewise, the number of examples of lonely singles I’ve received from colleagues, friends, interlocutors, and strangers while I was doing my research is staggering—and although so many are fine examples, taken as a whole, they start to feel cookie-cut for easy consumption.
If it weren’t for West’s snide comment urging me to get beyond the topic of the loneliness of singles, I would have found it too daunting to think about how to approach the topic. Would an exhaustive account of centuries of muscular American individualism be required? Singleness must be shaped by the legacies of Emerson and Thoreau (and countless others). There could have been numerous Walden-esque witticisms about the trials of a life “alone in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house” built by oneself. Certainly being single is a variation on being individual. Even Thoreau had to keep reassuring us that he was not too lonely in the woods: “I am no more lonely than a single mullein or dandelion in a pasture, or a bean leaf, or sorrel, or a horse-fly, or a bumble-bee.” I’m not sure if he can prove or commit too many pathetic fallacies in these comparisons. Such rhetoric betrays a sense that the question of his loneliness is still very much open, and something about individualism must be thought about as we consider the single.
My quick reference to Thoreau helps me express a hunch about what has changed in how we think of individuals in our time: the individual is now usually marked as someone alone, suspiciously without a partner. Thomas Dumm’s recent Loneliness as a Way of Life, a smart inquiry into what it means to be lonely, crescendos into heart-wrenching insights about grieving his wife’s death from lung cancer. Here’s what he says, exquisitely, about what the death of his wife means to him:
My wife, as a thing, no longer exists, and hence is never again to be available for me, but through the fact of her irretrievable absence she is insistently, still sometimes overwhelmingly, available to me. Grief gives her a profound presence in my ongoing life; her ghost, even in its exhausted state, comforts me and frightens me. This is how she is real to me. In my long nights she is silent, I cry to her, I follow her through bizarre dreamscapes, and allow myself to miss her. As her presence as absence comes to be integrated into my life, I begin to lose her again; in her real absence she becomes a metaphor for my real loss of her—she becomes, as Emerson says, a part of my estate.
This is a beautiful passage, with important sentiments to express, and in no way could these feelings not be true. Yet the loneliness of being alone is so often framed by the intense, lyrical loss of a loved one—if not the loved one, a spouse.
Singleness marks being alone in a nearly paralyzingly profound manner—so much so that individualism, the value of aloneness, can barely be thought unless we strip away the pathologizing dynamics of coupledom that attach to the individual a bitter affect we might call loneliness. But what I’ve come to understand is crucial: Loneliness will not brand the single as much as aloneness does. The contemporary individual is not lonely, just single—but this is not culturally recognized.
I have serious misgivings about the miscasting of singleness as a terrible condition worth our pity and obfuscation. As anyone who has thought seriously about single life already knows, the problem of the single is not the actual, lived experience of people who find themselves alone as much as the feelings that deliberately foreclose our understanding of singleness because singles are thought to be lonely—and loneliness, as we’re frequently reminded, has terrible consequences. To be blunt: I’m sick and tired of the single person being the avatar of the lonely crowd.
Michael Cobb is Professor of English at the University of Toronto. He is the author of God Hates Fags: The Rhetorics of Religious Violence, published by New York University Press.