Hilton Als, a theater critic for the New Yorker, has written a lot. About theater, obviously – but also about gay culture, black culture, whiteness, the New York bar scene and the AIDS epidemic. His newest essay collection, White Girls, touches upon a number of these subjects, and he did the same here at the College in the first of the Art of the Essay lecture series, held in Thompson Memorial Chapel last Friday afternoon. But he brings up these topics gently – one gets the impression that he wishes for discourse on these issues not because they are deemed important or culturally relevant, but because they’re subjects he’s pressed up against in his own experience. In some ways, his writing serves as an act of working through, of exploring and understanding. “So it’s all true?” an audience member asked Als after his lecture, as part of the question-and-answer segment of the event. “Yes – oh, yes,” Als responded. “If it were a short story, I would have told you.”
Als didn’t speak explicitly about the act of essay-writing, but opted instead to preach through demonstration. Each vignette was a self-contained little capsule, a story that raised its own characters and drew its own boundaries.
In these types of talks, not frantic note-taking affairs but sit-back-and-let-it-wash-over-you experiences, there are certain segments that grip you for unexpected reasons, and often less because of their actual content but because of some nebulous combination of evocations and associations. Sitting at the very back of the Chapel with Als’s low voice drifting back, what struck me was his depiction of ’80s and ’90s New York, a low time, a time during which – in Als’s words – “I stayed in the bars longer than I should have.” A time during which the AIDS epidemic was at its peak and “you [would] climb out of one fear to the next.”
Inscribed on the walls of the Chapel ran the words, “By Grace are ye saved through faith / Keep thy tongue from evil / and thy lips from speaking guile.” Experienced in tandem with Als’s, I found these words related not to religion but to the act of speaking and the solitude in the act’s repression, its difficulties, its shortcomings. Some of the first words Als spoke, in fact, were on the subject: “The work I’ve been doing for the past couple years is about faith in the face of loneliness.”
A couple of times throughout the lecture, Als mentioned the poet and curator Frank O’Hara, a master of the subtle evocation of loneliness. From “Morning Poem”: “do you know how it is / when you are the only / passenger if there is a / place further from me / I beg you do not go.” Pressed on the subject later on, Als mentioned that O’Hara as a personality was something he couldn’t comment much on, despite the obvious parallels between the two, both being gay men heavily invested in the art world. From the outside, it would seem that the two figures, Als and O’Hara, would have much in common, but it appears to be O’Hara’s words toward which Als gravitates, to which he attaches himself. Remarking on a group of friends he’d made and felt deeply for, Als said, “They reminded me of Frank O’Hara’s poems.”
Towards the end of the lecture, Als hinted at something similar: He worries that the current generation cannot grasp the issues about which he writes. “You have to find your own metaphors to understand it,” he said, then told the story of a friend who, during the frenzy of the AIDS disease, attended 19 funerals in as many weeks. The woman’s grandmother then had said, slowly, “I think I can understand. It’s just like the war.”
That gets at the dual act of writing and reading. The adaptation of metaphors is an attempt to comprehend, to parse through that which is confusing or painful or strange, to arrive at the semblance of something able to be interfaced with, in terms of both the creation of writing and the attempt to understand it. For however much the sentiment has been exploited in entry-level English courses, the essay is, at the very essence, an essai, a trial, an attempt to understand and to be understood.