The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone

Olivia Laing, in her extraordinary and compelling more-than-memoir, The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone, explores how hard it is to make an honest and genuine connection with another human being. 

The author portrays an intimate and personal portrait of loneliness by delving into the New York art culture. However, don’t misjudge this book being about art. It is through discovering and immersing herself into the work of artists, the author draws parallel lines between their suffering and her own. 

“Loneliness is difficult to confess; difficult too to categorise. Like depression, a state with which it often intersects, it can run deep in the fabric of a person.” 

Liang was in her thirties when she moved from the UK to New York. The primary reason was to pursue her relationship further; however, her lover called at the last minute, stating his disinterest in the relationship and things ended. Yet, out of utter determination or hope, she boards the plane and lands in New York, only to find herself drowning in the ocean of loneliness even amid millions of people. 

Her decision to leave her home and begin the journey on another continent is paradoxical, a strange invitation to loneliness, yet, somehow a voluntary plunge into the laboratory of self-discovery. Although she is fluent to the core when it comes to speaking English, her heavy British accent proves to be a barrier while communicating with baristas and everyday strangers. This leaves her with a strange position where she finds herself and her ability to communicate diminishing. 

The author writes,

“There were things that burned away at me, not only as a private individual but also as a citizen of our century, our pixelated age. 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?”

To wash off this emotional stain, Laing seeks comfort in the art and lives of patrons of loneliness- contemporary artists in New York’s history- Edward Hopper, David Wojnarowicz, Henry Darger, Andy Warhol, and Klos Nomi to name a few. All these artists intersect at a trivial point of being irritatingly misunderstood and overlooked for most of their lives, for example, even when they died, they died lonely. 

It isn’t the art that attracts but the lives and work of the artists. Describing the subjects of Edward Hopper’s paintings, the author writes,

“What Hopper captures is beautiful as well as frightening. They aren’t sentimental, his pictures, but there is an extraordinary attentiveness to them…. 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.”

Starting with Hopper, Laing continues to do this for the rest of her time. Exploring the archives from NYC, decoding artists’ interviews, reading their diaries and peeling layer after layer from each man’s life, and constructing a specific collage of loneliness. 

Speaking of David Wojnarowicz, the creative polymath who died in his thirties due to AIDS, she writes that loneliness is often intertwined with another common thing from our everyday lives- loss. 

“Loss is a cousin of loneliness. They intersect and overlap, and so it’s not surprising that a work of mourning might invoke a feeling of aloneness, of separation. Mortality is lonely. Physical existence is lonely by its nature, stuck in a body that’s moving inexorably towards decay, shrinking, wastage and fracture. Then there’s the loneliness of bereavement, the loneliness of lost or damaged love, of missing one or many specific people, the loneliness of mourning.”

Juxtaposing her inner solitude and thriving NYC landscape, she writes, 

“Imagine standing by a window at night, on the sixth or seventeenth or forty-third floor of a building. The city reveals itself as a set of cells, a hundred thousand windows, some darkened and some flooded with green or white or golden light. Inside, strangers swim to and fro, attending to the business of their private hours. You can see them, but you can’t reach them, and so this commonplace urban phenomenon, available in any city of the world on any night, conveys to even the most social a tremor of loneliness, its uneasy combination of separation and exposure.

You can be lonely anywhere, but there is a particular flavour to the loneliness that comes from living in a city, surrounded by millions of people. One might think this state was antithetical to urban living, to the massed presence of other human beings, and yet mere physical proximity is not enough to dispel a sense of internal isolation. It’s possible – easy, even – to feel desolate and unfrequented in oneself while living cheek by jowl with others. Cities can be lonely places, and in admitting this we see that loneliness doesn’t necessarily require physical solitude, but rather an absence or paucity of connection, closeness, kinship: an inability, for one reason or another, to find as much intimacy as is desired. Unhappy, as the dictionary has it, as a result of being without the companionship of others. Hardly any wonder, then, that it can reach its apotheosis in a crowd.”

I read this book almost a year back while going on a trip to Pondicherry. The tour ended successfully though my desperate efforts to find an answer to the end of loneliness didn’t. When I finished the last page, my desperation settled, knowing that it may not end immediately, but soon. 

Defining loneliness as an amalgamation of personal and public cosmos, Laing adds, 

“There is a gentrification that is happening to cities, and there is a gentrification that is happening to the emotions too, with a similarly homogenising, whitening, deadening effect. Amidst the glossiness of late capitalism, we are fed the notion that all difficult feelings — depression, anxiety, loneliness, rage — are simply a consequence of unsettled chemistry, a problem to be fixed, rather than a response to structural injustice or, on the other hand, to the native texture of embodiment, of doing time, as David Wojnarowicz memorably put it, in a rented body, with all the attendant grief and frustration that entails.

I don’t believe the cure for loneliness is meeting someone, not necessarily. I think it’s about two things: learning how to befriend yourself and understanding that many of the things that seem to afflict us as individuals are in fact a result of larger forces of stigma and exclusion, which can and should be resisted.

Loneliness is personal, and it is also political. Loneliness is collective; it is a city. 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 individual happiness does not trump or excuse our obligations to each another. 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.”

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