John Cheever on the Pain of Loneliness and How It Feeds the Beauty and Creative Restlessness of Youth
By Maria Popova
“If I could catch the feeling, I would; the feeling of the singing of the real world, as one is driven by loneliness and silence from the habitable world,” Virginia Woolf wrote in contemplating the relationship between loneliness and creativity. Half a century later, Hannah Arendt considered how tyrants use loneliness as the common ground of terror. “Loneliness is difficult to confess; difficult too to categorise, [and] it can run deep in the fabric of a person,” Olivia Laing observed in her exquisite inquiry into the texture of loneliness in art and life.
Few writers have captured the way in which loneliness can rip the fabric of the psyche asunder between the poles of the creative and the tyrannical more articulately than John Cheever (May 27, 1912–June 18, 1982). Loneliness — its anguish, its expression, its antidotes, its eventual acceptance — permeates The Journals of John Cheever (public library), one of those rare masterworks of introspection radiating enormous insight into the universal human experience.
The journals — which Cheever’s son knew his father wanted published — were as much a workbook for the Pulitzer-winning writer’s fiction as they were a workbook for his character, his struggles, and his very self. His son, Benjamin Cheever, writes in the preface:
By 1979 John Cheever had become a literary elder statesman. “I’m a brand name,” he used to say, “like corn flakes, or shredded wheat.” He seemed to enjoy this status. He must have suspected that the publication of the journals would alter it.
Few people knew of his bisexuality. Very few people knew the extent of his infidelities. And almost nobody could have anticipated the apparent desperation of his inner life, or the caustic nature of his vision. But I don’t think he cared terribly about being corn flakes. He was a writer before he was a breakfast food. He was a writer almost before he was a man.
He saw the role of the serious writer as both lofty and practical in the same instant. He used to say that literature was one of the first indications of civilization. He used to say that a fine piece of prose could not only cure a depression, it could clear up a sinus headache. Like many great healers, he meant to heal himself.
And what he sought to heal most of all, what saturated his psyche more than anything, was his loneliness. His son writes:
For much of his life he suffered from a loneliness so acute as to be practically indistinguishable from a physical illness.
He meant by his writing to escape this loneliness, to shatter the isolation of others… With the journals … he meant to show others that their thoughts were not unthinkable.
His was a bone-deep loneliness that had afflicted him since childhood, despite his seemingly idyllic upbringing in a well-to-do family nestled into a genteel New England suburb. Cheever captures this hollowing alienation in an early journal entry:
Walking back from the river I remember the galling loneliness of my adolescence, from which I do not seem to have completely escaped. It is the sense of the voyeur, the lonely, lonely boy with no role in life but to peer in at the lighted windows of other people’s contentment and vitality. It seems comical — farcical — that, having been treated so generously, I should be stuck with this image of a kid in the rain walking along the road shoulders of East Milton.
Throughout his life, this loneliness remained a constant companion, swelling into an all-consuming presence at times of transformation and uncertainty:
In middle age there is mystery, there is mystification. The most I can make out of this hour is a kind of loneliness. Even the beauty of the visible world seems to crumble, yes even love.
As he peers into the far end of life, it is again loneliness — the ultimate loneliness — that he sees:
Drying the dishes I think of my dead mother, lying in her grave; and death appears to me to be a force of loneliness, only hinted at by the most ravening loneliness we know in life; the soul does not leave the body but lingers with it through every stage of decomposition and neglect, through heat and cold and the long nights.
In another entry, he makes offers an unsentimental spiritual diagnosis:
Loneliness is a kind of madness.
When Cheever can gain just enough distance from the maddening immediacy of his personal anguish and from his “mastery over some territories of loneliness that [seem] endless,” he slips effortlessly into the poetic:
A lonely man is a lonesome thing, a stone, a bone, a stick, a receptacle for Gilbey’s gin, a stooped figure sitting at the edge of a hotel bed, heaving copious sighs like the autumn wind.
Throughout the journal, he often conveys this bellowing loneliness not directly but with a sidewise gleam of great subtlety and simplicity:
I sit at the kitchen table, drinking black coffee and thinking of Verdi.
With a wistful awareness of how his inner inclination toward loneliness in turn inclined him toward a life that amplifies it, he watches his loneliness grow “exacerbated by travel, motel rooms, bad food, public readings, and the superficiality of standing in reception lines.” With an eye to Hemingway, who made loneliness a centerpiece of his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Cheever writes in one of the final entries:
Loneliness I taste. The chair I sit in, the room, the house, none of this has substance. I think of Hemingway, what we remember of his work is not so much the color of the sky as it is the absolute taste of loneliness. Loneliness is not, I think, an absolute, but its taste is more powerful than any other. I think that endeavoring to be a serious writer is quite a dangerous career.
And yet a loneliness so central to one’s being can’t but be part of the vital force responsible for one’s creative contribution to the world — something Cheever captures beautifully in one of his last journal entries:
I think of the susceptibility and loneliness of youth, of how this contributes to youth’s drive and youth’s beauty.
The Journals of John Cheever is a richly rewarding read in its totality. Complement this particular portion with some beautiful thoughts on the positive counterpart to loneliness — Louise Bourgeois on how solitude enriches creative work, Sara Maitland on how to be alone, and Elizabeth Bishop on why everyone should experience at least one prolonged period of solitude in life.
Published January 12, 2017