What Do You Do When You're Alone

Art, obsession and intimacy, according to the psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott

Loss is a cousin of loneliness. They intersect and overlap, and so it’s not surprising that a work of mourning might invoke a feeling of aloneness, of separation. Mortality is lonely. Physical existence is lonely by its nature, stuck in a body that’s moving inexorably towards decay, shrinking, wastage and fracture. Then there’s the loneliness of bereavement, the loneliness of lost or damaged love, of missing one or many specific people, the lone­liness of mourning.

Loneliness as a desire for closeness, for joining up, joining in, joining together, for gathering what has otherwise been sundered, abandoned, broken or left in isolation. Loneliness as a longing for integration, for a sense of feeling whole.

It’s a funny business, threading things together, patching them up with cotton or string. Practical, but also symbolic, a work of the hands and the psyche alike. One of the most thoughtful accounts of the meanings contained in activities of this kind is provided by the psychoanalyst and paediatrician D. W. Winnicott, an heir to the work of Melanie Klein. Winnicott began his psychoanalytic career treating evacuee children during the Second World War. He worked lifelong on attachment and separation, developing along the way the concept of the transitional object, of holding, and of false and real selves, and how they develop in response to environments of danger and of safety.

In Playing and Reality, he describes the case of a small boy whose mother repeatedly left him to go into hospital, first to have his baby sister and then to receive treatment for depression. In the wake of these experiences, the boy became obsessed with string, using it to tie the furniture in the house together, knotting tables to chairs, yoking cushions to the fireplace. On one alarming occasion, he even tied a string around the neck of his infant sister.


"Loneliness as a longing for integration, for a sense of feeling whole."


Winnicott thought these actions were not, as the parents feared, random, naughty or insane, but rather declarative, a way of communicating something inadmissible in language. He thought that what the boy was trying to express was both a terror of separation and a desire to regain the contact he experienced as imperilled, maybe lost for good. ‘String,’ Winnicott wrote, ‘can be looked upon as an extension of all other techniques of communication. String joins, just as it also helps in the wrapping up of objects and in the holding of unintegrated material. In this respect, string has a symbolic meaning for everyone,’ adding warningly: ‘an exaggeration of the use of string can easily belong to the beginning of a sense of insecurity or the idea of a lack of communication’.

The fear of separation is a central tenet of Winnicott’s work. Primarily an infantile experience, it is a horror that lives on in the older child and the adult too, returning forcibly in circumstances of vulnerability or isolation. At its most extreme, this state gives rise to the cataclysmic feelings he called the fruits of privation, which include:

1) going to pieces

2) falling for ever

3) complete isolation because of there being no means for communication

4) disunion of psyche and soma

This list reports from the heart of loneliness, its central court. Falling apart, falling forever, never resuming vitality, becoming locked in perpetuity into the cell of solitary confinement, in which a sense of reality, of boundedness, is rapidly eroded: these are the consequences of separation, its bitter fruit.

What the infant desires in these scenes of abandonment is to be held, to be contained, to be soothed by the rhythms of the breath, the pumping heart, to be received back through the good mirror of the mother’s smiling face. As for the older child, or the adult who was inadequately nurtured or has been cast backwards by loss into a primal experience of separation, these feelings often spark a need for transitional objects, for cathected, loved things that can help the self to gather and regroup.

One of the most interesting things about Winnicott’s account of the small string-obsessed boy is that though he’s at pains to insist the behaviour is not abnormal, he does perceive dangers associated with it. If contact was not renewed, he thought the individual could potentially topple from grief into despair, in which case the object play would become instead what he called perverse. In this unwelcome state of affairs, the function of the string would change ‘into a denial of separation. As a denial of separation string becomes a thing in itself, something that has dangerous properties and must needs be mastered’.


"Art, Winnicott thought, was a place in which this kind of labour might be attempted, where one could move freely between integration and disintegration, doing the work of mending, the work of grief, preparing oneself for the dangerous, lovely business of intimacy."


When I first read that statement, I immediately recalled the big wicker bin in Henry Darger’s room that I’d visited in Chicago. It was filled with the salvaged coils and snippets of string that he gathered from gutters and trash cans across the city. Back home, he spent hours each day unravelling them, smoothing out the strands before tying them together. It was an occupation that he found deeply emotional, to judge from his journal, in which he records not much more than attendance at mass and tangles and difficulties with cord and brown twine.

29 March 1968: ‘Tantrums over tangles and tied knots slipping in twine. Threaten to throw ball at sacred images because of this difficulty.’ 1 April 1968: ‘Over tanglement of twine, difficult to do. Some severe tantrums and swear words.’ 14 April 1968: ‘From 2 to Six P. M. undid tangle of white twine to wrap around ball. More tantrums because sometimes the two ends of twine won’t stay tied together.’ 16 April 1968: ‘Had trouble again with twine. Mad enough to wish I was a bad tornado. Swore at God.’ 18 April 1968: ‘Lots of twine and cord. Not tough tangles this time. Did singing instead of tantrums and swearing.

There is in this record such emotional intensity, such profound swells of anger and distress, that one gets a visceral sense of what it might be like to regard string as a dangerous material: to see it as something that must be subdued, something into which larger anxieties could be channelled, something that if handled wrongly could unleash an outpouring of overwhelming grief or rage.

But according to Winnicott, this kind of activity could do more than simply deny separation or displace feeling. The use of transitional objects like string could also be a way of acknowl­edging damage and healing wounds, binding up the self so that contact could be renewed. Art, Winnicott thought, was a place in which this kind of labour might be attempted, where one could move freely between integration and disintegration, doing the work of mending, the work of grief, preparing oneself for the dangerous, lovely business of intimacy.

This is an extract from The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone by Olivia Laing, published by Canongate

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