Loneliness as a Way of Life

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“What does it mean to be lonely?” Thomas Dumm asks. His inquiry, documented in this book, takes us beyond social circumstances and into the deeper forces that shape our very existence as modern individuals. The modern individual, Dumm suggests, is fundamentally a lonely self. Through reflections on philosophy, political theory, literature, and tragic drama, he proceeds to illuminate a hidden dimension of the human condition. His book shows how loneliness shapes the contemporary division between public and private, our inability to live with each

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Loneliness as a Way of Life

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Overview

“What does it mean to be lonely?” Thomas Dumm asks. His inquiry, documented in this book, takes us beyond social circumstances and into the deeper forces that shape our very existence as modern individuals. The modern individual, Dumm suggests, is fundamentally a lonely self. Through reflections on philosophy, political theory, literature, and tragic drama, he proceeds to illuminate a hidden dimension of the human condition. His book shows how loneliness shapes the contemporary division between public and private, our inability to live with each other honestly and in comity, the estranged forms that our intimate relationships assume, and the weakness of our common bonds.

A reading of the relationship between Cordelia and her father in Shakespeare’s King Lear points to the most basic dynamic of modern loneliness—how it is a response to the problem of the “missing mother.” Dumm goes on to explore the most important dimensions of lonely experience—Being, Having, Loving, and Grieving. As the book unfolds, he juxtaposes new interpretations of iconic cultural texts—Moby-Dick, Death of a Salesman, the film Paris, Texas, Emerson’s “Experience,” to name a few—with his own experiences of loneliness, as a son, as a father, and as a grieving husband and widower.

Written with deceptive simplicity, Loneliness as a Way of Life is something rare—an intellectual study that is passionately personal. It challenges us, not to overcome our loneliness, but to learn how to re-inhabit it in a better way. To fail to do so, this book reveals, will only intensify the power that it holds over us.

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Editorial Reviews

New York Sun

Loneliness as a Way of Life doesn't try to be cut-and-dried. It is quizzical, often deeply skeptical, about our intentions as a species. It recognizes that society—and sociability—are messy affairs that bring mixed blessings. Especially in his last, rousing chapter on Emerson, freedom, and responsibility, Mr. Dumm offers a way out of the morass he has described. He makes no false claims that we can vanquish loneliness or fix our thinking in a fresh groove. Instead, he proposes the tempered idea that friendship and group accountability can—indeed, must—live together with our existential solitude.
— Christopher Lane

Wall Street Journal

The greatest writers may have shown how language itself is inadequate to the experience of loneliness. But we have written our experience of loneliness deeply into the language. That too, though, goes to underscore the point that Mr. Dumm's honest book makes: While the "lonely self will always be with us," we can at least come together in search of imaginative ways of expressing that loneliness. We can "write and read to tell each other how we are to be lonely together."
— Andrew Stark

Toronto Star

[A] meditative and intensely personal volume.
— Sarah Barmak

Los Angeles Times

An intriguing volume...This modern world may be the "way of loneliness," but readers should not shy away from the state. In fact, Dumm asserts that loneliness is the impetus that gives us autonomy, the ability to make decisions on our own terms. Although the feeling may be painful, it is only through loneliness that we become true individuals able to make rational decisions and able to interact with others as rational beings. And, in an odd twist, it is this true sense of self-awareness that leads us to seek the community of others.
— Orli Low

Salon

For Dumm, loneliness is really about loss. He argues that we have to be willing to reflect on the tragic dimensions of human existence, including the inevitability of our own deaths, to face and ameliorate our loneliness...Only through earnest reflection and a willingness to examine how we live our lives can the ache of loneliness be transformed into its less painful companion: solitude.
— Katharine Mieszkowski

Choice

This is a fascinating book. Dumm articulates the intuition that many of the ways in which we understand our communal existence within a polity, ranging from the distinction between the public and the private spheres to the weakness of our interpersonal attachments, stem from the loneliness that is manifested within the modern world. Believing that loneliness is resistant to the traditional philosophical approach of describing the phenomenon at hand, then analyzing and critiquing it, Dumm draws on several important artistic works (from King Lear, to Moby-Dick, to the film Paris, Texas) to explore this issue and to illuminate his intuitions concerning it. Just as this volume is not a traditional philosophical treatise, it is not a traditional volume of literary criticism, for Dumm is deeply and personally involved with the subject of loneliness, and he reaches into his own experiences of it to explore it more fully.
— J. S. Taylor

Library Journal

Dumm (political science, Amherst Coll.; A Politics of the Ordinary) sets out to examine the emotional state of loneliness and its relationship to the modern world. He explains that the topic of loneliness cannot be studied by using solely analytic tools because of its "isolating qualities." This barrier forces Dumm to take a unique approach in examining the relationship between our everyday existence and loneliness. He uses the works of past writers and philosophers such as Shakespeare, Thoreau, and Foucault, along with personal reflections on his feelings after the death of his wife, to explain the multifaceted nature of loneliness. Dumm concludes that loneliness isn't something that we overcome, but it is part of our psychological, political, and social lives. We all share these common areas of loneliness, and only through reflecting on them can we gain a better understanding of how to live with our loneliness. Dumm's straightforward writing style and ability to combine scholarly analysis with personal reflections will make his book appealing to both scholars and general readers. Highly recommended for public and academic libraries.
—Scott Duimstra

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674031135
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 9/15/2008
  • Pages: 208
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Thomas Dumm is William H. Hastie '25 Professor of Political Ethics at Amherst College. His most recent book is A Politics of the Ordinary.

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Table of Contents

  • Preface

  • Prologue: Cordelia’s Calculus
  • I. Being
  • II. Having
  • III. Loving
  • IV. Grieving
  • Epilogue: Writing

  • Notes
  • Index

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