It’s difficult to write about books that affect me the most. Of course I was drawn to this non-fiction book because the title is so in line with my blog’s title. As well as being a platform for me to ponder what I’m reading, I like to think of this blog as an ongoing exploration on the conflicted relationship I have to literature – how it can make me feel so connected to our larger shared humanity. At the same time, it makes me physically alone and reading itself can serve as a self-imposed barrier to social interaction. Therefore, “The Lonely City” is exactly the kind of extended meditation on loneliness I crave to better inform me and expand my understanding of this condition. It’s a heavily researched book focusing on a choice selection of artists’ work and biographies to enhance Olivia Laing’s arguments about why we might frequently feel lonely, what loneliness means and how it’s a manifestation of living in society. This book is also highly personal with sections which are startlingly candid and touchingly vulnerable. In the same way that Helen Macdonald used an electric range of sources and personal experiences to broaden our understanding of grief in “H is for Hawk”, Laing uses fascinating research to inform a dynamic portrait of her intimate reality and make strong observations about loneliness. This made reading “The Lonely City” a deeply meaningful experience for me and made it a riveting book.
Laing concentrates on multiple visual artists such as Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, Henry Darger and David Wojnarowicz to formulate a nuanced and compelling understanding of what loneliness means. Her interpretations of these artists’ creations is heavily informed from biographical information and how expressions of loneliness are reflected in the physical forms of their work. She conducted an extensive amount of research going through archives and conducting interviews to gain deeper insight into the struggles they faced. In doing so she makes a number of compelling connections between how similar difficulties can manifest differently through artistic expression. She also references studies from psychologists such as Frieda Fromm-Reichmann to inform her arguments and deepen an understanding of the feelings these artists processed and formulated into art.
There’s a mesmerising way in which Laing’s engagement with art and artists leads on to more research and related research into other fascinating figures/artists such as Valerie Solanas, Peter Hujar, Billie Holiday, Klaus Nomi, Zoe Leonard, Jean-Michel Basquiat. They all reflect back on her focal subject and cast a different perspective on the sensation of being an outsider. The queer or racial minority status of many of her subjects and the way in which broader society has rejected them makes their deep-set feelings of aloneness and alienation highly understandable. They also serve as touchstones for Laing’s own feelings of not fitting into the majority or any neat classification of gender or sexuality: “I inhabited a space in the centre, which didn’t exist, except there I was.” Examples such as the famous gay cruising grounds of the piers in 1970s NYC serve as vibrant displays of freedom from social pressure to be in a monogamous couple or “to cuddle up, to couple off, to go like Noah’s animals two by two into a permanent container, sealed from the world.” Although men are frequently made to measure themselves against impossible masculine standards, women experience differently intense stresses to fit into a certain type leading Laing to state “God I was sick of carrying around a woman’s body, or rather everything that attaches to it.” Her observations about the general pressure towards conformity make her conclude that multiple forms of “structural injustice” induce feelings of loneliness and that loneliness is a collective experience rather than a singular one. In some form we all inhabit this state of mind, this city.
Growing up as a queer boy in the relatively rural state of Maine, I always had a keen sense of being outside the norm and often felt lonely. Moving to the city of Boston in my teenage years did little to assuage these feelings. While I met many like-minded people and had a range of experiences to broaden my sense of identity, I was made to feel more intensely isolated during a short period where I had nowhere to live. Bundling up against the cold and hunkering under a closed shopping centre’s light throughout the night, I read constantly to distract myself from the sleeplessness caused by living rough.
I always remember one evening when a guard patrolling the centre’s perimeter came upon me at 3am. Nervous I’d be ushered to move along I started to get up, but he just raised his hand and asked with genuine concern if I was alright. I huddled further into my coat and raised my book again assuring him I was fine. He lingered a moment and I could tell he wanted to ask more or offer some assistance, but I concentrated on my book deflecting any potential connection. There is a similar moment that Laing recounts when she’s reading at a train station and is approached by a man who is obviously desperate to strike up a friendly conversation. She avoided this contact and subsequently felt guilty about it. In the same way, although I was the one in need, I feel a lingering guilt that this man offered a connection in a lonely city and I shied away from it.
Reading can be a deeply enriching experience providing knowledge and extending our empathy to see the world through another individual’s perspective. However, it can also serve as a shield to avoid engaging with others even when a connection is what we desperately want. It’s also why participating in online interactions can be so much more seductive than making real life contact. As Laing writes about time she spent mostly online: “I wanted to be in contact and I wanted to retain my privacy, my private space.” It’s particularly fascinating how she concentrates upon examples from the rapidly changing landscape of the internet for how loneliness is both expressed and perpetuated through this medium. It proves how loneliness isn’t simply a question of being by yourself as opposed to being surrounded by others, but how the internal life become despondent, detached or separated from the external reality.
“The Lonely City” is a book that raises many deeply embedded and probably hidden feelings. It’s admirable not only for the sustained and studious lengths to which Laing probes the mystery of the common state of loneliness, but the way in which she bravely inserts herself into the question itself. Reading this book felt to me like engaging in the most personal and intense internal conversation – the kind you might only have with yourself sitting alone in a diner late at night staring through a window at all the distant lights.