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
As I continue to catch up on books missed in 2015, I recently finished The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery. The book was a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award for Nonfiction, though the award ultimately went to, of course, Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Coates was seemingly everywhere in 2015, and while I do agree that his book is important and deeply moving, I am always taken aback as to how quickly we amplify a single voice. The Soul of an Octopus explores questions like what is the soul, what is consciousness, and are we alone in those tremendous feats or are animals like the octopus in our company? The author is sensitive and soulful, as seen in tidbits like this:
“While stroking an octopus, it is easy to fall into reverie. To share such a moment of deep tranquility with another being, especially one as different from us as the octopus, is a humbling privilege. It’s a shared sweetness, a gentle miracle, and uplink to universal consciousness – the notion, first advanced by pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Anaxagoras in 480 BC, of sharing an intelligence that animates and organizes all life” (p. 90).
Much of the book takes place at the New England Aquarium, where the author forms bonds with people and octopuses alike. There are four octopuses – Athena, Octavia, Kali and Karma – and each exhibits a wholly unique personality and “sparkling mind,” as do the octopuses encountered in the wild. Octopus facts are scattered throughout (it has a beak like a parrot, a remarkable curiosity, an ability to change color and texture instantly), as if the most useful parts of a National Geographic documentary are woven into a much more relatable, nuanced narrative. We are often skeptical of animal intelligence or consciousness, and this book serves as a fascinating and eloquent defense of octopuses being in possession of both. Every turn of the page forces you to think bigger, to push aside the idea that everything non-human is “the Other.” The Soul of an Octopus inspires you to breach the supposed boundary between humans and, well, everything else, and when you do, the beauty of life on Earth astounds all the more. We are left, as we inevitably are, with the staggering truth of how little we know, and that reminder should make us feel all the more human.
“Feminism is an endeavor to change something very old, widespread, and deeply rooted in many, perhaps most, cultures around the world, innumerable institutions, and most households on Earth — and in our minds, where it all begins and ends.”
“Pandora’s Box and the Volunteer Police Force” from Men Explain Things to Me, p. 140
By Rebecca Solnit