When you live in the city without your family, loneliness is no longer an abstraction — it’s personal.
Edward Hopper, one of the most influential American realist painters of the 20th century, is most known for his masterful depiction of loneliness in the urban environment. The famous Nighthawks (1942) is at first sight just a regular scene at a regular diner, on a regular night in the city, modeled after New York. One worker and three customers, contained within the bright lights of the diner while the streets outside loom silent and dark.
The subjects are carefully expressionless under Hopper’s hand. None of them are conversing with or looking at another. Unwilling to reveal their hidden currents of contemplation, neither to each other nor to the viewer, Hopper doesn’t force it on them. Instead, he paints them as they are, representing our own perpetual state of disconnection from other people and from the outside world.
More than half a century after his death, there remains much to be felt and empathized within Hopper’s artwork. No matter how long I look at Nighthawks, there’s a feeling that there’s still something in it, some bitter essence in the lone scene which stands starkly different to some overused, romanticized cityscape.
Urban loneliness is hardly a unique idea. If you’ve ever lived in the city without your family, loneliness is not an abstraction to you; it’s personal. You’ve felt it deeply in the times you got lost in the maze of oppressive skyscrapers while your Google Maps lagged and wilted beneath your fury. You’ve felt it in the times you couldn’t bear the thought of cooking another solitary meal in the hot apartment that lacked any form of ventilation and, instead, ran to the nearest kebab truck. You took too much time getting your coins out, and the old, shaggy man behind you spat at you in impatience.
Loneliness is hardly a disease — everyone experiences it from time to time, if not chronically, and we all experience it in our unique ways. It’s impossible to accurately “diagnose,” and finding a “cure” — if we even ought to look for one — is a complex, personal journey for each one of us. To many, the idea of “comparing” your loneliness to the loneliness that others experience would feel impossible or otherwise ridiculous. Surely, no one feels the exact same thing as my loneliness — this unrelatability is, after all, why loneliness is so lonely.
Nevertheless, psychology researchers have attempted to measure loneliness in several different ways. Physical isolation is the number and strength of social connections you currently have, and is perhaps the most intuitive measurement of loneliness. By this metric, someone who has two best friends should, theoretically, be less lonely than someone who has none.
Famous artists before Hopper’s time have usually made it clear that physical isolation was a necessary element in loneliness. Picasso’s The Old Guitarist, Van Gogh’s Bedroom in Arles, and Solitude by Frederic Leighton are some of history’s favorite artistic depictions of the lonely individual. Yet these scenes all contain a single person — or in Van Gogh’s case, a single, empty bed at daytime.
But physical separation is only one possible factor of loneliness, and is hardly an essential one, either. Take emotional isolation, for example. If you ever get the feeling that you are alone, or that no one can understand you perfectly, despite being surrounded by family or a group of friends — you might be experiencing emotional isolation. This type of isolation doesn’t depend on the number of people you are regularly surrounded by; rather, it comes down to your subjective assessment of how close or far you feel from these people.
Lastly, there is a third element in which you can assess how lonely you are. Perceived isolation is the loneliness experienced when one compares their own situation to the ideal situation. This ideal situation is often defined by social norms (“you should be close with your family”) or by perceiving one’s surroundings (“everyone else seems to be close with their families.”) If there exists a gap between what you’re informed to be the ideal and what you see your current situation as, you’ll perceive your social connections as inadequate. Note that with perceived isolation, the actual strength of your connections doesn’t quite matter, because it concerns merely the difference between your situation and what you take to be the ideal or the standard.
The artistry of Hopper is in the way he shows emotional isolation and perceived isolation, as opposed to physical isolation, as the true culprits behind modern loneliness. Today, most people live in a city so they are never literally alone — even stuck in your one-bedroom apartment, there are people next door, above you, below you, and in the building across from you. People mill about within an arm’s reach, brushing past on the sidewalks and bumping into you on the subway. Yet, there is a sense that you can’t quite reach anyone. This is what emotional isolation is all about. You can’t talk to any one of them, and even if you did strike up a nerve to do just that, you can’t imagine that they would understand you on any level deep enough to matter.
And during the whole time, friends pass you by. Not your friends, of course – other people’s friends, circles, groups, and clubs. You’re reminded that you’re the loner here: everyone else seated at the outdoor tables seems to know who their people are. At the park, they hold hands, they brace their arms against each other’s shoulders, sing together, dance tango, and jam on their instruments. You realize you aren’t partaking in this romantic scenery. There must be so much you’re missing out on. And when you do see someone else who’s all by herself, you can’t help but feel empathy with a twinge of repulsion. Enter: perceived isolation.
City life is often embraced as the ultimate form of social acceptance and inclusion. Political scientist Iris M. Young asserts the city as the ideal, as it rejects the traditional characteristics of the community (here, community is referred to as “a cohesive unit where conformity is fostered at the expense of diversity.”) A community, by definition, has insiders and outsiders. Without those who don’t belong, there can’t be those who do belong. The city, however, is where different people can coexist, even mingle, without anyone having to be oppressed, exploited, or otherwise excluded.
If anyone has lived in the city, however, they will point out that surely, this philosophical view of the city is more than slightly misguided. Exclusion can and does happen in an urban setting — otherwise, why would I feel so lonely in it? Many layers of exclusion exist in the city: exclusion by wealth, in which only the rich and powerful have access to the Michelin-starred restaurants and the uppermost floors of the skyscrapers, or exclusion by membership, in which only certain individuals (students of a certain university, for instance) have access to certain services and gatherings, or exclusion by length of stay, whereby newcomers are stranded in a sea of already-formed bubbles of communities, or exclusion by language, by physical disability, by gender…etc.
Indeed, some philosophers are strongly against the idealistic vision of the city, such as that of Young. One example of a communitarian thinker, Ferdinand Tonnies, establishes that a community that we build by choice (ie: the people we find in the city) can never be as strong as the community that we are born into, which includes your family and local neighborhood. Only the latter is ever “truly ours.” It was Tonnies’ fear that as more people moved to the cities, a feeling of perpetual rootlessness would replace the stability that people used to enjoy and take for granted.
Judging from the continued, immense popularity of Hopper’s artwork, people nowadays are still struggling with the same loneliness problem as those of his time did. Perhaps city life really is doomed — white-collar work recedes ever more into the home office, and swiping right on the hundredth person only makes the gap in our hearts yawn ever wider — perhaps it’s been doomed from the start. But if I could humbly speak for Hopper and his timeless audience, it’s not just the depressing part that makes his art so appealing. It’s also the romance.
Sometimes, it pays to be alone. Having each whole day to yourself, working at your desk in your tiny studio flat, maybe taking a trip down to the café with a book and an umbrella for the afternoon shower. The comfort in knowing that you won’t bump into anyone you know, by virtue of not knowing anyone at all. The soft curtain of anonymity. Of being an observer, watching and eavesdropping, without once going onstage yourself.
On the flip side of the coin: the chronic hope that something is waiting around the corner. One more lonely night, one more time sleeping to the sound of traffic and the house party next door that we weren’t invited to, and tomorrow might introduce us to a new friend, an opportunity, a door. Anticipation builds and keeps building, like the optical illusion of the perpetually inclining staircase: an anticipation that’s sometimes indistinguishable, or overlapping, with harried social anxiety.
It’s a fine line between loneliness and solitude, between comfort and discomfort. This is what makes city life unpredictable and so wonderfully emotional. For the youthful and bright-eyed, walking the line is an obsession.