| Book Reviews

Reading The Lonely City without a Magic Bullet

By Melissa Wade

I stare at the rain pouring down from the clogged gutters outside my window, realizing I have yet to talk to another human today. I asked my dog if he wanted to go for a walk, but it was hardly a conversation. On my laptop, I watch YouTube footage of Fausta, the world’s oldest black rhino, walking by herself along the fence of her sanctuary, just weeks before she passed away last Christmas. On another tab, I scroll through the silk screens of Andy Warhol’s Endangered Species series. They’re beautiful, colorful in his pop art way, the African elephant printed in purple, outlined in sketchy lime and cobalt. In another, a Grévy’s zebra throws a side-glance, her skin tiger-striped in orange and yellow. Warhol’s black rhino struggles to stand in his portrait, as if injured or ancient. He’s printed in blues against a melon background, his eyes beady, his creases and folds traced in bright tangerine.

In the Bald Eagle, depicted as what Warhol called an animal in makeup, I see his signature elevation of the everyday. Prior to laying eyes on the portrait, viewers would know what a bald eagle looks like, even if most of us, isolated from spacious nature, have only seen the majestic creature on our screens, in videos narrated by David Attenborough—in electronic simulations of the actual. Here, in what some call “Andy’s Ark,” Warhol electrifies the bird. The portrait seems to say something beyond ‘eagle,’ so I test my heart on that difference. Do I feel something more essential in my response to the art than I do a photograph of the bird? Something more meaningful from a painting of a rhino rather than of Fausta walking through Tanzanian grass? Something reparative?

Looking away from my computer, I temper my inquisition, relax my eyes. Art isn’t that kind of cure, that kind of instant elevator. Art isn’t a “magic bullet,” as Olivia Laing says in the opening of her newest book Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency. Instead, “it’s work.” Art is a doorway to other thinking, to “new registers, new spaces.” We use it as a physical representation of what we can’t explain or yet see, but we have to engage our minds in the use of it or else all we have are colors and textures. We can’t only consume; we have to be moved. At least, that is what I take away from Laing.

But it wasn’t art that brought me to the work of Olivia Laing. It was loneliness. In chapter one of her book, The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone, she writes about the “particular flavour” of feeling lonely when surrounded by millions of people. She writes about how loneliness is difficult to confess—in a book that serves as a confession of her own loneliness during the time she lived in New York City in her mid-thirties—and how loneliness, especially the deeper, “inner loneliness” that Virginia Woolf names in her diary in 1929, can be transformative, enlightening, a way towards “an otherwise unreachable experience of reality.”

Laing’s book focuses on artists who’ve swirled in and out of the lonely city, as well as the motivating and debilitating waters of loneliness. In one section, she analyzes the details of Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks,” its bubble of glass likened to an inescapable fish tank, the creatures inside not talking, not even looking at each other in their “refuge for the isolated.” She speaks of the ups and downs of Andy Warhol, his life story touched by the loneliness of difference and self-doubt and misunderstanding. She devotes chapters to Henry Darger and David Wonjnarowicz, speaking to what it is to wear a mask that hides the real self, to live inside a body less valued by your country, to need to speak to connect without the words or voice to do so, to spending life alone.

There is something about reading a probing investigation into a thing you don’t want to confess. If someone were to ask if I felt lonely, I’d just point to my live-in husband and dog, maybe list off the names of a few close friends, but having people in my life isn’t a 100% cure for loneliness. Not a magic bullet.

When colleagues and friends ask me how I’m doing during this global pandemic, I know they aren’t just checking if someone I love or if I have been taken ill by the virus; they want to know about my mental and emotional well-being. It is a concern nation-wide. Those pushing for schools to reopen cite young people’s need for social and emotional development through physical interaction. The Health Resources and Services Administration claims the negative effects of loneliness are similar to those caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Laing, too, references the detriment that loneliness can have on the body, how some researchers call it a chronic illness, but then once butted up against a virus—a negative consequence of physical closeness—we’re all stuck in a catch-22: illness from contact vs. illness from lack of connection.

“Mortality is lonely,” Laing writes. “Physical existence is lonely by its nature, stuck in a body that’s moving inexorably towards decay, shrinking, wastage and fracture.” Loss is lonely. Forced isolation is lonely. Not being truly seen is lonely.

This is the loneliness I’ve been feeling, but couldn’t find the words, possibly the courage, to describe. If I had said to a friend, ‘I feel lonely,’ I thought they would’ve just judged my marriage or maybe my own personal cracks, looking for what could be marked as the cause to such a feeling. Since, it is just that, right? A feeling? So it has a diagnosis: a neglectful partner, a lack of self-care, a mean word from a colleague. And it will pass. Heck, just talking about it is curing it. Right?

No, not always. It’s not as easy as get married and you will never feel lonely again. It’s not just needing a voice on the other end of a call or 2,000 followers on the other side of a tweet. It is a sense of my own mortality.  It is feeling adrift behind my computer screen, feeling unwanted in public, feeling uncertain of my own social needs.

Virginia Woolf said that it is “the feeling of singing of the real world, as one is driven by loneliness and silence from the habitable world.” It is the feeling that connections with society, with causes, with other people are paper-thin, built on facade. That there is some realness inside of me that is so weird, so singular, that it can’t be mirrored by anyone else, or understood by them. And this feeling is inflamed by masks and possible death and the uncontainable politics of finger-pointing. The real world has to be something else, right? That’s what I always feel. Like this is Westworld and I just want to get out of it.

Luckily, in reading Laing, I see a bit of myself in what she mirrors back to me.

With technology, for example. Even though I’d say I’m not much for social media, I find myself mindlessly scrolling Instagram for the sake of seeing. Bingeing on television, scrolling through products without buying anything, opening a collection of tabs—each leading to another until I walk away not sure of why I opened my laptop in the first place, I’ve come to loathe my dependence on technology. It feels like it consumes me as I consume it. Caught within similar habits, Laing calls herself “an absent, ardent witness to the world.” And such witnessing feels risk-free, easier than the ‘work’ of art, of self-investigation. Even when I talk to my husband, asking that we turn off the TV to eliminate the distraction, I immediately think to just suggest another movie. Commentating as a consumer is more fun than trying to find the words to explain what could come across as an insult. “I feel lonely, but it is okay, and it is not your fault and it is just this thing I feel sometimes and I think it’s because I watch too much TV and am not really a part of the world right now. But we could just watch that new power flick with Jamie Foxx.”

In an interview with The Times, Laing reports being sequestered due to Covid19 precautions with her husband, who has remained calm despite his greater vulnerability to the virus, while Laing has had “terrible anxieties.” She writes, and she reads Len Deighton spy thrillers, and again, she claims art as partial remedy. “I can’t say,” she explains, “’If you read Dickens it will all be fine,’ but at the same time, if you read Dickens, it helps. The whole thing about art, and maybe particularly the novel, is that it is a door out into another world.”

I think I am looking for that door. Constantly. But I don’t particularly feel better after reading Dickens. I feel distracted during, but after, it’s just another search for another door. I want to believe Laing—that art helps, but I also wonder if the singing of loneliness is just a song that is part of us. That art, like TV, can be a distraction, part of the show, just as much as a tool to better understand what we are to this world. I guess it comes down to how we use it, what we do with what we have in front of us. It’s like Warhol’s rhino. Every painting in the Endangered series highlights a species in peril. Warhol saw the world and used his art to speak to it. I could look at the stumbling mammal and think, ‘Nice colors,” or I could investigate what it means for a species to face extinction. No magic bullet. I’d have to do the work.

At the end of The Lonely City, Olivia Laing admits that she doesn’t think there is an easy cure for loneliness. Instead, “it’s about two things,” she writes: coming to “befriend” one’s self and to recognizing that the world is full of collective exclusion and loneliness and that our personal afflictions rest within those greater forces, rather than our own shame.

Outside my window, the rain has stopped; the sky glares a bright white with what is left of its cloud coverage. Inside, at my feet, my dog whines for attention. Still, on my computer, I can’t help myself—I open another tab. I search for a Pittsburgh AirBNB, one near Sandusky Street. “We invite you to POP back in!” the Andy Warhol museum’s website says, “since art should affect your being and not your well-being.” Or maybe both? They go on to list their new cleaning protocols and safety guidelines for visitors, giving off the sense that we are all in this together. I don’t book the rental, but I search for an hour, imagining the balm of travel. Imagining another door, wondering what it is I could do with it.

Melissa Wade

is phoebe’s editor-in-chief and a 3rd-year fiction candidate in George Mason University’s creative writing MFA program. Recently, she’s been awarded the Alan Cheuse International Writers travel grant, as well as the GMU Thesis Fellowship, both in support of her current novel project concerning assisted-suicide tourism in Switzerland. And, last spring, she won the Shelley A. Marshall Fiction Award for her dystopian short story, “The Wholeness Institute.” When not writing and working for phoebe, she teaches writing courses with PEN/Faulkner and runs her own photography business.

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