Book review: The Lonely City by Olivia Laing

I have a longstanding interest in the relationship between creativity and mental health. Creating art allows us to disconnect from stress, express inner thoughts and feelings, and often to enter that beautiful meditative state of ‘flow’. As a writer, I find the act of writing soothing.

I was fascinated to discover and read Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City recently. The book investigates creativity as an antidote to loneliness, a largely taboo subject about the feeling that arises when we become distressed by the perceived gap between our desire for social connection and our actual experience of it.

Laing found herself alone in New York after the relationship that drew her there from Britain ended abruptly. She set out to investigate the state of loneliness, state that society finds difficult, through works of art that arose out of that state, and to record her own journey to master being alone.

Laing’s main subjects were: Edward Hopper (1882-1967), the American realist painter and print maker who captured the loneliness and alienation of modern life in his work; Andy Warhol (1928-1987) a leading figure in the visual art movement; David Wojnarowicz (1954-1992) the Polish American painter, photographer, writer, filmmaker, performance artist, songwriter/recording artist and AIDS activist; and Henry Darger (1892-1973), the isolated American janitor who was posthumously recognised for his writing and art, including collages, and drawings, and 15,000 pages of handwritten prose.

images from web

Each artist was studied by Laing to create what she called a ‘map of loneliness’. Hopper’s Nighthawks is used to explore the spacial dynamics of loneliness with its characters trapped in an iceberg of greenish glass. Warhol’s machine-like aesthetic and the way he mediated intimacy via his tape recorder and camera explores the social strategies used to bridge a sense of strangeness and ‘not belonging’. Wojnarowicz provides a case study of the politics of loneliness and what happens when society excludes people from its ranks. Darger’s extreme isolation throughout his life presents a psychological case study of the condition of loneliness.

The setting of the work in New York city is demonstrative of the fact that being alone and loneliness are not the same thing. Loneliness is a condition that arises from within, an uncomfortable feeling that for some becomes unbearable. Some, like Warhol surround themselves with people but still feel a deep sense of loneliness, whilst others spend significant amounts of time alone without experiencing the condition of loneliness.

Laing explores the gendered nature of loneliness reflecting on Valerie Solanas (who shot Warhol), Greta Garbo and her paparazzo stalker, Ted Leyson, and Laing’s own forays into online dating.

The Lonely City is part biography, part memoir and part cultural criticism about the spaces between people and the things that draw them together. It is a broad ranging meditation on sexuality, mortality, loneliness, and the possibilities of art as an antidote. A fascinating read (or listen – I bought the audio book).