By Richard Demingis a poet, art critic, and theorist. He is a senior lecturer in English and director of creative writing at Yale University. He is the author of the poetry collections Let’s Not Call It Consequence (2008) and Day for Night (2016) and the books Listening on All Sides: Toward an Emersonian Ethics of Reading (2008), Art of the Ordinary: the Everyday Domain of Art, Film, Literature, and Philosophy (2018) and Touch of Evil (2020).
Edited by Marina Benjamin
I’m making my way across lower Manhattan on an early May afternoon, my mask snug and my glasses quickly fogging so the whole city looks hazy and indistinct. Behind me, a beer can rattles along the pavement as I pass over Crosby Street. It’s not altogether quiet – this is Manhattan after all, pandemic or not – but I’m stunned at the near-emptiness of the streets. It reminds me of an episode of The Twilight Zone, ‘Where Is Everybody?’ (1959), in which Mike, a tall, good-looking amnesiac dressed in a flight suit, wanders into what looks like a Midwestern town that’s entirely empty, as if every single person had suddenly vanished.
Throughout the town, Mike collects evidence that he has just missed people: Douglas Sirk’s movie Battle Hymn (1957) flickers in the empty cinema; a cigar burns in an ashtray; coffee boils on a stove in the diner; a phone in a phone booth rings, but no one is on the other end when he answers. A line of direction from Rod Serling’s script describes a long shot of the main street: ‘Once again the sense of emptiness and loneliness and that bizarre quality of activity with no actors.’
Serling once remarked that he got the idea for that episode
while walking through an empty village set on the back lot of a movie studio. There was all the evidence of a community but no people. I felt at the time a kind of encroaching loneliness, and desolation; a feeling of how nightmarish it would be … to wind up in a city with no inhabitants.
That emptiness is what New York felt like this spring, not simply because the streets were so empty, but because the current crisis revealed an underlying truth that, in the isolation of cities, no matter how densely packed, one often experiences the reverse of what Serling noted: the evidence of people, but no real community. Our empty streets spoke of an existential loneliness that is a shadowy but ever-present aspect of contemporary urban life.
Unlike solitude, loneliness is not merely the experience of aloneness. It is a feeling of a gap between oneself and others, the perception of an active, living, aching separation that the lonely person wishes were otherwise. In her classic paper ‘On the Sense of Loneliness’ (1963), the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein describes it as ‘the result of a ubiquitous yearning for an unattainable perfect internal state’, a state of wholeness or completion. Parts of ourselves that feel familiar, yet lost or estranged, are projected on to others and, so the thinking goes, to be wholly accepted by others is to be able to regain those lost pieces and become complete. On this line of thinking, what anyone desires is, primarily, to feel whole, a state that Klein indicates is impossible to actually achieve, and ‘loneliness’ is what we call the frustration that arises from the perpetual yearning for those lost pieces of the self. This is a profoundly human kind of loneliness, a primary, inborn, existential sense that we’re always falling away from one another, always missing, always just missed.
The Bechers located a certain bleak beauty in these architectural forms, which they described as being ‘anonymous sculptures’
As I head towards Chelsea, there’s a way that what I’m seeing seems strangely familiar, as if I’ve seen this emptiness, felt it, rather than simply imagined it, and my mind steps backwards into memory. It is a brutal February night in Berlin in 2012, and the cold tears up from the cement through my boots as I walk the city. I visit the atelier of the German photographer Thomas Struth. All afternoon, we drink espresso and talk, not about poetry or philosophy or really even about art. We talk about jazz and drumming – we are both former drummers – and improvisation, and he describes growing up near Düsseldorf, before he studied at the arts academy there, first with the painter Gerhard Richter, then with his mentors, the photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher.
On a long worktable in Struth’s studio, I look at several iterations of the same photograph, each, I am told, slightly different in terms of their shading and contrast. I am told this, but I can’t actually make out any real difference…