William James puts the thought like this in his Principles of Psychology:
It seems as if the elementary psychic fact were not thought or this thought or that thought, but my thought, every thought being owned. Neither contemporaneity, not proximity in space, nor similarity of quality and content are able to fuse thoughts together when are sundered by this barrier of belonging to different personal minds. The breaches between such thoughts are the most absolute in nature.What James writes here is true; the breaches between my thought and your thought, those streaming and ethereal flows which we denote as mine and yours, can never be crossed. I can speak with you; I can write to you; I can walk with you; I could kiss you or hold you; but there is a part of you with which I can have no intimacy, no direct knowledge. I can not experience what you experience, not at all.
|This picture strikes me as representative of loneliness. |
Each triumph requires a step out and away, even if one is in the center of a crowd.
Or, we can simplify, hoping to ease loneliness through the common currency of human nature. This path looks to ignore the culture heaped on top of the organism. So, instead of tasting our food, we simply eat it. We forgo poetry for prose, dancing for exercise, singing for speaking. We hope in this way to come to know ourselves as part of a deep history of human life, attempting to plunge our personal stream of thought into the general and deep waters of nature. This tactic, however, leads not to connection, but to self-annihilation. Loneliness can not be cured by generalities, but through concreteness. I do not want you to love my general self, but my specific self. And it is not you in your generality that is an object of my curiosity and possible love, but you, that concrete you, the you that is owned by you and not public property.
These thoughts on the unrelenting solitude of living came to me last night. I was thinking about this blog, about facebook, about message boards, about this new way of relating to the world. We take ourselves and our thoughts, and we hurl them out into space quite blindly. Then, we wait to see what sort of impact they make. It occurs to me that this behavior is bat-like, blind and sending out signals, hoping to make out a world by calculating the angles of their rebound. Bats are content not to see directly; they make their way forward, living their entire lives through indirection.
I have been studying the philosopher C.S. Peirce's theory of signs. He believed that each experience, the whole teeming world of thought and object, worked as signs--indirectly. One implication of his theory is that we have no ground, no resting place. Our lives bend and refract in response to experience. The challenge of life is not in knowing or understanding, but in continuing, in enduring. As Wittgenstein says, the most fundamental question that recurs is always: "Where to go from here?" Metaphysical questions like "Who am I?" Or "What is the nature of reality?" take their meaning and direction from the experiences that prompted the questions, and the value of the answers we give to them has to be taken in terms of the directions they send us.
If this is the case, then perhaps the remedy to the irreducible isolation of simply being an individual, is not so much in knowing the other or understanding him or her. This would be looking for a place to rest, for certainty among the flux of life. But certainty is not to be had, life flows on, and thus the task of life is not to share experience. Instead, the difficulty is in finding travelling companions--folks who are willing to travel the same stretch of road for a while, even if they can't or even don't want to peer into your soul. After all, loneliness does not seek knowledge; it just wants companionship.
There is a group of folks that I run with. Each of them is a strange bird. We all have different jobs, different talents, different politics, different senses of humor, different modes of intelligence. I cannot say that I know the inner life of these runners. I do not know them much at all. Come to think of it, I don't really want to know them. What I want from them is that they show up, that they join me for an hour or two a week. I want other people to run with me, beside me, not see through me.
This little squad of runners is not really a political unit. But I think it shows us something about politics. Community and companionship do not require many shared values. The requirement is that we move through our lives for brief moments in a common direction. This movement is made possible by the ability to live indifferently to the fact that you will never know what is happening in the mind of another person. We can do things with each other because we leave each other alone: at some point we are willing to say, "That person makes no sense to me," and run on. Though that person will never understand you, not fully, not completely, perhaps they will choose to accompany you.
In the abstract, our differences are final. We are each singular and irreducible to the other. The breach between my mind and yours is absolute. But in life the question is not how to overcome differences, but to live among them. Loneliness and togetherness is not a matter of knowing other people. It is a matter of living with them. The loneliness of the long distance runner is a condition of experience, and in a strange way, it is the embrace of this loneliness, the willingness not to live too close to others, that gives us the sufficiency of space to live together--and also, sometimes, to live on, despite being apart.