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James Baldwin and Chinua Achebe’s Forgotten Conversation About Beauty, Morality, and the Political Power of Art

“Those who tell you ‘Do not put too much politics in your art’ are not being honest. If you look very carefully you will see that they are the same people who are quite happy with the situation as it is… What they are saying is don’t upset the system.”

James Baldwin and Chinua Achebe’s Forgotten Conversation About Beauty, Morality, and the Political Power of Art

“Art,” Jeanette Winterson told an interviewer, “can make a difference because it pulls people up short. It says, don’t accept things for their face value; you don’t have to go along with any of this; you can think for yourself.”

On April 9, 1980, exactly a decade after his legendary conversation with Margaret Mead, James Baldwin (August 2, 1924–December 1, 1987) sat down with Chinua Achebe (November 16, 1930–March 21, 2013) for a dialogue about beauty, morality, and the political duties of art and the artist — a dialogue that continues to pull us up short with its sobering wisdom. Later included in the 1989 anthology Conversations with James Baldwin (public library), this meeting of titanic minds touches on a great many of our own cultural challenges and friction points, and radiates timeless, timely insight into how we might begin to stop accepting a deeply flawed status quo at face value.

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Achebe begins by defining an aesthetic as “those qualities of excellence which culture discerns from its works of art” and argues that our standards for this excellence are mutable — constantly changing, in a dynamic interaction with our social, cultural, and political needs:

Aesthetic cannot be fixed, immutable. It has to change as the occasion demands because in our understanding, art is made by man* for man, and, therefore, according to the needs of man, his qualities of excellence. What he looks for in art will also change… We are not simply receivers of aesthetics … we are makers of aesthetics.

Art, Achebe argues, arises out of its social context and must always be in dialogue with that social element:

Art has a social purpose [and] art belongs to the people. It’s not something that is hanging out there that has no connection with the needs of man. And art is unashamedly, unembarrassingly, if there is such a word, social. It is political; it is economic. The total life of man is reflected in his art.

In a sentiment evocative of what Adrienne Rich has called “the long, erotic, unended wrestling” of art and politics, Achebe considers those who chastise artists for making their art political. All art is inherently political, he notes, but what such critics consider the artist’s objectionable “politics” is simply opposition to their politics and their comfortable alignment with the status quo:

Those who tell you “Do not put too much politics in your art” are not being honest. If you look very carefully you will see that they are the same people who are quite happy with the situation as it is.

And what they are saying is not don’t introduce politics. What they are saying is don’t upset the system. They are just as political as any of us. It’s only that they are on the other side.

Most art, Achebe argues, arises out of the status quo because — and perhaps this is a version of civilizational confirmation bias, with undertones of the backfire effect — we like to be affirmed in our values:

If you look at our aesthetics you will find … that art is in the service of man. Art was not created to dominate and destroy man. Art is made by man for his own comfort.

He turns to African art — particularly the tradition of his own heritage, the Ibo people — to illustrate the central concern of all art:

Our art is based on morality. Perhaps this sounds old-fashioned to you, but it is not to us. The earth goddess among the Ibo people is the goddess of morality. An abomination is called an abomination against the arts. So you see in our aesthetic you cannot run away from morality. Morality is basic to the nature of art.

Using, as he tended to, the word “poet” in the larger sense of any artist, any person of poetic orientation, Baldwin responds by affirming this core moral function of art and enlarges its human dimension:

When Chinua talks about aesthetic, beneath that world sleeps — think of it — the word morality. And beneath that word we are confronted with the way we treat each other. That is the key to any morality.

Invariably, this question of how we treat each other turns to race relations. But then, as if to illustrate the urgency of Baldwin’s point, the conversation is interrupted by a voice that had somehow hijacked the auditorium speaker system. The hostile male voice comes pouring out of Baldwin’s own microphone: “You gonna have to cut it out Mr. Baldwin. We can’t stand for this kind of going on.” At this point, a riled but composed Baldwin speaks authoritatively into the microphone before a shocked audience:

Mr. Baldwin is nevertheless going to finish his statement. And I will tell you now, whoever you are, that if you assassinate me in the next two minutes, I’m telling you this: it no longer matters what you think. The doctrine of white supremacy on which the Western world is based has had its hour — has had its day! It’s over!

As the audience enthusiastically applauds Baldwin, the moderator — a Sri Lankan-American professor of Ethnic Studies named Ernest Champion — rises and makes the perfect remark to restore order:

It is quite obvious that we are in the eye of the hurricane. But having this dialogue is quite important so all of us in this room will take it seriously.

With this, the anonymous antagonist vanishes just as he had appeared and the conversation continues, returning to the central duty of art. Achebe observes:

An artist is committed to art which is committed to people.

Baldwin nods in agreement:

The poet is produced by the people because the people need him.

Echoing his earlier thoughts on how the artist’s struggle for integrity illuminates the human struggle, he adds:

I know the price an artist pays… I know the price a man pays. And I am here to try to say something which perhaps only a poet can attempt to say… We are trying to make you see something. And maybe this moment we can only try to make you see it. But there ain’t no money in it.

In answering an audience question, Achebe builds on what that “something” is:

There is something we [black artists] are committed to of fundamental importance, something everybody should be committed to. We are committed to the process of changing our position in the world… We have followed your way and it seems there is a little problem at this point. And so we are offering a new aesthetic. There is nothing wrong with that… Picasso did that. In 1904 he saw that Western art had run out of breath so he went to the Congo — the despised Congo — and brought out a new art… He borrowed something which saved his art. And we are telling you what we think will save your art. We think we are right, but even if we are wrong it doesn’t matter. It couldn’t be worse than it is now.

Considering the implications of the latter statement, Baldwin makes an observation of chilling resonance today:

We are in trouble. But there are two ways to be in trouble. One of them is to know you’re in trouble. If you know you’re in trouble you may be able to figure out the road.

This country is in trouble. Everybody is in trouble — not only the people who apparently know they are in trouble, not only the people who know they are not white. The white people in this country … think they are white: because “white is a state of mind.” I’m quoting my friend Malcolm X … white is a moral choice… I can write if you can live. And you can live if I can write.

Responding to another audience question about the notion that “there can be no great art without great prejudice,” using Joseph Conrad as an example, Achebe echoes his central conviction about the role of the artist and readjusts the moral compass of art:

Great art flourishes on problems or anguish or prejudice. But the role of the writer must be very clear. The writer must not be on the side of oppression. In other words there must be no confusion. I write about prejudice; I write about wickedness; I write about murder; I write about rape: but I must not be caught on the side of murder or rape. It is as simple as that.

Quoting the Ibo proverb that “where something stands, something else will stand beside it,” Achebe argues that great art is built on pluralism and comes from the artist’s ability to embrace — to borrow Walt Whitman’s wonderful phrase — her or his multitudes:

Single-mindedness … leads to totalitarianism of all kinds, to fanaticism of all kinds. And I can’t help the feeling that somehow at the base, art and fanaticism are not loggerheads.

[…]

Wherever something is, something else also is. And I think it is important that whatever the regimes are saying — that the artist keeps himself ready to enter the other plea. Perhaps it’s not tidy — perhaps we are contradicting ourselves. But one of your poets has said, “Do I contradict myself? Very well.”

Conversations with James Baldwin abounds with abiding wisdom on art and life from one of the fiercest minds of the past century and a number of his venerated peers. Complement it with Baldwin on the creative process, freedom and how we imprison ourselves, his advice to aspiring writers, and his forgotten conversation with Nikki Giovanni about what it means to be truly empowered, then revisit Achebe on the writer’s responsibility to the world.

* 1980 was still well within the era in which every writer, every artist, every human being was, as Ursula K. Le Guin noted in her timelessly brilliant commentary on gendered language, “a man.”

BP

Eudora Welty on the Difficult Art of Seeing Each Other and the Power of Photography as a Dignifying Force

“If exposure is essential, still more so is the reflection. Insight doesn’t happen often on the click of the moment, like a lucky snapshot, but comes in its own time and more slowly and from nowhere but within.”

“When we learned to speak to, and listen to, rather than to strike or be struck by, our fellow human beings, we found something worth keeping alive, worth possessing, for the rest of time,” Eudora Welty (April 13, 1909–July 23, 2001) wrote in her beautiful reflection on how friendship helped human language evolve. But long before she turned to language as her raw material and became one of the most beloved authors of the twentieth century, she poured her warmhearted storytelling genius into another humanizing art of speaking and listening: photography.

Just after Welty returned home to Mississippi from college, the Great Depression struck. When her disarming job application to the New Yorker fell on deaf ears, Welty, like many of her generation, found her first full-time job with the Works Progress Administration. She was hired as a junior publicity agent for the Mississippi State office and dispatched to the state’s eighty-two counties, where she set about understanding daily life in the Union’s poorest state and those who lived it — she traveled on dirt roads, helped set up country fair booths, talked to cow farmers, interviewed local judges, and rode on the bookmobile route “distributing books into open hands like the treasure that they are.”

Eudora Welty, 1930s
Eudora Welty, 1930s

Along the way, Welty took several hundred photographs of the people she met — portraits of personhood captured with caring and compassionate eyes, testaments to the tenacity of human dignity even amid the direst of circumstances. Nearly four decades later, one hundred of these striking duotone photographs were collected in One Time, One Place: Mississippi in the Depression (public library), published in 1971 — two years before Welty received the Pulitzer Prize for her novel The Optimist’s Daughter. That Welty released the book just as the Civil Rights movement was gathering critical momentum was hardly coincidental — a choice of timing that lent her sympathetic, deeply humane photographs new layers of meaning, layers that come unpeeled anew today.

"Woman in Thirties" by Eudora Welty, the opening photograph in One Time, One Place: Mississippi in the Depression
“Woman in Thirties” by Eudora Welty, the opening photograph in One Time, One Place: Mississippi in the Depression

In the preface, penned in March of 1971, Welty considers how the camera, when operated with a sensitive and sympathetic curiosity, can dignify its subjects, becoming a tool of trust and mutual understanding:

In taking all these pictures, I was attended, I now know, by an angel — a presence of trust. In particular, the photographs of black persons by a white person may not testify soon again to such intimacy. It is trust that dates the pictures now, more than the vanished years. And had I no shame as a white person for what message might lie in my pictures of black persons? No, I was too busy imagining myself into their lives to be open to any generalities. I wished no more to indict anybody, to prove or disprove anything by my pictures, than I would have wished to do harm to the people in them, or have expected any harm from them to come to me.

[…]

When a heroic face like that of the woman in the buttoned sweater … looks back at me from her picture, what I respond to now, just as I did the first time, is not the Depression, not the Black, not the South, not even the perennially sorry state of the whole world, but the story of her life in her face. And though I did not take these pictures to prove anything, I think they most assuredly do show something — which is to make a far better claim for them. Her face to me is full of meaning more truthful and more terrible and, I think, more noble than any generalization about people could have prepared me for or could describe for me now. I learned from my own pictures, one by one, and had to; for I think we are the breakers of our own hearts.

Welty articulates the vital difference between capturing reality and conveying truth:

I learned quickly enough when to click the shutter, but what I was becoming aware of more slowly was a story-writer’s truth: the thing to wait on, to reach there in time for, is the moment in which people reveal themselves. You have to be ready, in yourself; you have to know the moment when you see it. The human face and the human body are eloquent in themselves, and stubborn and wayward, and a snapshot is a moment’s glimpse (as a story may be a long look, a growing contemplation) into what never stops moving, never ceases to express for itself something of our common feeling. Every feeling waits upon its gesture. Then when it does come, how unpredictable it turns out to be, after all.

In a sentiment of unshakable poignancy amid today’s media culture — a culture where the nuanced realities and complexities of entire lives are reduced to fragmentary glimpses and soundbites — Welty reminds us of the monumental difference between what Susan Sontag called “aesthetic consumerism” and what one might call aesthetic contemplation, to which there are no shortcuts and which is the only path, however long and winding, to truly seeing one another:

We come to terms as well as we can with our lifelong exposure to the world, and we use whatever devices we may need to survive. But eventually, of course, our knowledge depends upon the living relationship between what we see going on and ourselves. If exposure is essential, still more so is the reflection. Insight doesn’t happen often on the click of the moment, like a lucky snapshot, but comes in its own time and more slowly and from nowhere but within. The sharpest recognition is surely that which is charged with sympathy as well as with shock — it is a form of human vision. And that is of course a gift. We struggle through any pain or darkness in nothing but hope that we may receive it, and through any term of work in the prayer to keep it.

[…]

My wish, indeed my continuing passion, would be not to point the finger in judgment but to part a curtain, that invisible shadow that falls between people, the veil of indifference to each other’s presence, each other’s wonder, each other’s human plight.

One Time, One Place radiates precisely this seeingness of our human wonder and human plight. Complement Welty’s insightful prefatory words with Teju Cole on how the paradox of photography illustrates the central anxiety of human life and Annie Dillard on the two ways of looking and the secret to truly seeing, then revisit Welty on friendship.

BP

Truth Beyond Logic and Time Beyond Clocks: Janna Levin on the Vienna Circle and How Mathematician Kurt Gödel Shaped the Modern Mind

“The past does not exist except as a threadbare fragment in the weaker minds of the many.”

Truth Beyond Logic and Time Beyond Clocks: Janna Levin on the Vienna Circle and How Mathematician Kurt Gödel Shaped the Modern Mind

If it is true — and true it is — that creativity blooms when seemingly unrelated ideas are cross-pollinated into something novel, then its most fecund ground is an environment where minds of comparable caliber but divergent obsession come together and swirl their ideas into a common wellspring of genius. There is hardly more concrete a testament to this principle than the Vienna Circle — the collective of scientists, philosophers, and novelists, who met in Europe in the first decades of the twentieth century and shaped modern culture by bringing art and science into intimate, fertile contact. But in the 1930s, as they demolished the boundaries between these disciplines, the Vienna Circle also exposed the limits of logic as a sensemaking mechanism for the nature of reality, limitation being perhaps as necessary to creativity as freedom of thought. (“The more a person limits himself,” Kierkegaard had asserted a century earlier, “the more resourceful he becomes.”)

The paradigm-shifting ideas that emerged from that unusual petri dish are what cosmologist and novelist Janna Levin explores throughout A Mad Man Dreams of Turing Machines (public library) — her lyrical and darkly enthralling novel, partway between magical realism and poetry, yet guided by science and rigorously grounded in the real lives of two of the twentieth century’s most tragic geniuses: computing pioneer Alan Turing and trailblazing mathematician Kurt Gödel.

Inside Café Josephinum, the convening place of the Vienna Circle
Inside Café Josephinum, the convening place of the Vienna Circle

Levin casts the making of this small, enormous revolution:

A group of scientists from the university begin to meet and throw their ideas into the mix with those of artists and novelists and visionaries who rebounded with mania from the depression that follows a nation’s defeat. The few grow in number through invitation only. Slowly their members accumulate and concepts clump from the soup of ideas and take shape until the soup deserves a name, so they are called around Europe, and even as far as the United States, the Vienna Circle.

Barely a generation after Bertrand Russell shook the verdure of mysticism from the tree of knowledge to reveal the robust barren branches of logic, the Vienna Circle made it their mission to weld reality with the axe of Logical Empiricism. Levin transports us to the singular atmosphere of their gatherings:

At the center of the Circle is a circle: a clean, round, white marble tabletop. They select the Café Josephinum precisely for this table. A pen is passed counterclockwise. The first mark is made, an equation applied directly to the tabletop, a slash of black ink across the marble, a mathematical sentence amid the splatters. They all read the equation, homing in on the meaning amid the disordered drops. Mathematics is visual not auditory. They argue with their voices but more pointedly with their pens. They stain the marble with rays of symbolic logic in juicy black pigment that very nearly washes away.

They collect here every Thursday evening to distill their ideas — to distinguish science from superstition. At stake is Everything. Reality. Meaning. Their lives. They have lost any tolerance for ineffectual and embroidered attitudes, for mysticism or metaphysics.

Vienna in the 1930s. The sign, belonging to a gambling parlor, reads: "Don't let luck pass you by." A horseshoe and chimney sweep, superstitious symbols of good fortune, appear above. (Photograph:  Roman Vishniac)
Vienna in the 1930s. The sign, belonging to a gambling parlor, reads: “Don’t let luck pass you by.” A horseshoe and chimney sweep, superstitious symbols of good fortune, appear above it. (Photograph: Roman Vishniac)

The members of the Vienna Circle were endowed with minds exceeding the average not by degree but by kind — the kind of genius that risked bleeding into madness, nowhere more so than in Gödel. Levin paints his conflicting multitudes — the internal tensions that powered his, and perhaps power all, genius:

In 1931 he is a young man of twenty-five, his sharpest edges still hidden beneath the soft pulp of youth. He has just discovered his theorems. With pride and anxiety he brings with him this discovery. His almost, not-quite paradox, his twisted loop of reason, will be his assurance of immortality. An immortality of his soul or just his name? This question will be the subject of his madness.

Levin, who has written beautifully about the complex relationship between genius and madness, adds:

Here he is, a man in defense of his soul, in defense of truth, ready to alter the view of reality his friends have formulated on this marble table. He joins the Circle to tell the members that they are wrong, and he can prove it.

[…]

He is still all potential. The potential to be great, the potential to be mad. He will achieve both magnificently.

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In his incompleteness theorems, which he began publishing that year, Gödel set out to prove that there are limits to how much of reality mathematical logic can grasp — something many intuited but none had substantiated. (Nearly a century earlier, the pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell articulated that intuition, if not its empirical proof, in her diary: “The world of learning is so broad, and the human soul is so limited in power! We reach forth and strain every nerve, but we seize only a bit of the curtain that hides the infinite from us.”) With poetic precision, Levin conveys Gödel’s ideas and their broader significance:

Gödel will prove that some truths live outside of logic and that we can’t get there from here. Some people — people who probably distrust mathematics — are quick to claim that they knew all along that some truths are beyond mathematics. But they just didn’t. They didn’t know it. They didn’t prove it.

Gödel didn’t believe that truth would elude us. He proved that it would. He didn’t invent a myth to conform to his prejudice of the world — at least not when it came to mathematics. He discovered his theorem as surely as if it was a rock he had dug up from the ground. He could pass it around the table and it would be as real as that rock. If anyone cared to, they could dig it up where he buried it and find it just the same. Look for it and you’ll find it where he said it is, just off center from where you’re staring. There are faint stars in the night sky that you can see, but only if you look to the side of where they shine. They burn too weakly or are too far away to be seen directly, even if you stare. But you can see them out of the corner of your eye because the cells on the periphery of your retina are more sensitive to light. Maybe truth is just like that. You can see it, but only out of the corner of your eye.

But the truth is not something everyone wants to see — it can be inconvenient, even obstructionist. In the spring of 1936, as the ideas of the Vienna Circle were becoming increasingly threatening to the Nazi party rising to power, Moritz Schlick, chair of the Vienna Circle, was shot by a former student of his on the steps of the University of Vienna, where he taught. Meanwhile, Gödel’s swirling genius was spiraling further and further into madness. Having already necessitated psychiatric care two years earlier, he was destroyed anew upon hearing of Moritz’s murder and endured an even sharper nervous breakdown that landed him in a psychiatric institution. Levin writes:

In his quiet room in the sanatorium with the narrow window over the big groomed lawn, Gödel rested alone, slumped and motionless, and wondered, where did he go? Where is Moritz?

What does it mean to say that Moritz lived in the past? Nothing. The past does not exist. The notion of a past refers to a paltry and brittle memory, incomplete and flawed. Moritz is dead. He is lost but for fragments in the minds of those who have moved around the globe since his death. The Vienna Circle died with him as the headlines condemned Moritz Schlick as a Jew sympathizer who got what he deserved at the top of the stairs in the University of Vienna at the hands of a pan-Germanic hero who rightly killed this Jew philosopher. Moritz was a Protestant. Facts of the world are sealed in minds. People wear a facade. All of reality goes on behind their eyes, and there lie secret plans and hidden agendas. A tar of false motives and intentions. Truth mauled. Because the past does not exist except as a threadbare fragment in the weaker minds of the many.

Complement the enormously invigorating A Mad Man Dreams of Turing Machines with philosopher Rebecca Goldstein on how Gödel and Einstein changed our understanding of time, then revisit Levin on free will, the vitalizing power of obsessiveness, the century-long quest to hear the sound of space-time, and her remarkable Moth story about the unlikely paths that lead us back to ourselves.

BP

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