Omoide No Tsukimi for Ronald Johnson 1935—1998
It rises to self-awareness
Horizon that is always with us
Black north’s direction
Risen from the belly nightsky
Phantom blot, inkblack Heian hair
Coiled black pythoness
On moonless nights
Monk sleeves trailed through wet grasses
It hangs eternal there, never sets or climbs
Fulgent Moon 2, lightning struck through
Then back to black
What seams this darklight
But black holds back, insists
At backbehindness it sustains
Unreflecting primordial companion
All phases of the moon condense
Moon 2 takes breathing, animates itself
Without horizon other than itself, irregular oval of all moons
Even when full or crescent sickle thin slice on either end
At last Narcissus lies faceless
Bottom of unsounded pond
Face buried in a silken muck
Thankfully in reflection I am dark to myself
Tarbaby reflections of Moon 2
Glitters in the total void
Senses steep in unsounded dark
Where darkbather mind
And sunbather eyes intersect
The heart is black and madder
The soul is fishscale black
Thunder underneath the under
Heart and soul begin a fisted journey
To the behindblackness
At our backs we always feel
Always back there behind it all
From head to heel black chrysalis
Hangman’s hood or shiny bodybag.
Moon2 is an all black painting by Allan Graham. My Japanese title means remembering moonviewing. The line beginning “Thunder . . . ”, set in italic, varies a line from a manuscript, “The Imaginary Menagerie,” by the visionary poet Ronald Johnson. [Gus’s endnote.]
“We hear people talking all the time about Renaissance men. Gus Blaisdell was a Restoration rake, a creature of coffeehouses, bookstores, flaring arguments and happy reconciliations, crazy women and crazier experimentation. This book is a wonderful survey of his enthusiasms and complaints—and a fond memorial of his gift to New Mexico, and Albuquerque particularly. Gus was the absolute, undeniable, real thing. One of the few.”
Notes from a Bottle Found on the Beach at Carmel stands as an apparent hiatus in Evan Connell’s formal development. But the peculiar nature of the work is only partly structural–the mosaic technique carried a step further–and the themes it develops are consistent with the rest of Connell’s canon. The main interest of the work resides in the voice or tone of the narrator and in the formal assumptions necessary to this kind of writing, a form that appears essentially new.
A fragment of Notes, more provincial, lumpy, prosy, and less interesting, appeared in 1959 in Contact 3. Connell there remarked that he frankly did not know what the writing amounted to but that it had a curious fascination for him, like doing a complicated, private dance unobserved. Three years later, very much altered and enriched, the work appeared in full in Contact and was brought out the following year in a hardbound edition by Viking.
Kenneth Lamott, speaking for the editors when Contact devoted the December 1962 issue to Notes, characterized the writing: “It eludes the usual categories of literature, falling somewhere in the dimly defined but extraordinarily fertile area where prose and verse, fiction and nonfiction, metaphysics and science meet.” Connell himself has said of the work: “I think of it as a work of close association rather than free association;” on the form, “. . . ‘cohesion’ is as close to ’structure’ as I’d care to make it.” At the end of the editors’ introduction in Contact, writing in the style of the work itself, Connell declares his intention: “It is incumbent upon me to establish some / image whereby / all men must judge / future interpretations, believing / in the value of mine. This I do tenderly, / humbly / and with a knowledge of utter obligation.” For lack of a better term, such writing might be called “vatic.”*
Works of vatic literature are as unpopular as they are infrequent in contemporary American writing. It is only a bold or foolish writer who would undertake a work that is in direct opposition to the inherent skepticism of the American temper, that empirical or pragmatic attitude that judges all prophets false until proven valid, and then, at best, as highly dubious. Yet far more important than the climate opposed to such writing are the pitfalls within the medium itself, stumbling blocks that would seem to preclude success from the beginning.
In a sense, vatic writing, like art for art’s sake, is writing for the sake of writing. Its joys are the density of prose often archaic in syntax and diction; a delight in (and attention to) rhythm and the well-turned phrase; the precise perception; the terse tautness of apothegm and aphorism; the use of myth, esoteric lore, and bizarre fact; and the viable image. Already the writer has assumed a heavy mantle and runs many risks.
Should the fatidic tone fail, vatic writing results in rhetorical flatulence. The hyperbolic or elliptical style, together with the mythic lore, may prove elusive. If an image or myth fails to properly illuminate a part of the theme, the writing degenerates into inscrutability. In its attempt to partake of the best of prose and verse, vatic writing raises the question of how far the lyric impulse can be stretched. Or, more generally, as John Wisdom once wrote on the nature of early analytic philosophy: “It is not the stuff but the style that stupefies.” For a writer of Connell’s ability the mere stupefaction of style would be a disastrous result.
Unlike the novel or sonnet, vatic literature is not a literary form as much as it is a style or posture or stance. A prophetic or oracular voice is assumed together with a style appropriate to the fullest possible expression of that voice. Thus it can also suffer from over-richness. There are a number of interesting assumptions that must be made and met: these are the properties of the terrain as illustrated in Notes.
The medium of the writing is atemporal, allowing the narrator to range at will through time; the stage is epical. Another premise is that there are necessary, causal connections between past events and future ones; that the past, if it does not completely prefigure the future, is at least exemplary or emblematic of events to come. Unlike the Humean universe of discrete, noncausal particulars, the universe assumed here is well-ordered. The task set for the narrator is to illumine the teleology of the world. The point of view is sub specie aeternitate, assuming the unity of human nature and human purpose, and the position of the narrator is that of the mystic who, as Wittgenstein wrote, views “the world as a limited whole.” The world of Notes, similar to Wittgenstein’s world in the Tractatus, “waxes and wanes as a whole,” and the narrator records this. Atrocity and brutality are the dark of the moon; love and beauty, the full moon. There is, in Notes, an element of Yeats’ philosophy based upon the phases of the moon.
A crucial problem in this kind of writing, and one tied intimately to the atemporal structure, is the use of a disembodied voice, a narrator without individual, personal identity who changes masks at will; all the masks of time are available to him–he can be all men at all times, a particular man at a particular time–a device that results in the uneasy fact that he is nobody in particular. Space and time become points of recapitulation, coordinates for heraldic moments in the history of the human spirit.
Because individual characterization does not occur in vatic writing, there is little if any distance between author and reader, the only buffer being the elegance of the prose, the odd lore, and the incisiveness of the imagery. There is no possibility of suspending disbelief or of learning through the experiences of a character, as in a novel. Consequently, we are given the author’s truths without first having been seduced into sharing his doubts. The relationship between author and reader is litanical–prayer and response, incantation and reaction. Perhaps the greatest single risk here is that all the rich embroidery of a Penelope may issue in little more that a sampler to be hung on the wall; in this case, should Connell fail totally, instead of “God Bless Our Happy Home” we would be handed “God Damn Our Rotten World.”
If Connell’s Mrs. Bridge is characterized as a mosaic form, Notes, moving even further into the fragmentary, is kaleidoscopic. Connell seems to have had something like this in mind when the voyager of Notes writes: “The barrel turns, the crystals tumble.” This kaleidoscopic form poses an interesting metaphysical position in the book.
In a kaleidoscope a pair of plane mirrors provides the viewer with an illusion of symmetry. Each time the tube is turned, the pile of glass changes position and the symmetry reappears under a different guise. In terms of this metaphor, the reader’s task is to unearth the principle of order, thereby arriving at the crucial concerns of the work. Ideally, as in the toy, the symmetry should always be present. It is the cohesive constant.
Connell has further extended this notion to provide Notes with a cosmological model of reality. The world, like the chips in the kaleidoscope, can only be seen as ordered in a particular way. Unlike the toy, however, in the real world man can never get through the illusionary order to that hypostatized world beyond, which W.V.O. Quine has called “a fancifully fanciless medium of unvarnished news.” Connell in Notes asks us to remove our conventional spectacles, to break down the barriers and masks of our vision, and to return from our lethargic atavism with new eyes. If Notes is to be successful, something like an epiphany must take place.
The voice of the Voyager-Narrator is basically that of Magus–magician, seer, alchemist, sailor, conquistador, warrior, victim, poet, church father, anchorite, heresiarch, philosopher, executioner, and scientist. The major theme of the voyage is to be found in the recurrence of alchemical imagery. The voyager’s quest is to discover within the soul of man a formula that will transform the gross spirit into something precious. The soul is bipolar, bifurcated, Gnostic and Manichean in Connell’s world, and he continually juxtaposes prayer and creativity with brutality, as in the opening sections where he quotes in Latin the Lord’s Prayer, then delineates the butchering of a saint. The beauties of nature are opposed to the atrocities of Hiroshima and the Nazi extermination camps. Animals throughout become insignias of the beasts with the spirit of man, sometimes beautiful in their symbolic expression of human longing; at others, hideous in their viciousness. During the voyage, prehistoric monsters are found still living off the shores or Madagascar and Australia and these merge with the man-made mutants of Japan and Bikini Atoll. Astronomical theories of the destruction of the solar system are paralleled with thermonuclear annihilation; the ritual of execution, particularly the ghastly ceremonialism of gas chamber and electric chair, coincides with the deus ex machina morality of Dachau and Belsen.
“Perhaps it is true, / we are like those doves that stand / between cathedral bells / until they have lost all sense of hearing,” notes the voyager, a man who has despaired of Western tradition because of the crimes perpetuated in its name–“We live in the final tepid rays of Christianity”–and who has turned to the Black Arts, Finnish magic, shamanism, and lycanthropy. “Mankind yearns for annihilation. / The earth shall revert to worms and the rolling sea / to plankton.” Reflecting on the great New World civilizations of the Maya, Inca, and Aztec, the voyager expresses his fear of a world reduced to dolmens and stelae. “One heart, one way,” he admonishes: “Pass by that which you cannot love.”
Man’s fall, like that of the Wandering Jew, is into consciousness–to suffer in anticipation, actuality, and recollection. “Natural things look upon us / and our wonders with repugnance.” The voyager asks, “What is the color of wisdom?” and announces that it must have the color of snow.
In Connell’s view, man is caught halfway between the beast and the angel, both locked in moral combat for the possession of the soul of which they are essential complements. We may take the beast to our graves, but during our lifetimes it is capable of atrocities outstripping the imagination. The plea of the voyager asks of our humanity that it be gentle and tender, that it relinquish the ways of terror and look lovingly upon the wonders of the world. The anguish of the voice is familiar in Connell’s fiction: it is Damaso, the fisherman from Chihuahua, at the height of his song; the voice of the young Augustine in the throes of doubt and longing. Magus himself, “poised between the dream and the act,” informs us that “credulity is greatest in times of calamity,” and that the millennium shall arrive when mankind has become unbelievably atrocious.
Taking a point from an entry in Wittgenstein’s Notebooks–“To pray is to think on the meaning of life.”–Connell’s Notes may best be regarded as a psalter for post-thermonuclear man, the palimpsest of hibakusha.**
*Oracular or prophetic, from the Latin vates, meaning seer or prophet. A footnote in the original text reads: “I owe a great debt for the sharpening of my ideas on vatic writing to correspondence with Luis Harss.” [Gus’s original footnote.]
**The Japanese term hibakusha means “those who experienced the bomb” and refers to a psychological disease akin to post-traumatic stress syndrome, which occurred among the survivors at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (Gus’s original text footnote credits Robert J. Lifton, “Psychological Effects of the Atomic Bomb in Hiroshima,” Daedelus, Summer, 1963.) A theme woven throughout the “After Ground Zero” essay is how Cold War anxieties can be seen as a backdrop to Connell’s writing in general. However, Gus writes, “The fear of thermonuclear destruction does not obsess Connell. But what does anger him is the way in which the unimaginable power of today’s weapons has reduced man to a cipher.” Among the works discussed in “After Ground Zero,” only Notes from a Bottle . . . utilizes the stylistically experimental “vatic” approach. [Editor’s note.]
Excerpt from “After Ground Zero: The Writings of Evan Connell, Jr.” in New Mexico Quarterly, Summer 1966.
The visionary poet Ronald Johnson reading from his manuscript “The Imaginary Menagerie” reached a short passage so arresting in its lapidary compression that it deserves to be cut in stone:
who once have sung
snug in the oblong
Inscriptions are meant to pull you up short. “Stop, Traveler” is the most common beginning on the inscribed gravestones that bordered ancient Roman highways. Inscriptions in this elegiac genre give speech back to the dead. In Basil Bunting’s poem Briggflatts, a stonemason extols his craft:
Pens are too light.
Take a chisel to write.
Words, however weighty, bear a curiously unstable relation to stone. In Notre Dame de Paris Victor Hugo has Claude Frollo point at a book as he gestures from his cell window toward the sphinx-like shape of Notre Dame cathedral and utters the phrase: ceci tuera celá: This will kill that.
The chapter that follows this moment is called “Ceci tuera celá” and details the great dialectic of books undoing the Church, a story of freedom increasing through dissemination of the press, of a journey from dark to light, of the spreading literacy producing enlightenment, the testament of stone replaced by the testaments of the printing press.
Hugo’s main source about the history of architecture was the young Neo-Grec architect Henri Labrouste. Later, as if inspired to counter Hugo’s and Frollo’s prophecy, Labrouste built the Bibliothèque Ste-Geneviève. Free at last of the long-standing French obsession with the classical architectural orders, it is a library that reads like a book. Neil Levine, in a magisterial essay on Ste-Geneviève, Labrouste, and Hugo, reads the architectural details in an extended metaphor not only of the book but of the whole process of printing from movable type–from the names on the façade (which may be seen as type locked into chases) to the books of these authors that sit on the shelves directly behind the places where their names appear on the wall. Labrouste built a book of iron and stone that was functional and free, a building dedicated to contemplation and reading, absorption and study. It became a secular version of Hugo’s description of the Temple of Solomon. “It was not merely the binding of it, it was the sacred book itself. From each of its concentric ring-walls, the priests could read the word translated and made manifest to the eye, and could thus follow its transformations from sanctuary to sanctuary until, in its ultimate tabernacle, they could grasp in its most concrete yet still architectural form: the ark. Thus the word was enclosed in the building, but its image was on the envelope like the human figure on the coffin of a mummy.” Labrouste made his library perfectly reflexive and transparent, no difference between the inside and outside.
Hugo set his novel in 1482. Sixty-one years earlier, 12 March 1421, a congregation of Jews burned themselves alive in a synagogue on Judenplatz in Vienna rather than renounce their faith or be murdered by Christians. A plaque in Latin from 1497 commemorates the immolation by referring to the Jews as dogs or curs. Mozart wrote Cosi fan tutte in house 244 overlooking Judenplatz in 1783. On 12 March 1938, Nazi troops entered Vienna, 517 years to the day that the Jews burned themselves. Rachel Whiteread, a young British sculptor, unveiled her remarkable Holocaust memorial on Judenplatz on 25 October 2000, much delayed by politics from its originally scheduled completion date of 9 November 1996, the fifty-eighth anniversary of Kristallnacht.
Before the memorial could be built excavations began on Judenplatz to unearth the original synagogue. The first area dug down to was the bimah, the area where the ark is kept and the desk from which the Torah is read. Whiteread’s memorial measures 12′ x 24′ x 33′ and is a library turned inside out: the spines of the books face into the building. It is a cast made in white cement of the library’s interior. The doors, without hinges or handles, cannot be opened. The library cannot be entered because the imaginary interior, far from being empty, is solid: the presence of absence. “Casting the internal–If Rachel could drink a couple of quarts of plaster or pour resin down her throat, wait until it sets and then peel herself away, I feel she would. She shows us the unseen, the inside out, the parts that go unrecognized,” observed A. M. Homes.
John Baldessari, the California conceptual artist, still has nine and a half boxes of the ashes of his paintings. In 1969, when he realized that he would stop painting, he found a crematorium that would burn his paintings. His motive was to complete the cycle of the chemicals that made up his oil paints by returning them to earth. The original installation at the Jewish Museum in New York was to be an urn containing some of the ashes placed in one wall with a plaque beside it. A major funder of the show said she would withdraw funding if this was done. So Baldessari placed the urn on a pedestal. The urn he chose among the many on offer was in the shape of a book. This was the beginning of conceptual art, the ashes of paintings interred in an urn shaped like a book.
Horace (Odes 3.30.1) claimed he had written poems more enduring (perennior) than bronze and outlasting the pyramids. In “Lector Aere Perennior”–the reader more enduring than bronze–J. V. Cunningham disagrees with Horace. Every poet depends not just on paper or stone or bronze but on readers for his relative immortality. Yet the reader is a problem. What must the reader do if the poet is to have lasting fame? For Cunningham the reader must be:
Some man so deftly mad
His metamorphosed shade,
Leaving the flesh it had,
Breathes on the words they made.
The reader dies (the orgasmic “little death” of the text) that the poet may live again. Transported by the words of the poet, the reader transmigrates his soul and “breathes on the words they make.” His and mine become ours, a more amazing dialectic than turning the book of stone into the book of print.
An epigram by Plato had been a favorite of mine long before Ronald Johnson read to me from his inscription-like “Imaginary Menagerie.” Plato writes that it is said by Socrates to Agathon:
Kissing Agathon, I found
My soul at my lips.
–It went there, hoping
To slip across.
It is one of the epigrams from The Greek Anthology. Is it somewhere carved in stone? Did each passing Greek read it aloud? Were the lines alternately painted black and red? As the Greek read the epigram aloud his soul too was at his lips, trying to slip across. From his lips to the stone, in a direction opposite that of Socrates whose lips were meeting those welcoming closed lips of Agathon. It is the soul that remembers and speaks in the poem, from within Socrates’ silence.
But though the soul rises to slip across it is a poor thing because it falls back–desire wants to slip across, believes in its heart that metempsychosis is possible, in its delusion a poor thing. This is the giving soul, the one that acknowledges and welcomes the other, not the Freudian narcissists whose lips kiss only images of themselves. And this happens every time we read.
When we read we slip across; we do not fall back. The words they made are like the love we had: the poem read through is like the exhausted beloved, over there, on the other side where we just were. The reader succeeds precisely where Orpheus fails Eurydice. We look back fondly. We behold the lineaments of gratified desire, what men and women in each other do require.
Chris Marker’s film La Jetée (The Jetty, France, 1962) runs 28 minutes and is constructed entirely of stills, except for a single moment of movement.
A brief synopsis of La Jetée will put the complexity of this moment in perspective. The Third World War has taken place; the earth is radioactive, uninhabitable; the victors rule underground over a kingdom of rats; concentration camps flourish one again. The story is of a veteran who survived the war and who carries within him a single image of peacetime: a woman’s face he had seen as a child on the jetty at Orly Airport. Because his imagery is so vivid the camp commandants subject him to experiments: he is injected, travels to the past and eventually to the future. He finds the woman he saw as a child; they fall in love. The moment of movement occurs after they consummate their love.
The woman opens her eyes and blinks three times, looking directly out of the screen. She wakes to look at her lover looking at her. He is not seen by us, but his presence is established by a series of overlapping dissolves in which the sleeping woman changes positions as she sleeps and he watches. The sound over these shots is of bird cries reaching a crescendo–so intense the cries sound like squeals of pain, a mysterious jouissance. (Could this be a Blakean moment? “How do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way / Is an immense world of delight, clos’d by your senses five?”)
One of the abiding mysteries of film is that it is a medium of visible absence. In a notebook poem William Blake asked and answered several specific questions, among them the following:
What is it men do in women require?
The lineaments of Gratified Desire.
What is it women do in men require?
The lineaments of Gratified Desire.
To my knowledge, even using what he called his “infernal methods,” Blake never engraved these lapidary lines.
What happens when we read a story, a poem, a book, a building? Are we deftly mad enough to slip over? We love what looks back at us, studying to know everything, knowing the knowledge of love is inexhaustible, and knowing also that such work of the imagination is beyond the reach of even our best words. After having slipped across we return to ourselves, our experience enriched. The reader is like Jacob, blessed by the angel he wrestled. Touched on the thigh before he was released, Jacob was left with a limp. The angel touches us before we are released. If there is a new limp once we return from our struggle, our abandon, our transport, it is the happy fault–the felix culpa–that touches another soul, and both are the better for it. The poet gains his brief immortality; and we return to our mortality exhausted and renewed. Within those moments of movement while we read, and remembering what we read, acknowledging the autonomy and mystery of it, we briefly become the kind of person Henry James wished us to become: one on whom nothing is lost.
Published 2012 in Gus Blaisdell Collected. This essay was originally intended for Inscriptions, a deluxe-edition book that was produced by Jack W. Stauffacher in 2003 to commemorate the lapidary inscriptions on the Old Public Library of San Francisco on the occasion of the building’s conversion into a new museum of Asian art. In the end, however, the essay was not used.
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.