The word derives from the Latin insulatus–made into an island–and it has a nasty sense to it, or so goes conventional thinking. Among its associations: disease, betrayal, failure, separation. It is the fate of the disgraced ruler (Napoleon’s sentence, true to the word’s root), the madman (isolated even from his own limbs by the fastening of straps) and the infected (the soon-to-be-dead, obscured by thick sheets of plastic and extensive breathing apparatus). It is what mothers fear for their children (who must be socially integrated, who must play well with others in order to get along and ahead in the world) and what children fear for their doddering parents (who must be reminded that they still belong to this world). It is a word without much positive association, at least in the minds of most people. We are taught to value plurality, consensus and feedback, and to regard the defiantly singular as suspect.
Such a shame, these negative connotations, especially considering that the word itself is quite properly defined and sourced. But we do understand its associations well–disgrace, insanity, imminent death–and we New Yorkers embrace them. We are (colorfully, proudly) isolation’s wealthy priests, a brotherhood of rejected, contagious madmen–and don’t you shake your head, Cowboy, in your disingenuous shame….I know pride when I see it!–clambering together on several rocks at the edge of the Atlantic. Of course, difference has always been a source of pride, a desirable feature in moderation, something to distinguish (but not to separate). You don’t need a Metro Card to appreciate what’s unique. But it helps. And in fact New York was built for isolation–exquisite machine, and complex, designed to exacerbate difference by density.
Isolation is subjective. There is no observable measurement that guides our estimation of it (its trite signals–social ineptitude, substance abuse, pallor–are too broad, suggesting a host of primary mental and physical disorders to which isolation has been unjustly attached as symptom or result), and yet it is experienced always and only in relation to others. Perhaps that’s why New York is its perfect vehicle. You cannot be isolated from others if there are no others to be isolated from, and fortunately, in this city, there are many, many others (all of them occupying, it seems on some nights, the apartment directly above yours). This is New York’s genius: to pack and load until all around are the bodies and voices of other people, most of whom you will never meet, whose thoughts may or may not coincide with your own, and whose gestures and posture and vocal tone may remind you in some insignificant way of someone you once knew, enough at least to confuse for a moment, to part your lips with the beginning of recognition. The multitude is New York’s special power. Here you will walk the streets and see the face of your best friend, how it was contorted with laughter, and the hands of the man who taught you piano, whose knuckles were enormous; you’ll hear your uncle’s voice, the way it thins its vowels down to string. These recognitions keep you dizzy in the beginning. Then they make you wary and wise. This is how you earn your eyes in New York, the ones that look right past beggars and roll in the wide-open faces of tourists. Things are not as they appear.
Concrete, too, plays a role. The hard surface, a broad palette, does not lend itself to the formation of meaningful human connections. With appropriate irony, we live and work on top of this manmade carapace, choosing to expose rather than protect ourselves, favoring the benefit of an impenetrable surface on which to construct our ambition. It’s better that way–reliable, safe, efficient–and if we imitate its principal characteristic, if we are a touch impervious, then such is the sacrifice we make. We are not here to join hands in fellow feeling.
And there is the anonymity of sophistication, because who would champion fraternité in the thick of such wit and fancy poise? New York City, weary from its better knowledge, is no place to clasp hands and sing songs. Isolation is inherently sophisticated, an exclusive state, and highly transmissible, so it flourishes here, without the annoyance of a lot of mutual identity. When New Yorkers run into each other outside the city, there is acknowledgement, yes, and respect, and even some sense of pleasure at the recognition, but we do not then go out to dinner together. We don’t become friends, no more than we would were we to bump into each other on Seventh Avenue. Such things are for people from Wisconsin. No, sophistication demands restraint, and the city trains us well in that discipline.
It is almost ridiculous to add that the city’s architectural realities reinforce our sense of isolation, so obvious does it seem. The five boroughs offer a wide selection of slots in which we may exist calmly, in compact stacks of residential habitats. We transform warehouses and churches and single-family brownstones into hives of homes, with drywall and wainscoting and original details, and we sit in our rooms and listen to our neighbors, who themselves are listening to their neighbors, who just returned from Elizabeth, New Jersey, with new throw rugs for the kids’ room and a drop-leaf dining table. We covet these small comforts, the better to insulate our tiny segment of space, the better to fashion attractive surroundings, to distract from the stranger who sleeps just inches away, just through that wall, whose obstructed breathing you can hear in the middle of the night. The fabulous terror of isolation is felt best when pressed up against the bodies of millions.
Whatever its ingredients and the means of its formation, New York’s modus operandi and principal issue fuels ambition–professional, creative, romantic. In every moment of individual desperation lies the seed of an artistic triumph, an industrial revolution, an unholy feat of seduction. It is New York’s most appealing paradox–that the greatest of cities maintains its power not by bringing its people together, but by inspiring their isolation.
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