I first stumbled upon The Lonely City, by Olivia Laing, in the basement of San Francisco’s City Lights Bookstore. Months out from graduating college and lacking any sense of forward momentum, it seemed well-suited to my forlorn wanderings, as the empty city in front of me reflected back my own uncertain future.
I filed away its presence until my next solo journey, a trip to London and Paris about six months later. Soon after opening the book on the train between the two, early in my trip, I fell into discussion with my seatmate, an older gay man named Anthony, who had coincidentally participated in the same downtown New York art scene of the ’70s and ’80s that is documented in parts of the book. Despite the predawn darkness and the jet lag compelling me to sleep, I found myself rapt, amazed at the coincidence and compelled to soak in as much secondhand experience as possible.
I think of both of these moments, and the worlds that unfold inside of The Lonely City, as I try to make sense of what we’re experiencing today. When Laing wrote, “Loneliness is collective; it is a city,” it seems unlikely that she could have foreseen the moment we’re living through. Yet I’ve found solace and company in accompanying her own journey through the city, a small source of hope in a time in which psychologists warn of a quiet, inescapable “social recession” that will make a return to communal life far more complicated than the simple reopening of shuttered businesses.
Why the city? “You can be lonely anywhere,” Laing suggests, “but there is a particular flavour to the loneliness that comes from living in a city, surrounded by millions of people.” Sharing physical space is now a fraught experience. Urban space has lost its essential role as the site where we come into contact, voluntarily and involuntarily, with others. Instead, it sharpens our separation even more profoundly. Today, the lonely city is everywhere, its empty boulevards and bistros, nightclubs and neighborhoods the very same we now struggle to occupy.
Together, we each face a desire to break down barriers growing within us, which push up against the fear of not being able to say anything at all.
Loneliness is tricky. Its inherent nature makes it difficult to explore communally, and despite its widespread appearance in our emotional lives, it took psychologists until the mid-20th century to explore its effects in detail. Moreover, loneliness feeds upon itself, a feeling that’s crept into my life over the last few weeks. “If it’s difficult to respond to people in this state, it is harder still to reach out from it,” Laing says. And she’s right: In so many conversations with friends I’ve had recently, it’s those uncertain moments that linger before we admit our shared loneliness that are most difficult. Together, we each face a desire to break down barriers growing within us, which push up against the fear of not being able to say anything at all.
To better understand the experience of loneliness, Laing turns to the work of artists, whose personal and artistic journeys through isolation are a window into these difficult feelings. Through Edward Hopper, she finds worlds “populated by people alone, or in uneasy, uncommunicative groupings of twos and threes, fastened into poses that seem indicative of distress.” Laing cites David Wojnarowicz, the influential gay artist and activist who passed away from AIDS at age 36 in 1992, who wrote in his final essay, “I feel like a window, maybe a broken window … I am a glass human disappearing in the rain.” In these figures, Laing finds lonely souls that manage to conjure something of the essence of isolation for the rest of us, expressions that Laing frequently describes as liberating in the moments in which she felt most isolated while researching the book, offering solidarity in solitude.
In rereading the book over the last few weeks, I’ve found similar comfort in the reminder that there is something valuable to be found in isolation, that an experience so fundamental to modern life cannot be wholly negative, taxing as it can be over an ever-growing duration. I’ve tried to hold this feeling in place as I plug into my iPod for yet another solo walk, so uncertain when I’ll be able to see friends or grab a drink at Simon’s, my neighborhood dive bar. Still, for as much as loneliness has come for us all in this pandemic, I appreciate Laing’s observation that isolation is hardly an equal-opportunity emotional burden; most of the time, its effects are often “a result of larger forces of stigma and exclusion, which can and should be resisted.”
This is particularly true for a number of queer artists, like Wojnarowicz, that Laing describes in the book. With the U.S. now in its second month of stringent social distancing, many have turned to the legacies of AIDS activism and mourning for guidance, a reminder of the ways in which stigma and separation worsened the lives of those already suffering. Wojnarowicz became an impassioned member of ACT UP before his death, which led to his memorial serving as the first political funeral of the AIDS crisis. As hundreds gathered, some of his writings were projected onto nearby buildings. One phrase, “To make the private into something public is an action that has terrific repercussions on the pre-invented world,” compels me to realize that these words can bridge the loneliness I’m feeling today and can give voice to a shared sensation of separation that need not keep us apart forever.
When the time comes to return to the wider social world, inhabited by the physical presence of those who are regularly disregarded in normal life, will we become more compassionate to their loneliness?
When the time comes to return to the wider social world, inhabited by the physical presence of those who are regularly disregarded in normal life, will we become more compassionate to their loneliness? Can we acknowledge the emotional and physical toll that comes from living without secure housing, with addiction, with mental illness? Seeking obvious answers for how to live in the lonely city, Laing demurs: “As to how to inhabit it, there are no rules and nor is there any need to feel shame, only to remember that the pursuit of individual happiness does not trump or excuse or obligations to each another.”
To be able to see one another’s complex needs, to understand our emotional connection to all beings, is a tall order in normal times; as we feel our way back into the rhythm of the wider world, these questions will become even more pressing. I think back on my train conversation, all of the small social cues that somehow aligned in that moment to make such a spontaneous connection possible. How long will it take to rebuild the sense of basic sociality to hope for such interactions again, given that all of us are simultaneously contending with separation and reconnection, grief and uncertainty? As we hope that strangers will extend their empathy to us in the return from a long stretch of physical separation, it is imperative that we show the same kindness to the rest of the world, similarly locked in the basic struggle to rearticulate ourselves as social creatures.
Though these questions may not have immediate bearing on the work and skills of urban planners and architects, it’s worth considering the ways in which the longer-term forces of gentrification have created spaces less capable of holding difference within them. Laing cites Sarah Schulman’s Gentrification of the Mind, which describes the consequences of AIDS in the gentrification of New York and the transformation of neighborhoods that once held space for people from many backgrounds. Schulman argues that we’ve lost complex urban social spaces as a consequence of redevelopment, pushing away vulnerable people and replacing them with more homogenous and less inclusive populations. Even as gentrification erases difference and dissonance in urban space, Schulman argues for their necessity to city life: “Feeling comfortable cannot be the determining factor in my actions.” It’s an edifying claim, all too necessary in this moment. As we begin to survey the devastation wrought by months of social and economic attrition, refusing to push away more uncertain emotions is essential to rebuilding the world, one more responsive to the suffering our present order will continue to inflict upon the vulnerable.
In a moment of heightened uncertainty, a craving for certainty and a fear of vulnerability has left many people in a constant state of anxiety about their surroundings, pushing us ever further apart, the same fight-or-flight mechanisms that only heighten loneliness. As we pick up the pieces in the months and years to come, it will be cities—places meant to foster communion, to offer unexpected bridges across familiar dividing lines—that must serve as the terrain in which we become ourselves again. I know that I need the city in all its busyness to feel most myself. Right now, there’s little I miss more than the everyday spaces of urban social life, the endless hours spent on the bus or walking through dense crowds that were all too easy to take for granted before everything changed. For now, the lonely city is overpopulated, abruptly crowded with millions who might otherwise only visit as tourists. As we plan our departure, the challenge of reintegration—and our ability to bring back those who might otherwise be left behind—will be acute.
Featured image via the Estate of David Wojnarowicz and P.P.O.W New York.