Teasing the Raw Nerve
In the Paris Review, James Baldwin says that he was a preacher between fourteen and seventeen, and the interviewer wonders if there are similarities between speaking from the pulpit and writing on the page. "The two roles are completely unattached. When you are standing in the pulpit, you must sound as though you know what you're talking about. When you're writing, you're trying to find out something which you don't know. The whole language of writing for me is finding out what you don't want to know, what you don't want to find out. But something forces you to anyway."
For a black writer trying to make his way during the post-war years in America this notion of the pulpit might be all the more tempting. After all, Baldwin's first two novels came out in 1953 and 1956: Go Tell it on the Mountain and Giovanni's Room. In between US law made segregation illegal, and Baldwin talks well of the immediate post-war years in the US as he struggled to survive - let alone make it. "Given the conditions in this country to be a black writer was impossible." It was only after his father's death when James was nineteen, and a move to Paris, which allowed him to find his way, a way. As he says "It wasn't so much a matter of choosing Franceit was a matter of getting out of America. I didn't know what was going to happen to me in France but I knew what was going to happen to me in New York. If I had stayed there, I would have gone under, like my friend on the George Washington Bridge." (Paris Review)
There are certain questions we are predicating this essay upon that might not seem valid either aesthetically or socio-politically. Would we be so inclined to bring up the writer's background if Baldwin happened to be white? Would we be writing about Updike's Waspishness or O'Connor's Southern upbringing? If we say yes it rests in something in the work instigating it; asking us to read into the work what is on the page, but only because of what happens to be on the page. Baldwin acknowledges black experience in his fiction and in his essays, even writing a book on film about the relationship between cinema and black lives, The Devil Finds Work. The text after all is a play of forces, and while there are many who see the work as an object of analysis that asks for no biographical input, that might be all very well to understand the workings of a piece of fiction, but not so useful in comprehending the work of a writer. The workings would include such techniques as first person versus third person narration, restricted omniscience, free indirect discourse, the autodiegetic and the heterodiegetic, anagnorisis and catharsis, the difference between story and plot. Let us call this the Kantian approach to aesthetics. Here we have more or less timeless techniques that authors through the ages utilise (even if the terms themselves are sometimes ancient; sometimes modern). As Kant says "for although the principle is only subjective, it would still be assumed subjectively universal (an idea necessary for everyone), and so it could like an objective principle, demand universal assent insofar as agreement among different judging persons is concerned, provided only we were certain that we had subsumed under it correctly." (The Critique of Judgement) We might be judging an aesthetic experience, but nobody can doubt whether it is in the first or third person, whether the story is told in chronological order or not, whether a character is informed of information they didn't previously possess.
But what about the Hegelian? Hegel no less than Kant was concerned with questioning the notion that art is no more than taste. That some objectivity could be applied to it. But he also noted "fine art, instead of showing itself fitted for scientific study, seems rather in its own right to resist the regulating activity of thought, and to be unsuitable for strict scientific discussion." (Introductory Lectures on Aesthetics) He saw too that art was a reflection of the spirit of an age, of its moment, as he broke art down into the symbolic, the classical and the romantic. This was central to a key difference between Kant and Hegel. Kant was looking for categories of knowledge; Hegel for what he called the phenomenology of spirit, and how spirit coursed through time, making history in art, politics and science.
How does this impact on our discussion of James Baldwin? By suggesting that we can look at this gay, black, post-war American writer, who spent many years in exile, as very much a figure of his time, as someone who tried to make visible black experience as literary purposefulness. In Horace Ove's 'Baldwin's Nigger', a documentary on a talk given in London in the late sixties, there is an exchange between Baldwin and the audience where he defends his use of the term negro versus black. He explains that he "cannot change his vocabulary overnight. I may agree with you but we have been called, and call ourselves negroes for nearly four hundred years.... Your generation not mine will call itself black, and that is good enough for me." Baldwin then adds that while he calls himself a negro, his grandmother would have called herself a nigger. Language changes through time, as Baldwin reveals himself to be a Hegelian.
It of course also changes the nature of power through time, as Hegel's notion of political, economic history would be taken up by Marx, but what interests us here, chiefly, is the nature of making a people exist, taking the idea that the writer must find their voice and turning it into a more insistent political question of having one. In Baldwin's work finding one's way and finding one's voice are closely linked. Baldwin's grandfather was a slave; a couple of generations later Baldwin was living in the posh village of St Paul de Vence in the south of France, a celebrated figure who could make a living from his pen (his chosen method because "you achieve shorter declarative sentences"). Yet this isn't about a conventional notion of success, just as we don't care either for the clich of finding one's own voice. As he says to Margaret Mead in A Rap on Race, one evening he was at a cocktail party and Baldwin was "trying to say something about my country, and [a famous American intellectual] said to me, "what are you crying about, Jimmy? You've made it." I couldn't believe I heard him. Made what?" What is interesting is the Hegelian idea of a writer who finds his way, finds his voice and makes his way despite the odds being against the possibility, and what this says about a writer of his time and in his time.
There are many writers for whom the notion of struggle has no place, and Updike would be one such example. It isn't just that Updike quickly secured work at the always well-paid New Yorker magazine; it is more that the writing itself didn't have to fight against anything, didn't need to position itself as an imposition. Updike can write onUncle Tom's Cabin and quote Baldwin writing in a manner we couldn't imagine of the urbane writer who lived no less well than Baldwin in upstate New York. Updike mentions Baldwin writing on Harriet Beecher Stowe's book, with Baldwin saying "here, black equate with evil and white with grace; if, being mindful of the necessity of good works, she could not cast out the black - a wretched, huddled mass, apparently claiming, like an obsession, her inner eye - she could not embrace them either without purifying them of sin. She must cover their intimidating nakedness, robe them in white, the garments of salvation." (Due Considerations) Baldwin attacks; Updike accommodates. The latter lived happily in the cradle of Protestant America. "Most Americans haven't had my happy experience of living for thirteen years in a seventeenth-century house, since most of America lacks seventeenth-century houses. But not New England, and especially not Ipswich, Massachusetts..." (Architectural Digest) Baldwin felt safer living elsewhere.
We don't use Updike arbitrarily. In the Paris Review Baldwin says "The world of John Updike, for instance, does not impinge on my world...Obviously, I'm not making a very significant judgment about Updike. It's entirely subjective, what I'm saying. In the main, the concerns of most white Americans (to use that phrase) are boring, and terribly, terribly self-centered. In the worst sense." We needn't ourselves attack Updike in noting Baldwin's reservations about this chronicler of middle-class, white America, and Updike did on occasion address black experience in his work - Skeeter in Rabbit Redux for example, a criminal and black nationalist, but Updike is known for his examination of white, protestant experience, usually comfortably off, or as in the Rabbit Books, steadily moving towards it as the four novels cover post-war US prosperity.
But enough of Updike, and enough contextualizing of Baldwin's place as an oppositional figure in American Letters. How does this manifest in the work itself, and most especially the short story collection, Going to Meet the Man? The strongest story in the book is probably the last, titular one. Here Baldwin views a small town sheriff in bed with his wife who thinks back to his own childhood. Jesse recalls witnessing a black man hanged while his father was sheriff. The occasion was almost festive, with his dad showing no pity over the black man's demise and everyone taking the opportunity to picnic. The framing story is perhaps less effective than the main, flashback narrative, with Jesse the impotent white man who can only get aroused when taking on the role of a black man screwing his wife. "Come on, sugar, I'm going to do you like a nigger, just like a nigger." And yet the story impressively, imagistically and symbolically, plays up the emasculation of the white man in the face of the previous generation's literal castration of the black. "The man with the knife took the nigger's privates in his hand, one hand, still smiling, as though he were weighing them...then Jesse screamed the crowd screamed as the knife flashed, first up, then down, cutting the dreadful thing away." If the story moves beyond the obviousness of its thematic, it does so through the vivid particulars Baldwin provides. Perhaps the difference between a weak symbol and a strong one rests on the verisimilitude of the fact and the plausibility of the psychology, and on these counts Baldwin's notion of phallic symbolism passes the test. As he describes the lynching in detail, he does so through the memory of a boy traumatised by the incident to the point that it removes his masculinity psychologically as his father helped remove the black man of a previous generation literally. Written in 1965, we might see a subtle Hegelianism at work: that a previous generation would lynch the black man, but now that isn't quite so easy as the man is kept in a cell. "The boy rolled around in his own dirt and water and blood and tried to scream again as the prod hit his testicles...He was not supposed to kill the nigger."
Can we see some sort of perverse progress at work here? In previous generations the black man could be castrated and murdered; now he can 'merely' have his testicles electrocuted. At the same time, the white man is genitally emasculated, unable under his own steam to get an erection without imagining himself as a figure of greater sexual potency. Baldwin's story is a phallic tale if ever there was one, but as we have noted the symbolism is contained by a frightening reality, both historical and psychological. Baldwin's tale avoids on the one hand 'preaching' - telling a story simply about injustice - and on the other clumsy symbolism where we feel the images have been imposed on the story. The historical and the symbolic are offered through the vivid reality of a white man recalling what his father did to a black man a generation earlier, and what he does to a black man in this one, and what he cannot easily do to his wife without a fantasy of himself in his head.
In the Paris Review Baldwin is asked: "Would you suggest that a young writer from a minority consecrate himself to that minority, or is his first obligation his own self-realization as a writer?" The question is asked as if the novelist has a choice, and up to a point perhaps they might have one. Indeed, Baldwin wonders whether his distance from Ralph Ellison resides partly on this issue. "I gather Ralph did not like what he considered I was doing to myself on the civil-rights road. " Baldwin says. "And so, we haven't seen each other." Baldwin became a spokesman for the movement, but if 'Going to Meet the Man' works as fiction, it rests on taking a subject that would be pertinent to the issue of civil rights, and finding in it images that cannot be reduced to the polemical. When in the story the narrator says, observing the central character's thoughts, "they hate him, and this hatred was blacker than their hearts, blacker than their skins, redder than their blood, and harder, by far, than his club," he thinks: "perhaps this is what the singing had meant all along. They had not been singing black folks into heaven, they had been singing white folks into hell." When Baldwin says he has no interest in seeing himself as a victim (Paris Review), it might reside here. Instead of turning the black man into a victim, he turns the white man into a victim of his own people's racism, and suggests that blacks have so much hatred within them that they can't wish their people into heaven; they must first wish the white people into hell.
This helps explain Baldwin's remark about fiction taking the writer to places that they wouldn't wish to go. Civil rights might demand affirmation; the freeing of one's people. But fiction cannot always countenance such an optimistic perspective and sees to the heart of a problem that continues beyond civil-rights to uncivil thoughts. When Baldwin suggests that the writer shouldn't describe but show it sounds like a variation of show-don't-tell, but perhaps by using describe we can see fiction as offering three choices instead of two: describing, showing and telling. The writer can describe something and give the impression of showing, but this can just seem like extraneous detail. In theNew Republic, William Giraldi says while writing on To Kill a Mockingbird, "curiously, those most qualified to comment upon Mockingbird chose not to do so. James Baldwin lived 27 more years after Mockingbird was published and nowhere in his collected essays, and nowhere in any interview I could find, does he see fit even to mention it." But perhaps (if Baldwin had an opinion at all) this wouldn't lie in Baldwin's problem with the book's subject matter; it might instead concern the way it is written. Baldwin's work seems much sparer than Lee's, with Baldwin trying to show racial hatred while Lee so often appears to describe it. Baldwin manages to say in a few pages what it takes Lee an entire novel to say, and thus Baldwin would be unlikely to criticise Lee for writing about a black man charged with rape in the south. No, as he says, when asked whether he had a problem with William Styron writing the Confessions of Nat Turner, about a black slave,: "I will not tell another writer what to write." (Paris Review) Yet he would be much more likely to tell a writer how to write, saying "that's what I try to teach all young writerstake it out! Don't describe a purple sunset, make me see that it is purple." (Paris Review) Perhaps he would be inclined to criticise overwriting as a writer's way of escaping from the difficult truths they have to face. Baldwin doesn't want to describe the horrors in 'Going to Meet the Man', he wants to show them. If we have the phrase the telling detail, maybe it captures well something between showing and telling: the capacity to find in words the images and thoughts that confront the terrible. Now this wouldn't be the awful castration and hanging in the past, nor even the abuse and torture of the black man in the present. It is in the horror of the white man unable to function without projecting his sexuality into a black man, and that of the black man preferring to see the white man in hell rather than the black man in heaven. The telling details get to the point. This horrible realisation seems absent in the much more liberally minded To Kill a Mocking Bird, and perhaps partly because Harper Lee cannot find a truth to expose because there is instead an issue to be addressed.
Another of Baldwin's most famous stories is 'Sonny's Blues', about someone whose brother is a Jazz musician and heroin addict, with the story starting on a drugs bust and ending on the narrator listening to his brother play in a bar. Between those two places, the story investigates the lives of these two brothers, wonders about the destruction of heroin and the criminality involved, and the construction of music and how Sonny finds himself in it. His blues are twofold, an addiction to drugs and a need for music, but they are hardly comparable, even if they might be inseparable. The story is narrated by Sonny's educated brother, a teacher with a wife and kids. At one moment Sonny tries to describe to his brother what it was like being hooked as he intermingles music with smack. "'Sometimes, you know, and it was actually when I was most out of the world, I felt that I was in it, that I was with it, came out of me, it was there. And I don't know how I played, thinking about it now, but I know I did awful things, those times, sometimes to people." We needn't read the story as an autobiographical account at one remove; that Baldwin is writing about his own interest in alcohol, but rather some principle that Baldwin sees behind creativity and an altered state. In Paris Review he says that "I don't know any writers who don't drink. Everybody I've been close to drinks. But you don't drink while you're working." There is this idea that alcohol might enhance creativity but it doesn't help the process: partly what he explores in 'Sonny's Blues' is that the drug's capacity for opening up spaces is also the very thing that can lead to the abandonment of the act itself. When the narrator goes to watch his brother play in a bar he notes that Sonny hadn't been near the piano for a year, and wonders for the first time "how awful the relationship must be between the musician and his instrument. He has to fill it, this instrument, with the breath of life, his own." The story ends on alcohol and music as a girl comes and puts a Scotch and milk on top of the piano. At first Sonny doesn't notice it, before taking a sip, looking at the narrator and placing it back where it was. The narrator concludes saying: "for me...it glowed and shook above my brother's head like the very cup of trembling."
If the story investigates the nature of addiction, and that music and heroin are interrelated, so also is the problem of addiction and race: "the reason I wanted to get away from Harlem so bad was to get away from drugs." A positive ambition contains within it the necessity to escape the negative. The creative person from a deprived background isn't just showing ambition; they are often fleeing from a situation. The more society generates opportunities within an oppressed or poor community, the more chances there are and less great is the need to escape. Sonny's escape into heroin is generally a retreat: he can forget the Harlem world he is in so gets lost in an opiate fog. Baldwin's Hegelianism here would be social: that it wouldn't be enough for an individual to make something of themselves; the optimism resides in a societal shift that wouldn't make them an exception.
In the exchange with Margaret Mead, Baldwin says in response to Mead's acceptance that "there's no way for [a boy in Harlem]...to see that he will ever get anywhere", that "he won't ever have any control over his own destiny, which is the most demoralizing thing that there is." (A Rap on Race) How to remoralize, Baldwin might say, and this isn't the moralising of the preacher, who goes back to the bible and finds ancient words of wisdom, but forward to a political amelioration that insists on improving opportunities for those so often deprived. This is where aesthetics can meet ethics, where social change can meet aesthetic possibilities: where a black literature can be born. There may have been the occasional work in the 19th century, with Our Wig andThe Bondwoman's Narrative, My Bondage and My Freedom and Twelve Years a Slave, but it wasn't till the Harlem Renaissance between the wars, with Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright that African-American literature hinted at a collective voice: that the creation of literature could be a valid option, and not a freak possibility. Yet there Mead and Baldwin were, talking in 1971, and still there was the boy from Harlem who couldn't expect much from life. For all the apparent progress, it remained a limited one, and the escapees exceptional.
Baldwin explores some of these problems in 'This Morning, This Evening, so Soon'. Here the story starts with the narrator's partner saying "you are so full of nightmares." Harriet is from Sweden and she and the narrator, a black Jazz singer and actor, are living with their young son in Paris. The narrator is travelling back to the States the following day, and is anxious about the future as he thinks about the past. He also wonders whether Harriet and he would have ever got together in the US. "If Harriet had been born in America, it would have taken her a long time, perhaps forever, to look on me as a man like other men." He adds: "If I had met her in America, I would never have been able to look on her as a woman like all other women. The habits of public rage and power would also have been our private compulsions." France he feels allows him to be himself by feeling under no obligation to be anything in particular. He is not a man who has been dragged to the US as mercantile property, but a free man travelling in Europe. His travelling is of his own steam rather than a genealogical product of a boat trip a century earlier. It is as though in Europe he can move around without baggage; in the States he is always lumbered and encumbered.
Yet Baldwin's rage here is nuanced, as the central character's own well being in France is threatened by his return to the US, and his freedom in Europe contrasted with a North African whose status in France is a little like his in America. When some friends go to a bar, one of the women present loses her purse; the north African is the proposed culprit. The narrator doesn't assume his friend is innocent; more that there will be reasons why he might be guilty. He is a petty thief, but the narrator knows that usually he would steal from strangers and not friends. If he has stolen it probably reflects his absolute desperation and destitution rather than a moral lapse. Morality has little place here: the friend's purpose is to survive in a society that gives him almost no credence. When he asks one of the girls to dance and she is willing this is a surprise: usually, he expects and accepts rejection. Here we see a narrator who, like Baldwin, has made it, but Baldwin cannot see a personal success as much of a victory if it oppresses others in his place.
Earlier we invoked the Hegelian both socially and aesthetically. What do we mean by this? Little more in this context than the nature of change: Hegel's phenomenology of spirit. Here there might not necessarily be progress (this would be Marx's spin on the Hegelian), but there will be transformation. An artist with what we will call a Hegelian bent can insist on this change socially to the detriment of the aesthetic; or they can pursue it for its furtherance. In other words, there are some who reflect the zeitgeist and others who harness it. Some who become so involved in the politics of their time that they cannot quite find the space to create the aesthetic within it. Others who know that the spirit of the times is an opportunity to generate an aesthetic that can transform art itself. While Aristotle and Kant were concerned with the principles of art, Hegel was much more interested as we have noted in the way art changes over time. However, if an artist insists on writing for their time over their art, does this lead to weak aesthetics: to a message over an artefact? Equally, if the writer focuses on the artefact over the moment out of which they are working, does the work atrophy, offering no more than a stale conservatism? This is partly what Hermann Broch proposes in his examination of art and time in Geist and Zeitgeist: "This means that within the empirical world, and thus in history too (for the empirical world is in time and thus in history), the esthetics is the ethical become reality." Did Ellison feel, though, that Baldwin had moved too far from the aesthetic to the ethical, and failed to find the timeless within the timely?
Perhaps. We wouldn't want to deny that Baldwin was a powerful speaker for civil rights: witness his oratory in Ove's film, and also a debate at Cambridge University with William F. Buckley. He was also a fine essayist: evident in Notes on Native Son and The Devil Finds Work. But there is also in this short collection a writer who wants to explore the edge of identity rather than, very understandably, challenge power. There is in the three stories we have explored a variation on the Cartesian notion of thinking therefore I am. Whether it happens to be Sonny's need to escape Harlem to discover himself in the music, the central character in 'Going to Meet the Man' who cannot quite trust his sexual instincts unless he thinks himself into a black identity, or the narrator in 'This morning, This Evening' who knows that his sense of self and positive thinking rest on exile from his country, Baldwin often goes close to the bone. This is the raw nerve of literature rather than the holding of one's nerve required for public speaking. The preacher boy may never have lost that particular skill, but if Baldwin matters in the literary context it will be for what he exposes in the fiction; not for what he expresses through a verbal dexterity that made him a speaker of some significance. Yet he was no Martin Luther King (whom he admired so enormously that he came close to collapsing on hearing of his death). That was not his point or purpose: the raw nerve was more important than the held one. A figure content in his time or happily out of it wouldn't have been so willing to tease that nerve, to generate the literary out of a troublesome nexus of homosexuality, racial prejudice, and exile. "I was not born to be what someone said I was. I was not born to be defined by someone else, but by myself, and myself only." (James Baldwin: The Last Interview)
© Tony McKibbin