Ghosts in Sunlight

For Evgenia

This happened in 1967. That year, the American author Truman Capote, then forty-three years old, published a beautiful essay he titled “Ghosts in Sunlight.” The piece—it’s not very long—describes the author’s experience on the set of the film adaptation of his 1966 best-selling book, In Cold Blood. At one point Capote relates how the actors impersonating the real-life protagonists in his famous “non-fiction novel” unsettled him, rattled him, for there they were, alive and interpreting the thoughts and feelings of men he had known long before, dead men he could not shake. Capote describes this experience as being akin to watching “ghosts in sunlight”—a lovely metaphor about memory and the real converging to make the world something else, and the artist someone else, too. Standing on that film set, the Capote who had written In Cold Blood was a relative ghost to the film being made; he was a specter standing in the sunlight of his former self.

Kara Walker/Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York
Kara Walker: Burn, cut paper and adhesive on wall, 1998

I think I understand something about the anxiety Capote expresses in the piece; I certainly understand when he relates how, at some point during his In Cold Blood process, he’d fall into bed with a bottle of scotch and pass out, the victim of a disorienting emotional flu. Nostalgia is one thing, but making art out of the past is another thing altogether, a Herculean effort in that known and unknown landscape we might as well call the metaphysical. It’s the land where all artists dwell, and that your years at Columbia’s School of the Arts have prepared you to meet head on*; by now you have developed the stamina of Hercules, or Sisyphus, as you do the joyful, maddening, and true work of artists, those sometimes whistling and sometimes wretched builders and destroyers of truth and memory, makers who take from the past—their memories—to create a present that shimmers with veracity and poetry.

I wonder if you, like me, feel, just now, like a ghost in the sunlight, awash in memories as your life shifts from student to professional, and your professors become your colleagues. I’ll pull rank now—but just for a moment—and say that my ghosts are probably older than yours. I mean almost Madonna old, and her 1980s music is there in my reminiscences along with so much more as I recall that the majority of my ghosts became just that during the AIDS crisis, which I first read about while I was a student at Columbia—in 1981 or so. I met those now gone boys at Columbia some time before I met you. In memory they wear what they wore then: Oxford button-downs, and they smoke and gossip in the sun that always makes the steps of Low Library—the very steps you’ve sat on yourself—look like a…

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