Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Notes of a Native Son--Part 7

This will be the final post on this book.

Observation from a day spent in French court (for being in possession of a bedsheet stolen from a hotel by someone else): "The great impulse of the courtroom seemed to be to put these people where they could not be seen--and not because they were offended at the crimes, unless, indeed, they were offended that the crimes were so petty, but because they did not wish to know that their society could be counted on to produce, probably in greater and greater numbers, a whole body of people for whom crime was the only possible career." And on the laughter which the story of his case elicited in the courtroom when it was dismissed, after he had spent about a week in jail: "This laughter is the laughter of those who consider themselves to be at a safe remove from all the wretched, for whom the pain of the living is not real."

In the final essay he has removed to Switzerland, where he was struck again by the self-assurance of the people in their Westernness, and offers up another list of icons of Western culture that he is both impressed by and which he feels is less accessible to him than to the simplest European villager. "These people cannot be, from the point of view of power, strangers anywhere in the world; they have made the modern world...The most illiterate among them is related, in a way that I am not, to Dante, Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Aeschylus, Da Vinci, Rembrandt, and Racine; the cathedral at Chartres says something to them which it cannot say to me, as indeed would New York's Empire State Building...Out of their hymns and dances come Beethoven and Bach." Such is the tenor of our time that it strikes me as unusual to come upon a nonwhite person who intimates both that he detects much of worth, or at least that is formidable, in Western culture, and that this quality is elusive and intimidating to him by the mere virtue of his not being white. My impression is that nowadays Euro-culture is seen as admirable primarily for its economic and technological efficiency, which however can be easily enough mastered by the clever outsider; and of such cultural works of value that it may have produced, these work little effect on the collective spirit of the people--especially in the United States--as is apparently the case in more ancient or traditional societies.

He refers to his presence--his presence as a generic black man--as occasioning a war in the American soul. The very raw fury and violence that American whites used to unleash against black people--and I know many people argue that this attitude persists effectually unchanged today, but I have to think some of the really nasty edge at least has to have been taken off--does indicate to that something very like this was happening. Though the American soul may be calmer now, it is not quite easy; every major episode and character from mainstream American history or the arts has a racial backstory in it somewhere which is usually embarrassing, and frequently appalling, to the modern sensibility, and even if one shrinks to lay it bare, the more one is aware it is there the harder it becomes to ignore it completely. With regard to black Americans he notes how their "past was taken...almost literally, at one blow. One wonders what on earth the first slave found to say to the first dark child he bore...It was his necessity, in the words of E. Franklin Frazier, to find a 'motive for living under American culture or die.'"

The ideas of white supremacy and of the West as the only really legitimate civilization seem to be weakening, at least compared to their past incarnations. Obviously Westerners retain a great many unconscious assumptions about human nature and a properly organized society that emanate arrogance to differently-cultured people, but many at least are far more susceptible to pangs of doubt than almost anyone was in 1955.

Illustration: Jean Gabin (not, apparently, in a hotel room however; see Part 6).
"American white men still nourish the illusion that there is some means of recovering the European innocence, of returning to a state in which black men do not exist...the American vision of the world--which allows so little reality, generally speaking, for any of the darker forces in human life..." I think the first part of this is still true to a surprisingly large extent. The second has been frequently observed by people from cultures which have suffered greatly within living memory and consider that language, the arts, love, all of the alert areas of life are experienced by them more seriously, meaningfully and intensely than they are by generic Americans. I am also pretty sure however that this ability to maintain a kind of blissful ignorance of the "darker forces in human life" was in great part what enabled America to ascend so spectacularly on the world scene as it did. That has doubtless been the source of its historically extraordinary attractiveness, as well as its energy, however maddening this is to philosophers and other people who know better what is really going on.
James Baldwin was on TV a lot in the 60s, and compared to other writers there is a trove of clips of him on YouTube, (and probably on other sites too). This is a good one here to start with. It's 7 minutes long, which is usually an eternity for Youtube, but though I was planning to just watch it for a minute I got drawn into it and easily sat through the whole thing (though this might only be because I had read a few of his books). His manner of speaking initially struck me as affected but I marked this down to the habits of mind which the literary life of much reading and writing and discoursing continually with oneself about these habits entails.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Miscellanies (Mostly British)

I do not write much about the unpromising-looking global economic situation because the subject is so thoroughly covered elsewhere, but I have started to notice some unsettling signs, the most telling one being that I spotted Mad Dog 20/20 and Wild Irish Rose on the shelves of the wine section in the upwardly mobile grocery store I have been going to for the last ten years for the first time ever today--and there was only one bottle of Mad Dog ($1.49) left in stock. I held off on getting it for now however.

On to real estate. This item is a month old, and may only be of interest to me, but I thought it was worth passing on to any interested buyers that Evelyn Waugh's house--which is still owned by the family--is on sale for 2.25 million pounds. This looks liked a pretty good price to me, at least compared to say, Ray Lewis's or Shaquille O'Neal's houses as they appeared on Cribs, both of which cost considerably more.

This book, which gets a very good review in the Atlantic, looks like it might be worth checking out just for the photographs. My fascination with this not usually too fondly remembered (in England) time period is kind of a recurring theme on the blog. I certainly have a decided affection for many of the familiar images of it, the dinginess, the cold, the bad potato-based meals, the warm beer, the dark, greasy, steam-windowed pubs (quite a few of which, at least as late as the mid-90s, remained in apparently unaltered condition from that era, among the few living relics of that time) the spare, direct style of both the prose and poetry of the period, which I think of as having a kind of rail station elegance about it. The strong consensus now seems to be that one ought not to romanticize this era, especially from the vantage point of modern comfort and prosperity, for the Austerity age was marked by inconveniences almost unfathomable to us now--for one example the number of British households with indoor plumbing did not climb above 50% until well into the 1950s--and we should not imagine that we would ever find anything enjoyable in that similar circumstances. The photographs however do act forcefully on the mind. The impression is of a world in which a person with a decently-developed mind would have much opportunity to think--life did not appear to move with much speed or urgency in these years--and much matter to think upon (people in this era, especially educated ones, it must be pointed out in fairness, also seemed to drink far more than their counterparts do today). The other main factor in this attraction, which just came to me the other night, was that of course from 1945-1951 Britain had a socialist government, almost certainly the most stridently socialist government in its history; and I have always had a perverse, but nonetheless consistent attraction to societies in the throes of a socialist experiment, especially in its earliest phases. My socialist sympathies go back a very long way, and no doubt have their origins in the social frustrations that have crowded out most other memories of my youth. By high school, when so many of the most desirable students, the girls in particular, were availing themselves of social options not available to me--going to dances and sporting events and concerts at other schools, or cities, or colleges, and so on, that were more exciting than what was available in our school and our neighborhood--I used to fantasize that somehow these interesting and successful kids could be trapped and forced to go to the same hangouts and social events that I went to. This is very much, I think the attitude of a socialist, especially when found in intellectuals; it is a fear of being totally abandoned and left far behind by all the best and smartest people, so that the latter practically are gone from all view. This certainly does happen. When I would be sitting in class, instead of paying attention to the lesson I would concoct ridiculous scenarios--which I am sure are not that uncommon--in which some unpredictable and sudden disaster, such as an earthquake or an aerial bombardment, would bury the school under mounds of rubble, but with me and some reasonably good-looking girl--I was not terribly picky as to whom, indeed the idea of randomness was one the more exciting aspects of the whole possibility--trapped alone, but alive, in the basement, in which the electricity and the plumbing would still be functioning, and there would also be a food supply--the home ec rooms were down there, after all, as well as a couple of vending machines. I had no illusions that the girl would let me do anything to her that I would have wished to do while there remained any hope of rescue. I figured we would have to be down there for five to ten days before she would come to the realization that I was going to be the only truelove she was ever going to have in this world, at least from this point on, and submit to me. I must say, that as a teenager the obvious option, forcible coercion, never entered my mind; I wanted my prisoner, or fellow prisoner, as it were, to fall in love with me, rather like in the story of the Beauty and the Beast, and I did not think that a clumsy attempt at violent assault was the way to bring that happy ending about. This mindset also explains I am sure my youthful nostalgia for my parents' Catholic upbringing. The most able people in this group, who were most aware of the existence of wider options, naturally found this world impossibly stifling, and when they were able to throw it off and assume important positions in society emphasized this idea of repression so much that many have come to regard "Catholic upbringing" and "repression" as synonymous. To someone who wasn't going to be doing anything that required to be repressed anyway however, the requirements of that kind of community would have served to keep some smart, exciting people close to hand at all time, people who had far more ability to make something tolerable and memorable out of a situation they had unwillingly to endure than the average person did; in the event too raising the self-worth of the other members of the group as feeling themselves members of a community with some vibrancy instead of one that shuffled about in endless and insuperable lifelessness. This at least is how it worked in my imagination.

As to my movie watching, recent weeks have seen me undergo a heavy dose of Malcolm McDowell. It was only two movies, O Lucky Man and A Clockwork Orange, but as they time out combined at over five hours, both offer variously unhinged and unpleasant visions of early 1970s England, and both indulge luxuriantly and exclusively on the character played by the star, the effect of watching them back to back is that one feels that he has covered this particular epoch (British film 1971-73, approx) and star pretty solidly and can color them in on his map of cultural knowledge, if you will. O Lucky Man is not, that I can see, the great work some cinephiles claim it is, though since I had never heard of it before it offered a certain degree of unanticipated interest, which is always pleasant. It is dated, sometimes in an interesting, sometimes in a distracting way. The animating premise, widely held at the time, seems to be that society is about equal parts absurd and wicked, and even anything delightful is a surface illusion thinly covering an appalling foundation. I like the device of the road trip all around the provinces and various economic and cultural pursuits of Britain. This was a popular device in the 18th and early 19th centuries in that nation but I hadn't seen a modern update that came immediately to mind. Malcolm McDowell I must admit I kind of like, although he is exactly the type of person whose own animating premise, or one of them, seems to have been unveiled antagonism and contempt towards people like me (dull, ultimately complacent bourgeois). This is why of course he was so good for these types of movies, and why he became famous and popular in his own time He would be one of the exciting people--clever, charming, good-looking, not ridiculously so but enough to distinguish him from almost everybody else while being at the same time enough like everybody else that they could easily identify with him--that I referred to earlier in the section on socialism.

I had seen A Clockwork Orange--or at least the first hour of it, for I had not remembered anything that happened after that point--some years ago, probably when I was in college. I hadn't "gotten" it at the time; I certainly could not adequately explain what its purpose as entertainment might be. I considered myself at the time, and still do, a fan of Stanley Kubrick's movies--they are very entertaining for people who have a sort of general, haphazard, largely autodidactic, reference-book informed education such as I do. Kubrick himself was a high school dropout but seems to have read a lot of library books, looked at pictures and objects in museums, and listened to musical recordings, and interpreted them not with the privilege and authority of the scholar/expert but with that of the bohemian/artist. A Clockwork Orange is not, I am guessing, a movie of the sort that this director imagined in 1960 he would ever be making; that is one regard in which it is interesting, for I suspect most people in the arts have some vision of what forms their life's work is likely to take, ten years into the future anyway, and of very specific projects that they hope to complete. There are numerous demonstrations of course of filmmaking prowess that even I could appreciate. Having so many scenes of shocking violence and depravity follow in rapid succession right at the beginning, to be the narrative rather than the point to which the narrative was moving was a very effective technique, as these are the most memorable scenes in the film. I have not read the book, so I don't know whether that is how the plot unfolds there too. Not having any of his characters talk like a normal person, or even like ordinary affected actors, is something of a Kubrick tradmark which I am sure has been commented upon elsewhere. It is one of the secrets of his success I think, in tandem with other things, but the constant exaggeration and distortion of human speech serves to draw one into the psychic atmosphere of the movie and out of that of life. The depictions of sexual violence and rape offer a number of quite disturbing challenges to me. One of the effects of them is to be reminded of classical paintings and sculptures, of the rape of the Sabines, or of Europa, which Stanley Kubrick doubtless saw in many variations in museums and books, translated to modernity and its action developed in celluloid instead of the imagination inspired by marble. The second is to be reminded how relentless sexual pressure is on desirable young women as to constitute in many instances the primary issue of their lives, (and how in my own life I have applied approximately none of it) and how much indeed of the story of the whole world revolves around this kind of rape and violence which to others--to me--is just wholly foreign. I can't imagine what else he is trying to get at by showing it as he does.

When I finished this movie, which so reveled in its relentless depravity, and the Gene Kelly version of "Singing in the Rain" came on over the final credits I was once again impressed by the slickness of the director--if I am sitting in the theater I am thinking I guess I don't want to throw myself off a rooftop now--artifacts of optimism and innocent gaiety still exist--or am I supposed to be laughing wickedly while looking for some weakling to kick in the teeth? Are we supposed to be happy that the world turned in such a strange direction that this movie could come into existence, or oughtn't we to be happy? Does Stanley Kubrick believe in moral value, or only artistic value? Do I?

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Notes of a Native Son--Part 6

Six segments, a reader might credibly say, on this slight volume is really dragging matters out a bit too much. As I have stated elsewhere however it does help me to remember certain things I have read, and certain thoughts which I have had at the time, much better than I would have otherwise, which I believe generally contributes to the better organization and power of association in my mind. So I stick to the format.

The rest of the essays in the book are about the author's experiences in postwar Europe, especially Paris, which is pretty titillating terrain for me, though I have kind of given up Paris, for the moment at least, as a place with which I can ever really have anything to do. The essay is typical heady-young-American-goes-to-Paris fare, the twist offered by the author's being black largely mitigated by the Parisians having a sterotype of black Americans ("the French...consider that all Negroes arrive from American, trumpet-laden and twinkle-toed, bearing scars so unutterably painful that all the glories of the French Republic may not suffice to heal them") as convenient for their purposes as that which they have of white Americans. He discovers that an American "needs to establish himself in relation to his past...that this depthless alienation from oneself and one's people is, in sum, the American experience." He expresses the hope that "What time will bring Americans at last is their own identity." He finds that Paris has wretched plumbing and dirt, and that whatever exciting might be happening there is largely inaccessible to him, because he has not the acquaintance with the language, the tradition, the history, the affection for the French people, to enter into any very close contact with the main currents of life in it. "The sordid French hotel room, so admirably detailed by the camera, speaking, in its quaintness, and distance, so beautifully of romance, undergoes a seachange, becomes a room positively hositle to romance, once it is oneself, and not Jean Gabin, who lives there....Paris is, according to its legend, the city where everyone loses his head, and his morals, lives through at least one histoire d'amour, ceases, quite, to arrive anywhere on time, and thumbs his nose at the Puritans...It is limited, as legends are limited, by being--literally--unlivable, and by referring to the past." I have found something of this sort to be true myself, though I always assumed it was just me--the people who matter still more or less live the legend--they must, for it still exists. They may not be ultimately any happier, but the sounds, the tastes, the frisson that constitute the total Paris ideal are certainly there to be found, somewhere."Though the students of any nation, in Paris, are allowed irresponsibility, few seem to need it as desperately as Americans seem to need it."

American identity in the 50s as seen by the French: "the Marshall Plan, Hollywood, the Yankee dollar, television...Senator McCarthy". Needless to say, the American student only wants to be liked "as a person...which makes perfect sense to him, and none whatever to the European". Plus ca change, et al.

"One very often finds in this category that student whose adaptation to French life seems to have been most perfect, and whose studies--of French art, or the drama, the language, or the history--give him the greatest right to be here. This student has put aside chewing gum forever, he eschews the T-shirt, and the crew cut, he can only with difficulty be prevailed upon to see an American movie, and it is so patent that he is actually studying that his appearance at the cafe tables is never taken as evidence of frivolity..." The American of this type is in an unenviable spot, for he can never win, never attain fullness as a person, which is what any man seeks above all. Since I am afflicted with something of this condition, I have always considered it among the foremost of our long term national problems, the development of reasonably capable people into more fully realized, self-contained human beings. This is a serious flaw in the culture.

"Thus they lose what they had so bravely set out to find, their own personalities, which, having been deprived of all nourishment, soon cease, in effect, to exist"

"I considered the French an ancient, intelligent, and cultured race, which indeed they are. I did not know, however...that there is a limit to the role of intelligence in human affairs; and that no people come into possession of a culture without having paid a heavy price for it...One had, in short...to understand that a culture was not a community basket-weaving project...was something neither desirable nor undesirable in itself, being inevitable, being nothing more or lessthan the recorded and visible effects on a body of people of the vicissitudes with which they had been forced to deal.."

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

New York Pictures 1

I recently spent approximately 9 hours in New York City--3 in Manhattan! In my life this qualifies as a big deal, so I am going to write all about it on my blog.

Someday I intend to write a complete history of my experiences in and emotional relations to this great city but I do not feel up to it right now, so I will simply provide a few captions for the pictures.
One of our primary objectives on this jaunt was to visit Books of Wonder on W 18th Street, which is a children's bookstore, especially famous for its collection of OZ books, as well as their involvement in re-issuing beautiful facsimile editions of the originals, with all the colorplates, which were not available when I was young. The store is not overwhelming, has all the classics, enough new books that serve to keep the tone high and balance out the (discreet) space necessarily given over to Caillou and other TV-inspired publications. The other parents looked and sounded to me more like what I fancy myself to be like than what I find where I live but my wife informed me afterwards that the ladies' clothes and handbags, and their babies' strollers, were extremely expensive--in other words, these were comparatively rich people, and their conversations that I had been so indulgently revelling in eavesdropping on concerned matters that were not pertinent to life as I lived it. The employees were of course a little shabbier, and they all probably lived in Brooklyn, though I'm sure most of them had liberal arts degrees at least. There was one very good-looking young woman who had a long thought in small cursive letters tattooed right across her chest. The only words I could make out on a quick perusal were "shining buildings". My wife's only comment was that the tattoo would make for a lovely picture when she had her first baby (I did point out that perhaps she had already had her first baby). What fun one derives from doing anything in New York, eh? Though I had been very into the Oz books as a child myself, I was hesitant to introduce the series to my own boys, as I have often thought my subsequent mental softness and general lack of ordinary aggression was in some way attributable to these books, which are often accused of being girly because the main heroine (Dorothy), the ruler (Ozma), and the most powerful magician (Glinda), are all female, and do not for the most part revel in violently subduing their enemies, but prefer to use their arts to avert violent conflict. My wife thought this idea was nonsense, attributed these deficiencies to other causes, and set about getting the children the books, which, I admit to my surprise, they have quite taken to, especially the oldest one.

This picture below of the guys looked more interesting somehow on the camera. It looks as if I am trying to say "look at my gifted and wonderful children reading!" but really, that is not the case--indeed, the second one does not actually read at all, and the older one cannot yet read a 300 page book on his own. I am not sure exactly what the purpose of any of this is. I am fascinated by the idea of us all being actually in New York, which to people who never go there but read about it every day is practically as unreal as Oz, and the people who actually live in it and contribute to the cultural life there are as awesome figures to me as Ozma or the great Jinjin-Tihittihoochoo himself.

Here we have a scene from the dining area at Books of Wonder--cupcakes are their specialty--with some authentic, educated-looking, probably cool NYC people (I think) visible in the background. The end of that afternoon's visit was drawing near at that point, however, so I was frantically trying to absorb every detail I could...
Such as the dancing cupcakes, which along with the Christmas lights, and some other pre-1960 effect in the ceiling that one felt when in the building, provided more reassurance that someone might share my peculiar sentimental fetishes.
After the bookstore we wandered three blocks over to Union Square Park and the boys played on one of the playgrounds there for a few minutes. It was Saturday afternoon. Lots of sensitive-looking people out (they must have been whimsical Brooklyn people, most of them). There was one girl sitting on one of the benches reading a Penguin twentieth-century classic with a modernist (1920s-30s) painting of a human face on the cover, yellowish background but face all white except for the black brushstrokes loosely delineating features. I wish I knew what book it was. I fancied the girl--who must have been about twenty-five--met my eyes with an intensity that I am not accustomed to receiving for several seconds, though I am certainly mistaken, for there is nothing of interest to examine in me at this point of my life. She carried herself like a European, but I am not convinced that she was one. She was brooding but she had very delicate eyes, like only a really sensitive American would have. It is hard to describe what she looked like. Obviously I found her quite strikingly beautiful, as well as of a compatible intelligence in some way, but I cannot pinpoint exactly what it is. The point is, I am in New York for three hours and I am struck by more people in more pleasing ways than happens to me in 10 years at home and would happen in probably a millenium at my job.
Here is a gratuitous picture of the Empire State Building, just to show I was really there, and this is what I saw when I stepped out of my car.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Notes of a Native Son Part 5

The next part of the book which obviously begged for some comment was the incident the author described while living in Trenton during the war where he was refused service in a restaurant and threw a glass mug in the general direction of the waitress's head (for which he managed to avoid getting arrested). I grew up near enough to this town, which is very rarely featured in the world's literature, to have some familiarity with what it looks like, the type of buildings and restaurants and people it has, or would have had in the 1940s, and so on. The author observes several times that this sort of discrimination "in bars, bowling alleys, diners, places to live" was common throughout New Jersey at the time--noticeably worse than New York City, apparently. I do not doubt that this was the case, though as northerners are accustomed to think of this sort of blatant refusal of public establishments to serve black people together with whites as a southern phenomenon, I admit to have been taken aback for just a moment. I certainly knew that whites and blacks--as well as Jews and gentiles--did not for the most part frequent the same public spaces at all, and that anyone from outside one or another of the groups' intruding upon foreign turf would have been deliberately made to feel unwelcome; but the type of confrontational incident related in this story is never talked about as having been a fact of life, by white people anyway, in this area of the world. Indeed, it may not have been a common occurrence, for the general feeling seems to be that these arrangements were "understood" and adhered to by pretty much everyone apparently without thinking or worrying too much about it.

Most of my reactions to the Trenton story were colored of course by my own sympathies combined with my awareness that the author knows he is writing for a predominantly white audience--writing, in fact much more to the likes of me than Evelyn Waugh or Marcel Proust ever intended to write to such likes--about his desire to wring the neck of his waitress, a white girl with "great, astounded, frightened eyes", just description enough to plant the idea in our heads that she isn't some wholly discreditable fat, cretinous white girl that we can gladly join him in despising but somebody who might be cute enough to really desire to protect from the violence of this raging black man. "She did not ask me what I wanted, but repeated, as though she had learned it somewhere, 'We don't serve Negroes here.' She did not say it with the blunt, derisive hostility to which I had grown so accustomed, but, rather, with a note of apology in her voice, and fear. This made me colder and more murderous than ever." (emph. mine). (I also could not refrain several times from noting my astonishment at his being in a crowd where "everyone was white" or coming to "an enormous, glittering and fashionable restaurant" with the comment "in Trenton?!", which incongruities with one's own experience I have a bad habit of always finding slightly humorous even if the larger context within which the meaning of the amusement lies is not funny.) The point, I believe, is that he was driven to this undignified and dishonorable behavior (throwing the mug) by the circumstance that the world around him continually denied him any opportunity to be--or certainly to feel and appear--dignified, which last was of exceeding importance to James Baldwin, as it is to most people of course, but he was not the sort of artist who infuses a distinctly singular and self-contained relation to life into his work. Or as I wrote back on January 22:

--Baldwin has lots of good material and is pretty perceptive but there is always something a little off in his composition and general style. I don't know that he ever nails/achieves his own voice and molds it into the cast of literature. The incidents don't come together to make a coherent impression of the man's self...he has not the high mastery over the world that enables him to take in a whole picture. He remains unrealized--overaware--

"Racial tensions throughout this country were exacerbated during the early years of the war, partly because the labor market brought together hundreds of thousands of ill-prepared people, and partly because Negro soldiers, regardless of where they were born, received their military training in the south." James Baldwin himself seems not to have gotten drafted into the military; at least he doesn't mention it.

"It would have demanded an unquestioning patriotism, happily as uncommon in this country as it is undesirable, for these people not to have been disturbed by the bitter letters they received, by the newspaper stories they read, not to have been enraged by the posters, then to be found all over New York, which described the Japanese as 'yellow-bellied Japs'." I include some of these quotes because it seems to have gone widely unremarked during the hyping of the current military situation, in which the devoted patriotism, courage and devotion to the armed forces of the American people during World War II was continually extolled to shame the modern generation, that a great deal of the letters and books which were produced during and about the period, by white as well as black authors who were actually there, are pretty negative in tone, especially where Army life was concerned. Obviously there are the big names, Heller, Vonnegut, James Jones, Mailer, even Herman Wouk, among whom the consensus seemed to be that the military establishment was either insane, sadistic, incompetent, or some combination of the three (and the books about the British army in World War II paint an even more wretched picture--so much so that one assumes the accounts must be gravely exaggerated, but that is a matter for another time). But even such letters as survive from my grandfather and uncles written from the front are pretty grouchy--complaints about bad coffee and having to eat mutton for weeks on end (my grandfather spent a lot of time in England) seem to predominate--there was certainly no sense of poetry or excitement. My grandfather, who was a Catholic and not a bookish man at all, regarded England as little more than a sort of giant toilet until the day he died and thought it ridiculous when I would say I dreamed of visiting it someday. I guess the point is that they bothered to show up, they didn't shirk their duty, and the national goals were in very large part able to be achieved, which increasingly it looks like is not going to be the case in our own generation.

"It was the Lord who knew of the impossibility every parent in that room faced; how to prepare the child for the day when the child would be despised and how to create in the child--by what means?--a stronger antidote to this poison than one had found for oneself.."

I should have noted that the whole of the essay "Notes of a Native Son" centers around the events of the day of August 3, 1943, which besides being Baldwin's 19th birthday, was also the day of his father's funeral, as well as the day on which a big race riot had broken out in Harlem.
I had attempted to put up a picture--a stolen picture, let us make no mistake--of some Trenton rowhouses circa 1940 here. I confess I am so desperate to sex up my blog in any way possible and attract attention that I do steal pictures without authorization a lot.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Blast From the Past

This year is the 20th anniversary of my graduation from high school, and I had lately been entertaining some ideas of going to the reunion; my class, however, is apparently going to spare me from having to contemplate such silliness by not having one. I only attended the school and lived in the town where it is for two years, 11th and 12th grade, so I didn't have time to build up a lot of resentments and bitterness towards the place; indeed, I think of it fondly still, and am pretty certain that its effect on me was mostly positive, at least in comparison to the probable alternatives. I suspect not many people would have remembered me had there been a reunion, however, it is unlikely I would have talked much to anyone, and one never knows, at such occasions, what peculiar or forgotten melancholies, memories of lost chances or foolish actions, might be dredged up. It is probably for the best to leave it alone.

I did peak through my '88 senior yearbook--the signatures I gathered made for a pretty depressing collection. It was all males, a few of whom were men of wit and spirit but mostly nondescript boys like myself who were kind of waiting around for the major events in their lives to reveal themselves. There was one greeting so absurd in its prescience that it did make me laugh even 20 years on (grammar and spelling as written):

(Surrender)!,
Forget what anyone says. You are a genuine all-american loser. The Phillies, Sixers and Eagles all suck and always will. Just like you. Someday when you are feeding pigeons on a park bench somewhere, I will drive by in my new porshe + laugh in your face as L.A. will have beaten Philadelphia again. This is the part where I ussually wish the person luck but with you I won't waste my time.
(Surrender)--get a life!

The guy who wrote this, I must add, was of course more hopeless in many ways than I was, as you can probably tell by his describing a fantastical future triumph over me rather than alluding to the dominance he has long since and with minimal exertion established.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Notes of A Native Son--Part 4

Scene from Carmen Jones (See Part 3)
The next essay was "The Harlem Ghetto", out of which I marked 2 sentences as of particular interest. The first was "The American ideal, after all, is that everyone should be as much alike as possible". I think it is the American ideal, and the ideal of most societies and power-wielding organizations, that everyone accept the legitimacy of the prevailing hierarchy and the rules and values that the top of it imposes as much as possible, accesion to which I suppose results in curtailing most people's range of personality and and action and making everyone seem more or less alike. This effect may be more pronounced in America than in other places because of the nature of the society and the culture; the mechanisms of individual character formation being rather more free-flowing and wholly dependent on the individual's personal parts than elsewhere, submission and conformity may cause him to be stripped of distinguishing characteristics more completely. The other one was about Jews covering their own vulnerability by frenzied adoption of the customs of the country, i.e. discrimination and appalling treatment of blacks. I am not really sure what I wanted to say about this. Something about reconciling competition between groups of people--of which racial division is but one of many differentiations, albeit perhaps the most important one--which appears to be endemic to the human character, with some standard of justice to ease the bitterness of the one side or the other that must inevitably lose. The scale of America makes this kind of bitterness, it seems to be, all the more difficult to overcome in a historical sense because the size and power and wealth of the country give its particular racial problems a more universal and intractable aspect than when they are confined to a backwater of minor global significance; also in a less historical sense the rewards for being really successful are so apparently extragavant and out of proportion to what is left for even comparative failures that it is inevitable more people will be likely to consider themselves one.

The next essay "Journey to Atlanta" is about a trip two of Baldwin's brothers got cajoled into taking to that city as part of a singing group intended to help canvass for a political party. The trip was a fiasco; the organizers were corrupt, the aristocratic white woman who was the chairman of the local party took offense when the group begged off from singing a fifth song at a reception due to the hoarseness of their voices and cut them off, at which the group was abandoned and forced to find their own way home to New York, several of them by working at a construction company for ten days. It is one of the more vivid essays. The difficulty the group had in getting any food, not to mention the apparent lack of any planning for this eventuality, even before they were abandoned, from their nominal sponsors, is astounding.

It was noted in this essay that at this time in Atlanta black policemen (of whom there were five) of course could not arrest whites. This is the sort of detail that tends not to occur to me when trying to contemplate Big Issues but which in its way gives a clearer impression than more sensational sorts of atrocities. I found myself at one point wondering what Frank Sinatra thought about all this. He came to mind because I began to feel that if one did not have satisfactory solutions to social problems that would please everybody, worrying about them could drain all the charm and wit out of your personality. This doesn't seem to have happened with Frank. He never conflated the outer world's troubles with himself, and certainly his popularity did not suffer by it.

The title essay, the central one of the collection, was next. The main subject is Baldwin's father, or the man who he thought was his father (and who raised him) at the time, though apparently he found out in later years that the man was not actually his biological father. The father was born in New Orleans and had known Louis Armstrong as a young man. There was a sentence I found funny: "My father never mentioned Louis Armstrong, except to forbid us to play his records; but there was a picture of him on our wall for a long time." Given the terrible communication problems between the father and son in these writings, as well as similar anecdotes that have come down through my own family history, I wondered if child-rearing, or at least connecting, had gotten easier due to prosperity, or what was the cause? The fathering style, when there is a father anyway, seems to have become so different, though certainly the jury is still out on their overall effectiveness where raising boys is concerned, given the general level of dissatisfaction people express with most men under age 50 or so, who traditionally have been the shapers and assessors of character in society, not the assessed.

"This inability to establish contact with other people had always marked him." I underlined this twice, so I assume I must have been identifying strongly with the concept.

On his father's fear of being robbed: "I didn't fail to wonder, and it made me hate (!) him, what on earth we owned that anybody else would want."

"He spent great energy and achieved, to our chagrin, no small amount of success in keeping us away from the people who surrounded us, people who had all-night rent parties to which we listened when we should have been sleeping, people who cursed and drank and flashed razor blades on Lenox Avenue." I believe these people are Mailer's hipsters, are they not?

All right, I am interrupted again. It may be two more days before I could finish this, though I could do it with 20 minutes of silence at a time of day when I am half-awake. It doesn't look like I am going to have that though.