It seems that this is what loneliness is designed to do: to provoke the restoration of social bonds. Like pain itself, it exists to alert the organism to a state of untenability, to prompt a change in circumstance. We are social animals, the theory goes, and so isolation is – or was, at some unspecified point in our evolutionary journey – unsafe for us. This theory neatly explains the physical consequences of loneliness, which ally to a heightened sense of threat, but I can’t help feeling it doesn’t capture the entirety of loneliness as a state.
A little while after I came home, I found a poem by Borges, written in English, the language his grandmother had taught him as a child. It reminded me of my time in New York, and of Wojnarowicz in particular. It’s a love poem, written by a man who’s stayed up all night wandering through a city. Indeed, since he compares the night explicitly to waves, ‘darkblue top-heavy waves … laden with/ things unlikely and desirable’, one might literally say that he’s been cruising.
In the first part of the poem he describes an encounter with you, ‘so lazily and incessantly beautiful,’ and in the second he lists what he has to offer, a litany of surprising and ambiguous gifts that ends with three lines I’m certain Wojnarowicz would have understood:
I can give you my loneliness, my darkness, the
hunger of my heart; I am trying to bribe you
with uncertainty, with danger, with defeat.
It took me a long time to understand how loneliness might be a gift, but now I think I’ve got it. Borges’s poem voiced the flip side of that disturbing essay I’d read in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine on loneliness’s consequences and mechanisms. Loneliness might raise one’s blood pressure and fill one with paranoia, but it also offers compensations: a depth of vision, a hungry kind of acuity.
Oh my goodness I am so enjoying Olivia Laing’s writing. This is from “Mw, myself and I” in aeon.