James Baldwin: The Return of the Dead
Review: James Baldwin: Later Novels. Darryl Pinckney, Ed.
Lately, James Baldwin has been having a critical renaissance.1 The strongest sign of this phenomenon is that the Library of America has published a second volume of fiction collecting his novels of the 1960s and 1970s: Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone (1968), If Beale Street Could Talk (1974), Just Above My Head (1979). With his first three, more famous novels, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1954), Giovanni’s Room (1956), and Another Country (1962), and his one collection of stories, Going to Meet the Man (1965), all gathered together in Early Novels and Stories (1998) edited by Toni Morrison in a Library of America volume, readers and critics now have available to them in two large volumes all the fiction Baldwin saw through book publication during his lifetime.2
The blacks did not so much use Christian symbols as recognize them—recognize them for what they were before the Christians came along—and, thus, reinvested these symbols with their original energy. The proof of this, simply, is the continued existence and authority of the blacks: it is through the creation of the black church that an unwritten, dispersed, and violated inheritance has been handed down. The word “revelation” has very little meaning in the recognized languages: yet, it is the only word for the moment I am attempting to approach. This moment changes one forever. One is confronted with the agony and the nakedness and the beauty of a power which has no beginning and no end, which contains you, and which you contain, and which will be using you when your bones are dust. One thus confronts a self both limited and boundless, born to die and born to live. The creature is, also, the creation which is both the self and more than the self. One is set free, then, to live among one’s terrors, hour by hour and day by day, alone, and yet never alone. My soul is a witness!—so one’s ancestors proclaim, and in the deadliest of the midnight hours (CE, 566).
Baldwin, as if a black secular prophet, is pointing to the existence of a tradition orally, via especially hymns and songs making up the musical roots of the black church, as well as whatever other sources enter into this visionary inheritance, this moment of “revelation.” He reverses the belated status of himself and his people vis a vis the orthodox, written Torah, as it were, the recognized languages of white culture, popular and academic, and positions the blacks, his ancestors, and their diasporic oral culture of story, legend, song, and virtue, at the origins, the still living origins, of whatever continues to live in Christianity and its modern secular displacements, romantic or otherwise. His soul is a witness to revelation, again and again, in his work, fictional and essayistic, throughout his career. In this role, Baldwin is like what he calls his people as a whole: “the custodian of an inheritance . . . Western culture . . . [we] must hand down the line” (CE, 566). Not unchanged, but as herein, revised apocalyptically.
Some moments in a life, and they needn’t be very long or seem very important, can make up for so much in that life; can redeem, justify, that pain, that bewilderment, with which one lives, and invest one with the courage not only to endure it, but to profit from it; some moments teach one the price of human connection: if one can live with one’s own pain, then one respects the pain of others, and so, briefly, but transcendentally, we can release each other from pain. Something like this message I seemed to read in Pete’s eyes as he raised his glass and looked at me. His eyes held my journey, and his own. His eyes held the years of terror, trembling, hatred, scorn, inhuman isolation; the YMCA, the Mills Hotel, the winter streets, the subways, the rooftops, the public baths, the public toilets, the filthy socks, the nights one wept alone on some vermin-infested bed; the faithless loves, the lost loves, the hope of love; the many deaths, and the fear of death; in all of this, some style evolving, some music endlessly played, ringing inexorable changes on the meaning of the blues. His look was shrewd, ironic, loving. He knew how frightened I had been. He knew how frightened he had been (LN, 237).
The Wordsworthian variation comes from The Prelude. Bk. II, ll 1-17:
We entered a dark and noisy barn. All of the seats had been removed from the orchestra of this theater, and hundreds of and hundreds of boys and girls filled this space. Some were standing, some were lounging against the walls, some where sitting on the floor, some were embracing, some were dancing. The stage held four or five of the loudest musicians in the world’s history. It was impossible to tell whether they were any good or not, their sounds was too high. But it did not really matter whether their sound was any good or not, this sound was, literally, not meant for my ears, and it existed entirely outside my capacity for judgment. It was a rite that I was witnessing—witnessing, not sharing. It made me think of rites I had seen in Caleb’s church, in many churches; of black feet stomping in the mud of the levee; of rites older than that, in forests irrecoverable. The music drove and drove, into the past—into the future. It sounded like an attempt to make a great hole in the world, and bring up what was buried. And the dancers seemed, nearly, in the flickering, violent light, with their beads flashing, their long hair flying, their robes whirling—or their tight skirts, tight pants, signifying—and with the music assaulting them like the last, last trumpet, to be dancing in their grave-clothes, raised from the dead (LN, 360)
To make sure we get his position in all this, Baldwin’s narrator protagonist, Leo Proudhammer, actor representative of the artist per se of the older generation, adds tellingly:
On the wall were four screens, and on these screens, ectoplasmic figures and faces endlessly writhed, moving in and out of each other, in a tremendous sexual rhythm which made me think of nameless creatures blindly coupling in all the slime of the world, and at the bottom of the sea, and in the air we breathed, and in one’s very body. From time to time, on this recognized a face. I saw . . . for a moment, I thought I saw my own (LN, 360).
From Ezekiel to The Waste Land, with revisionary moments in Blake, Lawrence, Stevens, and many more, in which the dead arise and, for better or worse, usher in the apocalyptic destruction of the old city and the final materialization of the visionary New Jerusalem, with their frenzied dancing and sublime music—Baldwin places black Americans at the source of the redeemed spirit.
It’s funny about people. Just before something happens, you almost know what it is. You do know what it is, I believe. You just haven’t had the time—and now you won’t have the time—to say it to yourself. Daddy’s face changed in a way I can’t describe. His face became as definite as stone, every line and angle suddenly seemed chiseled, and his eyes turned a blacker black. He was waiting—suddenly, helplessly—for what was already known to be translated, to enter reality, to be born (LN, 398).
The very transparent perfection of this passage as an allegory of all the dimensions of the novel—the character-driven plot, the author-narrator relationship, the work-reader relationship, etc.--testifies to the lameness of the effort. Giving birth to a child in this fraught context and winning over Daddy so that the return to pure possibility envisioned at the end of Train can be “translated . . . to enter reality, to born in Tish as played by Baldwin.”
But everyone must be born somewhere, and everyone is born in a context: this context is his inheritance. If he were a Muslim, or a Jew, or an Irish, Spanish, Greek, or Italian Catholic, if he were a Hindu, or a Haitian or a Brazilian, an Indian or an African chief, his life might be simpler in some ways and more complex in others; more open in one way, more closed in another. An inheritance is a given: in struggling with this given, one discovers oneself in it—and one could not have been found in any other place!—and, with this discovery, and not before, the possibility of freedom begins. . . . [However,) like Arthur, like you and me, in fact, [we Americans] would rather spend . . . life without wrestling with history . . . . [For] [t]o overhaul a history, or to attempt to redeem it—which effort may or may not justify it—is not at all the same thing as the descent one must make in order to excavate a history. To be forced to excavate a history is, also, to repudiate the concept of history, and the vocabulary in which history is written; for the written history is, and must be, merely the vocabulary of power, and power is history’s most seductively attired false witness. And yet, the attempt, more, the necessity, to excavate a history, to find out the truth about oneself! is motivated by the need to have the power to force others to recognize your presence, your right to be here. The disputed passage will remain disputed so long as you do not have the authority of the right-of-way—so long, that is, as your passage can be disputed: the document promising safe passage can always be revoked. Power clears the passage, swiftly: but the paradox, here, is that power, rooted in history, is also, the mockery and the repudiation of history. The power to define the other seals one’s definition of oneself . . . . Perhaps, then, after all, we have no idea of what history is: or are in flight from the demon we have summoned. Perhaps, history is not to be found in our mirrors, but in our repudiations: perhaps, the other is ourselves. History may be a great deal more than the quicksand which swallows others, and which has not yet swallowed us: history may be attempting to vomit us up, and spew us out: history may be tired. Death, itself, which swallows everyone, is beginning to be weary—of history, in fact, for death has no history (LN, 938; 964).
This “demon” of history, whether summoned or excavated, in this context of multiple allusions, and musical sounds, reminds us of Satan’s confrontation with Sin and Death at the gates of hell on his way to reconnoiter the terrestrial Paradise in search of Adam and Eve, to precipitate their felix culpa, a fortunate fall from pure innocence, blank possibility, into the vision of the renewable human innocence of tragic experience.5
See, for example, Nathaniel Rich, “James Baldwin and the Fear of a Nation,” New York Review of Books, May 12, 2016, Vol. 63, No. 8. http://www.nybooks.com/ Online.