‘Exquisite loneliness’: Yale writer reflects on isolation and creativity

In a new book, Yale’s Richard Deming explores how people can find human connection through their feelings of loneliness rather than be consumed by them.
Richard Deming and “This Exquisite Loneliness” book cover.

Richard Deming

Richard Deming was at work on an essay about the 2008 film “Synecdoche, New York” when he received an unexpected phone call from an old friend. Philip Seymour Hoffman, the star of that very film, had just been found dead of a drug overdose.

The news was both shocking and sickeningly familiar. Deming, who’d had his own struggles with addiction, had known too many people who had fallen back into drug use after years of sobriety. He had come to believe that relapses were often a result of an inability to cope with a “desolation of loneliness,” feelings of isolation and alienation that, according to many surveys, are now rampant among Americans in general.

In his new book, “This Exquisite Loneliness” (Viking), Deming, a poet and senior lecturer in English in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, reflects deeply on how we might find human connection through our shared feelings of loneliness, rather than be consumed by them. In addition to pondering Hoffman’s 2014 demise, he delves into the lives of six brilliant figures — including the Austrian Expressionist painter Egon Schiele; “The Twilight Zone” creator Rod Serling; and the author Zora Neale Hurston — pinpointing the sources of their own feelings of loneliness, and how their efforts to understand it helped fuel their extraordinary creative endeavors.

I believe we must reinvent loneliness,” Deming writes. “I have been trying to do this my whole life.”

Deming, who also directs the Creative Writing Program in the Department of English, spoke to Yale News about his own addiction, making connections with readers, and Rod Serling’s backstory.

You define “exquisite loneliness” as a way of tapping into the pain of loneliness to fuel creativity or to find a deeper understanding of the self and others. How did you arrive at the word exquisite?”

Richard Deming: It comes from my borrowing it from medical terminology. They talk about exquisite pain, and that was the sort of thing that I wanted to bring in. It’s very real and intense, but it opens up this attention to it, rather than it being ambient or environmental. I wanted that sense of a kind of directive pain.

Your own struggles with loneliness are woven throughout the chapters, and you cite pervasive loneliness as being at the root of your former alcohol addiction. Can you talk about that a little bit?

Deming: I think it’s built into it to a certain degree because addiction does tend to be isolating. But for me, part of addiction was trying to find methods to navigate the loneliness that I felt, and it was a way to kind of dull that pain.  But then addiction just starts to feed in on itself, which all sounds much more conscious than it was. It wasn’t like, oh, I feel lonely, this will be the cure. I just wanted to not feel it, or much of anything for that matter.

How long did it take you to identify loneliness as one of the things you were trying to mask with alcohol?

Deming: Oh, years. That’s one of the things about both psychoanalysis and sobriety is that it does take time to rewire everything and get that kind of wider perspective on your drives and motivations.

For each of the subjects profiled in the book, you search for the roots of their own loneliness, whether it’s childhood trauma or racism or poverty or war. Which of the subjects resonated most deeply with you?

Deming: None necessarily more deeply than others. They were all very touching and insightful. About what they went through. I went with people who had different facets that helped me get to places that I might not have otherwise gotten to on my own. Taken together they could give me a fuller view of loneliness.

[The Austrian painter] Egon Schiele. I mean, his life is fascinating, but in that last year of his life, all the death that he faced in 1918 at the end of the First World War and the influenza epidemic—the death of his friend and mentor, Gustav Klimt, the death of his wife and unborn child, and then his own death? That was devastating.

Rod Serling. I did not know how much World War II was part of his story or about the losses that he felt early on—friends, family, his childhood home. I knew “The Twilight Zone” backwards and forwards, and I knew some of his story, but I didn't know all of it.

[The psychoanalyst] Melanie Klein. I first went to her because someone had recommended that I read her. And then I became interested in why she asked her housekeeper, “do you ever feel lonely?” Who was she, beyond just the mind, and what is the life that leads to that question?

Zora Neale Hurston was really fascinating because when she gets to Harlem, she is sort of fully incandescent. And there’s not much before that that sets that up.

So they all really, really spoke to me in different ways.

They all met tragic ends, some of their own doing. What are we supposed to make of that?

Deming: I wanted to make clear that there are stakes to loneliness. It isn’t something that gets cured for the people who have, you know, chronic loneliness. It’s part of their temperament.

But these figures — along with [philosopher] Walter Benjamin and [photojournalist] Walker Evans — all found ways of working with loneliness or through it. I mean, strangely, they also all have kind of an upbeat story. They all did astonishing things and had friendships and relationships and made things that are lasting. I wanted to show the ways that they not only opened up, but that they specifically reached out to others to use their loneliness to create something that can help others as well.

They each had their own area of brilliance. Do brilliance and loneliness go hand in hand?

Deming: Not necessarily. I tend to agree with, say, Melanie Klein or the evolutionary biologists, who say that loneliness really is part of human nature. But I think what can be brilliant is the way that someone finds to try to understand and direct their loneliness. That’s where the brilliance is.

In the opening of the book, you talk about the record levels of loneliness in the United States. But your book isn't a prescription for loneliness. What are you hoping that readers take away?

Deming: Key to me is this idea that we’re not alone in our loneliness. Part of the problem with loneliness is that it’s so stigmatized that people are reluctant to recognize their loneliness or will go to great lengths not to confess it to other people, let alone even themselves. These incredible figures had it and we can see that if they could try to acknowledge and understand feeling emotionally isolated, each of us can do that.

Are you pleased with the reception the book has received so far?

Deming: It’s been interesting to already be getting emails from people and even a handwritten letter. Recently I had an email from a twentysomething living in Brooklyn who said, “Oh, this helps me feel seen. I’ve been ashamed to admit my loneliness to anyone.” And I wrote back, that was my hope for this book, that people would feel like their loneliness is seen and acknowledged.  In general, art is to me like evidence of other people’s searching for their own meaningfulness, as if they were calling over from their own lost valleys.

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Allison Bensinger: allison.bensinger@yale.edu,