Culture and Politics

We all live in Edward Hopper’s paintings

For those living in the UK, such as myself, 2021 started no different than how 2020 ended: in a nation-wide lockdown. This time however, unlike the first lockdown, which occurred during a brighter time of the year with more daylight and warmer weather, the second one was darker, more intense and, overall, it felt sadder. In an attempt to deal with this reality, I plunged into the online world.

One January night, I was scrolling through my Instagram feed. It was not one of those nights, when thoughts roam wild and anxiety about the future keeps you awake like a bucket of black coffee. It was one of those other nights, when the past calls you to reminisce about places you’ve never been to: kind of like memories you never made are coming back to life to ask you “why” haven’t you made them.

It was around 2 AM when I came across this image of and Edward Hopper painting, which I recall to be “Office in a Small City”, with a caption that read: “We are all living in Hopper’s paintings”. As with all memories, this one too is fuzzy, even if it happened recently. However, the image and the caption beneath it were powerful enough to keep me up through the night: I made the connection with Hopper’s words on art.

The American painter once said: “So much of every art is an expression of the subconscious that it seems to me most of all the important qualities are put there unconsciously, and little of importance by the conscious intellect”. What was that Instagram post saying about the subconscious of the person that posted it? About my own subconscious? And about the subconscious of a few thousand people that liked it?

As one of the most important realist painters of the twentieth century, the American focused his realism on particular aspects of life: absence, solitude and isolation. Hopper painted empty cityscapes, people alone in their rooms and vacant streets, using the light to guide the eye throughout the painting.

Take for example “Route 6, Eastham” (1941), “Rooms by the Sea” (1951), or “Sun in an Empty Room” (1963). These are just some of the paintings that stuck in my memory, showing the playful light guiding the gaze across the canvas, while evoking a familiar feeling of melancholia: these places are absent of people, but they feel alive. A strange, warm and intimate energy which exists in the presence of tranquil solitude dominates Hopper’s paintings.

Places aren’t the only ones who are portrayed alone. Despite living in a time of seemingly everlasting development, economic expansion, and rapid urbanisation, Hopper’s realism highlighted the hidden costs of this progress.

Automat” (1927), “Room in New York” (1932), “Morning in a City” (1944), “Office in a Small City” (1953), “New York Office” (1962) and “Nighthawks” (1942), which is probably Hopper’s most well-known painting, are just a few of a large collection of artworks that portray the loneliness that came with the modern world.

In “Room in New York” (1932), Hopper painted a man in a woman, sitting together in a room irradiated by a warm, yellow light, seen through a window at night. Outside, darkness surrounds these two, creating the impression that the room is a narrow and distant universe. Their faces are undefined: he reads a newspaper while she is playing the piano. Something draws an invisible line between their souls: they are together in the same space, yet unconnected, distracted, perhaps tired, separated.

A similar mix of feelings is evoked by Nighthawks. The street outside the Phillies bar is empty. From inside the venue, a white neon emits an unnatural and toxic light. The soft darkness of the night feels brutalised by this brightness. Inside the bar, the people seem fatigued, and the man painted with the back at us adds an element of anxiety: What is he thinking? Is that sadness? Are the people in the painting together or not?

The French philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre wrote in the 1944 play, No Exit: “Hell is other people”. But we need this hell in order to be people, at all. Without others with whom to share our private experiences and create a common world, loneliness usurps the foundations of our humanity.

Loneliness is not aloneness. The latter is a state that can be induced by choice: we may want to be alone to focus, meditate, or relax. We take walks alone to clear our thoughts. We go to the gym alone to take a break and improve our health. We go on a trip alone because we feel like we need that adventure to develop us as men and women. Aloneness doesn’t feel empty an­­­­­­­­­­­d destructive. It has its own magic and benefits.

Loneliness however is pain: psychological at first but which can often results in physical hurt too. It is a complex emotional state which includes feelings of abandonment, of being misunderstood, of non-belonging, of isolation (but not by choice), of rejection, separation, betrayal, guilt and of disconnect from everyone and everything. Loneliness is being alone together: you can be surrounded by people and still feel lonely.

What that Instagram post was saying to me and to the thousands that liked it and shared it was a familiar message: we are lonely, and yet connected.

Loneliness has become a global epidemic among young people today”, reported the World Economic Forum. The title is based on a survey from Australia which polled 1520 people from Victoria, aged 12 to 25. Overall, one in four respondents reported feeling lonely for three or more days in “the last week”.

This condition has only been exacerbated by the recent pandemic and the measures taken by various governments as a response. However, although younger people tend to feel loneliness more acute than their elders, this is not confined to young people. Those more advanced in age are also burdened by loneliness and just like in the case of younger generations, this has been worsened during the pandemic.

Japan has recently appointed a Minister of Loneliness, while the UK already had one since 2018. But this is not something that politicians can solve. The root cause of this illness is progress, or at least the current way of thinking about progress and of pursuing it. “More”, “forward”, “better”, “growth” are all part of our definition of progress and central to our politics and to how the society changes around the world. But this view of progress may be a “road to nowhere”.

However, if the world is indeed experiencing loneliness on such a massive scale, it is probably caused by something that predates this pandemic. Over the past twenty years, there have been many studies and books that have argued for various causes of why we feel lonely despite all the technological and theoretical progress around us.

There is no “one-size-fits-all” explanation: the factors that contribute to loneliness are many and complex. Some of them are linked to our lifestyle, however.

We are in a hurry, always busy to go places, to do things, inundated with information, hyped by notifications on our phones, anxious and tired, caught in a routine of work-eat-sleep, with dreams of going on a holiday to “escape”. Living in a busy city, getting on a busy tube or buss and being stuck in an office for eight, nine or more hours is already a devastating lifestyle for many. This is especially the case in big cities.

A solution to this might a return be smaller communities, in which people are more connected with nature and with those around. A change in how we perceive and use time is also necessary: ensuring that we have time to think and feel, to meditate and dream, to discover who we are and who we are not, are all remedies to loneliness. Through these processes of self-discovery, loneliness can be turned into healthy solitude: the source of many great works of art and inventions.

However, some factors that contribute to us feeling lonely are not related to our lifestyle. They are more subtle. This is captured in the words of Romanian philosopher, Emil Cioran: “Progress is the injustice each generation commits with regard to its predecessor”. We can interpret this from an epistemological perspective: the cost of knowing something is the destruction of mystery. The less unknown we have to engage with, the less exciting life becomes, the more disconnected we feel, first from ourselves and then from others, the more vulnerable to loneliness we become.

For example, Google Maps provides everyone with a phone the opportunity to know what lies ahead. You can explore a lot of the world from your bedroom. Comfort, security and a temporary satisfaction of curiosity are all provided in a matter of seconds. What are the unseen downsides of Google Maps? One of them is that it removes the sense of adventure: it makes the world a less dangerous place at the cost of making it less exciting.

Does this mean we should stop inventing and building things? No. However, we should think more seriously about the other side of doing so: move forward, get better and gain more, but do so with awareness of the emotional and spiritual cost that may occur.

As Woody Allen said: “Life is full of misery, loneliness and suffering – and it’s all over much too soon”. We cannot escape death, but we can reduce the suffering, misery and loneliness of life. The first step is to acknowledge that this emotional and spiritual condition exists. Then, we need to look at what causes it. I tried to offer a few possible triggers, but I am sure there are more (some specific to each individual). However, once we have identified the main reasons for why we feel lonely, individually and as a society, we should work together to remedy that: we may be born and die alone, but until then, we are all in this life together.

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