Monday, July 26, 2021

Baldwin and Avedon, now Baldwin and Mailer

Mailer, "The White Negro", Dissent, Fall 1957

Probably, we will never be able to determine the psychic havoc of the concentration camps and the atom bomb upon the unconscious mind of almost everyone alive in these years. For the first time in civilized history, perhaps for the first time in all of history, we have been forced to live with the suppressed knowledge that the smallest facets of our personality or the most minor projection of our ideas, or indeed the absence of ideas and the absence of personality could mean equally well that we might still be doomed to die as a cipher in some vast statistical operation in which our teeth would be counted. and our hair would be saved, but our death itself would be unknown, unhonored, and unremarked, a death which could not follow with dignity as a possible consequence to serious actions we had chosen, but rather a death by deus ex machina in a gas chamber or a radioactive city; and so if in the midst of civilization—that civilization founded upon the Faustian urge to dominate nature by mastering time, mastering the links of social cause and effect—in the middle of an economic civilization founded upon the confidence that time could indeed be subjected to our will, our psyche was subjected itself to the intolerable anxiety that death being causeless, life was causeless as well, and time deprived of cause and effect had come to a stop. 

The Second World War presented a mirror to the human condition which blinded anyone who looked into it. For if tens of millions were killed in concentration camps out of the inexorable agonies and contractions of super-states founded upon the always insoluble contradictions of injustice, one was then obliged also to see that no matter how crippled and perverted an image of man was the society he had created, it wits nonetheless his creation, his collective creation (at least his collective creation from the past) and if society was so murderous, then who could ignore the most hideous of questions about his own nature?  

Worse. One could hardly maintain the courage to be individual, to speak with one's own voice, for the years in which one could complacently accept oneself as part of an elite by being a radical were forever gone. A. man knew that when he dissented, he gave a note upon his life which could be called in any year of overt crisis. No wonder then that these have been the years of conformity and depression. A stench of fear has come out of every pore of American life, and we suffer from a collective failure of nerve. The only courage, with rare exceptions, that we have been witness to, has been the isolated courage of isolated people.

II  

It is on this bleak scene that a phenomenon has appeared: the American existentialist—the hipster. the man who knows that if our collective condition is to live with instant death by atomic war, relatively quick death by the State as l'univers concentrationnaire. or with a slow death by conformity with every creative and rebellious instinct stifled (at what damage to the mind and the heart and the liver and the nerves no research foundation for cancer will discover in a hurry) , if the fate of twentieth century man is to live with death from adolescence to premature senescence. why then the only life-giving answer is to accept the terms of death. to live with death as immediate danger. to divorce oneself from society. to exist without roots. to set out on that uncharted journey into the rebellious imperatives of the self. In short. whether the life is criminal or not. the decision is to encourage the psychopath in oneself. to explore that domain of experience where security is boredom and therefore sickness. and one exists in the present, in that enormous present which is without past or future. memory or planned intention. the life where a man must go until he is beat. where he must gamble with his energies through all those small or large crises of courage and unforeseen situations which beset his day. where he must be with it or doomed not to swing. The unstated essence of Hip, its psychopathic brilliance. quivers with the knowledge that new kinds of victories increase one's power for new kinds of perception; and defeats. the wrong kind of defeats. attack the body and imprison one's energy until one isjailed in the prison air of other people's habits. other people’s defeats. boredom. quiet desperation. and muted icy self- destroying rage. One is Hip or one is Square (the alternative which each new generation coming into American life is beginning to feel) one is a rebel or one conforms. one is a frontiersman in the Wild West of American night life. or else a Square cell, trapped in the totalitarian tissues of American society. doomed willy-nilly to conform if one is to succeed.

A totalitarian society makes enormous demands on the courage of men, and a partially totalitarian society makes even greater demands for the general anxiety is greater. Indeed if one is to be a man. almost any kind of unconventional action often takes disproportionate courage. So it is no accident that the source of Hip is the Negro for he has been living on the margin between totalitarianism and democracy for two centuries. But the presence of Hip as a working philosophy in the sub-worlds of American life is probably due to jazz. and its knife-like entrance into culture, its subtle but so penetrating influence on an avant-garde generation —that post-war generation of adventurers who (some consciously. some by osmosis) had absorbed the lessons of disillusionment and disgust of the Twenties, the Depression, and the War. Sharing a collective disbelief in the words of men who had too much money and controlled too many things, they knew almost as powerful a disbelief in the socially monolithic ideas of the single mate, the solid family and the respectable love life. If the intellectual antecedents of this generation can be traced to such separate influences as D. H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, and Wilhelm Reich, the viable philosophy of Hemingway fits most of their facts: in a bad world, as he was to say over and over again (while taking time out from his parvenu snobbery and dedicated gourmandise), in a bad world there is no love nor mercy nor charity norjustice unless a man can keep his courage, and this indeed fitted some of the facts. What fitted the need of the adventurer even more precisely was Hemingway’s categorical imperative that what made him feel good became therefore The Good.

So no wonder that in certain cities of America, in New York of course, and New Orleans, in Chicago and San Francisco and Los Angeles, in such American cities as Paris and Mexico, D.F., this particular part of a generation was attracted to what the Negro had to offer. In such places as Greenwich Village, a ménage-a-trois was completed—the bohemian and the juvenile delinquent came face-to—face with the Negro, and the hipster was a fact in American life. If marijuana was the wedding ring, the child was the language of Hip for its argot gave expression to abstract states of feeling which all could share, at least all who were Hip. And in this wedding of the white and the black it was the Negro who brought the cultural dowry. Any Negro who wishes to live must live with danger from his first day, and no experience can ever be casual to him, no Negro can saunter down a street with any real certainty that violence will not visit him on his walk. The cameos of security for the average white: mother and the home, lob and the family, are not even a mockery to millions of Negroes; they are impossible. The Negro has the simplest of alternatives: live a life of constant humility or ever-threatening danger. In such a pass where paranoia is as vital to survival as blood, the Negro had stayed alive and begun to grow by following the need of his body where he could. Knowing in the cells of his existence that life was war, nothing but war, the Negro (all exceptions admitted) could rarely afford the sophisticated inhibitions of civilization, and so he kept for his survival the art of the primitive, he lived in the enormous present, he subsisted for his Saturday night kicks, relinquishing the pleasures of the mind for the more obligatory pleasures of the body, and in his music he gave voice to the character and quality of his existence, to his rage and the infinite variations ofjoy, lust, languor, growl, cramp, pinch, scream and despair of his orgasm. For jazz is orgasm, it is the music of orgasm, good orgasm and bad, and so it spoke across a nation, it had the communication of art even where it was  watered, perverted, corrupted, and almost killed, it spoke in no matter what laundered popular way of instantaneous existential states to which some whites could respond, it was indeed a communication by art because it said, “I feel this, and now you do too."

Baldwin, "The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy Norman Mailer" Esquire, 1961

I First met Norman Mailer about five years ago, in Paris, at the home of Jean Malaquais. Let me bring in at once the theme that will repeat itself over and over throughout this love letter: I was then (and l have not changed much) a very tight, tense, lean, abnormally ambitious, abnormally intelligent, and hungry black eat. It is important that I admit that, at the time I met Norman, 1 was extremely worried about my career; and a writer who is worried about his career is also fighting for his life. I was approaching the end ofa love affair, and I was not taking it very well. Norman and I are alike in this, that we both tend to suspect others of putting us down, and we strike before we‘re struck. Only, our styles are very different: I am a black boy from the Harlem streets, and Norman is a middle-class Jew. I am not dragging my personal history into this gratuitously, and I hope I do not need to say that no sneer is implied in the above description of Norman. But these are the facts and in my own relationship to Norman they are crucial facts.

Also, I have no right to talk about Norman without risking a distinctly chilling self-exposure. I take him very seriously, he is very dear to me. And I think I know something about his journey from my black boy's point of View because my own joumey is not really so very different, and also because I have spent most of my life, after all, watching white people and outwitting them, so that I might survive. I think that I know something about the American masculinity which most men of my generation do not know because they have not been menaced by it in the way that I have been. It is still true, alas, that to be an American Negro male is also to be a kind of walking phallic symbol: which means that one pays, in one‘s own personality, for the sexual insecurity of others. The relationship, therefore, of a black boy to a white boy is a very complex thing

There is a difference, though, between Norman and myself in that I think he still imagines that he has something to save, whereas I have never had anything to lose. Or, perhaps, I ought to put it another way: the thing that most white people imagine that they can  salvage from the storm of life is really, in sum,  their innocence; It  was this commodity precisely which I had to get rid of at once, literally at pain of death I am I am afraid that most of the white people I have ever known impressed me as being in the grip of a weird nostalgia, dreaming of a vanished state of security and order, against which dream, unfailingly and unconsciously, they tested and very often lost their lives. It is a terrible thing to say, but I am afraid that for a very long time the troubles of white people failed to impress me as being real trouble. They put me in mind of children crying because the breast has been taken away. Time and love have modified my tough~boy lack of charity, but the attitude sketched above was my first attitude and I am sure that there is a great deal of it left.

Marcel Reich-Ranicki said the only German he ever met who fully understood the significance of  the Holocaust to Jews was Ulrike Meinhof.

Baldwin can't recognize that Jews aren't white. He can't see Mailer's desire—Jewish desire—to assimilate, and the ability to pass.  It's the central theme of Zionism and of Jewish life after the founding of Israel. It's the subtext to everything Mailer wrote.

"For the first time in civilized history, perhaps for the first time in all of history,..." Mailer can't imagine the millennia of nameless slaves, serfs, and peasants. And Mailer and Baldwin both can't see a France beyond the tasteful intellectual bourgeoisie of talk and food and wine, oblivious to the romance of determinism and revolution, nihilism and utopia that was modernism. For both, America and Americanism is the center of the universe, and Europe is the other.

The White Negro begins with a passage from "Born 1930: The Unlost Generation", by Caroline Bird, Harper's Bazaar, Feb., 1957

Our search for the rebels of the generation led us to the hipster. The hipster is an enfant terrible turned inside out. In character with his time, he is trying to get back at the conformists by lying low. . . . You can’t interview a hipster because his main goal is to keep out of a society which, he thinks, trying to make everyone over in its own image. He takes marijuana because it supplies him with experiences that can’t be shared with “squares.” He may affect a broad-brimmed hat or a zoot suit, but usually he prefers to skulk unmarked. The hipster may be a jazz musician; he is rarely an artist, almost never a writer. He may earn his living as a petty criminal, a hobo, a carnival roustabout or a free-lance moving man in Greenwich Village, but some hipsters have found a safe refuge in the upper income brackets as television comics or movie actors. (The late James Dean, for one, was a hipster hero.) . . . it is tempting to describe the hipster in psychiatric terms as infantile, but the style of his infantilism is a sign of the times, he does not try to enforce his will on others, Napoleon-fashion, but contents himself with a magical omnipotence never disproved because never tested. . . . As the only extreme nonconformist of his generation, he exercises a powerful if underground appeal for conformists, through newspaper accounts of his delinquencies, his structureless jazz, and his emotive grunt words.

Before the hipster, Bird describes other types. 

The Corporate Man

Corporate man is easy to find. We found him through the personnel director of a multi-million dollar corporation. As an executive trainee, twenty-eight years old. he was used to being probed. polled and tested, and he answered our inquiries with a poise beyond his years.  He took his present job. he volunteered. because the company had a reputation for treating everybody fairly and taking a real interest in you. He's happy in personnel work because he likes people. His wife likes them too—they have lots of friends in the new suburban develop- ment where they live. Her photo. graph comes easily out of his wallet and shows a pleasantly pretty. some what earnest girl in babushka and slacks. holding a baby. He talks easily. too. of their life together. He has no objections to the standardization of his home. The builders did a fair job. and he has built in his own touches of individuality—flan outdoor barbecue that is different in design from his neighbor's. a storage wall  a that neatly includes the TV set. He speaks of the friendliness of development living, of block parties. shared responsibility for baby-sitting and car pools. He makes it clear that his is no life of quiet desperation. Its similarity to that of his neighbors doesn't depress him. In fact. he finds it reassuring: neither he nor his wife believe in being “cliquey.”  Religion? They go to the Presbyterian Church because they like the minister and the Sunday school is the most popular, even though he himself was born a Unitarian. Politics? He guesses both parties are pretty much alike, but he voted Republican because he liked Ike and he's never forgotten that Ike ended the Korean War. It was the only war he was ever in, and it was enough. Reading? He wishes he had more time for it, though he subscribes to a weekly news magazine and the Reader’s Digest. His wife manages to read most of the best-selling novels. but he prefers nonfiction. He read Love Or Perish, and thought there was a lot of truth in it, but in general he likes books that give you information.

The interviewer can’t help feeling he’s really much nicer than Babbitt—more sensitive, less ambitious, more genuine. He is a good listener, attentive to nuances of personality. Personality, in fact, is one of his words. He speaks of it as if it were a commodity, something that can be manufactured and sold. It’s what he likes in entertainment figures. It’s what helps you to get along (he never says “get ahead"). His own personality seems so smooth that, for all his ingenuous frankness, the interviewer has a hard time getting a purchase on him. If he had gone to Princeton, he would have been known approvingly as “tweed"—the Ivy League slang for “regular guy" which describes him in terms of his uniform and leaves one wondering whether there is an unknown and possibly quite different man inside the clothing.

The Intellectual 

While today’s young intellectuals would. for the most part, repudiate the notion of conformity. they are certainly less in conflict with the conventional ethos of their time— less adventurous and less embattled —than the intellectuals of the 1920’s and ’30's: the maverick and the Bohemian are becoming increasingly rare species among the young.  Like his contemporary in the business world, the young intellectual prefers the security of working for a large institution to the hazards and high hopes of independence. and his sights are firmly set on the universities and the foundations. As a writer, he is more apt to devote his energies to scholarship and criticism, which will further his professional status. than to fiction and poetry. As a social animal. his style of dress and living, while informal. is more likely to be conventional than not. As a voter, he was probably for Stevenson, but by and large he is leery of political involvement. For one thing. the "loyalty" inquiries of recent years—though he had strong feelings about the issues at stake—impressed upon him the danger of going out on a political limb. In the second place, the whole climate of the age is not one in which causes are flourishing.... 

Perhaps the most striking characteristic of the young intellectuals—an unusual one for this tribe—is their modesty. They are distinctly less dogmatic, assertive, exhibitionistic  than their counterparts in previous eras. They are interested in their inner life, but they do not expect to interest everyone else in it.

She begins her list of categories with this

The Revolt Against Sexual Experiment

“I'm sick of hearing almut my father's generation as the lost generation.“ the heroine of William Styron's Lie Down in Darkness says of her philandering father. "They weren't lost. They were losing us." To the generation born 1930 sexual laxity no longer seems smart. Too many of today's young people have felt its results. They have rediscovered—and for the children of divorce, the hard way—that sex has social as well as individual consequences. They are less interested in experiment than in building lasting marriages, and they fervently believe that the proper end of love is a child. Their actions speak even louder than their words. More young women are marrying: in 1920 almost half the girls aged 20 to 24 were single, while in 1953 the figure was down to 21 per cent. Both men and women are marrying earlier: between 1930 and 1955, the median age of marriage dropped a year and a half to 22.7 for men and a little over a year. to 20.2 for women. They are also having babies sooner: 56 per cent of women 21 to 25 are mothers, compared with 42 per cent in 1920.  

The Revolt Against Criticism 

The generation of 1930 grew up awash in words, victims of a generation hell-bent on explaining itself—in books, on canvas and in endlessly speculative palaver. In contrast, today's young adults are certainly not afflicted by the urge to communicate. Conversationally, they believe in playing it safe...

And ends... 

The Future  

Where are these silent, smooth young people going? To their elders. they seem to be building a somewhat savorless society, lacking in individual idiosyncrasy, intellectual vitality, or even political responsibility. Certainly they raise troubling questions for the sociologist. How. he asks, can our capitalist economy sustain its dynamism if so few are willing to take risks? What will happen to our culture if there is a continued decline in the American tradition of protest?

There is a chance that while the young seem tame, uncommitted, they may be invisibly moving in a direction so radical that we cannot as yet conceive it. For, as the phenomenon of the United States moved Alexis de Tocqueville to say so long ago: “Time. events, or the unaided individual action of the mind will sometimes undermine or destroy an opinion. without any outward sign of the change. As its enemies remain mute or only interchange their thoughts by stealth, they are themselves unaware for a long period that a great revolution has actually been effected; and in this state of uncertainty they take no steps; they observe one another and are silent." 

I should also add this, on Mailer and Baldwin, and the future that came to be, each generation knowing less and less about the past or a world beyond its own experience, repeating patterns of behavior, oblivious.

Especially for young kids first getting into the scene, punk purity is a powerful draw. I remember, as a disaffected teen, my sense was that everything sucked so completely that whatever could save me from the suckiness must feel, at least, as totalizing. The same teenage tendency to view the world as a monolithic either/or that turned me on to college radio and 7" records also made The Fountainhead my favorite book when I was 16. When we find out as punkish adults about the ghastliness of Ayn Rand's politics, it's easy enough to disavow our teen dalliances with Objectivism. But what do we do about punk when we realize that that purity to which we were so drawn was, in fact, homogenizing, exclusionary? That's the question, I realize, of a white punkish adult, as I am, and as are the editors of White Riot. For punks of color, that realization may have clouded the promise of punk from the beginning. 

See also

and

No comments: