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.

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