Olivia Laing: The Lonely City

laing-the-lonely-city-coverThe Lonely City
Olivia Laing
(2016, Picador, 314 pages)

“What does it feel like to be lonely? It feels like being hungry: like being hungry when everyone around you is readying for a feast. It feels shameful and alarming, and over time these feelings radiate outwards, making the lonely person increasingly isolated, increasingly estranged. It hurts, in the way that feelings do, and it also has physical consequences that take place invisibly, inside the closed compartments of the body. It advances, is what I’m trying to say, cold as ice and clear as glass, enclosing and engulfing.”

Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City is an enlivening and inspiring book on a subject that isn’t at all enlivening or inspiring: loneliness. Subtitled “Adventures in the Art of Being Alone,” The Lonely City came out of Laing’s own experiences after the abrupt end of a relationship and a move to New York City in her mid thirties. Rather than simply give in to her loneliness, she decided to examine it, and whatever deeper meanings it might have, through the lives of artists who dealt with loneliness themselves in very different ways. Laing focuses on four: Andy Warhol, Henry Darger, Edward Hopper, and David Wojnarowicz.

Frieda Fromm-Reichmann was one of the first psychiatrists to write about loneliness, noting that it is hard to define, and not really communicable to other people. It is very hard for a deeply lonely person to reach out, and equally hard to be reached out to. Social scientist Robert Weiss also addressed the subject in his 1975 work Loneliness: The Experience of Emotional and Social Isolation. He sees victim blaming as especially common here. Despite how hard it is to make the connections that would cause loneliness to dissipate, Weiss imagines those on the outside saying “Why can’t the lonely change? They must find a perverse gratification in loneliness; perhaps loneliness, despite its pain, permits them to continue a self-protective isolation or provides them with an emotional handicap that forces handouts of pity from those with whom they interact.”

Edward Hopper was uncomfortable with the fact that so many found loneliness to be a central theme in his paintings, and generally rejected such simplifications. However, as Laing writes, “his paintings tend to be populated by people alone, or in uneasy, uncommunicative groupings of twos and threes, fastened into poses that seem indicative of distress,” combined with a distinct sense of space, “the way a feeling of separation, of being walled off or penned in, combines with a sense of near-unbearable exposure.” One can see this in his Hotel Window, which I posted to this blog yesterday. The same applies to Nighthawks, one of Hopper’s most famous works, which was described by Joyce Carol Oates as “our most poignant, ceaselessly replicated romantic image of American loneliness.” (If you visit my Facebook page, you can see that Nighthawks is prominently featured there.) Along with his paintings, Laing writes about Hopper himself – his taciturnity, his strained relationship with his wife Jo, his admission that he himself was “a lonely one” – and how those characteristics come out in his work.

Edward Hopper, Nighthawks (1942)

Edward Hopper, Nighthawks (1942)


Andy Warhol is depicted in The Lonely City as painfully shy, awkward with language (English was his second), and self-conscious about his physicality and his homosexuality. Yet he molded himself into a very successful commercial artist in the 1950s. Then in the 1960s he turned his attention to the Coke bottles and Campbell’s Soup cans and Marilyn Monroe images for which he became famous. As Laing points out, there is only a degree of ironic detachment in these works. He may well have been making a statement on consumer society, but in part he dealt with his subjects because he liked them, because he took to heart the familiarity and regularity that they represented. It’s also true that, with the repetition and regularization of his works and by almost cartoonishly codifying his own physical appearance, Warhol was aiming toward mechanization, and away from emotion and individuality.

David Wojnarowicz had a very difficult upbringing. Experiencing poverty and neglect, homelessness and malnutrition. a violent father and an inattentive mother, he found himself turning tricks at age 15. For years afterward he found it almost impossible to talk to people about his experiences. So he found other ways of expressing himself, through art and sex. At one point, Laing becomes fascinated with Klaus Nomi, the short-lived countertenor singer who cultivated an otherworldly, theatrical appearance and who made a huge splash in the late 1970s and early 1980s before dying in 1983 of the newly-named AIDS. Laing details some of the paranoia and ignorance that surrounded AIDS in its early days. Wojnarowicz was also among those who contracted AIDS in those early years of the disease, and he became a prominent activist on the subject using the various forms of his art, including painting, photography, and writing.

Laing spends a lot of time at the Wojnarowicz archive, listening to his audio journals: “as with Nomi’s singing, I found the act of listening somehow alleviated my own sense of loneliness, simply because I could hear someone voicing their pain, giving space to their difficult and humiliating feelings.” Among other things, Wojnarowicz rages against what he called “the pre-invented world” of what Laing calls “mainstream experience, which seems benign, even banal, its walls almost invisible until you are crushed against them.” Laing sums up her reaction to Wojnarowic’s work: “It was the rawness and vulnerability of his expression that proved so healing to my own feelings of isolation: the willingness to admit to failure or grief, to let himself be touched, to acknowledge desire, anger, pain, to be emotionally alive. His self-exposure was in itself a cure for loneliness, dissolving the sense of difference that comes when one believes one’s feelings or desires to be uniquely shameful.”

Henry Darger, a janitor at Chicago Catholic hospitals for over fifty years, had almost no friends and little social life other than going to church regularly. No one was aware of the fact that throughout those years, he was working on The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion, a novel that runs to 15,145 pages (the longest known work of fiction), as well as over 300 paintings. He also wrote a second long novel and an autobiography. (I’ve written about Darger before, in a short discussion of recluses.)

Henry Darger, 172 At Jennie Richee. Storm continues. Lightning strikes shelter but no one is injured. (mid 1900s)

Henry Darger, 172 At Jennie Richee. Storm continues. Lightning strikes shelter but no one is injured. (mid 1900s)


Laing notes that a lot of the writing about Darger, perhaps because of the strange, sexually problematic nature of his work, has been of a psychological nature, analyses of his character and possible mental illnesses. All too little discussion has been about the work itself. So Laing decided to read as much of his autobiography as she could. As a young child he was placed in a home run by nuns, after his mother died and his father decided he couldn’t take care of him. His unusual behavior caused him to be moved to a home for “feeble-minded” children, where he stayed for several years. Laing reviews some of the evidence from psychologists on the effects of isolation, of lack of love and connection, in children, and the debilitating effects that lack can have in adulthood. Laing sees some of that in Darger’s life story, noting that “It’s not only factually incorrect to assume mental illness can entirely explain Darger; it’s also morally wrong, an act of cruelty as well as misreading.”

As her days in New York City stretch on, Laing spends increasing amounts of time on the internet, and wonders what it is she is looking for. “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 flooded by 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.”

Ultimately, Laing finds consolation in her deep interaction with loneliness, and with the art and artists that depict aspects of that all-too-common, often debilitating condition. “When I came to New York I was in pieces, and though it sounds perverse, the way I recovered a sense of wholeness was not by meeting someone or by falling in love, but rather by handling the things that other people had made, slowly absorbing by way of this contact the fact that loneliness, longing does not mean one has failed, but simply that one is alive.”

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2 thoughts on “Olivia Laing: The Lonely City

  1. Pingback: Sunday Salon 1-22-17 | Thirty-Two Minutes

  2. Pingback: Looking At Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks | Thirty-Two Minutes

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