Musings on Art and Loneliness

Book review: The Lonely City, by Olivia Laing

“It was becoming increasingly easy to see how people ended up vanishing in cities, disappearing in plain sight, retreating into their apartments because of sickness or bereavement, mental illness or the persistent, unbearable burden of sadness and shyness, not knowing how to impress themselves into the world.”

Olivia Laing unexpectedly became a British expatriate alone in New York City, bouncing from one temporary housing arrangement to another. She finds herself living in a strange kind of loneliness, isolated by the differences in the shared language, the culture and notorious frenetic pace of the city, and that strange quality that so many experience in a big city – how it’s possible to feel so very alone despite being surrounded everywhere, at all times, by countless other people.

Even in a string of odd sublet rooms or apartments, where she can see and hear so much from her neighbors, Laing is still lonely, a phenomenon not at all unfamiliar to other big-city dwellers.

Curious about the complicated feelings that loneliness inspires, Laing writes about her own experiences – the details and minutiae of her Manhattan days written up with exquisitely beautiful descriptions and sometimes voyeuristic attention. But she looks beyond herself – she explores those who have been famously lonely before, isolated in some way by personality, illness or plain choice, and who have written or made art about their loneliness.

She covers filmmakers, artists, writers and musicians, their seclusion ranging from run-of-the-mill lonely to the downright reclusive, among them Andy Warhol, Edward Hopper, and Henry Darger. Along the way she incorporates psychological principles that establish our understanding of loneliness and its effect on the human psyche.

It’s a testament to how well-researched and told her stories are that it’s not even necessary to be particularly interested or invested in the personalities she describes, it’s enough only to want to follow her train of thought and trail of research.

Nevertheless, I preferred her stories of personal experiences. They hit home, maybe because I’m also a New Yorker who’s felt the strange phenomenon of wandering through the city, alone and unnoticed, swallowed up by that special kind of sadness that’s only accessible when you’re one person in a veritable sea of people and bustling activity. But I think that’s not the only reason – these speak to a universal loneliness that everyone has experienced at one time or another.

“Mostly I was walled up inside myself, and certainly a very long way from anyone else.”

Like so many contemporary social histories, social media gets its own chapter, investigating the special kind of loneliness bred by this technology: It only took a few missed connections or lack of likes for the loneliness to resurface, to be flooded with the bleak sense of having failed to make contact.” She dubs this, loneliness triggered by virtual exclusion”. It’s an effective summation, I liked her brief but meaningful analysis of this new breed of virtual loneliness.

In one chapter, “My Heart Opens to Your Voice”, the role that speech plays in loneliness is explored. “If you are not being touched at all, then speech is the closest contact it is possible to have with another human being.”

In these situations [being outside while in the city] I felt liberated from the persistent weight of loneliness, the sensation of wrongness, the agitation around stigma and judgment and visibility. But it didn’t take much to shatter the illusion of self-forgetfulness, to bring me back not only to myself but to the familiar, excruciating sense of lack. Sometimes the trigger was visual-a couple holding hands, something as trivial and innocuous as that. But more often it had to do with language, with the need to communicate, to understand and make myself understood via the medium of speech.

It was interesting to read her take on being a foreigner in a country that shares a common language, yet still presents a barrier. This was an unexpected element, but her writing style and ability to write clearly while still infusing such a strong sense of emotion and loss was so impressive.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that this is a melancholy, weighty book. It’s never easy to think or read about loneliness, to delve deeply into something painful and sometimes incurable. There’s certainly a lingering sadness that accompanies the book, remaining after it’s closed. She’s skillful at stoking memory, your own come rushing back alongside her descriptions.

“I wandered around the personal ads on Craigslist in just the same way that I wandered around the delis on Eighth Avenue, gazing blankly into the lit racks of sushi, yogurt, ice cream, Blue Moon and Brooklyn beer, wondering what it was that I wanted, what it was that would satisfy or settle me, eating with my eyes.”

These were the passages I liked best, maybe because I also spent lonely years wandering New York City and there was sentimentality there. But she’s also just an excellent writer, clear and thoughtful and evocative.

You will feel lonely reading this, even if only from the memories, but I think in the end the effect is actually the opposite, and we can take some comfort in the fact that someone else experienced this so intensely that they wrote a book about it. It’ll all be okay.

The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone
by Olivia Laing
published March 1, 2016 by Picador

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