Olivia Laing

The Lonely City

“Loneliness is a special place.”

An epidemic of loneliness has grabbed hold and held fast. Hurried on by Covid and self-isolation, but not because of it. In his 2000 study on our “anti-civil epidemic” sociologist Robert Putnam found individuals were leaving social groups at a faster rate than they joined, weakening our civil fabric.1

Fifty years earlier life-long New Yorker E. B. White wrote “On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy.”

“Loneliness is a special place” claims English writer Olivia Laing, a supple-hearted writer of expansive observation, in The Lonely City.

In this memoir of place and art, Laing explores the complexity of loneliness and a geography designed to keep things enclosed and distinct. “You be can lonely anywhere, but there is a particular flavour of loneliness that comes from living in a city, surrounded by millions of people” Laing writes from experience.

essays of E. B. White
New York City skyline. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Laing moved to New York in her 30s and was met with the kind of cavernous emptiness that welcomes the hopeful and uninitiated.

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 the result of being without the companionship of others. Hardly any wonder, then, that it can reach its apotheosis in a crowd.

I think of all the individuals who have written lovingly, longingly of solitude – by way of a garden shed, a room without means of a view, or a remote space in an uninhabited locale.2

I’ve learned to carry solitude on my person, a cloak around my shoulders. Ready for any spiritual weather.

Installation view, Andy Warhol Retrospective, MCA Chicago, Photograph by Frank J. Thomas © MCA Chicago
Installation view of the Andy Warhol Retrospective, MCA Chicago from July 1970 – September 1970. “Warhol emphasized the glamour of sameness as well as its potentially unnerving aspect by producing his common objects as multiples.” Learn more. Photograph by Frank J. Thomas © MCA Chicago

But as Laing articulates, being alone is a far cry from loneliness and they vary by kind not degrees. Loneliness seems to be the sum of solitude (being alone) and isolation, decreased in a fashion, as Laing finds, by the creative expression.

Andy Warhol’s loneliness – “the loneliness of difference, the loneliness of undesirability, the loneliness of not being admitted into the magic circles of connection and acceptance” – was a retreat into himself and away from all the things he wasn’t.

Although he succeeded in having several shows, his drawings were dismissed as being too commercial, too campy, too weightless, too flimsy: too gay altogether for the homophobic, macho climate of the time. This was the age of abstract expressionism, dominated by Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, in which the cardinal virtues were seriousness and feeling, the revealed layers behind the superficiality of the image. Beautiful drawings of golden shoes couldn’t be anything but a retrograde step, frivolous and trivial, though in fact they represented the first stage in Warhol’s assault on distinction itself, the opposition between depth and surface.

In the 1960s, Laing tells us, Warhol began to reinvent himself:

Instead of whimsical drawings of shoes for fashion magazines and department store ad campaigns, he began to produce flat, commodified, eerily exact paintings of even more despicable objects, the kind of household goods everyone in America knew and handled daily. Starting with a series of Coke bottles, he progressed rapidly to Campbell’s soup cans, food stamps and dollar bill: things he literally harvested from his mother’s cupboards.

Objects, for Warhol, became resounding acceptance and comfort. In his memoirs, one of the many books based on his hours, weeks etc. of audio-recording, Warhol wrote:

When I got my first TV set, I stopped caring so much about having close relationships with other people. I’d been hurt a lot to the degree you can only be hurt if you care a lot. So I guess I did care a lot, in the days before anyone ever heard of “pop art” or “underground movies” or “superstars. So in the late 50s I started an affair with my television which has continued to the present, when I play around in my bedroom with as many as four at a time.

From The Philosophy of Andy Warhol

The city compresses us into anonymous form. Warhol extracted himself from that anonymity by giving himself a caricature of sameness, as a person and an artist.

Laing peels back the sameness to shine light on the deeply complicated, vulnerable, often terrified individual that was Warhol, a man history is so quick to box and file (or hang on a wall and praise).

"Arthur Rimbaud in New York," by David Wojnarowicz.
“Arthur Rimbaud in New York,” by David Wojnarowicz, 1978–79.

As much compassion and insight as Laing brings to Warhol (and Edward Hopper), her most human connection is clearly with the artist David Wojnarowicz. An iconoclastic image maker who used collage, photography and video to connect and unsettle.

Masks also beg the question of the public self: the set, frozen features of politeness and conformity, behind which real desires writhe and twist. Maintaining a surface, pretending to be someone you are not, living in the closet: these imperatives breed a gangrenous sense of being unknown, of going unregarded.

[…]

Many of these currents circulate through one of the most striking masked images I’ve ever seen, made by an artist who in the 1980’s lived a block away from my apartment on East 2nd. It’s a black and white photograph of a man standing outside the 7th Avenue exit of the Times Square subway. He’s wearing a sleeveless denim jacket, a white t-shirt and a paper mask of the French poet Arthur Rimbaud, a life-sized Xerox of the famous portrait on the cover of Illuminations. What better place for Rimbaud, who was drawn to crime and squalor, who spilled his talent liberally and fast, burning through the precincts of nineteenth-century Paris like a comet? He looks entirely at home there, his paper face expressionless, the gutter glinting at his feet.

"Arthur Rimbaud in New York," by David Wojnarowicz,
“Arthur Rimbaud in New York,” by David Wojnarowicz, 1978–79.

Wojnarowicz’ loneliness, as expressed in his own writing, feels loathsome, offensive even. Not because one lacks compassion, but because what he suffers is so utterly thick and hopeless. After an abused, neglected, childhood he entered an impoverished, malnourished, abusive adolescence and finally lurched into an unstable adulthood that somehow bore these wildly influential photographs of Rimbaud (in scenes acted out by Wojnarowicz’ friends) the original loner.

You don’t emerge from a childhood like that without baggage, without a sense of toxic burdens, which have to be somehow concealed or carried or otherwise disposed of. First there was a legacy of all that abuse and neglect, the feelings of worthlessness and shame and rage, the sense of difference, of being somehow inferior or marked out. Anger, in particular, was bedded underneath it a deep, maybe a unquenchable sense of being unlovable.

Like she does with Warhol, Laing pulls from her own memorialized pain to refresh our soulful viewfinder. The author writes:

My mother was gay, deep in the closet. In the 1980s she was outed and we ended up running away from the village I’d lived in all my life, shuttling between houses on the south coast as her partner’s alcoholism grew more advanced. This was the era of Section 28, when homophobia was enshrined in Britain’s legislation, let alone in any passing bigot’s mind, when teachers could not legally promote ‘the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.’ I’d always found straight society isolating and potentially dangerous.

In an abundant, long study of Wojnarowicz’ life and writings, Laing finds connection to his things, his diaries, keepsakes, all items frozen in space but not meaning.

Sometimes you can change the psychic space, the landscape of the emotions, by carrying out actions in the physical world. I suppose in a way that’s what art is, certainly the near-magical art that Wojnarowicz would soon begin to make, as he turned increasingly from destruction to creation. This is the context from out of which Rimbaud emerged, the kind of issues with which it struggles.

This space is insufficient to represent the emotional texture of this book, or its unstated purpose, which is to add dimension to our shallow view of loneliness.

It’s about wanting and not wanting: about needing people to pour themselves out into you and then needing them to stop, to restore the boundaries of the self, to maintain separation and control. It’s about having a personality that both longs for and fears being subsumed into another ego; being swamped or flooded, ingesting or being infected by the mess and drama of someone else’s life, as if their words were literally agents of transmission.

Laing wrote the above about Warhol but could be adapted to speak of anyone who has a “rich inner self” to borrow from Rilke:

Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

The Lonely City is a perfect representation of Marilynne Robinson’s belief that there is a connective nature to loneliness: “I learned to assume that loneliness should be in part pleasure, sensitizing and clarifying, and that is even a truer bond among people than any kind of proximity.”

I’ve never believed human proportions fit a city’s architecture, mine certainly don’t. Whether it is the scarcity of horizon, or sameness of city blocks, or lack of horizontal space, I find big cities the New York to be intrusive, claustrophobic and paying attention only so far as it trips over you to get on its way.

But I’ve also never doubted there are individuals who love the metropolis, abide by it and respond to its willful coldness with transformative art. Laing’s appreciation for such creatures, and the loving complexity with which she gives them to us is such a light.

Accompany this book with Amanda Palmer’s rendering of asking as a gentle means to see and be seen by one another, Franz Kafka’s search for human consciousness and connectivity, my study of how our we use landscape to express our inner self, and Van Gogh’s search to be seen at the most hidden level. The painter captured the soul of loneliness: “There may be a great fire in your soul, but no one ever comes to warm himself by it.”