Notebook (street life)

October 20, 2013 § Leave a comment


At a certain point, the main means of dulling or assuaging loneliness becomes the attempt to shape it imaginatively: to examine its structure, to solidify its lines & spaces into visibility. Behind this lies the half-acknowledged hope that doing so will provide an intuition of some way out. One cannot, after all, escape a building without knowing its layout, which corridors lead to the location of the exits. Prior to this, the condition seems mystifying, oddly opaque, like existing in an impenetrable fog. Olivia Laing writes about loneliness in the form of a landscape’s details – the old jetties along the Hudson, the pathetic fallacy of aching trees in public parks – precisely b/c such concretisation is the path of least resistance in writing about loneliness, using the specificities of shared space as the articulation of a condition wh/ is quite precisely not shared. Sociology (& pop-sociology particularly) frames loneliness in terms of single-occupancy households, rates of singleness or celibacy, people “living alone”, whatever that means. There is an obvious class element here: the lonely in this case are the white-collar workers who put in however many extra hours at the office, who are thrust into an awkward dating market governed by an earning imperative that no-one, always on the edge of dropping into the precariat, can fully live up to, who come home to the fruit of their overly large labours in the form of their vast minimalist flats & Brooklyn Lager six-packs. That the majority of 20-somethings in metropolitan areas share homes from economic necessity escapes the authors of this narrative. (Most of those not in cities are frozen out, in southern England at least, by the gentrification of the countryside; they can’t live alone, they probably won’t share a house except with their family.) The loneliness of the poor, sharing vastly overexpensive flats, unable to afford entering the dating scene & its territory of overpriced wine bars & restaurants, is largely uninteresting to those who take a temporary interest in loneliness (lacking the Garbo edge). Pop-psychology, to wh/ Laing appeals, frames it as a cognitive crisis: lacking certain kinds of stimulation, the faculties degenerate. (The coupled world shakes its collective head while counting its luck: “so sad, but nothing we could do”.) Lacking an understanding of social imperatives, while probably already on the path to early Alzheimers, the lonely person sinks further & further into their own worldly habits, until finally they fade into the archetype they always wanted to hold off, of the Crazy Cat Lady or the shabby figure, carrying a shopping bag of old newspapers, who talks to themselves in the library. (The coupled world crosses the street from this icon, phones its partner to go see a new romantic comedy.)

Beyond all these descriptions lies the experience itself, & at its core the fact of the lonely body, the material social atom, itself decomposed into surfaces doubled in reality & imagination – memory, fantasy, the shades, pulses and currents of hallucinatory affect: untouched skin, eyes that rove through the streets but cannot see themselves*, ears too sensitive to the lip-smack of the couple at the adjacent table or in the next room, hands that smell of solitary pleasures. The phenomenological literature of loneliness is at once vast & curiously inadequate. Description always contains shades of judgement, moralism, the imperatives of self-help (“why don’t you try a dating site?”). The immense descriptive gains of Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground & Crime & Punishment are negated by his penchant for melodrama & the accompanying necessity of letting society – in the form of church, police & prison – have the last word. The narrowing of the senses to the point at which every unexpected fragment of the social world is experienced with surprise & pain is described well enough in Knut Hamsun’s Hunger. The imaging of loneliness, its construction as a fictional social landscape, presupposes its closure & limitation, the possibility of transformation. Where, in reality, what defines loneliness is its ability to systematically annex area after area of the subject’s life, & its temporal extension (as soon as you think it’s disappearing, being assuaged, it becomes apparent that it isn’t – not even close).  The sense of loneliness as blockage, as mystifying & mystified separation, & the raging bodily longing that accompanies it, is absent from ‘serious’ writing, commuting to the ‘unrespectable’ media of pop & film: in the fatalism of ‘It’s Too Soon To Know’, the atmosphere, poised between crystal & smoke, of No One Cares & In The Wee Small Hours…, the careless whispers of ‘Heartbreak Hotel’, the unbearable slow-breathing sighs of ‘Just My Imagine (Running Away With Me)’, the Apollonian self-destruction of Taxi Driver. (One learns a lot more from the ghost of Scorcese, bearded face half-turned from de Niro, talking about how he’s going to kill his wife for sleeping with another man, in a voice erecting barriers against the void at the heart of the experience, than any soi-disant survey of art or social statistics. “Don’t say anything.”)

Metaphor fails finally, b/c it always does. It acts as a stopgap; for a while you meditate on your well-plotted schema, looking for weaknesses. But one day you realise the architecture’s contours have faded & its explanatory power with it. Any attempt to approach the imagined exits ends like the attempt to escape a building in dreams: the gap or door disappears, a corridor brings you back to an area already traversed. It appears that one’s own lifeworld has all this time been frozen, while the entire lived context of sociality to navigate has changed; you’re back at square one. In the aforementioned rom-coms, a solution to loneliness comes about not through planning or thought but serendipity or the miraculous collapse of inhibitions; not will but an external intervention that mocks will & thought as so much useless baggage (as the frumpy librarian throws away her book(smart)s & takes off her glasses to reveal she was a looker the whole time). This is the double function of the examples of artists listed in Laing’s essay, particularly that of David Wojnarowicz: she hoards imagined artwork as models of the hardly-bearable with the implicit hope that they actually provide shadow communities. The nightly bands of queers & junkies who modelled for Wojnarowicz’s photographs, many of whom left broken homes & social repression for the momentary intimacies of the black economy. The clusters of useless commodities in Cornell’s installations, which appear to have secret relations between them, haloing the portraits at the boxes’ centres. The impromptu society of the Factory. But this hoarding of examples is itself a defence mechanism against loneliness, only to be maintained until one can return to the arms of society, as Laing falls automatically back into her former life. Nice life if you can get it! Loneliness often enough originates in divestment of the presence of limiting communities. (As Greil Marcus remarks in Mystery Train, this is precisely what lies at the heart of the half-jaunty fatalism of Robert Johnson & the howl of early rock ‘n’ roll.) This allows a vast amount of other things, other possibilities, uses for time & energy; it is, as Laing suggests, “a gift” as well, one that allows other, critical perspectives & work on society. But, as Nietzsche emphasised, the social world is not arranged in such a way as to make this disengagement not “a gamble”, a dice game with death – unless, as Laing is, one is merely slumming it in loneliness for a spell. Not the cocktail-accompanied heure bleue, just the blues.

* I wonder if this isn’t the source of the feeling of invisibility that sometimes descends on the lonely: other people have faces & can be looked at, engaged, perhaps even talked to, but the beholding eyes do not & cannot.


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