Olivia Laing and Loneliness at UCR

By Marije Huging

‘Loneliness is difficult to confess; difficult too to categorise. Like depression, a state with which it often intersects, it can run deep in the fabric of a person (…) Like depression, like melancholy or restlessness, it is subject too to pathologization, to being considered a disease. It has been said emphatically that loneliness serves no purpose… Perhaps I’m wrong, but I don’t think any experience so much a part of our common shared lives can be entirely devoid of meaning, without a richness and a value of some kind.’’

These are the words of Olivia Laing, the author of ‘The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone’. It is a work published in 2016, but over the past year, it has gained popularity. Laing, in the text, describes moving to New York to follow her partner, only to be left by him shortly after arrival. In the city, made of ‘gneiss and concrete and glass’, she experiences loneliness like she has never experienced it before. Laing describes how she found solace artists whose lives and works also grapple with the feeling she struggles with so much, in unexpected ways. These artists range from Alfred Hitchcock to Billie Holliday, but Liang especially focuses on four men: Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol – who she did not like until her investigation, David Wojnarowick and Henry Darger.

Laing, for example, describes Warhol’s art as ‘patrolling the space between people, conducting a grand philosophical investigation into closeness and distance, intimacy and estrangement.’ She looks into his life and finds out that, like many lonely people, he was a hoarder, surrounding himself with objects. He rarely left his own house because of his fear of intimacy and was often excluded by the art world for being too ‘gay’.

A passage that particularly struck me in the text is about the AIDS crisis in the 80ties. Laing talks about Klaus Nomi, one of the first singers who combined- successfully- opera, pop music, and vaudeville. In 1983, he passed away from a disease that up until that point, was largely unknown, and had been given many different names. Because AIDS was unknown, and there was no clarity about how it was transmitted, people, both friends, and medical personnel, considered Nomi to be a reason for panic. His art director once described approaching him and being too afraid to hug him, fearful of infection. The stigma surrounding AIDS, Laing shows as well, expanded much broader than this, both in politics and in anecdotes; for example, one female police agent doubted helping a gay man who had fallen and was bleeding to death, just out of fear of touching him. Afterward, she cleaned herself with bleach. Of course, the similarities- even though the AIDS outbreak is obviously very different as well- between Laing’s descriptions of the AIDS crisis and our current world, are easily seen. Discrimination, disease, shame, and exclusion are phenomena that often strengthen each other- that much can be said when looking at the results of a global pandemic.

My first year at UCR was spent in utter loneliness, a feeling that sometimes intersected with mild depression and anxiety. Just like Laing described, it felt shameful, like I had both bestowed this upon myself by not participating enough in our ‘close-knitted and active community and if I would tell anyone, they would blame me, or worse, see me as diseased. I must confess that a part of me, when corona arrived, felt consoled by the fact that when I would have feelings of loneliness, I would now surely not be alone in this feeling. Of course, I feel awful for the first-year students of UCR especially, who must have had a harder time finding community and fighting off loneliness, as Corona, perhaps ironically, has aided in developing feelings of loneliness- and rates of mental health problems- in not just parts of communities, but in everyone.

‘The Lonely City’ ends by comparing loneliness to a city, hence the title of the work; she notes that the gentrification of cities- something that has a whitening, homogenizing and deadening effect, is also happening to our emotions. Our society often feeds the notion that our feelings- of anger, depression, fear, and loneliness- are problems to be fixed, instead of being the result of larger, structural inequalities, of stigma and exclusion, and of an ideology of a meritocracy, that makes us feel like failure or success are both entirely in our hands.

In the discussion about mental wellbeing at our university, this notion is still often glanced over. The increase in mental health issues in highly educated, privileged students derive from structures that range further than UCR policies. The truth is that mental health issues are deeply political and collective, and acknowledging this might be a first step in fighting the root cause instead of the symptom.


Image Source: https://unsplash.com/photos/vXymirxr5ac

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