I’m not sure how I was introduced to Olivia Laing‘s The Lonely City, but I am finding it a fascinating and sometimes frustrating read. A number of reviewers have pointed that her prose can get a bit overblown, but I admire her for taking on the topic of urban loneliness.
She weaves her personal story in New York — a lonely British ex-pat trying to find her way after crossing the Atlantic to find that her significant other was drifting away from her — with that of a number of artists whom she feels embody the concept of The Lonely City Peter Hujar, Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, Klaus Nomi, David Wojnarowicz, and even Greta Garbo. Most of her topics are male and most of them gay. She tackles perhaps the most extreme midway when she intertwines the story of Henry Darger and the notorious Harlow monkey experiments. Both are examples of lives enduring attachment disorder due to traumatic experiences at an early age.
But are all of her subjects truly lonely or loners or fans of solitude. She admits that Garbo was family misquoted as saying “I want to be alone” when she really meant “I want to be left alone”. It might seem contradictory that someone who wanted privacy would spend the last 40 or more years of her life in one of the world’s largest cities. But Garbo is reported to have said that she felt that had she returned to Sweden she would have been hounded by fans while in New York most did not bother her. And she was not exactly a recluse, keeping a circle of friends and spending much of her days walking the city.
I have spent most of my adult life in major U.S. cities and much of it living alone. I have been “coupled” and shared a home off and on over the past nearly four decades but seem to find the greatest sense of content when living alone. My parents often worried about me being all alone, fearing I would drift into loneliness and feeling unloved. But after my mother died, I was heart-broken to see my father spend two and a half years battling Alzheimer’s but, more significantly, the unknown territory of living alone. I wished that I could impart some of the skills I had developed over the years but know that something so innate for me was incomprehensible to him.
To admit being lonely is almost like the last taboo. People may feel free to share their substance abuse tales, marital infidelities or other secrets, but to many loner is translated as loser. Anyone who has dated after their mid-30s fears that encounter with the person whose loneliness is almost like an overpowering scent. The recently divorced man is perhaps the most clichéd case, but it comes in many varieties. It is the person who most fear will become obsessed with us, and the person we most fear we will be perceived as being.
What I find most frustrating about Laing’s book is that I don’t know that she succeeds in making her case that loneliness is central to the art of those she chronicles. I kept thinking about the controversial New York Times article about the death of George Bell, a man used as an example of what happens to a person’s estate and legacy when he or she dies alone Many felt it was exploitive of a man who probably would have been horrified to have his life analyzed on the front page of the Times and had not recourse or rebuttal. All of Laing’s subjects are long dead too.
While some cannot tolerate loneliness or solitude, I would agree that it can be the place where beauty and art can take root if we take time to let it sink in. Just as Langston Hughes gorgeous lyric for one of my favorite tunes about the topic did.