The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone

The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone

“Loneliness, I began to realize, was a populated place: a city in itself. And when one inhabits a city…one starts by getting lost”



“You can be lonely anywhere, but there is a particular flavor to loneliness that comes from living in a city, surrounded by millions of people,” writes Olivia Laing in The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone. Around this time last year, I was grieving the loss of a friendship while starting out a new job in a city away from home. You can be surrounded by many but feel abandoned. The loneliness I felt was so palpable; it spread through everything.


Laing explores this sense of separation in relation to one's place in the world, specifically in what used to be the crowded city, where you can easily pass through and disappear from. She continues, “It’s possible—easy, even—to feel desperate and unfrequented in oneself while living cheek by jowl with others. Cities can be lonely places and, in admitting this, we see that loneliness doesn’t necessarily require physical solitude but rather an absence or paucity of connection, closeness, kinship: an inability, for one reason or another, to find as much intimacy as desired.” In effect, loneliness can become a familiar state, which results in a fear of closeness.



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The Lonely City explores the relationship between creativity and isolation. Laing peers into the lives of distinguished contemporary artists and cultural icons—Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, David Wojnarowicz—and their body of work saturated with loneliness, a by-product of their troubled history. (You can't help but look at their work with new eyes and sympathy.)


Edward Hopper's poignant artworks are befitting during this time of social distancing. The realist painter is well-known for his work reflecting his vision of contemporary American life. Conventionally busy urban and rural scenes are without human interaction as pensive characters fill his canvas.??? He takes an almost voyeuristic approach wherein he portrays one’s isolation within the modern city.


RELATED: #IsolationCreation: Importance of Creativity Amid Difficult Times



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Loneliness is so common, much like the flu, but it's difficult to profess so we resist. It's grappling with shame we feel by recognizing our humanity. It's identifying rejection, undesirability and failure. Now that we're in the age of social distancing—devoid of human touch—loneliness has never been more tangible.


Laing writes, “Loneliness is difficult to confess; difficult, too, to categorize. Like depression, a state with which it often intersects, it can run deep in the fabric of a person, as much as part of one’s being as laughing easily or having red hair. Then again, it can be transient, lapping in and out in reaction to external circumstances, like the loneliness that follows on the heels of a bereavement, breakup or change in social circles.” It's missing familiar places, objects and people, those we took for granted because we were “promised” tomorrow.



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Hell, in the words of Christian writer Ronald Rolheiser, is “loneliness, cutting ourselves off from others and retreating inside ourselves with only our own pride and selfishness for companions.” We acknowledge that solitude, when embraced, bears fruit good things—for some, paintings that now hang at the Museum of Modern Art—but too much of it can corrupt one's soul. We were made for companionship, after all, and it has never been truer than now.


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Art Alexandra Lara

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