About my interests: I don't know if I have any, unless the morbid desire to own a sixteen-millimeter camera and make experimental films can be so classified."
-- James Baldwin, Notes Of A Native Son
Twenty years ago today, James Baldwin died in Paris, from esophageal cancer. He was 63. He was best known as a novelist, of course, but it was always his essays that spoke the deepest to me. I still remember reading Notes of A Native Son when I was 19, the spark of the lanaguage, that mixture of several registers-- religious preaching, literary analysis, autobiography, dandyish wit-- thrilling and provoking me; for many, it's reading A Movable Feast that makes them long to be part of a Parisian expatriate world, but for me it was listening to Miles Davis and reading James Baldwin, and imagining sitting in a cafe on the Left Bank with the two of them, as Louis Malle and Jeanne Moreau sat down at our table. I remember being intrigued by his trenchant critique of Richard Wright, and moved by his complex view of life in Paris, racial bigotry, and what it meant to be an American, how one carries an idea of home as both a real and imagined landscape of the future.
Baldwin also worked on a screenplay for a film biography of Malcolm X, which he writes about in The Devil Finds Work, an underrated book of memoir and film criticism. The most famous passage is when he details his intense identification with the eyes of Bette Davis, and how "over a champagne glass, pop-eyes popping," she became for him an emblem of possibility: "You see? You see? She's uglier than you, Mama! She's uglier than me!...Well, if I was 'strange' -- and I knew that I must be, otherwise people would not have treated me so strangely, and I would not have been so miserable -- perhaps I could find a way to use my strangeness."
But I also love the evocative opening passage, a cinephiliac description of Joan Crawford's walk in Dance, Fools, Dance:
Joan Crawford's straight, narrow, and lonely back. We are following her through the corridors of a moving train. She is looking for someone, or she is trying to escape from someone. She is eventually intercepted by, I think, Clark Gable.
I am fascinated by the movement on, and of, the screen, that movement which is something like the heaving and swelling of the sea (though I have not yet been to the sea): and which is also something like the light which moves on, and especially beneath, the water.
I am about seven. I am with my mother, or my aunt. The movie is Dance, Fools, Dance.
I don't remember the film. A child is far too self-centered to relate to any dilemma which does not, somehow, relate to him-- to his own evolving dilemma. The child escapes into what he would like his situation to be, and I certainly did not wish to be a fleeing fugitive on a moving train; and also, with quite another part of my mind, I was aware that Joan Crawford was a white lady. Yet, I remember being sent ot the store sometime later, and a colored woman, who, to me, looked exactly like Joan Crawford, was buying something. She was so incredibly beautiful-- she seemed to be wearing the sunlight, rearranging it around her from time to time, with a movement of one hand, with a movement of her head, and with her smile-- that, when she paid the man and started out of the store, I started out behind her. The storekeeper, who knew me, and others in the store who knew my mother's little boy (and who also knew my Miss Crawford!) laughed and called me back. Miss Crawford also laughed and looked down at me with so beautiful a smile that I was not embarrassed. Which was rare for me.
I love that passage for its rich play of language, its eye for cinematic detail, and its intertwining of film with personal anecdote. But I also love it for its contradictions and confusions: "I do not remember the film," he says, after offering a beautiful shot description, or the way he knows how the sea feels, although he's never been on the sea. The Devil Finds Work was published in 1976, America's bicentennial year, and those kinds of paradoxes and confusions-- and how Baldwin makes of them a beautiful, jazzy world-- not writing around contradiction, but through it-- are what make him so quintessentially American (it's no accident that Rachel Cohen's dazzling, anecdotal history of American arts and letters, A Chance Meeting, starts with Henry James and ends with James Baldwin-- James was one of Baldwin's favorite writers, and both occupy central roles in the ways American artists have grappled with knotted questions of art, identity and exile).
In 1948, Life would publish an article on the "be-bop craze" that included Dizzy Gillespie doing the "secret bop handshake" with musician Benny Carter. Gillespie recalls how he and Carter decided to turn it into an elaborate joke for their credulous audience:
They made us perform a bebop greeting for them. "Hi-ya, man!" "Bells, man where you been?" Giving the sign of the flatted fifth, a raised open hand. "Eel-ya-da!" We gave a handshake sign that we were playing triplets, ending with an elaborate handshake. That was supposed to be the be-bopper's greeting, but there was no such thing in real life. It was just a bunch, of horseplay we went through so they could pretend we were something weird.
Re-reading the "Autobiographical Notes" section of Notes of A Native Son, I get a similar feeling of signifying play: Baldwin offers us a self-description that feels at once sincere, and also like deadpan parody of the form (as the epigraph above, I think, reflects), full of both thoughtful literary and political analysis and wry, idiosyncratic personal detail. My favorite passage is this one: "I do not like bohemia, or bohemians, I do not like people whose principal aim is pleasure, and I do not like people who are earnest about anything." It's another of Baldwin's riddling paradoxes-- the attack on pleasure comes just lines after he states one of his principal interests to be "food and drink," and the tweaking of earnestness is offered in a very earnest declaration. And yet, I think it's a knowing contradiction, not a blind one: between bohemia and earnestness lies the ground Baldwin would stake for himself as a writer-- to be sensual and political, artist and activist, outsider and patriot, all at the same time.
R.I.P., James Baldwin.