The Doom and Glory of Knowing Who You Are: James Baldwin on the Empathic Rewards of Reading and What It Means to Be an Artist
“An artist is a sort of emotional or spiritual historian. His role is to make you realize the doom and glory of knowing who you are and what you are.”
By Maria Popova
“A society must assume that it is stable, but the artist must know, and he must let us know, that there is nothing stable under heaven,” James Baldwin (August 2, 1924–December 1, 1987) wrote in his classic 1962 essay “The Creative Process.” By then, he was already one of America’s most celebrated writers — an artist who shook up the baseboards of society by dismantling the structures of power and convention with unflinching fortitude, dignity, and integrity of conviction.
On May 17, 1963, Baldwin appeared on the cover of TIME magazine as part of a major story titled “Nation: The Root of the Negro Problem,” whose lead sentence read: “At the root of the Negro problem is the necessity of the white man to find a way of living with the Negro in order to live with himself.” Although Baldwin’s civil rights advocacy was the focus, the piece shone a sidewise gleam on Baldwin the artist and raised the broader question of the writer’s role in society.
The following week, the May 24 issue of LIFE magazine — which was owned by the same company — built on that cultural momentum with an extensive profile of him by journalist Jane Howard, where under the dated title “Telling Talk from a Negro Writer” Baldwin’s timeless wisdom on life and art unfolds.
The lengthy profile is divided into several sections covering different aspects of his life and views. Beneath the spectacular subhead “Doom and glory of knowing who you are,” Baldwin — who had read his way from Harlem to literary celebrity — considers the unparalleled empathic gift of reading:
You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was Dostoevsky and Dickens who taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who ever had been alive. Only if we face these open wounds in ourselves can we understand them in other people.
A year after he formulated his abiding ideas on the artist’s role as a disruptor of society, and more than a century after Emerson insisted that “only as far as [people] are unsettled is there any hope for them,” Baldwin considers this vital commitment to generative unsettlement as the central animating force of the creative spirit:
An artist is a sort of emotional or spiritual historian. His role is to make you realize the doom and glory of knowing who you are and what you are. He has to tell, because nobody else in the world can tell, what it is like to be alive. All I’ve ever wanted to do is tell that, I’m not trying to solve anybody’s problems, not even my own. I’m just trying to outline what the problems are.
I want to be stretched, shook up, to overreach myself, and to make you feel that way too.
Two decades before he shared his advice on being a writer in The Paris Review, Baldwin reflects on the inevitability of the calling:
The terrible thing about being a writer is that you don’t decide to become one, you discover that you are one.
Echoing what E.E. Cummings wryly termed “the agony of the Artist with capital A,” Baldwin adds:
In this country … if you’re an artist, you’re guilty of a crime: not that you’re aware, which is bad enough, but that you see things other people don’t admit are there.
Complement with Baldwin on the artist’s struggle for integrity, freedom and how we imprison ourselves, and the writer’s responsibility in a divided society, then revisit his increasingly timely forgotten conversations with Chinua Achebe about the political power of art, with Margaret Mead about identity, race, and the experience of otherness, and with Nikki Giovanni about what it means to be truly empowered.
Published May 24, 2017