Alone and pondering loneliness, Greg Bruce finds contentment.
"I suspected that loneliness was a secret thing we all share and now I've found out how very true that is" - Olivia Laing, author of The Lonely City.
I read most of The Lonely City late last year in the bath on a luxury weekend away from my wife and three children and, no offence to any of them, it was a long time since I'd felt such deep and abiding pleasure. The bath was as deep as a swimming pool and sat by an enormous sash window, which I threw open to allow the breeze to gush in off the ocean, via the long grasses and native bush of the property on which the circa $2000/night room sat.
It was very exciting to be communing, in this silent, beautiful place, with this beautiful book, which saw into me so deeply and spoke to me so insightfully of who we are, while I drank complimentary sparkling water and beer, ate complimentary home-baked cookies and chips, and was not interrupted by fighting or whining children.
I was reading this book during the least lonely period in my life. My family life is pure noise, high-intensity, high-involvement and all-action. At least hundreds of times a day I hear "Dadaaaaaa!" followed by some request, demand or other discharge of parental responsibility. When the children aren't talking to me, Zanna is and, when she's not talking to me, I'm talking to her. Talking talking talking! I never imagined a life in which there would be so much talking. For as long as I can remember, my fantasy life has involved long days spent reading and writing in a quiet nook in a loft with a view across the skyline of Paris. I once said to Zanna, before we got married, that I didn't know if I was meant to be with other people. That was a stupid comment from a confused man, but I know where I was coming from.
Many times in my life I have felt the pain of feeling unable to talk, of being with other people - sometimes people I love and care for - and of being unable to find a way to connect with them verbally. The gap between the desire to say something and the ability to do so is where my greatest lonelinesses have always lay.
For a book that explores a feeling with which I am so familiar and one which is both common and powerful, one of the things I found most striking about The Lonely City is that I'd never read anything like it.
The book explores the nature of loneliness from multiple angles: through the lives of several, mostly New York-based, artists, whose work addresses loneliness; through the thoughts of academics, theorists and (the surprisingly few) others who have written on the topic; and through author Olivia Laing's own experiences, living alone in New York City. The nature of the book is perhaps best captured in something Laing said in an interview with Buzzfeed in 2014, while she was writing it: "The pleasure of writing is finding the connections between fragments".
I have recommended the book to everyone I know. As far as I know, only two of them have read it, and neither have much liked it. "I felt like I was reading an English essay," one said. A feeling of appreciation shared but not reciprocated is itself a form of loneliness.
I was lonely in the period immediately before I met my wife, and in the period before that, and in many other periods prior, dating back to my early adolescence and even before. It's hard to think of any feeling I have found more pervasive. Whenever problems have arisen in my life - depression, anxiety, shyness, uninterestingness, unattractiveness - I have tried to address them first, and often last, through reading. Never before, though, had I read a book about loneliness, which, if not the root cause of those problems, is usually their result.
Books are acts of communication and connection which are generally best enjoyed alone. Does that draw the lonely to them? By removing us from the social world, do books make us more lonely?
The Lonely City is not a self-help book; it's far more useful than that. Laing seeks not to pathologise loneliness but to address its role and significance in both her own life and the lives of the artists whose stories form the backbone of the book. These artists, all now dead, were, in life, surrounded by people - sometimes legions of them.
Loneliness is not about the quantity of one's social contacts, but about one's ability to connect with them. Art is a way of connecting. The Lonely City is art.
The two parts of loneliness:
1. The pain of the failure to connect.
2. The shame of the failure to connect.
Laing writes in The Lonely City of a day, years ago, when she was sitting reading outside a train station and an elderly man sat down next to her and tried to strike up a conversation. Not interested in talking, she responded with increasingly terse answers until he got up and left.
"I've never stopped feeling ashamed about my unkindness," she writes, "and nor have I ever forgotten how it felt to have the force field of his loneliness pressed up against me: an overwhelming, unmeetable need for attention and affection, to be heard and touched and seen."
Loneliness is a state that repels. Nobody wants to feel your loneliness and you can never admit to its presence, especially to the people in whose presence you are experiencing it. To mention its existence is to ensure the continuation of its existence.
I emailed Laing to ask if she would be happy to talk to me for this article. She replied, "Sure - just email me a few Qs and I'll happily answer." I replied asking if she would be comfortable talking on the phone. She replied: "No, but email's fine."
Rejection is part of this job, as it is part of life, and this was the gentlest of rejections - more a lightly-modified acceptance, really - but that was not how I felt on reading it. What I felt was the shame of having tried and failed to make a connection. I felt it in my gut, sat incapacitated by it for a minute or so, then dwelled on it for much longer. I tried to examine it, but it was lodged in my body and I could gain no rational access to it.
I started drafting an email to Laing about these feelings, because they felt relevant to the subject at hand, and because I thought it might provoke an interesting discussion which I could then use in this article. I spent a long time drafting and redrafting. Specifically, I wrote that our interaction put me in mind of her anecdote about the man outside the train station. "Nobody wants to be the elderly man," I wrote. But I never sent the email. It felt wrong, shameful, offensive and inappropriate.
I know, because people close to me often tell me, I have an insatiable need for attention and affection, but I also know that's not something I should share with the people whose attention I'm seeking. This is how loneliness is self-reinforcing.
In the end, I sent Laing a few questions and left my feelings out of it. One of the questions read: "You write that the cure for loneliness is about two things, one of which is learning how to befriend yourself. Can you say more about this - about how you do it and why it's important?"
She replied: "I think learning to tolerate difficult feelings, and not hating ourselves for having them is so crucial. We feel so much shame and self-hatred for being sad, or lonely, or angry. We wouldn't treat friends the way we treat ourselves often, and learning to approach unhappiness with gentleness - to be interested in it and not afraid of it - is so important."
From The Lonely City: "It's possible – easy, even – to feel desolate and unfrequented in oneself while living cheek by jowl with others. Cities can be lonely places, and in admitting this we see that loneliness doesn't necessarily require physical solitude, but rather an absence or paucity of connection, closeness, kinship: an inability, for one reason or another, to find as much intimacy as is desired."
My moments of greatest loneliness have not been when I have been alone but have involved my slow and quiet subsumption into social gatherings and parties, at which I have said less and less until the only evidence I'm there at all is my feeling of shame.
"The pleasure of writing is in making the connection between fragments." That is such a perfect description, I've been unable to stop thinking about it. I wrote to her: "If we conceive of the fragments as people, that also looks like a good recipe for finding pleasure in life. Yes? No? Ridiculous?"
She replied: "Well, yes, but I think pleasure in life is really about getting a balance between connection and solitude, inner and outer world. For a long time, it has felt as if the social outer world was very dominant and connection was prized much more than solitude. These days, we're all in our enforced solitude, and right now I definitely feel a longing for connection. But we need both. We're social animals, but we're also animals that dream."
"Perhaps I'm wrong," Laing writes in The Lonely City, "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."
And later: "Loneliness might be taking you towards an otherwise unreachable experience of reality."
There's a melancholic beauty about the way The Lonely City depicts loneliness, like a nice sunset at the end of a nice holiday. My own loneliness often feels like this, although only ever in retrospect - at the time, it's always awful - but let's not underestimate the power of retrospect.
I loved The Lonely City and I loved the fact I was able to read it, uninterrupted, for hours at a time, something I haven't been able to do in years. I was alone but I was not lonely.