Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Giovanni's Room, by James Baldwin

One of the truly remarkable things about James Baldwin's writing is his ability to represent repression convincingly. Baldwin's characters each have their own idioms of repression, their inner galaxies of things that cannot be articulated with complete explicitness. Somehow, Baldwin is able to find ways of representing these hesitations and circumlocutions in a manner and with a style that does not itself add to their evasiveness. Yet he does not seek to show up these evasions, to disparage his characters' reasons for aversion, to diminish the impossibilities of telling the whole truth to oneself. His characters are neither mitigated nor belittled for their repressions, which is, I think, one reason why his contemporary critics often talked about the dignity with which he invests his characters, particularly those who are queer or black or both.

There's a strange politics behind the application of the word "dignity," particularly with regard to black men, but also with regard to the (urban) poor, and to gays. Rather like Joe Biden's comments about Barack Obama way back during the primaries, it's a word that suggests a hint of surprise, and a not always veiled implication that it is an exception when it occurs. Dignity is a contrasting quality to flamboyance, animatedness, braggartry, swagger, frivolity, and therefore its application to categories stereotyped by these demerits is of necessity both remarkable and unexpected. Calling Baldwin's characters "dignified" or praising them or Baldwin for their "dignity" ("Baldwin writes of these matters with unusual candor and yet with such dignity and intensity" - NYT) is a fairly straightforward (no pun intended) way of saying, don't worry, you're not going to be reading about those kind of queers; it's perfectly safe to read. Of course, Baldwin's writing was also marketed as transgressive and shocking, so there's that too, but it also had to be a very different kind of shock from, say, William S. Burroughs or Jean Genet.

What I wanted to say, however, was that Baldwin's writing seems remarkably unpressured by any of these considerations; rather like Bellow, one gets the sense that readers just followed, and that if there were efforts made to assimilate Baldwin as a writer perfectly safe to read on a commuter train, he was undeterred from what he would have been doing anyhow. Baldwin's ability to represent his character's idioms of repression, therefore, wasn't some societal reflux or a safety valve thrown in to keep the audience from feeling alienated, dialing down the bohemian steam; it reads instead as a wholly organic connection to the characters he created, and an intimate knowledge of the many forms of self-denial and self-betrayal one can experience.

1 comment:

Rebecca V. O'Neal said...

What an insightful reading!

This self-denial and self-betrayal - Baldwin's imbuing his characters with the ability to even partially express these sinister mortifications, and his talent for illuminating the tentativeness of character they tend to produce may have been his way of exorcizing his own frustrations - of putting the disparate components of his own character and experiences as a black man on trial.

Great post!