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The Loneliest Number

By (March 1, 2016) No Comment

The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alonelonelycitylaing
By Olivia Laing
Picador, 2016

On a New York City subway train recently, commuting to my job in Manhattan during rush hour, I came across an ad for a phone app called Talkspace. The banner over my head read “Talk about why I feel so lonely on this crowded island space.” It allowed users to fill in the blank between Talk and Space with a need of their own: to talk, to connect, to be with others. The tag line at the bottom of the panel explained the purpose of the app: “Join 200,000 people and text your therapist anytime, anywhere.” The assumptions were startling, and perhaps unsettling: could texting a therapist (even anytime and anywhere) alleviate loneliness? Can the attenuated contact of digitized letters (such as these!) create a real connection between people? Can psychological therapy be conducted without any face time? The website for the app offers “therapy for how we live today,” but what does that say about how we live?

talkIn her new book of essays, The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone, Olivia Laing tackles how we got here by examining several case studies of people similarly “lonely on this crowded island” of Manhattan. She starts with herself. English by birth, Laing arrived in New York “not so long ago” in the wake of a break up, which sets up the emotional tone of the book: disappointment, solitude, disorientation. Through encounters with a variety of texts and art works (the only people she really engages with in the book are all dead), she persuasively argues that loneliness is a disregarded, but complicated and sometimes productive experience. As an observer in the city, she maintains an outsider’s perspective that is particularly appropriate to her subject. Loneliness, she shows, entails a special awareness of one’s difference, of not belonging: it is “such a shameful experience, so counter to the lives we are supposed to lead, that it becomes increasingly inadmissible, a taboo state whose confession seems destined to cause others to turn and flee.” We’re “supposed to” pair off into neat couple units. We’re “supposed to” belong to communities, however we define them. For those who don’t fit in, the exclusion is not only painful, but embarrassing.

In a city, Laing observes, one is always subject to a stranger’s gaze. She cites the film Rear Window to evoke the simultaneous experience of watching and being watched, and that leads her by association with New York City and windows to one of the best known images of urban loneliness: Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks. The whole book works this way, as Laing guides us over the steppingstones along her solitary journey. In doing so she helps us re-see even a clichéd and omnipresent image like Nighthawks when she visits it in person at the Whitney Museum:

Up close, the painting rearranged itself, decomposing into snags and anomalies I’d never seen before. The bright triangle of the diner’s ceiling was cracking. A long drop of yellow ran between the coffee urns. The paint was applied very thinly, not quite covering the linen ground, so that the surface was breached by a profusion of barely visible white pinpricks and tiny white threads.

I took a step back. Green shadows were falling in spikes and diamonds on the sidewalk. There is no color in existence that so powerfully communicates urban alienation, the atomisation of human beings inside the edifices they create, as this noxious pallid green….

HopperNighthawksShe’s wonderful at describing and analyzing Hopper’s paintings: from those still figures in twilight settings who can’t seem to interact with each other to the windows and doors that keep them separate from us viewers. She’s just as good at close reading: in one revelatory moment she describes Hopper, in an interview about Nighthawks, admitting that he probably is “a lonely one.” That a, Laing notes, both separates Hopper from others and links him to a community, a community of others (ironically) who are lonely too. Hopper married but, as Laing observes, “loneliness doesn’t necessarily correlate with an external or objective lack of company.”

If Edward Hopper documented what loneliness looks like, for Laing, Andy Warhol showed what loneliness produced. She suggests connections between Hopper’s life and work, but doesn’t force them. With Warhol she spends more time on how his life manifested in his work, with its obsession with repetition and similarity. She argues that it’s Warhol’s profound sense of his own difference–as a sickly, funny-looking child of immigrants, as a gay man, as an artist—that drove him to popular culture:

Sameness, especially for the immigrant, the shy boy agonizingly aware of his own failures to fit in, is a profoundly desirable state; an antidote against the pain of being singular, alone, all one, the medieval root from which the word lonely emerges.

Warhol sought a culture that he could share with others, that would connect him to a community. If he had trouble relating to others there were plenty of mediators everywhere: polaroid cameras, tape recorders, silk screen printings of multiple images, films, and everyday consumer objects. His genius was to see that in post-war consumer culture people could relate to each other indirectly through objects and images, much as today’s social media has made the internet the default mediator for much of our interactions with each other. But instead of finding this insight in Warhol’s visual images, Laing surprises by analyzing his words instead. She becomes obsessed with his obsession with his tape recorder, which he called “my wife.” He used it to follow and record his friends for hours at a time, then transcribed the twenty-four audiocassettes into a book, called a, a novel. Laing argues that a is both an effort to bear witness to neglected or ignored voices and also to notice the beauty of the “great jumbled inconsequential endlessly unfinished business of ordinary existence.”

strtThe life and work of David Wojnarowicz provides a different sort of case study. Laing sees his photography and mixed media work, as well as his life’s work as an activist, as not just originating in extreme loneliness like Warhol’s but attempting to heal or resolve it. Unlike Warhol, who worked alone in the company of others, Wojnarowicz collaborated with others, especially in the early fight against AIDS as it ripped apart the art world of the 1980s. His collages, his stitched work, and his layered photographs were an effort to bridge the gaps created by isolation and exclusions. She studies his journals and his photographic series Rimbaud in New York–where he took photographs of his friends in the city, their faces covered with a cut-out image of the poet–to show that “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.” His abusive childhood and adolescence gave him firsthand knowledge of the cruelties and neglect people inflict on each other. Where Warhol made art a substitute for intimacy, Wojnarowicz made art to fill the vacuum after its loss.

But surprisingly, The Lonely City is not only a book about an idea, a group of artists, or a social trend, but about a specific place, New York City itself. One chapter veers west to Chicago to examine the life and work of “outsider” artist Henry Darger, but even that chapter eventually brings her back to New York City–to an American Folk Museum archive of his work on the Lower East Side. She lingers in Edward Hopper’s Washington Square studio, follows Andy Warhol’s move from the Silver Factory to the Factory at Union Square, traces Greta Garbo’s long solo walks up and down Fifth Avenue, and shadows David Wojnarowicz’s roaming from Times Square to the Hudson Piers, returning over and over again, to the East Village. She writes about the Lonely City, but it is a particular lonely city, one where she ricocheted from sublet to sublet over the course of a year as a visitor. When she quotes Dennis Wilson that “loneliness is a special place,” she really is interested in the specific physical manifestation of a very uncomfortable feeling. Her book is about the place as much as it is about herself, these artists, or their work.

timessquareMy reading of the book ended up a sort of mirror to Laing’s writing of it. She came from England to write about New York as a temporary visitor. I read it as a native New Yorker temporarily out of town, in rural Massachusetts, then French-speaking Quebec. Its details about the crumbling infrastructure of the 1970s and the nightlife of the 1980s brought back vivid memories that contrasted sharply with the snow-covered fir trees outside my windows. The juxtaposition of familiar and unfamiliar, of seen and remembered, made me slightly queasy and by the time I read the grimmest chapter on the AIDS epidemic in the late 1980s I was nauseous and actually sick. While I was growing up the city Gerald Ford supposedly told to “drop dead” was falling apart at its seams, filled with single room occupancy hotels, peep shows, needle parks, squatter housing, and all kinds of drifters passing through. A ride on the subway meant broken doors and frequent delays when a train got stuck between stations. I remember sanitation worker strikes, graffiti everywhere, and summer blackouts. The city was ugly, dirty, poor (officially bankrupt, in fact) and also more diverse and affordable than it has been since the Giuliani-era gentrification began.

Laing does a good job of chronicling those changes, especially to the two neighborhoods she’s most interested in: Times Square and the East Village, where she lived in other people’s homes and looked through windows at the city life outside. Her writing can be lyrical and evocative, like this description of one of her sublets:

It never gets dark in Times Square. It was a paradise of artificial light, in which the older technologies, the neon extravagances in the shape of whisky glasses and dancing girls, were in the process of being made obsolete by the unremitting flawlessness of light-emitting diodes and liquid crystals. Often I’d wake at two or three or four in the morning and watch waves of neon pass through my room. During these unwanted apertures of the night, I’d get out of bed and yank the useless curtains open.

Throughout the book Laing is attentive to physical experience, her own and those of her subjects. She embeds herself as a presence in the book and she literally shakes as she reads Wojnarowicz’s diaries. Loneliness may be an absence or lack, but here Laing has given it a three-dimensional reality. Wojnarowicz’s depictions of the cruising ground at the Hudson Piers “took on a life of their own,” she writes, becoming “an ideal world for someone who was struggling with connection, in that they combined the possibilities of privacy, anonymity, and personal expression with the ability to reach out, to find a body, to be touched, to have your doings seen.” That “someone” was both her and Wojnarowicz. Laing paints a complex, layered portrait of the subculture at the piers, where sex with strangers could provide real, if temporary, intimacy for people otherwise outside social conventions:

On the one hand, the place was an outdoor whorehouse, reeking of piss and shit, where people were regularly murdered and where [Wojnarowicz] once encountered a screaming man with blood pouring from his face who said a stranger in a navy windcheater had knifed him in an empty room. On the other hand, it was a world without inhibitions, where people whose sexuality was elsewhere the subject of intense hostility could find an absolute freedom of encounter and where moments of unexpected intimacy sometimes bloomed amongst the rubble.

The chapter is at once utopian and nauseating—the grim material world of rats and rotting piers and dirty needles becomes a setting for deeply moving emotional connections.

Photo of Henry Darger’s apartment by Michael Boruch

Photo of Henry Darger’s apartment by Michael Boruch

These emotional connections were as elusive as they sound. For Laing, none of these artists succeeded in creating intimacy, or finding it in his own life. Nor does she provide a triumphant happy-ever-after for herself. But it is an achievement of this book that she resists thinking of this as a failure. Instead Laing presents loneliness as a sort of existential condition apart from any specific life choices. Hopper’s marriage hardly absolved him of loneliness any more than Warhol’s parties or Wojnarowicz’s sexual partners. She never skirts the grim realities of the lives she chronicles: the extreme poverty of Henry Darger, who produced hundreds of paintings and texts about the imaginary world of Glandelinians, forced him to hoard and repair the rubber bands, twine, and carbon paper that were crucial to his art-making. Darger’s life was so much more isolated than any of the other people she discusses that Laing suggests his art actually kept him company when he was otherwise desperately alone. Where other scholars have argued that Darger was a pedophile or a traumatized victim of child abuse himself, Laing sees his work as an “act of integration” that soldered the broken pieces of his damaged self back together.

adventuresintheartofbeingaloneThe book has been marketed as a timely exploration of human connection in an age of technology: the back jacket copy wonders “does technology draw us closer together or trap us behind screens?” In a culture where we are more and more “alone together” (to quote the title of one of Sherry Turkle’s books) this feels like an important task. But I found the one chapter on 1990s tech pioneer Josh Harris to be the least persuasive. Harris is best known as an early tech millionaire who became obsessed with the internet’s ability to monitor our everyday lives. He created an experimental online community called “We Live in Public” in a shared group living space where residents were under constant surveillance and viewers could watch and interact with them through discussion boards. This was in 2000, as Laing points out—well before the proliferation of social media in the decade since Facebook. Yet Laing seems less to argue for this breakdown in real intimacy than to take it as a given. She acknowledges that “I can’t count how many articles I’ve read about how alienated we’ve become, tethered to our devices, leery of real contact; how we are heading for a crisis of intimacy, as our ability to socialise withers and atrophies.” She wants to shift the discussion from the technology’s impact on our daily lives to the emotional causes of loneliness, wondering whether it is “the fear of contact that is the real malaise of our age, underpinning the changes in both our physical and virtual lives.” But that too has been said before and it’s not clear what this chapter is supposed to contribute.

The conclusion, though, synthesizes a broad range of lives and art works, social themes and personal experience into the well-earned discovery that “loneliness, longing, does not mean one has failed, but simply that one is alive.” After the long, detailed chronicle of suffering and the beautiful art it inspired, this ending feels like an oasis.

Victoria Olsen teaches expository writing at New York University. Her other essays for Open Letters Monthly include “Looking for Laura,” on Virginia Woolf’s half-sister Laura Stephen, and “Reading the Romance,” on the annual Romance Writers of America convention.