The Subtle Art of Solitude
Updated: Feb 9
By Mrinmoyee Roy
I, like many others, have watched a lot of television this past year. In April, as the days were getting longer, I threw myself into the increasingly ridiculous Tiger King. In November, as the days were getting shorter, I found myself hooked on the increasingly meticulous Masterchef: The Professionals. I’ve kept myself awake with true crime, wept to the Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You, and even ventured on a (somewhat short-lived, although it’s more nail-biting than you might expect) foray into televised darts. I’ve watched TV to fill the silences of early lockdowns, to put myself to sleep after summer days spent in various parks, to stop myself from confronting an increasingly invasive inner monologue (intrusive thoughts? Anyone else have them? Those moments on the edge of sleep when you wonder whether any of your friends like you anymore?)
In December, somewhat late to the party, I began Netflix’s sleeper hit, The Queen’s Gambit. Hailed as a saviour for the ancient and cerebral game of chess, The Queen’s Gambit benefited from the introspective tendencies multiple lockdowns have offered. It glamorised the quietest of competitive sports. In November, Chess.com reported a rise of 400% in its daily players, from 6,000 to 30,000 in a matter of weeks. The show put forward the character of Beth Harmon, a singularly determined lead character, a woman on the verge, whose extraordinary chess abilities converged with an extraordinary ability to self-destruct. In one hotly contested scene, titled ‘Beth’s downward spiral’ on YouTube, we see her dancing in her underwear to Venus by Shocking Blue. She drinks beer, she smokes, she steals, she throws up symbolically into one of her trophies. Beth’s loneliness, a consistent trope within the series, here comes to a head. The scene has been controversial, is the camera pandering to the male gaze in its representation of Beth’s breakdown? Is this just another glamorised depiction of bad mental health? Can an actor, being directed by a roomful of people behind the camera, ever depict the true representation of what it is to be completely alone?
Mrinmoyee Roy asks whether Netflix hit ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ has ‘glamorised’ bad mental health.
To find answers, I texted some friends looking for their favourite screen representations of lonely people. One reminds me of a scene in the most recent series of The Crown, where Princess Diana skates around the empty halls of Buckingham Palace, again knowingly soundtracked to Duran Duran’s Girls on Film, another sends me a voice note talking about Elliot in the Amazon series Mr Robot. Film industries around the world refract their lonely audiences. In Japan, loneliness creates filmic monsters, in Hideo Nakata’s ‘Ringu’, a vengeful ghost is a girl revealed to have been left to die in a well. Where the Japan Times reported 18.4 million adults living alone, and loneliness was an epidemic long before Covid-19, solitude is reincarnated as a killing curse. Horror rebranding aside, loneliness has often been described as a death sentence. An often brought out, seemingly unverified statistic claims that loneliness is as lethal as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, with lonely people fated to be 50% more likely to die prematurely than those who have fulfilling relationships with others. A BBC study conducted in 2018 found that forty percent of 55,000 people aged between 16 and 24 reported feeling lonely often or very often. With an entire year spent indoors, lives packed up in a hurry, friends scattered across continents, plans disrupted, these numbers can only have gone up. This real-life loneliness is often soundtracked not by a decade appropriate hit, but rather by the faint sounds of the upstairs neighbours moving around, by occasional traffic outside the window, and by televised darts championships (more nail-biting than you might expect).
I’ve watched TV often in this past year to avoid my increasingly invasive inner monologue (even those intrusive thoughts can’t compete with The Real Housewives), but for those of us with the luxury of a space to be alone in, this might be the time for some confrontation with introspection. To help with this, I asked the self titled ‘most trusted how-to site on the internet’. Wikihow, as always, offers up multiple, helpfully illustrated solutions, ‘reframe your negative thoughts’, it says, ‘realize that loneliness is a feeling’ (italicised emphasis helpfully provided). These how-tos fit into a space in my brain reserved for other useful quotes, ‘if you can’t love yourself, then how the hell are you going to love somebody else?’, ‘I love you, but I love me more’, ‘this is going to be a fantastic year for Britain’. Yet, for all their aphoristic qualities, there’s one that sticks out, ‘realize that you are not alone in feeling lonely’. Perhaps there’s something in that, in realising that your upstairs neighbours, the people in the cars outside your window, or the televised darts champions might also be feeling the same way you are - and feeling it quietly, without the pressure of a camera, or a soundtrack, or an audience of 62 million people to impress.
‘My twenties are slipping away from me’, I said, walking home with a friend a few nights ago, buoyed by alcohol and three layers of heat tech, looking ahead to the prospect of another six weeks of introspective confrontation (or its avoidance thereof). ‘One final push’ he answered, and hopefully he’s right, perhaps I should seek solace in the return of days spent in parks, nights sitting on someone else’s sofa. But maybe there’s something to be found in the self-questioning of solitude, in the moments when I have to turn the TV off because it’s 3 in the morning and my head hurts. Perhaps it's the realisation that others might be grappling with the same feelings in very different circumstances, a recognition of collectiveness, even if it is appropriately socially distanced.
Mrin is an editor at Clare and studies MSc. Empires, Colonialism and Globalisation on the side. "As a writer, I'm interested in quiet moments within bigger movements - this essay I hope reflects that idea, of a need to be introspective, even though it's sometimes more difficult than I'd like to admit. "