Solitude: Vignettes

by Ralph Dumain

“In my solitude . . .”
                             — Duke Ellington, Eddie DeLange and Irvin Mills

1

It was in 1980, at a kiosk on the Amherst Campus of SUNY/Buffalo, where I used to chat up the young black woman who worked there, that I first learned that being an only child was a problem to other people. One day I used the phone there to call my mother, to tell her I would join her for lunch. When I hung up the phone, the aforementioned woman unexpectedly asked me, “You’re an only child, aren’t you?”

Surprised, I replied, “Yes. How did you know?”

She responded, “I could tell by listening to how you talked to your mother that you were an only child.”

Me: “That’s incredible. Well, it’s true.”

She: “You’re spoiled.”

2

Many years later, in a different city, I became acquainted with a young working class black woman, who, like many I have known, was a single parent, with two jobs, and had little time to herself. She insisted, though, that she should have another child one day.

She: “Shanice should have a brother or sister. It’s not right that she’s alone.”

Me: “But that makes no sense. You’re a single mother, without an education, working two jobs, trying to make ends meet, with no support from anyone else, with no free time, and yet you want to have more children?”

She: “But that’s the way it should be.”

Me: “But why?”

She: “Shanice should not be by herself.”

Me: “But there’s got to be a reason. Why do people want children, and more than one, when they’ve already got their hands full?”

She: “It’s just something you want, that’s all.”

Me: “But it’s important to figure out the whys.”

She: “You’ve thought a lot about this. You should write it all down, and publish a book on the subject.”

Me: “But you’d never read it!”

3

All the objections I’ve ever heard about only children came from black women. Isn’t this odd?

The concept of a large family with a lot of kids bouncing off one another all the time is abhorrent to me. How could anyone stand it?

There are, of course, people who come from large families, that could not or cannot stand it. I get along well with them. But people who are into their large families and dedicate the bulk of their free time to them, including their cousins, nieces and nephews—I don’t trust them.

I prefer human interaction as a conscious, intentional phenomenon, something that means something, not something casual or to be taken for granted. I don’t think that people who grew up with a lot of other people on top of one another all the time understand this.

Solitude is not necessarily loneliness, I know, but one must know and experience both. I am severely skeptical of people who have not known solitude. I don’t trust people who don’t know loneliness.

4

The Lonely Guy (1984) has got to be the cult film for all lonely guys. Warren Evans (played by Charles Grodin), initiates Larry Hubbard (Steve Martin) into the lonely guy lifestyle. There are lonely guy restaurants, lonely guy parties (populated by lifesize cardboard cutouts of people), and lonely guy bridges off of which to jump to commit suicide. It’s a comedy that is too painful to be funny.

I wonder, could there be a film about a Lonely Gal? I can’t see it.

I’ve known a couple of bona fide female loners in my lifetime. There are many more women who tend to be loners on the inside but who disguise it very well, exhibiting all the social graces on the outside. But actual female loners? I can think of two I knew back in Buffalo.

The first I knew only a short time, back in 1974. This was still the period of the counterculture. This woman, whom I met in a classroom, was obviously apart from the usual circuits of socialization. I actually visited her apartment, where she lived alone, a couple of times. She lived the lifestyle of a hermit. I think I was one of her rare visitors, and even my visits were rare.

The second woman I knew over a period of several years. In everyday society she was withdrawn. She wore large owlish glasses, tied her hair up in a bun, and dressed in corduroy pants, and was very severe and intense in manner. But she was also an actress. Not your usual concept of an actress, though. Occasionally she acted in regular plays, but she was known for one-woman shows in unusual venues, in which she would enter trance states and act out the poetry of Friedrich Nietzsche, Edward Carpenter, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and others. Her concept of drama was ritualistic and was inspired by the ancient Greeks. She would let down her hair, take off her glasses, don her costumes, and blow everyone away. Her trances were comparable to, and as intense as, something you would see in voudon. She scared a lot of people. Of course I liked her. She did have her limitations, though. She was deep, but narrow, and uncritical in certain ways she should have been, though she stood apart from society. Very Germanic.

I wonder if she could have grokked The Lonely Guy. Somehow I don’t think even she could have. I’m convinced it’s a male thing. Women don’t get it. They don’t get it. And I think that has something to do with why I don’t trust them.

5

Early in 1997 I made the acquaintance of Ato by way of the Internet. Ato was from Ghana by way of Oxford University. Small world that it is, Ato turned out to be part of a network of colleagues that intersected with mine. As ‘fate’ would have it, I was the one who extended him an invitation to New York to do a couple of seminars.

Immediately after settling in on the Upper West Side, Ato and I went out to lunch, sharing our need to eat plantains with every meal. This was our first face-to-face conversation. While stuffing our faces in La Caridad on Broadway, Ato said to me: “I could tell several things from reading your writing. You are a person with strong convictions who has developed a rigorous methodology and spent a great deal of time in solitude.” Solitude! I perked up. No one had ever said this to me before.

This was Ato at his most perceptive. Ato also conducted two seminars. The second was a watershed experience for me. It was a somewhat skeptical analysis of Homi Babha’s work, part of the field of postcolonial theory I cannot stand, attended by some of our fellows studying C.L.R. James and by a contingent of constipated graduate students from Columbia University, and also by Edward Said, who at that time took a hard line against obscurantist writing. The result of that seminar for me was to dismiss academia as utterly deluded and hopeless and impervious to any attempt to get an outside perspective across. Even my friend and colleague Jim, who never took academia seriously but was generally more tolerant of mediocrity than I, and also pragmatic about the value of networking, was perplexed by my attitude. I scolded him for a lingering tendency toward subjectivism: “Reality is not who you know.”

6

Perhaps the most maddening aspect of my experience with grad students in New York over a stretch of years is that none of them seemed to be capable of distinguishing themselves and defining themselves apart from the social networks in which they were ensconced. The more ‘progressive’ their pretensions, the worse they were. People like this can never be trusted.

As I reflected upon my experience of July 1997 in the next month or two, I pondered the profound implications of my slogan “Reality is not who you know” and another phrase I coined to characterize the lack of autonomy I perceived, “footnote-whoring.”

I did not know, though, that people in very different walks of life were experiencing an analogous problem. Shaunda had what could be termed a blue-collar job. She swore that someday she would have to go to college or her life would be incomplete, though she was already on a career track without it. She actually spent time doing primary historical research which had a distant relationship to her job. But her attitude came from her upbringing, which was in a family of skilled black workers. It’s an orientation recognizable regardless of ethnicity, a mentality that could be called lower middle class: you gotta get an education. Shaunda was dissatisfied with everything around her, but she couldn’t pin down what she was looking for. She was finding the yuppies and buppies in Washington with whom she interacted intolerable. She complained about their conversation: “Ralph, these people can’t stand on their own. They don’t know who they are independently of other people. You can tell this by their quotation behavior. They always quote authorities but can’t think any thought for themselves.”

Quotation behavior! This is what I call footnote-whoring! I was stunned, for she told me this story before I could get a word out about what I was stewing over. So I told her my story and related my conclusions about what I had experienced in New York, emphasizing the inability of these people to conceive of the landscape of ideas beyond their particular networks. Shaunda exclaimed, “But they’re wrong, Ralph! Intellectuals are supposed to be universal!”

This was a remarkable connection. From our first conversation, I blew Shaunda away, because I could practically read her mind, anticipating her unarticulated impulses, frustrations, and needs. This is because I’ve always had my antennae up for certain wavelengths—for that conversation, as my friend Jim put it, that people most need to have but have never had.

Alas, our connection was not to last. Certain aspects of Shaunda’s behavior did not add up, particularly one behavior I was not about to tolerate. She had an unpredictable temper that would flash suddenly without any external provocation, a phenomenon I have observed in black women who have a deep distrust of men and a track record of bad experiences. And, it turns out, with women, there’s always less than meets the eye. And so I retreated to my solitude.

Written 30 April - 1 May 2005
©2005 Ralph Dumain. All rights reserved.


Note: Re-reading this, I note that I must revise my statement about women: there are some terribly lonely gals. Often women can disguise their inner perspective better because they are better trained in the social graces. I have, however, encountered women who are the loneliest gals imaginable. Thus I stand corrected. Other statements should probably be qualified as well, but better I should let this stand as a document of my reactions to my social environment. (8 March 2010)


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Originality, Cultural Capital, and Class Distinction

The Philosophy of Originality: Vignettes

Merab Mamardashvili: Selected Bibliography & Web Links


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Uploaded 1 May 2005
Note added 8 March 2010

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