The isolato is a literary character separated from other people, mostly spiritually and frequently physically. This person is familiar to readers of what has become known as literary fiction (a bemusing phrase, I think), especially by American male authors. In fact, much of famous American literature is rife with these characters, some tragic-comic, Huck Finn, and some tragic, Ishmael in Melville's Moby Dick. More (much more) on Ishmael later.
I'm thinking about this today because I stumbled upon a recent blog post in Esquire online. The author traces the increase in male American separation from other male friends and acquaintances, which ironically parallels an increase in the white male "bro" meme, itself co-opted from a singularly African-American male usage during the 1970s. The author, however, is less interested in tracing the linguistic trails of the term so much as he is interested in discussing what he contends is the growing phenomenon of American male aloneness (distinguished from loneliness, an entirely different signifier).
The author compares the male experience to the female experience and focuses on the evidence that individual females, whether as a result of nature or nurture, have a far greater propensity to engage with or gather among other females, especially during times of personal stress. He provides statistics for both males and females that demonstrate that the more stress the females experience, the more they are drawn toward other females, whereas the males do the opposite—the more stress they experience, the more they withdraw into their personal selves, often to the point of self-destruction of one sort or another.
And so we have the male isolato, the literary figure driven to seek relief from a sense of suffering that cannot be resolved by immersing himself in a community of fellow males, but rather turns inward, most often moving toward the very source of the suffering he seeks refuge from.
Let's consider Melville's Ishmael. He is a curious person, indeed. As soon as he utters his first three words, we know he is not a regular guy, at least not by our perceived notions of "regular." Why, for example, this announced subterfuge, "Call me Ishmael"? That is, he tells us he is someone other than the person he wants us to think of him as. Many people overlook this in Ishmael, and yet it sets up the entire dramatic dynamic of the story. In a sense he plays us; call me Ishmael, if you care to listen to me. He deliberately distances himself from us. Curious indeed.
Then, he goes on to detail something about himself, which is in fact a set up for why he's about to go to sea, an irrational rationale, so to speak, as well as the profound irony of his story.
"Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can."
That is to say, when I'm feeling destitute in spirit, associating with all things funereal and contemplating suicide, I think it's best that I join a crew aboard a whaling ship. Clearly, our storyteller, apart from wanting us to accept his charade, wants us to trust someone who has lost his trust and faith in his fellow human beings in the society from which he desperately seeks refuge.
Critics have made much of the crew as a microcosm of humanity. And yet few will step back and see that Ishmael adapts to this crew precisely because they are not of the humanity he belongs to. And the more he seeks to comprehend their customs and mores the less he understands. The very spiritual salve Ishmael sought for his destitute soul becomes an intense nightmare, an operatic drama of good and evil—if we accept all of Ahab's preaching and Queequeq's mystique.
The pathetic irony of Ishmael's story is that when he resurfaces (literally), the sole survivor of Ahab's madness, he is no more aware of the meaning of what he has experienced than he was of the mystery of life on land that drove him into his isolation in the first place. He is not even as aware as Huck Finn is at the end of his story. Huck knows adults will try to "sivilize" him, but he also knows now that he is confident and competent enough to "light out for the territory." Ishamel has no such self-assurance. We can only conclude that he will need to return ashore and most likely resume feeling the drizzly November in his soul. He becomes as self-pityingly saccharine as the narrator in Gilbert O'Sullivan's 1972 "Alone Again Naturally." One wonders if that might have been the anthem of some of the men's groups that arose during that period (just wondering).
Like so many of Melville's alone isolatos, the lawyer/narrator of "Bartleby, the Scrivener" is another classic in this form; like Ishmael's story his story functions as an apologia for his aloneness, for his inability to empathetically engage with his male counterparts in a resourceful community. Their isolation, like a cocoon, simultaneously keeps them protected from the risk of sharing as well as masking their true self.
Likewise, this then is the contemporary mask or cover of the "bro" meme and all its morphs—bromance, broflick, etc. It provides cover for the aloneness and isolation of being male, a characteristic that has been very much a part of our culture for a very long time. I haven't even mentioned Natty Bumppo or Holden Caulfield...yet!