In a Dark Room: Solitude’s Talk

In January 2022, the Solitudes network met to discuss research and ideas related to the theme of ‘Solitude and Interiority’. In this paper, Jess Cotton explores how literature and psychoanalysis offers insight into the voices of interior thought.

A voice comes to one in the dark. Imagine

-Samuel Beckett, ‘Company’ (1979)[1]

We do not regard our knowledge about affects as very assured either; it is a first attempt at finding our bearings in this obscure region.

-Sigmund Freud, ‘Introductory Lectures on Psycho-analysis’ (1920)[2]




In what language does solitude talk? If literature is the greatest authority on the history of voices, then it allows us to hear – perhaps greater than any other medium how we talk to ourselves: the sound of being alone, and of conjuring up another – referentially or fantastically – as the precondition of thought. Lyric has a particular purchase on this sense of solitariness insofar as it presumes a first-person speaker who is resolutely alone with themselves – though an aloneness that is predicated on an internal interlocutor: on the imagined presence of another, listening in. In Denise Riley’s Say Something Back (2016), lyric strains to hear the interlocutor that can no longer be found, to make an impossible encounter, which is one way to think about grief – or loneliness – or the grief of loneliness (about, in Melanie Klein’s terms, the nostalgic yearning for a perfect bond – the unconscious bond between mother and child – that no longer exists), which can only exist as a fantasy (a desire against the odds):[3]


Dun blur of this evening’s lurch to
Eventual navy night. Yet another
Night, day, night, over and over.
I so want to join you.[4]


Lyric address is, in the stasis of grief, truncated, repetitive. The loneliness of grief renders the promise of lyric speech futile: to whom exactly does it speak if the other is no longer there? In the poem, the speaker strains to hear what she wants to say; to find a language that might approximate the feeling of arrested time. If grief is speechless, solitude is often dull and inadequate; like lyric, it is awkward and self-protective, inching away from what it often looks like: solipsism, narcissism. In her essay ‘The Hermit’s Scream’, Adrienne Rich writes that poetry provides a language to break the circuit of the lonely subject forced to attend interminably to its own echo.[5]


In reading, we do not, I think, so much escape from our loneliness as produce a kind of solitude: we become attuned to our own internal thoughts as we overhear the thoughts of another; occasionally, when our minds are occupied, our internal thoughts – or speech – interrupt our reading; we might say that we are at such moments hearing words but not exactly listening. One is reminded of Samuel Beckett’s novel Murphy (1936), which was written in a state of exile and loneliness, during his stay in London in the 1930s which he arrived at in 1933 in order to undertake analysis at the Tavistock Clinic with Wilfred Bion, then a trainee therapist. Murphy would be an interruption of Beckett’s own psychoanalysis: he arrived in the capital in the state of depression that followed the death of his father, and the symbolic death of Joyce (who had cut him off over Beckett’s affair with his daughter Lucia). The transitory uprooted city life that is represented in the novel opens with an image of its protagonist naked in his rocking-chair ‘curtained off from the sun’, a posture that we are told gives his body pleasure and frees his mind.[6] Solitude is held at bay – as it is Riley’s work – through the awkwardness of comedy; through experiments in darkness. ‘For the first time’, Bion writes, reflecting on the successful psychoanalysis of a schizophrenic patient, ‘it seemed possible that a day might come when the patient would show a sense of humour’.[7] The inner most state of consciousness – the place one makes loneliness audible – in Beckett’s work, unlike Joyce’s, is not the internal babble of consciousness but a dissociative – schizophrenic – distinction between the mind and the body: as if one could arrive at a place outside the mind, could speak without a voice.




Solitude has taken a virtual turn of late, as if the promise of an encounter (and we might add of care) in the covid-19 pandemic were reduced to states of virtuality, of fantasy. How, we might reasonably ask, does the work of relationality that is so crucial to object relations psychoanalysis work in the online world? Hannah Zeavin has written a persuasive critique of the idea, held by many psychodynamic clinicians, that dislocated, or disembodied, therapy is an inferior form of treatment. She uses the metaphor of distance – as opposed to absence – to make the case for the usefulness of mediated treatment, which, she shows, is as old as the talking cure itself.[8] A voice can still be heard on the other end of the teletherapeutic line. But one might nonetheless wonder about the effects of the lack of full-embodied presence when it has been so crucial to the process of transference that takes place within the psychoanalytic setting; one might wonder whether listening online our presence is anything but a square rectangle, a hologram of a person, a ‘voice murmuring trace’ – as Beckett writes in ‘Texts for Nothing’ (1966): something that we are compelled to hear, which gives the illusion of conversation, the fantasy of an encounter.[9]




The infrequency of writing on the subject of loneliness in Freud’s work might lead one to presume it not to be an emotion that interested him much at all: a mere byproduct of other psychopathologies that lead one to dissociate from others; as a defense mechanism for ideas that have not been worked through. But loneliness is an emotion that one finds conspicuously in his letters to Wilhelm Fliess. ‘When I see your handwriting again, those are moments of great joy, which allow me to forget much of my loneliness and privation’, Freud writes to Fliess five days after the birth of his daughter Anna (one cannot help but presume a certain jealousy of attention – of femininity; an ambivalence about his role as head of the family).[10] Letters conjure up the illusion of presence – a sense of embodiment – that provide a counterpoint to loneliness as the default state of inventing the history of psychoanalysis. Two years later Freud writes of how a visit from Fliess’s wife Ida brought ‘the short-lived illusion of all of us being happily together and taking it away again with her departure’ – a presence that Freud frames as ‘interruptions of loneliness’ which ‘have a salutary effect by reminding us how difficult renunciation actually is and how wrong one is to get used to it’.[11]


Following the feverish writing of The Interpretation of Dreams in 1900, Freud fell into what his biographer Peter Gay refers to as an ‘enforced solitude’ – a word that he suggests provokes, if it is not synonymous with, depression.[12] In September 1901, reanimated by his self-analysis (Didier Anzieu also subscribes Beckett’s breakthrough in writing to auto-analysis), he visited Rome, and sent enthused messages to his family wondering what had kept him so long from the pleasure that travel brought him.[13] The history of psychoanalysis was from the start, for Freud, a profoundly lonely enterprise: an enterprise that promises to create a state of temporary solitude that allows one to work through one’s loneliness in dialogue with another. In psychoanalysis the analysand listens to the sound of their voice repeated back to them; the analyst’s presence, like Fliess’s handwriting, facilitates an exploration of self: a way to think in dialogue (to displace, or at least loosen the hold of, the introjected voices that we internalize and take in as our own).




In his ‘Introductory Lectures to Psychoanalysis’ Freud writes that ‘in children the first phobias relating to situations are those of darkness and solitude. The former of these often persists throughout life; both are involved when a child feels the absence of some loved person who looks after it – its mother, that it is to say.’[14] Given the proximity of darkness and solitude, as Freud positions them, one finds it hard not to see them as synonymous (are we not in solitude, in a dark room, a room where the lights have gone out, and we grapple to hear a voice in the dark). If solitude is so often positioned in the history of thought as the precondition for reflection and intellectual thinking, Freud presents it instead as persecutory. He concedes that the peculiar conditions of solitude are somewhat analogous to ‘the crowd, the enclosed space, the thunder-storm’: it is not that one cannot always bear these states but that they are inseparable from our phobias, and are thus related to the first condition of fear: a separation from the mother.


What might it mean that certain people are drawn repeatedly, inexorably to states of solitude – that they convert solitude into their understanding of interiority (only by myself, do I have capacity to think; I think therefore I am alone)? There is always something potentially objectifying about loneliness: the risk of loneliness is that it might lead one to treat oneself as an object, to fetishise the self. Freud writes about ‘a compulsion to repeat’ in the same text in which he provides his most thorough analysis of child’s play as a way of managing loss.[15] The death drive is articulated in the framework of the child’s ability to work through the absence of the mother – an absence that seems more tenable than that of a parent’s loss of a child, as Freud and Riley suggest (Freud is thinking – through his grandson Ernst – of his own failure to manage the loss of his daughter Sophie – Ernst’s mother – in 1920). To take the true measure of death might, then, also be to take the true measure of solitude.




Beckett renders solitude with all its phobias, and none of its literary romance. In Murphy, we find two interior social spaces that are inseparable from the psychic life of solitude: a mew in west Brompton – the itinerant world of pre-welfare 1930s London, and the asylum Magdalen Mental Mercyseat, the setting of the novel’s second half, where there is no separation for Murphy between life and work (where care work is, in all senses, deadly); where welfare is rendered inhumane because it does not recognise the importance of the relation between patient and carer. Reading Beckett, we become aware of how loneliness is produced by social institutions and how welfare – like literature – might ‘contain’ – in Bion’s sense – the darkness of solitude.[16] If the attempt to control the body is a way of managing the darkness of solitude in the first half of Murphy, in the second half of the novel, it is Murphy’s interaction with schizophrenic patients that provides him with a model to keep one’s own internal dialogue at bay. ‘His inner voice’, Beckett writes of the schizophrenic patient Mr Endon, ‘did not harangue him, it was unobtrusive and melodious, a gentle continuo in the whole consort of his hallucinations[…]a psychosis so limpid and imperturbable that Murphy felt drawn to it as Narcissus to his foundation’.[17] But, unlike Narcissus’s echo, Murphy achieves a true form of relationality with Mr Endon, a principle (that will become vital to the welfare state that would emerge ten years later – and to object relations psychoanalysis) which Beckett suggests involves safeguarding ‘what the psychiatrists called exile to think of the patients not as banished from a system of benefits but as escaped from a colossal fiasco’.[18]


The reality of the other imposes itself upon the hallucinatory voices that keep one company in states of solitude. It might be a way to hear the internal voices that we have within us so as not to come entirely under their authority. Bion would make use of a remarkably similar vocabulary in his 1953 paper ‘Language and the Schizophrenic’ in which he describes a patient who must escape ‘the prison’ of psychoanalysis – ‘a prison’, Bion notes, ‘that seemed sometimes to be me, sometimes psycho-analysis and sometimes his state of mind, which is a constant struggle with his internal objects’.[19] The state of loneliness is represented in Bion’s and Beckett’s work by a confusion of the senses: thus we read in Beckett’s Company (1980) ‘as for example when he hears, you first saw the light on such and such a day’.[20] In Bion’s paper, the key to overcoming the loneliness of schizophrenia lies in ‘the mastery of language’ which is presented as the key that releases one from the solitary prison of psychoanalysis.[21] The schizophrenic experiences their dissociation from the world as a failure of listen to the other: Bion cites a patient whose ‘hearing was felt to be defective because my words were being drowned by the tears that poured from his ears. When it emerged’, he writes, ‘that he couldn’t talk very well either I suggested that it was because he felt his tongue had been torn out and he had been left only with an ear’.[22]




In Klein’s posthumously published essay ‘On the Sense of Loneliness’ (1963), she observes that the schizophrenic’s experience of loneliness is a more exacerbated, extreme version of the loneliness experienced by everyone:


The schizophrenic feels that he is hopelessly in bits and that he will never be in possession of his self. The very fact that he is so fragmented results in his being unable to internalize his primal object (the mother) sufficiently as a good object and therefore in his lacking the foundation of stability; he cannot rely on an external and internal good object, nor can he rely on his own self. This factor is bound up with loneliness, for it increases the feeling of the schizophrenic that he is left alone, as it were, with his misery. The sense of being surrounded by a hostile world, which is characteristic of the paranoid aspect of schizophrenic illness, not only increases all his anxieties but vitally influences his feelings of loneliness.[23]


Writing an enthused letter to Klein in 1960, Bion presses her on her reflections on the distinction between different types of loneliness, and suggests that, as an emotional state, it might exceed language:

I think there may be a kind of “normal” loneliness which is an accompaniment of a capacity for integration and synthesis. Unfortunately there is no real word for it. I think of isolation, loneliness, but all carry something of a pathological meaning which is misleading.[24]

Doubtless the subject of loneliness was of interest to Bion as he was reflecting on his pioneering group work at the Tavistock clinic in the 1940s and 1950s, which radically transformed the nature of psychoanalysis, showing that it could be a collective as well as a solitary practice; that it could bring people together and reveal the nature of the dynamic between lonely subjects and isolated groups. In Experiences in Groups (1961), Bion revises Freud’s Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1920) as he reflects on the subject of collective formation in the wake of the Second World War and the founding of the welfare state. ‘You cannot understand a recluse living in isolation,’ Bion writes, ‘unless you inform yourself about the group of which he is a member’.[25]

Group psychoanalysis might, then, afford the promise of revealing the social dynamics in which both isolation is produced (drowning the other out) and in which a desire for solitude takes hold (in which one might retreat into the darkness). A group therapy session might be a kind of echo chamber (when it fails to work), but it also provides an arena in which the individual might find a new way to participate in the emotional life of the group – and in so doing in their own emotional life – as they begin to take in, not merely hear, the voices around them – and thus become better attuned to their own internal voices. In Company, Beckett writes that ‘a certain activity of mind however slight is a necessary adjunct of company. That is why the voice does not say, you are on your back in the dark and have no mental activity of any kind. The voice alone is company but not enough’. Internalizing voices is essential, Beckett suggests, to the work of thought; it keeps one sane (in this sense, hearing voices, rather than being synonymous with going mad, might instead be a way to preserve sanity; of resisting the tyranny of an authoritative voice). Solitude might be the price we pay for a failed form of collectivity but it is not enough: one must transform the voice without a mouth into a language that speaks; and seek out the company that are not only found in one’s own head – but which engages the other’s embodied presence – that speaks ‘with him in the dark to and of whom the voice is speaking.’[26]


[1] Samuel Beckett, Company / Ill Seen / Worstward Ho / Stirrings Still (London: Faber, 2009), 3.

[2] Sigmund Freud, The Penguin Freud Library, Vol 1: Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis (London: Penguin, 1991), 444.

[3] Melanie Klein, ‘On the Sense of Loneliness’, in Envy and Gratitude and Other Works (London: Vintage, 1997), 301.

[4] Denise Riley, Say Something Back (London: Picador, 2016), 11.

[5] Adrienne Rich, ‘The Hermit’s Scream’ in What is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics (New York: W. W. Norton, 1993), 54-71.

[6] Samuel Beckett, Murphy (London: Faber, 2009), 3.

[7] Wilfred Bion, ‘Language and the Schizophrenic’ in New Directions in Psychoanalysis: The Significance of Infant Conflict in the Pattern of Adult Behaviour ed. Melanie Klein, Paula Heimann and R.E. Money-Kyrle (London: Karnac, 1985), 237.

[8] Hannah Zeavin, The Distance Cure (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2021), 18.

[9] Samuel Beckett, ‘Texts for Nothing’, in Collected Shorter Prose 1945-1980 (London: John Calder, 1984), 152.

[10] Letter from Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess, December 8, 1895, in The Complete Letters of Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess, 1887-1904 (New York: Belknap Press, 1985), 57.

[11] Letter from Freud to Fliess, December 3 1987, 237.

[12] Peter Gay, Freud: A Life for Our Time (New York: W.W. Norton, 2006), 135.

[13] Didier Anzieu, ‘Beckett and Bion’, International Review of Psycho-Analysis 16, 163-8 (168).

[14] Freud, ‘Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis’, SE 16, 407.

[15] Freud, ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’, SE 18, 20.

[16] Wilfred Bion, Elements of Psychoanalysis (London: Routledge, 2018), 3.

[17] Beckett, Murphy, 116.

[18] Ibid., 111-2.

[19] Bion, ‘Language and the Schizophrenic’, 228-9.

[20] Beckett, Company, 3.

[21] Bion, ‘Language and the Schizophrenic’, 233.

[22] Ibid., 231.

[23] Klein, Envy and Gratitude, 303-4.

[24] Letter from Wilfred Bion to Melanie Klein, February 14 1960 cited in Jane Milton, ‘From the Melanie Klein Archive: Klein’s Further Thoughts on Loneliness’, The International Journal of Psychoanalysis 99.4 (2018), 929-946 (933-935).

[25] Wilfred Bion, Experiences in Groups: and Other Papers (New York: Routledge, 1961), 133.

[26] Beckett, Company, 4.



Jess Cotton is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in English at the University of Cambridge.