I have to start this blog with a whole-hearted confession about how much I love Olivia Laing’s work. To the River introduced me to Virginia Woolf and W G Sebald (and I’m forever grateful) and The Trip to Echo Spring introduced me to Raymond Carver (and I’m forever grateful) and both books are superbly written, beautiful, intelligent and thoughtful. When I discovered, a little while ago, that Laing was writing a book about loneliness and being alone, I couldn’t have been happier. One of my favourite writers confronting a theme which increasingly absorbs my attention – loneliness, aloneness, isolation, silence – what could possibly go wrong?
Nothing, obviously. Except perhaps the level of sadness, the isolation, that Laing expresses during the writing of this book. Like The Outrun, this is a somewhat difficult book to read because by the end of it there’s a strong probability that you’re going to feel a bit sad. I felt sad. Sad but glad I read it. So, prevarications aside, let me tell you about this book.
The book covers a period in Laing’s life after an unexpected break-up which left her devastated, during which she spent some time in New York living by herself in a succession of borrowed apartments. She was lonely, very lonely, whilst surrounded by people. This is not such an unusual phenomenon, in fact it is often the subject of books by Japanese writers who, I think, experience that strange dichotomy of being in a crowd and yet alone. But Laing describes it beautifully here:
“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 an absence or paucity of connection, closeness, kinship: an inability, for one reason or another, to find as much intimacy as desired.”
It’s an excellent observation, something I, too, have experienced in my many work-visits to London. Being from a smallish Northern town, the isolating sensation the crowds, every person ruthlessly focused on their own objectives, that I feel in London is quite palpable. I wonder, sometimes, if it is possible to live and die in London and never make a connection with a single person? A strange feeling for someone who has ruthlessly run from that small town ‘everyone knows everyone’ friendliness which borders on oppression. I wonder, now, if it is so terrible after all.
Anyway, aside from that aside, Laing goes on to explore the concepts of loneliness and isolation, with particular emphasis on the lives of four artist being: David Wojnarowicz, Andy Warhol, Edward Hopper and Henry Darger all of which are particularly instructive or insightful in their understanding and expressions of loneliness. Of these Hopper and Warhol were artists I was already familiar with, I remember (as many probably do) the first time I saw Nighthawks being struck with how vicerally it captures the sensation of being alone. Warhol, of course, I know from pop culture, yet Laing has shown me another side of Warhol which has given me a very different appreciation of both the man and the artist.
Through the course of the book Laing explores various aspects of loneliness: the loneliness of the outsider, the impact on health and wellbeing, stigmatism, the danger of homogeneity and the closure/isolation of ‘fringe’ groups (I use the term with some reservation – these groups being enfringed – if there’s such a word – by a dominant, conservative culture that dislikes anything it does not recognise, reinforced by mechanisms of power – the police, the law – which reinforce the enforced ‘norm’), the impact of the internet on feelings of isolation. She explores what isolation makes us do: how it affects our behaviour, our ability to communicate, to speak, to understand others. How it makes us paranoid. How it generates art. How art becomes a medium for communicating the unspeakable, an idea she particularly associates with David Wojnarowicz, as she explains here:
“In Close to the Knives, he set out very clearly what he thought a work of art could do, writing:
To place an object or writing that contains what is invisible because of legislation or social taboo into an environment outside myself makes me feel not so alone; it keeps me company by virtue of its existence. It is a kind of ventriloquist’s dummy – the only difference is that the work can speak by itself or act like that ‘magnet’ to attract others who carried this enforced silence.”
I was particularly interested in the way she explores the duality of the internet, the way it both brings us closer to and pushes us away from others. This, I think, describes my own feelings when it comes to the web, to social media in particular, and it made me think about what it is I dislike about the experience, why I’m so wary and confused by it, and I realised that it is not that the thing itself is a problem – it only, in the end – magnifies what is already there, makes it seen – but it is that I dislike how I interact with it. This, I think, has become true of much of what I avoid – social contact, groups, the usual trappings of a ‘normal’ society – that it is not the thing I dislike but how I interact with the thing. It makes me hate myself. Laing describes the conflict quite neatly here:
“What did I want? What was I looking for? What was I doing there hour after hour? Contradictory things. I wanted to know what was going on. I wanted to be stimulated. I wanted to be in contact, and I wanted to retain my privacy, my private space. I wanted to click and click and click until my synapses exploded, until I was flooding with superfluity. I wanted to hypnotise myself with data, with coloured pixels, to become vacant, to overwhelm any creeping anxious sense of who I actually was, to annihilate my feelings. At the same time I wanted to wake up, to be politically and socially engaged. And then again I wanted to declare my presence, to list my interests and objections, to notify the world that I was still there, thinking with my fingers, even if I’d almost lost the art of speech. I wanted to look and I wanted to be seen, and somehow it was easier to do both via the mediating screen.”
It’s particularly true that these spaces are difficult for women, that women are too often objects to be ‘owned’ and fighting this ownership is what women’s liberation, feminism, is often about. Again, Laing covers it here:
“God I was sick of carrying around a woman’s body, or rather everything that attaches to it. Maggie Nelson’s stunning The Art of Cruelty had recently ben published and there was a paragraph I’d underscored and ringed in pen, struck by how well it explained my attraction to the world of the piers. ‘Of course,’ she wrote, ‘not all “thingness” is created equal, and one has to live enough of one’s life not as a thing to know the difference.’ In parenthesis she added: ‘This may explain, in part, why the meat-making of gay male porn doesn’t produce the same species of anxiety as that of straight porn: since men – or white men, at any rate – don’t have the same historical relations to objectification as do women, their meat-making doesn’t immediately threaten to come off as cruel redundancy.’”
Though these are all important points, it remains the art as an expression of, an explanation for, loneliness that the book predominantly focuses on. I was constantly awed by Laing’s insight, her perceptive exploration of the works and the people behind them. In the course of reading, I think I came to know something unexpected about myself, reminding me that all great literature is an encounter, a discovery, and through it we can discover truth about others and about ourselves. Until reading this book I had not thought of myself as being isolated or lonely, and yet I recognised much of my experience in the others Laing describes (except, obviously, I am not a great artist). I have come to see myself as being an outsider, but that outsiderliness as a source of strength. Yet I wonder now. Maybe I am just defensive of my separateness. I feel safer alone, but is that just because being alone carries with it none of the risk or hazard of being with other people. Is it an act of self-protection? A denial of intimacy? I am not alone – I have a lovely family that I am close to – and yet I project an image of invulnerableness which is the antithesis of intimacy. You see, it has given me a lot to think about.
Of all the stories Laing covers, it is Wojnarowicz that comes through the strongest. In fact it was Wojnarowicz’s story which made me the most sad, and yet I think his art is the one which is most palliative of the lonely. I think, too, that this is something Laing felt, a closeness coming through his work through his vulnerability and honesty. A lonely man, perhaps, or perhaps more a man who understood loneliness in a way which most of us turn away from. Loneliness, it turns out, is like a disease. It stigmatises us and self-replicates, pushing people further away. We turn from it, yet should we? Laing questions that here:
“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 was very glad to have read this book, though it left me feeling sad and a little bit wanting. And yet it is hopeful, joyful in parts and it’s opened up a world I didn’t know about, a world which had been hidden (possibly deliberately) which needed to be revealed. It reminded me that when we talk of the importance of diversity, it really means embracing ideas and philosophies, ways of life, which are very different to your own experience and accepting them as being as valid as your own. I’m not sure if it is the internet or media or other things, but as a society (white western) we seem to be moving further and further from this. Opening up the world doesn’t mean making it the same everywhere. Something which I needed to be reminded of. And I’m not alone in that.
The Lonely City – Adventures in the Art of Being Alone – is published by Canongate Books