I have long admired, even loved, the French but I don’t think I ever quite understood why until I read Victor Hugo. Their commitment to liberty inspired two revolutions – America’s and their own – that created the best of the world we live in today. They are more responsible than anyone for the evolution of government from hereditary monarchy to a system that exists to serve its people, not the other way around.
Their culture, their devotion to beauty, their appreciation of romance inspires artists and lovers everywhere. Their lust is not simple desire, but desires, eternally mingled with playful affection. In addition to their reverence for fine wine, cheese, and bread, they have an appreciation for the peculiar wonders of femininity and masculinity that aren’t chained to rigid concepts of gender. Makeup, wigs, and high heels were always for men as well as women.
Love is not a rigid concept either. It flows. It mutates. It entices. It satisfies a hunger that even the finest meals cannot. In this passage from Les Miserables, Victor Hugo produces a fine reduction of the love between an old blind bishop and his adoring sister that could easily translate into the love between parent and child, or between lovers:
To have continually at your side a woman, a girl, a sister, a charming being, who is there because you need her, and because she cannot do without you, to know you are indispensable to someone necessary to you, to be able at all times to measure her affection by the degree of her presence that she gives you, and to say to yourself: She dedicates all her time to me, because I possess her whole love; to see the thought if not the face; to be sure of the fidelity of one being in a total eclipse of the world; to imagine the rustling of her dress as the rustling of wings; to hear her moving to and fro, going out, coming in, talking, singing, and to think that you are the cause of those steps, those words, that song; to show your personal attraction at every moment; to feel even more powerful as your infirmity increases; to become in darkness, and by reason of darkness, the star around which this angel gravitates; few joys can equal that. The supreme happiness of life is the conviction that we are loved; loved for ourselves – say rather, loved in spite of ourselves; this conviction the blind have. Are they deprived of anything? No. Light is not lost where love enters. And what a love! A love wholly founded in purity. There is no blindness where there is certainty. The soul gropes in search of a soul, and finds it. And that soul, found and proven, is a woman. A hand sustains you, it is hers; lips lightly touch your forehead, they are her lips; you hear breathing near you, it is she. To have her wholly, from her devotion to her pity, never to be left alone, to have that sweet shyness as your aid, to lean on that unbending reed, to touch Providence with your hands and be able to grasp it in your arms; God made palpable, what transport!
We live in an age of short attention spans and sound bytes, which would seem to suggest shallow imaginations but it might signify something very different: an increased ability to absorb more information in less time. One example of this optimistic interpretation is the fact that we are living in a golden age of poetry. Nothing quite distills the human experience to its essence as well as poetry.
James Baldwin didn’t write a lot of poetry – only one book of his poems was published in his lifetime – but his prose captures the complexity of existence with the same density as poetry. He once said that “every poet is an optimist. But on the way to that optimism ‘you have to reach a certain level of despair to deal with your life at all.’ ”
In his novel If Beale Street Could Talk, Baldwin suggests that if we are absorbing information more rapidly than our ancestors, we might come to regret it:
It doesn’t do to look too hard into this mystery, which is as far from being simple as it is from being safe. We don’t know enough about ourselves. I think it’s better to know that you don’t know, that way you can grow with the mystery as the mystery grows in you. But, these days, of course, everybody knows everything, that’s why so many people are lost.
There have always been some people who processed information at a higher capacity than others. James Baldwin was one. Here is the information he imagined being absorbed by a young woman on the subway:
I looked around the subway car. It was a little like the drawings I had seen of slave ships. Of course, they hadn’t had newspapers on the slave ships, hadn’t needed them yet; but, as concerned space (and also, perhaps, as concerned intention) the principle was exactly the same. A heavy man, smelling of hot sauce and toothpaste, breathed heavily into my face. It wasn’t his fault that he had to breathe, or that my face was there. His body pressed up against me, too, very hard, but this did not mean that he was thinking of rape, or thinking of me at all. He was probably wondering only – and this, dimly – how he was going to get through another day on the job. And he certainly did not see me.
There are two main characters in If Beale Street Could Talk. One is Fonny, an artist of a different type than Baldwin. This description of the sculptor’s process shows how all of art, like all of love, is one thing:
Fonny is working on the wood. It is a soft, brown wood, it stands on his worktable. He has decided to do a bust of me. The wall is covered with sketches. I am not here.
His tools are on the table. He walks around the wood, terrified. He does not want to touch it. He knows that he must. But does not want to defile the wood. He stares and stares, almost weeping. He wishes that the wood would speak to him; he is waiting for the wood to speak. Until it speaks, he cannot move. I am imprisoned somewhere in the silence of that wood, and so is he.
He picks up the chisel, he puts it down. He lights a cigarette, sits down on his work stool, stares, picks up the chisel again.
He puts it down, goes into the kitchen to pour himself a beer, comes back with the beer, sits down on the stool again, stares at the wood. The wood stares back at him.
“You cunt,” says Fonny.
Hi picks up the chisel again, and approaches the waiting wood. He touches it very lightly with his hand, he caresses it. He listens. He puts the chisel, teasingly, against it. The chisel begins to move. Fonny begins.
The other main character is the narrator, Tish. It might be a bit of a stretch from writer to sculptor, but nothing like a man trying to imagine how it feels to be a pregnant woman. Baldwin’s portrayal might be as close as a man’s ever gotten to accuracy in this scene with Tish and her sister:
I realize, for the first time, that the bar is loud. And I look around me. It’s actually a terrible place and I realize that the people here can only suppose that Ernestine and I are tired whores, or a Lesbian couple, or both. Well. We are certainly in it now, and it may get worse. It will, certainly – and now something almost as hard to catch as a whisper in a crowded place, as light and as definite as a spider’s web, strikes below my ribs, stunning and astonishing my heart – get worse. But that light tap, that kick, that signal, announces to me that what can get worse can get better. Yes. It will get worse. But the baby, turning for the first time in its incredible veil of water, announces its presence and claims me; tells me, in that instant, that what can get worse can get better; and that what can get better can get worse. In the meantime – forever – it is entirely up to me. The baby cannot get here without me. And, while I may have known this, in one way, a little while ago, now the baby knows it, and tells me that while it will certainly be worse, once it leaves the water, what gets worse can also get better. It will be in the water for a while yet: but it is preparing itself for a transformation. And so must I.
James Baldwin must have spent a lot of his time writing this novel in contemplation of pregnancy and of the differences between women and men.
Only a man can see in the face of a woman the girl she was. It is a secret which can be revealed only to a particular man, and, then only at his insistence. But men have no secrets, except from women, and never grow up in the way that women do. It is very much harder, and it takes much longer, for a man to grow up, and he could never do it at all without women. This is a mystery which can terrify and immobilize a woman, and it is always the key to her deepest distress. She must watch and guide, but he must lead, and he will always appear to be giving far more of his attention to his comrades than he is giving to her. But that noisy, outward openness of men with each other enables them to deal with the silence and secrecy of women, that silence and secrecy which contains the truth of a man, and releases it.
James Baldwin’s greatest talent is insight. As skilled as he was at his craft, his words were slaves to his thoughts and they revealed him: thoughtful and kind. In this scene, published the year he turned 50, his young couple, in the throes of first love, share a mean with their friend Daniel:
Fonny: chews on the rib, and watches me: and, in complete silence, without moving a muscle, we are laughing with each other. We are laughing for many reasons. We are joined together somewhere where no one can reach us, touch us, joined. We are happy, even, that we have food enough for Daniel, who eats peacefully, not knowing that we are laughing, but sensing that something wonderful has happened to us, which means that wonderful things happen, and that maybe something wonderful will happen to him. It’s wonderful, anyway, to be able to help a person to have that feeling.
Yesterday morning there was a man in the lobby of my office building talking into his phone at an obscene volume. As we rode up in the elevator together – four or five of us – it became obvious that he was not like the rest of us and did not want to be. He yelled into his phone, “Why don’t you make yourself useful and lock up some of the bastards running this city.” As he got off he grunted something disparaging about “civilians” and as the doors closed behind him the woman in the elevator with me could only say “Wow.”
Maybe he was off his meds.
But on my way to work I was reading If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin and it wasn’t hard to see the loud-talking non-civilian in the elevator as the villain lurking behind a passage like this:
“The same passion which saved Fonny got him into trouble and put him in jail. For, you see, he had found his center, his own center, inside him: and it showed. He wasn’t anybody’s nigger. And that’s a crime, in this fucking free county. You’re suppose to be somebody’s nigger. And if you’re nobody’s nigger, you’re a bad nigger: and that’s what the cops decided when Fonny moved downtown.”
Some of us are sickened by the daily news reports of the takeover of our government by white supremacists but others might take it as a hopeful sign that we are finally waking up to a situation that has been festering in this country since colonial times.
“Of course, I must say that I don’t think America is God’s gift to anybody – if it is, God’s days have gotto be numbered. That God these people say they serve – and do serve, in ways that they don’t know – has got a very nasty sense of humor. Like you’d beat the shit out of Him, if He was a man. Or: if you were.”
There are people – Virginia Woolf is one, so is James Joyce – whose work makes me feel like they did me a personal favor by becoming writers. James Baldwin is another.
I’m not good at retaining novels. Certain scenes and characters make an impression but most of them fade from my memory soon after I read them. I sink into the dream that is a good book and turning the last page of one is like opening my eyes after a long night’s sleep, grasping at dreams that I can’t keep from evaporating.
So I fold back the corners of pages that I want to re-read even after I’ve re-read them. So I can type up the words and let them skip across the keyboard and my fingertips, so I can feel what it’s like to write this kind of passage:
“I thought of Fonny’s touch, of Fonny, in my arms, his breath, his touch, his odor, his weight, that terrible and beautiful presence riding into me and his breath being snarled, as if by a golden thread, deeper and deeper in his throat as he rode – as he rode deeper and deeper not so much into me as into a kingdom which lay just behind his eyes. He worked on wood that way. He worked on stone that way. If I had never seen him work, I might never have known he loved me.
It’s a miracle to realize that somebody loves you.”
Jack London is a writer best known for his stories of sled dogs during the Klondike Gold Rush. He writes with a unique and forcerful voice; so what if it’s a dog’s?
One of the great sins in the theology of modern literary criticism, right up there with sentimentality, is anthropomorphism. I kind of like it. To me, it is no worse to ascribe thoughts and feelings to fictional pets than fictional humans. I often find the behavior of other species more predictable and understandable than that of homo sapiens. Some things – hunger and desperation among them – are universal in the animal kingdom. This passage, showing the dog Buck’s behavioral change under a new, harsh environment, might sound like anthropomorphism run amok to some ears but it rings true to mine.
The first theft marked Buck as fit to survive in the hostile Northland environment. It marked his adaptability, his capacity to adjust himself to changing conditions, the lack of which would have meant swift and terrible death. It marked, further, the decay or going to pieces of his moral nature, a vain thing and a handicap in the ruthless struggle for existence. It was all well enough in the Southland, under the law of love and fellowship, to respect private property and personal feelings; but in the Northland, under the law of club and fang, whoso took such things into account was a fool, and in so far as he observed them he would fail to prosper.
The worst literary sins I see in The Call of the Wild are the horrendous accents:
‘Ah, my frien’s’ he said softly, ‘mebbe it mek you mad dog, dose many bites. Mebbe all mad dog, sacredam! Wot you t’ink, eh, Perrault?’
But there’s not a lot of dialogue and London makes up for the awkward accents with both his ideas and his presentation of them.
One of the concepts humans use to differentiate ourselves from the rest of the animal kingdom is instinct. We imagine behavior of “lower” life forms is dictated by a process without connection to the intellect. It’s bullshit of course. If instinct exists it is as hardwired into humans as it is in other species. We call it by loftier words like epigenetics or “the collective subconscious” but it exists.
Here is Buck coming to terms with the revelations of his collective subconscious:
And not only did he learn by experience, but instincts long dead became alive again. The domesticated generations fell from him. In vague ways he remembered back to the youth of the breed, to the time the wild dogs ranged in packs through the primeval forest and killed their meat as they ran it down. It was no task for him to learn to fight with cut and slash and the quick wolf snap. In this manner had fought forgotten ancestors. They quickened the old life within him, and the old tricks which they had stamped into the heredity of the breed were his tricks. They came to him without effort or discovery, as though they had been his always. And when, on the still cold nights, he pointed his nose at a star and howled long and wolflike, it was his ancestors, dead and dust, pointing nose at star and howling down the centuries and through him. And his cadences were their cadences, the cadences which voiced their woe and what to them was the meaning of the stillness, and the cold, and dark.
In the end, the currents that run in the bloodstreams of dog and man are not so different. The call Thoreau heard echoes in these furry ears:
There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise. And such is the paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is most alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive. This ecstasy, this forgetfulness of living, comes to the artist, caught up and out of himself in a sheet of flame; it comes to the soldier, war-mad on a stricken field and refusing quarter; and it came to Buck, leading the pack, sounding the old wolf-cry, straining after the food that was alive and that fled swiftly before him through the moonlight. He was sounding the deeps of his nature, and of the parts of his nature that were deeper than he, going back into the womb of Time. He was mastered by the sheer surging of life, the tidal wave of being, the perfect joy of each separate muscle, joint, and sinew in that it was everything that was not death, that it was aglow and rampant, expressing itself in movement, flying exultantly under the stars and over the face of dead matter that did not move.
Joyce called literature “the highest and most spiritual art.” For me, music has always held that spot but if anyone can make a case for words over music, it is James Joyce.
In this excerpt from his debut novel the protagonist is agonizing over the confusing and painful experience of seeing the woman he loves with another:
His anger against her found vent in coarse railing at her paramour, whose name and voice and features offended his baffled pride: a priested peasant, with a brother a policeman in Dublin and a brother a potboy in Moycullen. To him she would unveil her soul’s shy nakedness, to one who was but schooled in the discharging of a formal rite rather than to him, a priest of the eternal imagination, transmuting the daily bread of experience into the radiant body of everliving life.
What can a poor boy do, in the days before there was such a thing as playing in a rock’n’roll band? For those who are not street fighting men the obvious answer is poetry.
If he sent her the verses? They would be read out at breakfast amid the tapping of egg-shells. Folly indeed! Her brothers would laugh and try to wrest the page from each other with their strong hard fingers. The suave priest, her uncle, seated in his arm-chair, would hold the page at arm’s length, read it smiling and approve of the literary form.
No, no; that was folly. Even if he sent her the verses she would not show them to others. No, no; she could not.
There are things we don’t know and things we will never know. But as long as we live, we keep trying to figure them out. Great writers are one of the sources we turn to for answers or, failing that, insight. Here is James Joyce giving his insight into the fall, and the temptation preceding the fall.
The snares of the world were its ways of sin. He would fall. He had not yet fallen but he would fall silently, in an instant. Not to fall was too hard, too hard; and he felt the silent lapse of his soul, as it would be at some instant to come, falling, falling, but not yet fallen, still unfallen, but about to fall.
The fall may or may not be inevitable. None are immune to temptation. Some overcome it, or believe they do, and some find the solution in the prescription of Joyce’s fellow Irishman Oscar Wilde:
The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it.
The fall of James Joyce was softened by the muse that came to him in gentle words.
He drew forth a phrase from his treasure and spoke it softly to himself:
–A day of dappled seaborne clouds.
The phrase and the day and the scene harmonized in a chord. Words. Was it their colours? He allowed them to glow and fade, hue after hue: sunrise gold, the russet and green of apple orchards, azure of waves, the grey-fringed fleece of clouds. No, it was not their colours: it was the poise and balance of the period itself. Did he then love the rhythmic rise and fall of words better than their associations of legend and colour? Or was it that, being as weak of sight as he was shy of mind, he drew less pleasure from the reflection of the glowing sensible world through the prism of a language many-coloured and richly storied than from the contemplation of an inner world of individual emotions mirrored perfectly in a lucid supple periodic prose?
Behind the veil of those words was the full experience of life: love and lust and something between and beyond those feelings, something living and dying in the sights and sounds of a girl on the edge of the water at the wild heart of life.
He was alone. He was unheeded, happy and near to the wild heart of life. He was alone and young and willful and wildhearted, alone amid a waste of wild air and brackish waters and the sea-harvest of shells and tangle and veiled grey sunlight and gayclad lightclad figures of children and girls and voices childish and girlish in the air.
A girl stood before him in midstream, alone and still, gazing out to sea. She seemed like one whom magic had changed into the likeness of a strange and beautiful seabird. Her long slender bare legs were delicate as a crane’s and pure save where an emerald trail of seaweed had fashioned itself as a sign upon the flesh. Her thighs, fuller and soft-hued as ivory, was bared almost to the hips, where the white fringes of her drawers were like feathering of soft white down. Her slate-blue skirts were kilted boldly about her waist and dovetailed behind her. Her bosom was as a bird’s, soft and slight, slight and soft as the breast of some dark-plumaged dove. But her long fair hair was girlish; and girlish, and touched with the wonder of mortal beauty, her face.
She was alone and still, gazing out to sea; and when she felt his presence and the worship of his eyes her eyes turned to him in quiet sufferance of his gaze, without shame or wantonness. Long, long she suffered his gaze and then quietly withdrew her eyes from his and bent them towards the stream, gently stirring the water with her foot hither and thither. The first faint noise of gently moving water broke the silence, low and faint and whispering, faint as the bells of sleep; hither and thither, hither and thither; and a faint flame trembled on her cheek.
–Heavenly God! cried Stephen’s soul, in an outburst of profane joy.