By Tara Merrigan
The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone, Olivia Laing’s popular new book of art criticism interspersed with memoir, starts at the moment after sunset, precisely where most narratives would end. Laing has picked up her London life and moved across the Atlantic for love. But when she arrives in New York, Laing finds herself desperate and desolate after her lover decides that he doesn’t want to pursue their relationship any further.
It’s not a promising start to a book. Many writers, feeling the need to redeem an unhappy beginning, would work their way through cliches and self-help mantras to a happier ending. Laing, however, resists this easy path. Instead she turns to art to soothe her loneliness, and in particular to the art of Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, Henry Darger, and David Wojnarowicz. Because art, in Laing’s words, has “the capacity to create intimacy; it does have a way of healing wounds." And "better yet," she says, art can make it "apparent that not all wounds need healing and all scars are ugly.” Laing argues that loneliness is "collective" and “political.”
This sharp perception that loneliness has political dimensions is what Laing’s book ends on. I wish this were where she had begun. Because at first Laing spends much time describing her own loneliness and how her lack of social contact led to difficulties — conversations with baristas, for example. became fraught interactions. She betrays her own solipsism when she finds herself looking for “physical evidence that other people had inhabited my state.” And in this state, she is drawn to a song in which former Beach Boy Dennis Wilson sings, “Loneliness is a very special place” (the italics are hers).
Laing is not wrong. Loneliness is a very special place. But too often loneliness is seen as a special place that is particular to a person. As if there were something wrong with their personal life, and therefore they are lonely. For an example of this, look no further than The New York Times style section, which earlier this year suggested that marriage is the solution to the loneliness that unmarried middle-aged men feel. The stakes in this discussion are not small, since this demographic is facing a serious problem: suicide rates for middle-aged men increased by nearly 50 percent between 1999 and 2010, and some argue that loneliness is a root cause.
It is media reports like this New York Times style section article that show that we need a political -- and, I would argue, a feminist -- definition of loneliness, one that is structural and critical of societal norms. Because these middle-aged men, though they possess certain gender privileges, are not just lonely because they do not have a wife or husband. (The piece does make a nod, a brief one, to gay couples.) They are likely lonely because they have reached an age in which there are few people like them; as they say themselves, most of their friends are married. And it is the feeling of being alone in an unwelcoming society that makes one most lonely.
If the news media is to be believed, loneliness comes hand in hand with liberation.
A seminal example of what some might call post-liberation blues came on August 15, 1982, when The New York Times Magazine published an article called “Alone: Yearning for Companionship in America.” That wide-ranging piece zoomed in and out on American culture, referencing cultural tropes such as the lonesome cowboy and examining the lives of individuals searching for remedies to their loneliness, which the piece claimed is a growing collective problem.
Like all of-the-moment trend pieces, this one cited statistics to bolster its argument: one-fourth of the population lives alone, and 50 percent of marriages end in divorce. (The latter statistic is a controversial one; some demographers say that the divorce rate has never risen above 41 percent.) The article quoted a doctor who likened loneliness to an epidemic, saying it is “one of the most serious sources of disease in the twentieth century.” The writer, Louise Bernikow, argued that the loneliness Americans are experiencing is more like a “desert of eroding families and unfulfilled hunger to connect with other people.”
There is something else notable about “Alone: Yearning for Companionship in America”: its palpable unease about the achievements of the feminist movement. Bernikow tried to take a structural approach to loneliness, looking at gender politics. She said the Second Wave feminist movement made people “unable to attach themselves seriously to someone else, often because men and women don’t know what to expect of each other anymore.” Therefore, she wrote, “a lot of people immerse themselves in their work.” But surely questions of whether or not to go Dutch at dinner and who should hold the door for whom are not the root cause of loneliness and workaholism.
Indeed, the piece dabbled in the anti-feminism Susan Faludi detailed in her thoroughly researched book Backlash, which analyzed the media’s coverage of women and the women’s movement throughout the 1980’s. The classic example of the so-called “backlash” Faludi described is the 1986 Newsweek article “Marriage Crunch” that claimed a 40-year-old single, white, college-educated woman was “more likely to be killed by a terrorist” than ever marry. (The myth has since been debunked.)
If The New York Times style section and magazine are correct and marriage is indeed the solution to loneliness, and feminism is to blame for its demise, Americans should be at record levels of loneliness today. Marriage rates have been on a fairly steady decline over the past decade. In 2015, they fell to their lowest level in a century — 6.74 marriages per 1,000 people. In 2010, a mere 20 percent of adults ages 18 to 29 were married, compared to 59 percent in 1960. And in 2009, the proportion of married women dropped below 50 percent for the first time in recorded history.
It’s a situation that brings to mind Simone de Beauvoir’s prescient words about women in The Second Sex: “Once she ceases to be a parasite, the system based on her dependence crumbles.” Several waves of feminism later, it makes sense that marriage — the key institution that, historically, codified women’s dependence — would be in the state it is now. So yes, perhaps one factor in declining marriage rates is women’s independence. But these statistics also offer a glimmer of hope for a new societal order, one in which we recognize that merely being alone does not make us lonely.
This new reality coupled with much effort on the part of feminists has prompted America to finally treat female singleness hospitably, rather than stigmatize it. Rebecca Traister’s All the Single Ladies, which like The Lonely City came out in March, celebrates single women in American history who helped shape the nation into what it is today. Another recent example is Kate Bolick’s Spinster, a book that seeks to glorify the oft-derided figure of the aging female loner.
The anxiety over women’s independence still exists, as reflected in the media. Bolick’s 2011 Atlantic article, also titled “All the Single Ladies” (Beyoncé must be thrilled), focused on a so-called “man shortage” and did little to alleviate the negative social pressure surrounding single women. Still, the fact that we are today celebrating female aloneness is a landmark achievement. As Traister’s book shows, not all single women are sad spinsters. Women, and men for that matter, are not lonely because they are alone. Loneliness is a product of social forces.
We need a political definition of loneliness because stigma and oppression lead to this particular sort of unhappiness -- something Laing suggests through examples of gay artists like Warhol and Wojnarowicz. Wojnarowicz, for example, felt his experiences as a young gay man who moonlighted as a hustler could be best communicated through art, perhaps because art, which at its best is unhindered by social mores, allows for the expression of a fuller range of human experience.
Wojnarowicz made a series of photographs, most showing a lone person wearing a mask of the French poet Arthur Rimbaud and posing in various locations—some seedy, like Times Square—throughout late-1970’s New York. The series, which is known as Arthur Rimbaud in New York, conveys an inability to communicate one’s self in a way not mediated by art; a man bearing a famous poet’s face is not a man living in his own self but a man living in another’s. And living a life that cannot be communicated directly because of oppressive social norms can certainly cause loneliness.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines loneliness as “sadness because one has no friends or company” and “the fact of being without companions; solitariness.” Wojnarowicz’s solitary figure fits both of these descriptions. There is the literal interpretation: the man wearing Rimbaud’s face is pictured by himself. But the notion of companionship works in another way here. The man is unlike all other men—he wears the face of another.
Wojnarowicz was a man without society in a broader sense. Liberation from restricting societal values might have helped ease his loneliness, provided him with greater companionship. The artist, however, died in 1992, years before the legal victories and the sea change in the American public’s attitude toward homosexuality. Nonetheless, his art lives on. And it is through “true” art — media that is not judgmental or politically regressive — that loneliness can be alleviated.
Feminism’s achievements and marital status are not what cause loneliness. The issue is that we’re not feminist enough when it comes to defining and combating loneliness.
Tara Merrigan has written articles for the websites of The Rumpus, The Baffler, and T Magazine. She is a 2013 graduate of Harvard College, where she studied literary and intellectual history.