Loneliness as a Way of Life

By Thomas Dumm

Harvard University Press. 193 pp. $23.95

Are we always either lonely or not lonely? Or does loneliness ebb and flow, increasing sharply at times like this - at least for the bereaved - just before Christmas?

It's confusing how we use the word and its cognates.

"One man alone" can suggest something positive - intrepid independence, an Ayn Rand hero. "Loner" can go either way, depending on whether it describes a beguilingly romantic rock star or a neighborhood creep.

"Lonesome" makes you feel like comforting the unfortunate party. "Solitude" sounds inviting, but "solitary" - especially when you add a capital "S" - does not.

To be sure, loneliness is worth thinking about at holiday time. For Thomas Dumm, who teaches politics at Amherst College, it's no abstraction. A widower, he lost both his wife and mother in recent years, and his daughter has moved out. He seems an ideal guide to the topic.

Yet

Loneliness as a Way of Life

arrives as a bizarre, fascinating book, more a document than a coherent study. In its inadvertent portrait of its tortured-soul author, an angry writer imprisoned in the hot air of academic discourse, it makes the point Dumm thinks he's making overtly: that our greatest loneliness is a failure to connect to our true selves.

At the outset of

Loneliness

, Dumm declares himself most interested in the "political dimension" of loneliness. For the first two-thirds of the book he operates as a typical expositor of high-toned cultural material. He expatiates on King Lear. He ponders Hannah Arendt's claim that totalitarianism seeks loneliness among citizens as a way of controlling them. He interminably annotates

Death of a Salesman

,

Moby Dick

, and the film

Paris, Texas

- not much of that commentary illuminates loneliness.

Meanwhile, an unacademic anger shoots from the book's pages at odd points: blunt contempt for salesmen in general and their "complete insubstantiality," vituperative hatred for George W. Bush, "his sovereign madness, his stupidity."

Only on Page 95, when Dumm surprisingly leaps into discussion of his marital wars with his wife, Brenda, before lung cancer struck her down, does the book come almost frighteningly alive as Dumm's bland, theoretical vocabulary disappears. Indeed, he plunges us into his upbringing with a speed that induces vertigo. The seventh of nine children of - yes - an insurance salesman, Dumm admits to having been "a difficult child, prone to screaming fits, angry, bored, sharp-tongued, sometimes mean." He writes that his mother, "who could not love me and whom I learned not to love in return," would lock him away "in a cubbyhole closet under the staircase in the dining room." From his mother, writes Dumm, "I first gained my sense of loneliness as a way of life."

Next he recounts how pleural mesothelioma took Brenda after "experimental surgery that removed more of her insides than we thought possible" and "the most brutal and intensive chemotherapy and radiation treatment available extended her life for four and a half years."

Suddenly, Dumm's writing takes on incantatory concreteness and power:

"In every home with a seriously sick person we find the debris of sickness - the clotted tissues, the bedpans, the medicine bottles, heating pads, pillows and reclining chairs, the oxygen machines and nasal tubes - residues of the technologies brought to bear against the foreign agent, the failing part. . . . These ordinary objects commingle with the newspapers and magazines, the food in the refrigerator, the calendars of the children's events. . . . The house becomes a strangely comfortable jumble of life and death."

And then the window into Dumm's life closes. In a flash, he delivers us back to the lifeless seminar. More attacks on the "nihilism of capital" he's mentioned earlier. Attempts to explain the opaque thinker Judith Butler on "relationality." Exposition of Freud on narcissism.

Only the anger remains. And the title of this book takes on greater meaning. It must be terribly lonely to be Thomas Dumm, entitled to his grief and rage, and have to disguise and encase them in the falseness of artificial academic rhetoric. Plainly, what he really wants - understandably - is to curse the darkness and strike out at someone or something.

At the end, Dumm informs us, in dispassionate voice, that loneliness is an "elemental part" of ourselves. For sure.

In other words, enjoy the holidays. But don't be fooled by those crowds around you. They're just hordes of lonely people, getting together.

Contact book critic Carlin Romano at 215-854-5615.