A Populated Place: A City in Itself

Hundreds of books have been penned on the importance of solitude – that salubrious state of being in which one is all by themselves yet feels connected to nature and the world. Such a state is considered conducive to reflection and creativity. On the other hand, loneliness, which evokes a severance of associations, is thought of as a thing to be ashamed of. Its display regarded as a definite admission of vulnerability and weakness. What is loneliness? What does it mean to be lonely? What does it mean to be lonely in the modern city? What are some of the ways in which loneliness has been responded to, contained, managed? Furthermore, how does a citizen of our century – of our pixellated age – experience the condition?

The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone (2016) by Olivia Laing, Picador Edition
The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone (2016) by Olivia Laing, Canongate Edition

These are the major questions examined in The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone – memoir + art history + cultural commentary – by British writer and critic Olivia Laing. Not very long ago, in her mid-thirties, Laing left England for America in the hope of permanently joining the man she’d fallen in love with – too headlong and precipitously. When he changed his mind and dismissed her “summarily and cataclysmically”, she found herself unexpectedly unhinged, inhabiting a bone-chilling loneliness on a daily basis. In New York, “that teeming island of gneiss and concrete and glass”, she would wander aimlessly on the streets. In the evenings, she sat on the couch in her apartment and watched the world outside going on through glass, a light bulb at a time.

She describes her thoughts in moving terms:

Imagine standing by a window at night, on the sixth or seventeenth or forty-third floor of a building. The city reveals itself as a set of cells, a hundred thousand windows, some darkened and some flooded with green or white or golden light. Inside, strangers swim to and fro, attending to the business of their private hours. You can see them, but you can’t reach them, and so this commonplace 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.


You can be lonely anywhere, but there is a particular flavour to the loneliness that comes from living in a city, surrounded by millions of people. One might think this state was antithetical to urban living, to the massed presence of other human beings, and yet mere physical proximity is not enough to dispel a sense of internal isolation. It’s possible – easy, even – to feel desolate 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 is desired. Unhappy, as the dictionary has it, as a result of being without the companionship of others. Hardly any wonder, then, that it can reach its apotheosis in a crowd.

Loneliness, for Laing, is like “being hungry when everyone around you is readying for a feast.” The loneliness of the modern/post-modern city is especially severe because here you are simultaneously exposed and entrapped. It is like being stuck inside ice.


On her raw and overwhelming feelings, Laing writes: “If I could have put what I was feeling into words, the words would have been an infant’s wail: I don’t want to be alone. I want someone to want me. I’m lonely. I’m scared. I need to be loved, to be touched, to be held.” (Photo credit: Pixabay)


How did she cope with her problem? Not so much by urgently turning to others for help but by confronting the reality of her situation. By befriending herself. And by patiently exploring how others have expressed their sentiments of friendlessness through creative activity. In her book, she beautifully documents the struggles and achievements of people “who had grappled in their lives as well as work with loneliness and its attendant issues.” She became closely interested in four artists: Edward HopperAndy WarholDavid Wojnarowicz and Henry Darger – touching also figures like Alfred Hitchcock, Valerie Solanas, Nan Goldin, Klaus Nomi, Peter Hujar, Billie Holiday, Zoe Leonard and Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Laing’s brilliant discussion of the subject raises a number of important issues – adversarial marital relationships, the immigrant experience and miscommunication, how mass-produced items and alternate universes of our own making may fill the empty spaces in our lives, the terror and poignancy of masks, the dissonances that occur in adulthood when the needs of childhood remain unfulfilled, the stigmatisation that comes from having an unconventional sexuality or a deadly disease. She proceeds to dwell upon the political aspects of loneliness. Systemic forces often collude to deem and declare certain sections of the population expendable, those whom they find deviant in behaviour and deficient in material resources. Critical of the gentrification that is taking place in many big cities in our time, Laing insists upon solidarity, a healthy acceptance of diversity and a consideration of the value of every single body – no matter how bruised or broken. She knows that the coercive homogenisation of a population can be dangerous. And that the displacement of the underprivileged or the plain different can be a profoundly isolating and disorienting event in the lives of those individuals.


“What is it about masks and loneliness?” Laing ponders. “The obvious answer is that they offer relief from exposure, from the burden of being seen – what is described in the German as Maskenfreiheit, the freedom conveyed by masks. To refuse scrutiny is to dodge the possibility of rejection, though also the possibility of acceptance, the balm of love. This is what makes masks so poignant as well as so uncanny, sinister, unnerving.” (Photo credit: User “Kashfi Halford”, Wikipedia, CC BY 2.0, edited).


Loneliness, it is Laing’s realisation, is not a chronic disease with no purpose – statements like this are, unfortunately, emphatically circulated in our culture. Loneliness, longing does not mean one has failed, but simply that one is alive. Loneliness is a “populated place: a city in itself” out of which many marvelous things have emerged. And the marvelous things forged in loneliness have frequently functioned to redeem it. She speaks on art:

There are so many things that art can’t do. It can’t bring the dead back to life, it can’t mend arguments between friends, or cure AIDS, or halt the pace of climate change. All the same, it does have some extraordinary functions, some odd negotiating ability between people, including people who never meet and yet who infiltrate and enrich each other’s lives. It does have a capacity to create intimacy; it does have a way of healing wounds, and better yet of making it apparent that not all wounds need healing and not all scars are ugly.

Olivia Laing’s book is incisive, courageous and deeply compassionate. If you have ever been lonely, this one is for you.


Related videos –

On Edward Hopper:


On Andy Warhol:


On David Wojnarowicz:


On Henry Darger:


In a chapter on the impact of digital technology on human relationships, Laing discusses the work of the internet entrepreneur Josh Harris. In 2009, he released a disturbing and prophetic documentary called We Live in Public (2009). Here is the trailer. Our boundaries are dissolving at an extraordinarily rapid rate, and with that, our sense of self. While social media can give us tremendous relief, it is also making us lonelier than ever.


Further Reading:

Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography (1995)  by Gail Levin

The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again) (1977) by Andy Warhol

Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration (1991) by David Wojnarowicz

Darger’s Resources (2012) by Michael Moon



13 thoughts on “A Populated Place: A City in Itself

  1. What an extraordinary woman ! And what an amazing outlook ! Staring loneliness in the face in a strange country where you have been totally rejected by one person you love as well as know !
    Thank you for this gripping read.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Got here from your Gerstenberger post. Appreciate your ‘diverse’ coverage of art. I did a ‘two musings’ piece on loneliness – (must say Darger was in the background of my mind) – Often a little effort from a lonely person can trigger a re-launch into good relationship and companionship with others. Outsider art is the ‘room for everybody’ school -and fun and humour for me, are legitimate yardsticks for good art. Thanks again for your thoroughness. Have a good day.. KR

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks. I found Darger’s life very sad (the saddest of the artists covered in this book) but very astonishing at the same time. He was always so productive and meticulous!


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