Olivia Laing’s beautiful book, The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone, is an ode to the human condition of loneliness. It is a deep exploration of what it is like to be lonely, and how we have seen that state of being expressed in art, how we experience it more than ever because of technology, and how the irony is that we often feel it the most in a city like New York, with a population of over 8 million people in just a few hundred miles. Loneliness is an interesting topic because it is simultaneously universal and unidentifiable. I would imagine everyone has felt lonely, but I also know many times we don’t identify the feelings of despair, fear, or fatigue as loneliness, which may be their original source. It’s a hard feeling to acknowledge in ourselves and in others. I think it gets tied up in shame, as well. But alas, loneliness is part of life, and as Laing says “…the fact is that loneliness, longing, does not mean one has failed, but simply that one is alive,” (page 280).
My sister recommended this book to me because we have both lived in New York City and experienced some beautiful creative inspiration as well as some isolation and unhappiness in our lives there. Laing explores the link between art and loneliness by weaving in the lives of a few artists including Andy Warhol, Edward Hopper, and David Wojnarowicz and gives us a taste of their isolated lives in the city. She shares fascinating details about their personal lives and their creative processes that I had never known. This book made me look at their works in a completely different way. If you do give it a read, I suggest looking up the works she references as you read so you can get the visual at the same time.
It was more than the artists though that kept me thinking about The Lonely City, long after I had turned the last page. It was the complexity of the state of loneliness and wondering why some of these difficult emotions are so challenging to explore. Loneliness does not always come when you are alone. For example, when I hike in the mountains alone, I feel incredibly connected to the natural world and a system that is larger than myself, which is not lonely at all. Conversely, haven’t we all been at a dinner or event with tons of people swarming around but felt totally lonely and without anyone to really be seen by or to connect with?
Laing’s exploration of loneliness touches on so much about the human condition and how we walk through the world today. A highly timely focus of this book is the seclusion we can feel in the age of social media. She says: “Loneliness triggered by virtual exclusion is just as painful as that which arises out of real life encounters: a miserable rush of emotion that almost every person on the internet has experienced at one time or another,” (page 221). Haven’t we all felt that? How social media can make us feel so connected to so much at our fingertips and yet so alone. It can trigger our inner-critic voices about not measuring up or not being enough as we scroll through perfectly curated feeds of influencers.
But even with the darkness of it all, the tough parts of loneliness, comparison, isolation, and more, it is part of life, and we will all experience it throughout our lives in varying forms. I’ll leave you with the reminder that this is normal, this is part of it, and it doesn’t need to be fixed. Just lived through. Experienced. As Laing beautifully says:
“Amidst the glossiness of late capitalism, we are fed the notion that all difficult feelings -- depression, anxiety, loneliness, rage -- are simply a consequence of unsettled chemistry, a problem to be fixed, rather than a response to structural injustice or, on the other hand, to the native texture of embodiment, of doing time, as David Wojnarowicz memorably put it, in a rented body, with all the attendant grief and frustration that entails,” (page 280).