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F.A.Z.-Column by Emanuel Derman : Domesticity

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We almost do anything to avoid loneliness. When we are alone, we suffer. And when it eases, we miss the painful intensity that the sadness and longing brings to our existence.

          “He looked through the little windows and the crooked, narrow doorways into the interior of the cottages with a gaze burning so hotly that there was all the time something like a delicate mesh dancing before his eyes … here and there as some some woman bent over her work her skirt swung high revealing the hollows at the backs of her knees, or the bulge of a heavy breast showed as the linen tightened over it … the cottages exuded a heavy sluggish air, which Törless eagerly breathed in.”
          -- Robert Musil, Young Törless.

          Young Törless is Robert Musil’s 1906 novel about adolescence and its degradations,  set among students in an Austrian boarding school. It is a little reminscent of Golding’s Lord of the Flies. I recalled the excerpt above when I saw Francois Ozon’s recent movie In The House, the Mobius-strip story of a teenage student obsessed with other people’s lives. He is an outsider, from a broken family; he glimpses them through their windows, stalks them, insinuates himself via fantasy and then action into their cozy-looking domestic life, tries to become a part of them, succeeds, and then becomes a saboteur of their domesticity. Interestingly, one of the books with a momentary role in the movie is indeed Young Törless. I suspect it must have inspired some parts of the movie, a conjecture further borne out by the fact that both Musil’s book and Ozon’s movie have their protagonist students wrestling with imaginary numbers and their meaning.

          Domestic life is the life of the household. Living alone means no domestic life.

          Nothing to be feared

          There was a time when I dreaded living alone. In the periods when I have had to, I’ve initially found it very tough. I begin by doing almost anything not to be alone; I go out to eat with people I don’t really want to see; it seems better than to be alone. I wander the streets, living vicariously. People-filled street life is one of the nice things about New York and European cities. If I get restless enough I take long walks or seek entertainment until I’m tired enough to come home because a rest is finally more necessary than escape from solitude. If I liked watching TV or having pets it would help, but I don’t.

          Eventually, of course, I get used to it and settle down, at times even like it. At the start of a living-alone cycle, the idea of a long weekend without talking to anyone seems dreadful. Later, it’s nothing to be feared, especially if there is work I’m interested in doing. 

          Never in the company of anyone

          There are people I’m lightly acquainted with who seem always to be alone. There is a man on Broadway I dimly know whom I have never ever seen in the presence of another human being. Another, who lives in my building, has also never been observed in the company of anyone; he is often in the lobby and the street outside, looking at his iPad, radiating a suppressed fragility. It seems awful.

          A dubious pleasure

          There are people who don’t seem to mind being alone. One acquaintance tells me she would never spend time with someone, no matter how brief, merely for the sake of some temporary relief of loneliness. I’m not sure I believe it, since as far as I can tell she has never lived alone, going from parents’ house to husband’s house to boyfriend’s house and back to aged parents’ house with no hiatus.

          Going to sleep after an entire day alone, waking up to an empty apartment without the possibility of a word to anyone, seems to me a dubious pleasure, except when it’s a break from too much domestic obligations.

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