Homo sapiensis a social animal. We crave the society and companionship of others. We have thrived as an interdependent species; that interdependence shapes the values that human beings must develop and put into practice in order for our well-being to endure.
Technical and Analytical Readings
- Edward O. Wilson, The Social Conquest of Earth (W.W. Norton & Company, 2012): another controversial view on sociality and evolution from this extraordinary researcher and thinker.
- Joan Reardon, ed., As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto: Food, Friendship, and the Making of a Masterpiece (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010).
- Dan Kois, How to Be a Family: The Year I Dragged My Kids Around the World to Find a Way to Be Together (Little, Brown and Company, 2019): “This book shows how one family works, as a way of helping us all ask ourselves: How might (and ought) our own families best function?”
- John Ehrenreich, Desert Notebooks: A Road Map for the End of Time (Counterpoint, 2020: “In Joshua Tree he hikes in the desert, sometimes with his partner. They look at the night sky, enjoy the scent of creosote bushes after rain, admire petroglyphs and watch owls. . . . In Las Vegas, Ehrenreich’s world shrinks. He goes jogging and observes the many homeless people sleeping near his apartment.”
On the offbeat, we can be at our funniest when we least intend to be. Some of our deadly-serious social conventions are cases in point.
- Helen Walasek, The Best of Punch Cartoons: 2,000 Humor Classics (The Overlook Press, 2009): “. . . a document of social history . . .”
From the dark side:
- Judith Warner, And Then They Stopped Talking To Me: Making Sense of Middle School (Crown, 2020): “ Judith Warner interviews scores of fellow middle school survivors . . . These barely recovered adults share the horror stories you might expect: memories of bullying, cliques and lost friendships. Perhaps more alarming is the bad behavior on the part of parents who push their children to be top of the heap using adult-size ‘mean girl’ tactics.”
[In Les Misérables, Valjean’s benevolent bishop dies at the age of 82. He had been blind for several years, and dependent on his sister, who remained by his side. Hugo remarks on this tender relationship.]
Let us remark by the way, that to be blind and to be loved, is, in fact, one of the most strangely exquisite forms of happiness upon this earth, where nothing is complete. To have continually at one's side a woman, a daughter, a sister, a charming being, who is there because you need her and because she cannot do without you; to know that we are indispensable to a person who is necessary to us; to be able to incessantly measure one's affection by the amount of her presence which she bestows on us, and to say to ourselves, "Since she consecrates the whole of her time to me, it is because I possess the whole of her heart"; to behold her thought in lieu of her face; to be able to verify the fidelity of one being amid the eclipse of the world; to regard the rustle of a gown as the sound of wings; to hear her come and go, retire, speak, return, sing, and to think that one is the centre of these steps, of this speech; to manifest at each instant one's personal attraction; to feel one's self all the more powerful because of one's infirmity; to become in one's obscurity, and through one's obscurity, the star around which this angel gravitates,--few felicities equal this. The supreme happiness of life consists in the conviction that one is loved; loved for one's own sake--let us say rather, loved in spite of one's self; this conviction the blind man possesses. To be served in distress is to be caressed. Does he lack anything? No. One does not lose the sight when one has love. And what love! A love wholly constituted of virtue! There is no blindness where there is certainty. Soul seeks soul, gropingly, and finds it. And this soul, found and tested, is a woman. A hand sustains you; it is hers: a mouth lightly touches your brow; it is her mouth: you hear a breath very near you; it is hers. To have everything of her, from her worship to her pity, never to be left, to have that sweet weakness aiding you, to lean upon that immovable reed, to touch Providence with one's hands, and to be able to take it in one's arms,--God made tangible,--what bliss! The heart, that obscure, celestial flower, undergoes a mysterious blossoming. One would not exchange that shadow for all brightness! The angel soul is there, uninterruptedly there; if she departs, it is but to return again; she vanishes like a dream, and reappears like reality. One feels warmth approaching, and behold! she is there. One overflows with serenity, with gayety, with ecstasy; one is a radiance amid the night. And there are a thousand little cares. Nothings, which are enormous in that void. The most ineffable accents of the feminine voice employed to lull you, and supplying the vanished universe to you. One is caressed with the soul. One sees nothing, but one feels that one is adored. It is a paradise of shadows. [Victor Hugo, Les Misérables (1862), Volume I – Fantine; Book Fifth – The Descent Begins, Chapter IV, M. Madeleine in Mourning.]
[In stark contrast, Javert withdrew from society in the most destructive ways.]
Javert's whole person was expressive of the man who spies and who withdraws himself from observation. The mystical school of Joseph de Maistre, which at that epoch seasoned with lofty cosmogony those things which were called the ultra newspapers, would not have failed to declare that Javert was a symbol. His brow was not visible; it disappeared beneath his hat: his eyes were not visible, since they were lost under his eyebrows: his chin was not visible, for it was plunged in his cravat: his hands were not visible; they were drawn up in his sleeves: and his cane was not visible; he carried it under his coat. But when the occasion presented itself, there was suddenly seen to emerge from all this shadow, as from an ambuscade, a narrow and angular forehead, a baleful glance, a threatening chin, enormous hands, and a monstrous cudgel. [Victor Hugo, Les Misérables (1862), Volume I – Fantine; Book Fifth – The Descent Begins, Chapter V, Vague Flashes on the Horizon.]
Other novels and stories:
- Polly Shulman, Enthusiasm (Putnam Juvenile, 2006).
- Manuel de Lope, The Wrong Blood (Other Press, 2010).
- Paul Yoon, Snow Hunters: A Novel (Simon & Schuster, 2013): on “the search for connection by those who are . . . left outside society”
- Tom Perrotta, Nine Inches: Stories (St. Martin’s Press, 2013), on “family and neighborhood life in the suburbs”
- Amitava Kumar, Immigrant, Montana: A Novel (Knopf, 2018): about a young Indian scholar newly in Montana, his sense of isolation, and his desire to connect on
- Sigrid Nunez, The Friend: A Novel (Riverhead Books, 2018): “Everywhere in this novel it is impossible to separate love and companionship from loss.”
- Dorthe Nors, Mirror, Shoulder, Signal: A Novel (Graywolf Press, 2018): “If her subject is unwavering, her style remains restless, less out of a desire to be “experimental” than out of playfulness and a genuine yearning, one feels, for contact and connection.”
- Alex Schaitkin, Saint X: A Novel (Celadon Books, 2020): “Claire, who was 7 when the tragedy occurred, becomes obsessed with understanding not just what happened to Alison, but who she was. But around 70 pages in, the details of this family drama start to take a back seat to the larger story Schaitkin is really trying to tell . . . : about a single death that affects an entire community.”
- Benjamin Nugent, Fraternity: Stories (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2020): “. . . four years of fumbling awakenings, both intellectual and sexual, in an environment where everyone struggles with the plague of masculinity, even the men.”
- Nathan Harris, The Sweetness of Water: A Novel (Little, Brown and Company, 2021): “A writer who dives into a gay love story along with one of mutual regard and affection between white and formerly enslaved people in the Deep South at the beginning of Reconstruction is clearly someone who wants to accomplish a lot and pose big questions.”
- Gary Shteyngart, Our Country Friends: A Novel (Random House, 2021), “is brilliant about so much: the humiliations of parenting and of being parented; the sadism of chronic illness; the glory of friendship.”
- Casey McQuiston, One Last Stop: A Novel (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2021), “also about loneliness, and being unmoored from normal time, and missing people you’ve lost, and dealing with generational trauma and fearing an unknowable future.”
From the dark side:
- Alix Nathan, The Warlow Experiment: A Novel (Doubleday, 2019): “Herbert Powyss, a gentleman botanist in 18th-century England, offers 50 pounds per annum, for life, to any man who will live alone for seven years in the basement of his manor, Moreham House. The man must not cut his nails or beard, and will not see or speak with another human being for the duration of his confinement. . . . Powyss’s ‘real and fascinating thesis to test’ is whether a human being can survive in absolute solitude.”
- Sally Rooney, Beautiful World, Where Are You: A Novel (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2021): “Recovering from a breakdown brought about by complications of modern fame, Alice is morbid but openhearted, a secret idealist in wolf’s clothing. Eileen is the standard Rooney protagonist — ambivalent, sensitive, lethal in conversation. She’s got the classic mistrustful delusion of a younger child, needy and convinced of her own victimhood.”
- Andrew Holleran, The Kingdom of Sand: A Novel (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2022): “. . . Andrew Holleran takes on loneliness, aging and a life post-cruising.”
Music: songs and other short pieces
- Seals and Crofts, Summer Breeze
- Neil Young, Heart of Gold
- Paul Simon, “Stranger to Stranger”
- Steve Lacy and the Riccardo Fassi Trio, Together
On the dark side:
- Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Le Grenouillére (1869)
- Jan Vermeer, Glass of Wine (1660-61)
- William Blake, Children Round a Fire
Film and Stage
- In The Remains of the Day, a man so devotes himself to his workas a butler that he has no time for personal relationships. It is a story about “the pain of self-denial,” here the denial of human intimacy. A closing scene captures the tragedy of lost opportunities as the camera focuses in slow-motion on two fingers barely touching at the end of an afternoon spent together but emotionally apart.
- The Breakfast Club, about five high school studentsin detention who find they have a lot in common.
- Every Man for Himself (Suave qui peut), exploring human relationships
- Husbands and Wives: a Woody Allentake on marriage
- The More the Merrier: a spoofon unconventional living arrangements
- Contagion: a city and a civilization falls apartwhen a plague destroys the community fabric. This is a film about our interdependence.
- The Wild Child(L’Enfant Sauvage), a dramatization about a real-life attempt to civilize a child who had been found in the wild
- The Spirit of the Beehive(El Espíritu de la colmena), a post-WWII Spanish film in which a young girl is taken by the scene in the 1931 film “Frankenstein” in which a young girl gives the monster a flower, is really about the girl’s longing for human contact in her world of disengaged parents and an older sister who does not understand her.
- WALL-E: a “rusty trash-compacting droid” escapes from “a world without people” and finds and illustrates the importance of companionship
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
The chamber ensemble conveys natural warmth of tone and feeling. Three giants from the classical era left us with large-ensemble works of this kind
- Beethoven, Septet in E flat major, Op. 20
- Beethoven, Octet in E flat major, Op. 103 (1792)
- Schubert, Octet in F major, D 803 (1824): Top performances are by Oistrakh, et. al., in 1955, Wiener Oktett in 1958, Academy of St.-Martin-in-the-Fields Chamber Ensemble in 1988, Schubert Ensemble Budapest in 1992, Nash Ensemble in 1994, Mullova Ensemble in 2006, Faust, et. al., in 2018, OSM Chamber Soloists in 2018 and Wigmore Soloists in 2021. The spirit of conviviality is palpabe in this live performance.
- Mendelssohn, Octet in E flat major, Op. 20
- Mendelssohn, String Quintet No. 1 in A Major, Op. 18, MWV R21; and String Quintet No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 87, MWV R33
In 1991, Anthony Braxton, Marilyn Crispell, Marc Dresser and Gerry Hemingway made a set of recordings in Willisau, Switzerland. By that time, the members of this quartet had become so familiar with each other musically that they felt they had nothing more to accomplish together as a unit, so they stopped playing together shortly thereafter. “They had reached a creative apex as a group that – arguably – could not be furthered.” In art, perhaps, that is how things are. In life, we might hope that the joys of companionship will sustain relationships, and that the creative power of uplifting relationships will bring us back to the people who elicit our best. In any case, we can listen to this music and hear a jazz quartet made extraordinary through mutual familiarity. Here are six of the works.
Chamber works by Michel Corrette:
- Niels Peter Jensen (1802-1847), 6 flute duets
- Quantz, 6 duets for 2 flutes, QV 3:2
- Ives, Symphony No. 3, “The Camp Meeting” (1911)
- Irgens-Jensen, Air (1959) expresses a longing for human contact.
- Gouvy, Le Festival Overture
- Gouvy, String Quartet No. 4 in A Minor, Op. 56, No. 2 (1873)
- Enescu, Violin Sonata No. 1 in D Major, Op. 2 (1897)
- Beach, Piano Quintet in F-sharp Minor, Op. 67 (1907)
- Berio, Duetti per due violini (Duets for two violins) (1979-1983)
- Denisov, Sonata for Two Violins in C Major
- Berwald, duos for string instruments
- Wayne, String Quartet No. 3: 1. Animato; 2. Animato; 3. Largo; 4. Allegro assai.
- Wayne, String Quartet No. 4: 1. Animato; 2. Allegretto; 3. Largo; 4. Animato con brio.
- Haydn, Menuetti, IX
- Berkeley, Serenade for Strings, Op. 12
- Gordon, “Anonymous Man”: the composer writes of his inspiration for the work: “When I moved into my loft on Desbrosses Street, the streets were empty, since few people lived there. Over time, the neighborhood changed from an industrial warehouse district to a residential area. Anonymous Man is a memoir about my block; it’s built around my memories of moving in, meeting my future wife for the first time there, and conversations I’ve had with two men who made their home on the loading dock across the street.”
- Liszt, Soirées de Vienne, S. 427
- Bill Frisell, “Valentine”
- Orrin Evans and The Captain Big Band, “The Intangible Between”
- Oregon/Elvin Jones, “Together”
- Frank Kimbrough, “Quartet”
- Kapsberger, “Il Tedesco”, an album about Rome in and about 1610
- Ron Carter and Bill Charlap, “You Taught My Heart to Sing”
- The Nu Band, “Live at the Bopshop: A Tribute to Mark Whitecage”: a collaboration of musicians, each with his own ideas and perspectives, united by common ideas
- Allison Miller & Carmen Staaf, “Nearness” (2022): “Staaf’s melodicism and Miller’s sense of control make for an exciting, unexpected conversation.”
- Joshua Redman, Brad Melhdau, Christian McBride & Brian Blade, “Long Gone” (2022): four great jazz artists, truly playing together
From the dark side:
- Carolyn Hume and Paul May, “By Lakes Abandoned” album (2011)
- Tõnu Kõrvits, “Moorland Elegies” (2017), a nine-part cycle for chorus and string orchestra, “‘is a journey into the darkest, most mysterious corners of loneliness: to where one doesn’t dare to peek twice,’ Kõrvits has commented. A recurring topic in Kõrvits’s works is the enigmatic, introverted feminine loneliness that is simultaneously passionate and mild, yet marked by wild creativity . . .”
I have perceiv'd that to be with those I like is enough, / To stop in company with the rest at evening is enough, / To be surrounded by beautiful, curious, breathing, laughing flesh is enough, / To pass among them or touch any one, or rest my arm ever so lightly round his or her neck for a moment, what is this then? / I do not ask any more delight, I swim in it as in a sea.
There is something in staying close to men and women and looking on them, and in the contact and odor of them, that pleases the soul well, / All things please the soul, but these please the soul well. [Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (1891-92), Book IV: Children of Adam, “I Sing the Body Electric” (4).]
Stranger, if you passing meet me and desire to speak to me, why should you not speak to me? / And why should I not speak to you? [Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (1891-92), Book I: Inscriptions, “To You”.]
- Walt Whitman, “We Two Boys Together Clinging”
- Conrad Aiken, “Music I Heard with You”
- Robert Frost, “A Servant To Servants”
- Pablo Neruda, “Lone Gentleman”
- Pablo Neruda, “Tie Your Heart at Night to Mine, Love”
- Maya Angelou, “Alone”
- William Wordsworth, “I Know an Aged Man Constrained to Dwell”
- Walt Whitman, “A Glimpse”
- Edgardo Tugade, “Haiji After Work”
Books of poems:
- Ada Limón, The Hurting Kind: Poems (Milkweed Editions, 2022): “She writes to counter isolation and to usher in change. Her poems presume aloneness and reach out to the reader to seal a sort of virtual communion.”