Falling apart in New York after a failed relationship, Olivia Laing lives through a period of intolerable loneliness in her latest book, The Lonely City. It is a cathartic read, as are most of Laing’s books. In To The River, one of her earlier books, Laing walks the course of the River Ouze, diving into the stories of its past as she takes dips in murky waters along the way. There are always revelations in her books — about human nature, Mother Nature and the forces that connect us to her, but the landscape of this book is an urban one; it is a “rolling mass” of people trying to connect, to belong, and to survive — an exploration of loneliness through the medium of Art. What is wonderful is that Laing succeeds in getting across something that is often overlooked, namely the real connection between a work of art and its artist. The connection can sometimes be felt, but when you are standing in front of an Andy Warhol painting or installation trying to make sense of it, (speaking for my own visually challenged self) you don’t always get the point, or more particularly, understand the context.
Of course, not all postmodern or realist artists are preoccupied by loneliness as a theme, but many are. Their subjects move in an urban context and come across as the victims of that peculiar crowded isolation that typifies a city. As Laing explains, this “urban phenomenon, available in any city of the world on any night, conveys to even the most social a tremor of loneliness, its uneasy combination of separation and exposure.” And it is this combination of separation and exposure that hounds the artists she describes, and drives them to change their “psychic space, the landscape of the emotions, by carrying out actions in the physical world.” By, in short, producing art, constructive, destructive, glorious, terrible art. This is art therapy at its deepest level, from the genesis of loneliness as art form to its ultimate manifestation — from the author leaning over her laptop in a solitary flat at night, her face “illuminated by the laptop’s glare”, reaching out to a cyberspace of faceless souls, to the shooting of Andy Warhol as almost a consequence of loneliness or even as an art form in itself.
Valerie Solanas shot Andy Warhol on June 3rd 1968. She didn’t kill him, but he did have to spend the rest of his life strapped into a corset, held together by stitches, as he liked to say. Solanas was a socially excluded individual, a victim of abuse who, like so many of the artists in this book, found themselves on the streets at one moment or another.
The life story of David Wojnarowicz is another particularly harrowing genesis of malaise. Laing portrays him as a boy “free-falling out of society” scratching an existence amongst the hookers and transvestites in the “slam of the city”, conscious that his sexuality will mark him as a deviant, an outcast in a society of couples. Hardly surprising that “a sense of toxic burdens” invades the art he goes on to produce in later life.
Laing concludes that the pressure of society to be “sealed inside a unit of two”, with neatly clipped lawns and neatly clipped morals, has put us under strain. Aloneness, says Laing, and particularly female aloneness “carries with it a persistent whiff of strangeness, deviance and failure”. It’s a sad vision but a moving one. Enough to make you pump the words on line dating into your laptop. But in the end, Laing concludes, other people are not the solution. The solution lies, as it so often does, within the self. There is a need, she says, to understand the causes of exclusion and how to resist them. And this is where art can help us. While urban art provides a release mechanism for the artist, it also provides us with a way of understanding the burden of loneliness — of becoming more sensible to it. Society is a mass of people and tension, and art is the reflection of its deepest preoccupations. So the more we are confronted with those preoccupations, the more we understand them, and the more we understand ourselves.
Any Cop?: As usual with Olivia Laing, the prose is perfectly weighted; an effortless read, sublime and poignant.