February 20, 2005
From Stanley Cavell
On the evening of February 24, 2005
I will not be where Cathleen and I want to be, in Albuquerque with others of Gus’s friends gathered with his family, but instead I am to give a talk that evening some five thousand miles from there, at the Cinematheque in Lisbon, as I agreed some months ago to do, introducing a series of a dozen films they have scheduled there beginning with It Happened One Night and The Lady Eve and The Philadelphia Story. These are three of countless films Gus and I spent time on together and I thank him for that in a book I wrote about such films. I thank him in other books for other conversations. But I profited from those conversations beyond any thanks I know how to give. And I know that others trying to get on with writing books or making other things have the same causes for gratitude I have and feel the same way I do. What I do not know is of anyone else whose range of friends, and whose care of his friends, was as great as Gus’s. He knew people, and kept up with people, from all the lives he had led, or was living, seeming to have room in his memory for writings and images made by everyone, famous and not, that he had ever come across who showed a talent for doing something or saying something or playing something distinctive, and Gus had the rare knack and the tact of forming words of encouragement for them. There kept being new names, some strange to me, some known to many, entering his conversation, or into one of his delirious monologues from a theater of his own. He finished some memorable projects, and I believe others also must have tried and cried to get him to finish more, small and large. It is frightening to think how many unfinished projects there must be heavy evidence of, ones he was right never to give up on. This means that numbers of people who would have cared to know may not know what we know. But we know it. And I join in celebrating it.
Allan Graham: As REAL as thinking
SITE Santa Fe presents an exhibition by New Mexico-based artist Allan Graham featuring a comprehensive overview of his work. The exhibition, entitled Allan Graham/TH: AS REAL as thinking, is curated by Kathleen Shields. The unusual title of the exhibition comes from AS REAL as thinking, a line from a Robert Creeley poem together with TH that stands for Toadhouse, a pseudonym that Allan Graham worked under for part of his career.
Born in 1943, Allan Graham has lived in New Mexico for nearly 35 years. Among other exhibitions, Graham showed Cave of Generation at the Fisher Landau Center, Long Island City, New York in 1992 and The Collection of Panza di Biumo, Artists of the 80s and 90s at Museo D’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Trento and Roveretto, Italy in 1996. Collections of Graham’s work are at the Museo Cantonale d’Arte, Lugano, Switzerland; the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Georgia; the Museum of Fine Arts, Santa Fe, New Mexico; and the University of New Mexico Art Museum, Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Allan Graham/TH: AS REAL as thinking will present selected works from the past 15 years in individual, yet interrelated, installations that both underscore the experience of the respective groups of works and tie together the forms and ideas that underlie them. Concurrently, SITE Santa Fe will present a gallery of paintings, selected by Allan Graham, by his friend and fellow artist Oli Sihvonen (1921-1991).
AS REAL as thinking will include works such as Judas Hangs Himself, 1984, a pivotal piece in which the painting support seems to have turned inside out or its surface to have been split and turned in on itself and Moon II, 1986, representing the period during which Graham abandoned the traditional painting format to create a series of large, eccentrically shaped, monochrome canvases.
Also part of the exhibition, TIDE, 1995, featuring four sets of cast bronze coffee mugs placed on the floor suggests the simple beauty of everyday objects while offering subtle allusions to intersections of presence and absence, fullness and emptiness.
Gus Blaisdell, Stanley Cavell, David Jones – Living Batch Bookstore Albuquerque, New Mexico
Excerpt of Stanley Cavell’s Forward from Gus Blaisdell Colllected.
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:
∙ xi ∙ Foreword Stanley Cavell ■ Only for the months Gus came to Cambridge and, whatever else caught his interest, participated in my seminar every week at Harvard on film and philosophy through the fall of 1984, did we spend the kind of time together that those who knew him through years in Albuquerque could count on. They will be able to testify better than I to the radiating figure Gus assumed among interlocking or mutually shunning groups of writers and intellectuals, artists and academics, and other offshoots knowable from the vicinity of the famous and inspiring bookstore he molded and tended a block or two from the University of New Mexico. Yet while Cathleen and I visited Albuquerque over a couple of decades just three or four times, for a total of probably no more than two or three weeks, the man I knew is fully continuous with the marvelous sketches rendered by Ira Jaffe and David Morris, just now reaching my inbox. They both refer to Gus’s sometimes singling out my writing for special praise. I too, of course, was sometimes struck by this. Since I was aware of the range of gifted people Gus knew, I explained this periodic favoring of my work as his taking heart for his own work, specifically, from my varying efforts to resist the isolating or insulating of philosophy and the arts from each other in so much American writing in the field. I suppose it is since his death, and noticing my eightieth year come and go, that I have come to see Gus’s unique, tireless way of weaving isolation with intimacy in a further, I would say more particular, light. If Gus had vowed to various of the gods in his care that in case he could not complete the projects of writing he had in mind, along with myriad drafts in hand, he would nevertheless take the time to see to his artistic and intellectual and moral immortality by permanently etching his spirit on the consciousness, and beyond, of friends and strangers. Often with apparent xii ∙ foreword abandon, but so characteristically, in return, incorporating a fragment associated with a companion, present or absent, of any depth or era whose talent he had tasted and had instantly and endlessly metabolized, he could hardly have been more faithful and successful in this mission. How else can one explain the eerie agreement among his untotaled company of friends and strangers concerning his learning and accomplishments (abstract and concrete ), and his love of learning and accomplishment, and hence sometimes, his all the more intimately self-punishing hesitations before his ambitions for his own writing and philosophy and languages and passionate curiosities , his own angles of world sense? There is, I take it for granted, ready agreement that Gus’s capacities for friendship and for original modes of conversation—conversations characteristically demanding of him turns of improvised impressions, some doubtless lovingly burnished over years, of characters real or abstracted or invented, from rappers to orators, across all races—were touched with genius. But, as my speculation just now about his divine bargain was meant to mark, there is no comparably shared understanding about the motivation, or say, rather, the ferocity of energy, that brought him to and served him in fashioning, and attacking, his version of existence. Many of us will have been beneficiaries of his encouragement.The capacity to praise pertinently is terribly rare and must have taken various emphases within Gus’s circles among those who benefited from it. In the rest of my few pages here, I want to say something more particular about how this was between Gus and me. Several people have asked me about an unusually regular series of phone calls that engaged us for some time following Gus’s return to Albuquerque. (At the end of that Harvard fall term, just after the middle of December, Gus drove me in his truck to the Boston airport for my lonesome departure to Jerusalem to join a literary/philosophy group half way through its year of work, Cathleen and our two sons meant to follow some weeks later. So the series of phone calls probably began when I returned at the beginning of the following summer.) Gus and I had learned that we each began work early in the day, and though our different time zones prevented the simultaneity of the hour, we managed effectively to begin a number of our days with a call. My understanding of the…
On a postcard from Lewis Baltz to Geoff Young:
Dear Geoff, Just returned from Paris to find your ‘O Hermie, O Augie’ (an edited collection of letters between Geoff and Gus) waiting for me. I’ve never properly mourned Gus because I’ve never really believed that he is dead. I’m perfectly prepared to accept the Death of God, even the Death of Art, but the Death of Gus is inconceivable. Hearing his voice–loud and clear–in ‘O Hermie’ reconfirms my belief that Gus is immortal and eternal.
Below find an excerpt of Bldgs by Gus Blaisdell, his first essay on Lewis Baltz. Originally published in Three Photographic Visions, 1977. Republished in Gus Blaisdell Collected, University of New Mexico Press 2012.
I regret that I must begin in a quandary. But since I am in it and have been in it ever since I first began trying to think and write about Lewis Baltz’s photography over two years ago, this quandary is not only the place from which I must begin but it may also be the place in which, entangled, embroiled, and exasperated once again, I am forced to conclude.
Allow me to elaborate in a figure so that I may come to the various questions which will clearly indicate the ranges of my confusing (but not inchoate) concerns.
In the room in which I am presently writing this essay everything is concrete. That simple italicized phrase struck me the other morning with all the philosophical force of a secular revelation. And it persisted throughout the whole day, nagged during the conscious moments of a fitful night, and was still hauntingly present this morning when, in a mood of exasperation bordering on despondency, I once again sat down to yet another revision of my seemingly endless, as yet unfinished essay on the work of Lewis Baltz–my project a pile of notebooks, pages, file cards, jots and scribblings that has been with me nearly every day since that day in 1975 when I unexpectedly received in the mail a complimentary copy of The New Industrial Parks Near Irvine, California. As I leafed through the book it steadily dawned on me that Baltz was doing something in photography specifically and in art generally that had not been done before in either domain. His work stood forth as a summary limit and an extension, a point at which the promise in the work of others was engendered and fulfilled, and a point beyond which nobody else had gone. So strong was this conviction that it expressed itself paradoxically, that Lewis Baltz was a painter who had chosen photography instead of paint in which to make significant objects. The paradox here is not in the apparent restrictions consequent upon such a choice but in the media Baltz would be crossing and in the successful translations he would have to achieve. A painter who used photography–there was something of Japanese aesthetics in that, and in the restriction of means and the accepting of the automatisms that constitute photography, further limiting this medium to work in black and white fixed images.
Again, the above also had the philosophical force of worldly revelation and it has persisted, often annoyingly, throughout the years that have lead to the present writing in this room in which everything is concrete. Nothing here is abstract unless it is my mind or the meanings my written words may carry as my sentences achieve equilibrium. Everything in this room except mind and meaning is photographable, will yield an individuated aspect that can be fixed upon film. (The difficult “things in this room” that are not obviously individual and thus fixable are light, dark, and the shadows cast by the interruption of light by objects. None of these seem either trivially concrete or plainly abstract. Penumbral seems to be the accurate term here. And the penumbral is difficult for photography not only as object matter–what the camera points at out there–but also as subject matter, what gets fixed in the frame and shown in the print; and what takes its further meanings, beyond the frame and outside the print, from whatever network of knowledge happens to contain the print centrally and essentially like an idiom or a poem.)
The only conceivable thing in this room which might be wholly abstract in relation to every other photographable thing is a photograph by Lewis Baltz, Maryland 24, a photograph which is endlessly a reminder of this quandary in which I daily encounter my thought…
a poem discovered, unfinished, unsent,
from son to father
Dreamenwound so enhanced
High noon shadowless except
Under the soles of your boots
Glaring blaze of noon a sound
Silences engulf and swelter
“How can man die better
Than facing fearful odds
For the ashes of his fathers
And the temples of his gods”
Around him throng the fathers
To press his gory hands
Horizon for these notions disappear
Erasing the ideas. A blackboard
Once had diagrams of the offense
Navy beats Army yesterday. And I say
This one is for you, my old dead dad.
For whom I was always being
Knocked galley west, my timbers shivered
The sun was always over the yardarm
Somewhere in the world. Aye, matey!
The Snake said, It’s the black spot for ye!
Can’t get back the dreamenwound
Lost in the bacon, toast, and scrambled eggs
In this morning’s breakfast
At the Frontier, another horizon, a limit To discoveries mainly indigestive.
a letter finished, sent, father to son
Dear Luc 12-6-84
Here’s a little something. Have a fine Christmas.
I also think of you a lot, concern and love, not worry and irritation. I too had trouble finding my place in a world that mostly scared me and one for which I felt almost completely inadequate: I was school smart but not worldly wise. I stumbled along and was lucky – as I said to you the last time we were together, if I could give you anything I have it would be my luck. But luck, it now occurs to me, is not passive. Good sense can be made out of believing we have a hand in our luck, we help make it, get ourselves in shape for it and ready ourselves to receive it (Religious people call this Gods grace because you can’t bargain for it. He gives or withholds it nobody knows how or why.)
You have a good heart and a sound intelligence. Anger and fear can offset the first, even ruin it. It is more important to have a good heart than a fine or great mind, and you have that, strong like your ability at basketball. I wonder how we could put it to the wonderful use it deserves?
Schools are odd places. They speak a strange language. Many people learn it, get the hang of the jargon – for that is what it is: plain English could as easily be spoken. But as with anything strange or foreign it can be translated into the more basic, plain and direct words of your own experience. You have to get the hang of it. One of the most important things we can learn is to be good listeners and to feel what other people are feeling, where they are coming from, their need, desires and wants. Would you feel ignorant if hearing Japanese spoken by me you didn’t understand what I was saying? No, because you could ask me to translate that into English and would know that if you could or wanted to you too could learn that odd language. Academese, the jargon spoken in schools, is just a sublanguage of English – like hipsters, bloods and Valley girls, and them argols. Learn to listen and feel, and don’t be fearful or angry. I’m reminded of something Gandhi said when he was asked by his disciples what they should do once he was gone. “Be a little kinder,” was all he said; great words, great feelings put directly and simply. Feel them. And you already have the kindness; the smarts can be picked up much more easily.
As you can see from where I began this note I’d not planned such a long letter. I guess I wanted to chat with you on the page. I want you to know these things I feel about you – kind, intelligent and loyal and loving. Nothing could be better. Your withdrawal from the world is also the world’s loss. God knows how much help it could use, how much goodness it needs –
If I go on I risk repeating myself. KISS, I tell myself. Keep It Simple Stupid, a fine rule for writing.
Don’t doubt my feelings for you.
I love you,
I just experienced the documentary film, I Am Not Your Negro directed by Raoul Peck based on James Baldwin‘s unfinished manuscript Remember This House. It is history that needs to be taught to all Americans. It is American History and can not be otherwise classified. My father, Gus Blaisdell, interviewed Baldwin in 1963. This is the article that appeared in the September issue of Alan Swallow’s Author & Journalist.
From Author & Journalist
September 1963 The Writer’s Journal
A KIDNAPPED PAGAN
by Gus Blaisdell
I am the man, I suffered, I was there,” runs the quotation from Whitman that introduces the reader to James Baldwin’s second novel, Giovanni’s Room. Then what did he bring back” And, if suffering can be said to have a depth, how deeply did he suffer? The answers are to be found in his books and, more recently, in his meteoric rise as a public figure.
I know these questions, in an article on a writer, printed in a writer’s journal, could be answered very simply, if somewhat evasively, by merely listing Baldwin’s accomplishments in the field, mentioning a few anecdotes about his personal life, and quoting a handful of his multitudinously pithy sentences. This would be a relatively harmless, albeit academic, approach, innocuous; at best a kind of Child’s Garden of James Baldwin, at worst the deadly list of a pallid bibliographer or a landscape architect, I choose a more personal track in the hope that, with luck, I might accidentally succeed in giving the reader a little of the feeling of the man. I suppose this is to venture into a no-man’s land, to move out precariously beyond the wire, and to hope, however naively, that whatever fire I may draw will be badly aimed.
My point of departure is some years back, in Denver, before I met James Baldwin, although I knew and greatly admired his work which, at that time, consisted of two novels, Go Tell It On the Mountain and Giovanni’s Room, and two collections of essays, Notes of a Native Son and Nobody Knows My Name. His powerful third novel Another Country, was nowhere in sight, except for a few oddments scattered throughout the quarterlies, and the vitriolic yest loving indictment of America, The Fire Next Time, hinted at in small asides in most of his essays, was not as yet a glint in anybody’s eye.
That time in Denver, at which I have chosen to begin, I was sitting in a grubby bar drinking too much beer and smoking too many cigarettes. The piano player, who sometimes blew a sweet coronet and dug around in the bass of the piano, accompanying himself with his left hand, had just launched into a blues of is own composition. His name was Kenny Whitson. He wore an auburn goatee, short cropped hair, and his eyes were very bright and intelligent. He sang, a little off key, in a flat , nasal voice: You got to lissen to yousef / Ever’ time you talk, / If it ain’t the truth, brother, /Then turn you back and walk.
I was struck by these blues and , writing about Baldwin now, with three novels and three collections of short stories to be published this fall, and also his first play, it seems to me that if these blues were meant for any living writer, they were meant for him. He does listen to himself, painfully, I’m sure, and carefully sifts out as much truth as he can get hold of; and nobody, not even the very saintly, gets a full does. He listens, sounding himself; and his rage and pain, his courageous hope and loving concern, all the seasons of his emotions, are lucidly contained in his straight forward and gracious and aristocratic prose, a prose without peer in contemporary English. And graphically embodied in nearly every national magazine, from Mademoiselle to Life to the cover of Time, we have a visual record of the man and his passion during his grueling, whistle-stop stumping for the Congress On Racial Equality [CORE].
Baldwin has had the audacious tenacity to explore and attack two of our most sacrosanct totems, sex and color, and if he has, like any writer, approached his subjects with a revolutionary attitude, still he has written about them with all the tenderness, integrity, love and courage befitting his care for America, his concern for its destiny and future.
There is no easy way for Americans to think about the subjects of color and sex because Americans are used to thinking about both topics only as Americans, the only wasy we can think. And we are an odd race. Whether the opiate is religion or sex, gin or beer, LSD-25 or hallucinatory mushrooms, we always find an excuse –calling it a reason–an alley in which to hide, or a diaper with which we gird our barely controlled loins. We wear armor, when we should go naked, when silence is all that is required; work, because leisure causes anguish; and fall asleep when labor is demanded. All this is not meant to suggest that Americans are somehow more stupid or less enlightened than,say, the French, the Swedish, or the Japanese. Rather, as Baldwin has pointed out innumerable times, I want to suggest that no matter what your particular country may be, there is always the special and unique problem of having to re-evaluate the institutions of your land in terms of yourself , not in terms laid down by society as constituting your self. Social institutions and rules are, I suppose, always normative. But when they become sacred and totemic, they are totalitarian and dictatorial. And what makes the initial venture into the examined life (another country entirely) so difficult and dangerous and, often, fruitless and destructive, is that when one comes to criticize the totems of, say, sex and color, one is immediately confronted with a seemingly insoluble dilemma: you discover you are thinking in precisely those terms which the course of your enquiry has already rejected as inadequate. But this is, if I understand him, the journey Baldwin has invited each of us to undertake. The unexamined life is not worth living.
“I conceive of my own life as a journey towards something I do not understand, which is going towards, makes me better,” he wrote in Nobody Knows My Name. “I conceive of God, in fact, as a means of liberation and not a means of control.” And in The Fire Next Time, he returns to the concept of God, grown totemic in the intervening years: “If the concept of God has any validity and any use, it can only make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him.”
It is his voice that surprises you at first; then it is his concentration and the passion with which he delivers his sentences. He speaks softly, as if off the top of his soft palate. His r’s come out as ah’s his o’s with an a-ish sound, and his face is softly composed, almost malleable in its expressions, but hard and determined from listening to himself.
He speaks easily and clearly, and he is always willing to say that he hasn’t an easy answer to that one, or that his interlocutor is confused. “The terms are wrong. We can’t talk clearly about that…yet,” and his face may break into a broad warm smile, or he may laugh with a visceral ebullience peculiarly his own. He is a beautiful man, and a very brave one, and a writer we should all be proud of, especially when he presses our faces into slops of our own making.
In one of his finest essays, a love letter to Norman Mailer called The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy, Baldwin makes a distinction, marking out the difference between Mailer and himself, that will later appear as one of the fundamental axioms of The Fire Next Time:
“There is a difference, though, between Norman and myself in that I think he still imagines he has something to save, whereas I have never had anything to lose. Or, perhaps I ought to put it another way: the things that most white people imagine that they can salvage from the storm of life is really, in sum, their innocence. It was this commodity precisely that I had to get rid of at once, literally, on pain of death. I am afraid that most of the white people I have ever known have impresses me as being in the grip of a weird nostalgia, dreaming of a vanished state of security and order, against which dream, unfailingly and unconsciously, they have tested and very often lost their lives.”
This essay caused an apparently irremedial rift between Mailer and Baldwin. Time and again Mailer has snipped at Baldwin in print. Baldwin has never replied. The split came over Baldwin’s criticism of Mailer’s White Negro, the Maileresque portrait of the American hipster and existentialist.
Somewhere in The Rebel, Albert Camus wrote that “every act of rebellion expresses a desire for order and a nostalgia for innocence.” And Mailer and Baldwin mutually enjoy the rebellious, existential stance. Both are concerned with the same issues, but their divergence is so radical and drastic that it often seems they inhabit altogether different worlds. Where Baldwin is religious, in some fundamental, rock-bottom sense, Mailer is romantic; where Mailer has gone into the penumbra of experience, where he has traveled to the very edge, and lingered too long, and been wounded, perhaps fatally, Baldwin has moved from the outskirts of the city into its epi-center, and made his uncomfortable residence in the ground-zero of the American heart. Consider the difference.
In the ubiquitous figure of the White Negro, Mailer has come to terms with atrocity by romanticizing it out of focus. His hipster is white, with a black soul-which is funky, the essence of hip his hipster lives, we are told, continually with the terms of death his benighted unconscious stamped with a limp metaphysical version of the extermination camp and the possibility of thermonuclear destruction, that fire next time; and his hipster is concerned with transcending the maddening mechanism of time, of kicking it entirely and entering what Cumming’s called the “one hell of a universe next door.” The only example of such transcendence Mailer has produced is sexual orgasm.
In short, whether Mailer’s effort is a brave one or a useless one, his hipster-the salvation of this cancerous world-is sadistic, anally erotic, an orgy-hunter, murderous,, and benumbed to such an extreme point that his only source of real pleasure lies in committing sexual atrocities. But when atrocity becomes thus palatable and sweet, however romanticized and apologized for, one has produced the monstrosity of an intellectual Buchenwald where, true to their penultimate calling, Mailer’s hipsters are the guards, at the outermost periphery of experience, giggling in their towers and clutching their machine guns like a young lover his new bride.
Necrophilia is not a way to come to terms with death, and a romantic abstraction of the ghoul or necrophile is neither very hip nor very existential. the pity of all this is that a fairly competent talent is wasting itself by merely reveling in the signs of a creeping putrefaction he diagnoses all around himself.
“The American bedroom has become a private concentration camp,” Baldwin said, talking quietly on the themes of color and sex. “And sexuality, sexual morality and sexual responsibility, is one of the biggest themes an American writer can undertake. It’s part of his responsibility as a writer, an obligation to himself. I suppose I put it in this way because America, at least in its conversation, comes on as so sexually enlightened and sophisticated. Well, it simply isn’t true, baby.”
In Giovanni’s Room, a novel ostensibly concerned with a doomed homosexual relationship, Baldwin explores the notions of responsibility and morality in the beginning of the novel, David meditates on his life with Giovanni and on Giovanni’s imminent death on the guillotine: “People can’t unhappily, invent their mooring post, their lovers and their friends, any more than they can invent their parents. Life gives these and also takes them away and the great difficulty is to say yes to life.” This and a few other sections from Giovanni’s Room have been recorded recently on Calliope Records. On the back of this record there is a short illuminating quotation from the New York Times in which Baldwin states his attitude towards writing:
“I think I really helplessly model myself on jazz musicians and try to write the way they sound. I am not an intellectual, not in the dreary sense that word is used today, and do not want to be: I am aiming at what Henry James called ‘perception at the pitch of passion.”
In Giovanni’s Room and his third novel, Another Country, Baldwin comes close to realizing this desired perception. Another Country explores the problems created by color and sex in the lives of eight New Yorkers. It is written in a straight third-person narrative style and its hero and protagonist is a woman, Ida Scott. She is the only character in the book that Baldwin simply presents to the reader; unlike the other characters Baldwin never analyzes Ida, revealing her motives and weaknesses to the reader encapsulated in several paragraphs. Ida reveals herself, and she moves through New York like a fallen angel waiting for its wing to heal. She has no delusions. She is aware of her need for love, and she is equally aware of the limitations imposed on her solely because of the color of her skin. Even this knowledge does not cause her to live or love resignedly. She is, to use an archaic phrase, courageous, and, unlike the doomed Giovanni or David, Ida also wounded and betrayed, is still able to say Yes to life, without having to lick her wounds. She has not made a peace; she lives in a world of war-torn emotions and has come to terms with her world. Perhaps, because she is such a stride forward for Baldwin, Ida’s strength is, in fact, so great that she has forced life to come to terms with herself.
The virtues represented by Ida Scott become moral and philosophical principles in Baldwin’s latest and most controversial book, The Fire Next Time. Fire is part autobiography, part doomsday prophecy, and part exhortation.
“The spirit of rebellion,” Camus writes in The Rebel, “can only exist where a theoretical equality conceals great factual inequalities.” And the rebel’s most persistent, gnawing question is, “Is it possible to find a rule of conduct outside the realm of religion and its absolute value?” This is one of the basic questions posed in Fire and, in terms of this searching query, the factual inequalities of the racial situation are brutally unmasked.
No more water, the first next
Fire is a tough, grim book, its message is love, and what gives the book its body and sinew is Baldwin’s personal experience as an American negro incarcerated in Harlem, a ghetto in which he was set down to perish simply because his skin was black, the details and symbols of his life constructed and pre-established for him long before his birth. This is the more grisly aspect of a functioning totem, and Harlem, in Baldwin’s eyes, is a kind of unguarded extermination camp in which the victims undo themselves because they have allowed themselves to believe what “the Man” (whites) has said about them. It is one thing, and not an easy one by any means, to be an American; it is entirely something else to be both American and black:
“Yes, it does mean something- something unspeakable- to be born, in a white country, an Angle-Teutonic, anti-sexual country, black.”
Once we have learned to love each other, then, according to Baldwin, we shall no longer require the negro as a symbol and a scapegoat, an essential ingredient in filthy jokes, and a pornographically murky symbol of sexual prowess. But if we refuse, if we continue to hold the negro in abeyance, the result might possibly be disastrous.
“If one is permitted to treat any group of people with special disfavor because of their race or the color of their skin, there is no limit to what one will force them to endure, and, since the entire race has been mysteriously indicted, no reason not to attempt to destroy it root and branch. This is precisely what the Nazis attempted. Their only originality lay in the means they used. It is scarcely worthwhile to attempt remembering how many times the sun has looked down on the slaughter of innocents. I am very much concerned that American Negroes achieve their freedom here in the United States. But I am also concerned for their dignity, for the health of their souls, and must oppose any attempt that Negroes may make to do to others what has been down to them…
Whoever debases others is debasing himself. That is not a mystical statement but a most realistic one, which is proved by the eyes of any Alabama sheriff—and I would not like to see the Negroes ever arrive at so wretched a condition.” (Italics Baldwin’s.)
Throughout this piece i have often compared Baldwin to Camus. This comparison, I believe, is apt and precise. Baldwin, like Camus before him, is staking his life on life itself and, without the help or hindrance of religion, he is looking for human nobility and grandeur in a world that is , possibly, heading toward self-destruction. Nobility, graciousness, courage, candor, and bravery are pretty unhip concepts; sin, love, and guilt, have been laid to rest on the analytical couch, and the spirit of rebellion has been totemised into managerial conformity. But in the strong pen and compassionate heart of a small, wiry, relatively ugly man called James Baldwin, a kidnapped pagan, we have a voice that embodies the dilemmas of our epoch in the same way that Camus represented ourselves to us. Perhaps, if the bones roll right in the future, America will be very proud of having produced a black replica of Camus. At this point, I suppose, all one can do is offer Baldwin a few prayers: the ground-zero of the heart is far more dangerous a place to sit than the no-man’s land of the mind.