There’s a popular movie called Her (2013) in which the protagonist falls in love with the operating system and there’s a quote in there which says, “How can one feel so alone in a city full of millions”.

I was rewatching bits of the movie last week which reminded me of the first book that I read this year called The Lonely City by Olivia Laing.

It’s an amazing work of biography, memoir, and part cultural criticism on the subject of loneliness explored through the lives of iconic artists living in New York.

As a person who likes to spend a fair bit of time by himself, I was really drawn to the book and well, the title seemed intriguing.

The book starts when Olivia, in her mid-30s, moving to New York from the UK to live with her boyfriend but the relationship doesn’t work out and soon she finds herself living alone in New York without any daily human interaction.

Fascinated by the most shameful of human experiences (loneliness), she goes on to explore that feeling by way of art.

The traveler in me thinks that to be stupid. I would love to be alone in New York and explore the city, doing whatever I wish. But another part of me sympathizes with her on how she might be feeling after ending a relationship in a foreign city.

“You can be lonely anywhere, but there is a particular flavor to the loneliness that comes from living in a city, surrounded by millions of people. One might think this state was antithetical to urban living, to the massed presence of other human beings, and yet mere physical proximity is not enough to dispel a sense of internal isolation.”

The Lonely City, Olivia Laing

She looks into the lives of artists who channeled their loneliness through their creations. They’re all popular artists but I didn’t know even a single one because I was never introduced to their works before. Some of them include:

Andy Warhol: Filmaker, Producer, known as the man behind the Pop Art Movement

Edward Hopper: American Realist Painter, known for his painting Nighthawks

Henry Darger: Hospital Custodian, lived like a recluse, got popular after he died when his landlord discovered his art and writings

David Wojnarowicz: Painter, Photographer, Writer, AIDS Activist

Klaus Nomi: a german vocalizer who dies of AIDS.

Painting by Edward Hopper – Nighthawks

“What does it feel like to be lonely? It feels like being hungry: like being hungry when everyone around you is readying for a feast. It feels shameful and alarming, and over time these feelings radiate outwards, making the lonely person increasingly isolated, increasingly estranged.”

The Lonely City, Olivia Laing

What follows is a brief description of the AIDS epidemic in the US and how the gay community was targeted by the general population for being perpetrators of the disease. She talks about the loneliness that comes from such shame and stigma.

I can completely relate to the stigma part on how many people are bullied for just being different from the majority of the population.

I highly recommend reading this book if you want to explore the feeling of loneliness a bit more. I guess, everyone feels lonely at some point in their lives, whether they live with 20 people in a small house or alone in the most lavish of the places.

But what really stood out to me was when the author says that, “If you feel lonely, you have not failed. You are just alive.”

It’s just a part of many human experiences but sometimes we put shame and stigma even on having that feeling and don’t talk about it often.

This also reminds me of a passage I read in an essay called Being Alone. It goes like this:

You can’t address your own experience of loneliness just by finding connection with the people around you. You need to find a connection with yourself.

Sure. Connect with your neighbors, your friends, your communities. Go to that meetup. Volunteer. Have meaningful conversations. Find love. Do it all.

But at the end of the day, all you really have is yourself.”

So, be kind and compassionate to others but don’t forget to do the same for yourself.

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