The Lost Art of Letter Writing: The Philosophical Diatribe

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Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

It is said that Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. didn’t edit his novels. Instead, he thought about each sentence in his head and did his revisions there before committing it to paper. It seems like he took the same approach to his letter writing.

This excerpt of a letter from Vonnegut to his friend and mentor Knox Burger is another example of the author’s tendency toward thinking that remains depressingly relevant. It is dated May 29, 1952:

…bureaucracy is nothing more than modern business practice applied to government. I think big business is a terrible thing for the spirit of the country, as our spirit is the best thing about us. Making us a nation of ass kissers. Only way, or virtually the only way, to get ahead these days. Deadly. Change the title of manager of sales to the Duke of Schenectady, and you start wondering if maybe the Revolutionary War was subversive.

Yours truly,

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

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Knox Burger

Candide

I thought Candide was funny at first. It is an easy mistake to make in the first chapter where we meet Candide and his beloved Cunegonde:

On her way back to the castle she met Candide. She blushed, and so did he. She greeted him in a faltering voice, and he spoke to her without knowing what he was saying. The next day, as they were leaving the table after dinner, Cunegonde and Candide found themselves behind a screen. She dropped her handkerchief, he picked it up; she innocently took his hand, and he innocently kissed hers with extraordinary animation, ardor, and grace; their lips met, their eyes flashed, their knees trembled, their hands wandered. Baron Thunder-ten-tronckh happened to pass by the screen; seeing this cause and effect, he drove Candide from the castle with vigorous kicks in the backside. Cunegonde fainted. The baroness slapped her as soon as she revived, and consternation reigned in the most beautiful and agreeable of all possible castles.

I guess anything can be funny if human suffering doesn’t bother you, or if you have a good enough sense of humor, or if you can’t tell the difference between the two.

There is a lot of casual rape in Candide, and equally casual disembowelment, hanging, flogging, and castration. Voltaire must have been a pisser at parties. Not so much for the disembowelments as for being a physician who takes the pulse of a sick world and doesn’t sugar-coat his diagnosis for the sake of the patient.

As Will Durant put it:

Italy had a Renaissance, and Germany had a Reformation, but France had Voltaire; he was for his country both Renaissance and Reformation, and half the Revolution. He was first and best in his time in his conception and writing of history, in the grace of his poetry, in the charm and wit of his prose, in the range of his thought and his influence. His spirit moved like a flame over the continent and the century, and stirs a million souls in every generation.

No matter how interesting analysis is, there is no substitute for letting the authors words speak for themselves. In this passage, Voltaire betrays the beast that lurks behind such a well-developed sense of humor, hiding his insight within the character of Pope Urban X’s bastard daughter:

I’ve wanted to kill myself a hundred times, but I still love life. That ridiculous weakness is perhaps one of our most pernicious inclinations. What could be more stupid than to persist in carrying a burden that we constantly want to cast off, to hold our existence in horror, yet cling to it nonetheless, to fondle the serpent that devours us, until it has eaten our hearts.

There is a story, probably a lie, definitely a joke, that on his deathbed Voltaire was asked by a priest if he would renounce Satan.

He answered, “This is no time to be making new enemies.”

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Francois-Marie Arouet (a/k/a Voltaire) by Jean-Antoine Houdon

 

 

 

 

James Baldwin and the Art of Empathy

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.’ ”

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Portrait of James Baldwin by Bee Johnson

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.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0LmrqtD1E7c

If Beale Street Could Talk

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.”

James Joyce and Interior Monologue

There are a few individuals within each generation of athletes and artists who operate on a higher level than others, leaving their competition scratching their heads in amazement. James Joyce is one of those. His mastery of the interior monologue device begs for closer scrutiny. Take a look under the magnifying glass and see what I mean:

He had not died but he had faded out like a film in the sun. He had been lost or had wandered out of existence for he no longer existed. How strange to think of him passing out of existence in such a way, not by death but by fading out in the sun or by being lost and forgotten somewhere in the universe!



Stephen watched the three glasses being raised from the counter as his father and his two cronies drank to the memory of their past. An abyss of fortune or temperament sundered him from them. His mind seemed older than theirs: it shone coldly on their strifes and happiness and regrets like a moon upon a younger earth. No life or youth stirred in him as it had stirred in them. He had known neither the pleasure of companionship with others nor the vigour of rude male health nor filial piety. Nothing stirred within his soul but a cold and cruel and loveless lust.

Reading Joyce is like watching TV with my thumb hovering over rewind. I keep stopping at the end of a paragraph, or in the middle of one, to make sure my mind absorbed what I had just read, astounded and inspired to learn that humans are able to craft such fantastic cages to capture our thoughts. Like these observations of sexual awakening:

A cold lucid indifference reigned in his soul. At his first violent sin he had felt a wave of vitality pass out of him and had feared to find his body or his soul maimed by the excess. Instead the vital wave had carried him on its bosom out of himself and back again when it receded: and no part of body or soul had been maimed but a dark peace had been established between them.


As he crossed the square, walking homeward, the light laughter of a girl reached his burning ear. The frail gay sound smote his heart more strongly than a trumpet blast, and, not daring to lift his eyes, he turned aside and gazed, as he walked, into the shadow of the tangled shrubs. Shame rose from his smitten heart and flooded his whole being. The image of Emma appeared before him, and under her eyes the flood of shame rushed forth anew from his heart. If she knew to what his mind had subjected her or how his brute-like lust had torn and trampled upon her innocence! Was that boyish love? Was that chivalry? Was that poetry?
 
If that’s not poetry, it’s close enough for me.

James Joyce and Young Love

James Joyce is one of the greatest writers who ever lived. His novels and short stories, as well as his life, continue to fascinate more than 70 years after his death. Like all good Irishmen the tales of his life are clouded by legend. 

The groundbreaking psychologist Carl Jung, who was treating Joyce’s daughter Lucia for schizophrenia, said that father and daughter were both heading to the bottom of a river, except that James was diving and Lucia was sinking.

His wife Nora told this story:
“I go to bed and then that man sits in the next room and continues laughing about his own writing. And then I knock at the door, and I say, now Jim, stop writing or stop laughing.”
My favorite story about Joyce concerns his legendary struggles in producing his astounding art. From Stephen King’s highly recommended book On Writing:
According to the story, a friend came to visit him one day and found the great man sprawled across his writing desk in a posture of utter despair.
        “James, what’s wrong? The friend asked. “Is it the work?”
        Joyce indicated assent without even raising his head to look at the friend. Of course it was the work; isn’t it always?
        “How many words did you get today?” the friend pursued.
        Joyce (still in despair, still sprawled facedown on his desk): “Seven.”
        “Seven? But James…that’s good, at least for you!”
        “Yes,” Joyce said, finally looking up. “I suppose it is…but I don’t know what orderthey go in!”


Joyce’s first novel was A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and contains glorious prose like this, from one of the young man’s memories:
Eileen had long thin cool white hands too because she was a girl. They were like ivory; only soft. That was the meaning of Tower of Ivory but protestants could not understand it and made fun of it. One day he had stood beside her looking into the hotel grounds. A waiter was running up a trail of bunting on the flagstaff and a fox terrier was scampering to and fro on the sunny lawn. She had put her hand into his pocket where his hand was and he had felt how cool and thin and soft her hand was. She had said that pockets were funny things to have: and then all of a sudden she had broken away and had run laughing down the sloping curve of the path. Her fair hair had streamed out behind her like gold in the sun. Tower of Ivory. House of Gold. By thinking of things you could understand them.

One of the feats a great writer can perform is the shock of recognition, when a character reveals traits that readers thought was unique to them. This description of youthful anticipation about first love should be recognizable to anyone who cares to remember that tender time of life:
Sometimes a fever gathered within him and led him to rove alone in the evening along the quiet avenue. The peace of the gardens and the kindly lights in the windows poured a tender influence into his restless heart. The noise of children at play annoyed him and their silly voices made him feel, even more keenly than he had felt at Clongowes [his school], that he was different from others. He did not want to play. He wanted to meet in the real world the unsubstantial image which his soul so constantly beheld. He did not know where to seek it or how, but a premonition which led him on told him that this image would, without any overt act of his, encounter him. They would meet quietly as if they had known each other and had made their tryst, perhaps at one of the gates or in some more secret place. They would be alone, surrounded by darkness and silence: and in that moment of supreme tenderness he would be transfigured.
        He would fade into something impalpable under her eyes and then in a moment he would be transfigured. Weakness and timidity and inexperience would fall from him in that magic moment.

Giovanni’s Room – Sex

 

Sex is a difficult thing to write about. Too graphic and it reads like porn, too tame and the writer seems inexperienced or, worse, fearful. The Literary Review gives out an annual prize called the Bad Sex in Fiction Award for lines like this one from 2017 “winner” Christoper Bollen:

The skin along her arms and shoulders are different shades of tan like water stains in a bathtub. Her face and vagina are competing for my attention, so I glance down at the billiard rack of my penis and testicles.

James Baldwin would never be in the running for the Bad Sex in Fiction Award. His sex scenes are as clear-eyed as the rest of his writing. Giovanni’s Room is the rare book that includes both gay and straight sex scenes. Not only that, but they’re told from the perspective of the same character, the narrator.
Giovanni’s Room is not a book about sex or sexuality but like his contemporaries Henry Miller and Norman Mailer, Baldwin’s protagonist is up to his eyeballs in it. Here are some excerpts of David with Giovanni:
He locked the door behind us, and then for a moment, in the gloom, we simply stared at each other – with dismay, with relief, and breathing hard. I was trembling. I thought, if I do not open the door at once and get out of here, I am lost. But I knew I could not open the door, I knew it was too late; soon it was too late to do anything but moan. He pulled me against him, putting himself into my arms as though he were giving me himself to carry, and slowly pulled me down with him to that bed. With everything in me screaming No! yet the sum of me sighed Yes.
I was in a terrible confusion. Sometimes I thought, but this is your life. Stop fighting it. Stop fighting. Or I thought, but I am happy. And he loves me. I am safe. Sometimes, when he was not near me, I thought, I will never let him touch me again. Then, when he touched me, I thought, it doesn’t matter, it is only the body, it will soon be over. When it was over, I lay in the dark and listened to his breathing and dreamed of the touch hands, of Giovanni’s hands, or anybody’s hands, hands which would have the power to crush me and make me whole again.
What kind of life can we have in this room? – this filthy little room. What kind of life can two men have together anyway? All this love you talk about – isn’t it just that you want to be made to feel strong? You want to go out and be the big laborer and bring home the money and you want me to stay here and wash the dishes and cook the food and clean this miserable closet of a room and kiss you when you come in through that door and lie with you at night and be your little girl. That’s what you want. That’s what you mean and that’s all you mean when you say you love me.

There is an inherent conflict in writing about sex. Sex is the most private of acts, and writing is the art of keeping nothing private. In writing about sex with men, Baldwin deals with an obvious social taboo. In his scenes with women David uncovers a different set of controversial consequences, in scenes with a one-night stand named Sue:
She came back with two great brandy snifters. She came close to me on the sofa and we touched glasses. We drank a little, she watching me all the while, and then I touched her breasts. Her lips parted and she put her glass down with extraordinary clumsiness and lay against me. It was a gesture of great despair and I knew that she was giving herself, not to me, but to that lover who would never come.
There were a great many things she wanted to say, but she forced herself to say nothing. I could scarcely bear to watch the struggle occurring in her face, it made me so ashamed. “Maybe you’ll be lonely again,” she said, finally. “I guess I won’t mind if you come looking for me.” She wore the strangest smile I had ever seen. It was pained and vindictive and humiliated, but she inexpertly smeared across this grimace a bright, girlish gaiety – as rigid as the skeleton beneath her flabby body. If fate ever allowed Sue to reach me, she would kill me with just that smile.

 And in scenes with his girlfriend Hella that get into the thicket where sex intertwines with love and family:

I kept kissing her and holding her, trying to find my way in her again, as though she were a familiar, darkened room in which I fumbled to find the light. And, with my kisses, I was trying also to delay the moment which would commit me to her, or fail to commit me to her.
“For a woman,” she said, “I think a man is always a stranger. And there’s something awful about being at the mercy of a stranger.”
“But men are at the mercy of women, too. Have you never thought of that?”
“Ah!” she said, “men may be at the mercy of women – I think men like that idea, it strokes the misogynist in them.
“You know, I’m not really the emancipated girl I try to be at all. I guess I just want a man to come home to me every night. I want to be able to sleep with a man without being afraid he’s going to knock me up. Hell, I want to be knocked up. I want to start having babies. In a way, it’s really all I’m good for.” There was silence again. “Is that what you want?”
“Yes,” I said, “I’ve always wanted that.”
I turned to face her, very quickly, or as though strong hands on my shoulders had turned me ar
ound. The room was darkening. She lay on the bed watching me, her mouth slightly open and her eyes like lights. I was terribly aware of her body, and of mine. I walked over to her and put my head on her breast. I wanted to lie there, hidden and still. But then, deep within, I felt her moving, rushing to open the gates of her strong, walled city and let the king of glory come in.

The relationship between sex and love can be a complex one, or it can be as simple as it is natural. Love can be eternal, it can evaporate in the fire of lust, or it can slowly and irrevocably wither.  It’s probably best not to dwell too much on the last option, but Baldwin does: 
Much has been written of love turning to hatred, of the heart growing cold with the death of love. It is a remarkable process. It is far more terrible than anything I have ever read about it, more terrible than anything I will ever be able to say.