Friday, April 21, 2006

Six Reasons to Read James Baldwin

My life on Fridays is the opposite of my students': I barrel outward for public excitement during the afternoon, and then laze inside the comfort of my own walls at night. After a long week of work, today has been a good day: I caught a 2:30 matinée with the friend who drove me to the emergency room last week; my own, all too typical way of paying her back. I came home and fell asleep on my couch, just long enough for the pizza I had ordered before I conked out to show up in what seemed like no time at all. (Could I have planned it any better if I had tried?) And now, I'm snuggled up with 600 pages of Brother James.

The whole semester has been a lip-smacking tour of some of my favorite writers, passing me among themselves in constant, exquisite relay: the aqueous impressionism of Virginia Woolf, the pop provocations of Suzan-Lori Parks, the felonious thrums of Jean Genet, the once and future histories of Steve Erickson, the dangerous metatheatre of Adrienne Kennedy, the kerneled secrets of Herman Melville, and, most recently, the dazzling polymorphisms of Vladimir Nabokov. Now, it's onward and inward to the preacherly passions and aching memories of James Baldwin's Just Above My Head, a novel I am reading for the first time so that I can more fairly assess a student's analysis that has made its way across my desk. The slip and slide of flashbacks, couplings, and rhetorical set-pieces in a Baldwin novel can't ever be captured by an excerpt, but, taken as a set, I hope these sentences—all from Chapter One of the Dial Press hardcover edition—will delight the coverted and entice the uninitiated:
  • Ain't it so, Jimmy: "Some people look at you like you've farted when you try to tell them the truth, or when they know you mean what you say." (15)

  • Of a late brother: "I was always able to make Arthur listen to me because Arthur always trusted me. I miss him, miss, miss, miss, miss him, miss him worse than you miss a toothache, worse than you miss the missing tooth, worse than you miss the missing leg, even worse than you miss the stillborn baby." (23-24)

  • Of a friend's breakdown: "One morning, fucking, he realized that the devil had got inside his woman, and was pulling on his prick, and he tried to beat the devil out of her. He didn't reach the devil, neighbors broke down the door and pulled him off and out of her, and carried him away. They had to carry her away, too, poor girl, nobody's ever seen her since, not, anyway, to recognize. Crunch is still alive, somewhere upstate." (39)

  • A woman remembering a hypocrite: "He always looked to me like a fat round bug, with a mustache. And, later on—or, maybe, even then, because he was repulsive to me—I used to wonder how any woman could ever look at him naked, and not throw up. I mean it. Making love to him had to be like mixing a chocolate cake for a couple of weeks." (41)

  • The same woman remembering the same hypocrite: "I sensed—I guess I knew—that I had come to the end of my ministry—of that part of my ministry, anyway—and that it was my house that I would have to set in order. If I was to live. I was preaching Mother Bessie's funeral. But you don't always get carried to the graveyard when you die. Reverend Parker proved that. Mother Bessie smelled of age—of sour clothes, sour food, sour stomach—I could deal with that, I could even accept that I might smell that way one day, just like I know I'm going to die one day. But Reverend Parker, and almost all the other ministers, they smelled—of corruption. It was in their hands, in all that self-righteous lust—you can see it when they're eating the Sunday chicken dinner. Hell, I could see it when they looked at me, like I was the breast and the wing and the stuffing. And the Lord wouldn't mind if two of His faithful and weary servants gave each other solace and comfort for a little while, under the stairs. And I couldn't deal with that." (44)

  • I wonder if this is true: "No one knows very much about the life of another. This ignorance becomes vivid, if you love another. Love sets the imagination on fire, and, also, eventually, chars the imagination into a harder element: imagination cannot match love, cannot plunge so deep, or range so wide." (53)

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Blogger findfinishfreedom said...

To play with your cannily apt description of Just Above My Head for a minute: this book seared into my memory because Baldwin captures how intensely preacherly passions
ache
: from the height of immutable belief to the chasm of lost conviction.

The novel didn't leave a melancholic aftertaste however, because his truisms about lost passions cut so accurately. Like when a character refuses to rue his failed relationship with a lover, because:

"Through her, I learned that anguish was necessary, and, however, crushing could be used -- that it was there to be used" (384).

Or when he animates the bleakness of city streets saying "The streets, when I descended into them, were bleak with promise. Bleak: not so much with the broken promise, the broken promise having created our style and stamina: bleak with the price of the promise to be kept" (148).

Even makes me wonder if Jimmy ever toyed with the title 'The Price of the Promise'? Or maybe someday I will ;-0

FFF

p.s. we should talk soon about some unexpected migrations afoot.

9:50 PM, April 28, 2006  

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