The Lonely City by Olivia Laing is a mixture of reportage, biography and creative non-fiction. Weaving together strands of history, philosophy and art, Laing explores one of the last taboos of humanity which is loneliness. This is an alarming and at times uncomfortable book to read if you have been or are now lonely. Yet loneliness is common to all of us at some point in our lives. It’s what we seek at all costs to avoid and hide under the rug.
Laing brings attention to this by way of personal narrative. She moved to New York City in her mid-thirties and found herself in a slump of loneliness and was fascinated by this most shameful of experiences.
She explores NYC and loneliness as it’s depicted in art. Edwards Hopper’s Nighthawks is explored in depth and is categorically – as it’s probably the ultimate in depicting loneliness and alienation within a metropolis.
She also delves into the work of Andy Warhol and in particular Time Capsules. This is the work of an expert craftsperson in historical narrative and philosophy and it pin-points all of the common frameworks and painpoints of what it means to be lonely. I have loads of personal experience of being lonely in new cities. That’s why at times reading this recalled difficult times in my own life where I felt completely adrift and disconnnected from communication with anyone. It was a comfort and a salve on those old wounds to think that this isn’t a condition unique to myself,but that’s universally shared by all of humanity. Loneliness as a social, economic and psychological condition and an unfortunate by-product of the industrial revolution is explored.
Throughout all of the personalised doom and gloom there are a lot of moving moments, and intellectually dazzling points. Laing offers a way to navigate through and heal one’s loneliness. She concludes by offering several ways to put a salve on the wound of loneliness so to speak, through celebrating this experience of being cast adrift from the larger continent of human experience. That it’s possible to embrace and celebrate loneliness for all of the insights it provides into the human condition.
Although some writers are caught in a dangerous quandary. The smarter and more sensitive of writers can lean towards depression brought on by such immense loneliness such as David Foster Wallace, or Virginia Woolf or Sylvia Plath – leading them to despatch themselves from the planet. Although other writers embraced being alone and built their career on it – like Thoreau.
Which is why, for me loneliness still remains one of the most challenging aspects of being human that we can all face, and why this book was so challenging to read. Although beautifully written and an incredible achievement of intellectual scholarship – it cut a little too close to the bone for me. Recalling weeks and months without work or friends in London and how I couldn’t wait to get out of that place.
Interesting and intellectual books like this shouldn’t necessarily comfort you or keep you in a lulled state of cozy happiness – they should challenge one’s darker places too.
If you want to explore loneliness through art, music and fiction, then you can’t go past this book ‘A Thousand Streets Under the Sky‘, this neon art, this film ‘Wings of Desire’ and the album Skeleton Tree by Nick Cave.
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