What exactly is the difference between being lonesome and being lonely, anyway?
The power had gone out in Asheville that morning and the rain had wrapped the house where they had eaten pancakes and drunk Bloody Marys in a dark silence, which shared a likeness with the fog, which now wrapped around the Blue Ridge Parkway with an obfuscational caress, which went nowhere and served nothing, a creeping blueness devoid ofand voidingall motion. Braxton Marnus was with one of his best friendsa photographer/ ecologist who had just been able to return to hisbeloved mountains (where he had lived some years before, restoring damaged wetlands by the introduction of carnivorous plants) and to his wife, from which and from whom he had been separatedby work for the past seven months. They were smoking and laughing and yet below that, somewhere more fundamental, in some strange and interstitial space, Braxton felt bereft; he was filled with an aching that was both asdramatic and empty as the fog and the valleys it had burned. Even the most solid of his limbs were filled with an ornery, hollow aching; his very bodythe lived one, not the medical one was feeling his separation from Nina, who had become so familiar to it, who had contoured her own body to meet its outlines and contoured it to meet hers. It was as if the inside of his body had become the outsidethe internal organs open to eyes and weather and the outside had slipped away into a senseless abyss. His consciousness, too, was constituted by this stop-gap, the swimming wake of her absence.
Im not lonely, Im just lonesome for you, a young Hank Williams III yelped from the cassette player1
That was it. He wasnt lonely, he was lonesome. The difference was something akin to the distinction that the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas2makes between need and desire. Need is for the elemental and can be fulfilled, whereas desire is for the infinite and can never be fulfilledthe more it receivesthe more it desires. Desire is a sort of overflowing.
Braxton remembered what one of his Greek teachers had told him once about desire in Greek Lyric poetry. Eros,she had said in her Diotiman manner, is a desire that is more likely to be consummated, or enjoyed. Pothos, on the other hand, is a desire that, because of space or time or whatever, has less a chance of reciprocity or fulfillment. When she was here he had felt Eros or desire for her, but now, in her absence he was filled with apining Pothos, or lonesomeness, which was at once a nostalgic yearning for the time when they had been together and a projection into the contentless time when they would be together again. In lonesomeness one is rent in both space and time from the Otherwho constitutes ones very self, lost in the motels along the desolate backroads of the soul; bound only to ones placelessnessdeadbolted into ones own heavy but flittering neon presence by the Others absence.
Loneliness, on the other hand, is being bound to a general isolation. It can be allayed through a third term. It is an il-y-atic, Eleatic emptiness which can be dispelled by com-pany,3 any company. One can eat, get drunk, drive in the mountains with friends. People attempt to alleviate lonesomeness, as Braxton was doing at this very moment, in this way, and yet itis not possible. Lonesomeness is a phenomenon as fundamentally different from loneliness as anxiety is from fear in Heidegger.
I dont need no body to call me on the phone, I dont need no company, Id rather be alone, Im just happy by myself here being blue, cause Im not lonely Im just lonesome for you. (Hank III)
Lonesomeness goes far beyond the Levinasian analysis, however, for it is theabsence of a particular Other, not as Absolute Other but as Particular. Loneliness is a result of our social nature and even of our relation with the Other in general. Lonesomeness is the absence of an irreplaceable Other; it is an inversion of Eros, where the desire flows towards an irreparably absent Other. It is Pothos. Nothing other than the particular Other whom you miss can help a goddamned bit.
Every comfort I find these days is small, everybody tries but nothing helps at all. Theyd just give up before they started if they knew Im not lonely Im just lonesome for you (Hank III).
Braxtons attempt to thematize the situation inwardly didnt help; he just felt like hell. So he changed the tape. Though hed been immersing himself in the things of the world, its sights, pleasures and pains,traveling, reading and drinking an immense amount, he didnt want to stop missing her. As Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields was saying inside the cassette player at that moment, I could take Prozac, right and smile all night at somebody new.... but I dont want to get over you.5 When its loneliness that has you, you always want to eliminate the lack you feel, but there is a sweetness tolonesomeness, a continuity that dispels and contaminates space and time at the very moment they are defined by their conquest of the individual who is raptured by them; for it is not the utter absence of the Other but her presence in that absence thatconstitutes Pothos. Eros is a desire with expectancy and is situated in the evanescent present. Pothos, on the other hand, is a pining that is pounded into that presence in the smithies of the absent past and future with the hammers of hope and memory.
Braxton and Henry, the ecologist-friend, stopped and got out of the car and began to hike along the dampening earth up a long and winding hill, through air as thick and fast as the plants growing around them and lapping at their legs. Henry knew all of the foliage;he pointed out striped maples which grew only at this elevation, blackberries, and countless other things with which Braxton couldnt keep upbecause every word seemed to index an event with Nina. Everything referred to her. In lonesomeness the particular Other becomes the master signifier. It is not, however, a this in Aristotles sensethat is, the sense of all meaning when one is lonesome; it is, rather, a Her. Lonesomeness is defined by the oblique case of the Her. Eros is determined by the mutually nominative, subjective cases, whereas in lonesomeness the Him or Her of ones desire is always in an objective case. The Her or Him cant express the expression of a She or He that has come to define the I while also stripping it of its power. In lonesomeness the name of the Other usurps the place of the face. It is an act of conjuration which is doomed by its own foundation.
As Braxton drove to his parents house later that evening, the clouds having passed, he came upon a junction: 240, 40 and 26. He recalled how many times he had seen that I-40 shield with Nina and how many other, similar shields hed seen. He recalled how Walter Benjamin had said that Asja Lacis had cut the One-Way Street through his heart.6 He realized that Nina had not only cut this street in him, but that she had cut every road, even the empirical highways he now drove down, through the state of his heart, and he realized that his heart was in fact nothing more than this junction of her smiles.
1. Lonesome for You written by Buddy Miller and Julie Miller, 1997 Tinkie Tunes. Performed by Hank III, Rising Outlaw, Curb Records, 1999.
2. Emmanuel Levinas. 1906-1994. Levinas was a student of Husserl and Heidegger, both of whom he ultimately rejected in an attempt to uncover the ethical (non) origins of experience.
3. I hyphenate this word in order to bring out its etymological meaning of sharing bread. You are a com-panion of someone with whom you eat.
4. In Heideggers Being and Time (1927) fear and anxiety are distinguished by the fact that the former has an object whereas the latter is anxious in the face of nothingness, and therefore has no object.
5. I Dont Want To Get Over You by Stephin Merritt, Sixty-Nine Love Songs, Vol. I,Gay and Loud, 1999.
6. This street is named/ Asja Lacis Street/ after her who/as an engineer/ cut it through the author (Walter Benjamin. Selected Writings: Volume 1, 1914-1926. Michael Jennings, ed. 1996. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press).