Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Cross of Redemption

Randall Kenan says in his introduction to his new collection of James Baldwin’s essays “…he was audacious in his love for complex sentences; one might say even fearless in the way he deployed the English language.  Reading a Baldwin sentence can feel like recreating thought itself.”

It's true; and that’s the key to the revelatory nature of his writing and thinking.  If we look to literature to help us open our minds Baldwin’s words reveal that he is taking that journey as well.  In his sentence structure, love of words, and ideas he creates a synergy that enlivens the reader making the engagement an active, not passive one.

That’s what I felt the first time I read Baldwin.  That was before I knew anything of his biography.  And the biography only adds to an understanding of his complexity.

Born into a working poor family in Harlem, Baldwin lived through the Great Depression, the open racism which saw lynching still a sport in the south and the seditious Jim Crow of the north.  Yet his capacity for optimism and believe in human possibility is evidenced in all of his work, even when he portrays the sorrows of loss. Even when others try to dissuade him from his love.

That’s one of the things that makes “Giovanni’s Room” such an amazing novel.  There is no happy, candy coated ending, (spoiler alert) Giovanni goes to the guillotine and his true love remains as faithless as ever. Yet Baldwin’s sense of the power and importance of love remains.  Below is a draft of the monologue which I’m working on for the play for the character, Giovanni who is Jimmy’s muse in the play.

I’ve rewritten it several times after the readings of the play over the past two years and am still honing in on it. Here he rails against those who would suggest Jimmy burn the novel rather than publish it.

Why would he say that! A burned book is…a burned life isn’t it? 
It’s an entire village of lives tossed on a funeral pyre.  And what of the
bitterness that rises in the smoke? Do we breathe that in?
            A book is a holy vessel carrying into the world what we need.
            This is no a medieval story where the villagers race toward us with
            torches blazing with righteousness.  Do they expect my silence as they tie
            me to   the stake and light the funeral pyre?   Who is the monster here?
Some of them are afraid to be revealed…as either loving or not loving
souls.  That’s why they wave their torches at you and scream betrayer.
But revelation is why you write.  The light thrown from their torches can’t
be contained to just one story or another.  All stories are revealed.  If you
find fear and bitterness they stare out from the receding dark.  If you find
love it shines brighter than all fire.  

You can not hide from yourself or from them and hope to ever really see
anything.  If they do not care for who I am, then they certainly don’t care
for who you are.  In truth they do not care for themselves at all. 
And so you must write.

            Before we are words on a page…it is there…our need for each other.
            You ask what should you do with such monumental need? There is only
            one thing: write.

            Without the sound of Luc’s breath on the pillow next to you…you write.
            Against these men who juggle the fires of your destruction as if they are
            in the center ring of a circus… you write.  When the sound of mourning
is so deep the mourners can barely breathe…you write. 

            It is the thing you do to turn torches into lanterns. 
The words wring life from death. 


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