Review: The Lonely City by Olivia Laing

By Nancy Smith

lonelycityThe Lonely City—part memoir, part art history, part sociological investigation—is a book that is ostensibly about loneliness. However, it often wanders into the vast, complex territory that surrounds the lonely person: authenticity, openness, curiosity, intimacy, vulnerability. Olivia Laing explores these complexities by carefully arranging her own experiences, during a lonely period in New York, with the work of artists, such as Andy Warhol, David Wojnarowicz, and Henry Darger. “People make things,” she writes, “—make art or things that are akin to art—as a way of expressing their need for contact, or their fear of people; people make objects as a way of coming to terms with shame, with grief. People make objects to strip themselves down, to survey their scars, and people make objects to resist oppression, to create a space in which they can move freely.” Through art, we can understand Laing’s desire to find some kind of resolve, and by positioning loneliness in relation to art, she also captures one of the primary reasons we all turn to art: to construct a sense of self. This is especially true when we lose our identities in the face of isolation. The Lonely City, then, is about what happens when we find the things, the people, and even the spaces that allow us to restore what has been lost.

Connections between the city and loneliness emerge most profoundly in the chapter on the outsider artist Henry Darger. Darger achieved posthumous fame when he died in 1973, leaving behind a trove of paintings, drawings, and thousands of written pages, including the longest piece of known fiction, a 15,145-page novel set in a fantasy world called The Realms of the Unreal. Laing traces Darger’s tragic history, highlighting his childhood in an abusive asylum and his long stretch in Chicago working tirelessly as a janitor at hospital. Darger’s art was often violent, filled with cruel places, dark imagery, and sinister characters. As Darger retreated into his art he became more invisible in the world, and Laing suggests that he inhabited the realms of the unreal more passionately than he did his everyday life. She writes, “It was becoming increasingly easy to see how people ended up vanishing in cities, disappearing in plain sight, retreating into their apartments because of sickness or bereavement, mental illness or the persistent, unbearable burden of sadness and shyness, of not knowing how to impress themselves into the world.” You can’t think about Darger, she continues, “without thinking too about the damage that society wreaks upon individuals: the role that structures like families and schools and governments play in any single person’s experience of isolation.” Somewhat ironically, these are the very structures that have the potential to appease loneliness and allow for human connections to flourish, but as Darger’s story unfolds, we can see how these structures so often fail on an individual level.

The most captivating insights in the book often come from Laing’s analysis of language. She writes, “If you are not being touched at all, then speech is the closest contact it is possible to have with another human being. Almost all city-dwellers are daily participants in a complex part-song of voices, sometimes performing the aria but more often the chorus, the call and response, the passing back and forth of verbal small change with near and total strangers. The irony is that when you are engaged in larger and more satisfactory intimacies, these quotidian exchanges go off smoothly, almost unnoticed, unperceived. It is only when there is a paucity of deeper and more personal connections that they develop a disproportionate importance, and with it a disproportionate risk.” Laing argues that it is not possible to have a wholly private language. Drawing on Wittgenstein, she highlights his idea that we cannot think without language, which is inherently social in nature. More interestingly, she argues that despite its shared nature, language can also be an isolating experience because not all players are equal. “Wittgenstein,” she writes, “was by no means always a successful participant himself, frequently experiencing extreme difficulty in communication and expression.” Prone to stammering, while attempting to communicate with colleagues, he often sunk into silence “during which he would struggle mutely with his thoughts, gesticulating all the while with his hands, as if he was still speaking audibly.”

Similarly, Andy Warhol—who was fascinated by the way people talk— is situated in relation to the role of language in relationships. Even though we tend to think of Warhol’s paintings, photographs, and drawings, Laing reminds us that much of his work was in fact devoted to human speech, including some 4,000 audiotapes. Warhol writes, “To me, good talkers are beautiful because good talk is what I love.” Not an uncommon perspective, Warhol articulates Laing’s notion that language is a game in which some players are more skilled than others. Those who have the skills—the ability to articulate themselves in ways that accurately represent their interior identity—often find it easier to interact with the world, and as a result are able to connect more deeply with other people. “Speech failures, episodes of muteness, stuttering, stammering, word forgetfulness, even the inability to grasp a joke: all these things invoke loneliness, forcing a reminder of the precarious, imperfect means by which we can express our interior to others.”

Warhol also segues into one of Laing’s larger projects within the book: an exploration of the relationship between social media and loneliness. Warhol says technology liberated him from the burden of needing other people. His work, from screen-printed celebrities to minimalist films, “arises out of a desire to undermine, undo, do over plodding notions of authenticity and honesty and personal experience. Affectlessness is as much a part of the Warhol look, the gestalt, as the physical props he employed to play himself.” Laing adds, “Becoming a machine also meant having relationships with machines, using physical devices as a way of filling the uncomfortable, sometimes unbearable space between self and world. Warhol could not have achieved his blankness, his enviable detachment, without the use of these charismatic substitutes for human intimacy and love.”

Laing draws parallels to this idea in reflecting on her own digital life, where she spends her days immersed in an ever-ticking Twitter feed and watching the same videos over and over again on YouTube. Whole days go by while she clicks from one link to another, following trails of information and escaping into a kind of surveillance of the world through the internet. The purpose of all this endless screen time she says, was to “hypnotize 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 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 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.” To me, this doesn’t seem so different than escaping into the world of writing, of film, of art—the very things that fill this book—because lonely people are always looking for ways to distract from the perpetual need to over-analyze their own lives.   

I remain unconvinced, however, in Laing’s assessment of digital technology as inherently loneliness-inducing, which is at best a misstep towards technological determinism, and at worst a misguided, if common, tendency to categorize interactions via social media as “unreal” and blame them for the pervasive sense of isolation that many contemporary humans seem to feel. Laing’s argument here is, ironically, undermined throughout the course of the book as she highlights artists, philosophers, and sociologists who—long before the existence of social media—capture key ideas about loneliness that are most certainly not undone in the twenty-first century. Consider too Wittgenstein’s apparent inability to present his thoughts in public; if anything, the internet might have allowed him to express himself more comfortably. I was struck by the idea that someone could have just as easily written a parallel meditation on loneliness that highlights the many benefits of social media and the ability of digital technology to promote human connection.

However, what Laing does, importantly, in her discussion of digital media is point towards the role of the body in connecting people. All of this distraction—whether books, film, art, or the internet—does not involve physical connection to another body. And while I would argue that digital interactions are just as “real” and meaningful as physical interactions, they are not the same. In referring to the nature of digital life, Laing argues that it had become for her a “simulacra of intimacy,” in which she had to surrender her identity. This physicality, the very experience of existing in a body, is not only essential for our own identities, but also for our connection to the city. Part of what makes living in a city so compelling is the intense attachment that one can develop towards the physical environment itself, as well as to the other bodies who inhabit that environment. Laing writes, “There are consequences to physical environments, just as there are consequences to virtual worlds. During the period that I lived in Times Square, Wojnarowicz’s phrase kept drifting through my head. Like he couldn’t conceive of pain attached to the body he was fucking. Like he couldn’t conceive of pain attached to the body. It’s a statement about empathy, about the capacity to enter into the emotional reality of another human being, to recognize their independent existence, their difference; the necessary prelude to any act of intimacy.”

The body, just as much as language, can produce loneliness. Even if one excels at playing the language game, the body is much more telling, and much more unsympathetic. If one makes a language gaffe it can often be easily repaired through a follow-up joke, another conversation, or a change of subject. But the body has no such capability; it is simply perceived and interpreted as it is. The control we have over our bodies—their shape and size, their color and history, for example—is much more limited than language, which can be manipulated and altered almost at will. All of this feels much more apparent in a city, especially in a densely populated space like Times Square, where we are surrounded by bodies and obligated to notice other people. Liang quotes Bruce Benderson in lamenting the increasing loss of vibrant public space: “The closing of the city center is loneliness for everyone. The abandonment of the body is isolation, the triumph of pure fantasy.”

What Laing manages adeptly throughout the book are the varying degrees to which loneliness can imprint upon us. The artists that she chooses to engage with create an idiosyncratic collection that feel unique to her own experience, but are also oddly universal in their capacity to reflect what it means to be lonely. The artists seem to capture something that goes far beyond Laing’s finite period of loneliness because they have spent their entire lives submerged in an endless sort of loneliness. While reading this book, I found myself perpetually trying to place my own sense of loneliness somewhere between these two extremes—the occasional bout of isolation on the one hand, and, on the other, the overarching sense that one simply does not belong. Ultimately though, Laing’s cure for loneliness does not, thankfully, reside in meeting other people. This would be a ridiculous proposition, and much too simple. After all, even Henry Darger, arguably the book’s loneliest figure, had a best friend, identified in his journals as “Whillie,”a night watchman with whom he spent every evening. Of course, anyone who has ever felt a deep sense of loneliness knows that it can occur in the midst of a relationship or while surrounded by friends and family. So then, it isn’t simply a matter of being around people. Even the very notion of “curing“ loneliness seems a bit absurd, and I believe Laing would argue that it is beside the point because feeling lonely “does not mean that one has failed, but simply that one is alive.” If there is anything we are meant to take away from this book, I believe this is it; we are not to think of loneliness as a problem to be solved, but rather as something that makes us more empathetic, more curious, and more able to accept the inherent vulnerabilities that are contained within and around our bodies.

The Lonely City
By Olivia Laing
ISBN-13: 978-1250039576