In the film My Dinner With Andre, a possibly apocryphal English tree expert says to Andre, “Do you know a lot of New Yorkers who keep talking about the fact that they want to leave but never do?” Well, yes, of course you do – substitute New York with whichever other city and you’ll find the same sentiment. Get out of London, get out of Paris, get out of Bangkok.
When you add the current situation, the isolation of social distancing and stay at home orders, and instead see those stuck with a forest behind their house, you realise: it seems to be a lot better outside the cities. Who’d have thought a disease would spread so quickly when you cram as many people into a square mile as you can? Piling them on top of each other. Who’d have thought?
According to a recent email from the British embassy in Vientiane, there are about 180 other British nationals resident in Laos who – like me – have stayed while this small, landlocked, South East Asian country has been closed off. Inter-provincial travel being halted, I’m further south than I usually would be. I am renting a small house on the Mekong with a hot plate, an open shower and several stray dogs who eat the food I leave out for the stray cats.
Officially, Laos has been relatively unaffected by the pandemic. Even so, it’s a poor country without many facilities, and the assumption is there are more cases than the numbers suggest. Saying that, it’s also rural and people are spread out. There’s one large city here, the capital Vientiane, with a population that doesn’t even reach a million. The population of the next few cities hover around a hundred thousand. Bangkok, across the border, has a higher population than the whole of Laos. You don’t get coughed on as much around here.
So it’s back to that question: why bother with the city thing? Here then, is Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City, in a mix of personal vignettes and impressively researched characters, providing a glimpse into that most prevalent (even cliche) feeling in the urban environment: that of being surrounded by people, but totally alone.
The book gives us some real characters to relate to. Sad in a city? Well you might be like this great photographer! Alone in a crowd? The next Andy Warhol! But here we are, making it all about ourselves.
There are more opportunities in cities, we say, as we plan a move to London to live in a smaller apartment, to commute for longer, to cram ourselves into spaces that aren’t designed to hold so many bodies.
In the documentary We Live In Public, Josh Harris, one of Laing’s profiled, says directly that the hedonistic, fascistic social surveillance experiments he conducted, were because he wanted to be famous. To be famous, one assumes, you have to make it to the big city. Maybe there’s a link here. Psychiatric disorders, and particularly anxiety disorders, are significantly higher in cities – experience suggests that so is narcissism.
“It was becoming increasingly easy to see how people ended up vanishing in cities,” Laing says, “disappearing in plain sight, retreating into their apartments because of sickness or bereavement, mental illness or persistent, unbearable burden of sadness and shyness, of not knowing how to impress themselves into the world.” In the mountains, one finds, the world presses itself on you and you feel no need to change that dynamic.
The thing is, it’s a trap. A facet of some capitalist realism that we can’t shake. You must move to a city to progress. At some older stage you can leave but still commute, because everything is happening in the city and you’ll be a part of it, you’ll be the centre of it.
But, of course, you likely won’t – and if you do, Laing’s book reminds us that Warhol was miserable, anxious, conflicted. Isolated upon isolated. His celebrity plus the city plus with the insecurities he carried around his entire life added up to feeling unconnected but completely self interested. “You can be lonely anywhere, but there is a particular flavour to this loneliness that comes from living in a city, surrounded by millions of people,” Laing says. That flavour is the self-centered nature of city isolation, the retreat into yourself. The constant time to compare yourself to quite so many people around you who, similarly, are lying on social media.
I speak bad Lao and only a few people in my town speak passable English. Tourists come by and I make friends with them and then they leave. When I feel a sense of what might be a rising loneliness, I walk up a mountain and talk to the funnel weaving spiders. Feelings about your status somehow dissolve when you’ve walked up a mountain. The mind doesn’t resign back to the self quite so simply up there. It’s the first thing I plan to do once the roads open up again.
“I think that New York is the new model for the new concentration camp where the camp has been built by the inmates themselves and the inmates are the guards and they have this pride in this thing they built,” Andre’s tree expert suggests, “they built their own prison and so they exist in a state of schizophrenia where they are both guards and prisoners and as a result they no longer have… the capacity to leave the prison they’ve made or to even see it as a prison.”
You can be lonely anywhere, for sure, but city life brings that loneliness with certainty and ego. It’s a trap and you need to climb out of it.