Edward: I doubt if you ever had a case like mine:
I have ceased to believe in my own personality.
Reilly: Oh, dear yes; this is serious. A very common malady
Very prevalent indeed.
(The Cocktail Party)
We live in the Age of Emptiness, the Era of Anxiety. T. S. Eliot, one of the major prophets of the age, has exposed it inside out in lurid light, Modern life is one Waste Land, vast, oppressive and forbidding; a Waste Land rimmed by a bleak horizon. The people who inhabit this Waste Land are portrayed
“not as lost”
violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed man.”
Hollow men and stuffed men of Eliot, Alphas and Gamas of Huxley,–these are the chief characters of the mid-twentieth century drama. Ennui and Emptiness, Futility and Frustration, all of the same kidney, make up the dramatis personae, They may provide a veritable paradise for the incisive analysis of a seasoned psychopathologist, but the prospects for a civilisation of which they are pillars are all but promising.
At the outset two possible objections might be met. Are not the feelings of emptiness and anxiety, it may be asked, generated by the times of uncertainty and insecurity we are passing through? That is a superficial diagnosis, for a deeper analysis but reveals that the ‘Time of Troubles’, to use a telling phrase of Dr. Toynbee, is as much the symptom of a deeper ferment as the psychological manifestations are of emptiness and anxiety. Secondly, are not the hollow men and the stuffed men, the neurotic children of the age, patently abnormal and as such do not represent a cross-section of the people? In one sense they are not the average, but no less important and typical. They are the more sensitive and gifted members of society for whom the conventional pretences and defences no longer work, who are less successful at rationalizing than the ‘well-adjusted’ citizen who is able for the time being to cover up his underlying conflicts. Hence the topical importance of hollow men.
‘An awareness of solitude’ is the pathetic complaint of Celia in T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Cocktail Party’. It is something “that is always happening to all sorts of people...I have always been alone...one always is alone”. So morbidly alone, so deeply bitten by loneliness that “It no longer seems worth while to speak to anyone.” A symptom of the age,
“that sense of separation,
Of isolation unredeemable, irrevocable–
It’s eternal or gives a knowledge of eternity
Because it feels eternal while it lasts. That is one hell”
(The Family Reunion)
it is a feeling of alienation, of being left out in the cold. There is yet the paradox of modern loneliness, the loneliness in a crowd. Says Harry in ‘The Family Reunion’:
“The sudden solitude in a crowded desert
In a thick smoke, many creatures moving
Without direction, for no direction
Leads anywhere but round and round in that vapour–
Without purpose, and without principle of conduct
In flickering intervals of light and darkness.”
Such loneliness is a corollary of emptiness, both being phases of the same Basic experience of anxiety. “Without direction, without purpose, and without principle of conduct”–how true of the age! When a person lacks the conviction of what he wants, when he is at best certain of what others expect of him rather than what he himself as an agent wants, when he is but ‘the shadow of desires of desires’, when the conventional goals he is taught to follow land him in a cul de sac, when he lacks the conviction of the reality of his own goals,–the result is an inner void. Haunted by this inner void he looks around for a haven, and that anywhere but within himself. Where he is thrown back upon his own resources and inner strength, he finds no anchorage, for he has all along neglected to develop them. Left thus to himself he is like one who feels that the walls of the room he is inhabiting are closing in upon, himself. He is afraid that he would be at loose ends, would lose the boundaries for himself until he bumps against something other than himself, until he hobnobs with others only to orient himself. “No...it isn”t that I want to be alone,” says Celia. Solitude for the sake of solitude, the desire to be left alone, to get away from it all, not for a rest or an escape but for its own sake, for the sake of communion with one’s self as a means of rediscovering one’s self,–all this is looked upon with suspicion. He must be a social failure and a crank to desire solitude. And thus “many people suffer from the fear of finding themselves alone and so they do not find themselves at all”!
Many are the defence mechanisms to keep at bay the gnawing loneliness and the yawning emptiness. We are frightened at the prospect of being left alone, for it implies, so we suspect, that we are socially unwanted, unliked and unaccepted. Nothing is more terrifying than the prospect of being treated as a social anathema or pariah. What, for instance, is the importance of being invited to a party, and why are invitations sometimes shamefacedly wangled? Not always because you are dying to go and get bored, not always because you are sure you will enjoy the drivel of small talk, the tittle-tattle in an age when the art of conversation is well-nigh dead, not merely because you are gregarious by instinct, but, more often than not, because an invitation is a proof that you are not being left out.
“It is getting late
Shall we ever be asked for? Are we simply
Not wanted at all?”
An invitation may serve as a talisman to combat your loneliness. But a temporary one, for when you withdraw into your shell, the loneliness will have gained an edge. And the price you have paid for all this! The price of giving up your existence as an identity in your own right and getting swallowed in an ant society. That, at any rate, is not a constructive reaction to loneliness. Lone1iness can best be conquered by developing one’s own inner resources, strength and sense of direction, and entering into meaningful relations with others only on the basis of such inner development. “The stuffed men are bound to become more lonely, no matter how much they lean together; for hollow people do not have a basis from which to learn to live.”
What then is the root cause of this modern malady? For a clue let us once again turn to T. S. Eliot:
Unidentified Guest: ...There’s a loss of personality;
Or rather, you’ve lost touch with the person
You thought you were…
All there is of you is your body
And the ‘you’ is withdrawn...
(The Cocktail Party)
The modern is a stranger to and unaware of himself. He is like a house divided against itself,–the contestants, the contest and the battle-ground all rolled into one, a multi-multiple personality. He has lost his bearings, ceased to believe in his selfhood. If consciousness of self, the capacity to see one’s self as though from the outside, is the distinctive characteristic of man, he has taken a holiday from it. Harry clinches the issue:
“A minor trouble like a concussion
Cannot make very much difference to John.
A brief vacation from the kind of consciousness
That John enjoys, can’t make very much difference
To him or to anyone else. If he was ever really conscious,
I should be glad for him to have a breathing spell:
But John’s ordinary day isn’t much more than breathing”
(The Family Reunion)
Having lost the grip over himself, he has well-nigh lost the grip over the objective. He is like a rudderless boat under a starless sky, drifting across the high seas, sans goal, sans purpose, sans hope. Bereft of the sense of the worth and dignity of the human being, the individual has lost his identity. He is swallowed up in the herd, playing safe by living by herd morality. The modern self is just a synonym of any random impulse: “You are nothing but a set of obsolete responses.” And “to ‘be yourself’ is just an excuse to relax into the lowest common denominator of inclination.” With its bottom thus knocked from under it, the self exists, if at all it exists, in fragments.
Reilly: Indeed, it is often the case that my patients
Are only pieces of a total situation
Which I have to explore....
(The Cocktail Party)
Thus in a society which has lost its centre of values the individual is a displaced person out of tune with reality, out of place everywhere and at home nowhere, and he must needs be rehabilitated. A square peg in a round hole, he does not know whether the hole is too round or the peg is too square. The past is vanishing and the future is being born, and between them the present is perilously poised. The old values have gone west and the new ones are not yet discovered, perhaps not even conceived. Or perhaps the old goals, ideals, criteria are still there in our minds, but they hardly work. You have the paradox of unchanging criteria and changing circumstances. Most people are frustrated by asking questions which do not lead to the right answer. They are “lost in a potpourri of contradictory answers–‘reason’ operates while one goes to a class, ‘emotion’ when one visits one’s lover, ‘will power’ when one studies for an examination, and religious duty at funerals and on Easter Sunday”. The values and goals, such as they are, are so compartmentalized that it is done at the expense of the unity and the integrity of personality. The person is consequently in pieces both within and without.
The hollow man should knit the derelict pieces together if he wants to be back on his feet. He should find a new unity for his life, a thinking, feeling, willing unity. He should rediscover the sources of strength and integrity within himself, discover and affirm values in himself and in his society which serve as the core of his unity, which will enable him to choose his goals constructively, and thus to overcome the painful bewilderment and anxiety of not knowing which way to go. “Revaluation of all values, transvaluation of all values,” Nietzsche proclaims, “is my formula for an act of ultimate self-examination by mankind.” T.S. Eliot is agnostical about the process:
Julia: Oh yes, she will go far. And we know where she is going.
But what do we know of the terrors of the journey?
You and I don’t know the process by which the human
(The Cocktail Party)
But one thing is certain beyond doubt–that human values in the vale of radio-active tears are in bad repair and you neglect them at the cost of multiplying hollow men who might hasten
“the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.”