The irony of reading a book on loneliness for hours on end, even excluding myself from nearby company and chatter to do so, is not lost on me. The act of reading is an inward pursuit, as is writing, so if much of my time is spent doing one or the other, I must assume that much of my time is spent alone. Perhaps familiarity with spending time alone lays the necessary groundwork for entering and understanding The Lonely City (Picador, 2016). The author’s dedication even reads, “If you’re lonely, this one’s for you.” Despite the book’s grand subject of loneliness, its exploration is rather specific, grounded in the particular journey of its author, Olivia Laing. New and alone in New York City, Laing seeks to understand and find reprieve from loneliness through the visual arts. Each chapter highlights an artist whose work and life orbit around isolation, from the ultimate insider, Andy Warhol, to the ultimate outsider, a janitor named Henry Darger. The book also covers the effects of stigma during the AIDS epidemic and loneliness in the era of screens.
Reading anything about Andy Warhol is to be equally impressed and alarmed by the extent to which we have fulfilled his prophecies. Screen prints of Campbell’s Soup cans, Coca-Cola bottles and Mickey Mouse remind us that what we value most is not what is rare and unique but in fact what is most common. In 1963 he declared, “I think everybody should be a machine,” and that Pop Art is all about “liking things.” Further, that being a machine and liking things are similar because “you do the same thing every time. You do it over and over again,” the very model of behavior now encouraged on social media. Launch Instagram, like everything, repeat. What perfect machines we are.
Henry Darger, a janitor in Chicago, produced an extensive collection of paintings entirely in isolation, paintings of little girls, fairies, flowers and forests, but also of soldiers and terrible scenes of violence. That no one ever saw his work is astounding not only because of its sheer volume, but also because of how good it is considered to be. He wrote books, one of them over 15,000 pages long, and another carefully titled, “The History of my life.” He also kept a record of his day-to-day activities, one of which depressingly reads, “Saturday April 12. My birthday. The same as Friday. No tantrums.” He also kept boxes full of rubber bands, many of them held together with tape.
Those two random details from Darger’s life – “The same as Friday” and rubber bands repaired with tape – popped up in my mind for days, and I found them so sad, and that sadness bothered me. Because The Lonely City studies loneliness through the lens of art, it is easy to mistake it for something abstract, even something profound and beautiful. Loneliness is indeed worthy of examination, and to find reprieve from loneliness through art is a wonderful thing; that loneliness could even inspire art is a wonderful thing. But we must not become lost in its reverie, as regardless of the art that is born from loneliness, it is a painful place, a place from which above all we wish to pull someone out. Sort of.
It must be noted that after my earlier admission of spending time alone, my instinct was to reassure you, and myself, of something along the lines of, “Of course, being alone doesn’t mean I’m lonely. I promise, I’m not lonely. I’m really not.” Why? Laing writes, “Loneliness feels like such a shameful experience, so counter to the lives we are supposed to lead, that it becomes increasingly admissible, a taboo state whose confession seems destined to cause others to turn and flee.” Because loneliness makes us nervous, like we might catch it, not only do we shun those who are lonely, we also blame them for it, believing that their condition is due to some kind of personal failure or flaw. It is easy to understand why difficult emotions are so often accompanied by guilt. The Lonely City encourages us to reframe our understanding of loneliness, reframe it so that it is not something perverse, not a failure on part of the individual, but rather an individual’s natural response to the “larger forces of stigma and exclusion.” It is important to understand, to make connections and to put everything in context. But of course.
“What is it about the pain of others? Easier to pretend that it doesn’t exist. Easier to refuse to make the effort of empathy, to believe instead that the stranger’s body on the sidewalk is simply a render ghost, an accumulation of coloured pixels, which winks out of existence when we turn our head, changing the channel of our gaze.”
The Lonely City, p. 253
By Olivia Laing
Published 2016 by Picador
In the quest to read the books I missed last year, I prepared a list. On that list, The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander is listed third, and next to it in parentheses, “First Lady.” I unabashedly took note of her favorite book of 2015, and upon reading its first paragraph, I felt the familiar pleasure and anticipation of knowing there is so much left to read. “Poetry logic is my logic,” the author explains, and the book is as close to poetry as prose can be. Here is the first paragraph:
“The story seems to begin with catastrophe but in fact began earlier and is not a tragedy but rather a love story. Perhaps tragedies are only tragedies in the presence of love, which confers meaning to loss. Loss is not felt in the absence of love.”
The Light of the World is a moving portrait of the author’s husband, an impressive man named Ficre Ghebreyesus, her coping with his sudden death, and of course, their love story. She discusses Africa, art, flowers and food (there are recipes); she annotates poems on death; she recalls dreams; she introduces an endless stream of family and friends; she shares the most intimate details of marriage. “We shared days I can only call divine,” she writes.
As I neared the book’s end, I prolonged the inevitable by flipping back through its pages, revisiting scenes here and there. “Memories are what you no longer want to remember,” Joan Didion writes in Blue Nights, her own memoir of loss. But perhaps in their very ability to awaken the past, memories alone are redemptive. Within his wife’s prose, there is still Ficre, his presence strong. Reflections on death, especially ones written so beautifully, can be tricky to process. As a reader, it can be tempting to romanticize heartache, to become lost in a kind of reverie. But in The Light of the World, there is no such luxury. Love and loss sit side-by-side to emphasize each other, to draw out each other’s extremes. “Ficre everywhere, Ficre nowhere,” she explains, and the magnitude of that is felt on every page.