Inside Story

Jagged solitude

A German writer’s candid account of the shifting boundary between solitude and loneliness

Nick Haslam Books 18 January 2024 996 words

A good life? Writer Daniel Schreiber. Soeren Stache/dpa/Alamy

“I had increasingly been feeling as if something had gone wrong,” writes Daniel Schreiber in his affecting examination of living alone. As a younger man he hadn’t intended to wind up uncoupled but at a certain point that state became habitual. It wasn’t as if he had been left behind, unlucky in love. Instead, after a youthful flurry of relationships he began to seek out solitude and wondered if there was enough room in his life to accommodate a partner. His book, Alone, is an extended meditation on the solitary life, set against the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Schreiber is the author of several literary essays and biographer of Susan Sontag. The original edition of this memoir was a bestseller in Germany and stands out among the flood of books addressing our supposed epidemic of loneliness. The idea that social connection is the key to happiness and disconnection the root of mental ill health has become the new commonsense, stamped into our consciousness by lockdowns and compelled distancing. Many writers have offered diagnoses of the problems of loneliness and prescriptions for overcoming it, but few provide such a vivid first-person account and fewer still bring such an erudite sensibility to the task.

The backbone of Alone is life-historical. In 2019 Schreiber has an epiphany that things are going wrong; by Christmas “I stop believing that this life, as I live it, as I live it alone, is a good life.” He is partly restored by a writing trip to Switzerland, struggles through the compounding isolation of the pandemic, and embarks on a trip with friends to the Canary Islands that turns into a sort of sabbatical. Along the way he finds a series of therapeutic diversions, all of them physical activities that relieve some of his self-consciousness: gardening, hiking, knitting and yoga.

Off this narrative spine Schreiber hangs a series of meditations on the solitary condition, heavily supported by big thinkers. His intellectual tastes run philosophical and French, and anyone with a passing acquaintance with the humanities in the 1980s and 1990s will recognise many of his theoretical muses: Barthes, Derrida, Foucault, Lacan, Lyotard. At times the insights are rich, especially in contrast to the shallowness of some psychological and sociological accounts of loneliness, but at other times the price seems high. I had hoped never again to encounter the word “phallogocentrism,” but there it was. And do we need a deconstructionist to tell us that we should not insist our friends conform to all of our wishes?

Schreiber’s analysis of friendship is powerful, pointing out its many forms and virtues — it is non-exclusive, voluntary, enduring — but showing how often it is made to defer to coupledom and the “grand narrative” of romantic love. Friendship is often pictured as a stage of life prior to nesting, and Schreiber notes with some disdain how many couples withdraw inward, a dynamic especially evident during the pandemic. Even so, he is scathing about how friendship has been misrepresented in the Western philosophical tradition, in which he claims it is portrayed as a quest for similarity and equality, the perfect friend idealised as “another oneself.” There is an element of straw-manning (and patriarchy-bashing) here, but Schreiber is adamant that friendship needs to be celebrated for its embrace of diversity rather than sameness, a conviction that resonates with his emphasis on the importance of friendship in queer communities.

He is equally incisive and contentious on the topic of loneliness. Drawing the standard distinction between loneliness and being alone, the latter an objective lack of social contact, the former subjective distress over the degree or quality of contact, Schreiber writes of the pleasures and benefits of solitude, admitting to enjoying some aspects of pandemic isolation. Being alone can be good and loneliness is not all bad. Though painful, it is not a disease, and the important lessons about loss and compassion to be learned from it mean it should not be dreaded. Some hand-wringing about the loneliness epidemic is reactionary, he suggests, motivated by nostalgia for the traditional family.

But Schreiber also muddies the conceptual waters. Solitude would normally be understood as positively valued aloneness, but he criticises it as “the presentable, dignified version of loneliness,” a word people use to deny the shameful reality of their true but taboo feelings. Although he sometimes confuses the picture by using solitude and loneliness interchangeably, Schreiber adds some useful complexities here. Loneliness may be distressing but also ethically and existentially desirable, and solitude may be a pathway to self-knowledge but also a cover for self-deception.

Schreiber makes no attempt to hide his ambivalence about being alone. He can present himself as bravely fronting the challenges of solitude and rising above coupled conformity but also admit to holding petty resentments and vulnerabilities. He can clothe his loneliness in grand ideas and social critique but also express his unhappiness with naked honesty. In one breath he flays romantic relationships and claims not to want them anymore, and in the next he confesses to feeling unlovable.

At times these vacillations suggest a cerebral Schreiber who reads the loftiest French theory and criticises the idea of self-care as “the ultimate victory of neoliberal late capitalism” while coexisting uneasily with a visceral Schreiber who likes to watch Friends, loves yoga and acknowledges that his neurotic misery may be due more to a lack of sunshine and exercise than existential angst.

Schreiber is a perceptive and relatable writer. He grapples with many of the same trials of social life that we all face, trials that became significantly more challenging in recent history. As a character in this memoir, he is not so much rounded in the literary sense — deep, complex and many-faceted — as he is jagged. The conflicts and quirks that other writers might edit out are on candid display in this book. It is well worth spending a few hours of quality solitude with it. •

Alone: Reflections on Solitary Living
By Daniel Schreiber | Reaktion Books | $34.99 | 152 pages