When Freedom Kills
What the Left can learn from ecology
My last romantic relationship ended in a snowstorm of practicalities. And in the midst of these — there was the question of who would take what, of how to sift one life from another by way of books divided, sentimental objects, the one beautiful Japanese knife we had bought one sunny afternoon, a knife we had named — there was also, to my surprise, a few pieces of advice sincerely imparted. I think it could be good for you, J said, exiting on some minor level — say from the bedroom to the hall — to live alone for a while.
“Alone,” of course, is a relative term — and one soaked to dripping with American enchantment. In this case, J had meant that it would be best for me to live solo, without roommates or housemates, taking on all the structural labor involved therein: the requisition of groceries, the endless repetitions of cleaning, the curt meditation of checking the mailbox daily. Perhaps he sensed something about the asceticism of such a life might cleanse me, prepare me for the future as a vow of silence prepares one for eventual speech. Or perhaps his vision was not about emptiness at all but was filled to bursting with a kind of cultural regalia, of “earning one’s stripes” in the cowboy sense, of entering a fiery rite-of-passage in order to emerge on the other side, panting and dishevelled, a full-blooded woman coated in the dirt of life.
Despite the fact that J and I are still close, that I might have done this at any time, I never asked him to clarify this intuition — whether he hoped I would find quietude or character-building squalor in my solitude. I only knew I also longed to be “alone,” whatever that meant. And after the car was packed and he had driven off and the house corner once dedicated to his double bass was bare again, almost bashfully empty, I sat on the mustard couch and stared into the black face of the television — where I could see vaguely my own rumpled face — and I felt the rest of my life begin.
Plenty has already been said about the American obsession with independence. If on one hand there are the modern pioneers, the entrepreneurs and the internet shut-ins, on the other hand there are the cultural critics who insist that art derives its greatest value from its newness, its fundamental breaking from the pack. The romantic vision of the individual emerges so naturally from the American milieu that just this year, we were graced with two versions of Beyoncé’s new album cover: one, in which she rides a crystal horse and glares challengingly at the camera, Lady Godiva remade. In the other, she rides a silver horse and wears a literal cowboy hat — not a lady, but a lone challenger riding into the saloon of contemporary music. Both are about her singularness. It is a story we crave, not only as vicarious pleasure but as a magic invocation we cast over ourselves — hoping that with enough repetition, enough fevered listening and learning of TikTok dances, the styling, brand-making and business pizzazz that is the end result of countless fussing professionals will emerge from ourselves, organic and whole, as Venus did from the froth: our very own uniqueness, a property as natural as our skin. The lie is that we can achieve the illusion of singularity on our own. The lie is that singularity has been anything, at any time, but an expensive story that never seems to bore us: a one-man play with an army of set designers, makeup artists, lighting designers, and sound designers scuttling like bugs, just out of sight.
If our obsession with independence has not already been thoroughly debunked — Henry David Thoreau’s mother did his laundry while he wrote Walden! Chris Mccandless died alone in Alaska and by his own record, had regrets! — it certainly seems to us now, in this shaky post-lockdown moment, that self-sufficiency is not the glory anyone promised, not even with the milk and honey of capitalistic choice to ease it. Does it really matter that we can order from any restaurant we like, select the exact sneaker we want down to the half-size, fine-tune our sexual fantasies with an endless rotary of strangers on OnlyFans, when in the middle of the night, we sometimes wake with the grim certainty that no one would know if we died? That our civil society is pulled taut to the edge of rupture?
If the world is made real by consumption and not by love, why does it feel like this world has already been ending for some time?
—It’s clear we need each other. And yet. When J made his innocent suggestion, I also felt the allure. Whether or not he had put it there, I sensed morality in his statement, the idea that my ability to care for myself without the aide of others would in some way confirm me to the world of legitimate adults. J had been raised in the American Midwest, and at times still carried with him just such an individualism; by day, we often made fun of these precepts together. By night, I sometimes lay silently, side by side with him, considering the many ways in which I might need him — my friends — my family — less, as a means to lighten my burden on the world. Guiltily, like a child eating sweets from the pantry at night, I continued to want to be independent. I continued to want to float away like a pretty ghost, not hungry nor thirsty nor desirous of company, an eerie shimmer in the air that changed it as she moved. I wanted to love without being seen, to give without needing to receive. I wanted to be blameless and invisible, like a person already dead.
We can have all the critiques in the world, but loneliness continues to sing its siren song, and to a certain kind of person — a person like myself — it continues to appear beautiful, on a visceral level. This beauty haunts not just our personal lives but even our politics, in the form of the political narrative of bondage and freedom, wherein individuals break from the shackles of societal oppression to be exactly as they are, inviolate and unique: to break free from the dictates of the cruel masses and ascend to the heights of unfettered selfhood. This desire is framed in terms of the language of choice, as in the woman who is free to choose to do whatever she wants — this woman being the apex of feminist achievement. In the context of the queer movement, it is the freedom of the individual to express their gender or their sexuality however they please, righteously worthy despite (or sometimes even due to) the inaccessibility of their self-expression. I am far from opposed to these developments, but I question the pomp that accompanies them, the triumphant tone. We are led to believe that finding ourselves will be necessarily joyous — and that belonging is a foregone conclusion. As a result, we have perhaps placed too much stock in the self, believing that its perfection will necessarily lead to connection. But the jock as well as the drag queen must put down their glamour in order to make a friend; and this, far from Pride’s victory march of history, will always be frightening.
Said in another way: we women and queers have struggled for power, and we have achieved it, to some extent — at the cost of the alienation that so often accompanies it. Power is a poison, after all; it is no less a poison in new hands.
Since living alone for the past few months I have had a few friends call me in concern. One, sweet T — my spiritual older sister — reminded me of the time that living alone caused disruptions on her body so severe she had to seek medical attention. It was killing me, she insisted in a mournful sing-song. My new friend A — a comic artist, observant and cynical— came over to co-work and after some peaceful hours asked me, So when is your roommate coming home again?
There is a script one can respond with, in such situations — a script that involves the formative pleasures of forging one’s own path, of finding one’s true self, of meditative excellence etc. etc. And I have sometimes said things in this very vein: oh, don’t feel bad about me, it’s easy to practice music in an empty room! Or oh, it’s been nice to have space “just to think.” But lately I’ve settled on a story that feels more true, and it goes like this:
Yes, I know that living alone is bad for you. I see it, however, like some herbs in Traditional Chinese Medicine — like a potent cure that also damages your liver, a medicine that cannot be overused. This period is like a controlled poison. I am taking it knowing on some level it is destroying me — and on another level, it is exactly what I need to heal.
The political struggle on the left is often framed as a struggle against “domination” in all its forms. And this is an important struggle, as domination is not only real, it is fundamental to the fabric of our lives — the domination of overseas manufacturing, of the invisibilization of agricultural labour, the rape and disappearance of men and women trafficked into the sex trade. But so far it seems like the canonical way to overcome domination is to juxtapose it with choice on the other hand: instead of being at the whims of your captor, you can now do whatever you want! Go, be free! As in prisoners who are let loose into the world with a bus card and some spare change, we expect the traumatized body to right itself, to be restored by mere time and space.
What happens when we juxtapose domination with total choice like this? In the best case, perhaps one's natural instincts for self-preservation and closeness kick in and one knits themselves into the social fabric in a way that is just and right.But how often does this really happen? I believe in the worst case -- and a case far more common -- we achieve a different kind of alienation: we substitute the alienation of helplessness and dehumanization on one hand with the alienation of impotence and decontextualization on the other. From being owned, we go to not mattering much at all. Is it any wonder that sometimes, one can prefer being owned to being worthless?
And I say this as a committed leftist: do we really know all the forms of tyranny that are possible? For to me, lately, it seems almost as though there is another form of tyranny, one we do not speak about enough. I might call it, “the tyranny of lightness.”
Here is a poem by Louise Glück that seems to capture it well:
As I saw it,
all my mother’s life, my father
held her down, like
lead strapped to her ankles.
buoyant by nature;
she wanted to travel,
go to theatre, go to museums.
What he wanted
was to lie on the couch
with the Times
over his face,
so that death, when it came,
wouldn’t seem a significant change.
In couples like this,
where the agreement
is to do things together,
it’s always the active one
who concedes, who gives.
You can’t go to museums
with someone who won’t
open his eyes.
I thought my father’s death
would free my mother.
In a sense, it has:
she takes trips, looks at
great art. But she’s floating.
Like some child’s balloon
that gets lost the minute
it isn’t held.
Or like an astronaut
who somehow loses the ship
and has to drift in space
knowing, however long it lasts,
this is what’s left of being alive: she’s free
in that sense.
Without relation to earth.
The first time I read this poem, in 2017, I was floored. Ararat as a book is about the many ways in which family ties can do unexpected work, be held taut in unpredictable arrangements that hold the very world together. Glück’s keen observations are aimed at the complexity of kinship, but I think they also reveal how the broader world works: when we take closeness of any kind and we break it, however unjust that closeness is, we don’t always yield the justice we crave. Rather we simply shift the world, and many things shift around it. Some delicate things collapse. Revolution, then, can be melancholy, and while it may be reactionary of me to suggest it, sometimes after an intervention, we may be apt to feel regret — or at least nostalgia. No one can predict the consequences of violent change.
When we set out to remake the world, then, how do we make sure it is not solitude we are implicitly making? And how do we not succumb to the rhetoric of abundance and choice, of one more option to consume alone, one more degree of ever-increasing lightness? How do we remain beholden to one another?
One model is suggested by David Graeber in his tome Debt: The First 5000 Years. In it, he suggests that the difference between a market transaction — in which one pays a shopkeeper exactly what is owed, ensuring an “equal exchange” — and a debt is that the former negates the necessity of any ongoing relationship. Thus I can walk into a Walmart, buy anything I like, and because I have settled my debts right away, I have no need to ever speak to the cashier ever again. On the other hand, if I slept on a dear friend’s couch, it would be insulting to them if I then offered to pay them the next morning. Why? The implication, Graeber argues, is that paying a friend for their couch implies they are a stranger. It is saying, however elegantly, I do not want to ever see you again.
Since living alone I have experienced many feelings — on one hand, the heady freedom to make art however I like; a deeper knowledge of myself; a frankness, a kind of painful honesty. (Many of these boons, too, are personal to me: a chronic people-pleaser with a tendency to avoid overburdening my audience. No audience? No problem.) But I have also touched the bottom of the pool: the leaden hours of loneliness, the body-racking feeling of having no one to return to, no anchor around which I can congeal a set of rules and habits and reasonable acts. Solitude has unwound me to bare thread, frayed me down to my basic elements. It has not put me back together — my friends and family and faith have done that. As they have for millennia.
If the ideal world is not one of ever-increasing uniqueness, of pop stars and queer icons birthed entire from the quantum foam, what might it look like? What is this better world that we are so feverish to live in?
I imagine this: a world of debts. For us to be indebted to each other, and to the contexts that we share… and for these debts to continue to be passed around as a living currency. For no one’s debts to become so large so as to become domination, but for all of us to be aware of the dance, giving and receiving favours, noting who owes whom as a way of accounting for closeness that can never be resolved. It strikes me that if there still exists an art of living in the 21st century, beyond etiquette and the tired mannerisms of class, it may very well be this: the art of cultivating a network of mutual debts so vibrant, one can hardly be said to be a single person at all.
Can we do it? How would we have to change to make it possible?
This has been Issue 20 of Chasing the Sundog. I took a break last week on account of recovering from a particularly crushing spell of solitude. In November, I’m returning again to the world of roommates. This is my silly manifesto about all that — and about what it would mean to imagine our “New World” differently. Thanks for reading!
If you liked this essay, you might like this response by Corn Lily. As always, the full archive of Sundogg essays is here.
Feel free to reflect by yourself, with loved ones, with other readers in the comments, or in the weekly reading group hosted by firstname.lastname@example.org.
Do you feel the allure of solitude? What does it feel like? Do you trust it?
Do you consider yourself more independent or interdependent? How has that changed over your life?
Have you ever felt the “tyranny of lightness” — the horror of not mattering to anyone? Do you know anyone who has? In those moments, what helps?
But this takes time! It’s even taken me many years, moving from a very close family that helped me structure my own goals and aspirations to striking out on my own — and I’ve had enormous resources of time and money to figure myself out and I’m 27 and still figuring it out. Is it right to expect this journey of everyone?
That Glück poem...wow. You’ve written some really beautiful things in this post. I’ll need time to think. But this came to mind: I’m taking a class at the moment and on Thursday evenings there are only three of us and the professor. Our professor is from India. One week I brought an Indian inspired snack, and I gave him the rest to take home. He hasn’t yet returned the Tupperware; he told me in his culture one does not return an empty box, and he’s waiting until he has time to prepare something to give to me. I thought that was incredibly moving. I didn’t bring a gift of food expecting anything other than (hopefully) my classmates enjoying it. But knowing that he wants to give something in return removes some of the transactional nature of so many contemporary relationships.
Your essay touched my heart. I picked it after going through the list of subscribers writing links at FDB blog.
I want to invite you over for a tea, or dinner or movie or all of the above with my family and friends. 😊
We always have big gatherings at our place, my friends bring their parents and kids. We are immigrants. We know the real taste of loneliness and isolation… Also, we are Russian immigrants. We have a painful historic memory embedded in our souls of the destructiveness of any holly struggle “to-make-the-world-a-better-place.”
Sitting at the table together in a multigenerational setup is the only thing that matters… Do come over if you are nearby or ever visit Silicon Valley.