The Sorrow of Loneliness



Summer has now arrived here in my town.  Almost overnight we've gone from warm days and cool evenings to a sweltering, oppressive heat.  Living in a converted attic in this kind of weather is like living in an oven:  by mid-afternoon I'm baking.  I've put fans in the windows to provide circulation, but to no avail; they do little more than push around hot air.  I find myself flopping about like a limp rag from mattress to chair to mattress again until finally I'm forced to seek relief outdoors.  Still out of work, I have no place in particular to go, nothing in particular to do:  I just wander about.  I'll have to start looking for a job soon now, much as I hate the thought, for my unemployment benefits are nearly exhausted.  But after having experienced the luxury of so much free time, I'm loathe now to give it up.  Whenever I go into the grocery store, the drug store, a convenience store or a department store, and see the dull look of boredom in the cashier's eyes, when I hear them making the same dreary little jokes with the customers that I myself used to make and remember so well – about how you gotta do something after all to pay the bills and god, wouldn't you just love to win the lottery? but, oh well, guess it ain't gonna happen today and what would we do with ourselves if we didn't have to work anyway? – it makes me dread the thought of having to return to that shuffling grind.  Not having a car, and having no particular skills or training to offer, the variety of job prospects open to me is limited; most likely I'll have to return to the same sort of menial labor I've always done.  Like the old joke about banging your head against a wall because it feels so good when you stop, I'd more or less convinced myself that I enjoyed that type of work – until I didn't have to do it anymore for awhile.

However, the time for my return to that life is not upon me yet.  It being too warm, these summer afternoons, for me to stay in my apartment, and it being likewise too warm most days for me to want to bother with making the long trek up to the cemetery, I've taken to wandering around the downtown area instead.  The commercial district of the town in which I live is not, however, large; it only covers an area about three blocks long and two blocks wide.  The three lengthwise blocks are comprised, fairly typically for a small town I suppose, of several banks, an inexpensive all-purpose department store, several small drugstores, a number of business offices, an office-supply store, several jewelry stores, a couple of restaurants, and one or two newsstands specializing in the sale of newspapers, magazines, lottery tickets and tobacco products.  There are half-a-dozen empty storefronts as well, for the economy here is not a thriving one.  Intersecting these three blocks, one block to either side, are streets upon which all the odds and ends of commercial enterprise can be found:  a movie theater, a thrift store, a health food store, a movie rental place, an antique shop, several fix-it shops, a bridal store, a maternity store, etc, etc.  Lying just beyond the precincts of this central district are the more communal and public-service areas of town:  Morgan Park, for instance, the oval-shaped, three-acre parcel of land named after the town's founder, is located here, as is the public library, various elementary schools, half a dozen fast-food restaurants, various doctors' and dentists' offices, two hospitals, the fire station, the court house, the police station, grocery stores, numerous churches, an equally numerous number of bars, and any number of older, unassuming houses that have been subdivided into apartments, as is the house where I live.  These are the various precincts and districts through which I might wander on a hot weekday afternoon.

The streets, at this time of day, are pretty nearly deserted.  It's simply too warm and uncomfortable for anyone to want to be spending much time outside.  There are, perhaps, a couple of small gangs of teenagers to be found roaming about, a few well-manicured men and women in business suits hurrying from one air-conditioned building to another, the occasional shopper, and a few haphazard stragglers who, like me, are without jobs and at loose ends.  The motor traffic too is light:  most people are, of course, working at this hour of the day.  But as afternoon shifts into evening and people leave their jobs for home the number of cars will, for a time, increase significantly; for a half-hour or so the streets will be clogged with traffic.

I went out earlier today for a walk at just about this time.  I had decided to conduct a sort of experiment with regard to how I perceive the world:  I wanted to see it not as a human, but as a human-animal.  Thus I was concentrating as I walked on focusing my attention on my senses alone (i.e. without the mitigating influence of analytical thought), thereby subordinating all extraneous elements of my personality to the direct apprehension of my experiential self.  This apprehension, I hoped, would be unguarded, without prejudice, and singularly sensate in all its premises.  I wanted to find out what such a perception would be like.

And how strange it is, this civilization that we have constructed for ourselves, when viewed this way!  The concrete of the sidewalk felt hard and unforgiving beneath my feet, completely lacking the more subtle, textured sensations of earth and grass.  The air smelt foul with its sudden gusts of exhaust fumes – and how loud, how raucous, the noise of the passing cars were with their insistent, roaring motors, their blaring horns.  All this grew stranger and stranger to me as I walked, not least because, having determined to abdicate the analytical aspect of my mind, I lost the ability to digest my surroundings intellectually and thus orient myself to them as I normally would.  Instead I saw the world with all the dumb shock of an animal, suddenly transported from its natural environment, dumped into some wholly foreign realm.  What could that animal make of these long, congested streets, of that endless line of cars rushing towards it with their huge, unblinking eyes, their roar and whine, their implacably hard, shiny brightness?  They moved with no natural grace, not even with the terrible, terrifying grace of a predator charging towards its prey.  There was, in fact, no discernible sense to their movements at all:  they leapt forward in one great rush and then, quite suddenly, all came to a stop – only to charge forward again a few moments later.  All this to the accompaniment of great noise and a terrible, noxious smell.  I found myself growing disoriented, for I had left myself no means of protection, no psychological tools by which I could measure my capacity for defense against their onslaught.  My muscles grew tense, my back rigid; my scalp prickled and my armpits trickled with sweat.  No matter where I turned there those cars were; and where they were not there stood only a towering wall of glass and stone that offered me no refuge, no means of escape, no sense of safety, no place to hide . . .

I was, for a few moments, utterly terrified.

Being human I can, of course, reorient myself to this environment at will.  But what my experience earlier today revealed to me was just how alien this mechanized, motorized, industrialized environment is to my animal self.  I have never experienced this sort of fear when surrounded by nature, as for instance when I walk in the woods over by the cemetery.  When I'm in the woods everything is all of a piece; a wholeness exists which is inclusive of me.  The tumbling rush of water in the creek, the sound of birds calling, the rapid drill of the woodpecker, the chattering of chipmunks, the wind in the trees – none of these things feels anything but companionable to me.  There is, unfortunately, no point I can reach in those woods that is completely beyond the range of humanly made sounds:  in the distance I can always hear the whoosh of passing cars, the buzzing of lawn mowers, the occasional siren's wail.  These sounds strike a sense of discord in me, causing a vague sense of anxiety to my animal self – though I don't mean, of course, to sentimentalize animals by unduly anthropomorphizing them.  Were I only animal, these humanly engendered sounds would soon enough, I know, become just so much background noise.  Nor would the sounds of nature have the same relevance to me, for I would not be perceiving and judging them in quite the same way.  And I know too, of course, that for animals, nature holds no small amount of danger:  rivers may flood, fires rage, winds turn to storm . . .  A predator might at any moment leap out from behind a bush or a tree or a rock, or come swooping down from the sky.  Yet the fear I imagine myself to experience when confronting this type of danger, as terrible and frightening as it might be, still strikes me as being qualitatively different from the experience of fear I had earlier today when confronted with the onslaught of motorized traffic.  There is, with regard to the death I might encounter in nature, a profoundly felt sense of its being part of the natural order of things.  Just as the trees, clouds, birds, insects, weeds, roots, dirt, etc. of the world of nature all give me a sense of deeply felt connectedness – because they are, all of them, made of the same materials of which I am made – so too would my own death, were it to be caused by some natural agent, feel intrinsically appropriate and (my desire to prevent my own extinction notwithstanding) justifiable.  The world of nature, including even its processes of death and dying, feels like home to me in a way that the mechanized, industrialized, "civilized" world never can.

How then do I create a cohesive whole out of these disparate parts of myself, animal on the one hand, human on the other?  It would seem that the more truly I come to see myself as being not only human, but also animal – the more truly I come to see myself as being a human-animal – the more likely I am to come to a genuine understanding of the manner in which I inhabit my world.  The "animal" part of me is largely defined by the immediacy of its relationship to the surrounding environment, this environment consisting primarily of that which I can sensorially perceive.  Because I am an animal, that which I can sensorially perceive marks, in a very literal way, the limits of my world:  it constitutes my only tangible reality.  Because I am an animal, this world is knowably real to me because I perceive it through my senses:  my sensorial apprehension of it assures me of its actuality.  However, the human part of me is also concerned with certain aspects of my environment which, while being derived from the experiences gathered by my senses, are abstract, or metaphysical, in character.  For instance, because I am a human-animal, this world, however immediate, however knowably real, has about it a sense of unreality.  Because I am a human-animal, I have the feeling that, lurking behind the surface of the things I see, and behind even those things that I can touch, with which I am in actual physical contact, there exists an absence of physicality, a void.  This void is not something I can see, nor touch, nor know in any usual way through my physical senses:  and yet I believe in it.  Almost I might say that it is the only thing I "believe" in.  I believe in it because I know that wherever something is, there must also be something which is not.  This is an inference, logical in character, that I am able to make because of knowledge gained via my senses.  Thus the reality in which I exist can be understood to be made both of the information I receive via my senses and by the knowledge I derive from what is implied by that information:  the reality in which I exist, in which I believe, is dependent upon my being both human and animal.

Reality is made of opposing forces:  subjectivity and objectivity, chaos and order, meaning and meaninglessness, etc.  Everything has a relative importance in accordance with the position of its opposing force; these opposing forces are, in turn, part of a spectrum, the sum total of which creates a unity, as sunlight is made of a unity of colors, or the individual spokes of a wheel when joined together make a whole.  Ultimately, being itself must have its opposing force in nonbeing:  being and nonbeing are relative states which are themselves part of a greater unity.  Thus I assume that nonbeing – the void – must exist everywhere.  Though I cannot perceive nonbeing directly, I witness the process of its manifestation everywhere about me through the transitioning of life to death.  Animals have (presumably) no concept of death – or not of their own deaths at any rate.  As a human-animal, however, I am endowed with the foreknowledge of my death:  I know it to be something that I must someday experience.  However, if being assumes nonbeing, then the reverse must also be true.  And so I must conclude that death does not bring about a state of nonexistence, but acts merely as a sort of porthole into another, different state of being.  As life brings death, so death must bring life.


The empty bed
Awaits me
Like an impatient lover
It awaits me

It's all that I want
It's all that I need
Wrestling in bed
With myself until

I am not I
But the distant calling
Of an old remembrance
The dim throbbing
Of a half-forgotten memory . . .

The empty bed
Awaits me
Like a raft
On an inky sea

I'm sailing
Into the dark night