Brain Pickings

Susan Sontag on Storytelling, What It Means to Be a Moral Human Being, and Her Advice to Writers

By:

“Love words, agonize over sentences. And pay attention to the world.”

Susan Sontag (January 16, 1933–December 28, 2004) spent a lifetime contemplating the role of writing in both the inner world of the writer and outer universe of readers, which we call culture — from her prolific essays and talks on the task of literature to her devastatingly beautiful letter to Borges to her decades of reflections on writing recorded in her diaries. But nowhere did she address the singular purpose of storytelling and the social responsibility of the writer with more piercing precision than in one of her last public appearances — a tremendous lecture on South African Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer titled “At the Same Time: The Novelist and Moral Reasoning,” which Sontag delivered shortly before her death in 2004. The speech is included in and lends its title to the endlessly enriching posthumous anthology At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches (public library), which also gave us Sontag on beauty vs. interestingness, courage and resistance, and literature and freedom.

Sontag begins with the quintessential question asked of, and answered by, all prominent writers — to distill their most essential advice on the craft:

I’m often asked if there is something I think writers ought to do, and recently in an interview I heard myself say: “Several things. Love words, agonize over sentences. And pay attention to the world.”

Needless to say, no sooner had these perky phrases fallen out of my mouth than I thought of some more recipes for writer’s virtue.

For instance: “Be serious.” By which I meant: Never be cynical. And which doesn’t preclude being funny.

What might Sontag say of the exponentially more exacting struggle against the cultural momentum of cynicism a mere decade later?

With the disclaimer that “descriptions mean nothing without examples,” Sontag points to Gordimer as the “living writer who exemplifies all that a writer can be” and considers what the South African author’s “large, ravishingly eloquent, and extremely varied body of work” reveals about the key to all great writing:

A great writer of fiction both creates — through acts of imagination, through language that feels inevitable, through vivid forms — a new world, a world that is unique, individual; and responds to a world, the world the writer shares with other people but is unknown or mis-known by still more people, confined in their worlds: call that history, society, what you will.

She cautions that despite all the noble uses of literature, despite all the ways in which it can transcend the written word to achieve a larger spiritual purpose — William Faulkner’s conviction that the writer’s duty is “to help man endure by lifting his heart” comes to mind — storytelling is still literature’s greatest duty:

The primary task of a writer is to write well. (And to go on writing well. Neither to burn out nor to sell out.) … Let the dedicated activist never overshadow the dedicated servant of literature — the matchless storyteller.

Echoing Walter Benjamin’s ideas on how storytelling transmutes information into wisdom — Sontag was a great admirer and rereader of his work — she adds:

To write is to know something. What a pleasure to read a writer who knows a great deal. (Not a common experience these days…) Literature, I would argue, is knowledge — albeit, even at its greatest, imperfect knowledge. Like all knowledge.

Still, even now, even now, literature remains one of our principal modes of understanding.

[…]

Everybody in our debauched culture invites us to simplify reality, to despise wisdom. There is a great deal of wisdom in Nadine Gordimer’s work. She has articulated an admirably complex view of the human heart and the contradictions inherent in living in literature and in history.

Nearly half a century after E.B. White proclaimed that the writer’s duty is “to lift people up, not lower them down,” Sontag considers “the idea of the responsibility of the writer to literature and to society” and clarifies the terms:

By literature, I mean literature in the normative sense, the sense in which literature incarnates and defends high standards. By society, I mean society in the normative sense, too — which suggests that a great writer of fiction, by writing truthfully about the society in which she or he lives, cannot help but evoke (if only by their absence) the better standards of justice and of truthfulness that we have the right (some would say the duty) to militate for in the necessarily imperfect societies in which we live.

Obviously, I think of the writer of novels and stories and plays as a moral agent… This doesn’t entail moralizing in any direct or crude sense. Serious fiction writers think about moral problems practically. They tell stories. They narrate. They evoke our common humanity in narratives with which we can identify, even though the lives may be remote from our own. They stimulate our imagination. The stories they tell enlarge and complicate — and, therefore, improve — our sympathies. They educate our capacity for moral judgment.

Illustration by Jim Stoten from 'Mr. Tweed's Good Deeds.' Click image for details.

In a sentiment that calls to mind French polymath Henri Poincaré’s assertion that creativity is the act of choosing the good ideas from among the bad ones, Sontag defines what a writer does and is:

Every writer of fiction wants to tell many stories, but we know that we can’t tell all the stories — certainly not simultaneously. We know we must pick one story, well, one central story; we have to be selective. The art of the writer is to find as much as one can in that story, in that sequence … in that time (the timeline of the story), in that space (the concrete geography of the story).

[…]

A novelist, then, is someone who takes you on a journey. Through space. Through time. A novelist leads the reader over a gap, makes something go where it was not.

[…]

Time exists in order that everything doesn’t happen all at once … and space exists so that it doesn’t all happen to you.

[…]

The work of the novelist is to enliven time, as it is to animate space.

Repeating her memorable assertion that criticism is “cultural cholesterol,” penned in her diary decades earlier, Sontag considers the reactive indignation that passes for criticism:

Most notions about literature are reactive — in the hands of lesser talents, merely reactive.

[…]

The greatest offense now, in matters both of the arts and of culture generally, not to mention political life, is to seem to be upholding some better, more exigent standard, which is attacked, both from the left and the right, as either naïve or (a new banner for the philistines) “elitist.”

Writing nearly a decade before the golden age of ebooks and some years before the epidemic of crowdsourced-everything had infected nearly every corner of creative culture, Sontag once again reveals her extraordinary prescience about the intersection of technology, society, and the arts. (Some decades earlier, she had presaged the “aesthetic consumerism” of visual culture on the social web.) Turning a critical eye to the internet and its promise — rather, its threat — of crowdsourced storytelling, she writes:

Hypertext — or should I say the ideology of hypertext? — is ultrademocratic and so entirely in harmony with the demagogic appeals to cultural democracy that accompany (and distract one’s attention from) the ever-tightening grip of plutocratic capitalism.

[But the] proposal that the novel of the future will have no story or, instead, a story of the reader’s (rather, readers’) devising is so plainly unappealing and, should it come to pass, would inevitably bring about not the much-heralded death of the author but the extinction of the reader — all future readers of what is labeled as “literature.”

Illustration by Tom Seidmann-Freud, Sigmund Freud's niece, from 'David the Dreamer' (1922). Click image for more.

Returning to the writer’s crucial task of selecting what story to tell from among all the stories that could be told, Sontag points to literature’s essential allure — the comfort of appeasing our anxiety about life’s infinite possibility, about all the roads not taken and all the immensities not imagined that could have led to a better destination than our present one. A story, instead, offers the comforting finitude of both time and possibility:

Every fictional plot contains hints and traces of the stories it has excluded or resisted in order to assume its present shape. Alternatives to the plot ought to be felt up to the last moment. These alternatives constitute the potential for disorder (and therefore of suspense) in the story’s unfolding.

[…]

Endings in a novel confer a kind of liberty that life stubbornly denies us: to come to a full stop that is not death and discover exactly where we are in relation to the events leading to a conclusion.

[…]

The pleasure of fiction is precisely that it moves to an ending. And an ending that satisfies is one that excludes. Whatever fails to connect with the story’s closing pattern of illumination the writer assumes can be safely left out of the account.

A novel is a world with borders. For there to be completeness, unity, coherence, there must be borders. Everything is relevant in the journey we take within those borders. One could describe the story’s end as a point of magical convergence for the shifting preparatory views: a fixed position from which the reader sees how initially disparate things finally belong together.

Once again echoing Walter Benjamin’s wise discrimination between storytelling and information, Sontag considers the two contrasting models “competing for our loyalty and attention”:

There is an essential … distinction between stories, on the one hand, which have, as their goal, an end, completeness, closure, and, on the other hand, information, which is always, by definition, partial, incomplete, fragmentary.

Illustration by Edward Gorey from 'The Shrinking of Treehorn' (1971). Click image for more.

For Sontag, these two modes of world-building are best exemplified by the dichotomy between literature and the commercial mass media. Writing in 2004, she saw television as the dominant form of the latter, but it’s striking to consider how true her observations hold today if we substitute “the internet” for every mention of “television.” One can only wonder what Sontag would make of our newsfeed-fetishism and our compulsive tendency to mistake the latest and most urgent for the most important. She writes:

Literature tells stories. Television gives information.

Literature involves. It is the re-creation of human solidarity. Television (with its illusion of immediacy) distances — immures us in our own indifference.

The so-called stories that we are told on television satisfy our appetite for anecdote and offer us mutually canceling models of understanding. (This is reinforced by the practice of punctuating television narratives with advertising.) They implicitly affirm the idea that all information is potentially relevant (or “interesting”), that all stories are endless — or if they do stop, it is not because they have come to an end but, rather, because they have been upstaged by a fresher or more lurid or eccentric story.

By presenting us with a limitless number of nonstopped stories, the narratives that the media relate — the consumption of which has so dramatically cut into the time the educated public once devoted to reading — offer a lesson in amorality and detachment that is antithetical to the one embodied by the enterprise of the novel.

Indeed, this notion of moral obligation is what Sontag sees as the crucial differentiator between storytelling and information — something I too have tussled with, a decade later, in contemplating the challenge of cultivating wisdom in the age of information, particularly in a media landscape driven by commercial interest whose very business model is predicated on conditioning us to confuse information with meaning. (Why think about what constitutes a great work of art — how it moves you, what it says to your soul — when you can skim the twenty most expensive paintings in history on a site like Buzzfeed?)

Sontag, who had admonished against reducing culture to “content” half a century before the term became the currency of said commercial media, writes:

In storytelling as practiced by the novelist, there is always … an ethical component. This ethical component is not the truth, as opposed to the falsity of the chronicle. It is the model of completeness, of felt intensity, of enlightenment supplied by the story, and its resolution — which is the opposite of the model of obtuseness, of non-understanding, of passive dismay, and the consequent numbing of feeling, offered by our media-disseminated glut of unending stories.

Television gives us, in an extremely debased and untruthful form, a truth that the novelist is obliged to suppress in the interest of the ethical model of understanding peculiar to the enterprise of fiction: namely, that the characteristic feature of our universe is that many things are happening at the same time. (“Time exists in order that it doesn’t happen all at once… space exists so that it doesn’t all happen to you.”)

Illustration by Dasha Tolstikova for 'The Jacket' by Kirsten Hall. Click image for more.

And therein lies Sontag’s greatest, most timeless, most urgently timely point — for writers, and for human beings:

To tell a story is to say: this is the important story. It is to reduce the spread and simultaneity of everything to something linear, a path.

To be a moral human being is to pay, be obliged to pay, certain kinds of attention.

When we make moral judgments, we are not just saying that this is better than that. Even more fundamentally, we are saying that this is more important than that. It is to order the overwhelming spread and simultaneity of everything, at the price of ignoring or turning our backs on most of what is happening in the world.

The nature of moral judgments depends on our capacity for paying attention — a capacity that, inevitably, has its limits but whose limits can be stretched.

But perhaps the beginning of wisdom, and humility, is to acknowledge, and bow one’s head, before the thought, the devastating thought, of the simultaneity of everything, and the incapacity of our moral understanding — which is also the understanding of the novelist — to take this in.

At the Same Time is an indispensable read in its entirety — an eternally nourishing serving of wisdom from one of the most expansive and luminous minds humanity ever produced. Complement it with Sontag on love, art, how polarities imprison us, why lists appeal to us, and the joy of rereading beloved books, then revisit this evolving archive of celebrated writers’ advice on writing.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

A Seizure of Happiness: Mary Oliver on Finding Magic in Life’s Unremarkable Moments

By:

How to revel in the “sudden awareness of the citizenry of all things within one world.”

Nearly a century before modern neuroscience presented the uncomfortable finding that mind-wandering is making us unhappy, Bertrand Russell contemplated the conquest of happiness and pointed to the immense value of “fruitful monotony” — a certain quality of presence with the ordinary rhythms of life. The diaries and letters of humanity’s greatest minds are strewn with such instances of finding happiness in simple everyday moments, but no one captures the humble grace of presence better than Mary Oliver in one particularly bewitching passage from her altogether enchanting Long Life: Essays and Other Writings (public library).

Mary Oliver in 1964. Photograph by Molly Malone Cook from Oliver's 'Our World.' Click image for more.

With Thoreau’s attentiveness to the outer world and Rilke’s attentiveness to the inner, Oliver writes:

On the windless days, when the maples have put forth their deep canopies, and the sky is wearing its new blue immensities, and the wind has dusted itself not an hour ago in some spicy field and hardly touches us as it passes by, what is it we do? We lie down and rest upon the generous earth. Very likely we fall asleep.

[…]

Once, years ago, I emerged from the woods in the early morning at the end of a walk and — it was the most casual of moments — as I stepped from under the trees into the mild, pouring-down sunlight I experienced a sudden impact, a seizure of happiness. It was not the drowning sort of happiness, rather the floating sort. I made no struggle toward it; it was given.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the conditions of this total, effortless surrender to happiness parallel the “flow” state typical of creative work.

Oliver, who has extolled the urgency of belonging to the world as the supreme act of aliveness, writes:

Time seemed to vanish. Urgency vanished. Any important difference between myself and all other things vanished. I knew that I belonged to the world, and felt comfortably my own containment in the totality. I did not feel that I understood any mystery, not at all; rather that I could be happy and feel blessed within the perplexity — the summer morning, its gentleness, the sense of the great work being done though the grass where I stood scarcely trembled. As I say, it was the most casual of moments, not mystical as the word is usually meant, for there was no vision, or anything extraordinary at all, but only a sudden awareness of the citizenry of all things within one world: leaves, dust, thrushes and finches, men and women. And yet it was a moment I have never forgotten, and upon which I have based many decisions in the years since.

Illustration by Sydney Smith from 'Sidewalk Flowers,' a visual ode to living with presence in the modern urban world. Click image for more.

Indeed, this immersive attentiveness to the casual, unremarkable, yet remarkably enlivening moments of life is the raw material of Oliver’s genius, of her singular gift for bridging that vast abyss between the mind and the heart. (“Attention without feeling,” she wrote in her beautiful memoir, “is merely a report.”) She considers how the unremarkable becomes the screen against which the remarkable shines its luminous beam:

My story contains neither a mountain, nor a canyon, nor a blizzard, nor hail, nor spike of wind striking the earth and lifting whatever is in its path. I think the rare and wonderful awareness I felt would not have arrived in any such busy hour. Most stories about weather are swift to describe meeting the face of the storm and the argument of the air, climbing the narrow and icy trail, crossing the half-frozen swamp. I would not make such stories less by obtaining anything special for the other side of the issue. Nor would I suggest that a meeting of individual spirit and universe is impossible within the harrowing blast. Yet I would hazard this guess, that it is more likely to happen to someone attentively entering the quiet moment, when the sun-soaked world is gliding on under the blessings of blue sky, and the wind god is asleep. Then, if ever, we may peek under the veil of all appearances and partialities. We may be touched by the most powerful of suppositions — even to a certainty — as we stand in the rose petals of the sun and hear a murmur from the wind no louder than the sound it makes as it dozes under the bee’s wings. This, too, I suggest, is weather, and worthy of report.

Long Life, which also gave us Oliver on how habit gives shape to our inner lives, is exquisite and enlivening in its entirety. Complement it with Oliver’s gorgeous reading of “Wild Geese,” her moving remembrance of her soul mate, and her playful meditation on the magic of punctuation.

If you haven’t yet devoured Oliver’s wonderfully wide-ranging On Being conversation with Krista Tippett, give yourself this seizure of happiness:

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

Why Consciousness Exists: Douglas Rushkoff on Science, God, and the Purpose of Reality

By:

What to make of the fact “that something wonderfully strange is going on in the dimension we call reality.”

“If we ever reach the point where we think we thoroughly understand who we are and where we came from,” Carl Sagan wrote in his magnificent meditation on science and spirituality, “we will have failed.” Some centuries earlier, Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer, touched on the same idea in a beautiful letter to her neighbor; and some decades later, Alan Lightman, MIT’s first professor with dual appointments in science and the humanities, considered how we can find meaning in the space between the known and the unknowable.

Joining that canon of intellectual elegance is media analyst, documentarian, and writer Douglas Rushkoff with his contribution to This Idea Must Die: Scientific Theories That Are Blocking Progress (public library) — that mind-stretching volume by Edge founder John Brockman, who posed before 175 of the world’s greatest scientists, philosophers, and writers the certainty-rattling question: “What scientific idea is ready for retirement?”

Rushkoff points the skeptical prod of his answer at “the atheism prerequisite” — atheism, of course, being a case of our curious tendency to define what we are by what we are not — and writes:

We don’t need to credit an all-seeing God with the creation of life and matter to suspect that something wonderfully strange is going on in the dimension we call reality. Most of us living in it feel invested with a sense of purpose.

A 1573 painting by Portuguese artist, historian, and philosopher Francisco de Holanda, a student of Michelangelo's, from Michael Benson's book 'Cosmigraphics.'Click image for more.

Echoing John Updike’s exquisitely articulated observation that “the mystery of being is a permanent mystery, at least given the present state of the human brain,” Ruskhoff adds:

Whether this directionality is a genuine, preexisting condition of the universe, an illusion perpetrated by DNA, or something that will one day emerge from social interaction has yet to be determined.

Rushkoff cautions that blind faith in dogma, be it scientific or mystical, is equally perilous to grasping the true nature of reality — including the grand grasper itself, human consciousness:

Science’s unearned commitment to materialism has led us into convoluted assumptions about the origins of spacetime, in which time itself simply must be accepted as a by-product of the Big Bang, and consciousness (if it even exists) as a by-product of matter. Such narratives follow information on its continuing evolution toward complexity, the Singularity, and robot consciousness — a saga no less apocalyptic than the most literal interpretations of biblical prophecy.

It’s entirely more rational — and less steeped in storybook logic — to work with the possibility that time predates matter and that consciousness is less the consequence of a physical cause-and-effect reality than a precursor.

By starting with Godlessness as a foundational principle of scientific reasoning, we make ourselves unnecessarily resistant to the novelty of human consciousness, its potential continuity over time, and the possibility that it has purpose.

See more of the answers from This Idea Must Die, then complement this particular one with astrophysicist Marcelo Gleiser on how to live with mystery in the age of knowledge and theoretical cosmologist Janna Levin on science and the human spirit.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

Margaret Mead and James Baldwin on Identity, Race, the Immigrant Experience, and Why the “Melting Pot” Is a Problematic Metaphor

By:

“You’ve got to tell the world how to treat you. If the world tells you how you are going to be treated, you are in trouble.”

NOTE: This is the second installment in a multi-part series covering Mead and Baldwin’s historic conversation. You can read Part 1, focusing on forgiveness and the crucial difference between guilt and responsibility, here.

The civil rights movement has been accused of excluding women from its campaign for “a brotherhood of man” and the feminist movement has been accused of excluding women of color. It is both fair and reasonable to suppose that in any movement of goodwill aimed at equality, such exclusions are not deliberate but circumstantial — the product of cultural biases so deep-seated that they require multiple directions of effort and commitment to overcome.

In the summer of 1970, a most emboldening integration of these efforts took place on a stage in New York City. On the evening of August 25, Margaret Mead and James Baldwin sat down for a remarkable public conversation, the transcript of which was eventually published as A Rap on Race (public library). For seven and a half hours over the course of two days, they discussed everything from power and privilege to race and gender to capitalism and democracy. What emerged was a dialogue of total commitment, deep mutual respect, and profound prescience.

Art by Wendy MacNaughton for Brain Pickings

By that point, Baldwin, forty-six and living in Paris, was arguably the most world-famous poet alive, and an enormously influential voice in the civil rights dialogue; Mead, who was about to turn seventy, had become the world’s first celebrity academic — a visionary anthropologist with groundbreaking field experience under her belt, who lectured at some of the most esteemed cultural institutions and had a popular advice column in Redbook magazine. As a black man and a white woman who had come of age in the first half of the twentieth century, before the civil rights and women’s liberation movements, and as queer people half a century before marriage equality, their formative experiences were at once worlds apart and strewn with significant similarity.

Since the depth and dimension of the conversation between these uncontainable minds cannot be reduced to a single thread of synthesis — this is, after all, the book I have annotated most heavily in a lifetime of reading — I have decided to examine its various facets in a multi-part series, the first installment in which covered forgiveness and the crucial difference between guilt and responsibility. This second installment focuses on identity, how we assemble it as individuals, and how we construct it as a culture.

Mead and Baldwin first consider how identity’s contour is often shaped by the negative space around it:

BALDWIN: It takes a lot to wrest identity out of nothing…

MEAD: But nobody was talking about needing identity fifty years ago. We’ve started to worry about identity since people began losing it. And that gives us a new concept. And now you go back and work on it and figure out what your identity is. Fifty years ago you might have moved to Paris cause it was the thing to do. After all, lots of white writers went to Europe too, in order to understand America. But you wouldn’t have said the same thing about your identity fifty years ago.

[…]

The whole spirit of the North has been to keep other people out. It’s not only been about keeping out black people, it’s been about keeping out everybody… The North has always tried to establish its identity by cutting other people out and off.

[…]

The Northern identity is dependent upon whom you can keep out.

Mead later revisits this notion of identity as a function of using what we are not to define what we are:

MEAD: The white world … [has] built its dignity and built its sense of identity on the fact it wasn’t black, the way males in this country built their sense of superiority over the fact that they are not female.

But there exists a certain hierarchy of desirable identities based on the social hierarchy of privilege. She offers a pause-giving empirical perspective on that totem pole of desirability regarding race and gender:

MEAD: [Psychologists] asked the little white boys which they would rather be, little white girls or little Negro boys. What do you think they said? … They said they would rather be little Negro boys.

And yet identity, rather than a static fixture, is an assemblage of responsive parts that reorganize relative to cultural context. Baldwin offers an illustrative example:

BALDWIN: When I first hit Paris, for example, I had dealt with cynical East and North Africans. They did not see me, and it may be argued that I did not see them either. But they did see that I smoked Lucky Strikes and Pall Malls and that I had American sports shirts. They did not see that I did not have a penny; that did not make any difference. I came, I represented the richest nation in the world and there was no way whatever for them to suspect that I considered myself to be far worse off then they… The reason I was in Paris was that I considered my sports shirts, for example, and my cigarettes, had been a little to expensive and cost me a little more than I could afford. They did not know that.

I had a parallel experience learning about race and identity as a child.

When I was growing up in communist Bulgaria, the Iron Curtain prevented practically all influx of foreigners and people of different ethnicities. The only major exception was the International Institute of Sofia University, located near my grandparents’ small apartment, where my parents and I shared a pull-out sofa. Passing by the campus on the way to school, I would occasionally see one of several young black men — graduate students from a handful of communist and socialist countries in North and East Africa. But what registered immediately wasn’t skin color, for the markers of privilege are different in a country whose entire identity was deeply rooted in a sense of poverty.

In encountering strangers, both native and foreign, Bulgarians always engaged in a mental math estimating who is “better off” on the poverty axis — a self-comparison from which emerged a sense of superiority or inferiority, depending on the particular calculation. If those black graduate students were smoking Marlboros or wearing denim — the ultimate, most highly prized, usually contraband marker of Western privilege — the mental math automatically registered them as “better off” than us, people of grater privilege, and thus worthy of that peculiar blend of reverence and begrudging envy. (Never mind that they were poor grad students, likely of the same means as all grad students, anywhere in the world, ever.) If they wore no denim and smoked no American cigarettes, then they were dismissed as irrelevant — no better off or worse off than we were, just members of the same ill-fated human lot. Race was merely a marker of foreignness and a quicker cue for the mental math to be performed. Once again, it was a case of identity contoured by negative space.

Baldwin offers another example that illustrates how other such sociocultural variables can eclipse race in this calculus of privilege even within an ethnic group:

BALDWIN: I remember once a few years ago, in the British Museum a black Jamaican was washing the floors or something and asked me where I was from, and I said I was born in New York. He said, “Yes, but where are you from?” I did not know what he meant. “Where did you come from before that?” he explained. I said, “My mother was born in Maryland.” “Where was your father born?” he asked. “My father was born in New Orleans.” He said, “Yes, but where are you from?” Then I began to get it; very dimly, because now I was lost. And he said, “Where are you from in Africa?” I said, “Well, I don’t know,” and he was furious with me. He said, and walked away, “You mean you did not care enough to find out?”

Now, how in the world am I going to explain to him that there is virtually no way for me to have found out where I came from in Africa? So it is a kind of tug of war. The black American is looked down on by other dark people as being an object abjectly used. They envy him on the one hand, but on the other hand they also would like to look down on him as having struck a despicable bargain.

But identity, Baldwin argues, isn’t something we are born with — rather, it is something we claim for ourselves, then must assert willfully to the world:

BALDWIN: You’ve got to tell the world how to treat you. If the world tells you how you are going to be treated, you are in trouble.

Remarking on the emerging crop of elite-educated African American boys they had discussed earlier in the conversation, he adds:

I’m tired of being told by people who just got out of the various white colleges and got a dashiki and let their hair grow, I am terribly tired of these middle-class darkies telling me what it means to be black. But I understand why they have to do it!

Illustration by Carla Torres from 'Larry and Friends,' a children's book about immigration. Click image for more.

This assertion of identity transcends race and spills over into other demographic categories. As a first-generation immigrant in America three decades after this historic dialogue, I found Mead’s remarks on national identity particularly pause-giving:

MEAD: It always takes two generations to really lose something, but in two generations you can lose it.

[…]

The culture in this country that is … most limited, is that of the second and third generations away from Europe. They have lost what they had and aren’t ready to take on anything else. They are scared to death and so busy being American.

[…]

What we have in this country at present is a very large number of second- and third-generation Europeans who aren’t really sure they’re here.

Fifteen years ago, if I gave a test to people to fill in: “I am an American, not a _____,” most people would say “foreigner,” and a few said “Communist.” Now, they say “not a Russian,” “not an Italian,” “not an Irishman,” “not a Pole”: over twenty different things.

Once again, the conversation circles back to this notion of constructing identity by the deliberate exclusion of what we are not in order to carve out what we are — a process that calls to mind Rodin’s famous proclamation that the art of sculpting is about removing the stone not part of the sculpture. Baldwin captures this paradox succinctly:

BALDWIN: It is a curious way to find your identity, labeling yourself by labeling all the things that you’re not.

They consider another aspect of identity — identity as an assemblage of ancestry:

BALDWIN: You are always the receptacle of what has gone before you, whether or not you know it and whether or not you can reach it.

[…]

MEAD: “We’re sort of monglers,” I was taught to say as a child. Monglers is a Pennsylvania dialect word for a dog of mixed background.

James Baldwin with Shakespeare, 1969 (Photograph: Allan Warren)

But ancestry isn’t only a function of genealogy — while we can’t choose our genetic ancestors, we can choose and construct our own intellectual, creative, and ideological lineage. I started Brain Pickings with the intention of assembling my own cultural lineage based on ideas from minds belonging to brains I wasn’t genetically related to, a kind of spiritual and intellectual reparenting. Baldwin wasn’t genetically related to Shakespeare — at least directly; all humans are, of course, genetically related further down the line — but the Bard was very much his cultural ancestor. All of us do that, in one form or another — we are cultural stardust.

Mead articulates this elegantly:

MEAD: You see, I think we have to get rid of people being proud of their ancestors, because after all they didn’t do a thing about it. What right have I to be proud of my grandfather? I can be proud of my child if I didn’t ruin her, but nobody has any right to be proud of his ancestors.

[…]

The one thing you really ought to be allowed to do is to choose your ancestors.

[…]

We have a term for this in anthropology: mythical ancestors… They are spiritual and mental ancestors, they’re not biological ancestors, but they are terribly important.

BALDWIN: We are talking about the models that the human race chooses to work from, in effect. It is difficult to imagine anyone choosing Hitler as an ancestor, for example… It runs very close to the terms in which one elects to live and the reasons for that election. It reveals that depth of whatever dreams you have, and everyone lives by his dreams, really.

Mead notes that there are very few black people in America who don’t have some white ancestors, with which Baldwin agrees, and they go on to explore why the “melting pot” metaphor is deeply problematic in honoring the actual architecture of identity:

MEAD: It isn’t a melting pot, is it?

BALDWIN: No, it isn’t. Nobody ever got melted. People aren’t meant to be melted.

MEAD: That old image from World War I is a bad image: to melt everyone down.

BALDWIN: Because people don’t want to be melted down. they resist it with all their strength.

MEAD: Of course! Who wants to be melted down?

BALDWIN: Melted down into what? It’s a very unfortunate image.

[…]

But where this takes us, I do not know. I really do not know. I can’t any longer find the point of departure. Part of it is, of course, the great dispersal of the Africans. But then everyone has been dispersed all over the world for one reason or another. And how out of this one arrives at any kind of sense of human unity, for lack of a better phrase, is a very grave question and obviously would take many, many generations to answer.

Illustration by James Gulliver Hancock from 'All the Buildings in New York.' Click image for more.

In one of his many brilliant asides, Baldwin makes a curious remark about how the eradication of neighborliness makes the “high-rise slums” of housing projects so ghastly and such a threat to the mutual honoring of identity:

BALDWIN: The anonymity of it is a tremendous insult. People won’t bear it. People will become monstrous before they can bear it.

In a way, the internet is a high-rise slum — the very substance of neighborly friendliness, which is predicated on knowing one another’s identity and thus honoring one another’s personhood, vanishes behind the veneer of anonymity, shielded by which people perpetrate monstrous acts.

Margaret Mead, 1972 (Photograph: Charles Dees)

To illustrate the complex variables of identity beyond race, Mead shares a poignant autobiographical anecdote of her own formative experience with the duality of privilege and hardship, underpinned by the conscious choice not to partake in the era’s limiting and bigoted treatment of difference:

MEAD: I was born in a family where I was the child … that both my parents wanted. I had the traits that they liked, that each one of them liked in the other. I was told from the time I was born that I was totally satisfactory. I had a chance to be what I wanted to be and I have always been able to be what I wanted to be… Because I was born where I was, I was fortunate. And it wasn’t only because I was white, because there are an extraordinary number of white people in this country who are born very unfortunately. I might have been very fortunate had I been the third child of my parents instead of the first, with a baby who died in between somewhere so my father decided that he was never going to love the younger children too much.

But I have got to talk to you, you see, and I think that this is a problem. It isn’t only race. It is weighted by race, oh, it’s weighted by race. So you give yourself the same father and the same mother but you grow up in a small Iowa town. Fifty percent, seventy-five percent, God knows how much of suffering you would not have had, see? I mean, you just think of the things that you suffered by, and most of them were created by Harlem. Now, your father. If you had had your father as a father but he had been white… He could have been, you know. There have been white preachers that were just as rigid as your father.

[…]

It wasn’t because I was sitting, vis-à-vis black people, being privileged, as has happened in many parts of the world. I didn’t belong to a separate class. I lived in a small Pennsylvania community and I was brought up with tremendous concern for every person who was poor or different in that community. In a sense my happiness was a function of the fact that my mother did insist that I call the black woman who worked for us Mrs. My felicity was a function of a denial, if you like, or a refusal of a caste position.

A Rap on Race is spectacular in its entirety — a perspective-normalizing read that reminds us both how far we’ve come and how much further we have yet to go, equipping us with that delicate balance of outrage and hope that translates into the very moral courage necessary for building a more just and noble world.

Complement it with Baldwin on the artist’s responsibility to society and Mead on the root of racism.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.