No matter how much we repress or deny it, a large portion of the human experience is disagreeable. Heartbreak and sorrow, despair and melancholy are as much part of life as love and joy, happiness and hope. For some part of our lives, the sky will be a somber shade of gray— not just a cloudless cheerful blue. Though difficult emotions are universal, we’re often ashamed to admit when we’re suffering a dark season of the soul and finding it impossible to do something as simple as get out of bed and put on regular clothes. Our society requires we keep chit chat superficial. “How are you?” our next door neighbor asks when we pass each other in the hall. “I’m fine,” we mutter forcing a smile, “How are you?” It would be a breach of proper decorum (not to mention make our neighbor profoundly uncomfortable) to tell the truth. “Oh me? I’m horrible! The love of my life just left me so most nights I’ve been taking Xanax and drinking an entire bottle of champagne to myself. Fingers crossed I overdose!”
No, we must “prepare a face to meet the faces that we meet” as T.S. Eliot so sharply observed in his masterpiece of modernism “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Instead of indulge our depression— retreat under the covers or collapse into sobs— we (for the most part) go about our lives business as usual. We brush our hair and put on mascara; we take care of the mundane errands of living; we engage in surface-level small talk at happy hour and make obligatory appearances at friends’ birthday parties. We don’t let others see the depths of our suffering.
But because everyone else is also hiding their suffering, we end up feeling alone. “We therefore end up not only sad, but sad that we are sad— without much public confirmation of the essential normality of our melancholy,” British philosopher Alain de Botton writes in The School of Life: An Emotional Education, his instruction manual for emotional fulfillment that is both deeply philosophical and practically useful. For him, this loneliness isn’t a common cold— it’s a chronic condition as potentially life-threatening as cancer. Lucky for us, consolation can be found in one thing: culture. If our world is suffering an epidemic of loneliness, art is the antidote. Why? Because art reminds us that—despite how things may seem— we are never alone with our sorrows:
Culture is a “record of the tears of humanity, lending legitimacy to despair and replaying our miseries back to us with dignity…art is a tool that can help release us from our numbness and can provide for catharsis in areas where we have for too long been wrong-headedly brave.”
In the same way “The Star Spangled Banner” unites us in our shared national values and gives us a sense of identity, art affirms we share a common humanity: we’re are all citizens in a country of suffering. Terror and anxiety, depression and despondency: they belong to the whole of the human race— not us alone. The beauty of art is it momentarily relieves us of the dreadful sense that we’re somehow abnormal. No, it’s normal to occasionally misjudge others as the otherwise intelligent Elizabeth Bennet misjudges Mr. Darcy. It’s even normal— like Hamlet— to contemplate suicide from time to time. When we encounter ourselves in a work of art, we realize everyone— even those with six-figure salaries and important-sounding job titles and gorgeous Instagram photos— is neurotic, maladjusted, and fucked up. As de Botton writes:
“It is like the way a national anthem works: by singing it the individual feels part of a greater community and is strengthened, given confidence, even feeling strangely heroic, irrespective of their circumstances. [Art] is like an…anthem for sorrow, one that invites us to see ourselves as part of a nation of sufferers which includes, in fact, everyone who has ever lived.
Other people have had the same sorrows and troubles that we have; it isn’t that these don’t matter or that we shouldn’t have them or that they aren’t worth bothering about. What counts is how we perceive them. We encounter the spirit or the voice of someone who profoundly sympathizes with suffering but who allows us to sense that through it we’re connecting with something universal and unashamed. We are not robbed of our dignity; we are discovering the deepest truths about being human— and therefore we are not only not degraded by sorrow but also, strangely, elevated.”
Sadly, rather than seek solace in art, we try (and fail) to find solace in other people, particularly a significant other. Beginning in the late 18th century, romanticism popularized the notion that one human being, our Platonic soul mate, would be able to completely understand us. According to romantic thought, “true lovers could see deep into each other’s souls”; in other words, once we found our ideal lover, we’d no longer have to say how we felt– our partner would just know; once we found our “other half,” we’d never again feel alone.
However lovely the romantic conception of love, it’s ultimately the stuff of fairytales. No matter how wonderful our partner is, no matter how compatible we are, they’ll never know every region of our heart— nor can we know theirs. Those we love will always— to some extent— be as strange as strangers in a subway car:
“What replaced religion in our imaginations, as we have seen, is the cult of human-to-human love we now know as Romanticism, which bequeathed to us the beautiful but reckless idea that loneliness might be capable of being vanquished, if we are fortunate and determined enough to meet the one exalted being known as our soulmate, someone who will understand everything deep and strange about us, who will see us completely and be enchanted by our totality. But the legacy of Romanticism has been an epidemic of loneliness, as we are repeatedly brought up against the truth: the radical inability of any one other person to wholly grasp who we truly are.”
Human interaction almost always disappoints us. Though there’s nothing we crave more than connection, most day-to-day conversation revolves around a series of uninteresting topics (the unusually nice weather, the most recent drama at the office) and obligatory questions (“so, how are you?”/”do anything fun this weekend?”). Even our closest relationships lack real intimacy. After all, what do we discuss during a night out with the girls? our innermost thoughts? our deepest convictions? No, chatter over brie and chardonnay usually centers around last Saturday’s sexcapades or the latest TikTok.
Fortunately, books can supply us with the connection we so long for. A novel is a window into another’s consciousness, another’s interior world. When we read Mrs. Dalloway, for example, we are allowed to see beyond Clarissa the socialite and see her most intimate secrets, her most haunting regrets and most private hopes. A fictional character won’t shrug off “how are you?” with a polite but insincere “I’m fine” like most of us do— they’ll tell the truth.
“What a great treasure can be hidden in a small, selected library! A company of the wisest and the most deserving people from all the civilized countries of the world, for thousands of years can make the results of their studies and their wisdom available to us,” Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote. What’s wonderful about books— and films and paintings and poems— is they connect us with the finest minds from centuries and civilizations ago. With the turn of a page, a lonesome 21st century reader can find a friend in Tolstoy or Kafka, Hemingway or Fitzgerald:
“The arts provide a miraculous mechanism whereby a total stranger can offer us many of the things that lie at the core of friendship. And when we find these art friends, we are unpicking the experience of loneliness. We’re finding intimacy at a distance.
Confronted by the many failings of our real-life communities, culture gives us the option of assembling a tribe for ourselves, drawing their members across the widest ranges of time and space, blending some living friends with some dead authors, architects, musicians and composers, painters and poets.”
Though humankind has always suffered from loneliness, through the ages, we’ve found different ways to cope. When religion played a more prominent role in day to day life, the belief in God was our coping mechanism. No longer were we doomed to wander the planet alone— we had an all-forgiving, all-loving presence with us. Even if we were by ourselves— lost at sea, stranded on a deserted island, quarantined in our homes— we had God to guide us.
Today religion has fallen from its central place in culture: the majority of us don’t say grace before meals or attend church except for special occasions like Christmas and Easter. So if God is dead, where can we turn for counsel? how can we not feel completely and utterly on our own? De Botton believes we can assemble our own tribe of guardian angels, only our angels aren’t winged creatures with harps and golden halos— they’re novelists and artists, poets and painters. For us in the modern era, a museum is a cathedral and a book is secular scripture:
“You might feel physically isolated in the car, hanging around at the airport, going into a difficult meeting, having supper alone yet again or going through a tricky phase of a relationship, but you are not psychologically alone. Key figures from your imaginary tribe (the modern version of angels and saints) are with you: their perspective, their habits, their way of looking at things in your mind, just as if they were really by your side whispering in your ear. And so we can confront the difficult stretches of existence not simply on the basis of our own small resources but accompanied by the accumulated wisdom of the kindest, most intelligent voices of all ages.”
All in all, de Botton argues culture offers the companionship that is so difficult to find in the real world. For more symposiums from the school of life, study the importance of kindness and the four criteria of emotional health. If you’re more interested in his philosophical musings on love, revisit him on love’s two stages: idealization and disillusionment, dating as a sort of performative play-acting, love as the origin of beauty, and the lover as a detective obsessed with decoding symbols and discerning meaning.