I was looking at the cartoon Garfield Minus Garfield the other day, and I started thinking about being alone.
Jon always seemed to me a quintessentially pathetic character living in a hostile, hate-filled world. In Garfield Minus Garfield he is at last reduced to the stark reality of his situation: a miserable love life, no real friends, the companionship he built his world around an empty husk. In portraying the void at the centre of his life, these scenes feel realer, more recognisable, and finally more honest to me than the actual Garfield comics. I feel some sympathy for Jon when I see him alone like this. I imagine that this is his life now after the deaths of both Garfield and Odie; from here, he might be able to scrape back some dignity.
But why do I only feel this way about Jon when he’s alone? Why does Alone Jon seem to portray a complexity that I’m blind to when he’s with others? I’m a bit reluctant to ask myself this question because it means I’m going to have to say something about my childhood. AGAIN.
As a kid, I absorbed the idea that being alone, even though it wasn’t all that fun, made me special. I don’t know where I got this idea from. For once, I’m not even sure that it was books. Well, anyway, these were the days before ‘reject’ and ‘reej’ were such fatal insults, way before having a group ‘to hang around with’ was crucial to your authentication as a human being, so in many ways I felt OK with having no friends, and on some days went out of my way to have none. I have a vivid memory of walking towards the adventure playground (a ricketty wooden tower with a prickly conifer growing through the middle), seeing my classmates and various screaming kids swarming all over it, and looking down to kick through autumn leaves with my shoes, hanging my head low, thinking, ‘I am lonely.’ I thought those words, but I remember feeling a vague boredom with having to go through with this rigmarole in order to seem special, to seem different. It probably would’ve been easier to make friends, but I didn’t know how. In high school, especially in the fifth and sixth forms, being alone was instead a source of deep shame and smallness. I would rotate my interval and lunchtime hiding places, at one point hiding in a small underground room behind the stage in the assembly hall, where my art class was stretching some canvasses. Somehow I’d managed to talk my art teacher into giving me the key to this room. There was a long narrow window just above the room where I could see people’s feet as they walked past, which always reminded me of that Quentin Blake picture book Snuff, when Snuff and Sir Thomas Magpie and the horses walk past the basement window wearing all sorts of fancy boots to scare the boot thieves inside. Even though I always felt massive relief when I got inside the room, because I could lock the door and be alone, time moved very slowly and unhappily there, and I’d feel an equal relief when the bell rang for class and I could leave – the truth was, I did like being around people, but only when there was some kind of order in place, as in a classroom. A classmate once asked me, looking slightly suspicious, ‘Who do you hang around with at lunchtime?’ I panicked and blurted, ‘Everyone!’
One of the best things about being an adult is that no one will ever ask me again who I hang around with at lunchtime. I can wear my aloneness freely without needing to find a secret place to hide it in. It’s still not always easy for an adult to go somewhere for dinner alone or sit alone in a a busy cafe on a Sunday – see: Solo Date City – but the stench of social failure no longer hangs about you, at least not as pungently.
Still: ‘Everyone‘! In a second I can transport myself back to the mortification that led me to tell this outrageous hokum.
Maybe I have a hyper-alertness to this stuff, or maybe this is something to do with the changing of the seasons etc, but – recently I’ve noticed more urgent expressions of loneliness, despair, sometimes numbness, on the internet. It feels like there’s a new energy in it, a new sharpness, even a new humour. I think if I were a highschooler again right now, I would find some kind of solace in it. (All things considered, though, I’m glad I’m not a highschooler right now.)
The currency of Screenshots of Despair is the humorously bleak, and most of its bleakness stems from a sense of isolation so all-encompassing that it becomes absurd. The isolation loops back upon itself to become a kind of hysterical meta-isolation. An earlier site, Windows 95 Tips, does a similar thing, only here, the programme itself becomes the agent of the user’s doom.
Both of these sites have had surges of popularity, I guess because they speak directly to the anxiety a lot of us share about the effect of web use on us as human beings. The sites confirm but also ridicule our fears that our lives online have disconnected us from reality, melted our brains, brought us to a deeper despair than we could ever have known offline.
See also: funny tweets about loneliness and/or dying alone.
I don’t mind this stuff. Laughing about it helps, kind of, to defuse our fears, even though the isolation being portrayed here borders on the surreal and is far removed from the reality of many people’s lives. What I feel violently allergic to is despair marketing (it’s the only way I can think to describe it) such as Despair.com (‘We offer the cure for hope’) and The Pessimist (‘Expecting the worst. Never disappointed). These sites invert popular self-help and motivational jargon with a result that’s just as phoney as the very thing it’s mocking. The stuff Despair.com sells – the pessimist’s wall calendar, the glass half-empty mug, demotivational posters (‘Sometimes the best solution to morale problems is just to fire all of the unhappy people’) – is no more useful or insightful than a stock image of a nondescript galloping horse emblazoned with an inspirational quote ‘to brighten your day’, as sometimes seen posted on Facebook (Eleanor Roosevelt: ‘Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people’ – a masterful twist on ‘inspiration’ that causes the reader to feel mildly pissed off). Despair.com renders the whole notion of despair meaningless, just as the notion of calm stoicism has been emptied of heart by the plague of ‘Keep Calm and [Insert Your Text Here]’ merchandise.
There’s a less direct, maybe more seductive way of portraying despair online. Two sites I used to look a lot are the Tumblrs This Isn’t Happiness (often NSFW) and Magnificent Ruin, both of which present photography, illustration, design, quotations, and other miscellanea from around the web. Often you’ll find really interesting, clever stuff taken out of context, and I’ve stumbled across things that have led me down ever deeper rabbit holes (worm holes?) of discovery. But these sites have always taken a stance of disquiet and disillusionment (as you’d expect from their titles) and I’ve finally reached saturation point with the ethos that drives their curation. Too many photographs of models alone in bare, dimly lit rooms, cigarette smoke unfurling from their mouths; too many cells of Charlie Brown at his most bleak; too many fragments of poetry by Bukowski and John Tottenham (whose work focuses pretty much solely on feelings of futility and bitter disappointment). These fragments fuel a kind of myth-making about feeling unhappy: that it’s interesting, mysterious, and, very often, beautiful. It is despair as an aesthetic, not as a human feeling in all its messiness and difficulty and struggle.
Many of the images on these Tumblrs also associate being alone with a kind of authenticity, even an emotional intelligence. A person’s character seems keenly delineated on its own. You’re apart, therefore you’re realer. I’ve fallen into this trap with the way I look at Alone Jon, whose unhinged outbursts just seem to me like honesty. And this comes straight back to that odd fantasy about being alone, that same fantasy I had as a primary schooler plodding through the wet grass on the rec, where I would cast myself as the disillusioned character in my own movie. But that’s all it is: a fantasy.
Anyway. Maybe the point of sites like This Isn’t Happiness is to reduce unhappiness to its bones, its signifiers. But suddenly, now, it makes me feel alienated, as if I were watching beautiful, blank-faced fashion models wearing city council recycling bags as they stalk down a runway, and being told that this is meaningful.
I’ve begun to have a similar response to some artists who I used to really love, such as Bored Rita (er, also often NSFW) and David Shrigley, who – and maybe it’s just through too much exposure to their work – now leave me cold. Bored Rita’s work now seems hardened by bleakness and misanthropy. Is it the work that’s changed, or me? I don’t know. But I look at it and I feel as though Bored Rita hates me. Writing this, I’m suddenly afraid that she’ll discover this post and tear me to shreds with the same pointy teeth as her characters. In a similar vein, I can recognise that David Shrigley’s stuff is clever and original, that it walks a tightrope between stupidity and profundity, that it messes with perceptions of what important art is – but all I can really take from it, in the end, is hostility. Maybe that, too, is the point. But where do you go from hostility, what can you take with you into your life?
This won’t go on for too much longer – there’s just one more thing.
I read an essay recently about emotional ‘ache’, ie. what it is, what it feels like, what it’s good for. The essay tried to provide a universal description of ache, which, I would argue, is a nebulous, infinitely various feeling. When I finished reading the piece, I felt kind of grumpy and short-changed – as though I’d been offered a thin blanket to warm up when I was clearly frozen into some prehistoric peat. And I think the reason I found it hard to get anything from the piece was because the writer hadn’t really put himself on the line in confronting the feeling of ‘ache’ – instead, he’d thrown adjectives at it. I realised that there is a limit to description, to simile, to ‘the defining image’. Sometimes all that’s needed is story. The piece made me think about all the expressions of despair and loneliness online, and how interpreting them is often an exercise in navigating irony, double meanings, fashion. It’s rare to come across an expression that feels real, that feels like it’s come out of somebody’s lived experience, that touches us.