Loneliness wears a disingenuous disguise when translated for others. The very act of bringing loneliness forth, of sharing it, changes its shape and threat. Herein lays the fortune and misfortune. One has the power to bring about that change if one is lucky enough to have the opportunity, through art, through music, through writing, through a simple one-on-one conversation, but the power behind the art remains untouched, too abstract to be molded, and sometimes too powerful to escape from in one lifetime.
Another thing we do in our lonely voyages is read about it:
“If you’re lonely, this one’s for you,” read the first page of Olivia Laing’s nonfiction book The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone. Olivia Laing weaves her own experiences of moving to New York City with well-known individuals who came before her only to find loneliness while surrounded by millions. The pages are full of struggle, but also of the grand creations that can come from that struggle. It is full of many lonely nights walking under the street lights, but there is also great appreciation for love and friendship when it happens.
If “this one’s for you,” you find the familiar walls that trap you in but at the same time provide relief. You find how in Dennis Hopper’s Nighthawks diner painting there’s no outside door, and then you feel something familiar about that. You find the muffled voices of people you’ll never talk to. You find the real-life motif of cats. (Seriously, Andy Warhol had twenty-one cats. Twenty of them were named Sam.) You find the modern implications and limitations of online life – you might be here right now.
I read in another book recently, Be Here Now, how finding pieces of yourself in everything you read is a pathway of the Western mind. It’s kind of like that idea of if you walk around the whole earth with shoes, all you’ll feel on your feet the whole way is your shoes. I found a piece of myself in that, and after I found pieces of myself all throughout The Lonely City, I came to a stop for reflection when Olivia Laing switched the chapter about Andy Warhol around to talk about the woman who shot Andy Warhol. Bang.
“I never thought I would find myself relating to a radical feminist who shot someone,” I told my therapist. But I did. Andy Warhol grew to love the manufactured sameness of America as a way of eliminating the kind of differences which made him lonely and awkward, and then it was an ex-friend of his who grew frustrated that the voice of her own struggles was going forever unheard – and that dug deep inside me. After years of college, years of learning on my own, years of reading other people’s work, years of writing through my struggles, years of how listening to how other people say they support “mental health awareness,” there’s nothing but silence when I try to reach out to an agent or publisher. One day this ex-friend of Warhol’s paced back and forth at his office and kept getting in and out of the elevator until he finally arrived to make it seem like happenstance they should run into each other. She went with him and his assistant up to the office. She pulled out a gun and opened fire. “Not that I would shoot someone,” I told my therapist. I don’t know if my therapist believed me, but she probably took solace in the fact that Andy Warhol is no longer around to be shot again. All this woman wanted was for someone to read and accept the manifesto she spent many years writing. She identified with that work. When the news reported that “an actress” shot Warhol, she became even more upset, insisting they get it right. She’s a writer, she said.
When I was much younger, I thought that all the times I heard about an artist’s work selling only after his or her death was mere irony, but with this age of mine, now one of the oldest people on the planet, I see that it’s much more than irony. It’s the definition of sadness.
“What I am trying to say is that the vicious circle by which loneliness proceeds does not happen in isolation, but rather as an interplay between the individual and the society in which they are embedded, a process perhaps worsened if they are already a sharp critic of that society’s inequities” (p.90). The contrived reflection of life resembled online I think best captures this vicious circle. I wrote this poem as I read the book:
Under the guise of coming together,
We smash our loneliness
Side by side
Until there is nothing to hide.
Yet, we’re still lonely,
And the loneliness grows,
So we step outside
Thinking we want nothing to hide.
We want to be known.
We want experience that can be grown,
But in the face of the neon lights
And the manufactured sights,
We step back inside.
Under the guise of coming together
We smash our loneliness
…Side by side.
But something hit me hard toward the end of the book and I haven’t been able to shake it. In his later years, after he did so much in life, Andy Warhol said, “I feel as though life has passed me by.” I understand that 100%. Because it’s like the air or trying to convey depression, I tried to explain to my therapist. You try to grasp it. You provide it with metaphor. You make art. Even great art. But in the end, what lies beneath remains untouchable: The way the lonely person feels after decades – unable to be touched, but with a lifetime of dreams built from the very idea.