A few months back, I went to see a conversation with Chuck Klosterman. The talk focused on his latest novel, The Visible Man. The protagonist, a pedantic and mostly unlikeable scientist, spies on people by wearing an invisibility cloak he stole from a defunct government agency. He uses its powers to watch people when they’re alone at home for what he claims to be scientific research – he believes people are only truly themselves when they know no one else is watching.
The moderator, John Sellers, asks Klosterman: If we were to spy on you when you were alone, what would we see? Klosterman laughs, mentions pot and television from what I can remember, then tells a charming anecdote about how the attendees of his bachelor party spent the night in a room fighting over who got to pick the next song on his iPod. I guess this story meant to say, “I am very much the way you’d imagine me to be, alone or not.”
The conversation moved along, but the audience was left to consider this question themselves: when I’m alone, what would people see?
My old apartment had a terrace. It overlooked a parking lot and the backs of too-tall buildings: the perfect view of a nondescript urban landscape. The thing about the terrace is that when you stepped foot onto it, you could be anywhere. The other thing about the terrace is that when you stepped foot onto it, you could be anywhere.
While living in the apartment with the terrace I began listening to Jacques Dutronc, a French psychedelic/garage/pop rock solo artist. I subsequently became acquainted with other French musicians of the ‘70s, artists whose tongues I couldn’t understand but whose plucking, picking, pressing fingers I could. And my fondness for this era, for this moment I’d missed by an ocean and by decades, can be explained in one sentence: I wanted to be somewhere else, someone else, if only momentarily.
On grey days in particular, I’d stand out on the terrace and inhale my cigarette sharply, dramatically, in the way one does when one knows there are no witnesses; I’d sip from a coffee mug; I’d play foreign Rock ‘n’ Roll that I couldn’t decipher and I’d stare at the backs of buildings and pretend to be someplace else, someplace I’d never been, because the thing about the terrace is that when you stepped foot onto it, you could be anywhere. You could be anyone.
What compels someone of average (whatever average is, in this context) emotional stability to sit around pretending to be someone else? It’s a form of escapism I indulge in often, and I don’t think I’m alone here. I slip into fantastical thinking frequently, and easily, most often when spending time alone because there aren’t any external reminders of who or what I am.
Klosterman’s protagonist, nicknamed Y____ by the book’s narrator, subscribes to the theory that the “me” who sits around daydreaming is the real me, the only me that matters, the only me worthy of observation. To someone who spends their alone time thinking of ways to mentally escape the physical world, this is a scary thought. I’ve always operated under the opposite assumption -– it’s other people who make me who I am. It’s other people who have taught me empathy, who have taught me what my weaknesses and strengths are. They’ve taught me how to love and how to hate. Perhaps everything I do when alone reflects everything that happens when I’m not. In that way, are we ever really alone?
There are two black and white views of the self in The Visible Man: Alone and not alone. This is all that interests Y_____, and for good reason. Aside from uncommon hidden camera circumstances, our homes are a safe haven –- when we suppose we’re alone, we usually are. And these moments spent solitarily are our x-factors, moments that only belong to us. The decision to wipe down a counter top or to watch bad television or to fold our laundry, they are ours and we can make them or not make them, without fear of judgment.
But life isn’t a gift that comes neatly wrapped in black and white; it comes in shades, and we all know that being isolated physically is not the only way to be alone. You can be alone in a crowd, alone in a restaurant, alone at a museum. Y____ would argue that in these scenarios you’re aware of the strangers around you, that you’re not totally being yourself, which is a valid point. If I’m eating alone in public, I might order something that can be consumed over a book, something simple. Alone at home, I might choose to eat sloppily, possibly with my hands, while watching trashy television or nothing at all. But for my actions to mean anything at home, they need the juxtaposition of my actions in public.
For you to understand why I silently smile at an email I’ve received, you have to witness my interactions with its sender. To comprehend why I spend hours writing something only to later discard it for no rhyme or reason, you have to account for the external factors that made me feel something wasn’t good enough. And in order to grasp why I resign to a terrace rather than an airplane when I need to get away, you’d have to stick around, observe me in private and public to realize that the frequency with which I have the urge to escape cannot be supported by my income or satiated alongside by responsibilities.
In figuring out who we are, every detail is meaningful.
The way we spend our alone time is part of an equation, one that’s sum can only be discerned by noting how we interact with others –- and ourselves –- in public and private places equal. The me on the terrace is just one shade, like the me on the toilet or the me on the train. Every thought we have comes from someplace else — a book or a lover or a television program. Our actions and behaviors are defined by years of interactions, desires, and dreams. And when we carry the weight of all of our encounters, it’s impossible to ever truly be alone.