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It’s a Wonderful Lonely Life

The search for community and love with our fellow human beings (at least the ones who are not trying to kill us) is a hallmark1 of the season. This accounts for the popularity of films such as It’s A Wonderful Life. Nevertheless, the effort to pathologize normal human emotion and behavior marches on. On December 1st the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported a 3-million dollar CMU study funded by the NIH on ways to help older adults feel less lonely. In the same issue it reported a federal suit against the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services for improper incarceration of mentally-ill prisoners; including the use of solitary confinement. There is some connection here — or perhaps disconnection.

It is part of life to lose friends and loved ones through death, time and alienation. But apparently the way to address the problem in this age of connected isolation2 is no longer to have people who know and accept us to talk to us, pat us on the back, share a cup of coffee, kiss us on the cheek, or more (if we are romantically inclined). It’s to learn to meditate the loneliness away. Quoting David Creswell, the expert overseeing the CMU study, the Post Gazette states:

… the number of lonely older adults may be increasing, putting their overall health at greater risk, but the way to help them isn’t necessarily to connect them to more people.

The Carnegie Mellon University associate professor of psychology, funded with a $3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health announced Monday, hopes that training people in better relaxation and coping techniques will reduce their perception of being lonely.

Each of us is wired with a different need and capacity for being alone. The solitude of Thoreau and Muir and eastern religious mystics is not for everyone. Indeed, in this hyperconnected age of crowdsourcing, solitude itself has become suspect. Therefore, it’s enlightening to know that a problem that philosophers like Buddha and artists from Nietzsche and Kafka to Van Gogh have struggled with for thousands of years is simply one of perception. 

You’d think the widespread adoption of social networking applications like Facebook and Twitter over the Internet would help. But, as Olivia Laing writes in The Future of Loneliness in the Guardian:

 … the contact this produces is not the same thing as intimacy. Curating a perfected self might win followers or Facebook friends, but it will not necessarily cure loneliness, since the cure for loneliness is not being looked at, but being seen and accepted as a whole person – ugly, unhappy and awkward, as well as radiant and selfie-ready

It can be difficult enough to endure or learn to accept loneliness if we are mentally whole and emotionally intact (a relative proposition). How much worse if we are imprisoned and isolated with schizophrenia, depression or bipolar disorder. Yet in the absence of community resources and adequate policy, the mentally ill are generally shunned by society3. Mentally prisoners who have completed their sentence in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania often remain in jail. Some have been placed in solitary confinement.  

The Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania announced the suit Monday on behalf of Stephen Kline, 25, a onetime Allegheny County resident who now is an inmate at Mifflin County Jail; Gabriel Gamble, 30, a patient at Torrance State Hospital in Westmoreland County; and Matthew Christy, 26, a patient at Warren State Hospital in Warren County… 

The suit claims the state does not have enough beds in community-care programs for all of those needing autism and mental health services — more than 1,000 are waiting — and that people in jails and state hospitals face special obstacles to community care.

In 2013, the Disability Rights Network sued the Department of Corrections, alleging that the state misused solitary confinement for mentally ill prisoners. The state took corrective action..

Literature and popular culture abound with references to the plight of loneliness: 

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, Alan Sillitoe
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers
Alone Again, Naturally, Gilbert o’ Sullivan
Only the Lonely, Roy Orbison

Have we forgotten Robin Williams and his death only last year? As his character The World’s Greatest Dad states:

“I used to think the worst thing in life is to end up all alone. It’s not. The worst thing in life is to end up with people who make you feel all alone.”

We conveniently overlook the fact that gathering to celebrate the season of light and fellowship around the winter solstice originated in the need to to prepare for the long dark night together. Our hopes and fears is not just a phrase from a Christmas song. Can you identify the following excerpt from another holiday favorite?

When you’re alone, alone in the world…when you’re alone in the world.
Blown away leaves get blown in the world…swirled away leaves get swirled.
Listening to your heels as you walk, making a lonely clack.
You don’t know how it feels when you talk and nobody’s voice talks back
.4

I challenge you to read or listen to this without feeling a tear coming on.

All Is Forgiven

In It’s A Wonderful Life George Bailey’s penury, loneliness and imminent arrest bring him to the brink of suicide. At the end of the film when hope is restored (along with the missing eight thousand dollars), George’s brother, Harry, toasts him as ‘the richest man in town’. Harry does not toast George’s mastery of meditation and relaxation techniques to cope with loneliness. He toasts the fact that George’s friends and neighbors gathered around him in his time of need. They didn’t update their Facebook page, send tweets and begin Kickstarter campaigns. They showed up. — DA

1With a small h.

3Often due to policies designed to protect their rights. Listen to the enlightening WESA 12/10 interview with PA Congressman Tim Murphy , himself trained as a mental health professional.

4Click the link to read and hear this song with lyrics by Jules Styne and Bob Merrill (who went on to write music for Funny Girl).

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Art & Artificiality: Selfies & Dandies

As background for our ongoing oral history on technology in literature and popular culture, I just finished reading David Hughes’ The Shock of the New . Hughes describes dandyism and art in the 19th century, along with the eponymous figure of pop art and Pittsburgh native Andy Warhol.

Writing in the Paris Review on February 20th [1], Tara Isabella Burton compares the cult of 19th-century dandyism with our 21st-century predilection for taking cell phone portraits of ourselves (aka ‘selfies’). She quotes Charles Baudelaire, the 19th-century French poet, who describes the dandy as:

…transcending his humanity—by choosing and creating his own identity, he remains splendidly aloof, unaffected by others or by the world at large.

Oscar Wilde, Dandy Extraordinaire (Wikipedia Commons)

She also quotes 19th-century French writer Jean Richepin:

“…the true dandy evokes surprise, emotion, and passion in others, but remains entirely insensible himself, producing an effect to which he alone remains immune.” And is: 

“… brilliant and bored;  he lives in terror of being pigeonholed by others. “Having dabbled in nearly everything—arts, letters, pleasures—he had forged for himself an ideal, that consisted in being unpredictable in everything.” … he applies false hair and makeup to alter his appearance and confound his peers.

Hughes writes about Andy Warhol, a 20th-century dandy by any other name, whose:

… ‘autistic stare was  the same for heroes and heroines as for death and disaster… the shallow painter who understood more about the mechanisms of celebrity than any of his colleagues, whose entire sense of reality was shaped… by the television tube.”

Andy Warhol
Poul Webb, Art & Artists

The period of 19th-century dandyism that Burton and Hughes cite between roughly the 1840s and 1900  coincides with the appearance of photography,  which allowed for endlessly reproducible images.

Anyone who has seen portraits of Warhol, who famously ‘liked to watch’, instantly recognizes the carefully constructed image: fright wig, the glasses, the stare. And of course Warhol utilized the replicated, mass-produced industrialized image in reframing everyday objects and celebrities as objects worthy of attention and art all the way to the bank.  As Hughes writes:

“Warhol did more than any other painter alive to turn the art world into the art business. By turning himself into pure product, he dissolved the traditional ambitions and tensions of the avante garde.

Burton quotes Jennifer O’Connel[2] in the Irish Times: “We are living in an age of narcissism, an age in which only our best, most attractive, most carefully constructed selves are presented to the world.”  Paradoxically, O’Connel also writes about the increasing prevalence of loneliness in our lives.[3] In the 1970s, when I was in college, Christopher Lasch warned (or at least pointed out the consequence) of this direction in our culture in The Culture of Narcissism.

In addition to mass media of television, film, advertising and the web, consumer culture gives us cell phones, helmet cams, Google glasses and personal monitoring devices. These technologies purportedly give us the freedom and power to define ourselves, endlessly watching, refining, redefining and creating our image. But where is the line between the freedom to create our own identity and the demand that we do this incessantly (and exclusively) for the consumption of others ?

In Ken Gergen’s ‘The Self in the Age of Information’ the cult of narcissism calls into question the whole idea of self, in the sense of immutable character. Gergen proposes that modern technology (including now Facebook, Twitter, and evolving forms of social networking) make the plastic personality, the chameleon self, a primary asset in creating and presenting a public persona. Image is all. Warhol also creepily said ‘I want to be a machine’. But if we are all busily  creating digital versions of ourselves for public consumption, whatever our private struggles and personal joys (if these count for anything), who is the audience we are doing this for? And what happens when they move on to the next trend, or if we need a human connection beyond people just watching? – CDL


[1] Keep Smiling, Tara Isabella Burton, The Paris Review

[2] Selfie, word of 2013, sums up our age of narcissism  Jennifer O’Connel, The Irish Times

You Are There

Sixty-plus people attended our live radio presentation of ‘The Thin Man’ Comes to Pittsburgh at the Omni William Penn Saturday November 23rd. One of the first questions people asked me was, ‘Are you going to record it?’, followed by ‘Are you going to put it on YouTube?’ We could just as well have done this for people to enjoy anonymously behind their screens — in between checking e-mails and Facebook. Instead, people braved the first real winter weather of the season to join other audience members and ourselves for the experience of hearing Nick and Nora and an array of lowlifes and highflyers do their thing. My thanks to Sarah, Bob, Tamer, Jessica and the staff at the Omni for providing a great venue.

Omni William Penn Lobby

Omni William Penn Lobby

In these days of twitter and instagram, human activity is endlessly digitized, replicated and deconstructed. Eight-word text messages count for meaningful conversation. Experience must be compressed into 144 characters. I was privileged to collaborate with a wonderful group of people who made our event come alive. Only two perform full-time. One is a musician and poet, in addition to working in the financial services industry. The rest have day jobs. We rehearsed for two months to put together a show to knock the socks off our audience. ‘Astonish me’ the theater critic said. What seems astonishing is that we pulled it off.

Whether painting or music, theater or dance, the arts at their best connect us to our deepest selves as individuals and as a community. This is more important than ever as our lives become preoccupied with self-promotion and dependent on duplication of experience — endlessly replicated and mass- produced. This trend affects everything from clothing to relationships to our emotions to the food we eat. We seek the ‘authentic’ in a safe, standardized, mass-produced palatable format — one that won’t challenge our expectations too much or result in a less than optimal experience. Andy Warhol, still revered here in his home town, reframed and resold us our own memes (the familiar artifacts of consumer culture) and took the proceeds all the way to the bank.

So we update our Facebook pages, send tweets on our own time and convenience, screen our calls (if we talk to anyone at all) — endlessly reiterating what someone else has said and what we already know. Our lives themselves are circumscribed by the virtual and vicarious so that we barely have a thought that is not predigested and shared immediately with others, hardly knowing ourselves what we think.

We are in danger of becoming commodities ourselves. We are encouraged to this by consumer advertisements and depictions of what life should be (speaking of Warhol). Smart phones, helmet cams, GPS coordinates allow us to track, monitor and share our most profound and innocuous thoughts. We watch ourselves constantly. The consequence of all this sharing with strangers who do not know us – is that experience is isolated and fragmented. We form judgments of others (and have judgments formed about us) without regard to personal history, circumstances or context.

But the process of ensuring a perfect cup of coffee every time1 does not scale easily to the arts or to being human. The happiest and most tragic aspects of living are fraught, unpredictable, messy. True art reflects this. It contains an element of the sacred, an immanence that cannot be manufactured. To be more than than just the sound of one hand clapping, it must involve an audience and a performer (or presenter) taking a mutual risk on an unknown quantity. As Stefany Anne Goldberg writes2:

“A magic trick is not a can of peas. A pirouette is not a product. A performance is just a person, creating an experience for other people, making them laugh, making them gasp, annoying them, delighting them. “

“… in a live performance, there’s a symbiotic relationship between audience and performer, in a recorded performance, audience and performer are divorced from each other, unreal to each other.”

” Nothing else has the feeling of standing on that precipice between failure and success — the puddle of sweat at the small of the back, the fluttering heartbeat, the tingling knees; to experience that moment when everything just might fall apart and probably should and you know it will, but then it doesn’t…. “

A live performance invites strangers to invest individually and together in a communal experience that will never be repeated. On good days the result can be transcendent, enlightening, uplifting. On other days, well, at least you can make up your mind yourself. Because you were there. – CDL

1See Julian Baggini, Joy in the Task, in Aeon Magazine

2Stefany Anne Goldberg , Send in Whatever Clowns are Left, The Smart Set

Get the Picture?

I used to regard illustrated or graphic novels as literature for the illiterate; comic books as condescending to the callow.

Perhaps it’s because we live in a post-literature culture1, but I’ve grown to appreciate graphic novels as a medium unto themselves for telling a story and connecting to an audience. A recent article in the City Journal quotes William Eisner, creator of Sheena, Queen of the Jungle and the Spirit in the 1940s:

“The comic strip… is no longer a comic strip but, in reality, an illustrated novel. It is new and raw in form just now, but material for limitless intelligent development. And eventually and inevitably it will be a legitimate medium for the best of writers and artists.”

Illustrators have contributed their craft to storytelling since paleolithic cave paintings. Perhaps these projected early human fears and desires in an uncertain world; perhaps they were just early interior decoration. ; – )

Cave painting from Lascaux, France, ca 35,000-30,000 BCE

During the Middle Ages images in gothic cathedrals emphasized to uneducated peasants who was in charge.

Chartres Cathedral

Chartres Cathedral

 In the 19th century Dickens’ collaboration with various artists made the characters in his serialized novels come alive.

Dickens’ Dream, Robert William Buss

Ironically, illustration as a means of storytelling came into its own for a mass audience just as print culture was evolving to electronic culture with radio and film. Newspapers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries carried intricate, full-color surreal extravaganzas like Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo to a mass audience.

George Herriman’s Krazy Kat , appearing in 1913, anticipated the surrealist and Dadaist movements.

In the 1950s, the age of television and the gray flannel suit. Walt Kelly and his compatriots subversively explored parody and satire in the midst of (supposed) conformity.

As the cellphone and cable explosion began in the 1980s, Sam Watterson’s brilliant Calvin & Hobbes captured the truth of boyhood in the way perhaps no one else has since Mark Twain.

Bill Watterson’s Incomparable Calvin & Hobbes will always remind me of of my son. I miss it greatly. (Image copyright Bill Watterson.)

Alas, the exigencies of the newspaper industry spelled at end to the strip. Watterson and Calvin packed up their marbles (and Hobbes) and went home.

Lately, as the publishing industry has struggled and tried to capture our attention with e-books, the graphic novel has ascended to respectability.

Graphic novels lend themselves to our fragmented attention span and reading habits in the age of tweets and text messages. As life is increasingly conducted online, they create a bounded world of coherence and context in the midst of disparate words and images that bombard us daily. In an age preoccupied by our attempts to control the world through science and technology, many graphic novels and comic books dance on the edge of or immerse themselves metaphysics and fantasy. Several of these, such as the X-Men and Superman have been turned into film with varying degrees of success. A skilled illustrator and story teller creates a secondary world2 that transcends the rules of the world we know to provide a more satisfying (or at least distracting) alternate universe. Many of these, such as the Watchmen and Neil Gaiman’s the Sandman, explore adult themes and existential experience, turning the mythology into exotic reinterpretations that are, like our lives, dark and threatening, absurd, exuberant, whimsical or just plain funny.  — Chuck Lanigan

Related:

1By this I mean not illiterate, but one in which the ability to read (and write) sustained, thoughtful discourse is made irrelevant in a society overrun by soundbites and Twitter feeds.

2See Tolkien’s On Fairy Stories for a discussion on secondary worlds.

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