Loneliness – Limitation – Liberation
Edited By Ina Bergmann and Stefan Hippler
This collection of essays comprises cultural analyses of practices of eremitism and reclusiveness in the USA, which are inseparably linked to the American ideals of individualism and freedom. Covering a time frame from the eighteenth to the twenty-first century, the essays study cultural products such as novels, poems, plays, songs, paintings, television shows, films, and social media, which represent the costs and benefits of deliberate withdrawal and involuntary isolation from society. Thus, this book offers valuable contributions to contemporary cultural discourses on privacy, surveillance, new technology, pathology, anti-consumerism, simplification, and environmentalism. Solitaries can be read as trailblazers for an alternative future or as symptoms of a pathological society.
American Lonesome: Our Native Sense of Otherness (Kevin Lewis)
Abstract: Herewith a plea to take seriously, for once, the uniquely American cultural significance of the feeling state expressed throughout our literature, music, and fine art: lonesomeness. Ignored for too long in treatments of American culture, it deserves overdue considered critical reflection.
1. Lonesome: A Distinctly American Feeling-Perception
I invite the reader to consider a focus supplementary to those upon imposed or freely chosen conditions and implications of solitude in America. Could we move to the side, as it were, away from solitude as a continuing physical and elementary mental state of being, that is, as an alternative lifestyle. Hermeticism and reclusiveness are indeed conditions or life paths worth reckoning with. But here I would direct attention to a particular, usually fleeting subjective feeling state commonly varying in description, if amenable to description, among Americans who claim to be visited (or would appear to be visited) by it. I draw attention to the experience of ‘lonesomeness,’ to the feeling or perception of ‘lonesome.’ And I propose that Americans, of liberated individualism and (historically) open spaces, have been formed by our culture to employ this evocative term, to recognize its appeal, perhaps because its attractive, relatively open-ended meaning or meanings defy limited definition.
2. The Difference Between Lonely and Lonesome
I am unaware of any previous academic or journalistic attempt to address American lonesomeness with the intent to describe and define what it has meant and may mean today – to Americans occasionally prompted in moments of personal, reflective experience to so identify it. Impossible as it is to define narrowly, I think Ina Bergmann’s opening conference introduction, invoking her childhood memory of attraction to Thom Pace’s song “Maybe” with its opening line “Deep inside the forest there’s a door into another land …” would seem to express a kind of lonesome feeling of the sort I will address. Fleeting experiences such as Bergmann’s in response to these evocative lyrics help us direct attention to the yet unexamined function and meaning of the term ‘lonesome’ in our historical, North American culture, as I will indicate. ← 169 | 170 →
Let us remedy this neglect – I am aware of only one previous, scant mention of this particular term’s function, and only with regard to our blues popular music tradition, by critic T.S. Eliot in 1932 in The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism: “Loneliness is known as a frequent attribute in romantic poetry, and in the form of ‘lonesomeness’ (as I need not remind American readers) is a frequent attitude in contemporary lyrics known as ‘the blues’” (132). Eliot offers nothing by way of definition or comment. I address this neglect in my Lonesome: The Spiritual Meanings of American Solitude (2009).
Let us address a critical distinction between ‘lonesome’ and ‘lonely.’ Clearly attempts at dictionary definition are of no help, at least not yet. First, I will therefore provide a correcting distinction, and then examples. ‘Lonely’ is to be understood as commonly meant: a depressive state of varying degrees of intensity, experienced by the all-too-solitary individual. By contrast – here we move to the particularly North American, ingrained, historical cultural understanding of the term – ‘lonesome’ combines to a significant, predominating degree pleasurable feeling and perception lifted, as it were, from gratifying inward-looking solitude, with smaller measures of lonely distress momentarily balanced or well overcome. The key to the American ‘lonesome’ is that the memorably positive, the fleeting enjoyable, triumphs over the negative in the moment. The positive uplift, the momentary high, will vary in description from individual to individual, from setting to setting, from circumstance to circumstance. Nor need it occur under conditions of the hermetic or the reclusive. Examples in American poetry and fiction will help to focus on the issue.
3. The Poetic Imagination of Lonesomeness
“There is another Loneliness” (502), Emily Dickinson wrote in poem #1116, crafting the insight in her hushed and forceful way. “Not want of friend occasions it,” she observes, “But nature sometimes, sometimes thought” (502). Our distinctively lone and lovely poet of the nineteenth century, American to the core, testifies that “whoso” this other loneliness “befall / Is richer than could be revealed / By mortal numeral” – “by any earthly measure” (502). Here she is distinctly a prophetess of lonesomeness. And in poem #1370, she evokes again the unknowable and unnamable in the figure of “That lonesome Glory / That hath no omen here – but Awe –” (590). She had earlier rejected the appeal of evangelical Protestantism, of course. And ‘lonesome’ is a Dickinson term for pursuit of spiritual vision not available to her through that local sectarianism. In her poem #777, “The Loneliness One dare not sound,” she had earlier reflected “I tried to think a lonelier Thing / Than any I had seen,” and found herself among “The lonesome for what they knew not What” (379). ← 170 | 171 →
Walt Whitman also speaks, in his own way, for a luminous lonesome, provoked in part by the experience of the opening westward migration in the nineteenth century. Lonesome roads and valleys proliferate and a spiritual dimension of these utterances, doubtlessly drawn from revival songs, is easily detected – as in the later country music examples I note below. He gives voice to a capacious feeling-perception, American to the core, and I will return to this spiritual dimension of country music. In characteristic expansiveness of imaginative response to his world Whitman offers these lines from “A Song of Joys” (1860): “Yet O my soul supreme! / Knows’t thou the joys of pensive thought? / Joys of the free and lonesome heart, the tender, gloomy heart?” (153). He continues, invoking “Joys of the solitary walk” that balance “the ecstasies, joys of the solemn musings” with “The agonistic throes” (153). Whitman, as Dickinson, is a crucial forbear in American poetry, and not least for the respective ‘selves’ reflected in their poetries. ‘Lonesomeness’ in each is profound and appealing, if in different ways descriptive of open-ended, suggestive, perhaps fugitive spiritual states of feeling-perception.
Whitman is indeed a master poet of loneliness transfigured and redeemed in characteristic dilation of the spirit and the wide embrace of his yearning and illumination. He is an iconic master of our loneliness transfigured and redeemed. In “From Far Dakota’s Canons” (1876) he invokes “Lands of the wild ravine, the dusky Sioux, the lonesome stretch of silence” (395), and in “Recorders Ages Hence” (1860) he portrays himself as one “Who often walk’d lonesome walks thinking of his dear friends, his lovers” (104). In “Proud Music of the Storm” (1869) he concludes his first section of the poem asking of transfiguring stormy images interrupting his sleep, “Entering my lonesome slumber-chamber, why have you seiz’d me?” (333–34).
Other American poets following have mined this vein. Wallace Stevens now seems lonelier in his career solitude and legendary self-reserve than we can imagine in any other well-known American poet. The woman in the well-known “Sunday Morning” (1923) knows we live our lives in “island solitude, unsponsored, free” (198), so many free of and uncomforted by traditional religious myth. Its concluding lines redeem the loneliness of her spiritual “island solitude” (198) in a hymn to natural beauty. “Divinity must live within herself,” (198) she reflects, and the feeling conveyed by the poem is that of transfiguring lonesomeness. In his “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon” (1921) Stevens pushes what he first describes as “The loneliest air” into, by reflection, a fulsome, oceanic possession of himself: “I found myself more truly and more strange” (123).
Theodore Roethke also does not employ the word ‘lonesome’ to describe his Romantic high ‘lonely’ when evoking moments of visitation by beauty almost too ← 171 | 172 → beautiful to bear. But his evoked moments of personal rapture in solitude suggest the lonely lifted into the lonesome, as in the love poem “She” (1958) when he observes of the woman: “She makes a space lonely with a lovely song. / She lilts a low soft language, and I hear / Down long sea-chambers of the inner ear” (12).
One more illustration of the poetic imagination in American poets moving from lonely to lonesome, though not always using either specific term, is James Wright of the Midwest. His poetry is often depressive, touching darkly upon the tragic. But now and then he lifts out of flattened loneliness into the gift of lonesomeness, as in “A Blessing” (1963) where he observes of two ponies in a field “There is no loneliness like theirs” (143). He then writes when one of them walks over to him to nuzzle his hand and he caresses her ear, “Suddenly I realize / That if I stepped out of my body I would break / Into blossom” (143).
4. Lonesomeness in Fiction
Moments like these in American fiction are there for the finding, when suddenly provoked by landscape, light, or the course of solitary reflection. One such stands out from all the rest, in its simplicity and because it occurs in one of the few agreed greatest texts in the tradition, Huckleberry Finn (1884) by Mark Twain. Ernest Hemingway, in The Green Hills of Africa (1936) observes: “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn, … the best book we’ve had. All American writing comes from that … There has been nothing as good since” (22). The moment comes when Huck and his companion, the runaway slave Jim, rafting together down the Mississippi at night to avoid contact with anyone who might threaten Jim’s bid for freedom, tie up at the river bank, fish, swim, and Huck observes:
Afterward we would watch the lonesomeness of the river, and kind of lazy along, and by and by lazy off to sleep. Wake up by and by, and look to see what done it, and maybe see a steamboat coughing along upstream, so far off towards the other side you couldn’t tell nothing about her … And then for about an hour there wouldn’t be nothing to hear nor anything to see – just solid lonesomeness. (114)
Huck, the boy, is not without personal issues, of course. But we read his recounted experience of the river with Jim as symbolic of the original, archetypal American experience. Here the rebellious, spirited boy captures the youthfulness of the young nation’s psyche mediated in the hopeful myth of the New Adam in the new Eden (R.W.B. Lewis). Huck feels a rapt attunement to no particular thing and to no particular transcendent Being or order of things, but simply to the immediate fullness and splendor of morning dawning on the big river. It seems like unobstructed ← 172 | 173 → integration into the plenitude of being, as nourished by the arresting natural scene. This moment of lonesome plenitude occurs, importantly also, in the company of buddy Jim.
When we think of a natural setting for American prose, we automatically think of Henry David Thoreau. But he does not express the lonesome that we embrace in other writers. On every page Thoreau presents himself as a serious, reflecting intellect in his responses to nature, but never as a feeling, sentient being. He is a chronicler of neither loneliness nor lonesomeness: “I have never felt lonesome, or in the least oppressed by a sense of solitude but once [when, for an hour he doubted] … if the new neighbourhood of man was not essential” (57). He never recorded a moment of lonesomeness of the kinds we are treating here.
But American fiction writers, like Laura Ingalls Wilder in Little House on the Prairie (1935), have touched upon the lonesome not infrequently, as in the passage when Laura, lying awake at night, listens to the mournful lowing of cattle, their “high, lovely, wailing songs … wandering in the night … [which] seemed to be crying for the moon. They made Laura’s throat ache.” (35)
The young character George Willard in Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (1922) experiences lonesome-like, epiphanic moments, too. In the chapter “An Awakening” he ventures into a dark vacant lot off a quiet street at night, “in a fervor of emotion … uttering words without meaning, … words full of meaning. Death, … night, the sea, fear, loveliness” (145). He returns to the sidewalk, and “felt that all of the people in the little street must be brothers and sisters to him” (145).
We read something similar of Eugene Gant as a paperboy in Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel (1930), as he wakes alone before light to go his route: “strange aerial music came fluting out of the darkness, or over his slow-waking senses swept the great wave of symphonic orchestration. Fiend-voices, beautiful and sleep-loud, called down through darkness and light, developing the thread of ancient memory, as he was born anew” (295). This is a lonesomeness unnamed as such, but akin to the other transfiguring moments experienced by characters in American fiction in their lonely solitude.
In the examples cited, and in others, like James Agee’s meditation “Knoxville: Summer 1915” (a chapter in A Death in the Family, 1957), where bittersweet nostalgia seems to buoy a father comforting his child, singing him tenderly to sleep, bittersweetness balances the sweet with the bitter. Agee pushes toward expressions that emphasize the sweetness momentarily visiting a characteristically lonely character in his solitary life. What unifies these examples above is the experience of the American lonesomeness experienced in albeit different ways and degrees, leaving the generalized experience beyond any adequate, comprehensive definition. We ← 173 | 174 → continue then to trace the ultimately description-begging experiences of lonely melancholy rising or dilating into a fleeting sense of unexpected plenitude and splendor produced in the drama of the character’s elicited response to his or her surroundings, mediating and immediate. The lonesome is expressed, in another way of putting it, when from nowhere a sense of unreflective, spontaneous joy rises in consciousness, breaking through depressive reverie.
One more example: in Jack Kerouac’s roman-a-clef The Dharma Bums (1958), his alter-ego is climbing in the Sierras and is experiencing this moment:
The woods … always look familiar, long lost, like the face of a long-dead relative, like an old dream, like a piece of a forgotten song drifting across the water, most of all like golden eternities of past childhood or past manhood and all the living and dying and the heartbreak that went on a million years ago and the clouds as they pass overhead seem to testify (by their lonesome familiarity) to this feeling. (61–62)
Lonesome wonder and reverie can open up long vistas of comforting memory. In Oedipa, the intuitive pilgrim of Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 (1965), we meet solitary moments of epiphany that reinforce her chronic sense of disconnection from others. For example, there is the “religious instant” in which she looks down in her car from a high road on her southern California home city: “a revelation also trembled just past the threshold of her understanding … she and the Chevy seemed parked at the center of an odd, religious instant. As if, on some other frequency, or out of the eye of some whirlwind rotating too slow for her heated skin even to feel the centrifugal coolness of, words were being spoken” (14). But we will move away from examples in fiction to American painters, one in particular, of lonesome vistas and to the clamor of lonesomeness in country music.
5. Edward Hopper’s and Country Lonesomeness
Finally, let us have a look at examples from the fairly well-known later work of the painter Edward Hopper, and then from the equally well-known lonesome lyrics of American country music of the last century and a half.
Hopper’s images are of course everywhere, in galleries, on posters, in reproductions, in tributes paid to him by critics and followers of twentieth-century American art. His singular version of American urban ennui and alienation, its haunted spaces and penchant for nostalgia, and most of all its brooding loneliness is so distinct that his work has taken on an iconic status. Response to his body of work has given us the term “Hopperesque,” coined by an appreciative critic, Peter Schjeldahl. Another critic, Gail Levin, assures us that Hopper “read Emerson assiduously and sought to express the Emersonian vision” (109). The wistfully ← 174 | 175 → affirmative spiritual component of the Hopperesque, especially communicated in the later work, in his handling of light and the arrangement of human figures, confers our lonesomeness on his solitary figures haunted in their solitude.
His works we enlist include Early Sunday Morning (1930), Rooms by the Sea (1951), Morning Sun (1952), Sunlight on Brownstones (1956), Second Story Sunlight (1960), People in the Sun (1960), Woman in the Sun (1961), and Sun in an Empty Room (1963). Other works could be added. The above, however, come forward assuredly in their wistful, lonesome character. The critic Deborah Lyons observes that Hopper is a “master portraying our ultimate loneliness,” adding that his figures in these paintings seem subsumed by his mature vision in which the mundane “suddenly becomes cause for epiphany” (xvii). In the poem “Sunday A.M. Not in Manhattan” (1971), a lyric tribute to Hopper, John Hollander addresses the dimension of the something extra and beyond in Hopper’s vision. He focuses on the mysterious shadow in Early Sunday Morning, seeing it as the single element in the work that most encapsulates the mystery of the “something more” (70) with which Hopper has infused the painting as a whole.
The critic Barbara Novak helps us sense a linkage between Hopper, the quietist conceptual painter, and the nineteenth-century heritage of Luminism found in Fitzhugh Lane, Martin Heade Johnson, and John Kensett (262–88). The Hudson River Valley School of painters, including these, created large canvasses depicting beautiful, unspoiled landscapes of the young nation, with perhaps a tiny figure in the foreground, arguably expressing something of Ralph Waldo Emerson in his celebrated essay “Nature” (1836). In that essay Emerson recommended that his reader look upon unspoiled nature “with a supernatural eye” (82). Hopper’s isolated single figures in the later work would seem to be looking and listening for the numinous moment the description of which, as theorized by the German religious scholar Rudolf Otto, we will touch upon below. The later Hopper is a visionary painter. His figures give themselves to the light of the otherness beyond them physically and to be approached, as possible, through studied lonesome vision. But let us move on – to country music.
Cecilia Tichi, in High Lonesome: The American Culture of Country Music (1994), writes: “If country ‘owns’ one American theme above all others, then that theme is surely ground-level loneliness” (82). It remains true that ‘country’ is the contemporary popular cultural form in which, more than any other, the continuing recourse to lonely-and-lonesome on the part of song writers begs notice and appreciation. The styles and tastes of the diverse, evolved forms of country by a rich, motley heritage befit a populist people’s music. The short career of Hank Williams is remembered for both the sadness of his too-early, sudden death and by perhaps the most famous verse in all of country music: ← 175 | 176 →
The silence of a falling star
Lights up a purple sky,
And as I wonder where you are,
I’m so lonesome I could cry.
To get the lonesome sound right on a banjo or fiddle, a performer of Appalachian Mountain music will re-tune his or her instrument to achieve the tonal mode of appropriate melancholy. Most Americans know the intended instrumental lonesome sound when they hear it. It is there in gospel, hillbilly, western, ballad imported by early Scottish and English settlers, in Tin Pan Alley songs, not to neglect the blues of both white and black cultures – co-existing, inter-mingling, especially in the South. Williams’s song is an elegy in which the writer-singer (and hearer) is rescued from a passing depressive loss of the ‘will to live,’ in the process transfiguring loneliness into lonesomeness.
To mention just a few ensuing examples of country lonesome, note first George Morgan’s 1955 song “Lonesome Road,” with its repeated chorus:
Oh, play you lonesome record, play,
You’re trying to break my heart.
Oh, play you lonesome record, play,
And let the teardrops start.
These will be tears of gratitude, even of joy, as well as tears of grief. Country lonesome feeds greedily upon itself to meet a large market demand for these savory, solacing “teardrops” – healing, renewing, attracting. Larry Cordell and Jim Rushing’s tribute, “Lonesome Standard Time” (1992), following well over two hundred and fifty different, preceding lonesome songs, celebrated this popular feeling state, paying tribute to its country heritage, as they revisit its unclarifiable spiritual dimension:
Do you feel a kindred spirit,
To the sound of pouring rain?
Does your heart start to yearnin’
When you hear a distant train?
They play on the self-consciousness of the tradition:
When you hear them old sad songs,
Do you hang on every word?
Do you swear a cryin’ fiddle
Has the sweetest sound on earth?
If you shudder at the music
Of a hoot owl in the pines,
You’re on lonesome standard time.
The cleverness of play upon the notion of differing time zones across America, of which notoriously rootless Americans are well aware when traveling, is striking. ← 176 | 177 → The projection of an emotional ‘zone’ cutting across these time zone’s divisions, to be accessed anywhere and everywhere lonesomeness strikes, touches a chord in the American imagination of ever-possible, redemptive self-recovery. In that experience we can ‘zone out’ temporarily away from our troubles. An American folk culture substratum of dreamy lonesomeness, responding to the opened landscape of our early history, was born in coping with the ever-present hazard of depressive loneliness. Witness are the many lonesome road or highway songs. These and other country lonesome songs are too many to name here. The reader will doubtless remember his or her favorites.
My own favorite is Johnny Cash’s “Cold Lonesome Morning” (1980), a song worthy of Williams. The singer’s girl pains him but he cannot stop loving her. He may have “gone past any good to cry,” but he predicts he will wake one morning to find her gone for good:
One of these cold, lonesome mornings
Dark and early
Before a wild bird sings, I’m gonna fly,
While it’s dark and I’m still reaching for you,
I’ll wake up and I cannot cry.
The Cash touch here is evoking the flight of the soul (see also his “I’ll Fly Away,” 2002). The feeling of that line, if not the explicit statement, suggests the ubiquitous transfiguring moment in the native American lonesome.
6. Numinous Therapeutic Lonesomeness
So what can we conclude of this phenomenon, this recurring but consistently ignored heightened moment in the experience of Americans in solitude? What to make of these accounts of timely personal comfort, of occasionally illuminating and restorative solitude, of loneliness redeemed in the elevating, integrative experience of a lonesome otherness by something more?
First, we owe to the comparative religionist Rudolf Otto, in The Idea of the Holy (Das Heilige, 1917), an influential descriptive-analytical study of the non-rational dimension of religion. This work became an indispensable resource for the new and evolving academic enterprise of formal Religious Studies in the twentieth century. Otto urges us to re-balance the two major elements of rational conceptuality on the one hand, and the non-rational, trans-conceptual on the other. In modern times, he notes, the rational-conceivable element had increasingly deformed its object of study, religion, by displacing the other element of raw, pre-conceptual, subjective experience of encounter with an unnamable “wholly other …” (199). For Otto, the ← 177 | 178 → “harmony of contrast” (31), the appreciation of these balancing elements in genuine religious experience, must be restored. For him, homo religious is marked by the recurring experience of a sui generis core state of mind or consciousness which precedes division into subject and object. Both this wholly other experienced and the capturing/captured state of mind for which he invented the term “numinous” (208) have subsequently been employed for generations of religion scholars. It continues to evoke the mental state merging elements of cognition and feeling in expressing raw, primary, individual experiences of inexplicable “otherness” (xix) beyond the self. In response to the numinous, then, one may, as predisposed, conceptualize the experiencing of visions and of voices, and the encountering of such spirits and gods and mysteries as one’s personal spirituality may suggest.
Otto, at first, may seem wedded to assumptions about the experience of traditional religion. But in his epoch-making text, he does briefly step away from implied theistic preoccupations to observe generally of the ‘whole’ person: “Beneath it lies even in us, that ‘wholly other,’ whose profundities, impenetrable to any concept, can yet be grasped in the numinous self-feeling by one who has experienced the deeper life” (208). It is the “numinous self-feeling” (208) in the various expressions of the American lonesome that, when we identify it, enables a useful grasp of our special lonesomeness both comprehensive and penetrating. American lonesomeness, that is, would seem to play a variation upon Otto’s feeling-perception of overaboundingness. Lonesomeness would be a culturally influenced, reflexive, secular expression of Otto’s flooding, calming experience of the numinous. Suggestively, he helps us conceptualize the numinous dimension of lonesome understood as a personal experience qualitatively different from lonely.
The philosophical-anthropological writings of scholars such as John Macquarrie, Eugene Long, and Ian Ramsey, among others, have created a receptive climate for proposing the numinous character of lonesome, as we do here. Each in respectively different ways has wanted to weigh evidences for “finding the locus of transcendence in the human existent rather than in God,” as Macquarrie puts it (25). We cannot pursue further his observation here, but we note in passing that readings of the ontological character of transcendence as a fundamental component of human life are rich, relatively numerous, and fascinating. Relevant here is the thought that a sense of personal mind-expanding transcendence, into a larger self, experienced even if only for a moment, qualifies indeed as at least a spiritual if not a traditionally understood religious experience. For example, our lonesomeness experienced as an open-ended hierophany, as we have seen, will not exactly be a tradition-related, divine “wholly other” (208). ← 178 | 179 →
A more recent but equally helpful commentator for our purposes is Giles B. Gunn, especially in his work The Interpretation of Otherness (1979), in which he recommends:
[I]t is now necessary to widen the terms in which [discussions of the relations between literature and religion, between culture and belief are] conducted … to reconstitute the discussion on the plane of the hermeneutical rather than the apologetic, the anthropological rather than the theological, the broadly humanistic rather than the narrowly doctrinal. (5)
Gunn observes that the ‘other’ projected by the Puritans and their followers in subsequent generations shifted, in American life, to the otherness “of their own innately human (though for some simultaneously divine) capacities to redefine and regenerate themselves” (190). The solitary self may encounter an unanticipated, self-redefining, self-recreative experience of an otherness eluding practical description. In Gunn’s terms, our dilating moment in which loneliness lifts into an elevated lonesomeness is to be described as an inspiring intimation of an inviting otherness, even an otherness that draws the self beyond itself, even, as he writes, “over against” (15) the self. And he quotes R.P. Blackmur’s take on the other as “the numinous force, the force within the self, other than the self, greater than the self, which, as one cultivates it, moves one beyond the self” (201).
Similarly, Romain Rolland, in a famous letter to Sigmund Freud in 1927 cited by William B. Parsons in his The Enigma of the Oceanic Feeling (1999), is objecting to Freud’s pathologizing of religious mysticism and claims legitimacy for what he describes as a sui generis oceanic feeling, which he likens to a “spontaneous religious sentiment” (36):
What I mean is: [this sentiment is] totally independent of all dogma, all Credo, all Church organization, all Sacred Books, all hope in a personal Survival, etc., the simple and direct fact of the feeling of the “eternal” (which can very well not be eternal, but simply without limits, and like oceanic, as it were). (36)
Rolland’s “feeling of the ‘eternal’” is certainly analogous to what Americans feel or know as the spiritual component of transfiguring lonesomeness. The oceanic and our lonesome in its overabounding register are well-related.
To adduce finally another helpful precedent support for our claim that American lonesomeness has a religious-like character, we turn to the testimony of the sociologist of religion who, in the 1960s and subsequently, more than any other scholar in the field, has instilled the interpretive concept of civil religion in America – Robert Bellah. The character of the lonesomeness for which we have drawn for support from Otto, Blackmur, Gunn, and Rolland is not that of a civil religious phenomenon in the sense that the earlier Bellah and Sydney Mead, and others have meant ← 179 | 180 → that term, harking back to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s political theorizing. Nor does it quite come within the purview of scholars in Britain and elsewhere who discern implicit religiousness in specific routinized non-formally-religious behaviors of individuals and communities. To reiterate, lonesomeness is effectively the umbrella expression for a hardly describable if not actually inchoate momentary sense of contact with an otherness if not actually some other quite beyond but also within the individual self. We might call it a fleeting sense of being filled with a calming, unbidden, supervening presence, potentially restorative of harmony and completeness. As he typically puts it, this is not so much a conventional belief as a perception comprised of feeling perhaps and an unverbalizable wondering consciousness of self integrated with the surrounding manifold beyond the self.
Bellah proposes that in reflections upon religious experience (generally, as now understood) we must avoid an “objectivist fallacy,” namely, as he puts it, the “confusion of belief and religion” (220). Hence our lonesomeness as defined above can indeed be regarded nicely as fundamentally religious. But we must dispense with the overly rational, Enlightenment-driven fallacy, seductive as it is among Western communities of traditional faith wedded to a literalistic hermeneutic. Bellah observes this hyper-rationalism is to be found “only in the religions deeply influenced by Greek thought” (220) and hardly at all in non-Western religions. His argument, that of a sociologist addressing the function rather than the content of claimed experiences or symbolizations of transcendence, is for that very reason fundamentally supportive of our exploration. For Bellah, religious experience, regarded as one of “the most fundamental cultural forms,” is “neither objective nor subjective, but the very way in which the two are related” (220). Hence his proposal that a structural analysis provides “a more phenomenologically accurate understanding of ordinary religious experience than the assumption that it is primarily a matter of cognitive belief” (222). The deficit condition of loneliness – loneliness is the term he employs throughout – is structural in the human condition itself, one that can and does give way, in privileged moments, to the structural experience of transcendence as immanence, the potential of which, so he argues, is “deeply embedded in man’s existential situation and a part of the very structure of his experience” (222). Such privileged moments are to be likened, functionally, to those described by the traditional mystics in the Western tradition. As he puts it: “The crux of the issue, as it has always been in mystical religion, is the relation of this self, myself, and other selves, the universe itself” (224).
In our skeptical, secular modernity, where appeal to traditional, transcendent sources of authority and worship are questioned and, by many, discredited, the need for a serviceable symbolism for what Bellah calls “higher values” (208) persists. ← 180 | 181 → Individuals and societies, we would add, do need symbols, implicit if not always explicit, to help express need to mark occasional experience of grasping a greater reality in its otherness, as suspect in the realm of materialist skepticism as this may be. Many, that is, need a symbolic language which, while it does not reach so far as to name transcendence as such, still manages to express what Bellah calls the overcoming of the dichotomies of ordinary conceptualization, e.g., the ‘subjective’ vs. the ‘objective’, and that “brings together the coherence of the whole of experience” (202), even if only, we would add, for that privileged moment. The varieties of American lonesomeness would seem to perform this function.
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Cash, Johnny. “Cold Lonesome Morning.” Rockabilly Blues. Columbia Records, 1980. LP.
–. “I’ll Fly Away.” My Mother’s Hymn Book. American Recordings, 2002. CD.
Cordell, Larry, and Jim Rushing. “Lonesome Standard Time.” Lonesome Standard Time. Sugar Hill Records, 1992. CD.
Dickinson, Emily. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Ed. Thomas H. Johnson. Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1960. Print.
Eliot, T.S. The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism: 1932–33. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1986. Print. Norton Lectures.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Nature.” Nature and Selected Essays. New York: Penguin Classics, 2003. 35–82. Print.
Gunn, Giles, B. The Interpretation of Otherness. New York: OUP, 1979. Print.
Hemingway, Ernest. The Green Hills of Africa. 1936. London: Arrow Classic, 1994. Print.
Hollander, John. The Night Mirror. New York: Atheneum, 1971. Print.
Hopper, Edward. Early Sunday Morning. 1930. Oil on canvas. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.
–. Morning Sun. 1952. Oil on canvas. Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio.
–. People in the Sun. 1960. Oil on canvas. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington.
–. Second Story Sunlight. 1960. Oil on canvas. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.
–. Sun in an Empty Room. 1963. Oil on canvas. Private Collection.
–. Sunlight on Brownstones. 1956. Oil on canvas. Wichita Art Museum, Wichita.
–. Woman in the Sun. 1961. Oil on canvas. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.
Kerouac, Jack. The Dharma Bums. 1958. New York: Penguin, 1971. Print.
Levin, Gail. “Edward Hopper: His Legacy for Artists.” Edward Hopper and the American Imagination. Ed. Deborah Lyons, Adam D. Weinberg, and Julie Grau. New York: Norton, 1995. 109–15. Print.
Lewis, Kevin. Lonesome: The Spiritual Meanings of American Solitude. London: I.B. Tauris, 2009. Print.
Lewis, R.W.B. The American Adam. Chicago: U of Chicago P/Phoenix Books, 1964. Print.
Lyons, Deborah. “Introduction.” Edward Hopper and the American Imagination. Ed. Deborah Lyons, Adam D. Weinberg, and Julie Grau. New York: Norton, 1995. xi–xiv. Print.
Macquarrie, John. In Search of Humanity. 1982. London: XPRESS Reprints (SCM), 1993. Print.
Morgan, George. “Lonesome Record.” Candy Kisses. Bear Family, 2001. Box Set CD.
Novak, Barbara. “Epilogue: The Twentieth Century.” American Painting in the Nineteenth Century: Realism, Idealism and the American Experience. New York: Praeger, 1969. 262–88. Print.
Otto, Rudolf. The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-Rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and Its Relation to the Rational. Trans. John W. Harvey. London: OUP, 1928. Print.
Pace, Thom. “Maybe.” Maybe. Capitol Records, 1980. LP.
Parsons, William B. The Enigma of the Oceanic Feeling. New York: OUP, 1999. Print.
Pynchon, Thomas. The Crying of Lot 49. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1965. Print.
Roethke, Theodore. The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1966. Print.
Stevens, Wallace. Poems: Wallace Stevens. Ed. Samuel French Morse. New York: Random/Vintage, 1959. Print.
Thoreau, Henry David. Walden and Civil Disobedience. Ed. Owen Thomas. New York: Norton, 1966. Print.
Tichi, Cecilia. High Lonesome: The American Culture of Country Music. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1994. Print.
Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. New York: Bantam Classic, 1981. Print.
Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass and Selected Prose. Ed. Sculley Bradley. New York: Rinehart, 1949. Print.
Wilder, Laura Ingalls. Little House on the Prairie. Oxford: OUP, 2004. Print.
Williams, Hank. “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It. Mercury Records/MGM, 1949. 45 rpm.
Wolfe, Thomas. Look Homeward, Angel. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1929. Print.
Wright, James. Collected Poems. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 1971. Print.