Last month I travelled to England, a country I had not visited for 13 years, to attend a funeral. When it came time to choose what to read on the long flight, I threw Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice into my bag, mostly on a whim. I’d read it and loved it many years before but why it came with me, I can’t entirely say.
The trip was bleak. I sat in galleries by myself. I ate lunch by myself. And I attended the funeral by myself, where the men from my family assembled in awkward clusters, surrounded by each other, but, in an immediately recognisable way, standing alone.
After the wake, I trudged back to my hotel room, where Austen was waiting. There, I encountered the famous sequence in which Elizabeth tries to find something about Mr Darcy to laugh at. Mr Darcy – always quietly fuming, one way or the other – admits that he has spent a great deal of time and energy making sure that he has no such qualities.
Maybe once I would have seen the moment as a revelation of serious romantic passion and intensity – here’s a man who does nothing by halves. This time it just made me sad. I read it as an admission of great loneliness. All those years, cultivated in defiance of laughter and connection; a human being making themselves without the input of others, the way the saddest child on the playground has to invent games to keep themselves occupied.
Loneliness had been on my mind. I spent a lot of time on the trip alone, but, even more potently, I spent a lot of time reckoning with a type of loneliness that I think I have been dealing with one way or the other for most of my life. It is a loneliness I have rarely tried to put into words. It is Mr Darcy’s loneliness. And it is a loneliness that I see most commonly in the faces of the men I know.
Call it the loneliness of the oppressor. It comes from existing in a world that wants you to win – that is set up for you, and slavishly caters to your desires, but does not make you feel good. It is the byproduct of living in a society where, as a man, you systematically get paid more, and entertained more, and your words carry more weight, but where the days still feel empty, pained and pointless.
In such a world the solidarity you have doesn’t resemble the solidarity of those who are not in your privileged position. It’s the solidarity of money and access, not the solidarity of other people; of protests and art. So it’s lonely. Make no mistake – the solidarity you have is solidarity. And it does make your life much easier, in so many ways. Still, it’s a world where you are, like Mr Darcy, rich, successful and desired, but harbour the terrible fear that someone’s going to look at everything you’ve made of yourself and laugh at you.
Gender essentialism is dangerous and outdated, and I am not suggesting that all men feel this loneliness, or that it is not complicated by other factors including class and race. But I do still see it. It is, I think, an explanation of the continued rising influence of figures like Jordan Peterson. Peterson looks at young men, so many of them sad and lonely, and tells them that they are sad and lonely. He reaffirms them. His umbrage with feminists and all those he lazily designates as “woke” seems to be that they don’t take male pain seriously – that they have gotten it confused, and are painting harmless young boys as oppressors. After all, how could they be oppressors, Peterson says, when they all feel so alone?
The mistake is simple. Austen shows it to us. What if men aren’t lonely in defiance of their status as oppressors – what if they’re lonely because of that status? What if there are so many Mr Darcys out there, who could spend their lives cavorting around the endless English fields that their wealth and privilege have bought for them but instead sit in their feelings, their pains and their worries? After all, all of Mr Darcy’s large estate in Derbyshire could not save him from having a most forbidding, disagreeable countenance.
What we do with the existence of that loneliness is a question in and of itself. It need not make us sympathetic to the oppressor in a way that detracts our attention from the effects of the oppression. This is not the sob story that some use to dismiss the problems of patriarchy. Male loneliness needs no excuse. It could be enough to explain.
Importantly, such loneliness is not solved by spending time in the company of others. Mr Darcy knew that too, with his cavorting posse of hangers on, none of whom could bring a smile to his lips. And I knew it, getting on the plane to fly back, by which stage my feelings of isolation had become a low ache. It was not clear to me that things would feel all that different, or even much better, when I got home.
I finished Pride and Prejudice in the airport lounge, following along as Mr Darcy undid his solitude by giving himself totally, by dropping the act, by saying how he felt. I closed the book, and put it in my bag. On the plane, the passenger next to me had to shuffle out of my way a few times as I moved back and forth to use the bathroom.
“Sorry,” he said when, one time, not moving fast enough, his knees banged into mine, and we touched.
• Joseph Earp is a critic, painter and novelist. His book Cattle is out now