A solitary, unattached figure, strolling through the streets of a great city, observing the endless variety of people who live there. This is the quintessentially urban figure of the flâneur, described by the French poet Charles Baudelaire as a “passionate spectator,” someone whose nature is “to be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home.” That guy is the exact opposite of Olivia Laing, a British writer who spent a couple of seasons in Manhattan, hopscotching from sublet to short-term rental in the slipstream of a breakup. For Laing, the city was not a sumptuous banquet of spectacles, but a booby-trapped terrain, where the sight of a happy couple or the prospect of making small talk with a barista made her feel exiled, needy, and tongue-tied. She knew the name for this condition, and, in time, she understood that it would become the subject of her next book: loneliness.
Like Laing’s 2013 book, The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking, her new one, The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone, shows a preoccupation with art, America, and the lives of troubled men. With The Lonely City, a mixture of biography, memoir, travel writing, and criticism, she’s still producing the sort of book that at first seems to wander as extravagantly as Baudelaire’s flâneur. But that impression is deceptive; Laing is always circling back toward a piercingly relevant observation. And, oh, those observations! “There is a gentrification that is happening to cities,” she writes in her final chapter, “and there is a gentrification that is happening to the emotions, too, with a similarly homogenizing, whitening, deadening effect.” She compares the transformation of Times Square—its shift from a seedy temple district for humanity’s most unruly desires into a site of scrubbed Disney “fun”—to the careful grooming and curating of the Internet’s “kingdom of self-portraiture.” What’s been excised in both cases is the awkward and the homely, the oddball and the failing—in short, all acknowledgement of our thwarted, shamefaced cravings for connection and intimacy.
The Trip to Echo Spring was about writers; The Lonely City is about visual artists, although the man who is arguably the book’s presiding figure, David Wojnarowicz, was also a writer of ravishing, erotic, incantatory memoirs. (See Wojnarowicz’s Close to the Knives and Cynthia Carr’s biography, Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz. You won’t regret reading either.) Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, and the outsider artist Henry Darger are the three other pillars on which The Lonely City is built.
Hopper was, of course, the visual bard of American loneliness. On the subject of his most famous work, Nighthawks, Laing offers a vivid reading of the “cool green icebox of that painting.” She notes that in Hopper’s long career of portraying people looking of hotel rooms and offices, this is the one time that he rendered the glass that separates his subjects from the world. Of the light falling on the pavement, she writes, “there is no color in existence that so powerfully communicates urban alienation, the atomization of human beings inside the edifices they create, as this noxious, pallid green, which only came into being with the advent of electricity.”
Warhol, always surrounded by throngs of acolytes and hangers-on, might look like the least likely avatar for Laing’s theme, but she considers him the embodiment of urban loneliness—the isolation that can only be found in a crowd. She didn’t perceive this until she became lonely herself, and for years she mistook his most famous works as “vacuous and empty, disregarding them as we often do with things we’ve looked at but failed properly to see.” I’ve long held the same judgment, but Laing has convinced me that I was wrong. In Warhol’s reiteration of the familiar and iconic (qualities he found soothing in an alarming world), she can always detect “the way the real, vulnerable, human self remains stubbornly visible, exerting its own submerged pressure, its own mute appeal to the viewer.” That muteness is key. Laing traces this insight back to an old television interview she stumbled upon online, a video that made her marvel over how hard Warhol “seemed to be struggling with the demands of speech.”
In Warhol’s films, honey traps for fame cravers and raconteurs, she believes the artist was reaching for many often conflicting effects. “What he was attempting to distill was the essence of attention itself, that elusive element that everyone hungers for.” But he also shored up ephemera against a future in which everyone he ever cared about, including himself, would inevitably have vanished. (During her time in the United States, Laing secured a visit to Warhol’s “time capsules”: 610 cardboard boxes full of stuff he collected during the course of everyday life, then sealed and stored.) The eye of Warhol’s camera could be relentless, an “instrument of torture”—“Don’t you hate me Drella, by this time?” one of his favorite subjects once asked—but it was also clutching at a way of being in the world that the artist himself could not achieve. Later, Warhol would write, “I feel life has passed me by.”
Although she’s not typically described this way, Laing is a great critic, not least because she understands that art can and often does manifest multiple conflicting meanings and desires at once. This capacity of hers is most resplendent in her sensitive reading of the life and work of Henry Darger, who was orphaned and institutionalized as a child, then spent 60 years doing the menial work of a hospital janitor while renting a room in a rundown Chicago boarding house. After his death, Darger’s landlord discovered a vast corpus of paintings and written texts, most of it depicting an imaginary land ruled by children but constantly under violent assault by adult men. This was Darger’s secret life, the counterpart to a real life of unimaginable loneliness. He seems to have had only one friend, a man who wound up moving to Texas and then dying three years later. The hospital where Darger worked wouldn’t give him time off to go to the funeral.
Many critics and biographers have scrutinized Darger’s work, some zeroing in on his propensity for scavenging and hoarding “junk” and most pondering why the child heroines in his sagas are so often depicted naked and subjected to terrible brutality. They have diagnosed him as mentally ill, a suppressed sexual sadist, a victim of early trauma (the institutions where he spent his youth were notoriously abusive). Laing, though, pays Darger the respect of regarding him as an aware being, however strange, “carrying out a conscious and courageous investigation into violence: what it looks like; who its victims and perpetrators are.” He might have identified with both, “since it is very rare that any single act occurs for just one motive.” Art, like human beings, contains multitudes. As for the hoarding, “if I was asked to put everything I own in a small room in someone else’s house, I might well look like a hoarder.” Darger was simply very poor, and “it’s worth asking of any behavior presented as weird or freakish whether the boundary being transgressed is class, not sanity.”
The charismatic figure of Wojnarowicz floats above The Lonely City like a lanky, downtown version of the saints in Renaissance church paintings. Wojnarowicz never quite comes into focus, perhaps because he appears the least lonely of all Laing’s subjects. (The others include Valerie Solanas, Klaus Nomi, and the Internet entrepreneur Josh Harris.) His childhood and youth were as harsh and loveless as Darger’s; throughout his teens, he periodically lived on the streets of New York and turned tricks. But Wojnarowicz also had the ability, through his work as a photographer, collagist, performance artist, painter, and writer, to transfigure what most of us would consider sordid (the cruising scene in the derelict Beaux Arts piers over the Hudson River was one of his favorite subjects), calling forth its humanity and bathing it in radiance.
When he was diagnosed with AIDS in 1988, shortly after nursing his closest friend, Peter Hujar, through an agonizing death to the disease, Wojnarowicz threw himself into activism and found the connection and community there that he’d lacked through much of his life. This, alas, is the one subject that Laing’s potent gifts can’t quite animate. She is absolutely right that loneliness is political as well as personal, that in its most virulent forms it results from stigma and scapegoating, the designation of some members of society as beyond the pale and therefore disposable. But the language she summons to respond to this—words like “resistance,” “solidarity,” “the system of America itself”—have the threadbare lifelessness of slogans. Perhaps the clichés of politics are invincible, if even a write as lyrical as Laing can’t make them sing, but there’s a weird irony to a celebration of idiosyncrasy and freakishness that seeks comfort in pro forma exhortations.
Fortunately, in her final chapter, Laing turns to Strange Fruit (for David), an artwork by Zoe Leonard that was made to mourn Wojnarowicz, who died in 1992. Leonard took the empty rinds of devoured fruit and sewed them back together, reassembling oranges and fastening the blackened peels of bananas with zippers. This brings Laing back to Darger, who spent hours salvaging, untangling, and tying together bits of discarded string, and who fixed snapped rubber bands with tape. All of the seemingly meandering threads of the book converge at this point, in an understanding of art as a form of mending, of joining the severed and exiled, of restoring the unrestorable. That is what art did for Laing during her bleak, green months in the city: It became a remedy for loneliness. “When I came to New York,” she writes, “I was in pieces, and though it sounds perverse, the way I recovered a sense of wholeness was not by meeting someone or by falling in love, but rather by handling the things that other people had made, slowly absorbing by way of this contact the fact that loneliness, longing, does not mean one has failed, but simply that one is alive.”
The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone by Olivia Laing.
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