The Lonely City – Olivia Laing
A couple of months ago I was looking up my book, Lonesome When You Go (as you do), and was directed to a Loneliness Quiz. It was the end of a tough year having moved to a new country and struggled to make meaningful connections or feel at home. I scored very highly on the quiz and my results suggested I should be concerned for my well-being. It made me feel even sadder, but prompted me to really examine the issue – what is it that makes me such a solitary creature? Am I okay with it? Will it pass? And why, in this huge city full of writers, musicians, artists and people with similar backgrounds to me have I continued to find connection and friendship so elusive and difficult?
During that tough year I found myself reading about all sorts of things, from Synchronicity to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance; books on Mastery, depression, loss, love. Both fiction and non-fiction books seemed to be all about searching for meaning and understanding ourselves and our relationship to others.
Most pertinent of all of these was The Lonely City by Olivia Laing. With the subtitle ‘Adventures in the Art of Being Alone’ and a purple night sky cover (a similar image to my phone’s background: the sky I snapped on my 35th birthday, as it happens), this book was already a favourite.
Laing ruminates poetically on some of my own queries and, in particular, the nature of loneliness through her own experience of living heartbroken in New York in her mid-thirties. She ponders the way society views loneliness and questions the belief that “our whole purpose is as coupled creatures, or that happiness can or should be a permanent possession.” I often hear it said that humans are social creatures, our purpose is to connect with others and thus be fully realised ourselves. The fact that this isn’t always possible can be troubling, but I found comfort in Laing’s acceptance of this state and discussion on how it can serve a purpose of its own. She asks “What does it mean to be lonely? How do we live, if we’re not intimately engaged with another human being?”
Quoting Virginia Woolf, Laing writes, “Woolf described an inner loneliness that she thought might be illuminating to analyse, adding: ‘If I could catch the feeling, I would: the feeling of the singing of the real world, as one is driven by loneliness and silence from the habitable world.’” Suggesting that there’s more to this feeling than a lack of something. It can perhaps be used to enhance our experience of reality.
Through her solo exploration of New York City, Laing focuses on the artists who have walked and documented the same streets. Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, Henry Darger and David Wojnarowicz all feature heavily and are connected through their shared experience of difficult childhoods, being outsiders and making art that examines loneliness felt amid a crowded city. The link between art and loneliness is strong and Laing’s fascination turns it into an art form itself.
Sometimes a book comes along that makes you feel better about being the you you are. Just as Susan Cain’s Quiet cemented my understanding of my own introversion some years ago, The Lonely City made me feel remarkably less alone; less worried about a state that, whether or not it’s fundamental to my very personality, will come and go and always lead to something creative or examinable. I’ve definitely been working on it, but see it now as less a failure to experience and more an experience all of its own.
(I just did the quiz again and have gone down from extreme loneliness, to moderate loneliness. I’ll be okay.)