Book of the Week: Loneliness as a Way of Life

Fred Inglis is moved by a meditation on loss that transforms into an unforgettable study of America's soul

October 9, 2008

In 1992, Anthony Giddens published The Transformation of Intimacy in which he avowedly turned to the language of the agony column and the therapist to evaluate the vast changes that had come over the ordinary domestic life of feelings. Despite snobbish murmurs from the common room at King's College, Cambridge, it was a triumph of both delicacy and enlightenment.

Such a venture demands the gifts of a novelist as well as those of a journalist of genius. No wonder that so few professors have a shot at it, however much it is their clear intellectual duty to do so.

Thomas Dumm has both the nerve and the breeziness of disposition to attempt the transfiguration of his own bereavement into an essay on the condition of America. He doesn't say "America"; he says "we". But it is a condition of America just now that its people still suppose themselves to be the future, and therefore type and token of how the whole world is and will be.

So he begins (rather than ends) with the assumption of our universal loneliness, which he finds presaged in a powerful selection of all-American writers and movie-makers - Arthur Miller, Herman Melville, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Stanley Cavell and Wim Wenders (German-born but naturalised by virtue of making Paris, Texas) - as well as Shakespeare.

The shocking and premature loss of his wife to cancer and the terrible loneliness that ensued give Dumm permission to generalise his condition to the experience of modernity.

Having decided upon such a drastic move, he has a long tradition to invoke, from the Talmud to the camps of totalitarianism as theorised so laboriously by Hannah Arendt. In this invocation, Dumm appears likeable, literate, conscientiously liberal - the text is sprinkled with references to George W. Bush's catastrophic presidency by way of tying together private and public worlds - and living a life of utter desolation. But more than that, there is plenty to him: qualities of character that are bracing, tough, even jolly and comradely in tone and reference. This is not a man to palter with. But he still doesn't know what he is trying to do. To find out, he must set down pretty much whatever comes into his head.

So there is not much argument in the book, still less a nod to rationality. Rather, it is a work of unremitting mournfulness laid out in a flatly didactic manner. Do not, however, be put off by this. For in the examples of the prison-house of loneliness in which Dumm incarcerates himself, there are beautiful essay notes on the American tragedy of the salesman's death, on Cordelia's refusal of her father's pleading vanity, on W.E.B. Du Bois describing the death of his son, on the lonely hero of Moby-Dick left calmly sailing to perdition on his coffin and an empty ocean.

Melville's haunting image, however, gives lie to something false in Dumm's will-to-unhappiness, which a cheerful European may point at and use to unlock his claustrophobic cell and let him out. Ishmael, in the mighty novel, is himself full of cheer as well as mischievous and very funny. My intuition is that in truth Dumm is also a gregarious and witty man, a powerful teacher and a popular figure at Amherst College, surely one of the prettiest and least plausible places in which to feel lost and homeless.

Dumm's literary and film criticism, however, leads us through the usual gerunds of the therapist's grammar - being, having, loving, grieving - but he has forgotten the 50-year-old warning posted by Philip Rieff against the triumph of the therapeutic. Tender in his evocation of assorted solitudes, he seeks their reparation only in the dire abstractions of a murmuring confessor. Moreover, although he mentions her, he fails to notice the difference between Joan Didion's lament for her dead husband in The Year of Magical Thinking and his own pious discovery, with the help of Freud at his worst, that "there is a regression of libido into the ego, brought about by the ego identification as a way of coping with the loss of the loved object".

What on earth can one do with this sort of stuff if one is trying to find a kind of solace? Dumm is much given to rhetorical questions, but they are too blank to be much help. Questions are the whole point of thought. He needs to make his a damn sight sharper.

Instead of Dumm's lapse into cloudy gibberish, by contrast Didion candidly admits that she was off her head for a year, while using her gifts as stony novelist and dry-mouthed political journalist to dramatise that experience. No dreary invocations of "coping" for her, nor anything of Judith Butler (to whom Dumm then so improbably turns for help - doesn't he know how Martha Nussbaum beat her up?). It was Butler's preposterous aria, on which Dumm depends, that was contributed in her usual mixture of the demotic and the impenetrable to the revolting and sentimental chorus sung by the American intelligentsia at Ground Zero.

At the end of this desperate but also unforgettable book, one has to conclude that Dumm was suborned on his way to writing a loving masterpiece by the wrong, the fashionable reading list of the contemporary campus. It was quite right to pick Shakespeare and Co., of course, but not the dismal laments at human dividedness and the incurability of paradox that he takes too readily from Michel Foucault, Emmanuel Levinas, the always-lowering Giorgio Agamben and, further back, from that old gasbag Henry David Thoreau.

One is just about to say to Dumm, as he moves to a conclusion, "Pull yourself together - for goodness' sake, for the sake of your children, for the sake of good old life" when he does just that.

The medicine he needed might have come from D.H. Lawrence, but he doesn't mention him. Writing about the novelist James Fenimore Cooper, Lawrence said of America, "the love, the democracy, the floundering into lust, is a sort of by-play. The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted".

Dumm finds his way out through a journey to Ethiopia during one of its many local wars, prowling the vast remnants of the vanished empire, finding that the noble monuments of written literature re-enact the company of friends whom he had lost. The true subject of this arresting book - or so I am impertinent enough to claim - is the soul of America as it is to be found in the grim details of one very tough egg's harsh bereavement, and the tremendous politics that surround him, now being replayed in the election.

The help he has in this is the help we all can find in a great nation's great literature. But if Lawrence is right, the soul of that nation is hard and isolate and unmelted. Dumm's own soul sounds at times a bit like that. Perhaps his ordinary unhappiness as well as the busyness of ordinary life prevents him seeing further.


Thomas L. Dumm is professor in the political science department at Amherst College. This is his first philosophical book, but he is also the author of several other titles in his specialist subjects of American politics, particularly the presidency, as well as transformative ideas and the people behind them.

When writing, he works in short bursts and prefers the ambience of a coffee shop to the silence of a library. His morning routine consists of not one but two coffee shops where he is so well known that he is described by one acquaintance as "like Norm on Cheers".

When he is not teaching or writing, he has a passion for cooking. He says his speciality is Kung Pau Chicken, which is described as so good by a friend that it has "won the hearts of at least two (I'm sure more) women".

He enjoys films, and admits to occasionally liking "really bad movies".

Although now a proud father, his wife first made him prove his ability to keep a child alive by owning a dog, which he named after Pip from Moby-Dick. Happily, Pip remains a companion in his life, and Dumm never leaves the house without telling him, "What I'm about to do, you cannot be a part of."

Loneliness as a Way of Life

By Thomas Dumm

Harvard University Press

208pp, £15.95

ISBN 9780674031135

Published 1 October 2008

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