What Is Loneliness When Friends Are Always Within Reach?

Photo: Yiu Yu Hoi/Getty Images

Loneliness is modern malaise, half clinical and half literary, symbolic of atomized lives and the decline of marriage rates and the rise of dating apps, divine retribution for when people use smartphones at dinner. Loneliness studies, which have coincided with the rise of connectivity, have posited that it’s a state distinct from depression or anxiety, and can be a matter of perception as much as circumstance. It happens to the single and the partnered, the loners and the joiners. Even its emotional effects vary: from the fluorescent whine of bitterness to the more severe, existential sense of being alone in forever.

But if someone had told you as a kid that as a grown-up you’d spend every day passing virtual notes with your best friends, or promised you as a teenager that you’d one day find a community of your people, and a way to gather everyone who has ever liked you in one space — you would not have felt so lonely. The difference between mass loneliness and its opposite is a matter of imagination. What is loneliness now that our friends are always within reach, if in theory?

A few years ago, Olivia Laing moved to New York for a love who left her immediately. “I found myself adrift,” she writes in her new critical memoir, The Lonely City, “stunned by the swift arrival and even swifter departure of everything I thought I lacked.” She sublet in Brooklyn Heights then the East Village, watching strangers through their windows “engrossed in the small intimacies of the day,” while struggling to speak in public. Without a community or a confidant, she developed “hypervigilance for social threat” — anticipating rejection, finding it everywhere, and spiraling into herself. She turned to art, specifically visual art, which offered both solace and a way to better understand the state she’d found herself in: Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, Valerie Solanas, David Wojnarowicz, Klaus Nomi, Henry Darger.

Living in New York is a lot like living online. Both offer limitless possibilities and no guarantees, the hum of being among others and the feeling that nobody knows you. This is isolating, but not necessarily unhealthy, or inaccurate — a concentration of reality that takes some time and fortitude to make peace with. It’s not easy to find deep, sustained intimacy, but here you can develop an intuition for the genuine part of a nicety. You can train yourself to find other people in what they show of themselves, while learning which parts of yourself to send out on your behalf. Laing finds meaning, and ultimately company, in traces of those who occupied the same space, but she fails to recognize her city’s parallel.

The Lonely City is not so much about loneliness as the imaginary community Laing formed when she felt lonely — imaginary because it exists in imagination, not because it’s not real. She doesn’t pretend to know what it felt like to be Klaus Nomi, who died at the height of his promise in the early days of AIDS, or Valerie Solanas, who had her uterus removed at Bellevue. Nor does she completely share “the sense of carrying experiences on my shoulder,” as she quotes Wojnarowicz, who’d survived physical abuse, homelessness, and sexual violence and was deeply involved in activism up to his death of AIDS-related illness in 1992, “where I could sit there and look at people and realize there was just no frame of reference that was similar to theirs.” Instead, she follows a familiar swarm of feelings through the lives and works of those artists whose isolation reached her own, who seemed “hyper-alert to the gulfs between people” and invented ways to manage them. Some living in their own fictional worlds, like Henry Darger; others, like Wojnarowicz “making his visions adhere to the skin of the city,” in public space.

Laing is a crisp, lyrical writer, and a very good docent. She doesn’t appropriate others’ experiences — she holds herself back, and shows close attention where empathy seems insufficient — but she does make the mistake of universalizing her own experience, at least parts of it. “How do we connect with other people, particularly if we don’t find speaking easy?” she writes. “Is sex a cure for loneliness, and if it is, what happens if our body or sexuality is considered deviant or damaged, if we are ill or unblessed with beauty?” For many asking such questions, of course, the answer is: Go online. Laing’s anti-internet bias is strange, since the internet offers exactly the form of connection at a distance on which she’s built her book, and because the rest of her thinking is so well considered.

Laing draws a line between the rich, imaginary realms of the art she values and the ostensible dead zone to be found online. “In the first year or two that I was [on Twitter] it felt like a community, a joyful place; a lifeline, in fact, considering how cut off I otherwise was,” she writes. “At other times, though, the whole thing seemed insane, a trading-off of time against nothing tangible at all … a simulacrum of intimacy, for which I was surrendering all the pieces of my identity.” I don’t doubt her experience, though I’d argue that it could happen in any bad relationship. As a serial tabber, Laing compares herself to “the Lady of Shallot with her back to the window, watching the shadows of the real appear in the lent blue glass of her magic mirror,” as if the real couldn’t be in the screen.

This is how we live now, and every way of life has its perils. We should talk about privacy in the context of identity — not only because our privacy is at risk, but because it requires new definitions. Privacy is the right to not be seen; it’s also the ability to choose what to share. Andy Warhol, the shy, gay son of emigrants from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, who struggled with language, referred to his tape recorder as his wife: “Nothing was ever a problem again,” he wrote, “because a problem just meant a good tape and when a problem transforms itself into a good tape it’s not a problem anymore.” Andy Warhol’s work was about self-mediation, the pursuit of the perfect feedback loop between life and material. There is no categorical difference between what he did and what Kim Kardashian or Cardi B do.

The distance between how we relate to our idols and how we relate to our friends is shrinking, leaving many hybrids in the midsection. What was once the domain of art is now a form of conversation: We get to each other through what we produce. Laing writes that “screens facilitate projection and encourage individual expression while at the same time dehumanising the countless others concealed or embedded behind their own more or less lifelike avatars.” Perhaps for Laing those encounters are dehumanizing; for those who make friends, find space, support, and community online, it’s the opposite. A tweet is no less direct than an IRL remark. Sometimes a statement is more itself in public, or perceived more clearly.

Solipsism, the kind Laing frets about, is optional (and exists on a continuum with finding yourself in someone’s work, be it painting or text message). Communicating in public is daunting, yeah — you can be shamed or attacked or held accountable, or shamed and attacked for holding someone accountable. You can be held to versions of yourself that you’ve worked beyond and would like to forget. But it also makes us better communicators. To speak well online requires empathy and attention — it requires you to consider your audience, and your audience is everyone, not just those who remind you of yourself. Life online, like life in a big city, provides, as Laing quotes Sarah Schulman, “the daily affirmation that people from other experiences are real.”

It also deepens our intimacies, when we do get to build them (the labor is similar across media). A sentence or paragraph or photograph is a series of decisions someone made; it offers a new way to know them. “You know how people’s voices over text sound different in your mind than their real voices?” my friend David texted me the other week. We live in different countries, but message each other many times a day. “I wish I could materialize your text voice and hear it and then play it for you.” When David and I are together we talk, or go dancing, or lie around listening to music at the end of a night. It doesn’t feel more “real.” It feels like meeting in a different world — just a different one — in which we’re slightly different versions of ourselves, and it confirms for me the strength of our affection, that we could know each other anywhere and still find what we love.

What Does Loneliness Really Mean Today?