James Baldwin, Karl Popper, & other stuff I’ve read this year

3PictureBaldwin3Lists of books read are misleading. For instance, I spent the first half of this year reading Karl Popper every night, and I spent the second half of the year reading James Baldwin every night. This slow going through two authors presents a better idea of my reading this year than the more comprehensive list that follows of the books I’ve read. Popper and Baldwin – particularly Baldwin, and along with Shakespeare and Reinhold Niebuhr – really got me thinking over the past twelve months.

Due to my job demands, I read most of the listed books by listening to unabridged recordings of them while walking to and from school or while driving. Some books I both read and listened to using Whispersync, which I described in my post about my reading in 2013. Some books I read pretty quickly this year; others, like Robert Alter’s translation of the Book of Psalms, I read over several months. (I read Alter’s book as a devotional many mornings over nine months.) Except for the Psalms, poetry doesn’t make the list because I didn’t read any other poetry book from cover to cover. But I sure read many poems many times from Robert Lax’s work and from Tom Montag’s In This Place: Selected Poems 1982 – 2013. Overall, though, I read a lot less poetry this year than I have in years past.

My biggest experiment with slow reading methods involved slow reading on a Kindle. I typed 452 margin notes in my Kindle edition of Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies and then used the notes to write about what I read.

So Popper I’ve written about this year, but Baldwin I’ve only written around. I may never really write about Baldwin: he’s getting too close. But I’ll summarize here what I hear in him besides his heartbeat, which is indescribable.

Baldwin has a few themes that he returns to, book after book. One is the idea that identity is a mask, a rather fragile but essential mask that I construct – or that I allow my society to construct for me as I, wittingly or unwittingly, aid in its construction. An identity is usually false and shallow, and “it is questioned only when it is menaced,” as Baldwin says in a book of essays, The Devil Finds Work.

He understands his holy-roller preacher adolescence as a space where a mask was menaced. Although he disowns his Christianity, forty years after leaving the church he doesn’t “pretend to have surmounted the pain and terror of that time of my life.” In his early religious phase he “encountered the abyss of my own soul” in some measure. My own, legalistic religion benefitted me with a similar experience some time ago.

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Marginal

On The Tempest. Baldwin says something very similar to what Langbaum says in one of my post’s epigraphs, but from a broader perspective.

Langbaum: “. . . romance deals in marvelous events and solves its problems through metamorphoses and recognition scenes – through, in other words, transformations of perception.”

Baldwin wouldn’t disagree, I don’t think, but he sees “metamorphoses and recognition” as inherent in theater, not just in romance. The “tension between the real and the imagined is the theater,” Baldwin says, “and this is why the theater will always remain a necessity. One is not in the presence of shadows [as at the cinema], but responding to one’s flesh and blood; in the theater, we are recreating each other . . . we are all each other’s flesh and blood.”

Baldwin got converted as a young teen, he suggests, to escape Macbeth and the flesh and blood of theater: “Macbeth was a nigger, just like me, and I saw the witches in church, every Sunday, and all up and down the block, all week long, and Banquo’s face was a familiar face. At the same time, the majesty and torment on that stage were real . . .”

Baldwin was a playwright as well as a novelist and essayist. My quotes are from Baldwin’s No Name in the Street, the fourth book of his essays I’ve read this year.

The Tempest

The reason that it is important – of the utmost importance – for white people, here, to see the Negroes as people like themselves is that white people will not, otherwise, be able to see themselves as they are.

 – James Baldwin, from Nobody Knows My Name

. . . romance deals in marvelous events and solves its problems through metamorphoses and recognition scenes – through, in other words, transformations of perception.

 – Robert Langbaum, from his introduction to the Signet Classic edition of The Tempest

 

3PictureBookTempestThe island’s sand is bright white. Its lone palm is curved, like the line to a high kite. The storm clouds clear, and Ariel drifts down, bound to what the Washington Post calls “an amusingly thick rope.” She seems to miss her runway. She passes Prospero, but she delivers her lines, anyway, as, upside down, she reaches for the oncoming palm. She sounds dutiful and put out.

Will tomorrow’s show be the same, or is the actress making the most of tonight’s haywire high wire? Either way, I reflect, it’s Ariel: she wants to please Prospero because she wants her freedom. She’ll disorient every castaway, and also maybe herself, to leave.

We walk later the high, black catwalk from which Ariel was suspended. Beneath the stage, we touch the forbidden fruit on the banquet table that an hour before fell through a trap door.

But real magic pervades the wig room. Bethany and I are startled to see, on a black mannequin, fair Miranda’s hair. Our friend, who is showing us the ropes backstage, designs the wigs and costumes. She is visibly pleased. I’ve done my job well, then, she says.

Beforehand, I walk upstage in a parking garage. I’m a level below the lowest level with elevator service. An anxious Capitals fan behind me in an SUV drove me to this hell. I wanted to insinuate my car into a narrow spot a few levels up, but I didn’t want to hear more honking.

Outside it’s cold, and a man, covered in a surplus blanket or coat, sleeps against the garage. I’ve no sense of direction, and I’ve dropped Bethany, who has, off at the theater before parking. I’m disoriented. He could be dead. Then a guy comes out of the night as if he were the night coalescing.

He has a badge on a lanyard, just like the college kids that come to my door summertime in the suburbs. Except he’s around fifty, around my age, or he says he is, but I don’t believe him at first. He says he remembers the riots here after they shot King. He was five years old then. His dark dreadlocks fall behind him down somewhere near the dark street. They pull at the wrinkles on his forehead and make his eyes big and sweet.

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Invincibly impersonal

3PictureJamesBaldwinI 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.