LET us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats 5
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question â€¦ 10
Oh, do not ask, â€œWhat is it?â€
Let us go and make our visit.
In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.
When I was seventeen I was very sincere about art and especially about literature. I was a girl in a small town who had grown up in the library. As someone said about Milton, I saw the world through the spectacle of books. I saw school and books as a life raft. My only escape.
So literature was a life or death subject to me. I memorized pieces of Shakespeare. A year later I would read The Sound and the Fury and halfway through the first section, the Benjy section, I would suddenly understand the mechanism of the narrative, that some was in present day and some was recollection and that Benjy was retarded and I would go back and re-read from the beginning again.
Prufrock was frightening. It started with an Italian quote. I had two years of high school Spanish and although I had heard of Danteâ€™s Inferno, I had certainly never read it. Languages were the great opaque, the proof that I was an intellectual fraud. I spoke nothing but English and had rarely heard any other language spoken except Latin. In church. Where it did not resemble a language at all since no one actually spoke it to someone else.
But my whole selfworth was based on my ability with literature. I knew what ether was and I got the opening metaphor. I marched through the poem, (sawdust restaurants? I didnâ€™t know there were restaurants made of sawdust. And oyster shells? The irony was that my grandfather had taken my mother to oyster bars years before I was born.) One does not ask â€˜What is it?â€™ Well, I hadnâ€™t been asking what it was. What did â€˜itâ€™ refer to? I couldnâ€™t make it refer to the sky or those restaurants of hotels.
I was haunted by that couplet for years. â€˜In the room the women come and go/Talking of Michelangelo.â€™ Nothing in my life fit those women. In my life, three sets of neighbors got together, someone went out for a case of beer and the kids played in the inflatable swimming pool until the fireflies came out while the men drank beer from bottles and some women did and some women, like my mother, left lipstick stains on the edge of a glass. No one was pretentious in the way that T.S. Eliot was describing.
Since then I have spent a lot of time thinking about the issue of accessibility. A kind of Literary equivalent of the Americans with Disabilities Act. What is it I want for my reader? What is accessible?
I feel that in order to be available to almost anyone, art has to come very close to clichÃ©. It has to be conventional. I donâ€™t find that kind of art or story interesting. So stick a pin in the map at clichÃ© and another out beyond T.S. Eliot out in John Ashbury land and I would say that I want to fall somewhere in between.
Things I believe:
<>Obviously, television both is accessible and has created a certain standard of accessibility for American culture. I think back on early television and I remember the success of I Love Lucy. The comic situation, Commedia Dellâ€™Arte, the attempt to escape embarrassment (particularly sexual, although not so much in early television) is something thatâ€™s easy to recognize. (Sexual situation comedy, American style, was not so much Love American Style as Threeâ€™s Company, the guy with the beautiful girls who never gets any. A comedy of emasculation.)
Physical danger is instantly understandable. The gun to the head, the footsteps in the dark.
I am on the road, and have only intermittent access to the internet. I have to leave this half thought out and half undone. But I am still that 17 year old girl, desperate and unmoored. And I am also the 48 year old writer who has been to a party in Manhattan that started at midnight, and if the women didnâ€™t come and go, talking of Michelangelo, that was only because it was a theater party and we were talking about Sam Shepherdâ€™s True West which I had just seen at The Cherry Orchard in the Village. (And had found hypnotic although I didnâ€™t feel as if I understood it at all.)
Who do we let in? Who do we exclude? How much do we think about our choices that way?