A for Art or possibly Autobiography? Psychology or Politics and Ideas? The Lonely City could legitimately sit on any one of these shelves. Working in a bookshop reinforces the importance of filing and the need to know where stock is, and more tantalizingly, understanding which position will tempt a browser.
Part memoir and part artists’ biography, The Lonely City was written by native Brit Olivia Laing as a reaction to finding herself suddenly and unexpectedly living alone in New York. Her loneliness drove her to finding solace in the realm of visual art. Experienced by millions, but not widely talked about, the stigma of loneliness can be more isolating than depression, making it difficult to reach out for medical assistance. While it isn’t readily discussed, it is artistically expressed and it is here that Olivia Laing found a connection: “a desire to find physical evidence that other people had inhabited my state… I began to gather up works of art that seemed to articulate or be troubled by loneliness, particularly as it manifests in the modern city”.
Through the biographies and work of artists such as Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, David Wojnarowicz and Henry Darger, she investigates the root cause and conditions of their loneliness and then considers how it drove their creativity. She provides strong background insights into the artists, mostly new information to me, including the introduction of some artists I was unfamiliar with. There are plenty of references to their artwork, initially Hopper who offers the most obvious visual images of solitary men and women in deserted or isolated situations. Laing’s description of Nighthawks as ‘livid green’ and the observation that there isn’t a door in (or out) of the diner has led me to re-visit what I thought was a familiar painting with fresh eyes.
“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”.
As well as exploring individual loneliness Laing looks at it across society. In a period of history when electronic devices have become both the method and the madness of communication I found it fascinating how she linked them with several of the artists. Some readers will be familiar with Andy Warhol’s kinship to televisions, tape recorders and robots but perhaps less knowing about Josh Harris who was an early Internet entrepreneur and curator of an immersive work called QUIET: WE LIVE IN PUBLIC. If you don’t know of it, and I didn’t, The Lonely City sets this chilling piece into context. Josh Harris says
“….I love my mother virtually and not physically. I was bred by her to sit in front of a TV set for hours on end. That’s how I’ve been trained. You know the most important friend to me growing up was in fact the television. …My emotionality is not derived from other humans… I was emotionally neglected”.
This quote is haunting. It serves as a reminder of the importance to connect, both physically and emotionally, with other humans. The Lonely City does however demonstrate a need to be strong first.
Laing concludes “Collapse, spread, merge, union: these things sound like the opposite of loneliness, and yet intimacy requires a solid sense of self to be successful and satisfying”.
In writing this book I believe Laing experienced a metamorphosis to enable this conclusion. Through her exploration of others – other lives, other talents, other art – she was able to reach a point of understanding her own loneliness, which was perhaps better than from the chair of a psychoanalyst.
Initially I filed this book under Art and while it will appeal to art lovers the most, I think the message is broad and have since moved it into the Ideas section.