Orson Welles was probably not the first person to say “we’re born alone, we live alone, we die alone,” but he did say it, and I believe he really meant it. I often think of the way Welles died, by himself, late at night, a typewriter balanced on his elephantine stomach, his toy poodle Kiki yapping away at his feet until he was discovered cold the next morning. Welles knew that all deaths are lonely — that the final moments require a shoring up of the self (and a tossing away of Rosebuds), that every human’s last act is never communal, that the end is always a solo performance. Of course, the second part of Welles’ quote, which is often lopped off for the sake of bumper-sticker brevity, is that “Only through our love and friendship can we create the illusion for the moment that we’re not alone.” For Welles, the making of illusion was not the performance of a cheap trick but a dazzling part of being alive; he knew that art (in his case theater, radio, film) is an extremely potent form of collective fantasy. Like love and friendship, art allows us to forget for a moment that we are all separate minds trapped in separate bodies with no way to become anything else, that loneliness is a condition built into our anatomy.
It makes a certain sense, then, that Olivia Laing, in her new study of loneliness, would gravitate towards artists as the best vehicles through which to understand her struggle with solitude. Art, she argues, is also her favorite illusion, her curative salve for an isolated heart. As she writes in The Lonely City, “There are so many things that art can’t do…it can’t bring the dead back to life, it can’t mend arguments between friends, or cure AIDS, or halt the pace of climate change.” But its compensations are formidable: “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.”
Laing comes into The Lonely City with plenty of wounds, and she is prepared to excavate them. The book, which is part memoir, part history, part biography, and part open-ended questioning, uses as a throughline the thirtysomething writer’s states of mind as she travels from England to a summer in New York City, squatting in sweaty, stuffy rented apartments, trying to mend a broken heart. Laing is part of a new group of nonfiction writers who are not afraid to infuse their own experiences into works of reportage, delving into the archives of libraries and into their own memories, discovering — and delighting in – both the puzzlements and the revelations that lie beneath the surface. This kind of writing, in which the author grabs the reader’s hand and leads him or her through a museum of contradictory ideas, has lately been made newly vital and fresh by writers like Maggie Nelson, Mary Ruefle, Rebecca Solnit, Claudia Rankine, Leslie Jamison, and now Laing. They’ve in particular electrified the way we look back at literature, wresting the control away established (and so often male) academic and publishing authorities, and re-investing the literary essay with an appeal that’s almost visceral.
As far as this genre goes, Laing is one of the leaders of the field, and her career has been an exciting one to watch. She began, in 2011, with To The River, a book in which she walks the length of the Ouse, the river where Virginia Woolf drowned herself, in an attempt to understand the writer’s depression alongside her own. She continued with 2013’s The Trip to Echo Spring, a biographical study of six alcoholic authors (F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, John Berryman, John Cheever, and Raymond Carver); she mines these writers’ lives to try to decipher the connection between addiction and the creative process, and in doing so confronts her own demons about drinking and family trauma.
The Lonely City is Laing’s most accomplished work yet in this vein; in it, she focuses again on a group of main players (artists Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, David Wojnarowicz, and Henry Darger), but also enlists in support a diverse cast that includes Valerie Solanas, Zoe Leonard, Klaus Nomi, Josh Harris, Billie Holiday, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Laing’s local barista. Laing dips in and out of these lives as she maps her own sense of isolation in New York City, not tying any character to any one part of the narrative, but allowing them to bubble up when they need to be heard. Each of her four main players gets his own chapter, in which Laing does a deep biographical dive on the artist’s work and how he approached the theme of solitude, but these various personae are shades that haunt the entire work. She tells us that she often moved through New York feeling so invisibly alone that she felt like a ghost, and so started to think of other ghosts as suitable company. The dead, for Laing, are not so much historical figures as they are very vibrant modern companions, and she invokes them with an ease and familiarity of old friends. She allows Warhol to pop up in the chapter on the web, Hopper to pop up in a chapter on Warhol, and so on. In Laing’s head, all of these artists are still alive somewhere – perhaps even in communion with one another. This thought makes her feel less alone, and she passes it along to us.
The Lonely City is a book about art as redemptive force, both because it saves us from feeling alone and also tackles the concept of loneliness in a way that most of us refuse to do in the course of our ordinary conversations. Laing opens up the work by admitting her feelings of shame about being lonely: “Loneliness is difficult to confess, difficult too to categorize…it is subject too to pathologization, to being considered a disease.” She is interested in a kind of loneliness that is specific to major urban settings (primarily New York City, though one of her obsessions, Henry Darger, lived and worked in Chicago). Laing’s fascination is the acute feeling of isolation one gets in big crowds, the specific experience of looking out, alone, over a sea of apartment buildings at glowing windows emanating an remote warmth. Urban loneliness may have its counterpart in America’s wide open spaces — the melancholy cowboy riding out solo over an expansive range. But this type of solitude doesn’t intrigue her — Laing is pulled in by the type of loneliness that hurts so much because it happens in the presence of others. She is interested in those who, like Warhol, whipped up crowds wherever they went, and yet never felt like they had a true friend. She is interested in artists like Wojnarowicz, who had many lovers and was part of the gay art scene in Manhattan in the 70s before dying from AIDS, who suffer silently at the same time that they use their work to speak very loud. Laing experiences loneliness of the big city as an inherent dichotomy: cities are where artists go to make work that brings us all together, but in doing so, they also commit to a deeply detached and misunderstood existence in a place that makes everyone feel anonymous. Laing believes that cities inherently breed lonesomeness, even as they also allow connections to bloom.
Laing may be at her best when she applies this thinking to the digital city — for her, the entire Internet is essentially New York; a groaning maw in which genius cultural outcasts are kept in emotional quarantine. She dives deep into the work of Web 1.0 entrepreneur Josh Harris, whose “Quiet: We Live in Public,” project invited 100 artists to live together in a “virtual terrarium” in the late 90s, having their entire lives caught on film and broadcast out to the webcams. Harris’s experiments were decried as excessive and shut down by NYPD; now, of course, it’s a truism to say we are eager to live our entire lives online, freely offering up our photos, emails, data, and tweets for mass surveillance. Laing points out that the Internet has redefined loneliness, in that you no longer have to be Warhol to create a movement; you can start a Factory from your laptop. This means that the our sense of disconnection has burrowed even deeper. Her own experience with it proved almost vertiginous: “the whole thing seemed insane, a trading-off of time against nothing tangible at all: a yellow star, a magic bean, for which I was surrendering all the pieces of my identity, every element except the physical carcass in which I was supposedly contained.”
In nearly every chapter, Laing discovers some magnetic, neon lure to the past — even though the artists she focuses on may have been lonely in their own times, at least they felt the pain and terror of it, and it moved them to create. Even the ‘90s dot-com-boomers trapped in Harris’ proto-reality TV bubble were able to feel the strangeness and danger of broadcasting their every movement. Now, she argues, the loneliest feeling is that lonely doesn’t feel like anything at all. “There is a gentrification that is happening in cities,” she writes. “And there is a gentrification that is happening to the emotions, too, with a similarly homogenizing, whitening, deadening effect.”
What Laing, and other writers like her, want most now is for people to feel. She shares her own anguish and grief not just to illustrate loneliness, but to show how it can be felt all the way down to the bones. She mixes her own story with those of people in the past not as a gimmick but as a way of saying, “they felt this way, I feel this way, and I hope others feel this way too.” Fighting against emotional gentrification, she wants to spin her own illusion; that though we are born alone, live alone, and die alone, someone else is out there, walking through city streets late at night, asking herself how to connect. As she writes, “Loneliness is personal, and it is also political. Loneliness is a collective; it is a city.” Laing realizes that we are all stumbling around the same scary zip code of the mind, looking for a friend. The Lonely City offers readers the gift of an extended hand.