Loneliness in the 20th Century10-22-2020
In thinking about totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt came to see it is a form of government founded upon a mass loneliness. Samantha Hill writes about the way that loneliness emerged as a mass phenomenon in the 20th century.
In the 19th century, amid modernity, loneliness lost its connection with religion and began to be associated with secular feelings of alienation. The use of the term began to increase sharply after 1800 with the arrival of the Industrial Revolution, and continued to climb until the 1990s until it levelled off, rising again during the first decades of the 21st century. Loneliness took up character and cause in Herman Melville’s ‘Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street’ (1853), the realist paintings of Edward Hopper, and T S Eliot’s poem The Waste Land (1922). It was engrained in the social and political landscape, romanticised, poeticised, lamented.
But in the middle of the 20th century, Arendt approached loneliness differently. For her, it was both something that could be done and something that was experienced. In the 1950s, as she was trying to write a book about Karl Marx at the height of McCarthyism, she came to think about loneliness in relationship to ideology and terror. Arendt thought the experience of loneliness itself had changed under conditions of totalitarianism:
What prepares men for totalitarian domination in the non-totalitarian world is the fact that loneliness, once a borderline experience usually suffered in certain marginal social conditions like old age, has become an everyday experience of the ever-growing masses of our century.
Totalitarianism in power found a way to crystallise the occasional experience of loneliness into a permanent state of being. Through the use of isolation and terror, totalitarian regimes created the conditions for loneliness, and then appealed to people’s loneliness with ideological propaganda.