Loneliness can be a shameful hunger, a shell, a dangerous landscape of shadowy figures. But it is also a gift
Detail from The Hotel Room (1931) by Edward Hopper. Photo by Francis G. Mayer/Corbis
Olivia Laing is a writer with an interest in books, art and landscape. She is the author of To the River (2012). Her new book The Trip to Echo Spring: Why Writers Drink is out in May.
The bluest period I ever spent was in Manhattan’s East Village, not so long back. I lived on East 2nd Street, in an unreconstructed tenement building, and each morning I walked across Tompkins Square Park to get my coffee. When I arrived the trees were bare, and I dedicated those walks to checking the progress of the blossoms. There are many community gardens in that part of town, and so I could examine irises and tulips, forsythia, cherry trees and a great weeping willow that seemed to drop its streamers overnight, like a ship about to lift anchor and sail away.
I wasn’t supposed to be in New York, or not like this, anyway. I’d met someone in America and then lost them almost instantly, but the future we’d dreamed up together retained its magnetism, and so I moved alone to the city I’d expected to become my home. I had friends there, but none of the ordinary duties and habits that comprise a life. I’d severed all those small, sustaining cords, and, as such, it wasn’t surprising that I experienced a loneliness more paralysing than anything I’d encountered in more than a decade of living alone.
What did it feel like? It felt like being hungry, I suppose, in a place where being hungry is shameful, and where one has no money and everyone else is full. It felt, at least sometimes, difficult and embarrassing and important to conceal. Being foreign didn’t help. I kept botching the ballgame of language: fumbling my catches, bungling my throws. Most days, I went for coffee in the same place, a glass-fronted café full of tiny tables, populated almost exclusively by people gazing into the glowing clamshells of their laptops. Each time, the same thing happened. I ordered the nearest thing to filter on the menu: a medium urn brew, which was written in large chalk letters on the board. Each time, without fail, the barista looked blankly up and asked me to repeat myself. I might have found it funny in England, or irritating, or I might not have noticed it all, but that spring it worked under my skin, depositing little grains of anxiety and shame.
Something funny happens to people who are lonely. The lonelier they get, the less adept they become at navigating social currents. Loneliness grows around them, like mould or fur, a prophylactic that inhibits contact, no matter how badly contact is desired. Loneliness is accretive, extending and perpetuating itself. Once it becomes impacted, it isn’t easy to dislodge. When I think of its advance, an anchoress’s cell comes to mind, as does the exoskeleton of a gastropod.
I thought of those dreamlike crumbling rooms, extending across the water, where men long since dead freed one another
This sounds like paranoia, but in fact loneliness’s odd mode of increase has been mapped by medical researchers. It seems that the initial sensation triggers what psychologists call hypervigilance for social threat. In this state, which is entered into unknowingly, one tends to experience the world in negative terms, and to both expect and remember negative encounters — instances of rudeness, rejection or abrasion, like my urn brew episodes in the café. This creates, of course, a vicious circle, in which the lonely person grows increasingly more isolated, suspicious and withdrawn.
At the same time, the brain’s state of red alert brings about a series of physiological changes. Lonely people are restless sleepers. Loneliness drives up blood pressure, accelerates ageing, and acts as a precursor to cognitive decline. According to a 2010 study I came across in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine entitled ‘Loneliness Matters: A Theoretical and Empirical Review of Consequences and Mechanisms’, loneliness predicts increased morbidity and mortality, which is an elegant way of saying that loneliness can prove fatal.
I don’t think I experienced cognitive decline, but I quickly became intimate with hypervigilance. During the months I lived in Manhattan, it manifested as an almost painful alertness to the city, a form of over-arousal that oscillated between paranoia and desire. During the day, I rarely encountered anyone in my building, but at night I’d hear doors opening and closing, and people passing a few feet from my bed. The man next door was a DJ, and at odd hours the apartment would be flooded with his music. At two or three in the morning, the heat rose clanking through the pipes, and just before dawn I’d sometimes be woken by the siren of the ladder truck leaving the East 2nd Street fire station, which had lost six crew members on 9/11.
On those broken nights, the city seemed a place of seepage, both ghosted and full of gaps. Lying awake in my platform bed, the bass from next door pummelling my chest, I’d think of how the neighbourhood used to be, the stories that I’d heard. In the 1980s, this section of the East Village — which is known as Alphabet City because of its four vertical avenues, A to D — was dominated by heroin. People sold it in stairways, or through holes in doors, and sometimes the queues would run right down the street. Many of the buildings were derelict then, and some were turned into impromptu shooting galleries, while others were occupied by the artists who were just beginning to colonise the area.
The one I felt most affinity for was David Wojnarowicz, skinny and lantern-jawed in a leather jacket. He’d been a street kid and a hustler before he became an artist, and grew famous alongside Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. He died in 1992, a couple of months short of his 38th birthday, of Aids-related complications. Just before his death, he put together a book called Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration, a ranging, raging collection of essays about sex and cruising, loneliness, sickness and the wicked politicians who refused to take seriously the crisis of Aids.
I loved that book, especially the passages about the Hudson river piers. As shipping declined in the 1960s, the piers that ran along the Hudson, from Christopher Street to 14th Street, were abandoned and fell into disrepair. In the 1970s, New York was nearly bankrupt, and so these immense decaying buildings could neither be destroyed nor properly secured. Some were squatted by homeless people, who built camps inside the old goods sheds and baggage halls, and others were adopted by gay men as cruising grounds.
In Close to the Knives, Wojnarowicz described prowling around the Beaux-Art departure halls at night or during storms. They were vast as football fields, their walls damaged by fire, their floors and ceilings full of holes. In the shadows, he’d see men embracing, and often he’d follow a single figure down passageways and up flights of stairs into rooms carpeted with grass or filled with boxes of abandoned papers, where you could catch the scent of salt rising from the river. ‘So simple,’ he wrote, ‘the appearance of night in a room full of strangers, the maze of hallways wandered as in films, the fracturing of bodies from darkness into light, sounds of plane engines easing into the distance.’
Soon other artists began to occupy the piers. Paintings bloomed across the walls. Giant naked men with erect cocks. Keith Haring’s radiant babies. A labyrinth, picked out with white paint on the filthy floor. A leaping cat, a faun in sunglasses, Wojnarowicz’s gagging cows. Great murals in pinks and oranges of entwining torsos. Mike Bidlo’s intricate abstract expressionist drip paintings, which wouldn’t have looked out of place in the Museum of Modern Art. Up on the catwalk you could gaze across the river to the Jersey shore, and on hot days the naked men sunbathed on the wooden decks, while inside filmmakers recreated the fall of Pompeii.
Those buildings are long gone now, torn down in the mid-eighties, just as Aids was beginning to devastate the population who’d adopted them. Over time the waterfront was transformed into the Hudson River Park, a landscaped pleasure-ground of trees and rollerbladers and glossy parents with strollers and small dogs. But even a curfew didn’t suppress the erotic spirit of the place. On summer nights, Pier 45, the old sex pier, continues to turn into a catwalk-cum-dancefloor for the city’s gay and transgender homeless kids, though every year battles rage over policing and violence.
I was glad fierce kids were still throwing shade beside the river, but whenever I walked through the park I mourned those ruined buildings. I suppose I liked to dream of the piers as they once were, their vast and damaged rooms, because they seemed to represent an ideal kind of city, one which permitted solitude in company, which offered the possibility of encounter, expression and the pleasure of being alone amongst one’s tribe (whatever tribe that happened to be). I thought of them often, those dreamlike, crumbling rooms, extending out across the water, where men now long since dead freed one another, as Wojnarowicz put it, ‘from the silences of the interior life’.
Loneliness and art, loneliness and sex: these things are connected, and connected too with cities. One of the habits associated with chronic loneliness is hoarding, a condition that shares a boundary with art. I can think of at least three artists who medicated their sense of isolation by collecting objects off the streets, and whose art-making practices were loosely allied to trash-gathering and to the curation of the dirty, the salvaged and the discarded. I’m thinking of Joseph Cornell, that shy, unworldly man who pioneered the art of assemblage; of Henry Darger, the Chicago janitor and outsider artist; and of Andy Warhol, who, despite surrounding himself with glittering crowds, often commented on his abject sense of loneliness and alienation.
Cornell made lovely worlds in boxes out of little things he toted home from thrift stores, while Warhol shopped obsessively for decades (this is the acquisitive Andy immortalised in the silver statue in Union Square, his Polaroid camera around his neck, a Bloomingdale’s Medium Brown Bag in his right hand). His largest and most extensive artwork was the Time Capsules, 612 sealed brown cardboard boxes filled over the last 13 years of his life with all the varied detritus that flooded into the Factory: postcards, letters, newspapers, magazines, photographs, invoices, slices of pizza, a piece of cake, even a mummified human foot. As for Darger, he spent almost all his free time roaming Chicago, gathering and sorting trash. He used some of it in his strange, disturbing paintings of little girls engaged in terrible battles, but most of it — pieces of string, in particular — existed as a kind of counter-exhibit of its own, though he never showed it to a living soul.
I’ve missed you, Alastair once said, and my heart jumped at the pleasure of existing in someone else’s life
People who hoard tend to be socially withdrawn. Sometimes the hoarding causes isolation, and sometimes it is a palliative to loneliness, a way of comforting oneself. Not everyone is susceptible to the companionship of objects; to the desire to keep and sort them; to employ them as barricades or to play, as Warhol did, back and forth between expulsion and retention. In that funny, lonely spring, I developed a fondness for the yellow ordering slips from the New York Public Library, which I kept in my wallet. I liked biros and pencils of all kinds, and I grew enamoured of a model Sumo wrestler a friend at Columbia had given me; a spectacularly ugly object that was designed to be crushed in one’s fist to relieve stress, though the tears it quickly developed suggested it wasn’t quite fitted to the task.
Like Warhol and Darger, Wojnarowicz also had a proclivity for objects. His art was full of found things: pieces of driftwood painted like crocodiles; maps, clocks and bits of comic books. Among his entourage was the skeleton of a baby elephant, which moved with him from cluttered apartment to apartment. For a while, he’d lived in a building on my block and on the day he moved in had carried the skeleton down the street concealed beneath a sheet, so his new neighbours wouldn’t be alarmed. Later, when he was dying, he gave it and his battered, grubby leather jacket to two friends he’d been collaborating with. Is this the appeal of objects to the lonely: that we can trust them to outlive us?
In the mornings when I went out to the Hudson River, I’d sometimes call in afterwards to the West Village to eat breakfast with the father of a friend of mine. Alastair lived in a tiny, shipshape apartment not far from the Christopher Street subway in West Village. He was a poet and, although he originally came from Scotland, he’d spent most of his life in South America, where he wrote dispatches for the New Yorker and translated Borges and Neruda into English.
His room was full of books and pleasing bits and pieces: a fossilised leaf, a desk-mounted pencil sharpener, an extraordinary folding bike. Each time I came, I brought chrysanthemums the colour of pound coins, and in return he fed me muffins and tiny cups of coffee, and told me stories about the dead from yet another era of New York artists. He remembered Dylan Thomas hurtling through the bars of Greenwich Village, and Frank O’Hara, the New York School poet who’d died at 40 in a car accident on Fire Island. A sweet man, he said. He smoked as he talked, breaking off into great hacking bouts of coughing. Mostly he told me about Jorge Luis Borges, blind Borges, who was bilingual from childhood, and died in exile in Switzerland, and whom all the taxi drivers in Buenos Aires had adored.
I left these conversations almost radiant. It was good to be greeted, to be embraced. I’ve missed you, Alastair once said, and my heart jumped at the pleasure of existing in someone else’s life. It might have been then that I realised I couldn’t teeter on like this, not quite committed to New York, not quite sure about going home. I missed my friends and I missed especially the kind of solidity of relationship in which one can express more than the brightest of moods. I wanted my flat back too, the ornaments and objects I’d assembled over decades. I hadn’t bargained for how strange I’d find it, living in someone else’s house, or how attenuating it would prove to my sense of security or self. Soon after that, I got on a plane to England and set about recovering the old, familiar relationships I thought I’d left for good.
It seems that this is what loneliness is designed to do: to provoke the restoration of social bonds. Like pain itself, it exists to alert the organism to a state of untenability, to prompt a change in circumstance. We are social animals, the theory goes, and so isolation is — or was, at some unspecified point in our evolutionary journey — unsafe for us. This theory neatly explains the physical consequences of loneliness, which ally to a heightened sense of threat, but I can’t help feeling it doesn’t capture the entirety of loneliness as a state.
A little while after I came home, I found a poem by Borges, written in English, the language his grandmother had taught him as a child. It reminded me of my time in New York, and of Wojnarowicz in particular. It’s a love poem, written by a man who’s stayed up all night wandering through a city. Indeed, since he compares the night explicitly to waves, ‘darkblue top-heavy waves … laden with/ things unlikely and desirable’, one might literally say that he’s been cruising.
In the first part of the poem he describes an encounter with you, ‘so lazily and incessantly beautiful,’ and in the second he lists what he has to offer, a litany of surprising and ambiguous gifts that ends with three lines I’m certain Wojnarowicz would have understood:
I can give you my loneliness, my darkness, the
hunger of my heart; I am trying to bribe you
with uncertainty, with danger, with defeat.
It took me a long time to understand how loneliness might be a gift, but now I think I’ve got it. Borges’s poem voiced the flip side of that disturbing essay I’d read in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine on loneliness’s consequences and mechanisms. Loneliness might raise one’s blood pressure and fill one with paranoia, but it also offers compensations: a depth of vision, a hungry kind of acuity. When I think of it now, I think of it as a place not dissimilar to the old Hudson river piers: a landscape of danger and potential, inhabited by the shadowy presences of fellow travellers, where one sometimes rounds a corner to see lines of glowing colour drawn on dirty walls.
19 December 2012