3 Aug 2017

Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin

For I am—or I was—one of those people who pride themselves in on their willpower, on their ability to make a decision and carry it through. This virtue, like most virtues, is ambiguity itself. People who believe that they are strong-willed and the masters of their destiny can only continue to believe this by becoming specialists in self-deception. Their decisions are not really decisions at all—a real decision makes one humble, one knows that it is at the mercy of more things than can be named—but elaborate systems of evasion, of illusion, designed to make themselves and the world appear to be what they and the world are not. (Baldwin 2001:24)

I have been thinking of reading some James Baldwin for quite a long time; he looked so iconic and I am always interested in the intersection between literature and politics.  Politics is more than a language game I tend to think but it is certainly very strongly influenced by questions of identity that are shaped in part by language.  Our assumptions are shaped by the culture we live in and a key part of culture is literature.  So while I don't think that a more sophisticated understanding of Jane Austen will lead to liberation, I do think Jane Austen is important in shaping British culture, which in turn shapes British politics.

James Baldwin was an important novelist and writer, both gay and African-American, he might be seen as an early exponent of what is now called 'intersectionality', noting that both oppression and liberation have multiple aspects and one aspect such as class or sexual orientation is not necessarily the most significant.

So walking along the shelves of the literature section in Goldsmiths College library as I like to do, Giovanni's Room leapt out at me. I borrowed and read it.  It's a tale of an American in Paris, short, clear and somewhat grim.  It's maybe difficult to use the term enjoy for a book centred around a murder but it diverted and provoked me.

In the 1950s writing frankly about gay and bisexual lives was a scandal. It is said that the first publisher Baldwin approached told him to burn it; he should stick to being an African-American novelist, he was told, and not 'alienate' his audience.  He persisted.

I am looking forward to reading 'Go tell it on the Mountain', which I believe is semi-autobiographical, looking at Baldwin's youthful experience of the Pentecostal Church in Harlem, New York, as both a source of oppression and one of community.  Again we might note that religion both informs literature and is closely bound up with politics.  Baldwin was a teenage preacher before rejecting the Church.

The prophets in the Bible challenged established power and were usually killed or exiled for doing so, the role of the prophets inspired political preachers all the way from Thomas Muntzer to Martin Luther King.

I get the impression that Baldwin wrote much in the way of lectures and letters on social and political matters, significant in the USA of the 1960s and 70s but still significant today.  He was, of course, a key figure in the civil rights movement.

Baldwin is very quotable. I liked his words about free will at the top of the page, 'autonomy' is often delusion!  Understanding how we are shaped and determined is the best way, perhaps, of being able to participate in the process.

James Baldwin (2001[1956]) Giovanni's Room. Penguin Classic.

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