At Bryn Mawr Allison Bancroft had nearly gone blind. She had never before had problems with her vision, though she did not help it by spending a childhood reading long adventure stories in dim lighting and secondary school reading poetry in slightly improved dorm room lighting and then college reading denser, French, Latin and some Greek poetry in good, library lighting. By graduate school she had become obsessed, by way of Nietzsche, with Greek tragedy and soon embarked on a doctorate program -in no way Nietzschean- identifying, deconstructing and rephrasing parallels between symbolism and meter, rather discretely veiled in the dense, cryptic style of Prometheus Bound. Dense, she would say, does not begin to describe the character of Aeschylus’ verse. Fertile, furrowed and folded onto itself, perhaps. Like, she would continue, one of those Cello sonatas of Bach where the whole chord is stretched out horizontally, where three notes are linked in succession, together comprising, say, the tonic rather than at once. Except that, instead of one line of a sonata it is a whole concerto, and each note is an entire chord itself. Needless to say, translation proved unfathomably arduous, even in the best lighting.
Many times she earnestly considered taking time off and going back to teaching, or taking time off and escaping to Europe for a master’s in something like Rimbaud, or Mallarme, or even Verlaine. Once, while taking the afternoon off and inevitably ending up at a bookstore, she accidentally came upon a small book of Valery’s on a trio of painters the poet had known personally. She began to read and stopped, abruptly, after reading,
“Mallarme said that a danseuse is not a woman dancing because it is not a woman and she does not dance.
A remark not only profound, but true; not only is it true in the sense of confirming itself more and more with reflection, but it can be demonstrated, and I have seen a demonstration of it.
The freest, most supple of all possible dances, was one which I saw in a film of giant medusas; they were not women, nor were they dancing.
Not women at all but beings of an incomparably translucent and sentient substance, flesh of furiously sensitive glass, domes of floating silk, hyaline wreaths, long thongs traversed by rapid unfolding; while they whirl, unshape themselves and shoot away, as fluidly as the tremendous fluid which harries, embraces and sustains them on all sides, yielding to their slightest inflections and restoring them their forms.”
It could have been her mood, the way certain theories seem more or less reasonable given the mood of the one listening, or it could have been the dismal weather of the day (early January, damp, dark, frozen) or even the passage’s placement in the book (between a light, happy description of Degas’ apartment and a brief digression on history). She did not know, and rather did not care to find out what it was that moved within her upon reading the words. Allison saw suddenly and for the first time an alternative to everything that she was making a career of learning and decided that moment to leave everything in order to find within herself the language in which Valery wrote. She would certainly have left Bryn Mawr all together that afternoon, as all of those swelling imaginings drew her to, had she not happened to knock one of the shelves over as she turned to the door, unloading a pile of giant art books onto her unprepared and already naturally fragile frame.
But she always argued herself back into Aeschylus, or at least the idea of Aeschylus, because it wasn’t just hard for her, it was nearly impossible for anyone except her and seven or so other people alive, and she also had the suspicion that something like the end of the world lay hidden in his words.
After only three years her vision had the optical equivalent of a nervous breakdown. It was funny, she thought, to be nearly blinded by a poet not only dead, but whose language was dead; by a god credited with taking men from darkness into light. Perhaps Plato was right about the best tragic poets being also comic poets. Her real consolation, however, was not Plato but the fact that it was Prometheus Bound and not Oedipus Rex, which freed her from a litany of (ironic) jokes from colleagues, by whom she wanted dearly to be taken seriously.
Allison was, in fact, taken seriously, admired and inevitably courted by her colleagues. Perennially embedded in ancient things, when she looked to meet someone she wanted something fresh, no tweed jackets and elusive gazes. She had, as it were, a modern take on romance and after a few pleasant but brief relationships (or lengthy but polite trysts) fell madly in love with a painter, William Gregory, at first sight. She was at a gallery opening-of his work- in Los Angeles. When she saw the centerpiece of the show she felt the same as she had when she first dove into the ocean, and he replied that he thought her glasses made her look both like a complete mystery and an open book at the same time, which was his way of saying that he too was falling madly in love with her.
William never wore or needed glasses, but when he was very young he would sometimes spend entire mornings dashing (cautiously) through the woods surrounding his house with his eyes closed, pretending that he was blind. He would wander slowly, feeling the trees and leaves and branches on the ground; listen carefully as the sounds of the forest that he never normally heard overwhelmed him. Time disappeared with his vision. Moments lingered or flashed. He would go as long as he could but it was never the same length of time, never the same distance traveled, but every time he reopened his eyes he would lay down first so that his first view was the light descending through the trees. He had always painted, always considered himself a painter and always known that painting came naturally out from within him, but in the middle of the Gallery opening in Los Angeles as if he was not thinking or caught in a trance he told a journalist-when asked about the origins of his painting career- that there was in fact one particular moment from which his career as a painter developed. He had seen a Cezanne painting when he was eleven in an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art where the light pours in through the trees, overwhelms the canvas, and it looked just like how the light used to when he would open his eyes in the woods after having them closed for long periods of time and the painting itself transported him to that place. Of course, he had never been Provence and Cezanne had never been in upstate New York, but he knew for certain that they had seen the same thing. He said that he realized at that moment, the moment he felt himself taken from one place to another, that he would be a painter. Just before the question about the origins of his painting career Allison Bancroft turned a corner and came into his view and he saw her for the first time. During the entire question, his answer and then the rest of the interview he never once took his eyes off her.