No one, I’ve come to think, would be less happy about our latest canonization of James Baldwin than Baldwin himself.
I’ve been rereading a lot of Baldwin, this early fall. I’m doing so to rescue him, for myself only, from what he’s been made of by the mob, the sermonizing left that owns media and writing and books right now, the dull, dim, gladhanding, influence-peddling, consensus-worshipping, joke-telling, meme-spreading, cleverness-obsessed mass that owns the internet and guards that ownership jealously. Well: Baldwin was not your wisdom-spouting gay black uncle. Baldwin was an irritable and tetchy person by his own admission, and not in a sense that is easily bent into the comfortable political pablum that is the stock in trade of today’s white liberals, people for whom comfort with black complaint is just another performance, just another means of self-definition, taking other people’s lack of satisfaction and making it an instrument of protecting their own. Now frequently placed on the imaginary Mount Rushmore of black politics, Baldwin in reality had a deeply vexed relationship with both the black liberals of the Civil Rights movement and the black radicals that came after, one marked by mutual distrust and angry disagreements about goals and means alike. Typical of him, he recognized that the shared struggle and shared injustice did not make him part of some community of friends. When he went into exile in Paris, he intended to leave more than just racists and racism behind. That was his posture: refusal, always, the stance of someone who was not merely uncomfortable around other people but who refused to treat comfort, for himself or for others, as a goal worth pursuing. When he talked about being in a rage almost all the time, he did not mean for the people of the future to tame that rage for him, to make it interpretable for purposes of celebrity and consensus, to make it something else than rage at us, at our complicity, and our desire to share the rage rather than be targets of it.
Maybe the easiest thing is just to point out that the people who praise him most vocally have, with few exceptions, read almost nothing that he’s written. In her discussion of “litchat,” Laura Miller got to heart of it. What Dan Brooks calls the aspirational internet has a strange and unhealthy relationship to books and reading. It’s a kind of vaguely literary culture, in the sense that people feel social pressure to be able to speak intelligently about books, but not really a reader‘s culture. As Miller suggests, people feel much more external incentive to have an opinion about books than they seem to feel internal incentives to read a lot of books. That condition is wedded to a general social prohibition against judging people for not reading more, or be accused of being a snob, elitist, know-it-all, and which prevents anybody from diagnosing that status. What do you say, when you know that someone droning on about the meaning of James Baldwin probably hasn’t read more than a book or two by Baldwin, if they’ve read any at all? When Osama bin Laden died and people were debating whether a distorted Martin Luther King quote really reflected his sentiments, I was struck by how few people seemed to have ever read Strength to Love, despite how many of them probably consider King a hero.
Every day, the circle tightens; every day the things that people think become reduced to The Things That People Think. No one else seems to see the fog of consensus everywhere. But I see it.
In Baldwin, I find this comfort: that he was someone who knew that universal praise was universally useless, that the spirit of inquiry is the spirit of agitation and dissent, that to be popular is a condition to be actively mistrusted. Personally, I am drowning, drowning, drowning in other people’s goodness. It’s like to trying to swim upwards through maple syrup. What makes the climb so much harder is the posture, so popular these days, that the dull consensus is risky, is challenging, is dangerous. But Baldwin was right: there is hope, there is hope in other human beings. People of integrity are real, the quiet and reserved ones are out there, even if you have to look your whole life to find them, and when you find them, you want to hold them forever.
The truly remarkable thing about Baldwin’s present popularity is just how antithetical his aesthetic philosophy stands to our current political mania, a condition shared by the vast majority of people who now lionize him. The blunt Manicheanism of Goodies and Baddies that spread like syphilis from the George W. Bush right to the toddler left could not be further from the pensive, skeptical withdrawal of a man like Baldwin. I wish that he were alive today to skewer that great mass of people who do not read him and profess to know him. In the world of tweets and thinkpieces and performative praise, all act is affect, nothing is challenged, no one is brave, everyone gloms on to the same stale sermons. And somehow in that place this singular, crabby old refusenik has become an unwitting and unwilling hero. When I read him, I know that, as rare as they are, there are others out there who understand the challenge today: to be ruthless, always, in our rejection of all piety. For his efforts, he’s been made into a celebrity, into a postage stamp. Against that I can only bring to bear the certainty that he himself would have had nothing to do with it.
Someday, no one will be able to find me, and I’ll have walked off into the night, thousands and thousands of miles away, having journeyed to the land where nothing is settled, where no one agrees, where there are no heroes and no geniuses, the land of sharp elbows where I was born to be.