AS ANYONE WHO has ever been lonely knows, loneliness is more often felt in company—particularly in dense, highly social places—than in solitude. Loneliness does not simply mean being alone; it's being alone in the presence of so many others.
After Olivia Laing moved to New York City from her home in England, and her new love interest conveniently experienced a sudden change of heart, she found herself alone in a new city—and adrift on a new continent. She sought solace in exploring the city, and by examining the work of iconic, lonely artists who came before her. Laing's third book, The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone, combines personal memoir, art theory, and biography to examine the roots and products of loneliness.
"I wanted to understand what it means to be lonely, and how it has functioned in people's lives," she writes, "to attempt to chart the complex relationship between loneliness and art."
Laing's interest lies primarily with New York City-based artists (with the exception of Chicago's Henry Darger), whose famous names are synonymous with the city they called home. She scrutinizes Edward Hopper's nighttime scenes, handles David Wojnarowicz's personal artifacts, and relates how Andy Warhol—who constantly surrounded himself with celebrities—was one of the loneliest bastards to ever walk the earth. Truman Capote pegged Warhol as "just a hopeless born loser, the loneliest, most friendless person I'd ever met in my life."
By focusing almost exclusively on this cohort of tortured artists (she also offers an apologia of sorts to Warhol's would-be assassin, Valerie Solanas), Laing offers a very narrow—and not altogether flattering—glimpse into the union of loneliness and the artistic process. She explores at length how sexual discrimination, or childhood abuse and neglect, can breed disenfranchisement and loneliness—though loneliness, of course, is not unique to artists or to city dwellers.
Despite the unevenness and occasional meanderings of The Lonely City, Laing is a brilliant and moving writer; her desire for communion is at times heartbreaking. Art, she contends, is an enduring way to connect with the world, to not feel so alone among so many others. "By handling the things that other people had made," she writes, we can "slowly [absorb] by way of this contact the fact that loneliness, longing, does not mean one has failed, but simply that one is alive."
The Lonely City
by Olivia Laing