The lonely city - Adventures in the art of being alone, by Olivia Laing

Olivia Laing is a British contemporary writer and cultural critic, the author of three books: To the river (2011), The trip to Echo Spring (2013), and The Lonely City - Adventures in the art of being alone (2016). Surprisingly enough, this is all that Wikipedia has on her. Surprising, because in her work she humanely, brilliantly, provocatively deals with one of the most relevant and difficult topics of human nature: loneliness, aloneness.

The title of her last book is both suggestive and appealing. The author’s decision to move to New York in her mid-thirties, presumably caused by the relationship she was having at the time, seems to be the starting point of the book. Early on in the book, the author reveals going through a hard breakup, which catapults her head first into the daily space of loneliness. Anyone focusing on the beginning of her book and taking this starting point as a status quo, will be at least partly disappointed, as there are very few moments in the book when the author touches upon aspects of her relationship, and then only fleetingly, secondarily, merely as an aid for getting her points across.

In reality, the book is about loneliness as human emotion, but also as a means to reaching greater depths of oneself, of daring. The backdrop of the book is NY, the author’s lonely city. Easily understandable: a city with more than 8 million inhabitants, more than double the population of entire countries (take Lithuania, for instance, with only ~3 million inhabitants), NY is far more than a city - rather, a constellation of highly different worlds, both culturally as well as technologically, an immense gathering of often parallel non-intersecting universes. "No man is an island entire of itself", said John Donne as early as the 15th century. However, it is safe to say that NY is indeed a fantastically intricate island, with the ability of giving birth or at least of fostering a different kind of loneliness.

Against this backdrop, we are brought in contact, slowly at first, with four very different artists: Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, Henry Darger, and David Wojnarowicz. Other remarkable artists are touched upon as well, but in a more fleeting nature. The focus on Edward Hopper is, while fascinating and eye-opening, rather brief, as the most prominent figure of the book is actually Wojnarowicz. Each of these artists starts their life as an outsider to the world, an entity not quite fitting into the world’s puzzle and, instead of smoothing their edges and cores to fit into it, each prefers to create their own deep and oftentimes highly metaphorical worlds.

During his early years of painting, Hopper struggled both to support himself from his freelancing illustration and painting work, as well as to define his own style. His breakthrough seems somewhat overlapping with the beginning of his relationship with his future wife, Josephine. An introspective, quiet and somewhat fatalistic man, Hopper was drawn to an emblematic, metaphorical symbolism. As such, his more mature paintings manage to catch the new kind of loneliness of modern American cities and end up being true psychological puzzles. Representative of his work is the famous painting called “Nighthawks”, showing customers sitting at a counter of an all-night diner. What is remarkable about this painting is the remoteness of the place, the total absence of the buzz so typical of big-city diners. None of the characters looks at each other, but rather somewhere beyond this world, in empty space - solitudes placed next to each other. As Laing so rightly observes, there are no outside doors, the space being a universe in itself, a place of possible refuge that can, in the blink of an eye, transform itself into “an urban aquarium”, a self-enclosed contraption. The strong, unforgiving yellow light only accentuates this feeling, adding years to the woman’s age and harshness to the men’s features. And yet, there seems to be something almost soothing to their loneliness, each of the characters at peace with himself. There is no urgency, but rather just acceptance, being. As Laing puts it, “almost a century on, his images of solitary men and women glimpsed behind glass in deserted cafes, offices and hotel lobbies remain the signature images of isolation in the city”. Hopper seems to have treated loneliness as a life-long companion, whom you neither despise nor love, but merely accept as part of the human condition, a point which Laing beautifully brings forth.

Warhol’s loneliness, on the other hand, is characterized by a particular and highly singular brand of awkwardness, which sets him painfully apart. The unique thing about Warhol seems to be his stubbornness, his relentless persistence - while most people in his position would try to camouflage the awkwardness, the inability to adapt (thus surrendering individuality), he places it in the front light, as the ultimate extension of himself. His daily process of getting ready for the world - with makeup and his never-missing extravagant white wig, his trusted technological companions - the photo camera, the recorder (what he humorously and uncannily calls “his wife”), they all compose the props of an ever-acting character, simultaneously detached and over-sensitively close. His stage was the outside world, a world which he so desperately tried to populate, to internalize and to simultaneously keep at a sufficient distance. In a world devoid of touch, as that of Warhol’s, “speech is the closest contact it is possible to have with another human being” - which is likely the reason for Warhol’s fascination with daily dialogues of people. As Laing herself underlines, Warhol is uncannily relevant, much ahead of his time - a defining feature aptly highlighted when explaining “in very precise terms how technology liberated him from the burden of needing other people” by “using physical devices as a way of filling the uncomfortable, sometimes unbearable space between self and the world”.

Henry Darger, the only artist included by Laing in her book and who did not live in NY but rather Chicago, was a character of the peculiar. Seen retrospectively, his whole life is a highly unusual lesson in seclusiveness, his capacity for living in a self-imagined alter world singular and utterly impressive. Darger was born in a poor family and had a difficult childhood, with his parents both dying when he was young. At 17, he finally managed to rent a single room in one of Chicago’s boarding houses, whose rent he paid by performing menial and tiresome physical jobs in Chicago’s catholic hospitals. Unbeknownst to anyone and spanning the space of more than six decades, he slowly but dedicatedly developed a coherent other-world, his universe, suggestively titled "The Realms of the Unreal" - an immense novel of more than 15,000 pages, accompanied by more than 300 paintings painstakingly depicting the novel’s universe. While it can be argued that Darger's often nightmarish, war-filled paintings are a consequence of his early life experiences and religious influence, overall his body of work is mysterious in its cohesiveness and, while actual, resists full interpretation. His loneliness is of a special type, a resistance to the loss he felt early in life, populated by universes always filled to the brim.

The chapter first introducing David Wojnarowicz to the reader is tenderly titled “In Loving Him” and ironically starts with a short description of Laing’s Halloween experience and her exhaustion from being too visible. This acts as a flowing, natural means of introducing the artist, whose art includes disquieting demonstrations, such as walking around the 80’s NY with a paper mask of the French poet Arthur Rimbaud. This manifesto can, however, be simultaneously disconcerting and seemingly contradictory of his highly declarative art and his presence as one of the most intense gay activists of the period. Wojnarowicz had an acutely painful and abusive childhood and teenage period, whose loneliness spilled over into his adult years. As Laing masterfully puts it, “so much of his life was spent trying to escape solitary confinement of one kind or another, to figure a way out of the prison of the self”. His way of escape was bifold: sex and art. Both of which are intense undertakings, filled to the brim with aliveness, danger (physical and otherwise), fear and emotion. He does not inhabit a world of half-measures and tempered manifestations - in a time when AIDS is just being discovered and people’s reactions to it, like in front of any unknown, are largely limited, simplistic and intensely cruel in their rejection, there is no space for anything other than full-blown revolt. The fight for human rights, for everyone’s rights alike, does not know half-measures, and this was David’s way of upending loneliness, boldly surfing its stifling, unbearable wave: “We can all affect each other, by being open enough to make each other feel less alienated”.

All artists whom Laing discusses in her book have been confronted with loneliness and aloneness during their life time, in various degrees of brutality (including herself). Through Laing’s masterful and simultaneously humble prose, we attempt a diving into their lives and personalities, into their ways of dealing with this “double-edged loneliness, in which a fear of closeness pulls against a terror of solitude”. The book can be read in many registers: as an intermission into the author’s loneliness and how she manages to anchor herself through art, as a window into the artists’ loneliness and their personal ways of fighting against it, or as mirroring the technological loneliness of modern cities, of apocalyptic modern societies. The message of the book, however, does not have to do with any one specific type of loneliness. But rather with the fact that loneliness is just another human emotion, highly complex and multi-faceted, which should be given space, acknowledged for what it is. And which can be used as a means of self-reflection and self-development, a tool towards better self-acceptance, into new, yet unknown depths of ourselves and a means to reach novel, possibly more original, expanded horizons. A means of resisting interpretations and enlarging the vast ocean of human experience - one of the few cases in which experience itself is the end goal.

Perhaps quite the irony, the cure for loneliness is not the other, but the self - a higher level of acceptance and, in the author’s own words, a renewed fight against “the larger forces of stigma and exclusion”.