Monday, December 20, 2010

On "Alone in America" by Louise Bernikow ***

Bernikow's exploration of loneliness in the United States is a difficult one to summarize, in large part because it isn't a prescriptive set of solutions nor a theoretical explanation of causes. Rather, it's a collection of anecdotes, a kind of anthropological study of different communities where loneliness exists: among single men, among single women, among the married, among youths, among the old, among people without jobs, among people with jobs. Each, Bernikow shows, has various means--mostly unsatisfying--of dealing with this loneliness: drugs, visits to bars, drinking, working even harder, delving into family life more.

Bernikow suggests that loneliness is something that we don't like to talk about, that there is a stigma to it, a fear that talking about it, that taking in one who is lonely, will perhaps draws us further into that world of loneliness ourselves. I'm not sure I buy this. Perhaps, my own loneliness tends to provide me with a certain amout of sympathy for such folk--as long as they don't become too smothering in the desire for a companion. Perhaps that's what Bernikow is talking of, but I'm not really sure.

Bernikow's last chapter does seem to offer some possibilities of solutions. At times, she implies the nuclear family isn't enough--too much is expected from such a small group, especially in light of economic turmoil. Rather, "communities" seem to solve this problem, whether it be a group of retired musicians who forge a community orchestra or gay men who make a town mostly their own. But here too there seem to be potential problems. A community is only good insofar as one feels part of it. The prospect of AIDS, just beginning to get notice at the time of Bernikow's writing, had potentially ushered some hushed worries into the community that did not allow those who were victims to share themselves. The disconnectedness a straight couple might feel that might cause them to split was replaced with a smothering a gay couple might feel that might cause them to split.

Loneliness seems something inherent in the human experience, because we are all in separate bodies, all in separate minds. It waxes and wains. A weekend spent with old friends makes us feel part of a unit; months spent with them makes us feel like we're not really understood, like we want to be out with others who might understand better. Bernikow's book, written in the 1980s, doesn't take up the issues of online communities--that odd juxtaposition of belonging and separateness that comes when one stares across a group with common interests or problems or values separated by cables and screens. Nevertheless, as an exploration of a problem Bernikow's book poses the issue in full.

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