The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone

I troll a lot of best of year lists at the end of each year and based on those add many books that sound interesting to my various lists. The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone came from both the NPR book concierge and from Austin Kleon’s list. When a book appears twice I take more notice and it moves up the list. Olivia Laing is a fascinating writer, mixing her own experience with that of artists and her reflections on the city to create a book that is hard to quantify and describe. At it’s best it speaks through artists work to describe and reflect back on the experience and thoughts of being alone and lonely.

I’ll admit that I’m not often lonely these days, more likely I’m overwhelmed by all that’s around me and I forcefully shut myself away from the world to get time alone. Nonetheless I found this book fascinating. The art history I didn’t know, the stories of how horrible my country was in the 80s to those suffering from AIDS, and the ideas of being in a densely populated city but feeling utterly alone.

Her thoughts and ideas on how technology is affecting loneliness were some of the best parts of the book, she talks of Josh Harris and his early work in streaming people living publicly, she talks about how that in many ways predicted much of where we are with social media today. And in coming back several times to Andy Warhol’s life and David Wojnarowicz’s life, we learn so many ways in which we try to clean up and gentrify not just our cities, but our emotions.

Amazing read, parts of which I’ll be thinking about for a long time. My highlights are from the kindle version, graciously loaned to me by my public library.

Cities can be lonely places, and in admitting this we see that 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 is desired. (location 33)

…a map of loneliness, built out of both need and interest, pieced together from my own experiences and those of others. I wanted to understand what it means to be lonely, and how it has functioned in people’s lives, to attempt to chart the complex relationship between loneliness and art. (location 88)

…loneliness is by no means a wholly worthless experience, but rather one that cuts right to the heart of what we value and what we need. (location 96)

What is it about Hopper? Every once in a while an artist comes along who articulates an experience, not necessarily consciously or willingly, but with such prescience and intensity that the association becomes indelible. (location 171)

…what Hopper’s urban scenes also replicate is one of the central experiences of being lonely: the way a feeling of separation, of being walled off or penned in, combines with a sense of near-unbearable exposure. (location 183)

There is no colour in existence that so powerfully communicates urban alienation, the atomisation 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. (location 223)

Reading his halting confession, one begins to see why his work is not just compelling but also consoling, especially when viewed en masse. It’s true that he painted, not once but many times, the loneliness of a large city, where the possibilities of connection are repeatedly defeated by the dehumanising apparatus of urban life. But didn’t he also paint loneliness as a large city, revealing it as a shared, democratic place, inhabited, whether willingly or not, by many souls? (location 520)

And yet what Hopper captures is beautiful as well as frightening. They aren’t sentimental, his pictures, but there is an extraordinary attentiveness to them. As if what he saw was as interesting as he kept insisting he needed it to be: worth the labour, the miserable effort of setting it down. As if loneliness was something worth looking at. More than that, as if looking itself was an antidote, a way to defeat loneliness’s strange, estranging spell. (location 529)

The loneliness of difference, the loneliness of undesirability, the loneliness of not being admitted into the magic circles of connection and acceptance – the social and professional groupings, the embracing arms. (location 659)

But the questions Warhol was asking with his new work run far deeper than any crude attempt at shock or defiance. He was painting things to which he was sentimentally attached, even loved; objects whose value derives not because they’re rare or individual but because they are reliably the same. (location 681)

…many of the books and articles written about him seem to shine more light on our cultural anxieties around the effects of loneliness on the psyche than they do on the artist as a real, breathing person. (location 1697)

For me, this was the most disturbing aspect of Harlow’s work: the revelation that after an experience of loneliness both the damaged individual and the healthy society work in concert to maintain separation. (location 1846)

Nothing is more declarative of someone’s priorities than how they spend their money, particularly when they don’t have much of it. (location 1958)

Loneliness here is a longing not just for acceptance but also for integration. It arises out of an understanding, however deeply buried or defended against, that the self has been broken into fragments, some of which are missing, cast out into the world. But how do you put the broken pieces back together? Isn’t that where art comes in (yes, says Klein), and in particular the art of collage, the repetitive task, day by day and year by year, of soldering torn or sundered images together? (location 2133)

The piece’s power derives from the way it scrapes away at the accretions of stigma, the poisonous mess civilisation has made out of sex. It returns to basics, to the first small flowering of adolescent desire, to what I am tempted to spell as innocence or purity, had those words not been so thoroughly co-opted by conservatives. All that isolation, all that violence and fear and pain: it was the consequence of wishing to make contact by way of the body. (location 2497)

We haven’t just become alienated because we’ve subcontracted so many elements of our social and emotional lives to machines. It’s no doubt a self-perpetuating cycle, but part of the impetus for inventing as well as buying these things is that contact is difficult, frightening, sometimes intolerably dangerous. (location 2758)

If there is a current animating Warhol’s work, it is not sexual desire, not eros as we generally understand it, but rather desire for attention: the driving force of the modern age. What Warhol was looking at, what he was reproducing in paintings and sculptures and films and photographs, was simply whatever everyone else was looking at…. (location 2961)

Safer cities, cleaner cities, richer cities, cities that grow ever more alike: what lurks behind the rhetoric of the Quality of Life Task Force is a profound fear of difference, a fear of dirt and contamination, an unwillingness to let other life-forms coexist. And what this means is that cities shift from places of contact, places where diverse people interact, to places that resemble isolation wards, the like penned with the like. (location 3057)

All the same, it does have some extraordinary functions, some odd negotiating ability between people, including people who never meet and yet who infiltrate and enrich each other’s lives. It does have a capacity to create intimacy; it does have a way of healing wounds, and better yet of making it apparent that not all wounds need healing and not all scars are ugly. (location 3406)

There is a gentrification that is happening to cities, and there is a gentrification that is happening to the emotions too, with a similarly homogenising, whitening, deadening effect. 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. (location 3412)

Loneliness is personal, and it is also political. Loneliness is collective; it is a city. As to how to inhabit it, there are no rules and nor is there any need to feel shame, only to remember that the pursuit of individual happiness does not trump or excuse our obligations to each another. (location 3419)