"Payin' one's dues": expatriation as personal experience and paradigm in the works of James Baldwin.
"People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them," Baldwin wrote in 1953 (Price 81). Three years later, shortly after finishing Giovanni's Room, he was to report on the historic Conference of Negro-African Writers and Artists held at the Sorbonne in Paris, among whose major speakers were the Senegalese poet and statesman Leopold Senghor and the Martiniquan poet Aime Cesaire. The sense of alienation which Baldwin would distill from his private experience of the expatriate condition was already placed in an historical context by the spectacle of Senghor evoking the unity between art and life characteristic of traditional African culture, but doing so in Paris, in the language of the colonial oppressor.
On a less metaphysical level, the expatriation of artists from America was a common occurrence. Since colonial times, the Grand Tour of Europe, and more particularly visits to Paris and Rome, had signified for the sensitive American artist a return to the locus of Western civilization. The reasons were numerous: the provinciality of American life, the cultural density of Europe, the need for the artist to distance himself. In this respect, Black American writers and artists were no different from their White compatriots. The majority also made the obligatory pilgrimage to Europe, even if social reasons were added to the cultural ones.
Baldwin's sojourn in Paris was a liberating experience, giving him "the sanction, if one can accept it, to become oneself" (Price 313). David, the White American hero of Giovanni's Room, comments on this search for identity: "I think that if I had any intimation that the self I was going to find would turn out to be only the same self from which I had spent so much time in flight, I would have stayed at home" (31). Of course, his problem is that he cannot accept the sanction. Yet, even for Baldwin, the question of who he was had not been solved by fleeing the social forces which threatened him; those forces had only become internalized and the question more personal (Nobody xii).
For many Black Americans living in Paris, the perception was a familiar one. America had been a box whose walls were black and white. Depending on which wall one stood against, the choice was a featureless commonality or a shocking alienation. However, this liberation from the box of color, if liberation it were, only delivered them to themselves. At this stage of consciousness, Baldwin's lucid analysis proceeds in the early essays to a demythification of the traditional reasons given for going to Paris. Like many fellow expatriates, Baldwin understood that what he describes ironically as Paris's "fine old air of freedom" was, in fact, a myth compounded of skepticism, fatigue (in 2000 years of history the city had seen so many movements, doctrines, and manifestos), and, finally, the arrogant indifference of the Parisian. The exile seeking freedom "has come, in effect, to a city which exists only in his mind" (Price 93). Thus, Baldwin's project in the early essays would be the deconstruction of a received subject and its reconstruction based on the experience of exile.
I have used the terms expatriate and exile interchangeably to describe Baldwin's situation, but the status which he always claimed for himself was that of an exile (Baldwin and Mead 220-21). Now, exile may be the result of banishment by superior powers or self-exile due to hostile circumstances, and the latter, in fact, does not require physical displacement, as witnessed by the despairing vision of New York proclaimed in Another Country: "It was a city without oases, run entirely, insofar, at least, as human perception could tell, for money; and its citizens seemed to have lost any sense of their right to renew themselves. Whoever, in New York, clung to this right, lived in New York in exile . . ." (267). For the African American subject in particular, the voyage to a foreign land is an exile that restages the original historical and cultural alienation at "home." In one sense, then, the fact of geographic exile can be seen as the symbolic extension of a radical existential exile, and the knot of internal and external in such a perception is difficult to undo.
Thus, we can begin to see what Baldwin might have understood by my comment about "payin' one's dues" in Paris. The voyage toward self-discovery which the Parisian experience freed one to make was only granted at the price of physical deprivation and spiritual pain, and at its heart lay the existential knowledge that everything must be paid for. At this point in our analysis, a reference to the novels of Henry James (a writer whom Baldwin greatly admired) becomes pertinent.(3) To the oft-cited reasons for going abroad, James added the sense of the expatriate experience as a paradigm for the alienating effects of American life, a problem rooted in the displacements engendered by social change, national expansion, and the rise to economic hegemony. This is one of the things to which Baldwin must have related most strongly in the work of James. He wrote in 1950: "This depthless alienation from oneself and one's people is, in sum, the American experience" (Price 39). Significantly, the unidentified epigraph of Another Country, drawn from James's works, reads: "They strike one, above all, as giving no account of themselves in any terms already consecrated by human use; to this inarticulate state they probably form, collectively, the most unprecedented of monuments; abysmal the mystery of what they think, what they feel, what they want, what they suppose themselves to be saying." Although the Jamesian source of the epigraph has been noted, critics have not speculated on its relation to the novel's themes. That connection lies perhaps in the Jamesian vision of an alienated people, Americans, struggling through a welter of painful experiences in order to define themselves and to articulate that definition.
Having recognized that the pain of alienation figured in the expatriate experience is common to both, one must also recognize that the problem is differently coded for the Black writer and the White. Baldwin's peculiarly African American sense of alienation was double and in some ways parallel to the concept of "double-consciousness" exposed in W. E. B. Du Bois's Souls of Black Folk. For the latter, the American world yields the Negro "no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense
of always looking at oneself through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness - an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two irreconciled strivings . . ." (215). Of course, Du Bois's alienation is less metaphysical than Baldwin's. The earlier writer is describing the Negro's exclusion from equal opportunity, and his yearning to merge his double self in a way which would not require him to deny his Blackness. Nevertheless, a more radical sense of alienation is implicit in the pained cry of Black childhood friends recorded by Du Bois: "Why did God make me an outcast and a stranger in mine own house?" (214). And while Du Bois rejects the futility of this bitterness, he does not deny that Africa is no longer the American Negro's "house" or that he is a stranger in his new homeland.
Trapped in a similar dilemma, the expatriate subject in France is distanced physically and emotionally from America, yet not fully integrated into French society As was the case for so many other American expatriates, life in Paris for Baldwin was largely one of cultural isolation in an English-speaking colony. French culture, to the extent that he experienced it, was only a vehicle for recuperating his own intensely American past. He described the expatriate experience as "a journey we make faraway to come full circle . . .," and he added: "I lived in a real silence, a real vacuum. But, I was absolutely active because in the silence I began to hear another language; began to hear French and I began to decipher it, in a way, which allowed me to go back . . . which allowed me to hear my father and behind my father my grandmother and the church I came out of and the pulpit I had just left" ("To Hear" 443, 437).(4)
Yves, the young Frenchman of Another Country, is also estranged from his own culture. He arrives in New York (described with ambiguous irony as "that city which the people from heaven had made their home" ), and the first thing he realizes is that, despite his disaffection, he is profoundly French. He will discover in New York what his American lover, Eric, had gone to Europe to find. This expatriate experience (situated on the frontier between two cultures), be it that of the American in Paris or of the Frenchman in New York, would then represent that of the African American subject - irremediably exiled from his/her African past, yet denied access to the new American culture.
It is thus only apparently paradoxical that the passage which seemed to me (when I first read it in Paris in 1963) to express the essence of that painful condition occurs in Another Country, despite the fact that the novel is set largely in New York. A 1986 interview with Baldwin published in The Henry James Review confirmed my earlier intuition.(5) When asked, "Is that what Henry James came to Europe to discover, what Newman and later Strether discover? Is that why you came to France - to redefine freedom and innocence?" Baldwin replied that freedom means the end of innocence, and that "the end of innocence means you've finally entered the picture. And it means that you'll accept the consequences too" (54). In other words, the expatriate is "payin' one's dues." As in James, the vision of life expressed in Baldwin's works is essentially a tragic one, the same contained in two key elements of the Aristotelian definition of the genre, anagnorisis and pathos, the latter not a brutish, animal suffering, but suffering consciously paid as the price of self-knowledge.
The scene in Another Country referred to above occurs in the final chapter of Book Two. Ida, a struggling Black jazz singer, and Cass, an aristocratic White woman whose marriage is falling apart, are sharing a taxi ride uptown to a Harlem night club. The Black woman angrily indicts the White one as a representative of her race: "'What you people don't know is that life is a bitch, baby. It's the biggest hype going. You don't have any experience in paying your dues and it's going to be rough on you, baby, when the deal goes down. There's lots of back dues to be collected, and I know damn well you haven't got a penny saved'" (295). Cass is still one of the "mere apprentices of suffering" (277). To Ida's claim that, although miles away, she knew her brother Rufus was spiritually dying, Cass objects: "'Your knowing it didn't stop anything, didn't change anything,'" to which the singer retorts, "'Maybe nothing can be stopped or changed, but you've got to know, you've got to know what's happening'" (292).
The third and final book of the novel finds Cass almost fully initiated:
I'm beginning to think, she said, that growing just means learning more and more about anguish. That poison becomes your diet - you drink a little of it every day. Once you've seen it you just can't stop seeing it - that's the trouble . . . . You begin to see that you yourself, innocent, upright you, have contributed and do contribute to the misery of the world. Which will never end because we are what we are. (341)
One cannot help thinking of the Prince's grave words toward the end of The Golden Bowl - "'Everything's terrible, cara - in the heart of man'" (566) - and the night scene on the terrace of an English country house where the heroine, Maggie, symbolically enacts the role of Christ at Gethsemane and receives a Judas kiss from Charlotte, her rival for the love of her husband, the Prince. By a mute gesture, Charlotte reveals to her the depth of her tragic situation, "She might verily by this dumb demonstration have been naming to Maggie the price, naming it as a question for Maggie herself, a sum of money that she properly was to find. She must remain safe and Maggie must pay - what she was to pay with being her own affair" (494).
Although much of the cited interchange between the two women deals with the details of their respective sexual liaisons, an implicit weight of history is also invoked during the taxi ride to the sardonically named Harlem club, Small's Paradise. In reference to her White lover, Ida warns Cass, temporarily united to her by suffering: "'But, imagine that he came, that man who's your man - because you always know, and he damn sure don't come every day - and there wasn't any place for you to walk out of or into, because he came too late. And no matter when he arrived would have been too late - because too much had happened by the time you were born, let alone by the time you met each other'" (294).
Despite the cross fire of sexual and interracial couplings which disconcerted many readers of Another Country, most criticism was ready to concede its social concerns. The same is not true of Giovanni's Room. Indeed, as already noted, the latter novel is often contrasted with Another Country for its supposed lack of these same concerns. And in 1957, one year after finishing the novel, Baldwin himself wrote of his return to America: "Everybody was paying their dues and it was time I went home and paid mine" (Price 475). One implication which might be drawn from this statement is that the dues were private in Paris and public in America. based on this interpretation, one could conclude that the significance of the expatriate experience was essentially an individual one: the search for personal identity. Such a dichotomy would be convenient for categorizing the two novels, but it ignores the social and ideological dimensions of Giovanni's Room.
At the time of the book's publication, Leslie Fiedler wrote in exasperation: "There is not only no Negro problem in Baldwin's new book; there are not even any Negroes," and a bit further on he unwittingly adds that "one begins to suspect at last that there must really be Negroes present, censored, camouflaged or encoded." I say unwittingly, because the critic makes nothing of this supposition other than to demand that in a hoped-for "mature novel" Negro characters be present (147). But, in fact, drawing on the personal experience of exile which he had mined so extensively for the early essays, Baldwin is examining here the same problems which had always concerned him. The central themes of the novel - false innocence, freedom, responsibility - are precisely those which Baldwin evokes when mapping the tragic American confrontation of Black and White.
Bigsby rightly saw that the key to understanding the text's social and ideological dimensions was the parallel between sex and race(6) - one which Baldwin made explicit in an interview with Richard Goldstein:
The sexual and the racial questions have always been intertwined, you know. If Americans can mature on the level of racism, then they have to mature on the level of sexuality . . . . I think Americans are terrified of feeling anything. And homophobia is simply an extreme example of the American terror of growing up. (178).
Color and homosexuality assume a common rhetorical function, evoking the dark side of human nature, and this terror-ridden inability to come to terms with them was not, in Baldwin's view, his problem, but that of White America.
By posing the kinship of Black and homosexual as racial and sexual exiles, repressed by the national consciousness, it is not difficult to see the struggle of the European, Giovanni, and the American, David, as a narrative paradigm for the relationship of Black and White in America. Baldwin had already sanctioned such a reading in a 1965 essay: "It seems to me when I watch Americans in Europe that what they don't know about Europeans is what they don't know about me" (Price 406). He thus revealed beneath the explicitly Jamesian paradigm of the cultural clash between Americans and Europeans evident in Giovanni's Room the less obvious register of race. Giovanni's love stirs a dark and frightening memory in David. The adolescent body of Joey, his first homosexual experience, is described as being "brown . . . the black opening of a cavern in which I would be tortured till madness came, in which I would lose my manhood" (14-15). Later, Giovanni's room, with its painted-over windows facing out onto a dim courtyard, will also become a dark cavern from which he flees in terror much as, according to Baldwin, a puritanical White American society rejected and suppressed the dark vision evoked by its first symbolic meeting with the White man. David only senses this relationship blindly: "My ancestors conquered a continent, pushing across death-laden plains until they came to an ocean which faced away from Europe into a darker past" (7). Europe is to be taken here as the source of a repressive White civilization, although in the person of Giovanni it takes on an opposite symbolic value. Stripped of its geographic ambiguities, Baldwin would set forth this theme in "Alas, Poor Richard," a 1953 meditation on the fate of his spiritual father, Richard Wright.(7) Here, Baldwin speculated on "the uses and hazards of expatriation" for his mentor:
Richard was able, at last, to live in Paris exactly as he would have lived, had he been a white man, here, in America. This may seem desirable, but I wonder if it is. Richard paid the price such an illusion of safety demands. The price is a turning away from, an ignorance of, all of the powers of darkness. . . . I am suggesting that one of the prices an American Negro pays - or can pay - for what is called his "acceptance" is a profound, almost ineradicable self-hatred. (Price 280-81, 286-87)
In the passage cited above, the word price takes on a negative signification - not an acceptance of the painful dues of self-knowledge, but the unreflective sense of security which a White man might have in America, one whose falsity was sharply brought home to the perceptive expatriate. In examining Wright's response to the Du Boisian problem of double-consciousness, Baldwin realized that he was speaking of his own potential fate and that of African Americans as a whole. However, the "Negro" is not to be thought of here as an individual subject or even as a representative of the race, but rather as a narrative role in the shadow play of American "phantasy,"(8) or an agent of the metaphoric uses of darkness. In "Many Thousands Gone" Baldwin says of the Negro (and he speaks here in the voice of the White American, a rhetorical technique often employed in the essays): "In our estrangement from him is the depth of our estrangement from ourselves. We cannot ask: what do we really feel about him - such a question merely opens the gates on chaos" (Price 65). By a process of metaphoric condensation, "The white man's unadmitted - and apparently, to him, unspeakable - private fears and longings are projected onto the Negro. The only way he can be released from the Negro's tyrannical power over him is to consent . . . to become black himself, to become a part of that suffering and dancing country that he now watches wistfully from the heights of his lonely power . . ." (Price 375). Thus, the Negro is the locus of dark fears and repressed desires. In repudiating him, the White American denies evil and death, but also the dark, celebratory side of human nature - both "suffering and dancing."
We can see then that the "dues" theme common to Baldwin and Henry James is directly related to the White American's denial of "darkness." Like the Richard of "Alas . . ." (who, notwithstanding his historical referentiality, functions here as a fictional lexeme) and the David of Giovanni's Room, the White American refuses to pay "the price of the ticket." However, the parallel thematic functionality of Richard and David makes it clear that, despite the roles assigned to Black and White in this psychic drama, Baldwin considers the denial of darkness to be an American problem, not a White problem per se. This explains how, in Giovanni's Room, the racial paradigm can be voided of its color coding and mimic the Jamesian opposition of European and American cultures.
Though bearing much of the historical guilt for the oppression of Western civilization, the White European, unlike his American counterpart, has learned to suffer. Baldwin's short story "This Morning, This Evening, So Soon" presents an anonymous White American singer who accuses Vidal, a White French film director, of not paying the dues seemingly demanded by the history encoded in the color of his skin. The latter replies, "'I am a Frenchman. Look at France. You think that I - we - are not paying for our history . . .? I beg you not to confuse me with the happy people of your country who scarcely know that there is such a thing as history and so, naturally, imagine that they can escape, as you put it, scot-free'" (147). He later adds, "'We, in Europe, whatever else we do not know, or have forgotten, know about suffering. We have suffered here. You have suffered too. But most Americans do not yet know what anguish is'" (158).
This stubbornly innocent happiness of Americans is the mask of their guilt and the source of their lack of accountability. One of the French characters of Giovanni's Room remarks that David was doing things in France that he would not dare to do at home (142). And it is David's attempt to take pleasure without paying his dues which colors his affair with Giovanni with the moral irresponsibility and sexual guilt which Baldwin would evoke in the despairing vision of the homosexual put forth in his essay on Gide: "It is possible, as it were, to have one's pleasure without paying for it. But to have one's pleasure without paying for it is precisely the way to find oneself reduced to a search for pleasure which grows steadily more desperate and grotesque" (Price 104).
Baldwin modeled the character of Giovanni on several young men that he had met in Paris,(9) none of whom were Italian peasants. However, abstracted from his socioeconomic persona, the trait which most distinguishes Giovanni from the American, David, is his freedom from sexual guilt, his Mediterranean delight in his sensuality. In a passionate tirade, he castigates the neurotic purity of Americans, their desire to be "clean" at any price, including the denial of love: "'You want to leave Giovanni because he makes you stink. You want to despise Giovanni because he is not afraid of the stink of love. You want to kill him in the name of all your lying little moralities'" (187). Baldwin said, somewhat cryptically, that the novel was about a lack of sexual authority. This comment should be seen not as a criticism of David's sexual choices but rather in the light of Giovanni's statement that his lover is "'neither man nor woman, nothing that I can know or touch'" (184). David can love neither his fiancee, Hella, nor Giovanni; that is to say, he cannot love.
At the end of the novel, the betrayed Hella flees home to America, "the place," as Baldwin wrote, "where questions are not asked" (Price 95), where dues need not be paid. Paris had granted the Americans the freedom to love. But, as David states in the first pages of the novel, "Nothing is more unbearable, once one has it, than freedom" (10). It is this terrible weight which sends them running - Hella home to America, David to the south of France. As Baldwin stated in the interview on James cited above, "Freedom and innocence are antithetical. You can't have both" (54). By implication, a rational happiness is impossible since the illusion of happiness can only be founded on a spurious innocence. Hella can flee back to America "across that criminal ocean" (219); she can, as Bigsby puts it, "reinvent innocence. For David, the bisexual protagonist, this is not possible. For what the world chooses to see as corruption, as a disturbing deviance from the norm, is the essence of his life. He has to live with ambiguity, as Hella does not" (124). Having reached this state of awareness, David can never return to an America equated with innocence. He is left with a cruel freedom.
Hella's stubborn clinging to innocence and David's tortured sense of ambiguity are related to the comments about Eden which he proffers early in the novel, and the post-lapsarian decline of his state at the novel's conclusion colors his earlier comments with a retrospective irony:
Perhaps everybody has a garden of Eden, I don't know; but they have scarcely seen their garden before they see the flaming sword. Then perhaps life offers only the choice of remembering the garden or forgetting it. Either, or: it takes strength to remember, it takes another kind of strength to forget, it takes a hero to do both. People who remember court madness through pain, the pain of the perpetually recurring death of their innocence; people who forget court another kind of madness, the madness of the denial of pain and the hatred of innocence; and the world is mostly divided between madmen who remember and madmen who forget. Heroes are rare. (36)
For those who refuse to pay their dues, madness of one sort or another is inevitable. But from those who consent, a difficult duality is demanded: to accept the loss of innocence and the concomitant pain, while at the same time transcending that pain without denying its existence or that of the lost garden They must recognize the dark, tragic nature of their human condition without succumbing: "suffer and dance."
In Baldwin's mapping of the American psyche, Blacks and homosexuals are the paradigm for such heroes. Caught in a double bind, they may wish (like the Richard of "Alas . . .") to efface their alienation, but the price of their painfully won identity lies in the retention of their difference. Thus the homosexual and expatriate experiences are made to function as paradigms for the African American experience. Modern Adams exiled from the Garden, all three groups must take up residence somewhere on the frontiers of Eden, halfway between the lost paradise and the new society yet to be born.
We are now in a position to penetrate more deeply into the significance of the expatriate experience. The foreign sojourn offers the expatriate subject the possibility of moving beyond the sexual and racial myths which seek to define that person in America. However the irony of the foreign experience for the African American subject is that the flight to Europe is, so to speak, taking refuge in the maw of the lion, for through its history of slave trading and colonization, Europe is the very source of that subject's original alienation.
This problematic relation to European - that is to say, Western - civilization crystallizes in the signifier of Chartres, which, for Baldwin, is tied to ambiguous and even contradictory signifieds. Confronted with this emblem of Western culture, the White writer's troubled ambivalence about his borrowed culture rises to the surface. Despite insular Swiss villagers' ignorance of Dante, Shakespeare, or Rembrandt and his own familiarity with these cultural icons, "the cathedral at Chartres says something to them which it cannot say to me . . ." (Price 83). Nevertheless (after a long disquisition on the "Negro problem"), he adds that "this cathedral says something to me which it cannot say to them." If they are struck by "the power of the spires," it is "the slippery bottomless well to be found in the crypt, down which heretics were hurled to death," that fixes his terrified attention (89).
What has not been remarked upon is that the cathedral also figures briefly but importantly in the first chapter of Book Two of Another Country where, in a series of antithetical images generated by this emblematic structure, Baldwin operates the conflation of private and public which he will exploit in Just Above My Head. However, in the earlier novel, "public" does not contain the full historical dimension which it will later assume, one which elicits a more radical repudiation of the signifier of Western culture. The cathedral, which in Another Country had ultimately blessed the reluctant lovers, Eric and Yves, is now only "a mask of power":
The South African coal miner, or the African digging for roots in the bush, or the Algerian mason working in Paris, not only have no reason to bow down before Shakespeare, or Descartes, or Westminster Abbey, or the cathedral of Chartres: they have, once these monuments intrude on their attention, no honorable access to them. Their apprehension of this history cannot fail to reveal to them that they have been robbed, maligned, and rejected: to bow down before that history is to accept that history's arrogant and unjust judgement. (Price 473-74)
If the Jamesian antagonism between American and European had initially been reformulated as an opposition between Black and White, the signifier of Chartres concretized an increasingly troubled relationship to Western culture which would give rise to a new permutation, the opposition between African and African American, the latter the product of an uneasy synthesis - "the black Westerner." Nevertheless, the difficulties of synthesis were not seen as exclusive to American Blacks. Baldwin came to feel that, ultimately, Africans would have to go through the fire of being Black Westerners, and that this would change Western assumptions and make it a larger civilization than it had ever been before (Baldwin and Mead 79). There were, however, differences. He thought he saw that the Africans whom he met in Paris in 1961, while suffering from the prejudice and oppression which he knew so well, were not alienated from themselves and their culture: "The Africans were at once simpler and more devious, more directly erotic and at the same time more subtle, and they were proud. If they had ever despised themselves for their color it did not show, as far as I could tell. I envied them and feared them - feared that they had good reason to despise me" (Price 281).
The tension between opposites evoked by this encounter with members of his ancestral culture caused all of Baldwin's ambivalence about color to surface. The envy he felt in the presence of Africans was something like a nostalgia for Eden, for the undivided self he imagined Africans to possess. Understandably then, torn between memory and oblivion, the idea of actually going to Africa aroused a certain foreboding: "It would be nice," he wrote in 1951, "to be able to dream about Africa, but once I have been there, I will not be able to dream any more."(10) When he finally visited Senegal and Guinea for the first time in 1962, he claimed to feel comfortable, to have "recognized it all" (Eckman 167). But recognition is not identity, and during his early years in Paris, he had seized the essential difference between himself and, for example, the downtrodden Algerians whom he met in the streets and cafes. Though they shared the bond of expatriation, the Algerians could go home; "on my side of the ocean, or so it seemed to me then, we had surrendered everything or had everything taken away, and there was no place for us to go: we were home" (Price 461).
These final words ring with a stinging irony. For the Jamesian hero, the journey to Europe was a journey home, and although separated from it by the history of the American experience, he had access to this lost home in a way which the African American subject, encountering the African homeland, is denied. The historical distance which separates the post-colonial subject from the lost home, the space of the subject's alienation, is that of the colonial experience, but this distance is perceived differently by the African and the African American. For if the African is alienated from his traditional past, obliged like the Senghor of "Princes and Powers" to construct himself in the capital and language of the Other, he can, as Baldwin said of the Algerians of Paris, "go home." The African American must forge an identity in the land of the Other, a land to which he is denied access but at the same time inextricably bound by the experience of time and history.
The problem of undoing this double alienation in the context of the post-colonial experience is most overtly problematized in Baldwin's final novel, Just Above My Head. This work contains the most extensive novelistic sounding of the theme of expatriation since Giovanni's Room, but for the first time Africa occupies a significant place in the thematic paradigm and the link between public and private is rendered explicit. The discursive configuration formed by the more familiar European material is centered on the gospel singer, Arthur Montana, while the African configuration is assigned to the character of Julia.
For Julia, the relationship with an African lover had been related to both the father who seduced her at the age of fourteen and a history which she felt had also betrayed her. She hoped he could undo both the personal and public violations. In a scene symbolically laid in a New York meeting place of European emigres, The Russian Tea Room, she tells her former lover, Hall:
"You're not history. You couldn't undo it. I couldn't lay it on you. Sometimes, you walk out of one trap, into another. I think I thought that he was history. Because he reminded me of my father. And because he was black, black in a way my father never was. . . . Perhaps I thought that he could undo it." (527)
Julia's situation encapsulates both Baldwin's affirmation of his African roots and the ambiguity of his relation to them. Cued by her story and the spectacle of the other diners (whom he imagines to be refugees), Hall engages in a familiar Baldwinian reflection on memory, now seen as the agency of the subject's relation to history:
In one way, they [the refugees] were certainly more at home in America than Julia or I could claim to be; and yet, in another way, in a way that Julia and I were not, they were homeless. I wondered how much this had to do with what one remembered of home, with how much one could carry out, or with how much had to be left behind. And left behind, after all, how, and in what hands, or even, come to think of it, where? (530)
Ultimately, Julia abandons her African lover, but her experience has clarified the link between public and private and the ways in which one can shape the other.
This interdependency presents certain problems. In Just Above My Head, Baldwin clearly demonstrates his awareness of the fact that we are never free from history, though the energizing force of love would make us so. The affair between a Black American, Arthur Montana, and a White Frenchman, Guy Lazar, is structured by the attempt to transcend this dilemma. In this respect, Julia's story, coming as it does at the end of the novel, serves as a reiteration of the earlier affair, restated in terms of the encounter between African American and African. In both cases the medium for reflection on the problem of cultural confrontation is the sexual relationship. That the relation is here a homosexual one does not vitiate its power. Baldwin was not preaching homosexuality, as homophobic critics like Eldridge Cleaver have believed. As in the parallel case of Julia, the sexual energy released functions as a crucible for the posing of social problems.
Stanley Macebuh states that the "theme of love in Giovanni's Room has ceased in Another Country to be merely a principle of private relationships and has become the postulated dynamic of more communal ties" (72). This is not a totally accurate assessment, as my reading of Giovanni's Room has shown, though the dynamic in that novel is certainly less overt. However, taken in a limited sense, Another Country might be seen as an evolution from the earlier work. In the case of Just Above My Head, the question of "communal ties" is posed at an even more complex cultural and ideological level, and although the focus of my discussion will be narrow, it should not be forgotten that in its total structure the novel aims at being the testimony of a generation.
Again echoing Henry James, the meeting of Arthur and Guy in a polyglot Paris functions as a paradigm for a tangled meeting of cultures, one in which the city becomes a testing ground for the survival of Western civilization. If the episode is to be faulted, it is not that it is too personal and private but rather that this fragile encounter - as the French say, "un amour au jour le jour" - must bear the burden of so much history, so much ideology, not to mention the enormous weight of desire. Perhaps too much is stated, not enough felt and seen. For example, the long disquisition on history (480-81) reads like an essay and strains the limits of the narrative voice. Yet, despite its faults, this beautifully written sequence remains powerful and revealing.
The episode begins with an autobiographical resonance. Arthur (Baldwin's own middle name), bewildered, lost, senses the existential necessity of the other: "In order to see what he fears to see, he must, himself, be seen" (442). Wandering in this, for him, foreign city, he meets Guy on the terrace of Chez Lipp, the cafe where Baldwin had lost his spiritual father, Richard Wright (see fn 7). The same physical and psychic setting is evoked in Another Country when Eric meets the young Frenchman, Yves (185), and, in symbolic terms, finds a son. Here the dynamic is reversed: Arthur finds a father. The biographical referent is further emphasized by Guy's comment that Arthur's surname, Montana, is the same as that of a nearby bar, one of the post-war existentialist hangouts popular when Baldwin arrived in Paris.(11)
Arthur's reaction to the possibility of a union between a Black American and a White European is ambiguous. Both young men are deeply aware of all that separates them. Arthur speaks of his negative experiences in the American South, but only in a general, public context. He avoids any reference to private pain. Guy speaks of his duty as a soldier in Algeria in the same fashion:
Without premeditation, only semiconsciously, they are trying to use all that which might divide them to bring them closer together. Instinct, far more than knowledge, brings them in sight of the danger zone: they hope they can remain outside it. They are speaking as people who have met in a crowded waiting room, on different journeys, speak; wishing that they had met before, hoping that they will meet again, and yet, at the same time, forced to realize that is only because of their very different journeys that they have met at all. (459-60)
So, paradoxically, it is the very breadth of the experience that divides them which presents them with the chance of finding a common ground. However they labor under no illusions. The time they will spend together is seen as a time out of time. Guy says, "'I will make myself free today . . .'" (460), and for Arthur "the terror of trees and streets, the weight of yesterday, the dread of tomorrow, all, for this moment, falls away . . ." (461; italics mine).
But when, at the end of the day, the soon-to-be lovers arrive at Guy's flat, it is not to be "released" from history. In Arthur's consciousness, the foyer is perceived as "old," filled with high mirrors, massive chairs, horses, shields, sabers, suits of armor, a faded tapestry representing a battle - a museum of the bellicose history of Western Civilization in the midst of which Guy has carved out a "less cluttered," more private space (462-63). It is only on seeing Guy in this setting, "among the witnesses to his inheritance," that Arthur thinks of him, for the first time, as "white" (464). History fills their private landscape with conversational land mines which they must struggle to avoid. Guy mentions an Algerian friend who had lived with him for a while but returned home. Arthur is reluctant to pursue the subject (464). But the brutal history of Western colonialism encapsulated in the French occupation of Algeria cannot be avoided: "Whenever, kissing Guy, he [Arthur] had felt the weight of his past, of his experience, drop from him, so that he could be naked, he had known that he would have to pick it up again. He had known that it would be heavier, made heavier by a night" (466). Again, knowledge is suffering, and suffering must be borne.
For all his good will, Guy cannot escape his history any more than can Arthur. Like Vidal in "This Morning, This Evening, So Soon," Guy must inevitably assume the burden of Western guilt. To Arthur, the vast apartment appears "now, as a kind of purgatory; it seems to ring with the quiet and somehow gallant horror of Guy's days and nights" (466). Purgatory, however, is not Hell; it contains the promise of release, and if love cannot effect that deliverance, it may begin, as Baldwin affirmed in 1972, "to pry open . . . the trap of color, for people do not fall in love according to their color . . ." (Price 460). Thus, Arthur and Guy lie in the Frenchman's bed "helpless and open to the other, using themselves in defiance of murder, time, language, and continents, history knotted in the balls, hope, glory, and power pounding in the prick, knowing that this suspension cannot last much longer . . ." (468).
The sequence thus oscillates between the poles of denial and acceptance of the weight of history. Imperfect refugees from Eden, the lovers take turns forgetting and remembering. At one point Arthur, refusing, for the moment, to reflect on the touchy question of Guy's Algerian friend, says, "'I suggest that we forget about empires past, present, or to come, from Ashanti to Charlemagne to Queen Victoria to Eisenhower . . .'" (474). The desire for oblivion is futile, and in an ironic reversal of the traditional "white man's burden" by which Europeans assumed the responsibility of elevating "inferior" peoples, it is now the Black man who is asked to save the White. But Arthur rejects the plea for sympathy implicit in Guy's liberal breastbeating: "'You still got all the gold and diamonds and all the jet bombers and my ass, and you want to cry in my arms too?'" The Westerner's assumption of guilt is only another means of stating Western ethnocentricity, and despite his appeal to a purely human compassion, Guy also recognizes the implacability of his history: "'I think that my history has made me a bankrupt in all but the material sense, and will soon make me a bankrupt in that sense, also, and it is not your sympathy, not even your love, which can save me from that mathematic'" (476). Restating a theme sketched in the above-cited passage of "Alas . . .," "the power inscribed in Guy's history - the history of Western domination of the Third World - is seen as a self-defeating trap." The power to define the other seals one's definition of oneself - who, then, in such a fearful mathematic, to use Guy's term, is trapped?" (481). For Arthur and Guy this dilemma creates a tragic dialectic between public and private. "People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them" (Price 81).
The final scene of the sequence brings the two lovers to a jazz joint on the rue de la Huchette, which at the time was home to many clubs of this sort. The heterogeneous audience unites the five terms of Baldwin's semiotic model: Europeans, "Americans, black and white, black Africans, and children from North Africa" (482). In the unifying warmth of the Blues, these disparate groups are joined in a temporary alliance, but the essential question is still how, Black and White, they may deal with their history:
They are, therefore, not only what their history has made of them, they are also what they make of their history. And what brings them here? So far from the druid forest? To listen to a trio, piano, bass, and slide trombone, from, after all, let's face it, the Lord alone knows where. One will not find the answer in the color of their skins. . . . Their shades are mute testimony to a journey which the Netherlands, for example, deny. It is impossible to know what future can be made out of an alabaster past so resounding, and an ebony past so maligned . . . . (483)
More than twenty years after "Princes and Powers," Baldwin was still asking the central question which he felt Aime Cesaire had not answered: "What had this colonial experience made of them [Negroes] and what were they now to do with it?" (Price 54). If it seemed to him that African Americans had paid a terribly high price in their double alienation - an alienation represented by the expatriate experience - coming to terms with this alienating ordeal was the ultimate dues which Baldwin felt had to be paid by both Whites and Blacks.
Approximately at the time of the conversation which sparked this essay, his world vision had become harsher, but at the same time rang with a bitter hope:
. . . the voice, once filled with a rage and pain that corroborated the reality of the jailer, is addressing another reality, in other tongues. The people who think of themselves as White have the choice of becoming human or irrelevant, Or - as they are, indeed, already, in all but actual fact: obsolete. For, if trouble don't last always, as the Preacher tells us, neither does Power, and it is on the fact or the hope or the myth of Power that that identity which calls itself White has always seemed to depend. (Notes xv)
Though still posed in personal terms, the reflection on Baldwin's private experience of expatriation, begun in the early essays, one from which history was far from absent, had broadened out to encompass a historically based view of the post-colonial dilemma.
1. Only Harold McCarthy's study deals directly with the problem, although Bigsby and, more recently, Porter offer pertinent comments.
2. See Eckman's early, impressionistic effort. The essays in Quincy Troupe's collection James Baldwin: The Legacy, published after the author's death, cast a revealing personal light on certain incidents and relationships, but only the recent, more ambitious biographies of Weatherby, Campbell, and Leeming offer any significant illumination of the expatriate biographical material.
3. The subject was treated in an important chapter of Porter's book, but articles by Newman and Powers, among others, have also dealt with the question. References to James are frequent in the novels and the essays, and Baldwin spoke at length of his involvement with the novelist in an interview with David Leeming in The Henry James Review.
4. At the time of which he speaks (the late '40s and early '50s), Baldwin was struggling with the Harlem backgrounds of Go Tell It On the Mountain.
5. According to Eckman, early versions of the novel were set in New York, New England, and Paris (159). In his introduction to the 1984 edition of Notes of a Native Son, Baldwin stated that in 1954 he was working on Giovanni's Room, which had broken off from Another Country (x). These facts tend to corroborate my first instinctive feeling that the expatriate experience was one of the essential paradigms for the latter novel.
6. Bigsby, in his brief but perceptive comments on the novel, is one of the few to suggest these social and ideological dimensions (123), and Leeming touches on them in his biography (125). Porter also briefly evokes the conflation of race and sex, but he considers the treatment of the theme of race as only subliminal, and while drawing certain parallels between the murders in Native Son and Giovanni's Room (151-53), he does not pursue the broader social implications of Baldwin's novel.
7. As is well known, but needs to be recalled here, Wright quarreled with Baldwin over the younger writer's article "Everybody's Protest Novel," which Wright construed as an attack on his work. The incident, as recounted by Baldwin in "Alas, Poor Richard" (the only point of view which interests us here), took place at the Brasserie Lipp on the Boulevard St-Germain (Price 277-78). For a complete exposition of the quarrel, see Charney.
8. Houemavo describes Baldwin's project as "a psychoanalysis of the White soul. . . . The Black fascinates the White, he fills him with horror because he incarnates, at the level of phantasy, the part of himself which he repudiates" (54). See Laplanche for a discussion of the term (314-19), taken here in the psychoanalytic sense of an illusory staging of repressed desire. All translations of French sources are my own.
9. See Fabre 212, 216. Leeming also gives some suggestive biographical details on Baldwin's relationship with a young Frenchman whose tiny room near the Porte de Vincennes might have inspired the claustrophobic chamber of Giovanni (76-77).
10. Letter to Bob Mills, qtd. in Eckman 166.
11. On the bar of the Hotel Montana, see Weatherby (112), and for other autobiographical references, Campbell (251-52). Dorothy Lee's point that the Frenchman's name has a highly symbolic resonance also highlights the father/son context: Guy 'steadying guidance,' Lazar 'rebirth' (95).
Baldwin, James. Another Country. 1962. New York: Laurel Books, 1988.
-----. Giovanni's Room. 1956. New York: Laurel Books, 1988.
-----. "'Go the Way Your Blood Beats': An Interview with James Baldwin." With Richard Goldstein. Troupe 173-85.
-----. "An Interview with James Baldwin on Henry James." With David Adams Leeming. Henry James Review 8.1 (1986): 47-56.
-----. Just Above My Head. 1979. New York: Laurel, 1990.
-----. Nobody Knows My Name. New York: Dial P. 1961.
-----. Notes of A Native Son. 1955. Boston: Beacon P. 1984.
-----. The Price of the Ticket. Collected Nonfiction: 1948-1985. New York: St. Martin's, 1985.
-----. "This Morning, This Evening, So Soon." Going To Meet the Man. 1965. New York: Laurel, 1988. 123-69.
Baldwin, James, and Margaret Mead. A Rap on Race. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1971.
Bigsby, C. W. E. "The Divided Mind of James Baldwin." The Second Black Renaissance: Essays in Black Literature. Westport: Greenwood P, 1980. 105-38.
Campbell, James. Talking at the Gates: A Life of James Baldwin. New York: Penguin, 1991.
Charney, Maurice. "James Baldwin's Quarrel with Richard Wright." American Quarterly 15 (Spring 1963): 65-75.
Du Bois, William E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. 1903. New York: Signet, 1995.
Eckman, Fern Marja. The Furious Passage of James Baldwin. New York: Evans, 1966.
Fabre, Michel. "James Baldwin a la decouverte de lui-meme." La Rive Noire: de Harlem a la Seine. Paris: Editions Lieu Commun, 1985. 197-217.
Fiedler, Leslie A. "A Homosexual Dilemma." Critical Essays on James Baldwin. Ed. Fred L. Standley and Nancy V. Burt. Boston: Hall, 1988. 146-49.
Gibson, Donald B. "Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin." The Politics of Twentieth-Century Novelists. Ed. George A. Panichas. New York: Hawthorn, 1971. 307-20.
Houemavo, Jean-Charles. "James Baldwin, le prophete." Notre Librairie 77 (Nov.-Dec. 1984): 53-56.
James, Henry. The Golden Bowl. 1904. London: Penguin, 1987.
Laplanche, Jean, and J.-B. Pontalis. The Language of Psychoanalysis. Trans. Donald Nicholson Smith. New York: Norton, 1973.
Lee, Dorothy. "The Bridge of Suffering." Callaloo 6.2 (1983): 92-99.
Leeming, David. James Baldwin: A Biography. New York: Knopf, 1994.
Macebuh, Stanley. James Baldwin: A Critical Study. New York: Joseph Okpaku, 1973.
McCarthy, Harold T. "James Baldwin: The View from Another Country." The Expatriate Perspective: American Novelists and the Idea of America. Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 1974. 197-213.
Newman, Charles. "The Lesson of the Master: Henry James and James Baldwin." James Baldwin: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Kenneth Kinnamon. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice, 1974. 52-65.
Porter, Horace A. Stealing the Fire: The Art and Protest of James Baldwin. Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 1989.
Powers, Lyall H. "Henry James and James Baldwin: The Complex Figure." Modern Fiction Studies 30 (1984): 651-67.
"To Hear Another Language. Alvin Ailey, James Baldwin, Romare Bearden, and Albert Murray in Conversation." Ed. Nelson E. Breen. Callaloo 12.3 (1989): 430-52.
Troupe, Quincy, Ed. James Baldwin: The Legacy. New York: Simon, 1989.
Weatherby, W. J. James Baldwin: Artist on Fire. New York: Laurel, 1989.
Robert Tomlinson is Professor of French at Emory University. His publications include La Fete galante: Watteau et Manvaux (Droz, 1981) and numerous articles on Marivaux, Watteau, Fontenelle, and Butor. He is also a painter and stage director, and he has twice served as Acting Director of Emory's African American Studies Program.
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 1999|
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