the lonely city

“there are so many things that art cant do. it cant bring the dead back to life, it cant mend arguments between friends or cure AIDS, or halt the pace of climate change. all the same, it does have some extraordinary functions, some old negotiating ability between people, including people who never meet and yet who infiltrate and enrich each other’s lives. it does have the capacity to create intimacy; it does have a way of healing wounds, and better yet of making it apparent that not all wounds need healing and not all scars are ugly.

if i sound adamant it is because i am speaking from a personal experience. when i came to new york, i was in pieces, and though it sounds perverse, the way i recovered a sense of wholeness was not by meeting someone or by falling in love, but rather by handling the things that other people had made, slowly absorbing by way of this contact the fact that loneliness, longing, does not mean one has failed, but simply that one is alive.

there is a gentrification that is happening to cities, and there is a gentrification that is happening to emotions too, with a similarly homogenising, whitening, deadening effect. amidst the glossiness of late capitalism, we are fed the notion that all difficult feelings – depression, anxiety, loneliness, rage – are simply a consequence of unsettled chemistry, a problem to be fixed, rather than a response to structural injustice or, on the other hand, to the native texture of embodiment, of doing time, as david wojnarowicz memorably put it, in a rented body, with all the attendant grief and frustration that entails.

i dont believe the cure for loneliness is meeting someone, not necessarily. i think its about two things: learning how to befriend yourself and understanding that many of the things that seem to affect us as an individual are in fact a result of larger forces of stigma and exclusion, which can and should be resisted.

loneliness is personal, and it is also political. loneliness is collective; it is a city. as to how to inhabit it, there are no rules and nor is there any need to feel shame, only to remember that the pursuit of individual happiness does not trump or excuse our obligation to each other. we are in this together, the accumulation of scars, this world objects, this physical and temporary heaven that so often takes on the countenance of hell. what matters is kindness; what matters is solidarity. what matters is staying alert, staying open, because if we know anything from what gone before us, it is that the time for feeling will not last.” (p.280-81)

there are some pieces of writing that i want to keep forever and olivia laing’s description of loneliness is one of them.

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