The lonely city is a pervasive phenomenon. The specific city of Olivia Laing’s new essay/memoir of the same name is New York City, but there is something about the modern city – be it the glass towered canyons of the central core or, I would argue, the uniform, ordered expanse of soulless suburbs that breeds a loneliness that can be suffocating. And surely some feel it more acutely than others, but most of us have probably, at least at some time or in some space, been troubled by the longing for contact, the need to share, and the sense that our aching neediness is conspicuous, writ large in awkward desperation. That is the experience Laing sets out to explore, by placing the inward focused isolation of being alone in a foreign city, against the works of a number of artists who, she argues, portray loneliness – capture the sensation, however bleak or beautiful – in a manner that speaks to her, during her sojourn and, in the end, perhaps help her find her way out of her darkness.
Her previous book, The Trip to Echo Spring, also set in America, was a road trip via the lives of five American authors who battled the bottle, framed against her own experiences growing up in an alcoholic household. I read it with an eye to understanding my adult son, a creative young man who is also an alcoholic. In her new work, the terrain she covers is confined, claustrophobic, but again informed by her own experience, this time of a period spent in New York following the emotionally devastating collapse of a relationship. I read The Lonely City in an urban centre less glamorous but with its own tendency to be unfriendly, at the apex, perhaps, of an extended period of crushing loneliness of my own.
Laing begins her journey through urban alienation with the suggestion, inspired by an entry in the diaries of Virginia Woolf, that there can be a transcendent quality to the experience of loneliness. She seeks to find this idea reflected in the lives and creations of a number of artists whose works draw her in and help her articulate and understand her own loneliness, in the moment, and as it exists within in the context of 21st century technology. She asks:
“What does it mean to be lonely? How do we live, if we’re not intimately engaged with another human being? How do we connect with other people, particularly if we don’t find speaking easy? Is sex a cure for loneliness, and if it is, what happens if our body or sexuality is considered deviant or damaged, if we are ill or unblessed with beauty? And is technology helping with these things? Does it draw us closer together, or trap us behind screens?”
As an essayist, Laing has the ability to balance just the right measure of personal exposition and vulnerability, with an uncanny talent for bringing the lives of the individuals that fascinate her into an immediate, sensitive focus. She writes with an honest compassion and curiosity. New York City – reflected through her months of moving between rented or borrowed accommodations, patrolling the streets with a sense of acute isolation, and digging through the archives of artists in search of meaning and treasure – is exposed and stripped bare through the emotionally disenfranchised creative eye. The eyes she choses to look through include Alfred Hitchcock, Valeries Solanas, Nan Goldin, Klaus Nomi, Peter Hujar, Billie Holiday and Jean-Michel Basquiat; but four artists in particular provide perspectives she finds deeply intriguing. They are the realist painter Edward Hopper whose stark images capture the solitary urban existence with an intensity that is poignant and uncomfortable; Andy Warhol, the socially awkward artist who virtually fabricated an identity protected by silkscreen frames, cameras and tape recorders; the unknown Chicago janitor, Henry Darger, who left an extensive, often disturbing, legacy of folk art and thousand of pages of imaginative prose; and, finally, photographer, artist, writer and activist David Wojnarowicz.
Laing weaves her personal reflections with a survey of some of the essential psychological studies of the causes and expressions of loneliness; expanding on these themes against the broad canvas of the lives and artworks of the artists she examines. Her subjects, the key players and the supporting characters alike, tend to be outsiders, typically survivors of troubled childhoods – victims of neglect, rejection, even outright physical abuse. Many are queer, individuals set apart by their sexuality, most find normal conversational communication difficult, and addiction is a common demon that recurs. The art, film and writings produced by these complex individuals is, in many instances, boundary breaking, frequently disturbing, and contain, at their core an attempt to articulate the aloneness of life in the city, to portray the isolated individual within stark interior spaces (as in the haunting paintings of Edward Hopper) or to record the desolate environments where the dispossessed seek to assuage their alienation through drugs and risky anonymous sexual encounters (as in the work of Warhol, Goldin, Wojnarowicz and others). Then there is the janitor/artist Darger, a loner who created a detailed alternate universe, illustrated with playfully coloured paintings that frequently contained elements of disturbing violence enacted on children, leaving an exhaustive wealth of works that no one saw until he was forced into hospital care at the end of his life.
Each of Laing’s outsider artists is treated with an empathetic respect and is understood within a society that is perceived as antagonistic to the those who by virtue of personality, mental illness, social anxiety, gender expression or sexuality are seen as divergent from the “norm”, whatever that is. The artists who seem to hold the greatest appeal for her, as a memoirist, are those who exploit their own differences to challenge the pressures that perpetuate a mainstream conformity. Regarding Wojnarowicz she says:
“All his work was an act of resistance against this dominating force, driven by a desire to contact and inhabit a deeper, wilder mode of being. The best way he’d found to fight was to make public the truths of his own life, to create work that resisted invisibility and silence; the loneliness that comes from having your existence denied, from being written out of history, which after all belongs to the normal and not to the stigmatised.”
As Laing unwraps the nuances of her own engagement with loneliness she finds in herself a profound identification with the gay artists who were navigating the city’s streets in the years before Stonewall, or even worse, during the height of the AIDS epidemic. As the daughter of a lesbian who was outed when homophobia was still legally enforced in the UK, she was especially sensitive to the gay taunts and jeers she heard in the school yard. But the knife cut deeper in an unexpected way:
“It wasn’t just about my mother. I can see myself then, skinny and pale, dressed as a boy, completely incapable of handling the social demands of being at a girl’s school, my own sexuality and sense of gender hopelessly out of kilter with the options then on offer. If I was anything, I was a gay boy; in the wrong place, in the wrong body, in the wrong life.”
These words struck a deep chord with me. Growing up in the 1960’s and 70’s, I found myself in the same space, only more completely if you like. I was haunted by an other-worldliness, a complete sense of my lack of ability to understand, let alone communicate, with those with who apparently shared the same gender. This feeling began to escalate as I reached my mid teens. That was, incidentally, a time when I sought a sense of self-identification with the world personified by Andy Warhol, The Velvet Underground and other denizens of the Factory scene. I was, without any language for myself, grasping at straws. But I would not find the words, or discover that there was a way to ameliorate the crushing sense that I was in the wrong body until I was well into my 30’s. Many years on now I would like to say that being able to exist in the world in a way that is at once socially and emotional right has rendered loneliness a less pervasive force, but, in truth, it just changes the parameters of one’s alienation. At best, I am a loner who appears outgoing, who can readily speak to a room of 100 people but stumbles awkwardly over small talk; at worst I am floored by waves of intense loneliness that break over me when I least expect it, most often when I am in public places.
I have introduced my own experience here because it leads into the curious question of the role of social media in the 21st century experience of isolation. Laing describes how, during her New York stay, she would open and close the day wandering the virtual streets and alleys of the city of Twitter. In between, even more hours could be lost to clicking, conversing, and cruising hashtags. In my loneliest periods I have fallen into the same pattern and asked myself the same questions she poses:
“What did I want? What was I looking for? What was I doing there, hour after hour? Contradictory things. I wanted to know what was going on. I wanted to be stimulated. I wanted to be in contact and I wanted to retain my privacy. I wanted to click and click and click until my synapses exploded, until I was flooded with superfluity.”
The migration of our social engagement to a virtual sphere is, she argues, reflected in the gentrification of our urban communities and in the gentrification of our emotions. Happiness is assumed to be the default; difficult feelings are to be avoided, corrected, numbed. The internet can be a comfort, a necessary connection, but it is important to understand its limitations. It cannot cure loneliness. The answer lies not in another person, but within ones self. After all, a period of loneliness can be positive experience, a time of personal growth. Longing, as Laing reminds us, is a vital part of the human experience, it “does not mean that one has failed, but simply that one is alive.” I am inclined to believe she is right.
The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone is published by Picador.