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Laing, the laureate of loneliness

“You can be lonely anywhere,” writes the British author Olivia Laing, “but there is a particular flavour to the loneliness that comes from living in a city, surrounded by millions of people.”

It is tempting to see loneliness as a modern condition, forced upon us by alienation, isolation, lack of human contact or too much of it. With everything exaggerated by the Internet. Loneliness isn’t the same as solitude which is voluntary and has a rich literature of its own (eg Thoreau’s Walden).

Laing might well be the laureate of loneliness, a state intensified by the coronavirus pandemic. As she said in a recent newspaper article, “We’re all lonely now. We’re all cut off from each other, trapped inside the walls of our own domestic space, the 21st-century version of the medieval anchorite. The seething city is on lockdown. Social distancing is vital but that doesn’t make it easy. One of the inevitable costs will be an increase in our loneliness.”

Five years ago, Laing wrote In The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone. It explored loneliness through the art of Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol and others. “Loneliness, I began to realise,” she wrote, “was a populated place: a city in itself…” And at another point, “What is it about masks and loneliness? The obvious answer is they offer relief from exposure, from the burden of being seen. To refuse scrutiny is to dodge the possibility of rejection, though also the possibility of acceptance…”

In an essay, The Future of Loneliness, written around the same time, Laing said, “Loneliness centres around the act of being seen. When a person is lonely, they long to be witnessed, accepted, desired, at the same time as becoming intensely wary of exposure.” Loneliness feeds on both isolation and acceptance.

Although Laing has written books on subjects as diverse as writers and alcoholism (The Trip to Echo Spring), the biography of Ouse, the river in which Virginia Woolf drowned (To the River), a novel, Crudo, and a collection of essays, Funny Weather, there is an often invisible thread that runs through them: loneliness. Laing is perceptive, funny, widely read, compassionate, and still only 43.

Her non-fiction is a wonderful mixture of cultural criticism, biography, travel writing and memoir. She didn’t invent the genre, but is probably the finest exemplar of it.

Crudo is an experimental novel with Laing taking on the persona partly of Kathy Acker, a punk writer who says and does the crudest things and writes in the crudest language, while the more sophisticated material comes from Laing. It can be read as a dialogue between the two sides of the writer herself.

The subtitle to Funny Weather is Art in an Emergency. “A lot of the material dealt with in these essays,” Laing writes in it, “is distressing. Loneliness, alcoholism, unsatisfactory bodies, harmful gender relations, alarming technology. But this isn’t a depressing book.”

That comment sits perfectly on all her work: distressing material, but not dealt with in a depressing way.

(Suresh Menon is Contributing Editor, The Hindu).

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Printable version | May 8, 2021 6:20:21 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/laing-the-laureate-of-loneliness/article34180821.ece

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