I had never had any light of my own

When I reached the South Bank the first thing I saw was a poster advertising an afternoon event with an Austrian film director “in conversation,”it was starting in twenty minutes at the Royal Festival Hall. I decided on a whim to try to get a ticket. I walked over and was able to buy a seat in the gods, in the very back row. I didn’t expect much, I only wanted to be distracted from my own problems for a while, to sit in darkness, and hear a discussion of films I’d never seen, but in the middle of the program the director asked his interviewer to roll a clip from the movie Swing Time, a film I know very well, I only watched it over and over as a child. I sat up tall in my seat. On the huge screen before me Fred Astaire danced with three silhouetted figures. They can’t keep up with him, they begin to lose their rhythm. Finally they throw in the towel, making that very American “oh phooey”gesture with their three left hands, and walking off stage. Astaire danced on alone. I understood all three of the shadows were also Fred Astaire. Had I known that, as a child? No one else paws the air like that, no other dancer bends his knees in quite that way. Meanwhile the director spoke of a theory of his, about “pure cinema,”which he began to define as the “interplay of light and dark, expressed as a kind of rhythm, over time,”but I found this line of thought boring and hard to follow. Behind him the same clip, for some reason, played again, and my feet, in sympathy with the music, tapped at the seat in front of me. I felt a wonderful lightness in my body, a ridiculous happiness, it seemed to come from nowhere. I’d lost my job, a certain version of my life, my privacy, yet all these things felt small and petty next to this joyful sense I had watching the dance, and following its precise rhythms in my own body. I felt I was losing track of my physical location, rising above my body, viewing my life from a very distant point, hovering over it. It reminded me of the way people describe hallucinogenic drug experiences. I saw all my years at once, but they were not piled up on each other, experience after experience, building into something of substance—the opposite. A truth was being revealed to me: that I had always tried to attach myself to the light of other people, that I had never had any light of my own. I experienced myself as a kind of shadow.

Zadie Smith, Swing Time, 2016.

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