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James Baldwin on Love, the Illusion of Choice, and the Paradox of Freedom

“Nothing is more unbearable, once one has it, than freedom.”

James Baldwin on Love, the Illusion of Choice, and the Paradox of Freedom

We, none of us, choose the century we are born in, or the skin we are born in, or the chromosomes we are born with. We don’t choose the incredibly narrow band of homeostasis within which we can be alive at all — in bodies that die when their temperature rises above 40 degrees Celsius or drops below 20, living on a planet that would be the volcanic inferno of Venus or the frigid desert of Mars if it were just a little closer to or farther from its star.

And yet, within these narrow parameters of being, nothing appeals to us more than the notion of freedom — the feeling that we are free, that intoxicating illusion with which we blunt the hard fact that we are not. The more abstract and ideological the realm, the more vehemently we can insist that moral choice in specific situations within narrow parameters proves a totality of freedom. But the closer the question moves to the core of our being, the more clearly and catastrophically the illusion crumbles — nowhere more helplessly than in the most intimate realm of experience: love. Try to will yourself into — or out of — loving someone, try to will someone into loving you, and you collide with the fundamental fact that we do not choose whom we love. We could not choose, because we do not choose who and what we are, and in any love that is truly love, we love with everything we are.

James Baldwin (August 2, 1924–December 1, 1987) was a young man — young and brilliant and aflame with life, blazing against society’s illusion of stability and control — when he composed his stunning semi-autobiographical novel Giovanni’s Room (public library), making the paradox of freedom its animating theme.

jamesbaldwin
James Baldwin

Baldwin writes:

Nothing is more unbearable, once one has it, than freedom.

To bear the unbearable, Baldwin intimates, we construct and cling to artificial structures of choice, personal and social — habits, routines, the contractual commitment of marriage, the moralistic frameworks that indict one kind of love as good and another as bad. Today, Giovanni’s Room is celebrated as a pioneering liberation and representation of LGBTQ+ love — a term that did not exist in Baldwin’s day, for it speaks to a cultural silence so deep then that there was no adequate language for it. (The language we use today is hardly adequate — but language is always a placeholder for a culture’s evolving understanding of itself, the space in which we work out our concepts as we learn how to think about them in learning how to speak of them.) Baldwin rose against a tidal force of cowardice from publishers at a time when the Bible of psychiatry — the Diagnostic Manual of Mental Disorders — classified love as so many of us know it as a “sociopathic personality disturbance.” At the center of his act of courage and resistance is the recognition that the experience of love is our most primal confrontation with the illusion of freedom.

Art by Dorothy Lathrop, 1922. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

Exactly half a century after the Spanish-American poet, philosopher, and novelist George Santayana considered why we like what we like and a decade after the Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl made his hard-earned case for saying yes to life in the most unfree of circumstances, Baldwin writes:

People can’t, unhappily, invent their mooring posts, their lovers and their friends, anymore than they can invent their parents. Life gives these and also takes them away and the great difficulty is to say Yes to life.

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

Four years later, Baldwin would develop these ideas in his immensely insightful speech-turned-essay on freedom and how we imprison ourselves.

In the final years of his life, he would look back on the crucible of these ideas, describing Giovanni’s Room as a book not about one kind of love or another but “about what happens to you if you’re afraid to love anybody.” In his most intimate interview, he would recount the best advice he ever received on the transcendent, terrifying choicelessness of love and the implicit, seemingly paradoxical demand for choice within it — advice given him by an old friend:

You have to go the way your blood beats. If you don’t live the only life you have, you won’t live some other life, you won’t live any life at all.

Art by Margaret C. Cook from Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

Complement with Toni Morrison on the deepest meaning of freedom and Simone de Beauvoir on how chance and choice converge to make us who we are, then revisit Baldwin on the doom and glory of knowing who you are.

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The Gospel of James Baldwin: Musician Meshell Ndegeocello Rekindles the Fire of Truth for This Time

“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.”

The Gospel of James Baldwin: Musician Meshell Ndegeocello Rekindles the Fire of Truth for This Time

The history of the world is the history of telling others who and what we are — from tribal markings to national flags to family crests to pronoun-specifying email signatures. Every war that has ever been fought, political or personal, has been staked on these battlegrounds of identity and belonging. Every work of art that has ever been made has turned the battleground into a garden, where these same seeds of selfhood have come abloom in the artist’s being to touch with the pollen of some grander beauty and some larger truth other beings, clarifying and fortifying their own identity, their own presence, their own belonging in history. “An artist,” James Baldwin told the interviewer in his historic 1963 LIFE profile, “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.”

Who and what we are is, of course, a complex mosaic with myriad tesserae, drawn from our genetic and cultural inheritance, shaped by the biological ancestors chance has dealt us and shaped equally by the spiritual ancestors we have chosen for ourselves, all of our ancestors themselves shaped by myriad confluences of chance and choice. The mosaic rests atop the most elemental stratum of our nature, for as Rachel Carson observed, “our origins are of the earth… so there is in us a deeply seated response to the natural universe, which is part of our humanity.”

Musician and conceptual poet Meshell Ndegeocello reanimates Baldwin’s words from that altogether vivifying 1963 interview to weave around them a lush lyric meditation on the roots and realities of personhood in an enchanting prose-poem, part of her multimedia experience Chapter and Verse — a project she envisioned as “a twenty-first-century ritual toolkit for justice, a call for revolution, a gift during turbulent times,” inspired by Baldwin’s prophetic 1963 book The Fire Next Time, which occasioned the LIFE tribute.

You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.

Complement this small fragment of Ndegeocello’s majestic Chapter and Verse with Anne Lamott’s lovely letter to children about books as an antidote to isolation and Baldwin’s great friend, champion, and fellow genius Gwendolyn Brooks’s forgotten 1969 poem about the power of books, then revisit Baldwin’s own account of how he read his way from Harlem to the literary pantheon and some of his most poignant, least known words of wisdom set to music by Ndegeocello’s friends and frequent collaborators Morley and Chris Bruce.

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Nothing Is Fixed: James Baldwin on Keeping the Light Alive Amid the Entropic Darkness of Being, Set to Music

“The sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each other, and children cling to us. The moment we cease to hold each other, the moment we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.”

Nothing Is Fixed: James Baldwin on Keeping the Light Alive Amid the Entropic Darkness of Being, Set to Music

“Against this cosmic background the lifespan of a particular plant or animal appears, not as drama complete in itself, but only as a brief interlude in a panorama of endless change,” Rachel Carson wrote in her poetic, unexampled 1937 essay Undersea as she incubated the ideas that would awaken humanity’s ecological conscience. “There is grandeur in this view of life,” Darwin had written in the closing pages of On the Origin of Species in the middle of the previous century, as though to offer preemptive succor for humanity to steady itself against as he dismantled our comfortable and complacent age-old certitude that we are the pinnacle of “creation,” finished and complete — a certitude applied to the evolutionary, but stemming from the existential, for what is true of the species is true of the individual. As the Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert aptly observed, “human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished.”

But we are — as individuals, as a species, as a society — unfinished and incomplete, our story unwritten. Darwin and Carson both intimated that while there is disorientation in accepting ourselves as increments in advancement the arc of which far exceeds our lifetimes, there is also transcendence, for a story yet unfinished is a story with myriad possible endings — a story that forestalls despair by the sheer force of possibility; a story in which our individual lives matter not less but more, for they are the pixels shaping the panorama of endless change.

That is what James Baldwin (August 2, 1924–December 1, 1987) explores a century after Darwin and a generation after Carson in the final essay from the forgotten treasure Nothing Personal (public library) — his collaboration with the great photographer and his former high school classmate Richard Avedon, which also gave us Baldwin on the ultimate lifeline for your hour of despair.

James Baldwin by artist Marlene Dumas for the 2020Solidarity project — a series of charitable posters by international artists to help cultural institutions around the world survive during the 2020 crisis. Available as a poster, benefiting Pioneer Works — birthplace of The Universe in Verse.

Baldwin considers how we “emptied oceans with a home-made spoon and tore down mountains with our hands” — a sentiment referring to the failures of human rights and social justice he had witnessed and experienced in his own life, but drawing on nature for a metaphor that renders it all the more poignant in the context of our present ecological undoing — and writes:

One discovers the light in the darkness, that is what darkness is for; but everything in our lives depends on how we bear the light. It is necessary, while in darkness, to know that there is a light somewhere, to know that in oneself, waiting to be found, there is a light. What the light reveals is danger, and what it demands is faith.

In consonance with Viktor Frankl, who upon surviving the Holocaust two decades earlier had written stirringly about the moral obligation to “say yes to life, in spite of everything,” Baldwin reflects on the stubborn light that must have blazed in his own parents’ eyes in order for them to survive what they survived, in order for him to exist, and adds:

This is why one must say Yes to life and embrace it whenever it is found — and it is found in terrible places; nevertheless, there it is.

[…]

For nothing is fixed, forever and forever and forever, it is not fixed; the earth is always shifting, the light is always changing, the sea does not cease to grind down rock. Generations do not cease to be born, and we are responsible to them because we are the only witnesses they have.

The sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each other, and children cling to us. The moment we cease to hold each other, the moment we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.

In this highlight from the fourth annual Universe in Verse — a charitable celebration of the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, the creation of which was inspired by Rachel Carson’s work — musician, activist, and light-filled human vessel of change Morley — the visionary behind the wondrous Borderless Lullabies project — set Baldwin’s transcendent words to music, with Chris Bruce (her sweetheart) on guitar in their quarantine quarters and Dave Eggar on cello, invisible across the spacetime of distanced digital collaboration.

For other highlights from The Universe in Verse, savor astrophysicist Janna Levin reading “Antidotes to Fear of Death” by astronomer and poet Rebecca Elson, astronaut Leland Melvin reading Pablo Neruda’s love letter to the forest, a stunning animated short film of poet Marie Howe’s ode to our cosmic belonging, Rosanne Cash reading Lisel Mueller’s subtle poem about outgrowing our limiting frames of reference, and a lyrical watercolor adaptation of Mojave American poet Natalie Diaz’s ode to brokenness as a portal to belonging and resilience, then revisit Baldwin on resisting the tyranny of the masses, the writer’s responsibility in a divided society, how he learned to truly see, and his advice on writing.

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A Lifeline for the Hour of Despair: James Baldwin on 4AM, the Fulcrum of Love, and Life as a Moral Obligation to the Universe

“I have always felt that a human being could only be saved by another human being. I am aware that we do not save each other very often. But I am also aware that we save each other some of the time.”

A Lifeline for the Hour of Despair: James Baldwin on 4AM, the Fulcrum of Love, and Life as a Moral Obligation to the Universe

“Yesterday has already vanished among the shadows of the past; to-morrow has not yet emerged from the future. You have found an intermediate space,” Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote of life’s most haunting hour. But what we find in that intermediate space between past and future, between the costumed simulacrum of reality we so painstakingly construct with our waking lives and reality laid bare in the naked nocturnal mind, is not always a resting place of ease — for there dwells the self at its most elemental, which means the self most lucidly awake to its foibles and its finitude.

The disquietude this haunted hour can bring, and does bring, is what another titanic writer and rare seer into the depths of the human spirit — James Baldwin (August 2, 1924–December 1, 1987) — explored 130 years after Hawthorne in one of his least known, most insightful, and most personal essays.

Richard Avedon and James Baldwin. (Photograph courtesy of Taschen.)

In 1964, as the Harlem riots were shaking the foundation of society and selfhood, Baldwin joined talent-forces with the great photographer Richard Avedon — an old high school friend of his — to hold up an uncommonly revelatory cultural mirror with the book Nothing Personal (public library). Punctuating Avedon’s signature black-and-white portraits — of Nobel laureates and Hollywood celebrities, of the age- and ache-etched face of an elder born under slavery and the idealism-lit young faces of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Georgia, of the mentally ill perishing in asylums and the newlyweds at City Hall ablaze with hope — are four stirring essays by Baldwin, the first of which gave us his famous sobering observation that “it has always been much easier (because it has always seemed much safer) to give a name to the evil without than to locate the terror within.”

At no time does the terror within, Baldwin argues in the third essay, bubble to the surface of our being more ferociously than in that haunting hour between past and future, between our illusions of permanence and perfection, and the glaring fact of our finitude and our fallibility, between being and non-being. He writes:

Four AM can be a devastating hour. The day, no matter what kind of day it was is indisputably over; almost instantaneously, a new day begins: and how will one bear it? Probably no better than one bore the day that is ending, possibly not as well. Moreover, a day is coming one will not recall, the last day of one’s life, and on that day one will oneself become as irrecoverable as all the days that have passed.

It is a fearful speculation — or, rather, a fearful knowledge — that, one day one’s eyes will no longer look out on the world. One will no longer be present at the universal morning roll call. The light will rise for others, but not for you.

Half a century before the physicist Brian Greene examined how this very awareness is the wellspring of meaning to our ephemeral lives and a century after Tchaikovsky found beauty amid the wreckage of the soul at 4AM, Baldwin adds:

Sometimes, at four AM, this knowledge is almost enough to force a reconciliation between oneself and all one’s pain and error. Since, anyway, it will end one day, why not try it — life — one more time?

Art from Trees at Night by Art Young, 1926. Available as a print

After singing some beautiful and heartbreaking Bessie Smith lyrics into his essay — lyrics from “Long Road,” a song about reconciling the knowledge that one is ultimately alone with the irrepressible impulse to reach out for love, “to grasp again, with fearful hope, the unwilling, unloving human hand” — Baldwin continues:

I think all of our voyages drive us there; for I have always felt that a human being could only be saved by another human being. I am aware that we do not save each other very often. But I am also aware that we save each other some of the time.

That alone, Baldwin insists, is reason enough to be, as Nietzsche put it, a “yea-sayer” to life — to face the uncertainty of our lives with courage, to face the fact of our mortality with courage, and to fill this blink of existence bookended by nothingness with the courage of a bellowing aliveness.

In a passage that calls to mind Galway Kinnell’s lifeline of a poem “Wait,” composed for a young friend on the brink of suicide, Baldwin writes:

For, perhaps — perhaps — between now and the last day, something wonderful will happen, a miracle, a miracle of coherence and release. And the miracle on which one’s unsteady attention is focused is always the same, however it may be stated, or however it may remain unstated. It is the miracle of love, love strong enough to guide or drive one into the great estate of maturity, or, to put it another way, into the apprehension and acceptance of one’s own identity. For some deep and ineradicable instinct — I believe — causes us to know that it is only this passionate achievement which can outlast death, which can cause life to spring from death.

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 English edition of Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman. Available as a print.

And yet, so often, we lose faith in this miracle, lose the perspective we call faith — so often it slips between the fingers fanned with despair or squeezes through the fist clenched with rage. We lose perspective most often, Baldwin argues, at four AM:

At four AM, when one feels that one has probably become simply incapable of supporting this miracle, with all one’s wounds awake and throbbing, and all one’s ghastly inadequacy staring and shouting from the walls and the floor — the entire universe having shrunk to the prison of the self — death glows like the only light on a high, dark, mountain road, where one has, forever and forever! lost one’s way. — And many of us perish then.

What then? A generation after Little Prince author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry composed his beautiful manifesto for night as an existential clarifying force for the deepest truths of the heart, Baldwin offers:

But if one can reach back, reach down — into oneself, into one’s life — and find there some witness, however unexpected or ambivalent, to one’s reality, one will be enabled, though perhaps not very spiritedly, to face another day… What one must be enabled to recognize, at four o’clock in the morning, is that one has no right, at least not for reasons of private anguish, to take one’s life. All lives are connected to other lives and when one man goes, much more goes than the man goes with him. One has to look on oneself as the custodian of a quantity and a quality — oneself — which is absolutely unique in the world because it has never been here before and will never be here again.

Baldwin — whom U.S. Poet Laureate Gwendolyn Brooks described as “love personified” in introducing his last public appearance before his death — wedges into this foundational structure of soul-survival the fact that in a culture of habitual separation and institutionalized otherness, such self-regard is immensely difficult. And yet, he insists with the passion of one who has proven the truth of his words with his own life, we must try — we must reach across the divides within and without, across the abysses of terror and suspicion, with a generous and largehearted trust in one another, which is at bottom trust in ourselves.

Art by from Little Man, Little Man — James Baldwin’s only children’s book, written to foment his own young nephew’s self-regard.

Echoing his contemporary and kindred visionary Leonard Bernstein’s insistence that “we must believe, without fear, in people,” Baldwin adds what has become, or must become, the most sonorous psychosocial refrain bridging his time and ours:

Where all human connections are distrusted, the human being is very quickly lost.

More than half a century later, Nothing Personal remains a masterwork of rare insight into and consolation for the most elemental aches of the human spirit. For a counterpoint to this nocturnal fragment, savor the great nature writer Henry Beston, writing a generation before Baldwin, on how the beauty of night nourishes the human spirit, then revisit Baldwin on resisting the mindless of majority, how he learned to truly see, the writer’s responsibility in a divided society, his advice on writing, his historic conversation with Margaret Mead about forgiveness and responsibility, and his only children’s book.

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