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 of—and voiding—all motion. Braxton Marnus was with one of his best friends—a 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 body—the 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 outside—the 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.

“I’m not lonely, I’m just lonesome for you,” a young Hank Williams III yelped from the cassette player1

That was it. He wasn’t 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 fulfilled—the more it “receives”the 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 one’s very self, lost in the motels along the desolate backroads of the soul; bound only to one’s placelessness—deadbolted into one’s own heavy but flittering neon presence by the Other’s 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 don’t need no body to call me on the phone, I don’t need no company, I’d rather be alone, I’m just happy by myself here being blue, cause I’m not lonely I’m 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. They’d just give up before they started if they knew I’m not lonely I’m just lonesome for you” (Hank III).

Braxton’s attempt to thematize the situation inwardly didn’t help; he just felt like hell. So he changed the tape. Though he’d been immersing himself in the things of the world, its sights, pleasures and pains,traveling, reading and drinking an immense amount, he didn’t 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 don’t want to get over you.”5 When it’s 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 couldn’t 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 Aristotle’s sense—that 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 one’s desire is always in an objective case. The Her or Him can’t 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 parent’s 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 he’d 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 Heidegger’s 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 Don’t 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).