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James Baldwin on the Revelation That Taught Him How to Truly See

“He taught me how to see, and how to trust what I saw.”

James Baldwin on the Revelation That Taught Him How to Truly See

“The art of seeing has to be learned,” Marguerite Duras wrote in 1984. Many legendary artists can trace their creative path to a single moment of revelation in which they were suddenly able to see the invisible dimensions of the world — for what is art, after all, if not “a dynamic contemplation” and what is the task of the artist if not to see beyond the seeming realities of the world?

For Patti Smith, that revelation was a glimpse of a swan when she was a little girl; for Virginia Woolf, a gardening epiphany; for Pablo Neruda, a hand through the fence of his childhood home; for Albert Einstein, his first encounter with a compass.

Among the creative geniuses whose paths were illuminated by such a moment of revelation was James Baldwin (August 2, 1924–December 1, 1987).

In The Writer’s Chapbook: A Compendium of Fact, Opinion, Wit, and Advice from the 20th Century’s Preeminent Writers (public library) — the same magnificent 1989 Paris Review compendium that gave us Baldwin’s advice on writing — he recounts the revelation that taught him to see:

I remember standing on a street corner with the black painter Beauford Delaney down in the Village waiting for the light to change, and he pointed down and said, “Look.” I looked and all I saw was the water. And he said, “Look again,” which I did, and I saw oil on the water and the city reflected in the puddle. It was a great revelation to me. I can’t explain it. He taught me how to see, and how to trust what I saw. Painters have often taught writers how to see. And once you’ve had that experience, you see differently.

Complement this particular fragment of the wholly fantastic Writer’s Chapbook with Annie Dillard on the two ways of looking and the art of seeing, then revisit Baldwin’s tremendous and timely conversation with Margaret Mead about race, identity, and power and forgiveness and the crucial difference between guilt and responsibility.

Published February 18, 2016




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