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.
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…
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.
From the abq journal 1996
Living Batch’s Last Day Dec. 24
The Living Batch, one of the oldest bookstores in New Mexico, is closing next month, after being in business on the same block for 27 years.
On Dec. 24 it will shut its doors at 106 Cornell SE, which is next door to the Frontier restaurant.
“The main reason we’re closing is that I don’t want to do it any more,” said owner Gus Blaisdell, a parttime film instructor at the University of New Mexico.
But that decision is influenced by several factors.
One is the arrival of the mega-bookstores in the Northeast Heights.
Their immediate effect is that a variety of customers no longer shop at the Living Batch.
“Before the superstores, we discovered that the most interesting sale days in our store were weekends. People drove from all over the city to come and shop,” Blaisdell said.
Another factor is his disenchantment with mainstream publishing.
“The price of books is excluding young readers,” he said, noting that three hardback books can retail for as much as $100.
Blaisdell said he’s considered, and rejected, the notion of reducing the store’s space and narrowing the subjects to what the Living Batch specializes in — alternative fiction, poetry, politics, art and architecture, psychoanalysis and works from small presses.
If the store changed its direction and size, Blaisdell said, there probably wouldn’t be sufficient readers to buy books “in these prices, in these times in Albuquerque.”
In addition, he said, none of his children nor present or former employees expressed interest in maintaining the bookstore.
“A literary period of mass readership for the small bookstore is passing out of democratic politics,” Blaisdell said. “I think inexpensive books should be available to a large number of people, if they want to read.
“So, through various circumstances, we have become extinct.”
“In the current land rush for the latest, hippest poetics, caught in the web of irony that so much contemporary poetry seems hell-bent to explore, much lineage that made current
movements possible is ignored.This is particularly problematic when that lineage encompasses counter-movements and personalities that served as necessary ballast to keep the ship of the art of its time from sinking. Independent thinkers often suffer obscurity for the sake of their ideals. The battle plains of poetic history are littered with such figures, whilst the monocled generals, astride white steeds on the hill, wax profoundly about the philosophical consequences of their actions. Publisher, poet, critic, bookstore owner, and provocateur, Gus Blaisdell (1935-2003), born Charles Augustus Blaisdell II in San Diego, was such a figure.” George Kalamaras
There is a fine review of GUS BLAISDELL Collected by George Kalamaras in the latest issue of RAIN TAXI Review of Books VOL.18 NO. 4, WINTER 2013 (#72) http://www.raintaxi.com/online/2013winter/print.php GET IT
For a jacket-copy intro to the author it would be hard to improve on the capsule snapshot by artist, poet, and publisher (and one-time Living Batch employee), J. B. Bryan, in the little Festschrift chapbook he prepared for the memorial “Celebration of Gus Blaisdell” in 2005:
Gus lived as a man of discerning mind & precise locution, as well as blurted expletive. The oppositional was his blessing & curse. Sharp, jagged, uncannily quick-witted, he sought how to see, how to know, how to lay it down. Outrageous, often enraged, he liked the scat in scatological, he could insult, he could adore, a mimic ribald & hilarious, elegant steel trap crankiness, photographic memory backed by a deep catalogue of reference wielded with fierce conviction. Within this shone profound appreciation for beauty (film, Monk, Matisse, Utamaro, photography, poetry, prose, mathematics, found objects, etc., etc.) & its precise articulation. His writings have hard-fought style with a content that requires slow, deliberate reading. Language & lingo, philosophy & logic argued toward revelation inside his own difficult critique.
Cover photo by Nicole Blaisdell Ivey