Loners have a hard time in the modern, day-to-day world, yet not in fiction and film.
Solitary men – who I think are shy and/or autistic men – are heroes in literature and the movies – James Fenimore Cooper’s Natty Bumpo in The Deerslayer and The Last of the Mohicans. David Copperfield in the Dickens novel. Hemingway’s Robert Jordan in For Whom the Bell Tolls, the lone sheriff in High Noon, the Clint Eastwood characters in Dirty Harry, The Man with No Name, etc., and Daniel Craig’s version of James Bond. The public love them.
I’ve been puzzling over this for a long time. In my novel The Birdcatcher, character Chris Stone, trying to explain the social world, asks:
And why….did social men admire men who were loners? Social women were rarely attracted to us, yet their men had made the solitary man a folk hero in Western culture from the time of Homer’s Odyssey to the Clint Eastwood films of our time.
Stone goes on to say that he doesn’t understand why actors like Gary Cooper, Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood, and now Daniel Craig have been so successful playing loners. I don’t understand it either. For example, take McQueen’s famous comment:
I’d rather wake up in the middle of nowhere than in any city on Earth.
Why is that one of the most quoted lines from the 20th century? After all, a majority of the world’s population now resides in cities, and few of the so-called normal people that I have met showed any sign of wanting to wake up anywhere else.
Don’t ask me to explain the absence of women here. For some reason, society doesn’t seem to like strong, confident solitary women. There are recent exceptions though – like Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, etc – so this might be changing.
Anyway, if you’re looking for answers to questions like this, there is no better place to look than in Party of One – The Loner’s Manifesto, a 2003 book by Anneli Rufus. She thinks ordinary people often wish they were loners:
In each nonloner lurks a tiny loner struggling to come out. ….. many nonloners possess, deep down in them, a secret touch of lonerism. An impulse, a yearning – it lies dormant nearly all the time, knowing that the outside world would hardly make it feel welcome.
That fits with what I’ve been saying for a long time, that humanity was not always social, that in our hunter-gathering past we were probably a much more solitary species. At one time, we may all have been loners. But the loner in most people got psychologically buried during the 20,000 year evolution of tribalism, (tribes becoming towns, nations, etc). But Rufus says there is more to it than that.
She says it is no accident that these loner characters in films are there. They are there because so many of the novelists, screen-writers, etc who created them are loners themselves. Why are they in those jobs when loners have so much trouble entering society everywhere else? Listen again:
The creative process lends itself to loners, and vice versa. And there is the key. This is why so much of what ends up in art museums, movie houses, music venues, bookshops, theme parks and on TV has a loner slant. Unlike fine art, popular culture targets the broadest possible audience. But what no one wants to admit is how much of “popular” culture has always been the work of a tiny, maligned subset of the population.
How about that? Loners appear to be a strong influence in culture. But how can that work? Why don’t social people reject it? Rufus says:
A loner who fashions a fictional character who is a loner will not make that character a sleazy ugly, hateful, unredeemed killer. A loner given the chance to fashion a loner for the public eye will make that loner hot. Smart. Strong. It stands to reason. And given our disproportionate presence among those whose dreams and visions end up on screen, on the billboards along Sunset Strip, it stands to reason that so much of what has turned into popular culture over the last two hundred years has been loner propaganda.
It almost sounds as if we’ve taken over the world, doesn’t it? Of course, that isn’t true. Most loners have a tough time in the everyday world. But, although our opinions are usually dismissed in work-places and class-rooms, there is something heartening in the fact that, in the world of popular culture, we have a lot to say. We’re a bigger influence than we thought.
PS – here is a link to Party of One ‘s Amazon page: