How often have we heard the lament that cities are designed to be lonely? Streets and neighbourhoods are gentrified to serve a certain section of the population and we mingle with those who belong to similar economic and social classes as us. Those who are different – the desperately poor or obscenely rich – are relegated to the margins: we have nothing to do with these lives. Furthermore, we are ensconced inside our screens where we can say a lot without actually speaking. The many levels of dissociation can be terrifying, especially when there’s no recourse in sight.

Olivia Laing’s landmark work The Lonely City: The Adventures in the Art of Being Lonely, published in 2016, is a forensic report of crippling urban loneliness. This was a time when social media had started to gain strength as an alternative to real human connection and self-worth was being counted in likes, reshares, and comments. For Laing, loneliness is a state that is “difficult to confess” – the simulacrum of online validation does not make it any easier to admit that one is starved for actual human connection. Loneliness is taboo while solitude is sought after, still, it is not a “wholly worthless” experience as Laing goes on to illustrate through the works and lives of American icons such as Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, Henry Darger and David Wojnarowicz.

The private in public

Quite simply, loneliness can be described as a state of being “overlooked”, “ignored”, “unseen”, “unregarded” and “undesired”. The blame does not lie with only the people with whom we share the city with but also how cities are planned and designed. Concrete jungles, unwalkable roads, and a greater focus on automation ensure that we rarely see human faces displaying a complete range of emotions. Each human is assigned a job to make the city function smoothly – we curtly nod at the bus driver, politely acknowledge the barista, and resolutely ignore the homeless. Perhaps that is why a person’s breakdown or anger is so unbearable to witness. Who would want to accept their follies in public view?

And yet, some iconic pieces of art and writing such as Hopper’s city paintings (think the Nighthawks), Andy Warhol’s desperation to find kinship with machines, Henry Darger’s squalid apartments stuffed with surreal artworks, and David Wojnarowicz’s incisive memoir Close to the Knives affect us so deeply. Why do city-dwellers such as ourselves instinctively pull to depictions of loneliness? The reason, Laing simply argues, is for the desire to be seen. Throughout his life Hopper denied being fixated on American loneliness and yet it has become the leitmotif of his art. It’s a consolation to see other people trapped in the every day and not fighting to escape it – perhaps that is why a lonely woman staring out the window or an unspeaking couple getting coffee has held our fascination for so long. After being questioned repeatedly about the intention of his art, he admitted reluctantly, “Unconsciously, probably, I was painting the loneliness of a large city.”

Unconsciously. Probably. He neatly dismisses it as a dispensation of the unconscious mind. Hopper, a genius of his craft, might not have believed that he portrayed aloneness in his paintings but his personal life does point to extended periods of unhappiness and discontentment. The silence in his paintings appears ominous when one learns of his prolonged cruelty to his wife. An artist herself, Hopper never stopped to mock and at times even actively insult her craft till she retired for good and made peace with being Hopper’s secretary of sorts. Often hailed as the messiah of the lonely, it is incredulous to think he was responsible for alienating and causing so much grief to his own partner.

'Nighthawks' by Edward Hopper (1942) | Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

Machines as companions

The conundrums of loneliness did not spare megastar Andy Warhol either. A beloved avant-garde artist, he suffered from debilitating loneliness and negligence for most of his life. Bullied in school for his appearance and speech, Warhol’s adulthood loneliness was predestined. Laing charts his life from in the shadows to being shot by the radical feminist Valerie Solanos which left him physically and mentally brittle. Warhol’s mother, a “magnificent” storyteller in Rutherian struggles with words when she has to write or speak in English. Language – the system invented by humans to know each other – becomes a hurdle when one is displaced or forced to adopt a different way of life. Perhaps seeing his mother in this difficult position made Warhol realise the power of machines. His favourite was a tape recorder that he nicknamed “my wife”. The desire to be seen and regarded became his favourite instrument of torture. The prints that he created (an image reproduced in different colours), the wig her wore and his distinct style of dressing made him stand out and conversely also hid him behind a character. Who was Andy Warhol? An artist whom everyone knew but a person who carefully remained out of sight.

What feels eccentric about Warhol, is our reality now. Machines smaller than tape recorders have become appendages of the human body. In this context, the machine as a “wife” or a substitute for any close relationship is no longer outlandish. Laing points to how the body can be burdensome for the lonely. It makes us aware of being trapped in our circumstances and no flights of fancy can negate the permanence of the body.

Artist Andy Warhol | Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

The body and the mind

Henry Darger, a janitor was discovered as an artist after his death. Poverty and ill health were his constant companions, as was his unhappy childhood where he was abused and neglected. The paintings that were discovered often depicted children in happy, surreal settings. The forced isolation of his childhood had a profound impact on Darger – he understood the importance of education and playtime better than perhaps anyone who was afforded both. Darger’s loneliness made him humane. “ equal opportunity for developing all that are in us of mind and heart,” he once wrote. To think that a man with such profound goodness was banished from the mainstream on suspicions of “mental illness” is telling of how loneliness is a problem of normative human attitude.

The matters of sexuality and gender are even more confusing than that of the body. Laing recalls being brought up by two lesbians and therefore, being an outlier from their childhood. As an adult, they have found the gender binary insufficient. They write, “I inhabited a space in the centre, which didn’t exist, except there I was.” However, since then, Laing has asserted their identity as a non-binary person.

In his memoir, Close to the Knives, David Wojnarowicz lambasts the American nation-state for its negligence of its queer population. AIDS, a lethal epidemic of his time, became the subject of his art and political activism. When he fell prey to the disease, more than the virus, he regretted contracting “a diseased society”. His anger was justified – an entire generation of queers was lost to medical neglect. Times Square, where once “druggies”, “pussies”, “hookers” used to squat has since then been gentrified as the temple of consumerism. In a matter of a few years, the robust underground culture of New York City was exchanged for uncouth and vulgar displays of excessiveness.

David Wojnarowicz and his memoir.

A lifelong activist, Wojnarowicz’s ashes were strewn at the White House, “the heart of America”, during a protest march. He did not give up his fight even in death. The loneliness created by urbanism and nation-states is the one that perhaps we are most defenceless against. It is an actively constructed loneliness to uphold structures that benefit the wealthy and well-positioned few.

“Mortality is lonely,” Laing concludes but life need not be. The modern man has tried to ward off loneliness with all sorts of inventions, including those that have in turn made them even lonelier. The tug-of-war between going off the grid and being forced into anonymity has kept the best of us occupied. So what is one to do? The answer to this fairly modern question was given by philosophers who lived many thousand years ago – befriending oneself helps, one has to be accepting and generous with kindness and solidarity, one has to make peace with the impermanence of the material world. But to do these, one must also realise that personal loneliness is a collective crisis – it is politically engineered. We must cast off the shame and resist malignant forces that need us to be excluded and secluded for them to thrive. To be heard and accepted is a primary human need, and accepting that we are lonelier than ever before is the first step of cure.

The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone, Olivia Laing, Canongate Books.