Saturday, May 08, 2021

Marx says somewhere that Hegel says somewhere that...

At Christmastime, Baldwin published a deluxe boxed coffee table book of photographs with his high school friend Richard Avedon, now a successful fashion photographer. The collaboration was Avedon’s idea, and Avedon spent a long time trying to get Baldwin to finish his accompanying essay. The Avedon photographs are an inchoate assortment that includes Allen Ginsberg, George Wallace, the Everly Brothers, members of SNCC, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, son, and Marilyn Monroe, along with pictures of people at the beach and inmates in a mental hospital outside Baton Rouge (who had not been told they were being photographed). Many of the subjects look as reptilian and papier-mâché as “possible, an effect Avedon had a gift for. Baldwin’s essay is a cri de coeur on the banality of American life. It begins with despairing reflections on the artificiality of actors in television commercials and descends into musings like: “When a civilization treats its poets with the disdain with which we treat ours, it cannot be far from disaster; it cannot be far from the slaughter of the innocents.” 

There is a way in which this boutique item, which does not present itself as a book about race, brings the precariousness of Baldwin’s position into focus. When he said things like “the history of this country was built on my back” or, in a widely publicized debate with William F. Buckley at the Cambridge Union, “I picked cotton, I carried it to the market, I built the railroads under someone else’s whip,” he was using an established conceit of group autobiography (as Malcolm X did in his autobiography, published in 1965.) The understanding is that if these things did not happen to the author, they happened to somebody like the author. The “I” stands for the group.

White people don’t write group autobiographies, however. It was not that people did not believe that when Baldwin lived in the United States, he had encountered racism and discrimination. It was that professionally, he had suffered no more, and arguably less, from efforts to censor him than, for instance, Norman Mailer or Henry Miller had. From the very beginning, he had been supported and promoted by powerful writers and editors, Black and white. He had written bestsellers: the only book that sold more copies than Another Country in 1963 was William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. He wrote for Partisan Review and The New Yorker. He had been on the cover of Time. He hung around with celebrities; he was rich; he had an entourage. And on top of all that, he had been living in Paris for eight years, and when the Montgomery bus boycott turned out to be a success, he turned up on the scene and started telling everyone what it was like to be Black in America.

The New York Review of Books was ready for Nothing Personal. The headline was “Everybody Knows My Name,” and the reviewer was Robert Brustein, who was soon to become dean of the Yale School of Drama. It was a time, Brustein began, of “show-biz moralists.” 

Now comes Richard Avedon, high-fashion photographer for Harper’s Bazaar, to join these other outrage exploiters, giving the suburban clubwoman a titillating peek into the obscene and ugly faces of the mad, the dispossessed, and the great and neargreat [sic]—with James Baldwin interrupting from time to time, like a punchy and pugnacious drunk awakening from a boozy doze during a stag movie, to introduce his garrulous, irrelevant, and by now predictable comments on how to live, how to love, and how to build Jerusalem.

“[L]ending himself to such an enterprise,” Brustein concluded, “Baldwin reveals that he is now part and parcel of the very things he is criticizing." Baldwin was one of a handful of Black writers who had a white audience in 1963, and he lost it.

Another white intellectual who found it necessary to call Baldwin out was Irving Howe. But this time, Baldwin ducked, and Howe’s shot struck a different target. [p. 600]  

Mocking buppies, in 1964, and 2021.

"White people don’t write group autobiographies", but Jews do. "Another white intellectual... Irving Howe" (I stripped the footnotes but kept two below)

The size of the Jewish population in New York made it natural for second-generation Jews to assimilate and for discriminatory barriers to fall. Although some continued to try, it made no sense for schools, employers, and even private associations to exclude a quarter or more of the local population. A notion later grew up that a sense of being socially and culturally marginalized is what drew Jewish intellectuals to the coterie life of radical politics and gave them a critical eye on mainstream culture.* None of them ever claimed this. Most of them felt, with the same reservations that any American intellectual might have had, that they were part of mainstream culture.** What they rejected was the Yiddishkeit, the Jewish-centered provincialism, of their parents. And, of course, the overwhelming majority of second-generation American Jews had nothing to do with radical politics or cultural criticism.”[p. 161]

*See Alexander Bloom, Prodigal Sons: The New York Intellectuals and Their World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 11–27; Terry A. Cooney, The Rise of the New York Intellectuals: Partisan Review and Its Circle, 1934–1945 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1986), 43–44; Hugh Wilford, The New York Intellectuals: From Vanguard to Institution (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995), 2–8; Joseph Dorman, Arguing the World: The New York Intellectuals in Their Own Words (New York: Free Press, 2000), 9–11. Cf. Russell Jacoby, The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe (New York: Basic Books, 1987), 72–111. See also Norman Podhoretz, Making It (New York: Random House, 1967), 116–25.

See “Under Forty: A Symposium on American Literature and the Younger Generation of American Jews,” 3–36; Irving Howe, World of Our Fathers: The Journey of the East European Jews to America and the Life They Found and Made (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986), 598–602. 

Taking people at their word. Making It. The only reference to Portnoy's Complaint is in a discussion of censorship. The central themes of postwar Jewish culture are assimilation and insecurity. And of course all comedy is "cultural criticism". 

I have no interest in Avedon, or in the book, recently republished with new introduction by Hilton Als. Criticism of radical chic is fine as long as it's better than Tom Wolfe, but Baldwin never pretended he wasn't bourgeois. He didn't indulge narcissistic fantasies... or maybe he did, as we all do, but not as a moralist or pedant. The last link's to Menand. Maybe he should debate Als. 

The Ghost of Panofsky. I thought of this today in a different context, but of course it fits. From 1969:

We are living in a time of exploding nationalisms. The blacks in America are the first to abjure the idea of assimilation, to realize the inherent lie in the concept of melting pot. Through black nationalism has developed a new black pride and hence the ticket to liberation. 
Today’s young American Jew is a good bit slower. He desperately wants assimilation: Jewishness embarrasses him. He finds the idea of Jewish nationalism, Israel notwithstanding, laughable. The leftist Jewish student is today‘s Uncle Tom. He scrapes along, demonstrating for a John Hatchett. ashamed of his identity. and obsessed with it. He cannot accept the fact that he is seen as a Jew, that his destiny is that of the Jews, and that his only effectiveness is as a Jew. But he wants to be an “American,” a leftist American, talking liberation and aspiring WASP. He is a ludicrous figure. 
jumping forward, Baldwin and Mailer

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