Thursday, January 10, 2008

Another Country, by James Baldwin

Another Country James Baldwin"The bar was terribly crowded. Advertising men were there, drinking double shots of bourbon or vodka, on the rocks, college boys were there, their wet fingers slippery on the beer bottles; lone men stood near the doors or in corners, gleaming with ignorance and mad with chastity, made terrified efforts to attract the feminine attention, but succeeded only in attracting each other. Some of the men were buying drinks for some of the women—who wandered incessantly from the juke box to the bar—and they faced each other over smiles which were pitched, with an eerie precision, between longing and contempt. Black-and-white couples were together here—closer together now than they would be later, when they got home. These several histories were camouflaged in the jargon which, wave upon wave, rolled through the bar; were locked in a silence like the silence of glaciers. Only the jukebox spoke, grinding out each evening, all evening long, syncopated, synthetic laments for love."

Because Another Country is so intent on evoking a very specific milieu—which means a very specific time—one cannot read Baldwin's novel without the pressingly conscious thought, "My god, what could they have thought when this was published!" Its open treatment of bisexuality and interracial love and lust would perhaps today be solid if "edgy" airport reading, but this was 1960, with a civil rights movement still nascent and a gay rights movement yet virtually unconceived [later note (11/17/2008): I knew these assertions about the civil rights and gay rights movements were wrong when I wrote them, but I also thought they were approximately right, in the sense that they told part of the story, but reading the introduction to Nikhil Pal Singh's Black Is a Country showed me that they did not at all.]

But immediately after the sheer wonder of how something so incendiary managed to find an audience, one questions what its contemporary envelope-pushings offer us today. Or, more generally, how are we to read, exactly, a novel which once derived its power from shock, but which today seems... well still a little "exotic" perhaps (Village bohemia is not the typical milieu of most of Baldwin's readers at present), but not wild or disturbing. Because society has fewer reservations (and we have none) regarding the core issues the novel explores, doesn't it lose some of its moral ambiguity? Not being challenged into outrage or even ambivalence, how does the reader of a once "racy" novel react except retroactively—placing herself in the mind of one who read it when the ink and the action still felt gritty and fresh and real?

The audacity of the novel is so palpable that this retrospective frisson is not without its satisfactions. And anyway this is not a question merely of whether or not Baldwin's novel has merits aside from its significance or insignificance as a once-shocking novel. The novel does have merits, but to enumerate them will only sound like a salvage attempt—like pinning a few merit badges on an aging radical to cover up his obsolescence. The shock was the thing, and it must remain the thing as we think about the novel today.

But how to go about this without reverting to some dull form of anteriorism or reverse-presentism? Already in this entry I have given far too much credit to the present day for being progressive enough to blithely read frank depictions of gay sex and sex between a black man and a white woman so rough the man thinks it might be rape. Reading an "edgy" novel of the past entices us to read our present more generously, to insist on the distance that anterior moment of prudery is from our present time of racial and sexual equanimity.

Conceivably we could read the novel in a manner indifferent to the time of its publication or the time of its action—read it still as a critique of the present. Few want to do this because for some reason it seems square. For some reason to study a novel of the intermediate past—not remote enough to be properly "prescient," but not recent enough to be recognizable as the present moment - a gap that at this time falls approximately between the late Gilded Age and, say, Don DeLillo—encourages the appearance of an identification of the scholar with the time. And when that time now looks rather prudish or stiff, well who wants to be that guy? There is an awkwardness in arguing for the relevance of a newly decommissioned avant-garde; one who does seems to be stuck in the past, rather than reaching out to it.

So how may we read a novel like this? We can read it for aesthetics, but unfortunately, Baldwin's aesthetics are a little on the flat side. His prose is not flabby or inflated, but it is not quick or lean. But his work is not really intended, it seems to me, to be read for its sentences. And anyway, an aesthetic reading pulls us away from what I said must remain our target—the shock.

The method of reading I would like to suggest is suggested by a passage about a third of the way into the book:
On a Saturday in early March, Vivaldo stood at his window and watched the morning rise. The wind blew through the empty streets with a kind of dispirited moan; had been blowing all night long, while Vivaldo sat at his worktable, struggling with a chapter which was not going well. He was terribly weary—he had worked in the bookstore all day and then come downtown to do a moving job—but this was not the reason for his paralysis. He did not seem to know enough about the people in his novel. They did not seem to trust him. They were all named, more or less, all more or less destined, the pattern he wished them to describe was clear to him. But it did not seem clear to them. He could move them about but they themselves did not move. He put words in their mouths which they uttered sullenly, unconvinced. With the same agony, or greater, with which he attempted to seduce a woman, he was trying to seduce his people: he begged them to surrender up to him their privacy. And they refused—without, for all their ugly intransigence, showing him the faintest desire to leave him. They were waiting for him to find the key, press the nerve, tell the truth. Then, they seemd to be complaining, they would give him all he wished for and much more than he was now willing to imagine.
Later, at the end of the novel (this isn't really a spoiler, I promise):
The coffee pot, now beginning to growl, was real, and the blue fire beneath it and the pork chops in the pan, and the milk which seemed to be turning sour in his belly. The coffee cups, as he thoughtfully washed them, were real, and the water which ran into them, over his heavy, long hands. Sugar and milk were real, and he set them on the table, another reality, and cigarettes were real, and he lit one. Smoke poured from his nostrils and a detail that he needed for his novel, which he had been searching for for months, fell, neatly and vividly, like the tumblers of a lock, into place in his mind. It seemed impossible that he should not have thought of it before: it illuminated, justified, clarified everything He would work on it later tonight; he thought that perhaps he should make a not of it now; he started toward his worktable. The telephone rang.
It is one of my least favorite critical or scholarly tricks to turn everything into an allegory of authorship, and that is not my intention, but I do think it is valid (and distinct from converting the novel into an allegory of authorship) to read the novel—or any novel, really—in much the same way that Vivaldo is describing his project—as a set of obstinate limits or restrictions on the author's intentions and desires.

In other words, I think the best—i.e. most fruitful, most interesting—manner of reading this novel that still focuses directly on the element of shock is to analyze the way the novel forms and deforms the author's will and ideas. How the novel, its plot, its characters, its style resists the author's shaping hand—and what it reveals about the forces and the vectors coming from that hand—that is, in my mind, anyway, the method most likely to generate questions (and some answers) which cover the most ground and which make the novel both continuously relevant and yet potentially shocking.

How does Vivaldo think he has solved his narrative problems? What is that solution? From what did he derive its answers? Did he remember the "key" and is it present in Another Country somehow? These questions strike to the heart of the book and by their implications preserve, I think, the ability to shock which Baldwin intends.

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