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“Loneliness, longing, does not mean one has failed, but simply that one is alive”

The Lonely CityI’ve been a keen reader of Olivia Laing, since discovering her first book, To the River, an account of a walk along the length of the River Ouse. Laing inhabits a new kind of academic writing, which to me seems to warrant the epithet ‘holistic’ It also seems somehow to be a particularly feminine approach, though not all female academics employ it, and there are also male writers in the canon.

To explain, this ‘holism’ is different from the kind of distancing, objective, detached ‘scientific’ approach which has been part of, for example, literary criticism. The ‘scientific’ view of literature divorces the writer from the writing – ‘the biographical fallacy’ and dissects text, or history, or landscape or whatever is being analysed and assessed, as if there is an 100% objective reality to what is being observed. The fact that the viewer themselves has a subjective response, a subjective viewpoint which influences what they see, that they have a relationship with the observed, is ignored. Subjective response is always in there. Sometimes we are prepared to acknowledge it, and I must admit I like a writer who owns their bias, where they come from, as Laing always does.

What writers like Laing are doing as they engage with their own particular field of interest and enquiry, is to enter into their relationship with the material. This is poles away from arm’s length. Other writers in this kind of territory include Helen MacDonald, author of H is for Hawk, Kathleen Jamie in her nature writings.


                   Nighthawks by Edward Hopper, 1942

Laing’s writing is deeply, sometimes laceratingly, personal and revealing. However it is much more than mere autobiography or confession. Subjective experience and objective analysis flow in and out of each other. Laing’s subject – whether her walking along the Ouse, exploring the landscape, history, geography whilst walking out a personal emotional time and place, or her second book The Trip To Echo Spring : Why Writers Drink, which looks at 6 American writers, has, for me, an extremely satisfying result. Because Laing does not distance herself from her subject matter, rather, she holds the relational space between the other, and herself observing the other, I find myself drawn close into relationship with the examined life she is observing.

Loneliness, in its quintessential form, is of a nature that is incommunicable by the one who suffers it. Nor, unlike other non-communicable emotional experiences, can it be shared via empathy. It may well be that the second person’s empathic abilities are obstructed by the anxiety-arousing quality of the mere emanations of the first person’s loneliness

Henry Darger Realms of the Unreal

Henry Darger

In The Lonely City, taking as a starting point her own sense of being an outsider, of loneliness, acknowledging this uncomfortable feeling, part, surely of the human condition, she explores how this sense of loneliness, isolation has been a particularly profound springboard for creativity in the work of a group of visual artists. She has particularly focussed on American artists, mainly painters – Edward Hopper, but also mixed media artists – Andy Warhol – and into the work of photographers, film makers, performance artists. She is particularly looking at work in the second half of the twentieth century.

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…………an uncertainty about being seen – looked over, maybe; but maybe also overlooked, as in ignored, unseen, unregarded, undesired

Nan Goldin - Dieter with Tulips 1984

Nan Goldin – Dieter with Tulips 1984

I was struck by the prevalence of a sense of being ‘aliens from another planet’ in the artists she was exploring – some of whom were familiar to me, such us Hopper and Warhol, most of whom I was introduced to, for example Henry Darger, David Wojnarowicz. Unsurprisingly, a different sexual orientation, ethnicity, or even an outside the norm family structure, a tendency to introspection and reflectivity when society is functioning in at out-there, high achieving jockish way, can lead to this. Of particular interest to me is her exploration of how some of this sense of not belonging and alienation arises very early in childhood – and some would say can begin in the womb. She weaves in some of the work by John Bowlby on attachment theory, Melanie Klein’s work on infant psychology, and some account of the distressing scientific experiments done on infantile attachment with rhesus monkeys and other mammals.

It might sound as if leaping around from her own loneliness following a relationship breakdown, to exploring the strange world of countertenor Klaus Nomi, unfortunately having a beautiful operatic voice a decade or so before countertenors became loved mainstream opera stars, to analysis of AIDS and the attitudes towards gays in the eighties, political activism, psychoanalytical theory, not to mention the analysis of particular artworks in the framework of all this, might be a hotchpotch. Be reassured, it isn’t. Think instead, a remarkably rich and glowing tapestry, a strong, flexible web.

And, talking of webs…………..I do think a book like this could not have been enjoyed and savoured so satisfyingly more than about a decade ago. The ability to go and search for artworks, you-tube clips of interviews, performances, added immeasurably to the experience

David Wojnarowicz collage

David Wojnarowicz collage

One might think that this would be a depressing, despairing read, accounts of lonely, (even if visible and famous, like Warhol) misunderstood (though highly creative) creative lives. In fact, Laing reminds us how often creative works, perhaps born out of rage, despair or suffering, or from the riches of an interior life of the imagination, totally at odds with what the creator presents to the world (Henry Darger) can illuminate and enrich not only the creator themselves, but those of us who see, or read, or hear and receive that felt, shared, awakening sense of ‘meaning’ that the arts can give. Art itself as a kind of healing, whole-ing not just to the makers.

This is a strange story, perhaps better understood as a parable, a way of articulating what it’s like to inhabit a particular kind of being. It’s about wanting and not wanting: about needing people to pour themselves out into you and then needing them to stop, to restore the boundaries of the self, to maintain separation and control. It’s about having a personality that both longs for and fears being subsumed into another ego; being swamped or flooded, ingesting or being infected by the mess and drama of someone else’s life, as if their words were literally agents of transformation.

This is the push and pull of intimacy

(from a section examining Warhol, and examining the author’s response to Warhol’s life and Warhol’s work)

This is a book which touches on many ideas, feelings, and disciplines of study. I suspect each reader will find individual aspects of it specifically speak more or less loudly to them. It’s a very rich book indeed :

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. All the same, it does have some extraordinary functions, some odd, negotiating ability between people, including people who never meet and yet who infiltrate 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

And that, to my mind, is just one stunning example of gold, bread, water, diamonds. Rich, rich, needed

Olivia Laing

As you can probably guess, I was almost overwhelmed by all this book contains, and wanted to include visual after visual of every discussed artist. However, readers must, as I did, find their own immersive journey.

The Lonely City comes highly recommended by me!

I was delighted to receive this as an advance digital copy from the publishers, via Netgalley It is available, according to the Amazons, 3rd March in the UK, and 1st March in the USA

The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone Amazon UK
The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone Amazon USA