Edward Hopper, Paul Tillich, and the Difference Between Loneliness and Solitude (pt. 1)

[A]nd when the evening was come, he was there alone.

 — Matthew 14:23

I want to begin with a disclaimer: I assume it’s self-evident at this point that this pandemic has been making many of us mentally and spiritually sick, if not physically. Mental health professionals say it could take years for some of us to recover from the mental health problems that have arisen from this period of such prolonged stress and social deprivation. I don’t know about you, but at this juncture, the comforts I’ve relied upon to keep me afloat over the past year have long since grown stale. The internet has become utterly boring. TV: boring. My house, my neighborhood, my little projects: all boring, empty, tinged with sadness. The inertia has become a crushing weight. Thank God for Easter.

The fact is I desperately miss people. I miss community. I miss touch, small talk, laughter, singing. I miss church.

I’ve often felt this past year like I’ve been wandering through a Ray Bradbury story — “The Pedestrian” or “There Will Come Soft Rains” perhaps. The emptiness of the landscape has felt bleak more than serene. At times, it’s led me down some pretty dark alleyways in my mind, churning up old and new anxieties alike. To make matters worse, my parents have been living in Myanmar amidst a bloody military takeover for two months, and I’ve often been unable to reach them. It’s all made me increasingly irritable and resentful of late, of social distancing, of our general plight, of myself and those around me. At this point, I’m positively chomping at the bit to get vaccinated — perhaps you can relate?

But this period has also forced me to think about things and learn things that I might not have otherwise, and to feel more gratitude for my wife and dog and the park down the street than I ever thought I could. It’s clarified a lot for me, particularly about myself. There have been numerous times when I felt God niggling me to some end — using my discomfort to teach me, often something I don’t want to learn. Most of all, my unceasing need of him.

Along these lines, one of the most interesting things this past year has schooled me in is the difference between loneliness and solitude, and the different needs that both present. It’s a distinction I hope I can carry with me as we muddle towards a new normal, and one that I think was first counterintuitively illuminated for me in the paintings of Edward Hopper.

Back in the early stages of the pandemic, Hopper’s name seemed to be everywhere. One popular Twitter post last March featuring several Hopper paintings under the heading “we are all Edward Hopper paintings now” received over 200,000 likes. Several articles came out — such as here, here, here, here, here, and here — reflecting (with varying conclusions) on his new role as the “artist for the pandemic age,” a “visual bard” who captured “the loneliness and alienation of modern life” now laid so painfully bare by social distancing.

My interest piqued, I started to study Hopper’s work for myself. At the time, I generally accepted the prevailing view that, as Jonathan Jones put it simply in The Guardian, “the message of Hopper is that modern life can be very lonely.” According to Jones, Hopper projects a “terrifying vision of alienated, atomized individuals.” He explains,

It doesn’t take a pandemic to isolate his poor souls. Cold plate-glass windows, towering urban buildings where everyone lives in self-contained apartments, gas stations in the middle of nowhere — the fabric of modern cities and landscapes is for him a machine that churns out solitude.

Jones admits that, in artwork from past centuries, there’s often a sense that “being alone has its benefits.” But Hopper’s paintings show no such “images of contented or chosen solitude.” Instead, he paints “horrors,” nightmare scenes playing on our fear of isolation. Hence why “[o]ne of the painter’s biggest fans was Alfred Hitchcock.”

Jones’ interpretation seems pretty widespread: Hopper captures an innate human terror of being alone that has been intensified by modern urban life. For me, it’s a terror reminiscent of stories from the history of criminal justice of prisoners kept so long in solitary confinement that they lose their grip on reality. Such forced isolation is indeed terrifying. (It’s insane that Christians once believed such punishment could have a positive spiritual impact.)

But there are other interpretations. In 2004, Alain de Botton offered what I would say is a more convincing take, finding Hopper’s works similarly replete with loneliness but in a manner much less horrific. He explains,

Hopper belongs to a particular category of artist whose work appears sad but does not make us sad — the painterly counterpart to Bach or Leonard Cohen. Loneliness is the dominant theme in his art. His figures look as though they are far from home. They stand reading a letter beside a hotel bed or drinking in a bar. They gaze out of the window of a moving train […]

Yet despite the bleakness Hopper’s paintings depict, they are not themselves bleak to look at — perhaps because they allow us as viewers to witness an echo of our own griefs and disappointments, and thereby to feel less personally persecuted and beset by them. It is sad books that console us most when we are sad, and the pictures of lonely service stations that we should hang on our walls when there is no one to hold or love.

That’s a beautiful sentiment, and one that surely has some truth in it, but I’m still not sure it’s true of Hopper’s work broadly. Is the world of his paintings really “bleak”? Is loneliness — whether a terrifying or merely sad fact of modern life — really “the dominant theme” in his art?

The more I looked for loneliness in Hopper’s work, the less I found of it. Hopper himself resisted that narrow interpretation, once telling a friend that “The loneliness thing is overdone.”

You can certainly find some ennui in his paintings and a measure of loneliness or alienation, but over time I’ve come to think about his work as a whole quite differently, and it’s helped clarify something important for me about the nature of being alone. Let’s look at some of his paintings. Here are twelve:

1.) “Eleven A.M.,” 1926

2.) “Automat,” 1927

3.) “The Barber Shop,” 1931

4.) “Room in Brooklyn,” 1932

5.) “Room in New York,” 1932

6.) “Compartment C Car,” 1938

7.) “Gas,” 1940

8.) “Summertime,” 1943

9.) “Cape Cod Morning,” 1950

10.) “Rooms by the Sea,” 1951

11.) “Office in a Small City,” 1953

12.) “People in the Sun,” 1960

So what do you think? Are these paintings primarily about loneliness? I would argue not. To me, these works depict something different — moments of precious (and idealized) quiet amid the hustle and bustle of urban life. Yes, most of his subjects are physically alone, even isolated, but, at least in the above examples, they tend to radiate a kind of vibrant and vital serenity instead of terrifying loneliness, what you might call the underrated serenity of solitude.

These paintings have thus helped illuminate for me an important distinction between loneliness and solitude, one I think we often struggle to make in our hyper-stimulated age. In fact, I wonder if the recent surge in Hopper’s popularity isn’t in part because we have projected our own loneliness and alienation onto his paintings. I can’t speak for Hopper, but perhaps we are the ones so terrified of being alone that we can’t imagine it ever being something good, not him. Perhaps we are the ones who conflate loneliness and solitude, and thus shun and devalue the latter. As Kierkegaard once wrote, “It is an awful satire, and an epigram on the materialism of our modern age, that nowadays the only use that can be made of solitude is imposing it as a penalty, as jail.”

Of course, as lonely and suffocated as so many of us feel these days — and I’m certainly there with you — it must sound rich for me to be talking about the “values of solitude.” But I wonder: Is it possible that the pandemic, with its ample opportunities for us to experience both loneliness and solitude (or its lack!) in such intense ways, might ultimately gift us some important insights both about the perils of loneliness and the potential joys and opportunities of solitude? I’ve definitely felt the intense pain of the former, but I’ve also felt shimmeringly beautiful moments of the latter. Perhaps, as hard as the loneliness has been, being alone isn’t all bad.

Many of Hopper’s paintings are beautiful because they convey the pleasure of aloneness, not the sadness or terror of it. And after all this is over, I want to remember that, the pleasure as well as the sadness and tedium and even terror of spending so much time alone. My guess is that we may even look back with astonishment and actually miss some of the solitude that we’ve had during these grim months, even as we cling for dear life to all our newly-vaccinated loved ones.

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