Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

Solitary solidarity

Out There

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Loneliness is not the same thing as merely being alone. But it's a state of being well worth examination, and now nonfiction author Olivia Laing, who wrote 2014's well-received The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking, gives loneliness the full-court treatment in her new book The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone (Picador).

Laing's book is an interesting exploration of urban loneliness as seen in the lives of some rather iconic artists, and in the author's own experience of moving to Manhattan and trying to stake out a life as a single person. She begins with a discussion of the empty urban spaces in the paintings of artist Edward Hopper. Hopper's urban scenes, Laing writes, reproduce "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." She sees Hopper's work as a poetic reflection on the theme of urban alienation, the expression of a longing for connection. You could say it speaks to her.

The popular conception of artist Andy Warhol as social butterfly, Factory foreman and pre-eminent society portraitist comes in for needed revision in Laing's view. Warhol's early embraces of silkscreen use and mechanical reproduction prefigure our "age of automation: our rapturous, narcissistic fixation with screens; the enormous devolution of our emotional and practical lives to technological apparatuses and contraptions." In The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, he wrote, "I need B because I can't be alone. Except when I sleep. Then I can't be with anyone."

Laing's most poignant observations come into play with her examination of the work of the late gay artist and writer David Wojnarowicz . She zeroes in on Wojnarowicz's love of cruising the old Chelsea piers on Manhattan's West Side, "a place that captured both his erotic and creative imagination. On the one hand, the place was an outdoor whorehouse, reeking of piss and shit, where people were regularly murdered. On the other hand, it was a world without inhibitions, where people whose sexuality was elsewhere the subject of intense hostility could find an absolute freedom of encounter, and where moments of unexpected intimacy sometimes bloomed amongst the rubble."

About Wojnarowicz's frank discussions of his footloose sexuality and premature mortality (he died of complications from AIDS), Laing writes, "His self-exposure was in itself a cure for loneliness, dissolving the sense of difference that comes when one believes one's feelings or desires to be uniquely shameful."

In a consideration of great American outsider artist Henry Darger, Laing describes the over 300 paintings and thousands of pages of manuscript he left behind in his rented room after his death in 1972, the creation of a complete fantastical society, most of it "set in a coherent otherworld: the Realm of the Unreal, a place Darger inhabited far more dynamically and passionately than he did the everyday city of Chicago." In this section, she describes fantasy and solipsism as understandable reactions against social isolation and disconnection.

Laing goes on to touch on the work and lives of such diverse artists as, ready? Alfred Hitchcock, Valerie Solanas, Nan Goldin , Klaus Nomi, Peter Hujar, Billie Holiday and Jean Michel Basquiat . Quite a list. That she does so with empathy and artistic understanding is impressive enough; that she interweaves a personal record of her own solitary period is masterful. This is a highly recommended read for all manner of urban loners, introverts and semi-loners.

"In Grand Hotel, Greta Garbo said she wanted to be alone, that famous line, but what the real Miss Garbo desired was to be left alone, a very different thing: as in unbothered, unwatched, unharried." Garbo knew that to be left alone is not necessarily to be lonely, and Laing's book is a powerful examination of the very real difference.

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