Book Reviews / British / nonfiction / The Latest

Making Sense of Loneliness: a review of Olivia Laing’s “The Lonely City”

Hand holding the book The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone by Olivia Laing

After living in Switzerland for six years, I have been thinking a lot about loneliness and what it means for us humans. I have been thinking about whether loneliness is ever good for us? Are their ways that we could harness our lonely moments to learn more about ourselves? I have wondered about the difference between loneliness and being alone and if we owe each other the opportunity to feel connected. I have also thought about how loneliness is a silent endemic that we are too ashamed to speak about openly.

I was lonely in Switzerland. It is hard to admit, but the stigma has to stop somewhere. It was the kind of lonely that chips away at your being until you feel like there is nothing left of yourself. It made my heart hurt, and it filled me with anger and frustration at the world. I spent many days that turned into months and if we are really honest, years without anyone to talk to throughout the day. I felt invisible in a culture and language that would only half accept me. As I swung between employment and unemployment, my self-worth, which was intricately tied to my feelings of loneliness and my employment status, shrivelled away until I started to think about non-existence as a solution for my hurt.

Loneliness is part of the human condition. It profoundly affects our mental and physical health and is something that doesn’t care if you are old or young. This is evidenced around the world, including Australia, where young people report feelings of loneliness and isolation. My aforementioned experiences with loneliness are, therefore nothing new. In fact, their normalcy is both frightening and strangely comforting. As Olivia Laing points out in her own research on the matter: “[…] loneliness is by no means a wholly worthless experience, but rather one that cuts right to the heart of what we value and what we need” (8). Short bouts of time alone can be healing for the mind and body. Arguably in today’s society, we put too much emphasis on being busy that we often do not know how to be with ourselves, alone. And I often wonder if this panic to always be ‘on’ contributes to our feelings of loneliness and isolation, or as the kids call it: FOMO (fear of missing out). The one thing that is certain about loneliness is how profoundly it “affects an individual’s ability to understand and interpret social interactions, initiating a devastating chain-reaction, the consequence of which is to further estrange them from their fellows” (Laing 28). Loneliness can cause high blood pressure, sleeplessness, and death. It often makes those afflicited hypervigilent about negative experiences, which in turn makes people more likely to isolate themselves. Cultures around the world have social cues and codes to help people connect with one another, but what happens when we cannot figure these codes out?

São Paulo skyline: population 12.18 million

Ironically, loneliness is often experienced in big cities. Laing’s own book centres on her time in New York City—the city of cities, the sleepless giant. Proximity to other humans does not solely define the meaning of loneliness. If it were that simple, lonely people would only need to go outside to cure their woes. As Laing suggests, “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” (3-4). We are stacked on top of each other in boxes with small windows. We look out at each other, but are somehow still in isolation. Cities overflow with human activity and life, there is something always on, there is always someone around but we often feel like we are walking around in bubbles, unable to connect.

Social media plays an interesting role when we talk about loneliness as it is often demonised in the media as the reason for all our problems, and whilst I would argue that social media definitely has caused issues in our society, it isn’t the big bad it is often made out to be. Social media helps us connect with people in ways that we previously unthinkable. For me, as an immigrant, being able to connect with my friends, family, and culture, were vital, and this was only possible through online and social media interactions. Yet, social media also plays another interesting role in our lives. Why is it, in big cities filled with people that we travel in public transport together, but often turn to the online world instead of the physical one around us to create intimate experiences? Laing asks herself about her own experiences with social media and big city living—”What did I want? What was I looking for? What was I doing there, hour after hour? Contradictory things. I wanted to know what was going. I wanted to be stimulated. I wanted to be in contact and I wanted to retain my privacy, my private space. I wanted to click and click and click until my synapses exploded, until I was flooded by superfluity. I wanted to hypnotise myself with data, with coloured pixels, to become vacant, to overwhelm any creeping anxious sense of who I actually was, to annihilate feeling” (220). Similarly to city living, one could argue that the voyeuristic nature of social media and the online world simply mimic what big cities offer us: endless windows to open and scroll through, countless faces to assess and forget, endless possibilities for superficial connections.

Ibirapuera park in São Paulo—a quiet haven from the constant traffic jams and pollution

If humans have experienced loneliness since the beginning of time, how do we process it? Laing’s exploration of loneliness looks to the art world, specifically artists who spent time in New York City, and how those artists channelled their loneliness into creating pieces of art, and how these art pieces, in turn, became bridges for people to connect through their experiences of loneliness. One such figure that Laing discusses in her book is Andy Warhol. He is known for his contributions to Pop Art and making the ordinary into art: “Ugly things, unwanted things, things that couldn’t possibly belong in the sublime white chamber of the gallery” were the focus of Warhol’s creations (Laing 58). He focused on “objects whose value derives not because they’re rare or individual, but because they are reliably the same” (Laing 59). The solace and reliability of a soup can is simple and also extremely comforting to those who feel lonely. Warhol’s works often show how humans could end up replacing social interactions with inanimate objects. Warhol was able to channel his feelings of isolation from being an immigrant and a queer man into his art. Something a lot of people do not do and cannot do. Laing’s book, along with the artists she discussed, made me wonder about if and what our obligations are to one another when it comes to combating loneliness. Should we care that someone is lonely, or do we simply say ‘Sorry, too busy with my own stuff…’

The answer to this is not a simple or easy one. Laing argues that “there is a gentrification that is happening to cities, and there is a gentrification that is happening to the emotions too, a similarly homogenising, whitening, deadening effect. Amidst the glossiness of late capitalism, we are fed the notion that all difficult feelings—depression, anxiety, loneliness, rage—are simply a consequence of unsettled chemistry, a problem to be fixed, rather than a response to structural injustice” (280-1). To draw on my own experiences with loneliness, when I tried to reach out to different people about how I was feeling I was often met with awkward indifference or extreme repulsion. At best I was told to ‘Cheer up’, ‘Take up sewing’, ‘Have a baby’, ‘Learn a new language’, and at worst I was told ‘I don’t have time for this right now’, ‘You always talk about negative things’, ‘Let’s not dwell on the bad’, ‘Everything happens for a reason’. We are conditioned to ignore our own negative feelings, and in doing so, we stigmatise those who dare to feel them. We distance ourselves from people who are hurting in fear of it being contagious, and then when we find ourselves in pain, no one is around to give us comfort. In that regard, I agree whole-heartedly with Laing’s concluding remarks from her book, “the pursuit of individual happiness does not trump or excuse our obligations to each other” (281).

Red gummy bear in a sea of white gummy bears

If we refuse to have conversations about loneliness, we help it spread. Loneliness is a hard compounded issue that a lot of don’t know how to deal with. I hope that today’s book review gives you some hope, and some new ways to think about your own loneliness and the loneliness of others. As always, share the reading love.


One thought on “Making Sense of Loneliness: a review of Olivia Laing’s “The Lonely City”

  1. Pingback: Book Review of “Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine” by Gail Honeyman: Loneliness, loss, and making friends | bound2books