Me, myself and I

Loneliness can be a shameful hunger, a shell, a dangerous landscape of shadowy figures. But it is also a gift

by 2,800 words
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Hotel Room by Edward Hopper Aeon Loneliness

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.

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Comments

  • db

    Superb.

  • user

    Thank you, very touching writing. Perfectly timed and gently spoken.

  • http://www.facebook.com/liam.heneghan.56 Liam Heneghan

    Loved this piece! I spent a lonely year in Manhattan in the mid 80s, my first away from home (Dublin to NYC) so this resonated beautifully, and deepened in some ways my memory of that year.

    Coincidentally, this morning I read this exchange in an old Paris Review interview with Edna O'Brien...INTERVIEWER:Don’t you feel restless and lonely if you have worked all day and have to spend the evening alone? O’BRIEN Less lonely than if I were bored at a dinner party. If I get restless I might ring up one of a handful of friends who are close enough to come to the rescue. Rilke said, “Loneliness is a very good practice for eternity.” Loneliness is not intolerable—depression is.http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/2978/the-art-of-fiction-no-82-edna-obrien

  • Olivia Laing

    Thank you all. Liam, I think loneliness is an affliction common to writers, who have to spend so much time alone. And she's right - it's not intolerable. It would be interesting to see how many times it comes up in those Paris Review interviews - I know Cheever and Tennessee Williams talk about it a lot in their journals, for example.

  • gwyn

    wonderful, thank you. i spent a similarly lonely, slightly abject time in cambridge, amongst a similarly crumbling old place (the university). it turns you inside and out, i think; inside because you're always looking inside (your voice sounds louder in your own head, sort of conversational); and outside, because i eventually came back up for air (though i had to leave the place, first).

    • joanz

      A beautiful piece, coming at the right time in my life.
      Loneliness is our inner child, whom we embrace. And when the time comes, the child departs.

  • rameshraghuvanshi

    Loneliness is curse of modern living.World over in all metro cities many people spend their entire life in loneliness.There is different between loneliness and solitude.Loneliness is forced upon us on the contrary solitude we intentionally accepted by us.Loneliness is boring harmful mentally and physically.Solitude is benificial for creativity,in sciences and art.All philosophers, saints, scientists are remain aloof form society

  • Amelia

    Thank you for this beautiful article.
    How synchronous that when I was in the abyss of one of my loneliest periods, I found solace in Borges, as well. I wept upon reading several of his poems from a collection I came across in the used bookstore of the San Francisco Public Library.
    Loneliness can be a profound gift - from where one can deeply, honestly observe - life, oneself, the world.

  • Donny Duke

    Contstandalone

    What do you want to do?
    Astonishing.
    Grave territory.
    Places like that flood the mind.
    Wear it
    Deeper
    Go down
    You’re wonderfully shocked
    All the time
    Linked back
    Mac.
    All of creation
    Is your petting zoo.
    What it feels like
    In the picture tubes
    Alone meets the city
    And your guitar
    The morning bright in the lips
    Kiss God.
    It wouldn’t miss a scroll.

  • http://www.facebook.com/elaineaxten Elaine Axten

    I am alone often, now, and rarely feel lonely, but I remember the pain of the first time I moved cities quite alone. It drove me quite berzerk. Even though I was at art school, which was quite social. Physically, I was as robust as anyone, then. Now I am physically fragile, but mentally strong.

    • bryan

      i feel so similar elaine. i feel mentally robust; but, physically, i have to "cater" to myself, since i have not met a lady partner in so long...that's quite imbalancing to my physical equilibium-if you know what i mean?

  • Guest

    Well written.

  • http://www.CybercultureGallery.com/ Fady @ CybercultureGallery.com

    Wonderful article.

  • Will Swinburnge

    Thank you for this poignant and enlightened article. As a social person but one who often finds himself in the throes of loneliness living in a place where I feel thoroughly alienated I sympathize greatly with your experiences. I thank you for your honesty and for articulating very difficult emotions. I think American society as a whole is far too centered on the individual and lacks a communal way of life and infrastructure that is often found in other countries.

  • Kasia

    how beautiful........ thank you

  • http://twitter.com/MatthewsB Barbara Matthews

    Thank you

  • http://twitter.com/schloffshow aaron schloff

    Very graceful. I caught the tail end (heh) of David W's New York. Spied him once at an art show; was afraid to approach. Note the poetic loneliness of those cruising grounds could be ripped apart at any time by random violence, so hyper-hypervigilance was required. Those days are gone for good, in several senses.

  • David

    I'm not an artist nor a writer nor much of a reader. Just a poor schmo who sometimes stumbles upon pieces like this and is too intimidated to offer even anonymous input. I am grateful for much of the beautiful descriptions of loneliness. I am saddened that so many artists and writers romanticize loneliness and espouse its gifts. Great for you! I think. But for many of us, loneliness is absolute darkness. There's no consolation. Ever. And one doesn't need to be in a cosmopolitan city to feel it. The lonely souls you write of at least left the world with lasting beauty. I will not.

    • http://twitter.com/yosesolitaria Solitaria

      David--the human need is to connect, but connecting can be difficult in a competitive society, especially for the lonely and desolate who often feel they have little to offer others. But creation--and not just artistic--is a way of traveling through your pain to get to yourself, where it is possible to find the peace that will allow you to engage with others in meaningful ways. What you must do--and what we must all do--is identify what it is that you want to create in this world, where your passion motivates you out of your slum of misery to work for something that, through its pursuit, validates your life. I have found this for myself through deep reflection, through confrontation with my most painful awarenesses, and indomitable strength. Good luck to you--this is the solitary journey that we all must make.

    • Lily

      David, loneliness can be a sort of darkness, but life offers many other things much more beautiful, such as animal companionship, or traveling abroad. When you love a pet, they love you unconditionally, in a way people aren't truly capable of. Its a shame, but in this digital era, loneliness and isolation have become a normal part of everyday life. But that doesn't mean we can contribute to our world in a meaningful and lasting legacy. We all leave a certain legacy that means something, hope you can see that.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mozibur.ullah Mozibur Ullah

    I loved this. It reminds me of my times of loneliness. Not that I want to remember, but it does leave its mark on you. Gauging from other peoples reactions, it's quite visible too. But I do think he's also correct to say that there are benefits to solitude too. One has to find them.

  • Satrapi

    Not to detract from the article, but, this website needs a new design! Desperately! Though it is user friendly, and I am an advocate for simple design, the layout, font, colour scheme are all very outdated.

  • gingihan

    Thank you. Brilliantly written

  • Anil

    Thank you for writing such a wonderful piece.

  • http://twitter.com/alyssaharad Alyssa Harad

    What a gentle, poignant, generous meditation, thank you. I especially appreciate your portrait of the city at a moment that I've heard about from dear friends and mentors but never experienced myself. I've spent a lot of time thinking about the back and forth between solitude--which I crave--and loneliness. New York is a place I visit regularly. I began making those trips because of the joy I felt being alone in the city. But there was always a moment or two in each trip when I lost my balance...

  • Alexander Wolfe

    A beautiful, insightful and moving essay. This was a pleasure to read.

  • Deepika

    So beautifully written. I found some of your insights deeply engaging.

  • Oceana

    Everyone, every human being is essentially lonely, even those who least appear so or those who haven't yet realized. It is part of the human condition. Existential prosperity is in the willingness to embrace loneliness and separation as key to connection and oneness. Life is paradox. Empty and full all at once. Deepest loneliness is essential for true connectedness or oneness. Be yourself in loneliness, breathe deeply, smile and know- truly know you are just being a human. Good to know you exist.

  • Alexandra Dodd

    You write like a dream, Olivia! I can't wait to lay my hands and eyes on a copy of To the River...

  • tensacross

    people who depend on hypersociability for money, like for instance party promoters or successful strippers and prostitutes, learn pretty quickly about how artificial are the rituals which bond humans to one another.
    the ease with which fake friendships are constructed and maintained has a denigrating effect on real friendships.
    eventually all of human contact can feel like a phony, constructed ruse.
    THAT's loneliness.
    there's a fine line between love and hate, and having all the friends in the world, and none, i guess.

  • rameshraghuvanshi

    Loneliness is disease self impose punishment.Those who have some purpose in life though they are lonely they don't fell lonely .Many people want to live in solitude they are not feel lonely, they imposed them self in solitude for some purpose.

  • Archies_Boy

    Fortunately for the writer, she has — apparently — never suffered the kind of loneliness that makes one consider suicide. I have. So sorry, Olivia: you can romanticize loneliness if you want. But don't forget, you've never experienced it in full intensity, and I hope you never do.

  • b bowen
  • kirv

    If so many people are so lonely, how come they don't get together so that they won't be lonely?

    I think people in NY are all anxious to be a success at something, so they become very self-absorbed. Any creative project that does not involve collaboration ultimately requires time alone and sacrifice of social needs.

    For me, I need people like I need food: in regular amounts, not too much, not too little. I've been living in New York City, where I seem to be on a starvation/binge diet with my social contacts: either I see and speak to no one for days/weeks or I spend an entire day or weekend on outings and spending lots on eating/drinking/spectating. It seems no one merely wants to meet with you for a short drink or meal and catching up with each other, but they must be sure to kill several birds with one stone, which means seeing you if it includes picking your brain for their project or getting support for their premier or doing that fun thing they've been wanting to do. And how many times have I gotten together with someone who really wants to see me, but all they do is talk about themselves and have zero interest in what is going on with you?

    Gosh, my friends in California actually simply want to see me. They are busy doing cool stuff, too. So I guess I am not boring without interests or conversation, so I'm nice to hang out with. Why do they have more time to be real friends? Why are they more regular? Are they better at ambition/life balance than people in NY?

  • tsol

    All David Wojnarowicz fans should check out his recently restored graphic memoir; his last major work written while he was dying:

    http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/books/2013/03/_7_miles_a_second_the_graphic_novel_by_david_wojnarowicz_reviewed.html

  • ApathyNihilism

    The premise is intriguing, and I had hoped to find some insights and analysis of research into loneliness. Instead, was disappointed by a strange mixture of gratuitous autobiography and a bizarre and unjustified romanticization of heroin usage and sexual decadence.

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