The unforgettable James Baldwin and “the terror within”


With Shakespeare in ’69 (Photo: Allan Warren)

There’s a direct line between our moral and social crises and the collapse of the humanities. I wrote about that a little here and here, among many other places. Here’s one reason: literature is our chance to explore the world of  the “other,” to enter into some head other than our own. You can’t read The Brothers Karamazov without being able to understand multiple ways of living and thinking in the world, and some quite alien to one’s own p.o.v. That’s precisely what’s lacking in today’s public life, and that’s the understanding that should have been grounded in our educational system.

James Baldwin put it in his own insightful way: “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was Dostoevsky and Dickens who taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who ever had been alive. Only if we face these open wounds in ourselves can we understand them in other people.”

I discovered James Baldwin late – in fact, I discovered him when Stanford’s Another Look book club took on The Fire Next TimeChalk it up to all those advertising pages about the Library of America series. As I recall, Baldwin, in shirt-and-tie, sat behind a huge desk that looked like it was situated somewhere in the White House. I figured he was probably worthy, stuffy, respectable, and dull.

Boy was I wrong. He eats fire. But he probes his own inner landscape as eloquently and profoundly as he does his nation and his world. Maria Popova has a post this month on Baldwin, with two great excerpts from The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction, 1948-1985:

It has always been much easier (because it has always seemed much safer) to give a name to the evil without than to locate the terror within. And yet, the terror within is far truer and far more powerful than any of our labels: the labels change, the terror is constant. And this terror has something to do with that irreducible gap between the self one invents — the self one takes oneself as being, which is, however, and by definition, a provisional self — and the undiscoverable self which always has the power to blow the provisional self to bits.


It is perfectly possible — indeed, it is far from uncommon — to go to bed one night, or wake up one morning, or simply walk through a door one has known all one’s life, and discover, between inhaling and exhaling, that the self one has sewn together with such effort is all dirty rags, is unusable, is gone: and out of what raw material will one build a self again? The lives of men — and, therefore, of nations — to an extent literally unimaginable, depend on how vividly this question lives in the mind. It is a question which can paralyze the mind, of course; but if the question does not live in the mind, then one is simply condemned to eternal youth, which is a synonym for corruption.

Don’t forget the new film about Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro. Trailer below:


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