Gleanings: From Olivia Laing’s “The Lonely City”


Last night, I finished reading Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone. There’s so much going on in this book – memoir, history, art critique, biography, activism, social commentary. It’s been criticized for jumping around like that, but I thought the way Laing weaved in and out of different subtopics while always circling back and keeping everything tied together was brilliant.

Through the work of four artists – and a periphery of other artists who are interconnected with them – Laing examines how people experience loneliness as both a lifelong aspect of their character and a temporary state brought about by loss, as a deeply personal internal quandary and as something brought about by societal prejudice, intolerance and fear.

To say I enjoyed this book is not entirely accurate. It was at times a disturbingly uncomfortable read. But also fascinating.

Loneliness itself is, I suppose, a disturbing and uncomfortable (and fascinating) subject. It’s universal. We all feel it, but there’s a stigma attached to it that makes it something scary and sad, something most people want to avoid acknowledging.

Especially, Laing points out, as a woman in her mid thirties, “an age at which female aloneness is no longer socially sanctioned and carries with it a persistent whiff of strangeness, deviance and failure.”

I picked up this book because loneliness has been a consuming topic for me during my year of living alone again (in my mid … late … thirties) for the first time in a decade, and I DID want to acknowledge it. I was hoping – like Laing who wrote this book in the wake of lost love and finding herself suddenly alone, living a somewhat itinerant existence in a foreign city – that by immersing myself in the subject of loneliness, I could alleviate my own.

The jury’s still out on that, but the book gave me lots to think about:

The idea that loneliness isn’t about mere physical proximity.

“Mere physical proximity is not enough to dispel a sense of internal isolation.”

“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 desired.”

She writes about “how it can feel to be islanded amid a crowd.”

This was comforting to me, really, because for the longest time I felt a bit ridiculous and selfish that I was plagued with this sense of loneliness when all year I’ve been making new friends and have been just as often surrounded by people as I have been alone at home with my dogs.

The fact is that the majority of those people are acquaintances, not intimate friends. I can get along with all sorts of people and make conversation and have a decent time, but that isn’t the same thing as sharing something of yourself with a human being to whom you feel a strong connection.

That feeling can be heady, addicting. It’s very difficult to not want it all the time, to not want that person to want it all the time, too.

This isn’t entirely unreasonable. A bartender friend of mine who has this year frequently been subjected to my thoughts on loneliness and love (and bless him for his patience), once told me, “You can’t be emotionally or physically intimate with another human being without taking on some responsibility for their happiness.”

I think that’s true, but you also can’t be dependent on any one person, other than yourself, for your happiness. The irony is that you ultimately have to deal with your loneliness alone.

Loneliness vs. solitude vs. independence vs. creativity

Before ending my marriage over a year ago, I struggled internally for a long time with the concepts of security vs. independence, whether it was a brave decision or a stupid, irresponsible one.

Oddly enough, I never worried about being lonely. Which is perhaps why this year has been such a struggle – I’ve been so much more lonely than I ever expected to be.

Laing, in a discussion about the artist Andy Warhol and his inability to deeply connect with others, writes, “It’s … about needing people to pour themselves out into you and then needing them to stop, to restore the boundaries of the self … It’s about having a personality that both longs for and fears being subsumed into another ego.”

I had come to feel so very much that I had lost my sense of self in my marriage that I longed for solitude, longed to give some time and space to the girl who used to sit in coffeeshops and bars scribbling in a journal, who fancied herself a writer, a creator.

Solitude is very much a choice. Loneliness is its ruder cousin thrusting itself upon you whether you want it or not. And for me, it’s been something of a creative paralytic. It’s taken me nearly a year to start writing again, seriously.

Maybe reading about all these artists who turned their loneliness into something valuable will be an inspiration. Jury’s still out on that too.

Art as activism

“Art,” writes Laing, “doesn’t have to have a reparative function, anymore than it has a duty to be beautiful or moral.”

And yet, she shows throughout the book how art does serve that function. The art created by the reclusive hospital janitor Henry Darger that was only found after his death must have served as some solace for him or he wouldn’t have created it.

The art created by David Wojnarowicz during the heightened fear and intolerance towards generatons of gay men brought on by the AIDS epidemic.

At the end of 2016, as we face the inauguration next month of a man who has no business being the leader of the free world, I find myself needing to get involved in some way in mitigating the damage he and his administration will inevitably do.

I haven’t figure out exactly how that will happen, but this book has shown me that art as activism isn’t a small thing.

As the musician Amanda Palmer recently wrote, “Dark times inspire, inflame and focus us as writers, artist and advocates … Artists, on your fucking marks.”

And finally, loneliness and communication

A theme that weaved itself through all of the stories in this book is the idea of speechlessness, an inability to communicate – which in turn only exacerbates one’s isolation from others. “Either you don’t communicate enough and remain concealed from other people, or you risk rejection by exposing too much altogether,” writes Laing.

Ironically, even this year, a year in which I have been more outgoing, more sociable, more open than at any other time of my life, people still point out my quietness. Almost daily.

I have spent the past 18 months struggling against my natural inclination in the face of vulnerability and fear of being misunderstood to clam up. It’s an ongoing struggle, and it won’t end any time soon, if ever.

But the saddest stories of loneliness in this book were the ones in which the subjects had the most trouble communicating themselves to others. The story of Valerie Solanas, the feminist writer who shot Andy Warhol and struggled with mental health issues all her life until she died alone in a hotel room and lay there for three days before anyone noticed, is the most horrifying to me.

It’s an extreme case, and I don’t relate to her story, but if there’s ever a reminder that doing the work to make yourself heard, to connect with others, to communicate your vulnerabilities in the face of fear is important, vital to our existence and happiness, well, that’s a good one.

I would rather risk over-exposure and rejection than remain silent and alone. Always.

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