Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: Depicting Abstract Emotions in Writing

The vague, open broadness of abstract emotions — love, envy, loneliness — makes them slippery subjects to encapsulate in writing. How can one distil or display, accurately, the complexity of something like love in a single text? Claudia Rankine’s book Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric tackles just that, attempting, through its hybrid, multi-genre format, to situate and depict the intricacies of loneliness in the 21st century, an age of rising technological and media presence, and cultures that are still too often busy to explore or understand the self.* To achieve this, Rankine uses a mosaic of forms, ranging from lyric poetry, lists, visuals, photographs and prose, in her text. The result is an exploration of loneliness through various angles, zooming in on it through the detailing of personal experiences and then examining it more widely within the contexts of modern American culture at large. Judging from readers’ and critics’ overwhelmingly positive responses, the book is a powerful and strikingly effective work. Don’t Let Me Be Lonely exemplifies the notion that using hybrid-form, multi-genre writing is the most impactful method of depicting abstract emotions such as loneliness, and how they are specifically felt within modern American culture/society.

Rankine’s book begins with a visual: a blank television screen as the page’s lone occupant. This immediately introduces us to one of the most important motifs in the text — the television, and the media. Not only does it foreshadow its appearance later on — the television screen image recurs over 25 times throughout the text — but also instantly establishes the book as an assemblage of genres, akin to a multimedia work. Other images aside from the television screen, such as medicine labels, low-resolution shots of politicians, victims and tragedy, billboards and diagrams, will appear as part of the stream of information and vignettes Rankine presents to us.

Additionally, the repeated image of a static television breaks up the sections and thus unsettles the reader. The television occurs on a page of its own many times, taking the reader out of the text for a moment in a jarring and discomforting manner, as if switching channels to a different concern whilst hearing the static in their head. The constant switching between topics — from a tired friend surrendering to cancer, safekeeping her death with a do-not-resuscitate sign, to another staring listlessly at the TV while asking for “the woman who deals in death,” (a reference to the show Murder, She Wrote), to the speaker’s psychiatrist sister, unable to help herself after her husband and children are killed — builds on the piling up feelings of discombobulation and anxiety.*

Essentially, Rankine turns the traditional form of prose into an imagistic stream of consciousness, to reflect the narrator’s dissolving sense of self throughout.* The recurrence of the television in particular, places the media as a prime factor behind an increasingly numb and isolated American society. Rankine’s speaker, who serves as a subtle spokesperson for modern American culture’s suffering, is made to seem lost in the flood of data. Thus, Rankine’s deliberate assortment of textual-visual clippings, in a sense, challenges both the speaker and perhaps the modern American reader to stay focused, despite various cultural distractions, on the crucial topics at hand: our loneliness, our spiritual vacancy and our fear.*

Apart from very brief emergences of lyric poetry, the majority of the book is written in prose paragraphs. The incorporation of images and graphics, however, lends Don’t Let Me Be Lonely the feel of a scrapbook, partly composed of images from and of television. The book itself becomes television. It is a flipping of channels, where the images and texts surge in an endless flow of pointless commercials and programming, reminding us that we are alone, depressed, alienated. Thus, the hybrid, multi-genre structure of the text combines to create a unique form that displays loneliness, both within the speaker and American society at large, as a product of media-induced anxiety. At the same time, its often jarring, leaping, pasted-together format reflects an inability to process, ground and take care of oneself amid overwhelming amounts of information, often tragic or traumatic, which results in feelings of isolation and deep loneliness.

The actual text of the book begins with a bleak yet powerful anecdote, where the speaker, as a child, is unable to comprehend the personal tragedies occurring around her. When her mother returns home after experiencing a stillbirth, the speaker says: “Where’s the baby? we asked. Did she shrug? She was the kind of woman who liked to shrug; deep within her was an everlasting shrug”. The use of multiple questioning and the mention of a shrug creates a strong atmosphere of uncertainty, both within the speaker and her mother. The speaker’s mother, in the wake of personal trauma, is unable to handle her grief and loneliness; thus, she does not communicate or express these emotions and cannot even find the words to articulate them, settling for a mere “shrug” instead. This sets the tone and acts as a larger metaphor for upcoming issues in the text, mainly concerning the modern American culture’s inability to process and understand grief and trauma, resulting in a society entrenched in loneliness that remains unarticulated.

This notion is reinforced through the speaker watching her father experience his mother’s death, within the same anecdote. She states: “He had a look that was unfamiliar: it was flooded, so leaking. I climbed the steps as far away from him as possible…he looked to me like someone understanding his aloneness. Loneliness. His mother was dead. It meant a trip back home for him. When he returned he spoke neither about the airplane or funeral”. Again, although the speaker is only a child and has likely had little exposure to such deep levels of tragedy within her personal sphere, Rankine’s words here are carefully chosen to hint at greater societal maladies. The “unfamiliarity” with such profound weeping again links back to a culture that does not allow itself to truly cry or mourn and de-familiarizes itself from feeling pain by refusing to acknowledge it or take it seriously, even distracting itself from it — how and why it does this will be explained later on in this paper. This idea is reinforced by “understanding his aloneness” and the father’s silence after returning from his trip, again suggesting an inability or lack of knowledge in a society as to how to process and articulate one’s grief, resulting in feelings of isolation. It is almost as if modern American society itself is “flooded, leaking”, unable to hold in its pooling desolation. Furthermore, the speaker’s desire to “climb the steps as far away from [her father] as possible” hints at an instinct of modern American society to immediately distance itself from trauma as much as it can, preventing it from ever fully dealing with or resolving it.

In the same anecdote, the speaker states: “The years went by and people only died on television — if they weren’t Black, they were wearing black or were terminally ill”. Through this single line, Rankine subtly establishes two key factors for the loneliness in American culture, that recur later on in the book: the media, and the oppression of marginalized groups, particularly black people and the working class.

For several pages in the book, Rankine languishes on American tragedies and social injustices, instances of what should be mass cultural mourning and grief that need appropriate national addressing and care. In one section, the speaker says: “After the initial presidential election results come in, I stop watching the news…Bush…can’t remember if two or three people were convicted of dragging a black man to his death in the home state of Texas…Mostly I resist the flooding, but in Bush’s case I find myself talking to the television screen: You don’t know because you don’t care.” Again, we see an instance of how a few simple sentences unfurl into several larger connotations and commentaries on modern American society. Firstly, we are made well aware of the abysmal reality of racism, still very much deep-rooted in modern America, through the gruesome description of the black man’s murder and then the country’s white president’s ignorance of its details. There is a subtle suggestion here that if America’s own president perpetuates racism, an ignorance and dismissal of black Americans and their tragedies, then the country can never recognize it as a national, collective trauma, and thus never be able to process, understand and heal it. Instead, it lies like a quiet tumor of loneliness and alienation within the American psyche, of which thousands of black people, including Rankine herself, are part of and are suffering, simply because they cannot come together to collectively address their trauma and try to resolve it. Rankine reinforces this later, writing: “Cornel West says this is what is wrong with black people today — too nihilistic. Too scarred by hope to hope, too experienced to experience, too close to dead is what I think,” suggesting the aggressive, dismissive nature of American optimism, coupled with the hardening effects of continuous oppression and tragedy, has made black Americans numb and incapable of feeling their way out of their anguish. And interestingly, what is left is a forlorn society where a book like Rankine’s, its cover graced by an empty billboard spelling “DON’T LET ME BE LONELY”, can be a powerful and moving success. Moreover, the structure of the sentence, with the repetition of ‘too’, creates a quickening pace in its rhythm, which shows just how fevered and frenzied the speaker feels about the issue.

The italicization of “You don’t know because you don’t care”, a blunt, monosyllabic phrase that is repeated twice and thus deliberately emphasized, and directed perhaps both at the television (media) and Bush himself, also evokes a strong undercurrent feeling of anger at the current social reality, one that is still unjust, uncaring and racist. And perhaps the cleverest phrase in this section is “Mostly I resist the flooding”, which not only harkens back to the “flooding” of the speaker’s father in the book’s first anecdote, but also hints at a greater assertion that the speaker, as a typical modern American does, “resists” and does not usually allow herself to feel indignant or furious or heartbroken in the face of such traumas, thus preventing herself from coping with it. As a result, she, like her society, becomes increasingly desolate. The mention of the television here is additionally masterful as it links back to the book’s media motif, reminding us how media is both a distraction from trauma and a perpetuator of the resulting feelings of isolation and loneliness.

Interestingly, in another instance in the book, Rankine points out a rhyme between Osama bin “Laden” and the word “sadden”, linking bin Laden’s 9/11 terror attack, one of the greatest national tragedies to have hit America, with the emotions of sadness, depression and loneliness, again highlighting how the failure to engage in thorough collective mourning when faced with trauma can lead to greater feelings of long-term despair. This is reinforced later when Rankine writes: “It strikes me that what the attack on the World Trade Center stole from us is our willingness to be complex” where “complex” is a stand-in word for the ability and time given to being aware of one’s self and trying to understand whatever we are feeling and going through.

In many ways, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely can read like an autobiography, laced as it is with such personal, vulnerable anecdotes, but if anything, it’s the autobiography of American culture and not just the speaker – who is not necessarily established as Rankine – herself.  We see the speaker’s, and by inference America’s, self-dissolution results from a constant barrage of tragic news, racism, and misleading rhetoric by uncaring, elitist politicians, combined with a growing sense of isolation, particularly afflicting urban poor/working-class, often black, single persons*.

“Some nights I count the commercials for antidepressants” begins a new paragraph, fluidly introducing a new element into Rankine’s emotional montage: mental illness. Amid grainy images of medicine labels, instructions for taking pills and the ubiquitous television screen, Rankine writes about personal experiences with depression and self-medication. The tone here, more so than in other parts of the book, is staccato, monosyllabic and terse, evoking feelings of numbness, inertia and a deep resignation towards one’s condition. In one anecdote, the speaker describes an evening watching the movie Fitzcarraldo with a close friend who suffered from depression. She states: “Apart from their use in expressing emotion, tears have two other functions: they lubricate the eyes so that the lids can move over them smoothly as you blink; they wash away foreign bodies…it is difficult to feel much tear-worthy emotion about anything in Fitzcarraldo…but since [his] tears kept coming long after smooth blinking would have been restored and foreign bodies washed away, I decided that apparently my friend was expressing emotion and was not fine, not okay, no”. The speaker’s evident inability to quickly or easily recognize the depth of her friend’s pain, and her progression from the most clinical, utilitarian use of tears before finally arriving at their emotional meaning, reflects modern American culture’s inability to efficiently understand and recognize mental illness as both a serious individual and societal malady. There is a subtle hint that one’s first instinct is to look for more practical reasons for symptoms, before admitting that they point to the existence of a mental illness. The overarching message behind this anecdote is that modern American culture has been unable to fully comprehend the realities of mental illness and depression, a lot of which have arisen due to the society’s inability to articulate and process its trauma and grief.

The text’s preoccupation with American prescription culture and the discourse around mental illness contributes to the feeling of anxiety built up by Rankine, as well as the separation between the speaker and the so-called ‘enemy.’ The speaker is presented as an “other” to several ‘enemies’ – doctors, politicians, society, the mind itself –  in Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, and the reader feels part of this otherness and isolation in turn. The list of medications and mental illnesses throughout the book, like the inclusion of the “Pharmaceutical Manufacturers’ Association of South Africa” list floods the reader with streams of cold, clinical data. The presentation of such a list in such a harsh and unfeeling way is anxiety-inducing in itself; taking an emotional issue and stripping it of that emotion on the page is a conscious choice made to emphasize a larger societal lack of empathy for mental illness.*

The book’s climax of sorts, is found on a page of simple lyric poetry; perhaps Rankine deliberately chooses to use the heightened language of poetry to communicate one of the most important messages of the text:

Life is a form of hope?

If you are hopeful.

Maybe hope is the same as breath – part of what it means to be human and alive.

Or maybe hoping is the same as waiting. It can be futile.

Waiting for what?

For a life to begin.

I am here.

And I am still lonely.

The poem reads as an internal dialogue, where the final conclusion seems to be that despite the existence of hope and optimism, which seem to form the paradigms of truly living and experiencing life to the fullest, the speaker remains steeped in loneliness. She is alive, she has bought into the American dream of hope and optimism, yet she is still lonely and suffering. On the next page, the speaker launches into the prosaic explanation: “Then all life is a form of waiting, but it is the waiting of loneliness. One waits to recognize the other, to see the other as one sees the self”. This complicates and compounds upon the meaning of the poem by suggesting that loneliness is an inevitable condition for living; in this case, however, the idea of living is framed by buying into the American dream, of being hopeful and positive even at the detriment of processing and healing experienced trauma. Thus, the text becomes a modern, slightly cynical take on the American dream, where it suggests that loneliness will always be an imminent result of pursuing this dream, to the point of losing self-awareness and comprehension of one’s, particularly negative, emotions.

This idea is buttressed by one of the most poignant passages in the book: “Sad is one of those words that has given up its life for our country, it’s been a martyr for the American dream, it’s been neutralized, co-opted by our culture to suggest a tinge of discomfort that lasts the time it takes for this and then for that to happen, the time it takes to change a channel. But sadness is real because it once meant something real”. Again, it is highlighted how modern American society feels alienated but does not dwell on or address its own loneliness, instead choosing to distract itself with media, which worsens the issue.

Overall, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely presents a major social problem and delves into the reasons behind it; the problem being loneliness in modern America, induced by the culture’s inability to sufficiently understand or process it. The only component left to explore is a solution and Rankine offers this in the book’s ending, referencing the words of German poet Paul Celan.  

Paul Celan said that the poem was no different from a handshake. I cannot see any basic difference between a handshake and a poem – is how Rosemary Waldrop translated his German. The handshake is our decided ritual of both asserting (I am here) and handing over (here) a self to another. Hence the poem is that – Here. I am here.

Rankine follows this with a picture of a billboard, the same as the one on the cover, spelling “HERE”. This is almost a case of authorial intrusion where Rankine inserts herself in the text as the author of this work, saying “HERE”, this book, a raw, hard, personal meditation on our loneliness, is my offer of a hand. It is the handshake, the exposing of her own self and her own part in American society and her own loneliness. Coupled with the billboard image, Rankine’s text becomes a hopeful, direct response to the plea of modern America: “DON’T LET ME BE LONELY”, stating “HERE”, I am offering my words and myself to you, the reader, so that together we can address and heal what we feel today. “Here both recognizes and demands recognition”; therefore, Rankine suggests it is important that the people of modern America be present, be aware of what they are feeling, take time to process it and understand it, even if it is difficult and painful and even if it means acknowledging that they are ill and need to heal. Rankine also emphasizes the need for collective and cooperative healing: “In order for something to be handed over a hand must extend and a hand must receive”. In Rankine’s case, her attempt at achieving this goal is offering this multi-genre poetic text to share with people, in order to evoke empathy and healing through the realm of literature.

At one point, the speaker says: “In a taxi speeding uptown on the West Side Highway, I let my thoughts drift below the surface of the Hudson until it finally occurs to me that feelings fill the gaps created by the indirectness of experience”. The speaker is ultimately struggling with these gaps of indirectness, and the greater the gulf of otherness, the more overwhelming the loneliness and anxieties become. Rankine uses her text to both acknowledge and bridge this widening gulf, using a form that occupies its own middle ground between various genres.* Thus, Rankine deliberately uses a multi-genre, hybrid textual format to portray the multifaceted complexity of such an abstract emotion as loneliness. Her use of both images and graphics, particularly her emphasis on the television screen, makes the text become immediately more accessible to the 21s century reader while simultaneously serving the purpose of creating feelings of alienation and isolation in order to enhance the book’s portrayal of modern loneliness. And it is precisely this hybrid, composite nature of her work that makes it so moving and compelling in its depiction of the emotion within a modern American context.

References

Anderson, Erik. “Image, Anxiety, and the Enemy in Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely”. Pilot Light: A Journal of 21st Century Poetics and Criticism. Web.

Barrisi, Dorothy. “Baby Boom Poetry and the New Zeitgeist”. The Prairie Schooner 83.3, Fall 2009. Web.

Johnson, Sarah. “Image, Anxiety, and the Enemy in Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely”. Medium, 29 September 2016. Web.

LeGault, David. “Movie Quotes as Misery: Claudia Rankine’s ‘Don’t Let Me Be Lonely’”. Essay Daily, 22 August 2013. Web.

Mullaney, S. Donavon. “Poet’s Pen: Review of Claudia Rankine, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely”. AuthorsDen. Web.

Nealon, Christopher. The Matter of Capital: Poetry and Crisis in the American Century. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011. Web.

Rankine, Claudia. Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric. Minnesota: Graywolf Press, 2004. Print.

Smart, Maya. “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely”. Maya Smart Book Enthusiast. Web.

“The Rhetoric of Loneliness In Claudia Rankine’s ‘Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Essay’”. The OneTreeLeftBehind Blog, 23 March 2015. Web.

Painting by Edward Hopper, “Automat” 1927.

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