Monday 15 August 2016

The Lonely City - Olivia Laing

I'd already read Olivia Laing's To The River this year and loved it. Now I've finally got round to reading The Lonely City. Laing blends her own experiences with a wonderful mix of sensitive, humane criticism and theoretical and historical research. The result is passionate and compelling. The passages that are sober or upsetting are offset with sections that are uplifting and beautiful. The book achieves a number of things. Laing discusses loneliness in all its facets, it's causes and effects without ever simplifying. The book is also about the essential strangeness of people and their unknowability. That might sound trite for those of us brought up in the era of postmodernism and post structuralism but don't be fooled. I'm fairly sensitive to people's moods and their ways of being and surviving (and thriving) but by looking at figures like Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, David Wojnarowicz and others she shows us how different we all are and that empathy, effort and sensitivity can only take us so far. Or perhaps that a greater effort is required than one could easily imagine. My need for intimacy might be a suffocating death grip to you; my sensitivity might be a horrible invasion of privacy for you; my silence might be a deafening roar to you; my insouciance might annoy the fuck out of you. And so on. 

   Her readings and insights about paintings and art are careful, subtle and fascinating. It's like going to the best exhibition ever and getting insights into art that you never imagined. If you're anything like me it will open up a new world and send you off to the Internet to discover more.  Her portraits of artists and the dispossessed growing up on the margins, often in unbearable circumstances are deeply sympathetic and there are an abundance of images and ideas to pause over and contemplate. The chapter on David Wojnarowicz is worth your money all on its own. There's a fantastic chapter too discussing social media and it's possible alienating effects, "as our ability to socialise withers and atrophies". (227) But it's just a great book, chapter after chapter, inviting you into lives you might never have known about and artworks that you'll probably become desperate to experience. It's one of those rare books that opens up your life in new and unexpected ways, just as it asks you, not that I need a great deal of bidding, to look in the mirror. It's also moral and political, tender and compassionate, forever making connections, forever returning the discussion back to fairness and equality, race and gender, sexuality and class; always asking you to understand and empathise. Readers, it is fucking tremendous. One of the books of the year, along with Amy Liptrot's The Outrun and Lavie Tidhar's Central Station.

   I couldn't decide how personal to make this but I'm not sure that many people that know me think of me as lonely so maybe if it helps someone else to read this book or to feel a little better hopefully it's worthwhile: loneliness isn't the same as depression or anxiety and you can feel it even when surrounded by colleagues, loved ones or strangers. I've been lucky of course: I was in a wonderful, loving relationship for ten years; being an activist gave me a sense of purpose and allowed me to express my solidarity with others and I have, and have had, some amazing friends. But the loneliness and disconnection has been with me from a young age. [I won't bother you with the details of my upbringing - and it certainly wasn't horrendous in the way that others have to face] I learned early to do things by myself. Books, films and TV were my companions and continue to be. Yet even though I like my own company for the most part I'm forever searching. Out, reading in cafes, walking, often feeling that there is some kind of invisible, impenetrable barrier around me that people can't or won't penetrate - possibly trying to fight against this:
"It was becoming increasingly easy to see how people ended up vanishing in cities, disappearing in plain sight, retreating into their apartments because of sickness or bereavement, mental illness or the persistent, unbearable burden of sadness and shyness, of not knowing how to impress themselves into the world. I was getting a taste of it, all right, but what on earth would it be like to live the whole of your life like this, occupying the blind spot in other people’s existences, their noisy intimacies?" (136)

   At one point Laing quotes Wojnarowicz writing about himself: "‘David has a problem,’ he wrote bitterly in his journal, ‘he feels pain being alone but can’t stand most people. How the fuck do you solve that?’". It's not that I can't stand most people - and I suspect I speak for a lot of lonely people - but I have less and less time for inane chat or egos and when I see others slide easily into friendships and relationships I'm utterly confounded by my own inability to do the same. Perhaps I'm my own worst enemy.  And of course in connecting myself with Wojnarowicz's bitterness I worry that it contains a kind of disdain. And I hate that I might feel disdain for my fellow human beings. Tories and the rich excluded of course. 

   Reading the book now has come at just the right time. I began the summer reeling, in shock. Two weeks of almost constant nausea and anxiety. This is unlike me. There were various reasons - my midlife, existential crisis; a mountain of issues that had been building up and on top of that, difficulties - a crisis point really - with a very important relationship. So it is no surprise that my loneliness issues feel more pressing than ever. Need and longing cause you to ignore obvious doubts and fears. On top of that I felt unlovable, unwanted, unattractive and that I was going to be lost and alone forever. I wondered how well I was really understanding the world. And I realised that I'd undoubtedly caused someone that I love considerable pain by just not comprehending how mindbendingly different and alien we humans are. And there was the blast of fear too - of further loneliness, of more longing and searching, of feeling that invisible barrier that surrounds me becoming less porous, more unrelenting. And the knowledge that I wasn't on solid ground, or worse that I was falling from a great height desperately trying to grasp hold of something solid. Laing understands this loneliness, disconnection and lack of meaning completely: "the terror of solitude without prospect of cure, loneliness without the hope of alleviation or redemption." (251) 

   I've gone through my life my life trying not to imagine what others think of me. It always felt like a waste of time. And a way to drive yourself crazy. It didn't matter. I was OK, I was me. But suddenly I'm asking myself 'What signals do I send off? What is wrong? Do I give off some aura of neediness, or longing, or condescension? Maybe a new aspect of loneliness I hadn't experienced before.

Laing gets it all: "another aspect of loneliness: its endless agonising hope. Loneliness as a desire for closeness, for joining up, joining in, joining together, for gathering what has otherwise been sundered, abandoned, broken or left in isolation. Loneliness as a longing for integration, for a sense of feeling whole." (262) Most of my life I've gone out into the world with hope, sometimes pausing to think about that quote attributed to Einstein "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results' and trying to fight against it.  I've tried many things - plenty of things - dance classes, singing lessons, dating sites - but still feeling awkward or disconnected, hopeless at initiating relationships, never knowing how to break through. But I suppose hope, even in its folly, is better than despair.

Elsewhere, she writes about the need for sensation. Again, it's something many lonely people will understand all too well - anything to fill the gap: booze, drugs, the epiphanies and exultation of classical music or film.

There are so many passages I'd like to quote, especially perhaps the last page but it won't mean the same unless you read it as a conclusion to the whole book. Instead I'll finish with two passages about empowerment, creativity and fighting back, lest you think The Lonely City is a difficult or depressing text:

"Wojnarowicz articulated a sense of being not just outside society, but actively antagonistic to its strictures, its intolerance of different life-forms. ‘The pre-invented world’, he’d started calling it, the pre-invented existence of mainstream experience, which seems benign, even banal, its walls almost invisible until you are crushed against them. All his work was an act of resistance against this dominating force, driven by a desire to contact and inhabit a deeper, wilder mode of being. The best way he’d found to fight was to make public the truths of his own life, to create work that resisted invisibility and silence; the loneliness that comes from having your existence denied, from being written out of history, which after all belongs to the normal and not to the stigmatised." 

And this:

"Years before, David used to buy grass seed from a store on Canal Street and roam the piers scattering it in handfuls, Johnny Appleseed in sneakers, wanting to make something beautiful from the rubble. My favourite picture of him showed him lounging on a meadow he’d planted in one of the abandoned baggage or departure halls: grass scattered with debris, grass growing out of disintegrating plaster and particles of soil. Anonymous art, unsignable art, art that was about transformation, about alchemising what was otherwise only waste." 

Brilliant. The Lonely City is a work of solidarity and compassion. I urge you to read it.