The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone

November 11, 2018

By Olivia Laing

Canongate Books, 2017

Paperback, £9.99


Last year, singer Florence Welch got a tattoo in New York. She wrote: “I got ‘always lonely’ tattooed onto my arm, as if in its acceptance, I would free myself. We dropped into a bookstore in the east village… and ‘The Lonely City’ was on the shelf, like a cosmic tap on the shoulder, while exploring my essential aloneness, tattooing it into my flesh, there was Olivia Laing…”.


After reading this online (something which Laing discusses extensively in her book as a medium which can both increase and decrease feelings of loneliness) on the Between Two Books reading club site, I was immediately drawn to the book. I hoped that reading Laing would enable me to get an insight into this “essential aloneness” which I think many of us have felt during one or more stages of our lives.


Laing paints a picture of loneliness which feels startlingly real. As she says, “Loneliness is difficult to confess”; there is an intrinsic sense of shame to it. And yet, Laing delicately and eloquently unpicks the subject, intertwining the lives of key artists living in New York during the 20th century with her own, incredibly honest, experiences of being alone in the city, and the extreme discomfort of being “islanded amidst a crowd”. She uses the lives of Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, Henry Darger and David Wojnarowicz as the framework for her investigation, showing how their often-disturbing upbringings meant that they inhabited loneliness in some form throughout their lives, and that this trait bled into and helped to create some of the best art of the century.


This book feels satisfyingly complete: it studies the biographies of the named artists, relating them with other, often isolated, figures in New York such as Valerie Solonas, Nan Goldin and Billie Holliday. It looks at loneliness on an artistic basis, analysing works from paintings to performance art. It studies loneliness on a psychological basis, looking at scientific studies on attachment theory and other investigations into what it is to feel alone. It examines loneliness in a technological world, in a time where we ‘should’ feel connected but often do not. It looks extensively and heartbreakingly at the AIDs crisis in the 1980s, and how this meant that, more than ever, huge groups of people were being isolated: terrified, uncertain and alone.


This book, however, is not pessimistic: it holds vital messages for all, whether lonely or not. Laing highlights the importance of accepting the nuances of one’s humanity, and how art can enable this. Just as Florence Welch accepted the element of loneliness she felt residing in her, so does Laing proclaim: “loneliness, longing, does not mean that one has failed, but simply that one is alive”.


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