Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A Provisional Essay on the Essays of James Baldwin: In Response to Earlier Conversations

     I've been involved in a sporadic conversation with my friend Adam for the past couple years about novelist and essayist James Baldwin.  Our conversation has primarily focused on the essays because until recently, those are the only works of Baldwin's that I had read.  Since then, I've manage to read about half of Giovanni's Room, but my engagement with the fiction is still pretty superficial.  Not surprisingly, since he is writing a chapter on Baldwin, Adam has read a number of the novels as well as the essay work.  Our conversations have focused on a particular interpretation that Adam has suggested about the essay work of Baldwin.  He has argued that there is a shift in Baldwin's work from the early essays that operate within the framework of the New York intellectuals, critiquing the forms of sentimentality in the work of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Richard Wright to his later work focused on advocacy for the struggles of the civil rights movement and the new left.

    There is certainly evidence for this position.  The early essays of Baldwin were sharply critical of the political positions and, more significantly, the aesthetic engagement of the left.  These critiques primarily focused on a critique of sentimentality. For Baldwin, "Sentimentality, the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion, is the mark of dishonesty, the inability to feel; the wet eyes of the sentimentalist betray his aversion to experience, his fear of life, his arid heart; and it is always therefore, the signal of secret and violent inhumanity, the mask of cruelty."  The early essays focused on this form of ideological critique, focusing on the deception of conventional narratives, and their ability to legitimate systems of domination.  This analysis was turned against the work of Richard Wright, popular film, and popular periodicals.  He also turned it against the hypocrisy of the presidential campaign of the radical Progressive Party.

     Additionally, the later work showed a commitment to a number of political struggles that were previously dealt with a certain level skepticism in the earlier works.  Baldwin wrote advocacy pieces for Angela Davis, the Black Panthers, and in support of the sit-in demonstrations of the civil rights moment.  As Baldwin became more popular, he also became a spokesman for the movement, representing struggles within the pages of journals and on the television.  Evidently, this new stance alienated his earlier audience, who refused to accept that a committed intellectual could also play the role of critic, abandoning the distance that they believed was crucial to the position of an honest intellectual.  From their position, Baldwin had abandoned his role as the proper liberal intellectual, taking the role as activist and advocate.

     However, even the early essays don't fall into the narrative arc of the New York intellectuals.  Baldwin was committed to the same linkage of the narratives, focusing on the relationship between sentimentality, kitsch, and totalitarianism.  But Baldwin's commitment to anti-racism brought in a different dimension to Baldwin's work from the beginning.  That commitment pushed Baldwin towards a critique of European civilization as such.  He recognized that the concept of race, and the forms of domination and colonialism entangled within it, was intimately linked to the European world system, a system that the United States was the latest beneficiary of.  However, the unique role of slavery had disrupted that system, breaking down the border between the colonizer and the colonized.  That contradiction is linked to the breakdown of the system.  Baldwin noted in the final essay of the collection, "The world is white no longer, and it will never be white again." ("Stranger in the Village", 129)  Although, Baldwin's later work would present a far more pessimistic vision of the 'lie' of race, it still turned the critical tools of the New York intellectuals against their vaunted Western tradition.
  Additionally, the linkage between Baldwin and the New Left was considerably less amicable then Baldwin's critics would have thought.  Baldwin was frequently seen as a member of the establishment by groups such as the Black Panthers, and his relationship with the radicals in those movements were frequently quite tense.  Rather than falling into a simple one-sided image of the struggles as advocate, Baldwin continued to attempt to break out of the deceptive structure of conventional narrative structures.  For Baldwin, the advantage of the new social movements was their challenge to the European social order now dominated by the United States.  It was a critique of the lie of whiteness.  Rather than representing a radical shift in the thinking process of Baldwin, the later essays operated as a continuation of both his criticism of the social symbolic order and the conventional narratives that supported it.  The difference between the periods is historical, rather than a shift in Baldwin's thought.  Instead, the real transformation could be linked to a set of challenges to the symbolic system, through anti-colonial struggles, civil rights, etc.

   The new collected set of essays collecting the material unpublished in the earlier set of essays published by the Library of America contribute to a greater sense of continuity in the narratives produced by Baldwin.  That central theme can be reduced to the title of one the essays of the collection, "The White Problem."   Whiteness constitutes the central contradiction, framing the lie called race.  The lie of whiteness and the lie of race refuses to recognize the intimacy of relations that exist in the United States within the forms of domination that define it.  This refusal to recognize this fact is crucial to maintaining these modes of dubious privilege.  Furthermore, they are maintained through the mediocrity of popular conventional narratives.  In effect, the modes of critique offered by the New York intellectuals against mass culture, against the supposed totalitarianism of the 2nd World are turned against the so-called free world of the United States, revealing its untruth, its modes of domination, etc.  At the heart of that system is the abasement and domination of blackness, contributing to the abasement of everyone.  This problematic is probably most directly expressed in a small section of the essay, "On Being White... And Other Lies."  He states,

    "Just so the white community as a means of keeping itself white, elect, as they imagine, their political representatives.  No nation in the world , including England is represented by so stunning a pantheon of the relentlessly mediocre.  I will not name names--I will leave that to you.
     But this cowardice, this necessity of justifying a totally false identity and of justifying what must be called a genocidal history, has placed everyone now living into the hands of the most ignorant and powerful people the world has ever seen.  And how did they get that way?  By deciding that they were white.  By opting for safety instead of life.  By persuading themselves that a black child's life meant nothing compared with a white child's life.  By abandoning their children to the things white men could buy.  By informing human integrity that those who call themselves white were bound to respect.  And in this debasement and definition of black people, they debased and defined themselves.

     And they have brought humanity to the edge of oblivion: because they think they are white."

1 comment:

  1. Nice post Robert. In formulating my own position on this matter (outlined above), I found the following articles to be useful. Geraldine Murphy discusses Baldwin's connection to the New York Intellectuals (http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/elh/v063/63.4murphy.html#REF4). I push her a little harder on the question of mass culture, but then again, of course I do. Also useful is James Miller's essay on Baldwin and American identity (http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayFulltext?type=6&fid=1812452&jid=&volumeId=&issueId=01&aid=1812448&bodyId=&membershipNumber=&societyETOCSession=&fulltextType=RA&fileId=S0021875807004379#top), which leads me to see the necessity of Baldwin's need for a distinctly national audience.