Monday, April 12, 2010

The well of loneliness--postscript

[Note: Jonas, since you've been bitten by the song after we talked about it--here, a small side story I'm reposting to go along with it. There's a happy twist at the end; don't miss it.]

Woke up a few days ago to a text message from a US-based friend: "Just watched 'Company.' I cried at the end. God, I'm so gay and lonely. LOL."

The LOL didn't fool me. I knew he was feeling low. Being in a foreign country can do that to you. More, being single in a foreign country for 10 years now can wreak havoc on your otherwise healthy inner constitution. Love has the nerve to shake you to your foundations; so does loneliness.

"People like Sheba think they know what it is to be lonely. But of the drip-drip, long-haul, no-end-in-sight solitude, they know nothing. What it's like to construct an entire weekend around a visit to the launderette. Or to be so chronically untouched that the accidental brush of a bus conductor's hand sends a jolt of longing straight to your groin." -- Judi Dench in Notes of a Scandal, contrasting her parched life with that of Cate Blanchett's character Sheba. (Patrick Marber wrote the screenplay. He captures the uncapturable perfectly.)

A seminary classmate of mine who became a Vincentian missionary once shared his thoughts on loneliness. He had lived with it, wrestled with it, as pastor of a remote mountain church in Taiwan's aboriginal regions. Far from home, speaking not a word of Chinese, his virile years chained to his vows, he wrote:

"Trained and formed to be lonely-proof missionary, well-armed with theological thoughts, inflamed by youthful idealism and strengthened by the mystical blessings of prayers, I went to a foreign mission with much pride. For nothing could stop me, nobody could humble me. But I was wrong.

"I fought fiercely with these demons for some time. I used all I got to defeat them, but to no avail. They could be weakened but not killed; they could be resisted but not forever. Time came when loneliness crumbled the proud fortress of my emotion and homesickness burned down the high façade of my thoughts, leaving my soul naked.

"But God indeed is the God of many surprises. The moment of my surrender was also the moment of my victory. It was when I accepted that I was lonely that loneliness befriended me. It was when I showed my weakness that homesickness led me back home."

Will his example of surrender work for my US-based friend, as the chipper lights of Broadway mock his solitary life? I don't know. At this moment, in the quiet muggy dead of night as I'm tapping these lines, I've no idea how I myself manage.

The end of Stephen Sondheim's musical Company, by the way, has the thirtysomething commitment-phobic Bobby acknowledging that, to live in the world, he has to engage it, let it in. Not just the parts he's cozy with, but all of it--the bitter and the sweet, the helpful and the vile, the lovely and the banal. The grand and glorious blessings that mark human intimacy side by side with its wearying burdens.

The song is Being Alive, and with it, Raul Esparza as Bobby (robbed of a Tony award this year!) locates the bruising yet healing heart of human company. No wonder my friend wept.

Someone to hold you too close
Someone to hurt you too deep
Someone to sit in your chair
And ruin your sleep...

Someone to crowd you with love
Someone to force you to care
Someone who'll make you come through
Who'll always be there
As frightened as you of being alive
Being alive, being alive,
Being alive.

Somebody hold me too close
Somebody hurt me too deep
Somebody sit in my chair
And ruin my sleep
And make me aware of being alive
Make me alive, make me alive

Make me confused
Mock me with praise
Let me be used, vary my days
But alone is alone, not alive

Somebody crowd me with love
Somebody force me to care
Somebody let me come through
I'll always be there
As frightened as you
To help us survive

Being alive, being alive
Being alive!

The day after my friend watched the show, he met a guy. They've been inseparable ever since. Happy endings--they still happen.

PLUS: More ringing odes to damn life--Patti Lupone's version here, Bernadette Peters' here, John Barrowman's here, Dean Jones' here (from the 1970 soundtrack--the banter by the original cast is a treasure), Barbra Streisand's here (in a medley with Something Wonderful from The King and I), and--a rare track from a private performance in 1992--Julie Andrews' here.


Anonymous said...

I love happy endings. I don't buy this line though: "But alone is alone, not alive".

Anonymous said...

I like the singer but the song is overly dramatic and inaccurate. According to this song I have no life because I happen to be alone. It is a very Western view of life. I have my family and friends who bring so much life to my life. I welcome a partner in my life but it won't define the meaning of my my existence.

joelmcvie said...


Seriously, I agree with Anonymous: I too do not buy the line, "But alone is alone, not alive." I think it's more accurate to say, "Lonely is lonely, not alive" but it's too unwieldy as song lyrics, ahahaha. Then again, if one embraces one's loneliness, then that act of surrender may actually help one transcend the feeling.

I'm guessing, of course. I never reached that point yet. I still have other tricks up my sleeve to prevent loneliness from biting my head off.

gibbs cadiz said...

we're reacting to the song out of context. the whole play is about the guy UNWILLING to commit because he's UNABLE to. he gets entangled with three women, all of whom are unable to draw him out of his shell. in short, his solitude is the product of an emotionally stunted life, and not by active, conscious, happy choice. his friends' example, in fact, point to the opposite of a nihilistic view of life. despite so many hurdles and difficulties in their relationships, which the play maps out with a clear-eyed, grown-up hand--nothing sentimental or glib--in the end many of them still encourage bobby to reach out, take a chance, become engaged in the world. NOT because being alone is bad per se--"a very western view of life" is an inaccurate way of putting it, because western societies, in fact--especially the american premium on independence and individuality--allow greater space for people to remain single, or at least be flexible about their status throughout their lives, in contrast to other societies--asian, african, arab--with emphasis on social cohesion and clannish family units, where marriage is so traditionally obligatory it's even arranged in cases. sondheim's observation about the perils of solitude relates to the particular emotional dysfunction alone of his character bobby--who is not, i reiterate, into being alone out of some radiant, assured grip of contentment. he's never had a fulfilled, meaningful relationship in his life. at this point, being alone deep down is all he's known. that is different from other people having seen the other side and made a conscious, happy choice to remain single. bobby may still get there, who knows--but sondheim is merely saying, hey, maybe on his 35th bday it'd be good for bobby to set aside his trust issues for now, the fears that have kept him emotionally impaired for most of his adult life, and try being MOVED, AFFECTED, SHAKEN by someone else. i know all these is too much to cram into a song, but it's always a good bet to remember that showtunes--especially sondheim songs--have extensive back stories to tell. they can't be read in a vacuum, taken out of context, because they're part of a larger picture. :)

beektur said...

love your last comment. not only a well-argued dissection of the song and the relevance of context in a musical theater song but also great socio-psycho, anthropoligical and cultural insights.

and then -- "inseparable"! :)

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