“Three giants live in Scandinavia far from one another like great mountains. After thousands of years of silence, first giant shouts to the other two: “I hear a herd of cows bellowing!”. Three hundred years later the second giant answers: “I heard the bellowing too”. After another three hundred years the third giant announces: “If you go on this way, making such a racket, I’ll leave,” writes Antonio Gramsci, the great Italian thinker and theorist.
You don’t greet your neighbour fearing it may intrude into his privacy. If you ever do, driven by a sense of bonhomie, you do it after three hundred years of thinking, of “hundred indecisions and…visions and revisions”. The neighbour of course returns the greetings after another three hundred years thinking that you have recently migrated from countryside and conjures up in his mind a weird scene feeling, in the words of Ezra Pound, “Oh, how hideous it is to see three generations of one house gathered together”.
Is our current contempt of human company the development or distortion of our social instinct? Does it enrich us or impoverish us? Does it reflect malaise of inflated ego or an early sign of a stage of human development where each individual is a world unto himself/herself, as self-reliant as an old sub continental village?
Marx thought that such self-reliance was one major cause of well-noticed stagnation of Indian life. But let’s be more circumspect in the matters of contemporary individual who is considered to be an epitome of all-encompassing human advancement. Such a notion has its roots hidden in the historical development of capitalist society which touts possession as the prime objective of life which is falsely thought of having helped sustain human society since primordial times.
Sharing first emerged as a survival tool driven by species instinct of self-preservation. It’s common among humans and animals. As the human consciousness developed, sharing acquired a unique human dimension; while maintaining an element of species instinct—which has become less operative with the exponential increase in the population—it has become a means of connecting with others. It’s no longer a threat of extinction that can drive you to connect with others. It’s prospective happiness that moves you. But capitalism through its systematic practice which is more or less a systemic disease has conditioned you to think and believe that happiness lies in the act of possessing. And possession makes little sense if it’s not used for private/individual gain.
If private/individual gain constitutes the ultimate goal of human life, the need of connecting with others recedes. If there is no need of others, the question of sharing becomes pointless. So the flip side of the individual in a typical capitalist society can be observed in conditions --marked by competitiveness and acquisition—which have become a major source of nourishment to ego that creates a web of self-serving illusions, the most damaging being that the individual in possession of material acquisitions can live and develop in his private space in a state of estrangement from others.
Willful estrangement leads to loneliness which is the result of ill-conceived notion of self-reliant individual. The bigger the stress on self-sustaining individuality the greater the loneliness.
Loneliness is predominantly an urban phenomenon. Ironically its presence is felt more at places where there is greater population density. Greater number instead of creating the sense of increased togetherness makes individuals lonelier. Our cities which ape the dominant capitalist metropolitan life of the advanced world can be a good case study as they turn into breeding grounds of loneliness reiterating that “hell is other people”.
All the high-end localities suffer from this malaise. In the new planned colonies and towns a large number of residents are those who have recently migrated from the bucolic settings to urban hardscape. Overawed by urban ways of life they find it hard to initiate social connections with neighbours and community. The fact of being new and little known in the community makes it harder for them to make acquaintances and friends exacerbating the feeling of being adrift in the sea of unknown faces.
Craving of strong community instinct is pitted against the indifference of urban jungle in their case. The initial natural reaction of the new urban settlers is to go back to the roots which means frequenting the ancestral rural areas. Their nostalgia increases as they experience the shadow of loneliness stalking the sprawl.
Paradoxically it’s old urban localities that support the flourishing of human bonding. There people are intimately known to one another. What they experience is in fact the opposite of loneliness; it’s intrusive familiarity which leaves a little space for individuals in terms of contemporary concept of private life. Those responsible for urban expansion encourages the drift from rural areas to cities declaring: ‘The cities were built for you / they are eager to welcome you / the doors of the houses are wide open’. But what happens when they become part of urban setting, poet Brecht tells us: ‘On bright fresh mornings faces and linen can be seen hanging from the same windows as before’. So people are as lonely as linen clothes hanging from the windows. Trapped in their flats as if in the nick, they crane out in the hope of making connections.
Lonely individuals are product of specific social structure. Whenever we perceive humans we invariably have their collective image. In our folk tradition a single tree is considered lonely. The reason is that life, as shown by scientific researches, is a series of complex inter-connections. Lonely beings, we all know, are unhappy beings. The question is why does system produce them? The answer lies in the fact that the system needs them as it’s always easier to manipulate and control lonely beings. Status quo fears the ‘subversive’ and transformational character of crowds, Elias Canetti conclusively shows in his ‘Crowds and Power’. Imagine the strength of a crowd comprising connected individuals.
With the passage of time alienated individuals become inured to the inhuman conditions of being alone so much that even the prospect of freedom from it is not taken for what it is. This psychological state is graphically portrayed by poet Nazim Hikmet who after having done a long jail term for his revolutionary outlook returns home and this is how he gets up in the morning: “Awake, Where are you? /at home/… who is lying at your side? Not loneliness, but your wife”.Imagine, loneliness can make a man perceive even his wife as loneliness! — firstname.lastname@example.org
Published in Dawn, February 17th, 2020