The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone by Olivia Laing review
Beautiful lessons about loneliness after writer is left by a lover in New York
The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone
It has often puzzled me that the frank admission of loneliness is somehow considered more shameful than the ill-advised lengths people go to in the desperate effort to avoid it. The capacity to inhabit loneliness – both its oppressive, gnawing isolation and its occasional, paradoxical richness – and to make something of that experience beyond self pity seems to me a wonderful and brave thing.
Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City does just that. “Loneliness is personal,” she writes, “and it is also political. As to how to inhabit it, there are no rules and nor is there any need to feel shame, only to remember that the pursuit of happiness does not trump or excuse our obligations to each other. We are in this together, this accumulation of scars, this world of objects, this physical and temporary heaven that so often takes on the countenance of hell. What matters is kindness; what matters is solidarity. What matters is staying alert, staying open, because if we know anything from what has gone before us, it is that the time for feeling will not last.”
Some time in the recent past, Laing found herself alone and lonely in New York City, haunted by the ghost of a life that might have been. She had fallen in love, and she and the man decided she would leave England and move permanently to New York. Then he changed his mind, and there she was, clinging desperately to the city itself, “stunned by the swift arrival and even swifter departure of everything I thought I lacked”.
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Instead of just taking to the bed (though there was a bit of that, too – sheltering in a series of closet-sized flats, connected, as if by a drip, to Twitter feeds morning, noon and night), Laing began to explore loneliness and the city through visual art: “Things forged in loneliness, but also things that function to redeem it.”
Her investigations have resulted in a beautiful and intelligent meditation on this pervasive condition.
What does it mean to be lonely? How does loneliness function in our lives? What is the relationship between loneliness and art? What is loneliness, exactly, this thing that drives up blood pressure, contributes to insomnia, weakens the immune system, accelerates ageing, and acts as a precursor to cognitive decline?
It is constructed, Laing notes, of seemingly contradictory feelings – that of being walled off or penned in, and the excruciating sense of exposure. This exposure is one of the things that makes loneliness feel shameful and creates a self-reinforcing loop: the lonelier one gets, the less adept one becomes at navigating social life, the more difficult it becomes to connect, the lonelier one gets. The experience of loneliness is both universal and shot through with one’s particular class, culture and historical moment. Its remedies, perhaps, are limited only by the imagination.
Of the many artists whose work educated and consoled Laing during her time in New York, she focuses here on four: Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, Henry Darger and David Wojnarowicz. Of Hopper, she writes that he painted “as if loneliness was something worth looking at. More than that, as if looking itself was an antidote, a way to defeat loneliness’s strange, estranging spell.”
The section on Warhol focuses on the conflict inherent in a personality that both longs for and fears being subsumed into another ego, a tension Warhol navigated partly through the use of distancing technologies – prefiguring our own present-day addiction to our devices.
In 1965, Warhol acquired a tape-recorder, the ideal intermediary, “ameliorating loneliness without ever having to risk himself”. He nicknamed it “my wife”.
Henry Darger was born in 1892 and grew up largely in an asylum for so-called feeble-minded children (where kids were routinely raped and beaten). A self-taught artist who spent his adulthood working as a janitor in Chicago, Darger amassed in his boarding-house room an enormous body of astonishing, disturbing, disorienting work. Depictions of naked little girls (some with penises) being tortured and murdered by grown men co-exist with Darger’s declaration of child independence, included in his 15,000-page novel about a rebellion against child slavery: “To play, to be happy, and to dream, the right to normal sleep of the night’s season, the right to an education, that we may have an equality of opportunity for developing all that are in us of mind and heart.”
Darger was isolated, as a human being and as an artist, and the chapter Laing devotes to him is riveting.
David Wojnarowicz was brought up amidst physical, sexual and psychological abuse. By the age of 15, he was turning tricks in Times Square. After a period of homelessness, he got off the streets and remade himself into a serious artist. “His self-exposure was in itself a cure for loneliness,” Laing writes, “dissolving the sense of difference that comes when one believes one’s feelings or desires to be uniquely shameful.”
Wojnarowicz died of Aids in 1992, his work having become, in the years preceding his death, more political in response to government inaction in the face of the epidemic. Laing pays a great deal of attention to how gay men – particularly the terminally ill – experienced loneliness during the Aids crisis.
The closing sections of The Lonely City explore the peculiarly dehumanising forms of loneliness the internet can engender, even as it “connects” us. Laing’s descriptions of her own forays are harrowing: “The plunge through the drift, the awful k-hole of recessive links, clicking deeper and deeper into the past, stumbling out into the horrors of the present.”
I do have one complaint about this otherwise wonderful book, which is that it focuses almost exclusively on male artists. When women appear – Valerie Solanas, Nan Goldin, Vivian Maier, Zoe Leonard – it is because of their relation to the lives of the main events, the male artists, so that they feel uncomfortably like marginalia. This is peculiar and frustrating, given Laing’s brief, sharp articulation of the ways in which women can experience exclusion from the public space, or abuse within it. I wanted to know how she saw women artists portraying, inhabiting or subverting loneliness, because loneliness – if not the basic hungry feel of it, then the ways in which forms of exclusion act on us – is a gendered thing.
That caveat aside, The Lonely City is a beautiful work that charts one individual’s engagement with a select band of fellow humans, and her own recovered sense of wholeness. By handling the things that other people had made, Laing slowly absorbed the fact that the presence of loneliness and longing “does not mean one has failed, but simply that one is alive”. Molly McCloskey’s memoir Circles Around the Sun: In Search of a Lost Brother is out in paperback