Colour Your Loneliness
by Jack Parlett
A review of The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone by Olivia Laing (Canongate, 2016)
Texts make good props to loneliness. Characters playing at being alone frequently make reading a part of their deception: say, Ophelia awaiting Hamlet with her head in the Bible, while Polonius directs her from behind the arras. Read ‘on this book’, he instructs her, an exercise to ‘colour your loneliness’, an act of textual ritual signifying the express absence of an audience. Hamlet must think you’re alone now, that there doesn’t seem to be anyone around. This is a particular kind of aloneness, a narrative manipulation of perhaps the central question of Shakespeare’s play – who’s there? – and quite some distance from the affective territory we call being lonely. Everyday reading-rituals like those of the Bible, or newspapers, or phone screens, can cultivate an air of absorption, lending colour to a duplicitous playing at being alone; but don't we make corresponding demands of literary and artistic objects too? Just as we might wield books as deceptive props, we also – the cliché goes – clutch at them in moments of real isolation and look to them as friends, palliating our solitude in Technicolor, objects which can similarly be lonely themselves. Writing on lonely poems, Christopher Ricks identifies such a tension as animating literary renderings of loneliness: if ‘art always constitutes company’, then ‘how can it hope to evoke such wan hope as is loneliness?’
For Ricks, whose concern is the lyric, the resources are ‘located linguistically’, and can be experienced through the sonic and pronominal capacities of the printed voice. This is a model of reading where the rhymes and grammatical person of (say) an Emily Dickinson poem become ways of realising the ‘tension’ belonging to those ‘true’ poems of loneliness, which acknowledge ‘the limits of the sympathetic imagination’ and ‘an imperfection, something forever falling short of the entire’. As in prayer or soliloquy, this is also a tension in interlocution, losing faith in the idea that the terms ‘listener’ or ‘speaker’ designate anything more than tropes of reading to which we turn for comfort. This reappraisal of aesthetic failure as a tool for mimesis is underscored too by a proximity between loneliness and images, as a visual entity to be coloured, or cast in simile (like wandering lonely as a cloud). Frank O’Hara’s 1953 poem ‘At Joan’s’ sketches its solitude in the picture set out of its compositional scene, an early-hours sojourn in his friend Joan Mitchell’s empty apartment, drinking cognac, ‘sorting poems’. The ‘little lamp glows feebly’, O’Hara writes, but ‘I don’t glow at all’, in a triangulation of pallor where the visual figure for artistic failure is itself disarmingly obvious and feeble. Poet and poem pine simultaneously – ‘I am lonely for myself / I can’t find a real poem’ – as though the desire to create, to find a ‘real’ poem, or ‘myself’, might be satisfied by a work which takes that desire as its subject. It is novel, to hear loneliness explicitly bearing an object, to yearn for a self like this. Friend and sometime-lover Joe LeSueur, ‘haunted’ by this poem, hears in it more than doubts about ‘one’s work’, and the sense in which O’Hara ‘missed someone – someone unknown to him, someone he might never meet’, though this ‘someone’ might equally be a missing muse, abandonment not only by a person but by his own poetic faculties. Looking at better images, then, paintings on the wall by Mitchell’s then-lover Jean-Paul Riopelle, can at once provide inspiration and diminution, for they are ‘so great / I must do so much / or did they just happen’.
And what is it that happens between the visual arts and loneliness? Seeking out artworks in isolation forms the basis of Olivia Laing’s book The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone, which is concerned with the uniquely visual qualities of loneliness, how it is made expressible and more bearable through our relation to the visual, and to the tableaux that surround us in cities. In its focus upon New York, upon predominantly queer artists, and upon the uncannily lonely quality of occupying friend’s apartments (like Joan’s), the ‘making a life among someone else’s things’ that Laing experienced frequently during her time living alone in the city, it is a book that in another incarnation might easily feature O’Hara. His work stayed in my mind for much of it, perhaps partly because Laing’s ruminations offer neighbouring thoughts upon the way poems realise loneliness, and partly because it encourages, in the confessional retellings of Laing’s own selections, discoveries made during lonely nights on YouTube, a personal and curatorial approach to contemplating lonesome artists and writers. This is the book’s departure point: the ways that being lonely can change and enhance our eyes and ears, unearthing new and unexpected connections (who ever thought of Andy Warhol as a prophet of isolation? of Valerie Solanas’ SCUM Manifesto as a work born primarily of loneliness?), thus rendering our encounters with artworks as contingent and primarily sympathetic experiences.
Laing begins with an image, both familiar and dreamt-up:
Imagine standing by a window at night, on the sixth or seventh 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.
The contradictions within this isolation, of being simultaneously invisible and exposed, being amongst many and yet none, find their very own architecture in that of the city, in its countless windows, surfaces and spaces shared with strangers. You might rarely reach or touch in a city, save brushes with strangers’ shoulders on the subway, say – but you are always looking. This approaches truism, so built is it into the literary fabric of thinking about the modern city, a tradition most obviously beginning with Charles Baudelaire, and in particular Walter Benjamin’s account of the poet’s Tableaux parisiens. Benjamin identifies in Baudelaire’s work the ‘love which only a city-dweller experiences’, a form of the ‘sexual shock that can beset a lonely man’ who sees people but cannot reach them. The speaker of his sonnet ‘A Une Passante’ is haunted by the fleeting appearance of a passing woman in the crowd, dressed funereally and gone again in a flash (‘Un éclair!’), leaving the poet to mourn the one that got away – love at last sight, in Benjamin’s words. Ephemeral encounters like this occur daily: we catch someone’s eye in the street and double-take, before they join the ever-growing list of people we will never see again. Baudelaire’s poem feels enslaved by this transience, dramatising an exchange that lingers and hurts precisely because it is unconsummated, cut short by a flash, leaving only a snapshot of your own voyeuristic loneliness. Such encounters embody the gulf existing between estrangement and desire, a yearning much like Laing’s observation that ‘loneliness always agitates in two directions, towards intimacy and away from threat’: a double-bind of introspection and exposure which can be viscerally painful, about which artist David Wojnarowicz (a major presence in the book) writes in an unpublished note for a film script, referring to the wounding nature of a neck you see in a crowd but can’t reach.
If this ‘anguish of perceivedness’, to use Samuel Beckett’s phrase, is related intimately to an ocular language that can be simultaneously erotic and antagonistic, it makes conceptual sense that looking also offers a refuge from it. Two of the book’s richest chapters concern the painters Edward Hopper and Henry Darger, whose works are frequently associated with isolation and outsiderdom as forms of melancholy and pathology. Hopper’s Nighthawks (1942), for example, has been ‘disseminated with such profligacy that it has long since acquired the patina that afflicts all-too-familiar objects, like dirt on a lens’, and yet it resonates in Laing’s analysis as something passed for the first time, its peculiarly American brand of loneliness spotted anew. The painting’s dramatis personae of four canonically lonesome figures seem trapped in their New York diner, Hopper leaving ‘no room for the expected hatch or gangway’, subject to the ‘kind of subtle geometric disturbance’ that he ‘was so skilled at’. Such technical strategies, Laing argues, ‘combat the insularity of loneliness by forcing the viewer to enter imaginatively into an experience that is otherwise notable for its profound impenetrability, its multiple barriers, its walls like windows’, as if ‘looking itself was an antidote, a way to defeat loneliness’s strange, estranging spell’. In denying his subjects a way out, we are gifted a way in, an entrance conjured through this interpretive challenge, an intimacy sketched by the demands made upon our attention.
Darger’s paintings are also characterised, differently, by imaginative fellowships, set in a ‘coherent otherworld’ he called ‘the Realms of the Unreal’. These works, vivid and sometimes disturbing images of children occupying pastoral scenes, speak to many of the associations harboured by the term ‘outsider art’, produced by an uneducated janitor who spent most of his years in seclusion. Laing’s sensitive account of Darger’s extremely sad life, and of his subsequent treatment as an artist discovered after his death, mitigates against the presumed proximity between imagination and madness, which is playfully virtuous in children but pathological in adults. Just as a child’s development of an imaginary friend frequently plays a crucial part in language acquisition, Laing paints Darger as an artist for whom a sense of imaginary was the lifeblood of both his work and his selfhood, his life spent ‘occupying the blind spot of other people’s existences’, effectively banished from view. Under this aspect the creative process emerges as a matter of attachment, something inherently interpersonal and recalling J.H. Prynne’s notion of the ‘poet’s imaginary’, the other self of composition akin to the imaginary friends made by children. These friends are primarily, Prynne notes, ‘language creations’, a negotiation of both solitude and sociality where
the general condition of social communication now makes an inward turn, to comprise a field of potential invention using the social medium as material for production, which may indeed eventually have a communicable, sociable outcome (travelling toward a reader).
A work born of this dual writing-consciousness is its own friend as much as ours, imploring us at the same moment that it retreats, understanding that to exteriorise in the direction of another simultaneously involves introspection. This fragile bond is triangulated between the work, its creator and their audience of one, thus constructed according to an imaginary exchange, a mental space similarly constitutive in our experiences of cities. In perceiving strangers in the street we are frequently led by the mental fictions we make of them, and the pathos of Baudelaire’s poem correspondingly resides in its inability to recuperate – which is to say invent – such connections in the otherwise disconnected urban landscape. Laing takes care to distance her own wanderings from the ‘disinclination’ of the Baudelairean flâneur, who divorces himself from the ‘reality of other people’, but then this reality emerges from the book as something dependent upon investing in imagined commonalities. Walt Whitman’s poem ‘To a Stranger’, another short poem figuring much the same compositional situation as Baudelaire’s, conjures a passing stranger who seems in equal parts real and illusory. ‘You must be he I was seeking, or she I was seeking’, Whitman writes to his stranger, a category of address which also includes us, the strange readers leafing through his Leaves of Grass. This fellowship comes to him ‘as of a dream’, the felt conviction that ‘somewhere I have surely lived a life of joy with you’. The difference between these two poems hinges upon the capacity to enter imaginatively into relations with strangers who you can see but, up until now, could not reach. The surrounding street, a site of alienation, becomes the stage for a ‘somewhere’ – the canvas of a conjured idyllic past or hopeful future. For Whitman this involves an intimacy which outlasts the fleeting moment of apprehension: ‘I am to think of you when I sit alone, or wake at night alone’. Loneliness in this light becomes a feature of composition and contemplation, recollections in tranquillity that are made whilst hidden away from the moment of apprehension, the street where one can feel the ‘exhausting sense’, in Laing’s words, that you are ‘too visible’. Visibility here is interiorised, the lonely thinker conjuring a presence not merely as a voice from across the distance but as a visually palpable figure – as in the difference, on coming home to an empty house, between turning on the radio and turning on the television.
Solitude of this kind bears an equal resemblance to reading, similarly private and with its own attendant erotics. Something like a phenomenology of loneliness runs through Laing’s book, her numerous accounts of trips to archives, of moments spent with paintings in quiet gallery-corners and books in empty apartments serving as reflections upon the way loneliness inflects these encounters with creators. There may be no ‘substitute for touch’, she writes, but these moments are perhaps the next best thing, lending the derelict spaces in which Wojnarowicz roamed ‘a life of their own in my mind’. Like Prynne’s ‘poet’s imaginary’, a reader’s imaginary supposes that meanings are relational, shared, underscored by a yearning to overcome the estrangements of both History and of mechanical reproduction. This can work in various ways, at once as a fantasy of present-tense exchange or as fellowship performed through the repetition of past acts. Wojnarowicz’s AIDs activism in the 1980s reminds Laing of correspondences in her own life, of marching ‘on London Bridge, during Gay Prides of my own childhood, perhaps two or three years later’. A temporal gap is being closed, not only through the physical action of walking but by the visual tableau of that action that it inspires, an image yielding likeness. Thus, when Whitman addresses his poem ‘Crossing Brooklyn Ferry’ to ‘you men and women’ who are ‘ever so many generations hence’, assuring us that ‘It is not upon you alone the dark patches fall, / The dark threw its patches upon me also’, we hear not only a collective similarity – figured by the crowd he observes walking – but solidarity in dark times. Loneliness may be a human feeling, after all, but that is not to say that it afflicts indiscriminately. The Lonely City is populated by outsiders, artists isolated variously by their queerness or national identities, by their being victims of abuse or the AIDS epidemic. Writing openly about her own sense of sexual difference, Laing describes her discovery of Wojnarowicz’s work as the sensation of ‘coming up for air after a long time underwater’, a sentiment no doubt familiar to many queer readers of queer writers (a lineage which includes Whitman, too, as such a kindred spirit). Framing encounters with these works in this way, as forms of acquaintance or re-performance, lends them a political efficacy, bringing to light a collective made possible by page and canvas.
This may begin to sound hackneyed or mystical, an anthropomorphic belief in art’s animism, a moving beyond the trope of textual voice and into the production of a whole person, a someone as well as a something. But then this is precisely what makes Laing’s book so moving, one which in any case marks a highly particular and personal project, at once a memoir, a literary study, and a cultural history. Labelling its hybridity in this way feels less like a platitude of publishing copy than something entirely appropriate to its thesis. As a record of both her reading and of her lived experience – a ‘map’ of urban loneliness – Laing retraces the footsteps of these artists so as to animate moments in their lives, rendered as though we are there with them. This at once names a fantasy and a kind of research, as emotional as it is rigorous. Committed throughout to biography, this book asks us to believe in a kind of reading in which works are companions as much as objects of criticism, less out of sentimentality than out of observing the readings such an aspect makes possible. This process plays out, crucially, on a visual plane we inhabit with these artists and writers, loneliness as a ‘populated place’ and ‘a city in itself’, colouring in our solitary interior. And this is one city, Laing concludes, that must not be gentrified. Capitalist agendas can serve to homogenise our emotions as much as our cities, producing reductive explanations for difficult feelings like loneliness rather than addressing their basis in ‘structural injustice’. Indeed some of the darker insights informing Laing’s book – of lives brutalised by an ignorant culture, one unwilling to interrogate the ‘native texture of embodiment’ and its ethical solutions – might make this seem like a dream-city, an ideal. But if we are ever to reach it we first need to see it; something like it comes into view if we turn and glance back at O’Hara, walking through Manhattan on his lunch-break, ‘wonder[ing] if one person out of the 8,000,000 is / thinking of me’. Imagine.
[Originally published in the Cambridge Humanities Review, Issue 13, pp. 2-5.]