“The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone” by Olivia Laing— Memoir, Biography and Cultural Criticism

Laing, Olivia. “The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone”, Picador, 2016.

Memoir, Biography and Cultural Criticism

Amos Lassen

Olivia Laing looks at loneliness through the lives of six iconic artists and in doing so, she gives us a work that brings memoir, biography and cultural criticism together. We look at how we live and what being lonely means.

When writer Olivia Laing moved to New York City in her mid-thirties, she discovered loneliness on a daily basis and this fascinated her so she began to explore the lonely city by way of art. She was soon moving fluidly between works and lives and from Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks” to Andy Warhol’s “Time Capsules”, from Henry Darger’s hoarding to David Wojnarowicz’s AIDS activism and as she shares that with us, she investigates what it means to be alone. This is a book about “the spaces between people and the things that draw them together, about sexuality, mortality and the magical possibilities of art. It’s a celebration of a strange and lovely state, adrift from the larger continent of human experience, but intrinsic to the very act of being alive”.

It is not just of the author’s experience with loneliness, but of how loneliness can be generative (and destructive) in the lives of artists, and how art is a sort of relief and release from loneliness. It is both a painful and lyrical read and it really makes the reader both while reading it and after the covers are closed. Granted, we cannot all identify with the sordid and bizarre lives of some of the artists here but we can all identify with being lonely.

We read the author’s personal perspective on loneliness and also through her interpretation of the isolationism of the six artists. Laing begins her story after she and her boyfriend separated after she left England and moved to New York to be with him. We see how loneliness directly affected her and how it affected six artists. Through them she shows the biological and nurturing source of loneliness, and how these people expressed and coped with it. Fir example, Edward Hopper painted lonely pictures, Andy Warhol displaced “normal” conversation with TV and tape recorders, Henry Darger used repetitive and childish language to draw attention to child abuse, David Wojnarowicz used his notoriety to draw attention to the AIDS epidemic.

Laing writes of professionals who have conducted experiments dealing with the importance of nurturing, and how social connectedness impacts future behavior. We read of Harry Harlow’s controlled experiments with rhesus monkeys where they are caged with surrogate mother figures–

one made of just wire, the other with wire wrapped with a soft cloth and read of the monkey’s attachment to the soft “mother”. This led Laing to conclude “that a child’s need for attachment far outweighs its capacity for self-protection. From this she draws conclusions about how and why a person’s

childhood can later impact their social skills and she is at her best when she explains that people can deal with isolation through art even though there are many things that art can’t do (bringing the dead back to life, mending arguments between friends and so on).

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