Friday, August 22, 2008

The Philadelphia Public Library

The Philadelphia Public Library

Early that Fall I enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

I had brought with me to the Academy an adequate supply of artistic talent, an enormous capacity for loneliness, and an almost total ignorance of everything my fellow students deemed worthy of discussion. They were discussing Freud and Adler, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Stravinsky and Bach. They were holding long involved debates on the relative merits of Romanticism versus Neo-Classicism, and having passionate arguments about Botticelli and the Bauhaus. I didn't have the slightest idea what they were talking about.

But I loved them and I wanted to fit in. I wanted to know what they were all talking about and I was determined to find out. So I spent the next two years at the Philadelphia Public Library.

I went there every day. I read everything I could find on Freud. I read Kant and Adler and Jung. I read books on art and mythology and religion and philosophy. I sat at one of those long wooden tables in the music room with earphones on my head in impregnable isolation listening to all of the music that they were talking about at school (the only music I had ever heard was my own -- the sad formless stuff I made up and played on the big baby grand in our living room, or my collection of Rhythm and Blues records, or my Doris Day albums -- my parents listened to Mantovani, Percy Faith and Guy Lombardo). Now, suddenly, here was Prokoviev, Tschaikovsky, Stravinsky. I had never dreamt there could be such sounds. Powerful, frightening, heart-rending sounds: Romeo and Juliet, The Rites of Spring.

Everything my high school teachers had tried so unsuccessfully to interest me in, that I had refused to even consider, I was now devouring like a starving man. I read Shakespeare with the dictionary right next to the book, taking copious notes, making long lists of characters, sometimes having to look up almost every other word. But I wouldn't stop until I had gone back and repeated the phrase over and over in my head, until I had understood every word, every sentence, every paragraph. I read all of Shakespeare's plays this way, and all of the sonnets, memorizing long stanzas --"Oh, that this too, too solid flesh would melt..."
Then I started Goethe.

All this, just because I loved them and I wanted to fit in; and because I wanted to know what they were all talking about; and because -- and maybe this was the biggest thing -- I wanted to be able to say something too, something that they wouldn't all laugh at, something that would dazzle them and make me an interesting person, someone to be reckoned with. And I must have wanted this pretty badly, because I worked awfully hard to get it.

Then I read A Tale of Two Cities. I didn't know anything about the French Revolution, and even less about English literature; but I knew a lot about loneliness, and I recognized Sydney Carton immediately. I suppose I had thought that I was the only person in the whole world who had ever suffered loneliness. I was surprised, and thrilled, and hooked. What had started out to be just a means of fitting in had now become a compulsion. I read Crime and Punishment and I became Raskolnikov, a bitter, brilliant, anti-social recluse, hell-bent on self-destruction. I became almost anyone I read. I became, successively, Hamlet, Kafka, and Winston Smith. All the great insane and rational loners struggling against a sane and irrational world.

It wasn't that I hated this world. I didn't; I loved it. But I also loved my fantasies. I was a romantic and a loner, and I guess that's just the way I wanted it, because at least I was becoming something. Maybe not something to be reckoned with yet, but something. And something is better than nothing. So I was Raskolnikov or Winston Smith, and it was all right, nobody minded. Nobody even knew but me. And after a while I even forgot, I forgot who I was being. And eventually they all became me.

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