Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Notes of A Native Son--Part 2
Page 4 (Autobiographical Notes)--"Any writer, I suppose, feels that the world into which he was born is nothing less than a conspiracy against the cultivation of his talent...On the other hand, it is only because the world looks on his talent with such a frightening indifference that the artist is compelled to make his talent important."

p.5 "...I suppose, the most difficult (and most rewarding) thing in my life has been the fact that I was born a Negro and was forced, therefore, to effect some kind of truce with this reality." Which reality, or at least the conditions which it entailed, it is indicated he often experienced as something that felt unnatural.

pp.6-7 "...I was forced to recognize that I was a kind of a bastard of the West...I was an interloper; this was not my heritage. At the same time I had no other heritage which I could possibly hope to use...I hated and feared white people. This did not mean that I loved black people; on the contrary, I despised them, possibly because they failed to produce Rembrandt." I don't quite know what to say about this. It reminds me, to be honest, of the sort of thing I would write myself, or at least feel myself, obviously without the overwhelming significance of color or ethnicity influencing those feelings. He made at one point in this paragraph a sort of off-the-cuff list of iconic Western achievements that he felt did not contain his history (but which apparently he would have considered to have contained mine, though certainly plenty of people would be eager to dispute this as well); these included Shakespeare, Bach, Rembrandt, the stones of Paris, Chartres Cathedral and the Empire State Building (which would have barely 20 years old at the time this book was written; its elevation to iconic status in Western culture seems to have been recognized almost immediately). I would have been curious to know what positive qualities he perceived in each of these things that were supposed to be accessible to white people in a way that they were not to blacks or other races, which qualities no one respectable would consider to attribute to them now; perhaps he saw their value merely as symbols of power and greatness spanning long eras in which blacks in the 1950s had no hope of sharing, though I don't think this was all he meant.

p. 14 (Everybody's Protest Novel) "...the wet eyes of the sentimentalist betray his aversion to experience, his fear of life, his arid heart; and it is always, therefore, the signal of secret and violent inhumanity, the mask of cruelty." The first part of this sentence rings true at the level of individual men, the second more of peoples--Northern Europeans of course especially come to mind, few of whom I think consciously experience personally this characteristic inhumanity that everyone else immediately detects in them, though many, if pushed, will concede that something of the sort appears to exist in the aggregate.

The section just referred to is about Uncle Tom's Cabin, and its authoress, about which he observes that "the description of brutality--unmotivated, senseless--" leaves "unanswered and unnoticed the only important question: what was it, after all, that moved her people to such deeds." I am not sure that any more convincing or satisfactory answer to this question than the many which have already been put forth is likely to be found. The capacity for such deeds is clearly a major component of human nature, and from the biological point of view can probably be demonstrated to even be an advantageous quality. Ethics, and what we think of as humanistic impulses generally, seem to be far weaker and less innate, and require constant development and reinforcement to attain a state where they can contend with brutality on even terms. The churches are almost certainly correct when they posit that it is man who must contend with evil, and not vice versa; man in his natural state is nothing to evil. I know that this is not the question here, but the particular, circumstantial hatred and brutality of white people in the United States towards black people in the United States, and the need, or at least the perceived need, for some ultimate expiation of that sin for the nation to be able to achieve its proper fulfillment. This, if it is going to be found, I am pretty sure will have to be found in symbols, as indeed in part it already has; history as experienced literally does not really work in this way, and it is surprising to me that Americans especially often seem to expect it to.

pp.16-17 His analyses of the black characters in Uncle Tom's Cabin naturally are quite funny. Speaking of a group of three characters, "two of them may be dismissed immediately, since we have only the author's word that they are Negro and they are, in all other respects, as white as she can make them....a wholly adorable child--whose quaintness, incidentally, and whose charm, rather put one in mind of a darky bootblack doing a buck and wing to the clatter of condescending coins...Eliza is a beautiful, pious hybrid, light enough to pass...George is darker, but makes up for it by being a mechanical genius" "Uncle jet-black, wooly-haired, illiterate...His triumph is metaphysical, unearthly; since he is black, born without the light, it is only through humility, the incessant mortification of the flesh, that he can enter into communion with God or man." This last is written in a tone of heavy sarcasm.

On page 19 he rips the film The Best Years of Our Lives, which visitors to my profile page will observe I have listed as one of my favorite movies, as a example of the kind of fantasy, "connecting nowhere with reality, sentimental" that is akin to the protest novels. All edgy, New York-oriented, serious intellectual people detest this movie, and my inability to bridge this divide and join them in their contempt--and I promise you, I have tried--I consider to be among the most symbolic of my myriad failures at becoming the kind of person I have always dreamed of being. What can I say? It is as Tolstoy said when asked why he chose to write a 1,500 novel about the Napoleonic Wars; he liked the spirit of the people at the time. I also like the actress Teresa Wright a great deal, who besides being lovely was apparently a uplifting person to talk to even into her 80s. This did not prevent her from getting a rather condescending write-up in the New York Times when she died a couple of years ago, which noted that her prime years of stardom came during the war era, 1941-46, after which America no longer needed her reassuring, good-girl presence and turned their affections on the likes of Marilyn Monroe; obviously once the war was over everybody felt like they were married to Teresa Wright and that hanging out with Marilyn Monroe would be loads more exciting, but I don't think this was a great step forward in American culture as everyone seems to think.

All right, the baby is awake and I probably won't get to come back on the computer until Sunday night so I am going to post now, even though the post is shorter than I like. James Baldwin gives me a lot of stuff I can work with, so we're probably looking at 5 posts on him, minimum.

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