The Lonely City

There’s a painting halfway up the pristine snail shell of the Guggenheim Museum in New York of a – but already I’m beginning to fumble. There’s a painting halfway up the pristine snail shell of the Guggenheim Museum in New York of a clock. The clock is on the wall of some piece of what looks like public architecture: perhaps a town square or the outer ramparts of a station. The time is five to three, marked out in Roman numerals. Five to three in the afternoon evidently, since the sky is coloured a pleasant blue that’s almost green, like a robin’s egg.

The building is a kind of covered walkway that extends over two storeys, with various windows, archways and apertures. I suspect this structure of impossibility, though I can’t pinpoint the place where architectural coherence gives way to absurdity. In the shadowy interior of the ground-floor passageway, which is open to what I imagine to be warm, dry air by way of five large and classical arches, a figure is just visible. He might have been made and scratched out, or he might be deliberately blurred. In fact it might not even be a man. Upstairs, the walkway is more cramped and what light there is comes by way of narrow, oblong windows with occasional bars. There’s someone up there too, silhouetted against the flat sky. It’s impossible to know which way he’s facing, but I think he’s looking out, into the God knows what that exists beyond the horizon of every painting.

The last figure is in the foreground, standing in a sandy square that makes me suspect, along with the classical lines, the peculiar heat-struck stillness, that this is an Italian town. He or she is dressed in white, and might have his or her hands raised, and might be facing the viewer or turning away. His or her shadow is cast forward at an acute angle, so that it’s cropped by the edge of the canvas, which is odd when you stop to think about it, because the sun also appears to be falling squarely on the building behind. Are there two suns in this sort-of-Italy? The last item I offer up for your inspection is a pool: dead centre, beneath the clock, with a vague whitish haze that might signify a fountain or another erased figure.

I came upon this evasive, unsettling scene just before closing time on a late April afternoon a year ago. It’s called The Enigma of the Hour and it was painted in 1911 by Giorgio de Chirico, a twenty-three year old Greek-Italian who had just arrived in Paris from Italy. Much of his work from that period featured dreamlike, ideal cities, which he populated with faceless people and sometimes with manichini, manikins: a mode that the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, who was an admirer and ally, came to call Metaphysical Art. This short-lived and singular school led in turn to the later experiments of surrealism (a term also of Apollinairean origin), as a tree-lined avenue might proceed into a city.

What’s remarkable about de Chirico’s enigmatic and disturbing public spaces is that none of their inhabitants express the slightest awareness that they’re anything but alone. It’s for this reason, rather than its physical location, that The Enigma of the Hour seems to have something to say about solitude and cities, about the complex cross-currents of alienation, loneliness and conviviality that occur when a great many people hive into a relatively small area, with all the issues of accommodation that brings. What I recognised in its accreted layers of sand and grey and robin’s egg blue-green was a reflection not of Rome or Turin, the place it most probably depicts, but of New York, the city of perpetual modernity, which both allows and celebrates a kind of companionable loneliness I’ve never experienced anywhere else in the world – as if, in fact, the Fortress of Solitude and Metropolis occupied the same coordinates.

My thinking may have been coloured by something that had happened earlier that same day. I was in a café in Brooklyn, not long after dawn. There had been a storm the night before and now the air had cleared and white blossom was drifting in sheaves along 5th Avenue. I sat against the wall and turned my coffee in circles, taking tiny sips to make it last. From somewhere behind me I could hear a boy saying uncertainly Maybe if you were at an Ivy League school? An elderly man came in and took the table opposite, with his back against a pillar. He was wearing a baseball cap and carrying a loaf of bread and a yellow plastic bag that said LICHEE NUTS CHINESE CUISINE. After a while he got up, took an empty tub of yoghurt from the bag, shuffled across the room and plunged it into the bin, drawing out instead a used paper cup. His seating arrangement, I realised, sheltered him from the counter, where the baristas were dueting at the espresso machine. He put the decoy cup on the table, sat down and ate his bread. After he’d finished two slices he packed the loaf away and pulled his hood up over his hat. I thought he might be Iranian. As he stood he caught my eye. I had through this entire encounter, and for the past two weeks besides, been crying soundlessly. We looked at one another for one, maybe two seconds, long enough to register that both our gazes held exactly the same mix of sympathy, concern and shame.

The area of Manhattan is 23 square miles, circled by the East River, the Hudson and the Harlem, though two of these are really tidal straits. You get larger icebergs calving off the coast of Greenland, but more than 1.5 million people live on this hump of schist, gneiss, marble and builders’ rubble, which is shaped a little like a pointing hand – a symbol that de Chirico planted obsessively in his early paintings. They live and work on top of one another, in tenements, projects and row houses, and in the skyscrapers that grow up out of the twin pincushions of bedrock in downtown and midtown.

Fear of the crowd, fear of being drowned or erased, fear of featurelessness: these are the prices one pays for living in a hive. But New York is also among the most permissive places I’ve encountered for those who live their lives alone. The LICHEE NUTS man and I had exchanged a kind of secret currency of the city, a solidarity of the solitary, in which kindness is configured by way of a discreet and reticent acknowledgement that makes more nourishing truth of that cold phrase leave well alone.

The best-known articulator of the lonely city is Edward Hopper, who transposed de Chirico’s uneasy, dreamy metropolises onto 1940s Depression-era Manhattan. These paintings aestheticize loneliness, though it strikes me, looking into the cool green icebox of Nighthawks, that aestheticize rubs up very close to anesthetize, too. It’s possible to make both painters’ work into parables of alienation, in which the individual is trapped in the isolating apparatus of modernity. At least Hopper’s people have faces. De Chirico’s are as featureless as the crowd in Ezra Pound’s metro station, those petals on a wet black bough: six words that once seemed to Joan Didion “to signal the onset of anxiety or fright”, and which she drowned out by playing ‘Wichita Lineman’ and ‘I Heard It on the Grapevine’ very loudly on the radio of a Budget Rent-A-Car while driving between Sacramento and San Francisco.

If one is alone, however, particularly at an age where aloneness is no longer socially sanctioned and carries with it suggestions of strangeness, deviance and failure, these images begin to take on a different cast. Green, say. I look at the milky robin’s egg green-blue of de Chirico’s sky, and I look too at the green of the counter trim in Nighthawks, the greenish, curving, smearless glass, and I see the gaze of loneliness: its acute and tenderised vision, its attentiveness to gaps and shadows and odd, unaccountable sources of light. This is a world I recognise, and one I’m not wholly unhappy to inhabit. I reckon, too, that if the counterman in the Nighthawks diner, or the figure in white who stands on the sand in de Chirico’s eerie full-sun square, were to turn and face the painter, the gaze that they’d exchange would be composed of exactly the same ratio of sympathy, concern and shame with which the Lichee Nuts man and I declared our allegiance to each other.