“We are surrounded by the lonely all the time”

"Protectors of the realm" by Noxi. is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Her experience of being alone in New York City inspired writer and artist Olivia Laing to explore the notion of loneliness and its intersection with art. In her book “The Lonely City”, she unravels the past of several artists and the impact isolation had on their work.

Reading your book “The Lonely City”, I couldn’t help but think that loneliness is hard to pin down in a specific place…
Loneliness is not bound to a specific place, that’s true. And it isn’t at all the same thing as solitude. Solitude means you are physically alone while loneliness is a longing for more intimacy than you have. That’s why it can happen just as easily in a crowd, among friends, or even in a relationship.

You have described loneliness as something that emerges in all kinds of conditions: Being an outcast, being stigmatized – or even someone unable to overcome a language barrier. Is the city just a canvas for loneliness, then?
You can be lonely anywhere and under any kind of circumstance. But urban environments can intensify loneliness. When you are in a city, you are surrounded by other people. But you also have an experience of being physically separated from them while seeing them all around you. That is especially true in cities like New York, where the population is so dense and so many people live in apartments.

Olivia Laing is the author of "To the River", "Echo Spring" and, most recently, "The Lonely City". She lives in the U.K. (Photo by Mike Sim)

Olivia Laing is the author of “To the River”, “Echo Spring” and, most recently, “The Lonely City”. She lives in the U.K. (Photo by Mike Sim)

They are close but out of grasp.
At the same time, you are subject to a lot of peoples’ gazes, you are visible to them. I think that really intensifies the experience of loneliness: feeling hyper-exposed, and feeling shame around the social taboo that is loneliness. Urban environments intensify loneliness in quite a particular and interesting way.

Is that what you mean when you write: “The possibilities of connection are defeated by the dehumanizing apparatus of urban life”?
Yes, but I’m also referring to the internet and social media. Just because there’s a density of people, doesn’t mean it necessarily facilitates connections between them.

Because everyone on the internet posts the best things that happen to them, making everyone else feel like they are missing out?
I feel like there is a sort of pressure to perform these perfect lives, to show very tightly curated images – “my wonderful brunch with my friends” or “the great thing I went to last night”. Social media becomes a highly pressured, highly competitive space. And if you are feeling like you are failing socially, that can be very intimidating and make you feel worse.

In your book, you describe how Andy Warhol, who was socially awkward around people, discovered that he could use machines as an intermediary. Especially his tape recorder, with which he filled the space between him and others. Do you recognize that logic in our online behavior?
Absolutely. Warhol was such a precursor of the internet age: in many ways the avatar of the 21st century. I began reading about him, and how he was using tape recorders and Polaroid cameras to both draw people to him and to keep them away. And then I looked up from my research, looked around me, and everybody was holding on to their charismatic little machines. Today, people sit on the subway, swiping through Tinder without talking, or looking at the people around them.

I wonder, then, if the behavior we all elicit is something that came about in the 21st century or whether those machines are just pandering to the neuroses we all have anyway.
I don’t know! But I wonder whether the reason that this aspect of Warhol’s behavior hasn’t been written about so much is because it has only really become clear to us in the 21st century what he was doing – because now we are doing it too, and so it is recognizable to us.

He had a particular kind of loneliness: He was famous and at the same time, people didn’t quite get him…
He made a wonderfully rich life around himself – working and social life – but he always seemed removed from it. And he talked about himself as one removed from it. Even though he clearly had friends, clearly had people he was close to. But there was an emotional space around him that felt familiar. I think a lot of people experience that kind of alienation without really knowing quite how to fulfill it.

“Isolation is often political rather than habitual.”

In your book, you quote the psychologist Robert Weiss: “Loneliness cannot be overcome by willpower alone”. Maybe all these people are trying to do something about their loneliness, working against it as much as they can, but the real tragedy is that they cannot get out of it, no matter how hard they try.
It is also a question of what that gap around you provokes: how it stimulates creativity and the production of art. That the sort of sense of longing to communicate, and knowing that nobody understands you or speaks your language drives the production of art.

Because it is a way to pop the bubble?
Yes. It’s a way to make something like a communication device, especially if you worry that your own words, or your own body won’t be found attractive. You make new objects and put them into the world, objects that are attractive or desirable or that resolve things you are struggling with in your own emotional life.

You often talk about loneliness being a vicious circle, something that is hard to get out of. And while these artists didn’t break free from it, they still did manage to create something.
Absolutely. In the beginning of the book, I have another quote from Robert Weiss “Loneliness is a disease wholly without redeeming features.” I didn’t believe that a state that pretty much all humans can and most humans have experienced at some point in their lives can be without redeeming features. To me, one of the things that was redeeming is the way in which loneliness intersects with and drives creativity.

It lead you on the journey of researching artists and eventually writing this book. You fell into the rabbit hole…
As soon as I started to begin the research, I became so captivated by and interested in the topic. It unlocked the potential of loneliness. It was also very healing, starting to understand the different ways in which people become isolated and the way it is so often political rather than habitual. It was very connecting.

In the book, you talk a lot about the artist David Wojnarowicz. He and the gay community he was a part of used their sexuality as an outlet for loneliness, a shortcut to intimacy.
We’re often fed a story about monogamous romance, about how love is the cure for loneliness – which I think is bullshit. So I was interested in people who were having fairly anonymous, fairly adventurous sex in public places and how much that touched them, how much meeting a stranger could be a cure for loneliness. I wanted to open up as many possibilities as I could about different ways that loneliness can be meaningful, or can be handled.

You write “the dream of sex is to be liberated from the prison of the body by the body itself”. I recognize that by the behavior we see today, where a myriad of hook-up apps has enabled city dwellers to have fairly anonymous sex.
But it is different because today it is mediated by a machine. I don’t think I am that nostalgic in the book, but perhaps I do have some nostalgia for the idea of cruising, of being able to go to one of these places where people met to have sex… There, you are deep in the fabric of the city itself, rather than the city of the internet – which is not as satisfying a place.

Back then, men could go cruising in abandoned docks in New York City…
It was a remarkable space. But when AIDS appeared those places just closed down. The people who were writing in the 1970s about the possibilities of connections through anonymous sex were really silenced in the 1980s – for understandable reasons – but as David Wojnarowicz rightfully said: “It isn’t having sex with a lot of people that causes AIDS, it’s not having safe sex.”

In an article in the New Yorker, you have talked about a very different aspect of sexuality, namely that a woman can never be alone like a man, since she will always be objectified.
It’s really hard to be as anonymous in a city as Wojnarowicz was: prowling around and being the person who is doing the looking. As a woman, you are always aware of yourself being looked at, whether that’s as an appealing sexual object, or as a failed sexual object. That pressure is always there – and I found that very frustrating and difficult at the time.

Thinking it through to the end, men and women must have a very different experience of loneliness.
I think they do, and it was hard for me to wrestle with. I have complicated feelings about my own gender anyway, but the experience that woman characters have in the book, like Jo Hopper (the wife of artist Edward Hopper) or Valerie Solanas (the activist and writer, who is remembered as being the woman who attempted to assassinate Andy Warhol), the loneliness they are experiencing is that they are artists who never find audiences, never find anyone interested in their work. For me, as a woman artist, that is a very live terror.

Edward Hopper used his wife as the model for every female character in his paintings, but then changed them into something she wasn’t – long-legged blondes. She was enough to be his model but only if he transformed her in the painting.
…and at the same time stopping her from painting. She is trapped in the paint of his canvasses, and the more I think about it, the more disturbing it becomes.

Interestingly, in this musing on loneliness, you cite many characters who have gone through horrifying personal experiences. Is that something you picked out, or does abuse necessarily entail loneliness?
I think that people who come from a background of trauma often have that as a source of loneliness in their lives. That’s true of me and that’s probably why I am drawn to this kind of subject. And why Wojnarowicz is so central in the book. My childhood didn’t have the violence that he experienced, but there was a lot of emotional chaos that I recognized. It’s funny, you’re drawn to subjects without necessarily knowing all the details of their biographies. And as it emerges, you see why you’re so drawn to them.

“Loneliness teaches us solidarity.”

The more I think about it, the more I see that the experience of being lonely is a very general experience, even if we think the people in the building across from us are living perfect lives. But there are so many people who carry a great burden of loneliness because of their background or identity, because they are being stigmatized or excluded in some way.
In the book I focus on the stigma of AIDS as a source of loneliness, but of course stigma is something that happens to so many people. The homeless, for example, sitting on the sidewalk, watching people walk by evading their eyes, hour after hour, day after day. What must that experience be like? An enormous, paralyzing loneliness. That no one will acknowledge your humanity is incredibly isolating. So I think we are surrounded by the lonely all the time, and we are not aware of them. We put them to the peripheries of our vision and it is so important that we don’t.

Because we are exacerbating the loneliness they are feeling?
Loneliness isn’t something an individual person can resolve. It is something we are all responsible for and we all need to think about the ways we are causing the loneliness of others, as well as working on our own loneliness.

That being particularly the fact that we tend to cast the misfits out or stigmatize them?
We just casually stigmatize and dehumanize people, even by small things like a lack of willingness to make eye contact with people who we think are different, or less than us. It creates loneliness in our cities and it creates loneliness in our cultures.

What you are saying is that this being a subconscious activity, we need to consciously counteract it?
If loneliness teaches us anything, it teaches us that kindness and solidarity with others matters far more than trying to pursue individual happiness, which is transient anyway. We make a better world if we use our own loneliness to think about the many, many other lonely people around us.

You do mention that loneliness has an unexpected upside: A clarity of vision that comes with a heightened sense of self-awareness.
There is a kind of openness that comes when you strip away the shame, which is the most painful and damaging aspect of loneliness. Once that’s gone, you see that loneliness is a kind of longing , an intense but not necessarily a bad feeling. For me, once I became more comfortable with it, once I stopped being so ashamed, I found that loneliness made me very receptive. I became very open to art, very open to seeing the city life around me. That kind of acuity of vision was powerful.