Picador, March 2016
Reviewed by Randy Rosenthal
I’m completely alone nearly all the time. Ever since a two-month hiatus from New York turned indefinite, I’ve lived in a house next to the beach, in a neighborhood sandwiched between strawberry fields and the ocean. I used to hear all the sounds of the city, and now there’s only the roar of crashing waves and the rush of wind through palm trees. (They’re not necessarily pleasant sounds.) I used to go out several nights a week, and now I hardly go anywhere or do anything. It’s a forty-minute drive to the nearest good restaurant. Some days the only words I say aloud are, “Hello? Hello?” And then I hang up on what must have been a wrong number. Other days, I don’t speak at all. Solitude has become my way of life. So I was understandably interested to read The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone, Olivia Laing’s new book on art and loneliness, written with her unique blend of memoir, biography, and criticism.
I would have read a new book by Laing in any case, as her Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking was one of my favorites from 2013. Yet I remember skimming the more personal passages to get to the juicy parts about the alcohol-fueled demise of my favorite writers. Something felt disjointed, like a long train ride, with its multiple legs and station stops and track changes. But reading The Lonely City is like paddling a kayak down a river—everything flows smoothly, even when braving the rapids. And her more personal passages are some of the best in the book.
Most of The Lonely City revolves around a period Laing spent in New York after an aborted love affair—her would-be boyfriend called an audible, after she had already rented out her London flat and took a plane across the Atlantic. This left her free to wander the city’s museums and galleries and libraries and get into the minds of four artists: Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, David Wojnarowicz, and Henry Darger. These are artists whose lives and work articulate a certain form of modern loneliness, particularly as it is manifested in New York City.
Any dictionary definition of the word lonely inevitably includes a negative connotation: “Sad because one has no friends or company,” is my dictionary’s definition. But Laing envisions loneliness as a “very special place” that can take us toward “an otherwise unreachable experience of reality.”
It’s odd to think that a painting could articulate such a subjective feeling as loneliness; people can be depicted separately, as alone, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re lonely. Alienation is easier to depict—George Tooker’s The Subway (1950) being an ideal example. I used to go to the Whitney Museum to stare at that painting, and also at Edward Hopper’s Early Sunday Morning (1930). A scene of vague storefronts on a desolate Seventh Avenue, it’s devoid of human presence, and so conveys a sense of emptiness; but somehow there’s loneliness in it, too.
Hopper’s work is often associated with loneliness. Laing writes that during her stay in New York she felt that to others she must look like the woman in Hopper’s Automat (1927), sitting alone at a table, drinking a cup of coffee. But she most focuses on his most famous work, Nighthawks (1942). It’s a simple painting, of four lonely people in a diner at night. But how do we know they’re lonely? Laing points to the color green. Not the vibrant green of nature but the unnatural green of a city:
There is no colour in existence that so powerful communicates urban alienation, the atomization of human beings inside the edifices they create, as this noxious pallid green, which only came into being with the advent of electricity, and which is inextricably associated with the nocturnal city, the city of glass towers, of empty illuminated offices and neon signs.
There’s also the aspect of looking in. Of voyeurism. The figures in the painting are trapped behind glass; there’s no door to the street. And this is perhaps what makes people who live in New York feel so alone: they can see dozens of other people behind the rectangles of their apartment windows, publicly performing their private lives, and the watchers can themselves be seen—but there is no connection between them. In interviews, Hopper dismissed his work being a symbol of American loneliness. “I’m trying to paint myself,” he explained. But what Hopper actually painted, Laing writes, was “barriers and boundaries, wanted things at a distance and unwanted things too close: an erotics of insufficient intimacy, which of course is a synonym for loneliness itself.” Hopper did admit, “Perhaps I’m a lonely one.”
Using Hopper’s work, Laing delves into psychological explorations of loneliness as a mental condition, explaining how loneliness fuels a cycle that deepens itself. The more people are alone the “less adept they become at navigating social currents,” and so the more difficulty they have with social interaction. “Loneliness grows around them, like mould or fur,” Laing’s writes in one of her best lines, “a prophylactic that inhibits contact, no matter how badly contact is desired.” Loneliness is also devastating for our health, both physical and mental, causing a lack of sleep, high blood pressure, and a weak immune system. In other words, “loneliness can prove fatal.”
Perhaps this is why Andy Warhol always surrounded himself with people. He grew up in a household hearing Ruthenian, the central European dialect of his Slovakian parents, and so never felt comfortable with American speech. Like Hopper, Warhol showed artistic talent a very young age, but was also shy. And so as an adult, decades before computers and smart phones, he hid behind a barrier of technology. There was always a camera or a voice recorder between him and whoever he was with—he referred to his voice recorder his wife. He needed to be protected by doing something while socializing, afraid to have bare conversation or be himself. Machines liberated him from his desperate need for other people.
His Pop Art reflects this need: the use of silkscreen to prevent the faults of freehand, the focus on celebrity icons and items of mass production for their familiarity and market-approved appearance. In his art Laing sees a “lonely wish lurking at the heart of this profusion of likeable like objects, each one desirable, each one desirably the same.”
Both Hopper and Warhol had difficult childhoods and lived much of their lives in poverty, but David Wojnarowiccz was abused as a child, homeless as a teenager, a hustler in Times Square, beaten by his clients, and later abandoned after contracting AIDS. He’s most well known for his Rimbaud series, black and white photographs of a man wearing a Xeroxed paper mask of the French poet Arthur Rimbaud, at various places in late 1970s New York City. In the series Rimbaud shoots heroin, rides the subway, masturbates in bed, eats in a diner, poses with carcasses at a slaughterhouse, and wanders through the wreckage of Hudson piers, which back then was a free-sex gay haven where anything went, before the Disneyfication of the city under the Giuliani and Bloomberg regimes.
Through the Rimbaud mask, Wojnarowiccz was able to explore the desperate situations he experienced, the violence and desolation of his life. Laing writes about the mood of the pictures, “the loneliness that rolls off them in waves, radiating from Rimbaud’s uncanny, expressionless figure.”
With Warhol and Wojnarowiccz both being gay, homosexuality is a prevalent subject of The Lonely City. Laing explores the AIDS epidemic in the eighties, of how so many people died because our prejudiced, homophobic leaders were unwilling to share information. Because they thought it was “gay cancer.” There was the double shame and ostracism of being sexually deviant but also being diseased, possibly contagious—no one knew. And there was “the loneliness that comes from having your existence denied, from being written out of history.”
Henry Darger is perhaps the strangest and most lonely of anyone in The Lonely City. Living alone in the same Chicago apartment for sixty-four years, working as a janitor, Darger secretly made artwork—mostly paintings of young girls, often being brutally tortured and massacred by uniformed men. Many accused Darger of pedophilia and worse, but Laing sees his work as “a courageous investigation into violence: what it looks like; who its perpetrators and victims are.” To her, Darger’s art is a longing for integration, and thus for acceptance; abused and isolated as a child himself, his life proves, as scientists have, that without affection and contact human beings become sick, and that there is no act more damaging than child abuse.
Then there’s Josh Harris, and his pre-social media experiment of dissolving the boundaries between public and private, between art and life. Harris wasn’t an artist but a millionaire of the dot.com bubble of the nineties, and he used his money to create Quiet, a building on the Lower East Side where people watched other people living in a “pod hotel.” Everything was visible: people eating, shitting, fucking, or just doing nothing.
With this experiment, Harris “predicted the internet’s social function” by “intuiting the power of loneliness as a driving force.” People don’t want the fifteen minutes of fame Warhol allowed them, they want to be watched all of the time. Welcome to the twenty-first century.
When I first moved to the city, in the winter of 2008, I lived in Harlem, on 137th Street between Broadway and Riverside Drive. Out my window I had a view of the concrete bricks of the building behind mine, about twenty feet away. Dividing the buildings was a razor-topped wire fence, and in the razor a child’s doll had been caught, half naked and hanging upside down. I remember the first night it snowed—it was around two in the morning and from my tiny kitchen window I watched the snow pile up, glowing amber in the building’s eerie outside light, the doll dusted with a layer of orange ice.
I remember the feeling I had then—reading Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City brings it right back. It was a lonesome but beautiful feeling, in a pathetic or even apocalyptic way—like what we feel when looking at images of a natural disaster or oil spill. (Edward Burtynsky has shown us that such catastrophes can be beautiful, too.)
From her experience in New York, immersing herself “in the things other people had made,” Laing absorbed “the fact that loneliness, longing, does not mean that one has failed, but simply that one is alive.” And that’s what I felt while watching snow pile on an abandoned doll stuck on a razor wire between two buildings in Harlem: that I was alive.
I was alive, and life was beautiful.