Posts Tagged ‘James Baldwin’

Happy birthday, William Shakespeare! The bard on freedom, imitation, and coronavirus

Thursday, April 23rd, 2020
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On thinking? He had a lot to say about it.

It’s Shakespeare’s birthday, so it only seems appropriate that we baked him a little cake. There’s an even better way to celebrate, however, and that’s to bring our readers’ attention to Scott Newstok‘s How to Think Like Shakespeare, just published by Princeton University Press.

Newstok’s thing is education, and contrary to all-too-commonly held views, Shakespeare got a top-notch one. Newstok outlines the basic principles Shakespeare learned in a Chronicle of Higher Education essay:  a grounding in rhetoric (which has gotten a rather bad name in our time), imitation, inventio, traditio. (Well, honestly, they’ve all gotten a bad name.)

On rhetoric:

Antonio Gramsci described education in this way: “One has to inculcate certain habits of diligence, precision, poise (even physical poise), ability to concentrate on specific subjects, which cannot be acquired without the mechanical repetition of disciplined and methodical acts.” You take it for granted that Olympic athletes and professional musicians must practice relentlessly to perfect their craft. Why should you expect the craft of thought to require anything less disciplined? Fierce attention to clear and precise writing is the essential tool for you to foster independent judgment. That is rhetoric.

On imitatio:

As Michel de Montaigne put it: “The bees steal from this flower and that, but afterward turn their pilferings into honey, which is their own. … So the pupil will transform and fuse together the passages that he borrows from others, to make of them something entirely his own; that is to say, his own judgment. His education, his labor, and his study have no other aim but to form this.”

To add to our little mini-celebration, here’s an excerpt from Newstok’s interview with Scott Jaschik‘s over at the current Inside Higher Education:

Q: And on freedom?

A: When Caliban cries out for freedom, he falls for a drunk Stephano, who sings, “Thought is free.” Yet at this moment, Caliban’s not free — he’s just transferred his bondage to “a new master.” Real freedom would demand not only being slave to no one, but being his own master.

I’ve come to believe that a better translation of the emancipatory artes liberales would be the “crafts of freedom.” These practices cultivate a thinking citizen — the bane of every despot. Such an educational program presumes that freedom is fragile, demanding endless exertion: “there is nothing more arduous than the apprenticeship of liberty.”

I end the book with the fantastic James Baldwin essay “Why I Stopped Hating Shakespeare,” which concludes, “My relationship, then, to the language of Shakespeare revealed itself as nothing less than my relationship to myself and my past.” At first, Baldwin sought freedom from having to read Shakespeare, yet he came to relish the freedom to make Shakespeare his own. In doing so, Baldwin achieved a mutual recognition in Shakespeare that few of us ever reach – “an inner freedom which cannot be attained in any other way” than by inhabiting other minds through art.

“I feel like the crisis has given us a kind of X-ray into everyone’s souls”

Q: What do you think your book can offer today, when we are focused on the coronavirus?

A: That’s kind of an up-to-the-minute version of the utility question, isn’t it? We quickly exhausted the “What Shakespeare Did During the Plague” takes. The plaintive cry of Sonnet 65 comes to mind:

How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?

I’m starting to feel like the crisis has given us a kind of X-ray into everyone’s souls. To cite one of countless examples I’d never thought I’d see laid so bare: Do you think the postal service should be privatized, or are you grateful for its countless daily decencies? In terms of education, would you cheer if half of all universities went bankrupt, or do you cherish close learning? Should we only read contemporary prose, or might poets from the past have something to offer us?

On a more mundane level: my chapters are mercifully short, well suited to “this distracted globe”! And the book’s packed with apt quotations. At the least, they might provide a momentary stay against confusion; at best, an inspiration to seek out “the treasures that prevail,” a handbook for what matters once we emerge from the wreckage.

Oh yes, the cake… we just pulled it out of the oven!

The meaning of love in politics: What Hannah Arendt wrote to James Baldwin

Friday, August 2nd, 2019
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Today is James Baldwin‘s birthday. To celebrate, here’s a portion of “Letter from a Region of My Mind,” which appeared in The New Yorker on November 17, 1962 – and then Hannah Arendt‘s reply. In his essay, Baldwin concluded: 

When I was very young, and was dealing with my buddies in those wine- and urine-stained hallways, something in me wondered, What will happen to all that beauty? For black people, though I am aware that some of us, black and white, do not know it yet, are very beautiful. And when I sat at Elijah’s table and watched the baby, the women, and the men, and we talked about God’s – or Allah’s – vengeance, I wondered, when that vengeance was achieved, What will happen to all that beauty then? I could also see that the intransigence and ignorance of the white world might make that vengeance inevitable – a vengeance that does not really depend on, and cannot really be executed by, any person or organization, and that cannot be prevented by any police force or army: historical vengeance, a cosmic vengeance, based on the law that we recognize when we say, “Whatever goes up must come down.” And here we are, at the center of the arc, trapped in the gaudiest, most valuable, and most improbable water wheel the world has ever seen. Everything now, we must assume, is in our hands; we have no right to assume otherwise. If we – and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others – do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world. If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!

Here’s what Hannah Arendt, who knew him slightly, replied in a letter that is now at the Library of Congress:

November 21, 1962

Dear Mr. Baldwin:

Your article in the New Yorker is a political event of a very high order, I think;  it certainly is an event in my understanding of what is involved in the Negro question.  And since this is a question which concerns us all, I feel I am entitled to raise objections.

What frightened me in your essay was the gospel of love which you begin to preach at the end. In politics, love is a stranger, and when it intrudes upon it nothing is being achieved except hypocrisy. All the characteristics you stress in the Negro people: their beauty, their capacity for joy, their warmth, and their humanity, are well-known characteristics of all oppressed people. They grow out of suffering and they are the proudest possession of all pariahs. Unfortunately, they have never survived the hour of liberation by even five minutes. Hatred and love belong together, and they are both destructive;  you can afford them only in the private and, as a people, only so long as you are not free.

In sincere admiration,

cordially (that is, in case you remember that we know each other slightly) yours,

James Baldwin: “No writer can judge his work. I don’t think I’ve ever tried to judge mine.”

Sunday, May 19th, 2019
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We’ve written about author James Baldwin before – here and here and here. He’s one of the most remarkable voices in American lit. So we were pleased when LitHub recently republished his 1986 interview with David C. Estes. He begins with questions about James Baldwin’s The Evidence of Things Not Seen, which had just been published the year before. The book examines the Atlanta child murders that took place over a period of twenty-two months in 1979 and 1980. Says Baldwin:

JB: No writer can judge his work. I don’t think I’ve ever tried to judge mine. You just have to trust it. I’ve not been able to read the book, but I remember some of the moments when I wrote this or that. So in some ways, it’s a kind of melancholy inventory, not so much about myself as a writer (I’m not melancholy about that), but I think that what I found hard to decipher is to what extent or in what way my ostensible subject has changed. Nothing in the book could be written that way today.

Estes retraces his career, and Baldwin recalls his early days as a writer. Another excerpt: 

JB: Later, at Commentary, I had a marvelous relationship with one of the editors—Robert Warshow, my first real editor. He asked me to do an essay about the Harlem ghetto. When I turned it in, Robert said, “Do it over.” He didn’t say anything more. So I did. And then he said, “You know more than that.” I began to be aware of what he was doing. When he saw me come close to what I was afraid of, he circled it and said, “Tell me more about that.” What I was afraid of was the relationship between Negroes and Jews in Harlem—afraid on many levels. I’d never consciously thought about it before, but then it began to hit me on a profound and private level because many of my friends were Jews, although they had nothing to do with the Jewish landlords and pawnbrokers in the ghetto. So I had been blotting it out. It was with Robert that I began to be able to talk about it, and that was a kind of liberation for me. I’m in his debt forever because after that I was clear in my own mind. I suddenly realized that perhaps I had been afraid to talk about it because I was a closet anti-Semite myself. One always has that terror. And then I realized that I wasn’t. So something else was opened.

DCE: What major artistic problems have you had to confront in your nonfiction?

JB: I was a black kid and was expected to write from that perspective. Yet I had to realize the black perspective was dictated by the white imagination. Since I wouldn’t write from the perspective, essentially, of the victim, I had to find what my own perspective was and then use it. I couldn’t talk about “them” and “us.” So I had to use “we” and let the reader figure out who “we” is. That was the only possible choice of pronoun. It had to be “we.” And we had to figure out who “we” was, or who “we” is. That was very liberating for me.

I was going through a whole lot of shit in New York because I was black, because I was always in the wrong neighborhood, because I was small. It was dangerous, and I was in a difficult position because I couldn’t find a place to live. I was always being thrown out, fighting landlords. My best friend committed suicide when I was twenty-two, and I could see that I was with him on that road. I knew exactly what happened to him—everything that happened to me. The great battle was not to interiorize the world’s condemnation, not to see yourself as the world saw you, and also not to depend on your skill. I was very skillful—much more skillful than my friend, much more ruthless, too. In my own mind, I had my family to save. I could not go under; I could not afford to. Yet I knew that I was going under. And at the very same moment, I was writing myself up to a wall. I knew I couldn’t continue. It was too confining. I wrote my first two short stories, and then I split.

Read the whole thing here.

Want to communicate with the dead? A dead man tells us how. (Plus some kind words for the Book Haven!)

Saturday, September 16th, 2017
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Words of praise for the Book Haven from Rhys Tranter over at his lively and excellent website:

One of the finest literary blogs around is Cynthia Haven‘s The Book Haven, hosted by Stanford University. The site covers a rich variety of topics in a lively and accessible way, and includes reviews and interviews alongside thought-provoking essays. In addition, Haven is alert to the political and cultural turmoil that continues to shape contemporary American consciousness. In a recent post, she draws on the words of American writer James Baldwin to examine how literature can lead to greater empathy and understanding between people and communities:

Preach it. (Photo: The Granger Collection)

There’s a direct line between our moral and social crises and the collapse of the humanities. […] 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.

Then he included the words of James Baldwin I had cited: “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.”

There’s so much to be said beyond Baldwin’s insightful words, however. We’ve said it before here and here, for example. Here’s a passage from James Marcus‘s interview with the late Susan Sontag on the subject:

“Education of the heart”

“Reading should be an education of the heart,” she says, correcting and amplifying her initial statement. “Of course a novel can still have plenty of ideas. We need to discard that romantic cliché about the head versus the heart, which is an absurdity. In real life, intellect and passion are never separated that way, so why shouldn’t you be moved by a book? Why shouldn’t you cry, and be haunted by the characters? Literature is what keeps us from shriveling into something completely superficial. And it takes us out of ourselves, too.”

“Perhaps some people don’t want to be taken out of themselves,” I suggest.

“Well, reading must seem to some people like an escape,” she allows. “But I really do think it’s necessary if you want to have a full life. It keeps you–well, I don’t want to say honest, but something that’s almost the equivalent. It reminds you of standards: standards of elegance, of feeling, of seriousness, of sarcasm, or whatever. It reminds you that there is more than you, better than you.”

“a form of moral insurance”

Joseph Brodsky went even further in his Nobel lecture (here), famously saying, “There is no doubt in my mind that, had we been choosing our leaders on the basis of their reading experience and not their political programs, there would be much less grief on earth. It seems to me that a potential master of our fates should be asked, first of all, not about how he imagines the course of his foreign policy, but about his attitude toward StendhalDickensDostoevsky. … As a form of moral insurance, at least, literature is much more dependable than a system of beliefs or a philosophical doctrine.”

It also prevents us Gary Saul Morson what I call the “Downton Abbey Syndrome”: “the more that authors and characters shared our beliefs, the more enlightened they were. This is simply a form of ahistorical flattery; it makes us the wisest people who ever lived, much more advanced than that Shakespeare guy. Of course, numerous critical schools that judge literary works are more sophisticated than that class on Huckleberry Finn, but they all still presume the correctness of their own views and then measure others against them. That stance makes it impossible to do anything but verify what one already believes. Why not instead imagine what valid criticisms these authors would advance if they could see us?”

“converse with the dead, the absent, the unborn”

According to Abraham Lincoln:  “Writing – the art of communicating thoughts to the mind, through the eye – is the great invention of the world. Great in the astonishing range of analysis and combination which necessarily underlies the most crude and general conception of it – great, very great in enabling us to converse with the dead, the absent, and the unborn, at all distances of time and of space; and great, not only in its direct benefits, but greatest help, to all other inventions.”

Protection against propaganda returns us to Rhys Tranter again, in his post this week:, which has takes on the more ominous side of a society that no longer cultivates emotional standards and discrimination, this time in the words of Thomas Merton: “[In] an evolved society there are no innocent victims of propaganda. Propaganda succeeds because men want it to succeed. It works on minds because those minds want to be worked on. Its conclusions bring apparent light and satisfaction because that is the kind of satisfaction that people are longing for. It leads them to actions for which they are already half prepared: all they ask is that these actions be justified. If war propaganda succeeds it is because people want war, and only need a few good reasons to justify their own desire.”

The unforgettable James Baldwin and “the terror within”

Thursday, August 24th, 2017
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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:

Join us tonight for James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time!

Thursday, March 5th, 2015
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