The Lonely City: Adventures in the art of being alone

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Read 28/02/2018-07/03/2018

Rating: 5 stars

The Lonely City by Olivia Laing is more than I expected it to be. I thought I would read some personal reflections on navigating a strange city on your own mixed with a bit of art criticism. Instead, between the pages of this wonderful book, I found understanding, thoughtfulness, sorrow and love.

I picked this book up on my recent work trip to New York. It was in the shop at the Tenement Museum. I like to find a book about the place I’m visiting when I can. There were lots to choose from, covering the history of immigration to this simultaneously international and doggedly local city. Many focused on specific ethnic and religious communities. Some considered the women who have lived in NYC over time. Others were about the geography of the city, its locations and their meaning. But it was The Lonely City that jumped out at me.

I was in New York on my own, but not entirely alone. New York is my favourite city in the world. I feel anonymous and at home there, in a happy way. I find that I can move around without thinking about myself in relation to others, knowing that everyone else is doing the same. It feels like an accepting city to me.

I have excellent friends in New York, and knowing that they were there meant I didn’t feel isolated, like I do in most other cities away from home. I was working with a friendly bunch. The hotel staff were also welcoming, as were the people I encountered on my travels around the city. Welcoming but not overbearing. So I was on my own but not alone. This can be a pleasant state of being for an introvert.

Perhaps because I’ve only ever been a tourist in New York, my experience of the city is very different to that of Olivia Laing, but I understand what she experienced. I have moved to unfamiliar cities for work and found myself isolated, unrooted, adrift, separate and vulnerable. I’ve been lonely as I went about my work among colleagues who didn’t go out of their way to make me feel welcome. I have felt lonely in rooms full of people, among friends, and in relationships. I enjoy solitude, but I have also felt lonely when I’ve been alone. Laing quotes the work of psychiatrist Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, whose study of loneliness, that psychological state that goes beyond solitude, led her to define it as a state of being difficult to describe and difficult to empathise with. I think she was right. Laing has a go, and what she describes is familiar, but it’s not the full picture. As lonely as I’ve been myself, when I am with someone lonely, the uncontrollable forcefield of their isolation (Laing’s description of it) is a barrier to coming alongside them and supporting them.

Interestingly, Laing picks up on social scientist Robert Weiss’s theory that those of us who have been lonely are rendered incapable of empathising with others who are lonely because, once you manage to escape the state of loneliness, you don’t want to remember it. It interested me because, as I read on, I found that some of Laing’s reflections triggered feelings of loneliness in me.

Laing’s book mixes her own experience of loneliness with her attempts to understand it. She discusses psychological theories about the condition and also examines the work of artists who seem to embody loneliness in their art. I found this really interesting. It made me think about my own favourite artists and particularly my love for photography. Photographers are outsiders, voyeurs. They capture moments of privacy that the subject is unaware is being observed. Laing mentions Rear Window, which is one of my favourite films. In the film James Stewart plays L. B. Jeffries, a photographer and also, while he is temporarily housebound, a voyeur and an outsider to the lives of his neighbours. The photographers whose work I love include Lee Miller, Shirley Baker, William Eggleston, Martin Parr, Werner Bischof, Alessandra Sanguinetti. Not all of them deal exclusively in images of loneliness, but each has produced haunting works that reveal the vulnerability of people isolated in a crowd.

I really loved Laing’s exploration of Edward Hopper and his work. I loved her interpretations of his paintings. I like Hopper’s work, and reading Laing’s thoughts gave me a different appreciation of them. Her examination of Andy Warhol was less compelling for me. It was interesting in the way curious and unfathomable things can be, but I’m generally less interested in Warhol and his art compared with other artists. Laing’s thoughts on Warhol’s habit of using technology as a barrier to keep people at arm’s length while documenting them as a substitute for real contact only strengthened my perception of Warhol as a whole lot of empty in a jar of affectation. Of far more interest to me was Laing’s treatment of Valerie Solanas, one of the outliers of Warhol’s coterie and the woman who shot him. Laing considers a different aspect to Solanas, one that has been buried beneath her popular image of the crazy woman who shot the artistic genius. Solanas wrote a book, SCUM Manifesto, that revealed her as ahead of her time in terms of the second wave of feminism. She blamed women’s feelings of isolation on men, since men separated women off from one another when they married them, impregnated them, and corralled them in suburban pens. She defined community thus:

A true community consists of individuals – not mere species members, not couples – respecting each others individuality and privacy, at the same time interacting with each other mentally and emotionally – free spirits in free relation to each other – and cooperating with each other to achieve common ends.

Laing is a writer and journalist, her trade is in words and communication of ideas, so her experience of losing language drew me. I communicate better through the written word than I do through spoken word. It flows more easily, the connection between thought and expression. I’m currently writing text for an exhibition on electricity and enjoying the process of researching and writing a narrative that I am now condensing down into gallery interpretation and object labels. I’m also enjoying the subject matter and how the language of physics that explains electricity is also the language of being human, because we are electricity. Thinking about how I relate to written word and speech, the circuit of writing is largely unbroken with low resistance and the electric charge of thought travels easily from the generator of my brain to the appliance of my hand. In comparison, my speech circuit is unreliable, easily interrupted and has high resistance between my brain and my tongue. Sometimes I stutter, sometimes I have the physical feeling of my tongue being tied. This is a recent thing that has built over the past fifteen years and stems from experiences of being overlooked by my professional peers, and being talked over by louder friends and acquaintances. It has its roots in a childhood spent feeling like an addendum who gained attention by being sarcastic before I understood what sarcasm was. All I knew was that if I made observations in a particular tone of voice, my parents and older siblings would hoot with laughter. If I tried to express important things, I was usually dismissed. In meaningful personal relationships, I often find that I think I have articulated something clearly, only to reap blank looks or angrily offended reactions. My occasional stutter now is linked to a fear of being misunderstood and the decades long belief that I am largely irrelevant to other people. Laing talks about Wittgenstein and his belief that language is communal, that we cannot think without language, and therefore cannot truly be lonely. Laing’s experience of buying coffee and being misunderstood because of the subtle differences between British and American English led her to think of language as dangerous and with the potential to be isolating. I agree with her.

I didn’t know about David Wojnarowicz before I read this book. He doesn’t seem to have achieved the same commercial/populist fame as his peers Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. His story made me think of Robert Mapplethorpe, and about how dehumanising some people’s childhoods are at the hands of the adults who are supposed to keep them safe. Abuse creates a particular type of isolation, Laing seems to be saying, one where intimacy is casual and at a remove in order to maintain a feeling of being in control. To me, Wojnarowicz’s lifestyle appeared nihilistic, an engagement with danger as a surrogate for meaning, but simultaneously creating art which is a search for meaning. Laing raises an interesting point while discussing the gay cruising past of Times Square. She says that during her loneliness she was attracted to the descriptions of Wojnarowicz and writer and critic Samuel Delaney, wishing that something similar still existed for her to experience. The point she raises is one of female objectification.

[T]here was a glitch in this utopia, at least as far as I was concerned. In the context of the cinemas, the piers, citizens meant men, not women.

She describes how Delaney takes a female friend to one of the pornographic cinemas where gay men hooked up.

The visit passed off smoothly enough – plenty of easy-going action on the balcony to watch – and yet this anecdote reads more queasily than any of the more graphic encounters elsewhere recorded. What hangs over it, what looms unsaid, is the threat of what could have happened: the potential violence, the all too plausible act of rape, the peculiar mix of disgust, objectification and desire that the female form engenders, particularly when it appears in sexual contexts.

Sexual liberation still isn’t a level playing field. There was an article in the Observer while I was reading this book about the current UK government’s failure to make good on an election manifesto promise to introduce new rights for women who have suffered abuse. Women who have been raped still have their past sexual behaviour used against them as evidence that they were “asking for it”. Yes, we can have one night stands. Yes, we can enjoy other forms of casual sex. But we can’t expect to be heard when we decide we’ve changed our mind.

I have had periods in my life when I have thought I wanted the anonymity of one night stands, or uncommitted relationships with only partly available men. This has been at times when I haven’t liked myself enough for the nakedness of a long term relationship, when I have only wanted to be observed for a moment, without the pressure of future observation. When I have wanted to pretend to be a complete person or a different person, not somebody in the continuous process of being made. Sometimes it has been what I wanted. More often I have discovered that what I actually wanted was the security of being accepted and the pleasure of being recognised. I’m monogamous by nature, it turns out. I’ve only bucked against it because of a fear of being rejected.

Laing takes the pressures of objectification further, considering the behaviour of James Stewart’s Scottie in Vertigo when he tries to transform Judy into Madeleine by buying her a suit like Madeleine’s.

I watched that scene again and again, wanting to drain it of its power. It’s the spectacle of a woman being forced to participate in the perpetual, harrowing, non-consensual beauty pageant of femininity, of being made to confront her status as an object that might or might not be deemed acceptable, capable of arousing the eye.

Returning to Wojnarowicz, Laing assesses his work in the context of his desire to make others feel less alienated. I like her analysis. Recently I’ve been challenged to think about how candid I am in my online life, and how this candour might impact on those closest to me, especially when I don’t openly discuss the things I write about with them. My online expression is the equivalent of confession, if I were Catholic. It’s a whispered admission that isn’t to be discussed. It’s a making real of how I feel that might also be real to a stranger.

It was the rawness and vulnerability of his expression that proved so healing to my own feelings of isolation: the willingness to admit to failure or grief, to let himself be touched, to acknowledge desire, anger, pain, to be emotionally alive. 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.

She quotes him, too. It’s a quote that makes me wish I’d known him. It also makes me feel known.

We can all affect each other, by being open enough to make each other feel less alienated.

Another collision of reading happened when Philippa Perry wrote about her love affair with her cat, Kevin, in the Observer. She mentioned that she has an insecure attachment style in relationships, something she thought she had overcome when she met and married Grayson. Her behaviour with Kevin, she says, has reawoken that tendency. I hadn’t heard of attachment theory before, but shortly after reading Perry’s piece, Laing was explaining in this book about Mary Ainsworth’s development of attachment theory, and describing the earlier, distressing experiments Harry Harlow carried out using infant rhesus monkeys separated from their mothers and subjected to various cruelties to see how their development as social creatures was affected.

Laing talks about how our experience of attachment in childhood with adult caregivers influences our ability to socialise and form attachments in adulthood. Reading her words, I had a moment of realisation, something that I need to save for my next therapy session. I didn’t expect that from a book I chose because its premise of exploring the nature of loneliness through the life and work of four artists seemed interesting.

This timely bit of learning came in the chapter about outsider artist Henry Darger. Laing carries out research in his archive, frustrated by the judgemental treatment of his life by journalists and art critics who, lacking facts about Darger’s life, chose to extrapolate from his art, branding him a psychopath and potential paedophile. The life she uncovers is a sad one, revealing the way childhood experiences mould us, and bad childhood experiences foster isolation in later life. It made for difficult reading. It made me want to be kinder.

A couple of times in The Lonely City, Laing makes reference to her gender otherness. It reminded me of Laurie Penny’s book. A week or so before I started to read The Lonely City, I’d read an article by Laing about Daphne du Maurier and the 80th anniversary of the publication of Rebecca. Laing has an interesting take on the meaning of Rebecca that is linked to du Maurier’s fluid sexuality. Later in The Lonely City, Laing writes about the singer Klaus Nomi, an artist I’d completely forgotten about. Nomi presented himself as an alien, beyond gender. He embodied alienation as a way of managing his feelings of isolation.

Towards the end of the book, Laing considers our increasing dependency on technology as our prime means of communication. She turns around the popular analysis that technology is making us more isolated to suggest that our struggle to connect with each other has led us to invent and mass market devices that give the illusion of being connected, while keeping us in bubbles of physical isolation. The day before, I’d listened to a programme on Radio 4 about robots and artificial intelligence. A professor who has developed a robot, that she has named Nadine, spoke wistfully about the way giving Nadine a humanoid face had made her more aware that Nadine was a machine, programmed to respond in a pseudo human way to human emotion, but incapable of feeling emotion itself. The professor had reached the conclusion that our obsession with developing humanoid artificial intelligence was causing us to miss out on how wonderful our species and other social animals are, because we can communicate instinctively and create communities. We have an exhibition on at work about robots. Visitors can interact with Pepper, the humanoid robot from Japanese company SoftBank Robotics. Of course Pepper is pre-programmed and doesn’t veer from the story it has to tell, but the visitor needs to interact with Pepper’s touch screen and Pepper’s body to unlock sections of the story. I’ve done it three or four times now, and each time I’ve been delighted by the experience, even though I know the story already. For me, the appeal is in Pepper’s wide eyed face. Its head and features are similar in proportion to a kitten’s, and there’s also something manga-esque about it. There’s a cuteness and a vulnerability about the robot that draws me to it. It’s also predictable and non-threatening. It’s easy to see how we might fixate on creating companions that never disappoint in their interactions with us, and from that make the leap to gaming, social media, texting and the like offering a similar range of predictability that we as complex organic beings don’t always offer each other.

Laing introduces the prophetic social experiments of dotcom millionaire Josh Hilton which are discomfiting and predate the advent of Facebook, Snapchat, other social media where people bare all in a misplaced belief that they are in control of their content. The misgivings I have about social media have lately led me to quit Facebook, to stop my most personal writing blog, and to scale back on what I put on Twitter. I’m almost solely on Instagram and on this blog. I’m trying to be more present in the actual world.

Another theme runs through the book: isolation as a result of gentrification. Laing discusses the Quality of Life Task Force, set up by Mayor Giuliani to cleanse Manhattan of its diversity.

This is what the Times Square Alliance was supposed to have erased: the panhandlers, the hustlers, the damaged and hungry bodies. And yet it’s doubtful that the impulse was wholly humanitarian, driven by a wish to improve or make safe the lives of people on the margins. 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.

This made me think of Manchester. The city council is remodelling the city centre, closing off public rights of way at night to prevent the homeless finding sheltered spaces to sleep, demolishing the architectural heritage to make space for high-rise buildings designed by former footballers, homogenising a city centre that once had character, replacing that character with blandness. People who like the idea of city centre living find they don’t like the reality of the night time economy and take venues to court over noise pollution. Redevelopment is even threatening the city’s Gay Village, an area that the city uses to promote itself as a tolerant place, a community that plays a significant role in the city’s economy.

At the end of the book, Laing reflects further on gentrification. She captures something important.

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.

I really loved this book. It’s a rallying cry to kindness and solidarity, a call to arms for community. It has an excellent bibliography, too, that I’ll be making use of, I’m sure.

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7 thoughts on “The Lonely City: Adventures in the art of being alone

  1. This sounds . . . amazing. The parts about your struggle to communicate really resonate with me, Jan; in fact I could have written nearly all of that paragraph myself, except that instead of stuttering, I just go blank in the middle of a sentence. I never discovered sarcasm or humor as a way of making myself visible, the way many people do, and so I have remained pretty much invisible into my thirties. Even now, I finally work up the energy to reveal something deeply personal that I haven’t been ready to share, and the response is . . . crickets. I go to exhausting lengths to explain myself to people, but it’s never enough—I can often see that someone thinks they understand me when I know they don’t, but I’ve already explained as clearly as I know how.

    It’s so interesting that this brought up the topic of adult caregivers, because I only just had my own realization about that. I realized that I’ve never really had a guardian figure in my life. My parents were there physically in my childhood, but I’ve never had a personal relationship with either of them, or with my grandparents—maternal lived overseas with a language barrier, paternal had so many other grandchildren that I was only one of literally dozens. There were teachers I liked throughout my childhood and adolescence, but never one who mentored me. Something for me to work through with a therapist, too, I suppose.

    I love Valerie Solanas’s definition of community. I just read a little about her in Trainwreck by Sady Doyle, which is a book that I responded to much the same way you’ve responded to this one (a review of it has been sitting in my drafts for two months). I think you’d like it. I want to own a copy of it, and though I did check my libraries to find out where I can get Laing’s book, I strongly suspect I’ll want to own it too.

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    1. I really think that you would like this book, Miri. When I read her experience of not being able to communicate, it was like a door opened in my head and I suddenly understood fully what has been going on for me. I love your analogy with crickets. Yes! I usually think about tumbleweed, but crickets is so much better.

      My insecure attachment behaviour is very definitely the result of my poor relationship with my dad. I never knew my grandparents. My mum’s aunt took an interest in me, and one of my dad’s cousins, but the fact I think of it as them taking an interest says a lot about how it felt!

      I’m going to have a look for Trainwreck. I’d like to know more about Solanas. She seems an interesting character.

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      1. I went to my local bookstore last night, but they didn’t have it, so I went to the library after all rather than wait for it to be shipped. I tend to buy books after I’ve read them anyway, when I already know they’re worth it, so I’ll still be looking for a copy.

        A different connection I’ve just thought of: Have you read the Abhorsen series by Garth Nix? I’m in the middle of reading it for the second time, and thinking a lot about the second book, Lirael. It has a much darker feel than the first book did, because both of the protagonists struggle with these same things to some extent. Both are isolated, unable to communicate their needs, drowning unnoticed by absentee parents/parent figures. It’s both difficult and a little comforting for me to read right now; I even considered putting it down, but I love this series and am feeling like doing a lot of fantasy rereads this year.

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      2. I haven’t. It’s been a while since I read any fantasy series in a committed way. I just looked it up. It sounds interesting. A bit like The Chronicles of Prydain. I’ll keep an eye out for it at the library.

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