On Some Prose of Baldwin and a Random Ten
I'm currently working on a paper for this year's NonfictioNow conference on politics and the personal essay. Ostensibly, I'm reading Adorno right now-- he had a lot to say about both politics and the essay-- but the two books of his I have are resting on my nightstand, unopened since they were brought home from the library. I keep hoping Adorno's wisdom will leap from one of the books and into my head while I'm asleep, but that doesn't seem to have happened yet. I could probably do more to increase my chances, though-- at the moment, one of the books is acting as a coaster, with a Return of the Jedi glass half-filled with water resting on it.
So I haven't been reading Adorno, but I have been reading Baldwin-- even when I don't mean to, it seems. "Notes of a Native Son" is an essay I read a couple of times a year, really-- largely because I teach it at least once a year, but I often like to refer back to it when I'm teaching other works, too, like Native Son or ""Sonny's Blues," or when I'm talking about Marxism and anything-- "Notes..." perfectly expresses the idea that any group under widespread, systematic oppression is eventually going to explode into violence; under certain circumstances, revolution, as Marx knew, is unavoidable.
Anyway, yesterday I hadn't planned on thinking about Baldwin-- I taught him in my grad workshop last week, and am teaching him to the undergrads in a couple of weeks. Instead, I thought I'd read Alix Kates Shulman's memoir Drinking the Rain, which I'm teaching my grad students next week. If you haven't read this Shulman book, you really should. It's got something for everyone (and by everyone, I really mean feminists, environmentalists, and fans of creative nonfiction-- but that's everyone, right?). While the book is very political in the sense that it adopts a progressive point-of-view regarding social issues, Shulman isn't shrill or didactic at all. Frankly, this is the kind of book you want to give to a college-aged woman who says things like, "I don't think women should be oppressed, but I'm not, like, a feminist."
So I'm reading Shulman yesterday, with Baldwin's essay still fresh in my mind, and I come acoss this scene in the book where Shulman herself is reading the same essay that I had just taught, and will be teaching again soon. It's not that surprising, I suppose-- it's a famous essay-- but I found that Shulman herself focused in on the lines that I found most meaningful this time around too, the lines I almost blogged about earlier this week when I mentioned I had been thinking about the difference between anger and hatred:
"... one would have to hold in the mind forever two ideas which would seem to be in opposition. The first idea was acceptance, the acceptance totally without rancor, of life as it is, and men as they are: in the light of this idea, it goes without saying that injustice is a commonplace. But this did not mean that one could be complacent, for the second idea was of equal power: that one must never, in one's own life, accept these injustices as commonplace but must fight them with all one's strength."
So, all we have to do is remember that injustice is always a commonplace, but never accept that injustice is a commonplace. Man, that's not even easily said, let alone done. But Baldwin's right-- in his own life, he saw how injustice turned his father into a bitter, paranoid man whose own hatred (bred out of the oppression he was forced to witness and endure) consumed him-- in a sense, hatred made him hateful. It's important, Baldwin notes, that we not allow hate to transform and pervert our good intentions and essentially just natures.
At the same time, though, an ethical person can't turn a blind eye to injustice; we can't pretend that the world is a perfect place just to protect ourselves from feeling bad. It's tempting-- and even kind of easy-- to do so, of course. You don't have to read about the Jena 6, or Lennox Yearwood, or Megan Williams. You don't have to pay attention to the attrocities being committed in Iraq right now, or consider the possibility that our leaders might be thinking about launching a strike against Iran. In fact, you can make it difficult to even find information about that stuff-- you can watch Entertainment Tonight instead of the evening news, read People instead of Newsweek, and only use the Internet for dancing hamsters and porn (as opposed to what I use it for-- dancing hamsters, porn, and The Huffington Post). But when you do that, you must understand that you are complicit in all of the injustice happening in the world. I've had students tell me, in all seriousness, "I'm just not into politics" as a reason for not having opinions one way or another regarding issues like the Iraq occupation, or abortion, or gay marriage. But the decision to "not be into politics" is a political decision, whether one wants it to be or not-- if you choose to not get involved when injustice is occuring, you are tacitly endorsing that injustice.
William Hazlitt famously wrote an essay titled "On the Pleasures of Hating," where he argues persuasively that hatred can be both rewarding and productive in terms of effecting change. I love that essay, but I think if he were to write that piece in one of my workshops (and here I am, Mr. No Book, presuming to give Hazlitt advice), I would suggest that he change the title to "On the Pleasures of Anger." Because Hazlitt isn't really consumed by hate-- he's just really, really, pissed. And rightfully so-- there's a whole lot to be angry about in this world of ours. But the emotions Hazlitt describes aren't the same emotions that consumed and destroyed Baldwin's father-- it seems imprecise, at the very least, to use the same word to describe both what Hazlitt and what Baldwin's father felt.
It's like what my good friend Alex said to me years ago, as we talked about politics while splitting a pitcher and throwing darts at the Village Pub in Marquette, Michigan: "Look, I know I'm an asshole, but at least I'm not hateful." I didn't quite get the distinction then, but I'm starting to now.
Anyway, here's today's Random Ten. You know what to do-- punch the juke box, but in an angry way, not a hateful way. Record the first ten songs that come up.
1) Natalie Merchant-- "Kind and Generous"
2) Rolling Stones-- "Beast of Burden"
3) Elvis Costello-- "Almost Blue"
4) Low Millions-- "Statue"
5) Tori Amos-- "Silent All These Years"
6) Prince-- "When Doves Cry"
7) Nine Inch Nails-- "Me, I'm Not"
8) Reel Big Fish-- "Story of My Life"
9) John Cale-- "Temper"
10) Regina Spektor-- "Samson"