Know when you see him, / Nothing can free him, / Step aside, open wide, / It’s the loner.
There is no love of life without despair about life.
Re-reading Geoff Dyer’s last book of essays recently, I revisited his elegiac essay ‘On the Roof’, in which the writer chances upon a lost photograph of himself with his friends at the Brixton tower block where he lived in the 1980s. The discovery of the photograph becomes a Barthesian springboard for a series of recollections and ruminations about a period which Dyer drew upon to pen his debut novel, The Colour of Memory (an “idyllic time”, according to the author).
Dyer states that he doesn’t take photographs or even own a camera; all the photographs he possesses have been inherited, borrowed or begged from friends, and are stored haphazardly in a single folder at his house. As someone who takes photographs fairly prolifically, I have surprisingly few photographs from my late teens and early twenties. In contrast to our contemporary megapixel epoch – where all human interaction can be captured and frozen in a nanosecond – even as recently as the 1990s and 2000s it required a conscious, conspicuous effort to lug a camera about when meeting up with your mates - an act often met with a degree of derision, scepticism or bemusement. Yet, without taking the decision to document and record some of those mundane formative moments, many would be permanently erased from our collective memory.
In the small number of snaps taken at the various social occasions I shared with my friends back home (for social occasions read ‘down the pub’), there is one particular photograph that covers similar ground to the Dyer pic. Unlike Dyer, however, I always feel a bit queasy when I look at mine, for it reveals a good deal more about my character than I would necessarily like. In many ways, I still live within the frame of a photograph which is almost fifteen years old.
The snap dates from the winter of 1998-99, as I was entering my second year at university. My friends and I are stood in The Wheatsheaf in Sandbach (my hometown), on the cusp of our twenties and indulging in some post-pubescent, pre-Yuletide hi-jinks. We appear to be disguised as one another, identically attired in the then-regulation blacks and blues of the small-town male – Full Circle cardigans and Diesel jeans, white Lunar Nikes, fringes pushed up with hair wax, gripping bottles of Foster’s Ice or WKD. One of our number has pulled up the jacket of another to pinch his hairy belly. Both are laughing at the camera, while four or five others bask in the comedy. I’m stood slightly to one side of the group, sipping a beer; unsmiling, probably slightly stoned. Part of the group – but not part of the joke.
This single photograph condenses, distils and refracts what I would term – somewhat solipsistically, I suppose – my continuing difficulties with introversion. The term ‘introversion’ was popularised by Carl Jung’s branch of analytical psychology, with the psychologist M. Freyd defining an introvert as “an individual in whom exists an exaggeration of the thought processes in relation to directly observable social behaviour, with an accompanying tendency to withdraw from social contacts.” As the photograph I described indicates, like most introverts I’ve never felt particularly comfortable in social groups large or small. The excitement and anticipation of socialisation lapses into ennui, anomie and a feeling of not belonging as the event unfolds. At some point, the urge to cut and run becomes overwhelming. During my late teens I became notorious for disappearing from nights out without telling anyone. I remember going to a nightclub when I was seventeen years old, and calling my mother to collect me after less than thirty minutes of being there.
The shape and scope of my introspection was fixed during my mid-teens. On one particularly painful holiday when I was sixteen, I spent almost all the time listening to music on my Walkman in my room. Everyone was going and out having fun, and rather than finding out why I was spending so much time alone they started calling me Victor Meldrew. Like the put-upon pensioner protagonist of 1990s BBC comedy One Foot in the Grave, they thought I was being grumpy. It wasn’t grumpiness: I was insecure, lonely and unhappy.
There was a brief halcyon period when I was a child where I felt total social assurance. That feeling peaked around the age of eleven, which coincided with joining a boys-only secondary school, with the attendant horrors that entailed for immature, insecure and inward-looking boys. A number of the hard-won friendships I made there have survived, but many have fractured or dissipated over the years. In one respect this is a reflection of our atomised society, and being at a particular point in your life; in another, it’s perhaps due to my social expendability.
Introverts always get a rough deal: not only can they be marginalised or ostracised – or labelled boring or miserable – but they also are statistically likely to die younger due to cultivated or self-imposed loneliness. Contrary to winning ‘quiet victories’, as Jessica Brown puts it a recent Guardian piece, introverts remain stigmatised socially and culturally. As the author of the book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain has sought to empower introverts against the legions of noisy extroverts dominating western culture – people we might refer to as ‘the winning idiots’. Cain writes:
Introversion – along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness and shyness – is now a second class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology. Introverts living in the Extrovert Ideal are like women in a man’s world, discounted because of a trait that goes to the core of who they are. Extroversion is an enormously appealing personality style, but we’ve turned it into an oppressive standard to which most of us feel we must conform.
Conformity is critical to our sense of belonging. Within any given social set, a huge amount is set in store by what sociologists term ‘social capital’ i.e. the value of an individual’s contribution to the social group or network within which it is situated. For the core male friends I grew up with, social capital was determined largely by surface concerns related to perceived masculinity: aggression, gregariousness, idiocy/intellect, ability to handle drink, inability to handle drink, penis size, salary, male pattern baldness and so on. The list was – still is – arbitrary and endless; but cultural or intellectual interests rarely factor: unlike the group of friends in Dyer’s picture, none of the boys in my photograph harboured any artistic ambitions. Except for me, and throughout my adolescence and early adulthood I downplayed the very impulses that provided succour to my discomforting introversion.
Jungian analysis holds that every individual has the capacity to be an introvert and an extrovert. For my part, I cultivated a quasi-bipolar personality whereby under certain social conditions – usually those where alcohol was involved – the shy, submissive wallflower gave way to a boorish loudmouth libertine. I came to be nicknamed ‘The Gremlin’ for this (mis)behaviour. Consequently, on a boozy trip to Ibiza last summer one of my friends summarised my twenty year contribution to our group thus: “Cunt. Drugs. Liar.” Needless to say, I was surprised and hurt by those labels. All are partly true, and refer to instances of regrettable behaviour that happened in the past. But my friend’s comments further demonstrate the essential reducibility of the individual under the conditions of social capitalism: behavioural traits occlude the essence of the individual. Since I have moderated my ‘extroverted’ behaviour, I believe I am considered to be less interesting and therefore of lower social value.
For many introverts, there is often more at stake with people you already know than those you don’t. This is why it’s virtually impossible to throw off the cloak of an old identity to reveal what you believe to be the ‘real’ you beneath. Conversely, it is easier and often emotionally more assuring to play up to pre-established social roles. As the physical, emotional or philosophical distance between you and old friends grows over time, so the urge to preserve or retain that bygone closeness increases. All too often you end up recalling things that happened a long time ago which defined you as a group member back then, even if contextually things have changed. Opting not to do this can sometimes result in the diminution of your personal social capital. Hence, being a “cunt drugs liar” is in some perverse way preferable to being a “deluded arty loser”. This is an absurd, but ultimately true position: you lose, but on your terms.
With people you don’t know, there is more opportunity to be freer in your behaviour, albeit without the safety net of familiarity and fraternity. Another strategy I deployed over the years to combat my introversion was seeking out other individuals and social groups to broaden my exposure to different philosophical positions, while widening my social circle. Here, too, there are implications for how people perceive you and your sense of belonging, although there is less at stake in an emotional sense. But even then, I still preferred to be outside the centre than within. I made very few friends of my own at university – chiefly because I went there with friends from home. Following graduation, I worked in a ski resort with a fantastic bunch of people, none of whom I’m in contact with now; ditto my time as a postgrad journalism student in Liverpool. At Birkbeck, where I am currently studying, there are a number of friendly and familiar faces within my PhD cohort – but postgraduate research is a lonely enterprise. Equally, to none of my cohort would I propose meeting for coffee or sharing a beer, unless they suggested it first.
It’s clear the introverted traits of my teenage years have followed me into adulthood and have in some sense damaged my relationships with friends and tainted my employability. At my six month appraisal my former employer deemed me ‘too grumpy’; other employers have accused me of having an ‘attitude problem’. Doubtless I’m not the only introverted employee whose behaviour has come under critical scrutiny for being too inward-looking. We work within a corporate culture which values self-aggrandising, hubristic declarations of self-worth over the quietly diligent endeavours of the highly sensitive. Susan Cain argues that introverts are good for society and the economy, and their talents should be harnessed, not treated like something that can be ‘cured’ (i.e. converted into cultivated extroversion):
The highly sensitive [introverted] tend to be philosophical or spiritual in their orientation, rather than materialistic or hedonistic. They dislike small talk. They often describe themselves as creative or intuitive…They love music, nature, art, physical beauty. They feel exceptionally strong emotions – sometimes acute bouts of joy, but also sorrow, melancholy, and fear. Highly sensitive people also process information about their environments – physical and emotional – unusually deeply.
Cain distinguishes between shyness and introversion, defining the former as a painful fear of social disapproval, and the latter viewed as a preference for under-stimulating environments. Personally-speaking, terminal shyness is the root of my introversion. For me, one cannot exist without the other, and neither are traits which can be easily cured. The harder the shy work to conquer their affliction, the greater their anxiety when these strategies fail.
My shyness is most likely inherited from the matriarchal side of my family. My mother is naturally introverted and prefers the quiet of solitude to the noise of friends. I have witnessed her discomfort in social situations with people she knows, and especially with those she doesn’t. Her father was the archetypal ‘strong, silent male’, and her parents had a very small circle of friends compared to those of my father’s family, whose social life rotated around the triumvirate of chapel, golf club and Masonic Hall. I’m not looking to locate the origin of my ongoing difficulties with introversion at my mother’s door, but here is a degree of nature-nurture in this. Scientists believe that an individual’s predisposition towards loneliness is inherited, and that those who prefer to spend time alone than be lonely in a crowd get caught in a ‘loneliness loop’. D.W. Winnicott believed that we develop the capacity to be alone through the maternal bond, paving the way for attachment theory – how the varying strengths of the bond between mother and child underpin a child’s ability to cope with being alone later in life. According to Winnicott, aloneness is dependent upon the presence of a supportive other.
How much my mother’s introversion shaped me is up for debate. But even today, within my family at times I feel like an outsider, simply by dint of the fact that I have always sought solace in an interior world at moments of insecurity or depression. Becoming a husband and father presented new challenges, not least that my oldest son is beginning to exhibit those tell-tale signs of introversion I find within myself. During his first months at nursery, he shied away from the other children, preferring to play on his own than join in the group tasks. As a husband I internalise my frustrations and give my wife the silent treatment when I can’t get my own way. In other words, I sulk like a teenager.
An important distinction, then, can be made between introversion and being an outsider. Introversion and outsider status are often linked to shyness, but shyness is not a cultivated thing. Outsider status can be wholly cultivated, yet can still move you closer to the centre of a social group. The silent wall of shyness sometimes collapses once an individual garners some sort of praise or adulation, but the shy are never the centre of things before this happens. It is quite possible to be an outsider and not be shy, but the reverse is very rarely necessarily true – at least, not without assuming an extrovert alter-ego, something the cripplingly shy find impossible to do. For my part, as I examined my introspective personality over time, I found myself increasingly drawn towards visual art, music, film and literature: those artistic forms whose history, practices and aesthetics not only legitimise introspection, but demand it. In one sense it confirmed and fed my shyness and introversion, while in another it centred my sense of belonging upon slavish fandom and critical admiration for those twentieth century icons for whom introspection and loneliness was a necessity (Samuel Beckett, Miles Davis, Leonard Cohen, Nick Drake, Bob Dylan, Charles Bukowski, Neil Young, etc etc).
And so I continue find myself confined to the fringe: socially, emotionally and economically. It’s my own fault, and it’s the fault of my genes: I cannot stand noisy cliques; I abhor the will to dominate; I disdain majority perspectives; I frequently side with the underdog. I’ll always be stood so close to the edge of the frame to be outside it, looking on, alone. As Geoff Dyer writes, destiny is what’s already stored up inside you. In that case, detachment is my destiny. I suppose it’s no bad place to be.
After publishing the above my friends and me reconvened for one of our all-too-rare reunions. Unsurprisingly, the blog became a topic of discussion: a transference from its virtual, perception-based rendering of our relationships to an experiential one. I had inadvertently moved myself from the social fringe to the centre; moreover, in trying to pinpoint the influences and instances which have fed my introversion, the blog could be read as a denigration of our friendship. It was an uncomfortable moment for me, but arguably deservedly so. Where I'd oversimplified, I was rightly called out - but there was also sensitivity and encouragement for what I was trying to do in writing the piece. Another enjoyably raucous reunion ensued. That's the beauty long-standing friendships - you can be a dickhead and within reason all will be forgiven. As much as I enjoy my own company, I still love my friends like brothers.