Lonely City by Olivia Laing

“Lonely City” Review and Implications of The Loneliness Epidemic

Recently I read Lonely City by Olivia Laing.

Some readers will already be familiar with Maria Popova’s review of the book.

Not quite memoir, art history or biography, it’s a hybrid of all three.

I was moved by Olivia’s search for meaning within loneliness. Moving to New York City for a relationship and having it fall apart as fortune often likes to do to our plans. She profiles four artists whose lives and art had a strong current of loneliness running through their veins.

It’s dark, yet has some hopeful moments. Researching loneliness I uncovered some great resources. So if you or someone you know suffers, know that there is immediate help available. Changes may need to be made on the government policy level (beyond the scope of this article) to help as well.

Andy Warhol comes up many times in this book for good reason. Like Olivia before she wrote this book, I was also not too familiar with his work. Even though I thought a lot of his pop art was clever and it often made me smile learning about it during an multicultural art history class in college.

There is immense sadness in all four artists. Beginning with Edward Hopper, we learn how he is reserved and uncomfortable about people. Yet most of his creative ideas were channeled through people. He was an artist who believed he could only create art through someone else’s experience.

We also learn about David Wojnarowicz, a talented visual artist who suffered severe physical and sexual abuse. He used art to process his emotional state yet he leaves life all too early and tragically.

Finally, there is Henry Darger, one of the darkest stories in the book. If his story doesn’t shake you to your core nothing will. He’s often described as mentally disturbed but this description is too simple. He suffered atrocious abuse early in his life and didn’t appear to have any support to deal with a poverty stricken existence around the Catholic Church and the Catholic Hospital he later worked at as a janitor.

But to leave out Josh Harris would be selling this book short. Who is he? Well he was an early internet (read: internet 1.0) millionaire. Decades before it became clear to many of us — he saw the upcoming trend of how willing people would be to trade their privacy for validation. The epic party house / prison / surveillance dystopia he created is simply… unreal but it happened. As a gaming and computer nerd from the 90s, I experienced some of the trends Josh eventually capitalized on.

In case you’re wondering why there is a war on our attention in the internet economy — all will be revealed in time my friend.

The Lonely Artists

Edward Hopper is best known for his 1942 painting Nighthawks. He was married in his early 40’s to his wife Jo. She often modeled for him while he painted. Like most of the artists profiled he had issues with intimacy. Sadly, he discouraged his wife from creating and didn’t offer much support or emotional labor.

Men of the 1940s and 50s much?

Although he did allow her to manage his career. After Edward’s passing, Jo donated both their works to the Whitney Museum Of Modern Art.

Where her art was promptly destroyed.


Andy Warhol might be known as the earliest adopter of technology to keep people at a distance. From cameras to tape-recorders…

I didn’t get married until 1964 when I got my first tape recorder. My wife. My tape recorder and I have been married for ten years now. When I say ‘we,’ I mean my tape recorder and me. A lot of people don’t understand that … The acquisition of my tape recorder really finished whatever emotional life I might have had, but I was glad to see it go. Nothing was ever a problem again, because a problem just meant a good tape and when a problem transforms itself into a good tape it’s not a problem any more.

Andy Warhol

Valerie Solanas, was an aspiring writer and radical feminist (she wrote about purging the male sex from existence in her manifesto, SCUM). She shot Andy at his office with her .32 Beretta and sent him to his clinical death for one minute and thirty seconds before he was revived in the hospital. This was because he refused to collaborate with her.

Taking a phone call on Christmas Eve, Andy was horrified that she called, he writes in POPism that she threatened to “do it again…my worst nightmare became true”.

One of the important themes explored in this book is how society (hopefully unintentionally) works in concert to shame and isolate people who stray too far from social norms. Language plays a strong role in this. Whether it’s spoken or written word, if people don’t like the words they don’t like the person sharing them.

Valerie’s abrasive paranoia (she was a trauma survivor) didn’t help her cope with the world. Nor did it lead to her receiving the support she would need to thrive. Yet she does make one statement I’m in full support of…

“Our society is not a community but merely a collection of isolated family units”

Valerie Solanas

Ah, here we are. This is life in the west. Where the quality of your life is more or less determined by your family’s social dynamics. And also your ability to create and sustain your own family unit. As long as we have these isolated family units we will be easy to divide and be conquered by oppressors of all kinds.

Henry Darger is perhaps the most misunderstood artist in the book. In his memoirs, he writes of only one friend. Outside of this friend, it’s unlikely that he showed his work to anyone else.

He was institutionalized from a young age at a facility known for allowing horrific forms of abuse on “mentally ill” children, including rape. This was his “home”. Armed with only a low level of education and trouble expressing himself clearly in writing or speech he trained himself to be an artist. Not only that, but he lived in a tiny rented room in Chicago: subsisting on a grand $3000 a year salary as a janitor for a Catholic Hospital. By copying and tracing other shapes he experimented with collage. Eventually he began to paint.

According to Olivia he also wrote:

“The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion” would eventually run to 15,145 pages, making it the longest known work of fiction in existence.”

Olivia Laing, Lost City

Which is to say nothing of his also unpublished memoir, which ran to 5,084 pages!

While deeply disturbing themes of violence are explored in his art — he saw himself as a protector. Experiencing and witnesses extreme levels of violence when institutionalized, he didn’t want to see another child suffer. But he lacked autonomy and resources in his life, never being able to provide for any children of his own or through adoption.

David Wojnarowicz’s story is chilling as well. Abused and feeling broken, he hung out on the streets of 1970’s New York City. He was eventually befriended by men who gave him a second chance and he was encouraged to heal himself through his art work.

Tragically, the later period of his life was defined by the AIDS epidemic. For perspective, The CDC (Center for Disease Control) estimates that over 675,000 people have died of AIDS in the U.S. since 1981.

When Lonely We’ll Trade Almost Anything for Validation

Josh Harris started Jupiter Communications and two years later in 1988 it became a public company, making him a millionaire. He then started an internet television company, Psuedo.

Towards the end of the 1990s, Harris’s interest in Pseudo began to wane in favour of an ambitious new project, which might be described as a month-long party, a psychology experiment, an art installation, a durational performance, a hedonistic prison camp or a coercive human zoo. Quiet was conceived as an investigation into surveillance and group living: an experiment designed to test the effects of the oncoming collapse of boundaries between the public and the private that Harris was convinced the internet would bring about. ‘Andy Warhol was wrong,’ he informed a journalist. ‘People don’t want fifteen minutes of fame in their lifetime, they want it every night. The audience want to be the show.’

Olivia Laing, Lost City (emphasis mine)

This is where things get really fucked up! They had glass rooms and over 100 security cameras. Every room or “pod” had a camera and every “resident” could watch most of the other cameras. There was an open bar cause hey when you can blow through $2 million a day who needs to charge for drinks. Oh yeah, and there was a shooting range in the basement too.

After Mayor Giuliani shut down Quiet’s doors in 1999 Josh went on to do something more “intimate” which tells us everything we need to know about the significance of privacy to human happiness.

He installed camera’s in his home. He convinces his girlfriend that they will live a web streamed existence in the coming months. While strangers comment on their every move in a chat room… which of course he has access to and in fact checks to see “whats trending” about his life. There is a documentary crew that films this experiment called We Live in Public. Here are some telling quotes from the documentary:

We Live in Public: ‘If I’m in a certain mood and stuck with my family or friends, the alleviation to that are virtual worlds’ – a statement that seems obvious now but that in the 1990s was met with amused bafflement, if not outright ridicule.

Josh Harris, We Live in Public, Olivia Laing, Lonely City

We Live in Public: … that I love my mother virtually and not physically. I was bred by her to sit in front of a TV set for hours on end. That’s how I’ve been trained. You know the most important friend to me growing up was in fact the television … My emotionality is not derived from other humans … I was emotionally neglected but virtually I could absorb the electronic calories from the world inside the television.

Josh Harris, We Live in Public, Olivia Laing, Lonely City

Outside of passing references to people processing their emotional pain through art, where is the hope, right?

Olivia wonders aloud… is it companionship and / or sex that eases our loneliness? In the process of examining how universal the feeling of loneliness is and discovering how other artists processed their pain, she was able to do the same. Also, I imagine writing the book itself and collaborating with all the curators and archivists she would need to in order to access the art itself, helped.

But not all of us have book deals with major publishers. So what to do about the loneliness epidemic? A recent Cigna survey revealed that nearly half of Americans always or sometimes feel alone 46% or left out 47%.

While we’ll have to wait until the coronavirus situation is relatively normalized (at least in the US) before we can even begin to think about policy proposals — these will be needed.

What can we do now though?

There are no easy answers here. It’s important to note that there just is no true substitute for face to face personal connection. Using the internet or other technologies to interact with people will be a starting place. Video calls can help but human beings are wired for touch, it’s one of the main senses for a reason.

Loneliness is a lot like shame.

Shame is why it’s such an isolating experience. But the more I learned about loneliness the more I learned that it’s universal and even super connected people feel lonely sometimes. Which may not make your pain feel any better right now but we do have some options to feel less lonely.

Big picture, it’s going to be a long time until the loneliness problem will be solved in western society or any country that has a large percentage of people living alone.

Do you feel lonely or that you’re not accepted for who you are?

Getting involved in creative work will also help as it gives you something to productive to focus on.

What’s your biggest problem when it comes to loneliness?

How often and how intensely does it feel to you?

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