Freitag, 10. August 2018

Preface to James Baldwin’s Unwritten Suicide Note / Harmony Holiday In: Poetry Foudation August 9th, 2018

Take me to the Water
Corsica, October, 1956. Some jittering brandy. Billie Holiday is on the phonograph serenading a small gathering of lovers and friends. Baldwin and his current lover, Arnold, have become taciturn and cold with one another and Arnold has announced that he plans to leave for Paris, where he wants to study music and escape the specter of an eternity with Jimmy—he feels possessed or dispossessed or both by their languid love affair. This kind of hyper-domestic intimacy followed by dysfunction and unravelling has marked Baldwin’s love life and seems to prey upon him, turning his tenderness into a haunt, a liability. Baldwin makes his way upstairs while Arnold and the others continue in the living room, and he absconds the house by way of the rooftop, leaps down, and stumbles through a briar patch to the sea, finishes his brandy and tosses the glass into the water before he himself walks toward a final resting place, ready to let it take him under, having amassed enough heartache to crave an alternate consciousness, a blank, black slate. But at the last minute, hip-deep in the sea, as if he has been hallucinating and a spark of differentiation has separated the real from the illusion at the height of his stupor, Baldwin changes his mind, his mandate becomes more vivid to him. He has to keep witnessing these very agonies and ruptures, to keep coming unhinged and living to tell it. He is bound to this earth, where he must finish inventing Another Country. The suicidal impulse, a sign he is at an impasse, would fade and intensify in a haunting pattern throughout Jimmy’s life. A few months before this attempt at sea, while still in Paris, he had swallowed an overdose of sleeping pills and then called his friend and confident Mary Painter, who helped him regurgitate them before the pills took their fatal toll. That attempt too, came after a fight with Arnold. This episode in Corsica is just another in a revolving trapdoor of nights, where a sense that the human struggle is meaningless is usurped by a reckless commitment to purpose, just in time to revive James Baldwin’s spirit. Was his uncanny intellect futile if it precluded intimacy, was his boundless capacity for eros trivial in the face of his filial love for Black people and for justice for all of humanity? If love affairs evoked the fearful, unjust malaise lurking within Jimmy’s soul, was it better to die of a lonely heart or a broken heart, or could he reconcile the false dichotomy between being alone and being lonely, realize the pleasure and intentionality in his solitude, and derive joy and confidence from that reconciliation. Or was it too far gone—had self-loathing metamorphosed into self-obsession, a kind of inverse vanity that makes it hard to live and impossible not to.

One Day When We Were Lost
James Baldwin is allegedly one of our most well-loved writers, revered, and called upon any time the United States is in crisis, to serve as a resounding voice of honest critique and premonition, both on and off the page, and on either side of the race drama. Yet James Baldwin attempted suicide several times throughout his life and it doesn’t seem like our infatuation with him allows him to be fallible in that way. Maybe that restrictive covenant with the public’s love and admiration is part of why he found this place as unbearable as it was worth saving. His best friend committed suicide in 1946. His novels and plays and essays explore the topic in detail and in act, stopping short of divulging his own suicidal tendencies. As explicit as depressive episodes and fixation on suicide are in Baldwin’s biography, as emotionally fragile as he was in private life, it’s almost sinister that he is used by the literary and cultural machine as a symbol of the uncomplicated and elegant great Black hope, the well-adjusted unwavering public intellectual and writer to whom we can all look for an example of how to master the discipline and the image of artistic genius. The toll Baldwin’s outward mastery took on his spirit is overlooked or hushed by the fanfare, so that writers who emulate him like disciples are practicing sorrow and precarity as much as excellence and intelligence. By tidying up the legacies of great talents, or just being oblivious to their shadow-sides, we undermine them completely and doom ourselves to repeating the struggles as much as the triumphs. On some perverse level we even come to fetishize the trouble, as if it’s part of the rubric of having a story to tell. Or worse, we aestheticize the trauma of an artist’s or any citizen’s translation into a public figure; we make them abstractions in our minds and leave them with no place left to be real, to become. What story does Jimmy Baldwin’s very real recurring attempts at suicide, even at the height of his fame and creative power, tell? How does his lust for death complicate his effectiveness at life, his legacy? For every James Baldwin, there are a whole lot of corpses, a lot of people who went under, he once lamented during an interview toward the end of his glorious tenure on earth. The versions of him who almost went under, and not just the stellar easy-to-admire iterations, are the ones in need of our love and recognition. As in James Baldwin, so in ourselves. This revisionist history becomes an ongoing act of love and reparation, of rescuing us from the edge by letting us admit when we reach it and almost leap forth, almost wanna be ready. Suffering that precipice in silence is not a sign of courage, not romantic, not poetic, not going to make you see what James Baldwin saw, not going to impede the truth from its clamoring march forward into and through and beyond you. So vent, own it, live to tell it, what made you want to die? What let you live? What does survival mean to you? What did it mean to James Baldwin? What does Jimmy mean to us when he is suffering and opaque, that he doesn’t as a purely oracular cultural hero whose subjectivity is masked by his capacity to reveal us to ourselves? What does our Western-minded half-consumption of Baldwin’s identity, our effortless editing of the sad parts in search of the fire that we vampirize and abide, force him to hide, harbor, and lament privately without the allies and sycophants who are around when he seems carefree. If James Baldwin was lost, we all are. Searching is our mode of survival. ... [mehr]

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