I read a scene tonight towards the end of Another Country that got me thinking about self-government. James Baldwin’s 1961 novel, I acknowledge, has nothing directly to do with government or politics of any kind. But any novel portraying great anguish well and offering a glimmer of hope is a paean to self-government. It answers “maybe” or even “yes” to Alexander Hamilton’s question at the outset of the Federalist Papers: Can people govern themselves?
Self-government’s survival, in other words, depends on whether I’m willing to live out some anguish and accept my humanity.
In the scene, a character, with a friend in an art gallery, comes to realize that she has helped to create the husband she has grown to despise.
“And I saw that I’d loved him like that, like a child, and now the bill for all that dreaming had come in. How can one have dreamed so long? And I thought it was real. Now I don’t know what’s real.” (404)
I’ll quote from the characters’ more theoretical observations and reflect on self-government.
“You think that there isn’t any hope for us?”
“Hope?” The word seemed to bang from wall to wall. “Hope? No, I don’t think there’s any hope. We’re too empty here”— her eyes took in the Sunday crowd — “too empty — here.” She touched her heart. “This isn’t a country at all, it’s a collection of football players and Eagle Scouts. Cowards. We think we’re happy. We’re not. We’re doomed.” (406)
Government is messy because humanity is messy. There are two ways out. One is to escape from being human, to be transformed into something better – a saint, perhaps, or a god. The other is to redefine humanity to exclude the messy elements — that is, to define certain groups — groups to which I happily don’t belong — as subhuman.
No matter which of these two ways out I choose, I am drawn to one of two approaches to government. As the god superior to man or as the man superior to beasts, I and my fellow superiors can govern to enforce the gulf that separates us from the inferiors for the good of society. Or I can, perhaps in disgust, disclaim any role in governing.
Neither approach to government is self-government. Self-government requires my involvement and my humanity.
Self-government is personal. It’s not enough to espouse equality. It’s not enough to vote. Self-government insists that I become human. And to become human, I must own up to my part in humanity’s problems.
“You said once,” he said, “that you wanted to grow. Isn’t that always frightening? Doesn’t it always hurt?”
It was a question he was asking himself — of course; she turned toward him with a small, grateful smile, then turned to the painting again.
“I’m beginning to think,” she said, “that growing just means learning more and more about anguish. That poison becomes your diet — you drink a little of it every day. Once you’ve seen it, you can’t stop seeing it — that’s the trouble. And it can, it can” — she passed her hand wearily over her brow again — “drive you mad.” (405)
Self-government isn’t possible without personal growth, and growth isn’t possible without anguish and hope. Hope without anguish is immature hope – perhaps a necessary starting point, but untested and, if it stays untested for too long, dangerous. But anguish without hope leads to madness.
“You begin to see that you yourself, innocent, upright you, have contributed and do contribute to the misery of the world. Which will never end because we’re what we are.” (Id.)
Equality is hard work. It’s easy to espouse in theory but hard to admit in practice, when my equality with others includes aspects of humanity that offend me.
He watched her face from which the youth was now, before his eyes, departing; her girlhood, at last, was falling away from her. Yet, her face did not seem precisely faded, or, for that matter, old. It looked scoured, there was something invincibly impersonal in it. (405 – 406)
Public life is impersonal, and that impersonality can be either bad or good. Self-righteousness is impersonal because it treats the other as less than a person. But self-government is impersonal because it transcends personality. Self-government is based on a sacred truth, as the Declaration’s first draft puts it, that all men are created equal. Our essential equality, deeper than personality, is the basis for celebrating our diverse personalities and cultures – and for celebrating, ultimately, our common failings.
Only my personal anguish – only our collective personal anguish – can lead to the invincible, impersonal equality that makes self-government possible.
Self-government, then, doesn’t have much of a chance. But the stakes are too high for me not to take it personally.
Photo is of James Baldwin, 1924 – 1987.