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For someone lonely on a weekend night, Harvard Square is nothing but windows. Walk down Mass. Ave, take the left onto JFK, loop back around to Mt. Auburn, and you’ll pass the Kong, Tatte, J.P. Licks, Clover, Starbucks, Felipe’s, Tealuxe, Tasty Burger, El Jefe’s. Even the 1 bus is just one long, shifting pane of glass.
We sight-dependent humans love to describe things in terms of vision, and windows—that enchanting marriage of visual transparency and physical impenetrability—occupy a special place in our imaginations and metaphorical landscapes. One of the most recognizable American paintings is Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks,” which depicts a late-night view into a diner. The streets sulk browns and turquoises, but the diner’s walls radiate pale yellow, and the blond bartender is dressed in white. A couple sits side-by-side at the bar with faces toward the viewer, hands resting close to each other on the counter; the third customer, another sharply-dressed man, sits a few stools down.
Look in through a Square window during the weekend and you witness even more vibrant scenes, people unguarded among good food and company. You feel like the crab in T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” scuttling along red brick seafloor beneath miles of liquid evening, past flashes of ecosystems to which you do not belong. Their visibility can only emphasize your lack thereof. Harvard’s high profile and impenetrable facades make it especially easy to feel unseen while keenly aware of everyone else’s visibility.
People have always striven to capture loneliness—if not to defeat it, at least to render it articulable and thus prevent it from becoming despair. We want to work, play, sing, paint, dance, act, write, love, text, talk, cry our way out of it; these acts and their memories, to quote Eliot again, become “the fragments shored against [our] ruin.” In her book “The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone,” Olivia Laing tries to reconcile her isolation through visual art, and Edward Hopper appears as just one of many New York City artists in whose works Laing traces themes of estrangement. Andy Warhol, whose infinite Marilyn Monroes and sociable celebrity we do not generally consider lonely, compulsively taped his life to overcome the linguistic solitude of his awkward non-native speech. David Wojnarowicz, who endured the isolation of an abusive childhood and violent stigmatization of his sexuality, famously photographed subjects wearing expressionless Rimbaud masks that look both isolated and insulated. The willfully reticent Hopper painted countless scenes of windows, restaurants, rooms, and building facades with an isolated and isolating eye, even as he resisted naming loneliness as a theme in his work. None of them really recorded, photographed, or painted their way out—nor could they have. The condition is a terminal and universal, even for those who defiantly embody and capture it.
“Nighthawks” illustrates this conundrum: though the immediate sensation is of looking in from an estranged exterior, even the interior’s occupants are alone. The couple stare ahead without touching; the other man presents his back to us; the bartender, seen from the side, looks haggard. None of their eyes meet each other’s, or ours. The proximity of their bodies, circumscribed behind curving bar counter and window, excludes the viewer—yet, ironically, cannot do for them what a sympathetic gaze might be able to. You feel that what the people in the painting need is to really be seen. The cruel irony is that they have been, millions of times, and just have no way of knowing. We are united in our inability to perceive commune beyond loneliness’s glassy surface. Like the oblivious diners who sit separately together and together separately—and the painting’s viewers, who experience communal isolation and isolated community—we often do not know when we are in turn the ones behind the radiant window front, or how desperately someone inside needs us to turn and look as we pass them in the night.
The most generally loved person I know, who stops to greet people everywhere we go, once told me that he sometimes feels like “no one here really cares whether I’m even alive.” I grimaced and promised, as we always do, to be better, to bear better witness. Thoughtful pieces about loneliness periodically resurface, diagnosing its isolation, proposing individual and structural actions we can take to remedy it. We can amend our behaviors and mindsets, work to push against this place’s particular afflictions. I also recognized in my friend’s statement, however, an emotion too potent and primal to transcend any tangible elements of Harvard itself. As Laing quotes from a Dennis Wilson song, “Loneliness is a very special place,” and so generations of us return to “Nighthawks”: There is a resonance between its astute spatial architecture and some essential, intimate space within us. Beyond a certain point Harvard is just another representation of loneliness, another unique cultural and spatial arrangement in which we can all sit around the same counter yet not feel together at all.
But this situation is not altogether dire. To be lonely is to occupy the most intimate space in the human experience, even as you feel shut out from it. We think about ourselves and others more deeply and honestly in this space than in any other; and from this space, as Laing documents, emerge some of our most enduring, beautiful fragments. Hopper and Wojnarowicz and Warhol’s works are physically and culturally around us, as are those—whether artistic or scientific, tangible, or conceptual—of everyone who shores life’s endeavors against their ruin. A work of art, a bodily sensation, a conversation, a history: these fragments make up the world. Even when you walk alone through the fluorescent barrage of our Cambridge streets, they are with you, swirling and present.
Emily Zhao ’19, a former Crimson Arts executive, lives in Cabot House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.
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