James Baldwin A Kidnapped Pagan

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

JAMES BALDWIN 

A KIDNAPPED PAGAN

A Kidnapped Pagan 1963

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 James Baldwin photos by Arnold Gassanimagines 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.

“God gave Noah the rainbow                                                                  Baldwin, James

sign,

No more water, the first next

time.”

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.

Larry Goodell: Co(s)mic Clown

ARTSPACELarry Goodell: Co(s)mic Clown                                                           by Gus Blaisdell

Headdress of candle flames or engorged coxcombs; muscle-shirt rolling and bopping with bulges; and his cloth phallus thrust and wobbled by his raunchy hunching hips, Larry Goodell steps out upon the stage, possessing and invaded by his own poetry and paraphernalia. In the course of his caperings the stage becomes a charged piece of this whirling planet as he enacts, incarnates, and embodies in performance what poetry must have once been like before it was expurgated categorically into epic, which was tribal and gave to the bard shaman-like powers; into lyric, in which a single voice, sometimes masked, sometimes naked, hymned his friends, mourned them too, or celebrated Olympic as well as battlefield victories; and into tragedy, where the polis gathered to see itself confessed in the tension between the good sense of community and the overweening individual desire for knowledge or personal justice.

Goodell’s poetry is more ancient than these first, classic, Aristotelian resolutions. It is antediluvian, the seed and essence out of which these later categories will grow, twistedly—so twisted that the root and origin will be forgotten. And his poetry is also deeply comic, in a sense so attenuated as to be nearly unremembered: it is the work of the clown of power who ridicules as he celebrates the absurdities of being and existence, who probes Dasein, if you’ll permit that lugging term, with a hard-on, who stinkfingers existence, and who in his lightest and most powerful moments seduces the young woman, who is also being, into playing Doctor in the backrooms of bars like the now archaeological Thunderbird in Placitas, Goodell’s home. It was in the T-Bird that Goodell gave some of his most memorable performances to a wonderfully drugged and drunken audience willing to be gathered together by the powers of his poetry; making cohesive and momentarily coherent a disparate, desperate bunch of discrete creatures all tottering on the edges of every imaginable variety of unconsciousness, bloatedly expanded consciousness, and violence; and for an hour or so magnetizing the iron rings in them all, connecting himself with the ironic and co(s)mic sources of his own art, until not only the audience but the whole bar was, like the planet upon which it all spun, rocking and rolling through spaces public and private.

Obviously this is not the poetry of page and podium, book and lectern. The page is the speaking poet; the podia are quite literally the poet’s own dithyrambic feet seeking a measured rhythm in the midst of riot; and the book has become a score, the lectern tossed aside so that the poet, bedecked, can enter into the very medium in which he works: poesis dramatized. Here drama is a form of incarnation rather than performance, and it dilates the present to metaphysical proportions.

Antediluvian, I said, and by that I meant some prelapsarian time well before the Flood, when a being like Goodell could be both bird and snake, when these two powerful avatars shared a single phylum and before we separated them into specialized species, dividing essence as we do labor. The metamorphosis in Goodell’s works, speaking still in avatars, would be that one in which a snake sloughed his skin, shed scale for feather, and emerged surprised in radiant plumage readied for flight. In the peacock, for example, one can clearly see the snake. But in his plumage, in the hushed fanning out of his tail, one sees far beyond the peacock. As his eerie screams transform into the metaphysical, peacock becomes phoenix. Beyond the phoenix is the demigod, Quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent. Beyond the demigod? Only the Sun itself.

Goodell is pre-Choric, a single manic creature wrestling with making sense out of being. His is a poet’s tongue, untwisting the commonplaces that tie it so that he may speak out clearly, the poem enveloping him; and as he speaks it out, dissolving the membrane, it becomes an action best represented by a breathless flame unraveling upwards, climbing higher for more air, more light, until the air thins and, subsiding, the consuming flame is extinguished. A priapic clown, shoving it up the world, he is exploring and inventing existence with hoots and a virile member. Locally, in the ancient Pueblos, this clown would be a mudhead, a creature still confused with the earth and blood into which he was thrown from the between piss and shit of his birth—anciently obscene, secular, profane as dirt, autochthonous. This is a creature like those wonderfully androgynous beings in Aristophanes’ contribution to The Symposium: creatures who sought each other, one always in need of the complement of the other, and who seemed to think they might put back together the sundered halves of the world by fucking each other crazily, restoring the anciently divided essence—whether of snake or bird, man or woman, being or nonbeing. Silenus Goodell! A creature who just can’t get enuf of it!

Blaisdell Jaffe duo0006

Poet as dancer, as chanter or singer who compels assent and prayer, he is the one who steps out of the poetic swamp, or slithers out, who rises above his own storming and confusion. As high as he can get on his oddly jointed limbs, he rests briefly above his work, his head coiled in feathers or lifted above rustling cool coils of scales. His body halts momentarily atop the locked joint of a single extended leg, the other tucked up below. Out of the nesting feathers of the body the head lifts, the eyes beady with concentration, the craning neck serpentine. Then the uplifted leg descends into the waters of the slough; the neck slides over and down, and as the talonful of rich muck is raised from the bottom, this creature either minutely inspects its contents, listing the details and making a poem, or else, dissatisfied with the results of his analysis, hurls this mud rich in restorative virtues into the roaring faces of his tipsy, toppling, soaring audience.

Truly to laugh with Goodell, to understand his Old Comedy, is to see revealed the weakening prehensile underpinnings of common sense; it is to see laid bare our uncommon prejudices and the contingency of what we commingle. On whirls the world: on the poet’s fingertip or, transformed by his rhythms, upon the nose of a seal—that sea lion of being that Hart Crane evoked from the beach once and for all, writing beyond himself: “Bequeath us to no earthly shore until / Is answered in the vortex of our grave / The seal’s wide spindrift gaze toward paradise.” This fleeting glance beyond is also the clown’s roaring, rapturous disillusionment with being.

I have used extended figures to explain the work of a man who is essentially a mixed metaphor. My purpose has been to evoke in the reader a feeling of Goodell. Yet the point implied throughout the preceding, and the point most worth making, is that Larry Goodell is a natural—a category that academe either explicitly denies, actively discourages, or has forgotten. Goodell is the poet fully gripped by song, the man who must dance, just as a goat must leap or make himself attractive to other goats by pissing down his throat. The natural is today treated as the aberrant, the freak, the perverted, and the consequence is that poetry now is only muttered up and printed on the page. Yet there is in art, as there is in sport and mathematics and chess, a prodigious category, full and exuberant and youthful. It is the category of the natural—swimmer, shortstop, painter, poet, or jazzman—and local examples include Goodell, Bill Pearlman, and Kelly Robertson. They are not shamans because they are unsponsored by a group and because they are not representative of a collective mind. They span only themselves. Free in their creations, which come from the isolate powers of their singular imaginations, they are their own centers, single points eccentric to academic circles. The sources and wellsprings and powers they display are not held in common. They are their talents themselves, all alone out there, dangerously ventured in their own originality.

Without this category of the natural, art of any kind is impossible. Because? Because against what academe teaches, theory only succeeds art—in a quiet, active meditation on work done by oneself and others. And art, if it is genuine, is a response of the whole individual to being-in-the-world, and it is not, not primarily anyway, the dramatic solution to an anteriorily posed critical problem. Having chosen not to deal with the natural, not to groom or train or nurture it, academe is left with only its own accomplishments—the brilliant but gelid genres of the modernist novel and poem, achievements somehow against the grain—and that turgid confusion of filched formica laurels, an arbitrary criticism that seeks to usurp and absorb its object and thereby, by digestion, to gain autonomy. But food digested, though it nourishes, turns to shit. –Well, but doesn’t everything? Ultimately, I mean. If you don’t know the answer to that one, you’d better keep on reading. (The proper question is not what survives but rather what does not turn to shit.)

Insofar as Goodell’s work is not academic neither is it part of the current late modernist movement of conceptual or performance art. Performance art is reactionary and self-conscious and offers its antics as a solution to a critical problem. Performance art is a dramatic response to what the performer believes cannot any longer be done in painting or sculpture. It is hysteria caught up and wedged between the slowly contracting walls of the two-dimensional and the three. In Michael Fried’s term it is theatrical—a bedecking of despair in which the performer simultaneously mocks himself and his work in the hopes that his ridiculed audience’s reactions to his own display of failure will, in complicity, acknowledge that to fail is really to achieve. It is as if Hemingway’s hideously painful gut-shot hyena in Green Hills of Africa were performing his death in order to win his killer’s approval. The shortest version of all this is the unexamined axiom of much bad modernist thought: that a vanguard precondition on having a subject is to declare the impossibility of a subject matter to be your subject matter. Yes, if you are Mallarmé, Bird or Trane, or Creeley. Otherwise the result is John Ashbery, a latter-day reincarnation of Wallace Stevens’ “muttering king,” who maunders among the shivering hinds of his verse like Elliot Gould’s overly murmurous, throwaway Philip Marlowe in Altman’s The Long Goodbye—an endless investigation of the erosion of imitative form by what it imitates.

Though natural, what is superb about Goodell’s enactments is that his is a naturalness re-achieved and against odds. His achievement of Old Comedy occurs in his unabashed willingness to say what comes to mind and, while avoiding the theatrical, to become, if needs be and the world demands it, the mouthpiece of ventriloquil being—by turns dapper Charlie McCarthy or bumpkin Mortimer Snerd—where a burp can become oracle, a Delphic choking or gargle, and a pratfall can jar loose the world. Goodell’s achievement gives credence to the comic’s ancient retort to How do you do it?—I just make it up as I go along. (And I am always going along!)

Certainly the priest’s vestments are nothing more than one resolution of the clown’s motley—just as the arithmetical norm called meter, the justice of the written poem, is merely a resolution of the poet’s own heartbeat in his jarred-loose response to an outtakilter world. A commodious vicus of recirculation: the poet in flight, or meditating, thinking down into the scales and pinions of himself, coiled to fly or strike or struggle. And once the recirculation begins within him and then passes to the audience, the measures of the poet keeping it all balanced just this side of frenzy—well, then the line comes inevitably to mind, filling something like a mind now held in common: “The light foot hears and the brightness begins.” (The line is a whole poem, Robert Duncan meditating on Pindar.)

I’ll close my prosaic anacreontic with a reminder in the inspired words of Stanley Cavell’s The World Viewed:

For poetry is so out of the ordinary that it could not appear unless the world itself wished for it. Not alone the poetry of poetry, but the poetry of prose—whenever the time of saying and the time of meaning are synchronized.”

[This essay appeared in the inaugural issue of ARTSPACE: Southwestern Contemporary Arts Quarterly, volume 1, number 1, Fall 1976 (where, unfortunately, inexperience left it riddled with typographic errors).]

Lewis Baltz portrait of Gus Blaisdell

Gus Blaisdell by Lewis Baltz

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, UNM Press 2012.

Bldgs

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…

What Was Called “A Thought Echoed in Sight”

Gus at home

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I recently came across Ken Fields fine essay, Winters’s Wild West, in the Los Angeles Review of Books –  http://lareviewofbooks.org/essay/winterss-wild-west/  – a tribute to his mentor and friend, the poet and critic, Yvor Winters. Ken’s essay is rich in history, detail, and poetry, and it paints a clear portrait of Winters in his place and time.  While reading it I was reminded of my late father. The bit below is taken from my chronology in Gus Blaisdell Collected.

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In November (1966), while at UNM Press, Gus receives a telegram saying that his publishing mentor and friend, Alan Swallow, has died of a heart attack at his typewriter. Gus writes a short tribute, “Bio of a Swallow,” and publishes it in the Winter issue of New Mexico Quarterly along with Alan’s autobiographical essay, “Story of a Publisher”.

In a letter, Gus writes, “I began commuting to Denver on weekends to help with running Swallow Press and it happened that my great teacher Yvor Winters’ last two books, Forms of Discovery and its companion anthology, Quest for Reality, were mine to design and edit.” In a letter to one of the lawyers during the chaos after Alan’s death, Winters writes that, “Gus Blaisdell undertook this job with no payment from the company and at considerable financial sacrifice to himself. He has done this out of admiration for Alan and myself and out of loyalty to Mae [Alan Swallow’s wife].” Gus also refused Winters’ offer of payment.

To Swallow’s wife Winter’s writes that “Alan was an odd genius. . .  . He had a gift which is restricted usually to good poets: He could recognize good writing and recognize it at once (he recognized the same gift in Gus, and so do I). It was this that made him a success as a publisher, this plus the energy of three bull-mastiffs. He was almost ready to take Gus on, before he died, as a junior partner; but he had been a lone wolf for so long that he couldn’t bring himself to it.”

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In November of 2000, Ken Fields and committee invited Gus to be one of the speakers at the Symposium in honor of Yvor Winters’ Centenary at Stanford University. Yvor Winters was a mentor to Gus and helped him in many ways. Gus was happy to be invited for the symposium. He said it felt like coming full circle. One morning, as I sat sipping tea across from my father at his glass and steel dining room table, he handed me an early draft of his Winters address to read.  In a few weeks I would move from his beloved New Mexico to Montana. He had only recently started giving me his work in progress to read. He gave it to very few people. So, this was an occasion. And as I sat reading this address he’d written to honor his mentor, I cried. In the essay I learned much about my father that I’d never known. I cried because I was moving away from my intellectual touchstone, my mentor. I cried for reasons I did not fully understand. After reading Ken’s essay on Winters it sent me back to reread Gus’s tribute to Winters in GUS BLAISDELL Collected. When I came to Winters’ poem, “At the San Francisco Airport”, what struck me on this reading that hadn’t struck me so consciously before was that Winters’ was saying goodbye to his daughter, as my father, not a man known for outright expressions of love or emotion, by giving me his Winters tribute to read, was saying goodbye to me.

  An Excerpt from Gus’s tribute

What Was Called
“A Thought Echoed in Sight”
An address to the symposium in honor of Yvor Winters’
Centenary, Stanford University, November 16–18, 2000

For several years I have started all my film classes at the University of New
Mexico with a screening of Chris Marker’s masterpiece La Jetée. The
movie is twenty-eight minutes long, made almost entirely of still images—
except for a single sequence of a woman, after love, sleeping in bed. She
opens her eyes and blinks three times directly at her (offscreen) beloved,
her watching beholder; at us. When this point arises in the conversation
with the class I read them the first of two poems, William Blake’s “Several
Questions Answered”:
What is it men in women do require?
The lineaments of Gratified Desire.
What is it women in men do require?
The lineaments of Gratified Desire.
I tell the class that “lineaments” for Blake are the boundaries of the soul,
and that “gratified,” as opposed to “satisfied,” desire requires a thankfulness,
a thoughtfulness of two, and that it is genderless. My young are not
taught “corrosion and distrust”—and neither were Yvor Winters’ young.
[Stanley Cavell, in The Claim of Reason, offers this gloss on Blake’s rhyme:
“Here is a brave acceptance of the sufficiency of human finitude, an achievement
of the complete disappearance of its disappointment, in oneself and in
others, an acknowledgment of satisfaction and of reciprocity.”]

When the conversation has ended or the class is coming to an end I
read my second poem to them, Winters’ “At the San Francisco Airport.”
Sometimes I read it twice, particularly the last stanza in which Winters bids
farewell to his departing daughter:

This is the terminal, the break.
Beyond this point, on lines of air,
You take the way that you must take;
And I remain in light and stare—
In light, and nothing else, awake.

Some students always come up after class wanting to know more about
the poet who wrote the last poem. My several tattered paperbacks of the
Collected Poems testify to their avidity.
Awake and in light. Heraclitus said that “the waking have one and the
same world, but the sleeping turn aside each into a world of his own.” But
Arthur is awake and alone, his daughter speeding away “on lines of air,” on
her own separate course, leaving him to remain in light and awareness of
the terminal break.

Gus Blaisdell interviews artist Constance DeJong “That’s beautiful. It leaves the viewer with the infinite.”

©Nicole Blaisdell Ivey

© Nicole Blaisdell Ivey

Blaisdell, Gus, Constance DeJong: Metal, University of New Mexico Press, 2003

I saw Constance DeJong’s first show of metal paintings and drawings in 1980. I was
immediately impressed, found the subsequent work equally distinguished, and was an
ardent fan until DeJong went underground in 1997. Then she surfaced again this year
with work so remarkably different that l was again struck. What had happened in the
years she had not shown? She had transformed her work, even though presently she is
again working in metal, and not just in terms of materials. There was a new, deepened
center of attention and concentration. What follows is a conversation between the two of
us that concentrates on her work out of the public eye from 1997 to the present. We talk
a bit about zazen, what DeJong calls sitting practice. This is a practice like yoga that
frees the mind for attention and concentration. Like yoga, the sitting practice is
religiously neutral. DeJong is not a Buddhist artist and she does not make Buddhist art,
whatever that might be. As the reader will see DeJong’s awareness of what she does
and why she does it is articulate and intense. Attention is a direction of the soul. The
interviewer, happily, had little to do but listen, trying for the same attention as the artist
displayed.
Gus Blaisdell

Constance DeJong:
What l have noticed about this extended period of art making is that it is like
breathing, expanding and contracting. The dark gray steel expanding into colored
aluminum and the aluminum contracting back to black. The Copper Drawings
expanding into complexity and contracting back to simplicity. The Black Work
expanding into high relief and back to extremely low relief The Light Drawings
expanding into complexity and relief and contracting into the Rods with simple
low relief.

Color continually shifted back and forth between each series, from the dark grey
of steel to colored aluminum and then to black aluminum. Black in the sculptures
gave Way to color in the Sulfur Paintings, The Sulfur Paintings made way for the
blackest Reliefs, which denied even a trace of raw (red) copper The Reliefs were
followed by the grids, which contained and then relinquished colon After the
Reliefs came the muted color of the Light Drawings and from the Light Drawings
evolved the black and white Rods. From the Rods came the most colorful Nitrate
Paintings followed by the somber Four/Three monoliths.
I like the analogy to breathing. For one thing it precludes a hierarchy, a linear
pattern, a beginning, a peak, and an ending. It assumes circularity. It suggests that
all time and all stages are equivalent.

Gus Blaisdell: The idea of breath, contraction and expansion is very tied into zazen?

It’s the cornerstone. At first l was interested in Zen as a field of knowledge and
way of seeing. Then it became just meditation practice itself.

And what is that?

It’s a practice that brings you into contact with what’s real. It’s not spiritual and
definitely not religious. It’s a way to see through your thoughts, which are nonstop
fictions, to what is actually occurring.

Like art, it’s a form illumination and self-realization. You’re always moving forward.
It’s not creative in the same way art is out it is full of life in the way art is. It’s real
and substantial in the way art is. But it is more of a deepening into the perfection
of the moment, of what already is. You don’t need to create anything. So I quit
making art for a while.

But you never really quit anything. Like a jazz musician who retires from public
performing for a while to reshape his chops, you, as they say, went to the wood shed.

I started drawing, at first, as an extension of zazen. Since I was sitting and starring
at nothing for long periods of time l decided to try meditating on an object, and I
started with a leaf. After a while I started drawing it. I just started drawing what I
saw, what was in front of me, without the intention of trying to make a good
drawing. It’s like when you are paying such close attention to something that you
forget you are separate from that thing. What’s great about not doing Art is that
then art has a chance. When you try to do something else very earnestly and then
the drawing happens… that is interesting.

Do you associate this with the calligraphic tradition from the great Zen ink painters?Dipping mop in ink and lashing out this beautiful drawing and then sitting down again.

My drawing process is slower. That’s so perfectly spontaneous. Mine is steadier,
more constant. It’s like slow motion. It’s a sequence in time instead of a burst of
spontaneous inspiration

Like the breath drawings of Gloria Graham? Turning the paper ninety degrees until she
reached the edge?

Yes, it’s a time sequence, a slower speed. But where her vision was within her
body l was making relationship with the external world, a specific object. But in a
sense it was the same because if you are really with one thing, you are with
everything, including yourself and your breath.

Of the drawings we are looking at, the second leaf is the most sensual.

That’s because it’s restrained. It’s quiet, but also charged.

It’s sort of swelling towards you, it’s opening out.

And the roses. I always draw them when they are closed, before they open up, the
light hits the bud, shapes the form. It’s just a good form. I would never draw a rose
that is opened. When it opens up it’s not as interesting-it’s too exposed, there’s
nothing hidden.

It is a singular, particular object that draws you in?

Yes. Every object l draw—each leaf, each pod-has to have a certain structure and
sculptural quality. The mass, the line of the stem, the duality of color, subdued but
rich, is important. The way the light hits the object has to articulate the mass and
warm the color. Then l can make a sculptural drawing.

I drew a leaf every day without worrying too much about the outcome of the
drawing. I practiced not thinking and it helped me to not see the leaf but to see the
color and the tone and the line. I wasn’t concerned with how much like a leaf l
could make the drawing but with how faithfully I could render what l saw and how
it felt.

Is the idea that now you have gotten the object back in front or you and it’s the real
object that was there all the time?

When I was in art school l refused—whenever I could get away with it—to draw
from life. I thought it’s already there, so why copy it? It’s an object that’s in front of
you. I used to think that if you didn’t make it up, it wasn’t art. Just copying
something was cheating. I didn’t consider the transformative aspect of the
process.

Now I came at it from a different point of view. Drawing was now a handmaiden of
sitting. With drawing, I was investigating my relationship to the perceived world,
rather than creating a new world.

In your earliest work, you were concerned with the sculptures as really being drawings
and paintings. Now you rediscover that drawing is sculptural. That’s fascinating. As
you’re going through certain dimensions and transforming them within yourself you
arrived at opposite conclusions. (When you look at these steel pieces) somebody could
say they were sculptures. You say they are paintings and that’s that! And now your
drawings are sculpture.

It’s also important that the materials they are made of express themselves as
themselves. Pencil is graphite and pastel is soft, pure pigment, and they must be
as dominant as the object rendered. As I make the image on a flat surface, layers
of charcoal and pastel build up and then l tilt the drawing board straight up and
allow the extraneous chalk to fall. As it does, I press the chalk into the paper to
‘catch’ the gravitational pull on the material making gravity and the weight of the
pigment manifest in the drawing. I want to ground the work in its component parts
—what it’s made of. In doing so, the drawing process is equal to the drawn object.
Drawing is magic: to make marks on a flat surface that transform into a sculptural
presence… for a sculptor that is magic. You just do what’s in front of you. You
copy form, color, and light not paying too much attention to the concept of the
form. It’s just a gray shape or a dark line. It’s color as color and not part of a leaf.
Then you step back and recognize that it is a leaf. Magic! That may sound naïve,
but I think that’s okay in art.

You should always be a beginner in art.

Recently you showed some work that is almost invisible.

Yes, and it happened almost by accident, as a result of letting go of certain studio
practices. I’ve always had a romance with the idea of a painter working directly
from or with nature, free of the studio. Sculptors, you know are pretty much tied to
their machinery and equipment.

I began to forage outside for material to draw and cast into metal. That provided a
way to extend the studio, and got me just plain outdoors.

These sculptures on opposite walls are of grasses, grasses that almost disappear. This
is the next thing shown after the nitrate painting.

I brought back a few things from a field that were extremely tiny and fragile. l was
collecting objects in nature that l was going to cast in metal, which I did. Little
pods, small sculptural objects, little prickly things, stems and things I found on
the ground. I cast them but I never ended up doing anything with them because
they never got beyond what they were.

Fragile grass, which absolutely could never be cast, surfaced in this bag of stuff
that I was collecting. I put it on my table and kept looking at it, knowing that it was
something I wasn’t going to cast in metal but noticing how the light was hitting it
as it sat on my table casting shadows. It reminded me of my metal light drawings.
They had a similar geometry and structure, and they were doing what the light
drawings were doing, which was creating linear patterns on surfaces. I made a
tiny silver holder for the stem and pinned that through sand colored paper. When
they were hung on the wall the grasses disappeared. All you could see was the
shadow of the grass.

The strange thing is as you approach you think they are floaters inside your own eyes
and then you get close and there is shadow and then they are gone.

You think, well it’s a tan piece of paper on the wall and maybe there are gnats
buzzing around in front of the paper. When you approach it you slowly discover
what the work is. Elemental. You are in the work the whole time. People seem
surprised and happy when they discover what it is.

They were in an exhibition at the Fine Arts Museum in Santa Fe. The way they
were lit at the museum was exactly right. But then there was this out of control air
conditioning that was creating a wind, not just a slight breeze. If you put a piece of
paper on the floor it would blow away. So I
had to nail the papers to the wall instead of
letting them float against the wall. The tradeoff
was that now the pieces were continually
quivering in space and the halogen light was
quivering and they were actually better in
the museum than they were in the studio.
They seriously disappeared and they
projected this intense shadow at the same
time. They had the little geometries of the
holder and the tiny buzzing activity of these
fuzzy particles like dust or flecks hovering
and spinning around this field.

Mites in front of your eyes?

Well, that takes retinal response to a new
level. What l like about these is that they
appear to exist without the artist’s imprint.
Which isn’t to say that I’m against the artist’s
signature. Vermeer was intentional; and l
love his signature. But it is also wonderful in
artwork when the artist isn’t in the work.
That’s what’s happening in these. It’s just
the amazing structure and grace of the
natural world.

I once had an aquarium in my studio and in it I had these two beautiful fish that were
constantly chasing each other. They were really playful. I built an elaborate underwater
world for them with caves and tunnels and lots of plants. Every day I watched them and
one day I noticed something that looked like dust in a depression in the gravel. I studied
it, trying to figure out what it was. How could there be dust in water? All of a sudden I
recognized that it was a dozen tiny fish. I had never witnessed a birth of any kind before.
At that moment of recognition I was transfixed, so acutely present that I wasn‘t there. I
disintegrated with happiness. A moment of self-dissolution. That is what I have
experienced in sitting and that is what art can do. The grass pieces remind me of that
experience.

You recently told me about these four copper pieces on the wall. You said these pieces
had to do with the ever-changing flights of birds. And did you mention that you also
stopped sitting for a while in order to go out to see the daily flights?

As l came out of the Zendo one morning a flock of birds flew over l heard them
before l saw them. They came in very low, right over my head. Then another flock
and another l could see them from quite a distance so l had a good view of the
continually changing shape of the flock. They were three-dimensional, kinetic
forms in space, hurtling towards me with chirping sounds. l began to make little
perforated metal pieces, which had a quality of flocks of tiny little birds. Of course
they weren’t birds. They were holes. And they let light in. They became tiny light
objects. They weren’t illustrations of what l had experienced with the birds, but
they had a sensibility parallel to the birds’ flight. The last thing l would do is to title
them and give a reference to the birds.

Constructing and reducing, going for the essence and all of a sudden here you are with
these delicate copper pieces as a result of going outside and looking at moving things
and knowing that you can’t capture flights. But nonetheless here is this new form and
then it’s the piece itself.

It’s the piece itself, and it’s the light that informs it.

Light for you has always been a stabilizing force.

l discovered light in the copper drawings by scribling lines, which were intended
simply to delineate one form from the other or one section within the drawing
from another. Then when l held the drawing upright, and saw the shifting light, the
lines jumped out. They reflected light or as you said, let the light out. Which is a
great way to understand that phenomenon. My work became more about light
once l discovered light in the work. There is this going into the work and at the
same time the work coming towards you. That’s what l am interested in, that back
and forth dialogue with the material itself. That’s why l don’t conceive work ahead
of itself.

These little copper pieces are all about the light pouring down from above.

Light issuing from above informed a lot of the Black Work. But the way it is caught
and directed in these works is new.

Here’s what amazes me—from these little copper pieces, really small enough to hold in
your hand—intimate, private, only seen in the studio—and originally inspired by the
flights of birds—these little canopied copper pieces in which light pours from the holes in
the canopy above down to the sheet of copper below—from these little pieces about light
and flight you have gone on to create a monumental sculptural site with Antoine
Predock; hundreds of feet of copper, a monument that rises from bearms of prairie grass
and relates intimately to the sky above, and still somehow magically, at least for me, has
the intimacy of the little copper drawings. It is staggering. This new work is celestial,
cosmological, even ontological! Now that I’m done with my rapture let’s talk about this
project in some detail.

The structure holds celestial information in two ways. During the day the alcove
will filter constantly shifting sunlight through the canopy onto various metal
planes. The canopy will be perforated at thousands of points, which will replicate
constellation patterns and produce tiny spheres of light that will fall and settle in
an indeterminate space. At the same time the reflection of this activity will multiply
warping the light from the initial into layered positions. The outer shell of the
structure will also be drilled to replicate stellar systems. During the day this
will function graphically, charting the night sky with incised lines connecting
particular star groups. At night the drilled points will emit light recreating the night
sky as it appeared over a century ago from the vantage point of the site itself—
45°7’ N, 93°38’ W elevation 848.

The fantasies of location like that exact position suggest that we can map everything;
create the celestial as well as the terrestrial sphere. For me, those coordinates are so
abstract they hang between the earth and the sky and are invisible. Does that make any
sense?

That’s beautiful. It leaves the viewer with the infinite.

 

 

‘Bldgs’ – Gus Blaisdell on Lewis Baltz’s New Industrial Parks

the universal foreground

I’ve loved Blaisdell’s clever, trippy writing for some time now, but this piece, on the work of Lewis Baltz, is spectacular. Two years in the writing, Blaisdell begins by rubbishing the sort of curatorial discourse that attempted to set out Baltz’s work as a sort of sandbox containing all of the concerns of contemporary mainstream art. And he does this in a sentence so long and so elegant that it left me breathless twice over:

‘In Baltz’s case this usually results in his being all things to all camps – simultaneously a minimalist, a conceptualist, and a “definitive formalist,” because a minimalist holds that less is more and a conceptualist holds that it is no longer possible to make signifiant objects in paint, that one must in fact go wholly beyond objecthood (thus photography becomes essential to such enterprises), and a formalist (definitive or otherwise) holds that painting is capable of significance…

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James Baldwin A Kidnapped Pagan

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

JAMES BALDWIN 

A KIDNAPPED PAGAN

A Kidnapped Pagan 1963

A Kidnapped Pagan 1963

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 James Baldwin photos by Arnold Gassanimagines 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 Giovann’s Room, a novel ostensibly concerned with a doomed homosexual relationship, Baldwin explores the notionsof responsibility and morality. in the beginning of the nover, David meditates on his life with Gionanni 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 Giovann’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 reallly 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 ‘perceptionat 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.

“God gave Noah the rainbow                                                                  Baldwin, James

sign,

No more water, the first next

time.”

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 er 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 of 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 granduer 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.

Film Studies

        Notes on Remarriage Comedies aka comedies of equality or dailiness…

P1010110

     Classical comedy (cc) involves a young pair overcoming obstacles who get together for the first time. Ends in festival, feast, wedding; the old ratify the young, the young acknowledge the old, and society is assured of continuing.

    Remarriage comedy (henceforth, rem.) involves an older pair, seeking a divorce, who end up getting back together, together again. Privacy (rem) is studied as opposed to the public ( classical comedy).

Freud asks, What does the woman want? Consider inflections: peevish, exasperated, impatient. Better, rephrase as, Given male desire is figured dramatically by the Oedipus complex, What is the form of female desire?

(Note. Freud argued that the Oedipus complex was universal, applying to humans regardless of sex. Questionable.)

Rem answers, what the woman wants is education. Education means leading out the best self, not indoctrination—seeking the attainable but as yet unattained self(of both). Who has education to give?

Men do, and the form this takes in rem is that the men endlessly lecture the women. (Possible shadow: the man could be pretending to provide education but really be [ seducing ] the woman, turning her into his private toy for his pleasure.) So the creation of the new woman is the business of men. But in truly transforming the woman the man must himself undergo change—such that the couple transformed is a new birth or vision of the human.  That a man can walk in the direction of his dreams we all know; but that a woman can, and with the right man, is some of the news this genre brings.

This is accomplished in Cavell’s and Milton’s terms only through a meet and happy conversation, where “meet” means “just”: helpmeet, as in Genesis, not helpmate. These conversations (and lectures) take enormous amounts of time. The price for the woman is that no sense of “mother” applies to her: she is not one and her own is not present. (Sexuality between the two trying to divorce is a displaced issue; in cc it is central issue.)

Part of the change required of the man is humiliation. Essential to this is the fact of what I will call mutual forgiveness (a form of Gratified Desire?), acknowledgment.

The father is always on the side of the woman’s desire, unlike cc where he can be the first obstacle.

Since privacy is studied, often in a place of perspective called a green world, or in the rem genre, Connecticut; the marriage to work is beyond the sanction or church, state, or society. The real scandal is love, the outlaw status of its truth (p. 31) (Sherwood forest is a green world, as is Eden—to which we can’t quite return; and Shakespeare’s Arden). The feature of the green world allows the couple to feel that they have grown up together(p.31). An incestuous relationship is changed into one that can stand public scrutiny. Questioning this is one reason why Amanda Bonner takes their [private] marriage to court.

A constant threat to rem is that at any moment it can become melodrama. Adam’s Rib frames the Bonner’s marriage with the melodrama of the Attinger’s marriage. It is from Adam’s Rib that Cavell will derive the melodrama of the unknown woman.

*from Gus’s computer

Gus Blaisdell Collected editors William Peterson and Nicole Blaisdell Ivey will be DISCUSSING GUS Saturday January 5th 3:00 pm at Bookworks 4022 Rio Grande  Albuquerque, New Mexico

I KNOW A MAN

In 2002, a year before his death, Gus wrote the bio below to accompany his poems included in  IN COMPANY: an anthology of New Mexico Poets after 1960

                                                                                      photo by Nicole Blaisdell Ivey

Gus Blaisdell for twenty-seven years ran an “alternative to an absence,” the Living Batch Bookstore, always close to the Frontier Restaurant. He continues to teach film at the University of New Mexico. He runs a small press, Living Batch Books , that continues to present his alternative to absences. A special line of his books is called Drive, He Said, after Creeley’s poem “I Know A Man.”