On the way loneliness, freedom, and romance are intertwined.
For the past few weeks, I’ve woken up unsure exactly where I am. My bed, a modest full size, looks out onto a cobblestone courtyard framed by green linden trees and an intricately decorated castle. I’m in a pocket-sized one-bedroom apartment and although it is behind the Place des Vosges in Paris, by the looks of it I could be in Normandy or Toulouse, even Vermont. For that matter, there is no real way for me to know the year is 2014: save for the circle-pronged electrical outlet tucked behind my dresser, I could be waking up in the eighteenth century. In the haze of the early morning, these things tend to meld together.
The feeling of placelessness is a bit like a dream: the heightened romance, the intense brooding, the inherently transitory nature of the whole affair. Placelessness happens when we find ourselves inhabiting “in-between” spaces like hotels or apartments in far-away places that we don’t know well and where we won’t stay long. It is in these places that we are visitors without hosts, short-term dwellers without homes, but we are also suspended in time and without the usual responsibilities of our age: the placeless 60-year-old is not thinking of his marriage and readying himself for retirement; the placeless 20-year-old is not pondering his career and studying away.
In fact, the placeless person does not have to think about doing anything or being anyone. He is so thoroughly disconnected from the reality beyond his window that he is cut off from its social norms: there is a feeling of freedom, of not having to play by the rules, of not having to put down roots or be responsible or moral in the usual ways. But with freedom of course comes loneliness. In a placeless place, as Gertrude Stein wrote in her autobiography, “There is no there there.”
I have traveled a good deal recently and not once have I wanted to go home in the sense of returning to a physical place. Although it remains dear to me, I do not miss my childhood bed or the birds that would rest on my windowsill in the morning, peering in to see the mess of Cheez-It boxes and my laptop and books scattered on the floor. What is missed, however, is the sense of belonging. When we sever ourselves from “home” — that nebulous concept that tends to refer more often to people and memories than to brick and mortar — we find ourselves placeless and free, but also deeply lonely. It is a trade-off that some of us are forced to make; others choose to make it.
Loneliness and placelessness are endemic: 43 percent of Americans over the age of 60 report being lonely, 20 percent of British people say they feel unloved, and 10 percent say they don’t have a single friend. Those who claim to prefer solitude or placelessness are usually the greatest romantics of all. They have too often been disappointed by humanity and have chosen to retreat into themselves like a butterfly in retrograde, shedding its wings and descending into its cocoon once more.
There have been attempts to economically exploit this dreamy, irresponsible feeling of placelessness like the new “love” hotels that offer hourly rates for napping, cleaning up, or “anything else” — the lattermost possibility seeming to come with a hearty wink.
Isolation and desire is a romanticized combination in media as well. In Sophia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, a recent college graduate ruminates in her room at the Park Hyatt Tokyo before meeting a similarly lonely, aging actor at the bar on the 52nd floor. In D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love, Gudrun Brangwen, an artist, is left alone in a hotel by her sister, whereupon Lawrence writes:
“She went and crouched alone in her bedroom, looking out of the window at the big, flashing stars… She felt strange and inevitable, as if she were centered upon the pivot of all existence, there was no further reality.”
These characters have been displaced, the wire connecting them to reality has either been intentionally cut or it has simply snapped, and they are left to contemplate existence. But in their existential reflections, they all end up reaching out to someone else with a similar plight (for it is only the lonely who can truly understand the lonely).
Eroticism is merely the entryway into relationships, the jumping-off point of desire. Hotel rooms and distant places are safe havens for the lonely because their disassociation from reality means they cannot presage long-lasting relationships; they can only lead to sex. We mustn’t forget either that although placelessness and the sense of not belonging tend to be most acutely felt in places far away from where we have grown up, they can be felt anywhere: hotels and faraway places are merely the physical manifestations of apartness and exclusion — feelings that are blind to geography.
Eroticism and self-inflicted placelessness are also mechanisms against emotional pain. If you do not inhabit reality then you are not bound by its laws.
Of course many lonely, placeless people would like to have it otherwise, but I, for one (and I’m sure there are many others), quite like the feeling. The placeless person gets to live life in quotation marks: everything is provisional, everything changing from day to day.
Yet self-inflicted placelessness and solitude takes its toll. Even if you hold fast to your independence, to your placelessness, to your Peter-Pan-distaste of responsibility, every morning the sun will come up, and every morning the linden trees with be sprinkled with light. Those who choose to remain placeless find that next to us lays either an empty pillow or a body that we feel little affection for, merely a vessel for countenancing this intentional loneliness. Eroticism is not an antidote; it is a Band-Aid.
Because for the placeless person, reality is forever covered in a haze, and so long as freedom trumps loneliness and eroticism one-ups emotion then we can never entirely be sure quite where we are. Even when it hardly matters at all.
Cover photo: “Lost in Translation.” Courtesy of Focus Features.