Jane O'Grady

All By Myself

A Biography of Loneliness: The History of an Emotion

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In January 2018 the government set up a ‘Ministry of Loneliness’ to cope with what was described as a spreading ‘epidemic’ – an unfortunate metaphor, since the contagious, unlike the lonely, need to be ‘isolated’ or quarantined. To call loneliness an emotion can be misleading, too, if emotions are considered, as they usually are, to be subjective and on a par with sensations that we fleetingly feel. Fay Bound Alberti is a cultural historian and the sort of emotion theorist who regards emotions more as social constructions than as biological events. Loneliness, she argues, is not so much an individual feeling as the product of a time and place – a social role, something that may not actually be felt.

According to Alberti, the term ‘loneliness’ originated from ‘oneliness’, which simply meant the condition of being alone, and, like its cognates ‘solitary’ and ‘alone’, was more or less factual and emotion-free. ‘Loneliness’ was a word rarely used in a negative sense, or used at all, until the end of the 18th century. Even in the early 1800s, solitude was prized and pursued by Romantic poets and philosophers, who sensed its increasing scarcity as a result of industrialisation and urban spread. Wordsworth ‘wandered lonely as a cloud’; Rousseau enjoyed ‘reveries of a solitary walker’ and wrote a book on them. But Coleridge’s ancient mariner was lamentably ‘alone on a wide wide sea’. Having acquired grimness, ‘loneliness’ suddenly soared in usage (as a graph here convincingly demonstrates), ‘rising to a peak at the end of the twentieth century’.

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