James Baldwin (1924-87) on Amerikan “innocence”


Inthesetimes.com

In their blind rejection of tragedy, in their fear of that dreadful genre that tells us the truth of our failures as individuals and as a people, in that lack of knowledge that our public lives are doomed to destruction because our private lives are warped, Americans have condemned themselves to an unforgivable innocence. Nowhere is this innocence more clearly revealed than in their foreign policy in the third world.

“No society can smash the social contract and be exempt from the consequences, and the consequences are chaos for everybody in the society.”

“I never met a people more infantile in my life”, the black American writer James Baldwin observed of Americans while speaking to Richard Goldstein in 1984. He would certainly have been amused with Donald Trump who embodies the infantilism of an entire nation at its most sophisticated.

Innocence is one word that Baldwin uses in a way that combines pity with disgust. It is not the Christian child-like innocence that is a passport to the kingdom of heaven. It is termed innocence because of a refusal to grow; an innocence trapped in an unwillingness to take responsibility for one’s actions; a dangerous kind of innocence because it devastates the lives of others with absolute conviction in its own righteousness; an innocence incapable of coming to terms with reality. It is the innocence with which David will betray himself in the process of betraying those who love him in the novel Giovanni’s Room. It is the innocence of someone who cannot have a personal life because they are incapable of being committed to themselves as persons.

‘Infantilism’ is the word that is a synonym to this kind of innocence because it prefers to see the past as utopia rather than as history. Interestingly, as a nation America celebrates that kind of innocence which is reflected in popular culture especially cinema and music. It is a culture that has no place for tragedy unless couched in consumerist fantasies of a life forever. If, according to Baldwin, “white Americans do not believe in death” it is because they have rejected tragedy. As Baldwin notes in The Fire Next Time, “Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time.”

I don’t think Donald Trump is aware of that sun which is going down for the last time. I don’t think Obama was aware of the essential tragedy that lies in being caught within a temporality that limits all human power. The same goes for Reagan, Clinton, Bush Sr. and Bush Jr. Yet, every post-war President of the US shares in that terrible innocence that is at the heart of what being an American is all about.

In their blind rejection of tragedy, in their fear of that dreadful genre that tells us the truth of our failures as individuals and as a people, in that lack of knowledge that our public lives are doomed to destruction because our private lives are warped, Americans have condemned themselves to an unforgivable innocence. Nowhere is this innocence more clearly revealed than in their foreign policy in the third world. In no uncertain terms, Baldwin makes the point toward the end of his last interview with Quincy Troupe, “It’s the only hope the world has, that the notion of Western hegemony and civilization be contained.” In sustaining the hegemony of powerful global elites who serve as engine for corporate capitalism America is guilty of keeping alive the notion of a civilization obsessed with its own sense of racial, moral and political superiority.

A culture or civilization must have a notion of mortality in order to come out of the morbid state of innocence. Power, fame and wealth thrive as ideals to be achieved where people have an illusion of permanence. In the epic Mahabharata the demi-god Yaksha asked King Yudhishthira, “What is the greatest wonder on earth?” The just king replied with perfect equanimity: “We see death all around us; yet, we think that our life on earth is permanent.” Not only is it a response that would have pleased Baldwin immensely, but something he himself would have given if the Yaksha would pose him such a seemingly strange question.

While refusing to see himself as a “spokesman” Baldwin insists on viewing himself as a “witness.” “A spokesman assumes that he is speaking for others.” This does not happen with the one who bears “witness to the truth.” The truth for Baldwin is that America as a nation is trapped in its own innocence, in its own language and in its own false image of itself as a leader and liberator of the world. Though this to a large extent is reflected in its race relations it is true of everything else as well such as politics and sexuality.

When asked if there was a “particularly American component of homophobia,” Baldwin responded, “Americans are terrified of feeling anything. And homophobia is simply an extreme example of the American terror that’s concerned with growing up.” Where race, sexuality and politics will meet is the point of realization that if you cannot mature in your understanding of one of them, you are not going to mature in the others as well. Thus, racism will only be the other face of homophobia – and both, are rooted in the same “terror of the flesh” that underlies a foreign policy wherein weapons are sold to the ruling classes of the third world and reactionary nations such as Saudi Arabia and Israel enjoy the diplomatic and military support of the United States.

The innocence which in fact is fear to “experience” life is in fact a deep-rooted fear of knowing the other person. It is a fear that disturbs because it tells us the truth about ourselves. It is only through the truth that one could ever come out of the self-imposed innocence. Talking of Norman Mailer, whose “gifts” he admires and is “fond” of as a person, Baldwin notes that, “he’s a perfect example of what it means to be a white writer in this century, a white American writer in this country. It affords too many opportunities to avoid reality.”

The discovery of the truth about oneself is impossible where one does not deal with the reality that takes the shape of another person, and not an imaginary figure constructed by television, film-makers and politicians.

This terror of the other person is a terror of being spoken back to and described in terms that we do not like to hear. The “real terror that engulfs the white world,” according to Baldwin is, “the terror of being described by those they’ve been describing for so long.” The alternative to the terror of facing the truth as is revealed through the mouth of another person is of course a death-like innocence coming out of a terror of living.

source: James Baldwin (1924-87) on American “innocence”

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