“…a study of this baffling geography…”

James Baldwin, a grossly talented, truthful, and penetrating writer, is at his best in some of the reviews, speeches, and essays in the edited collection The Cross of Redemption.  This is the first part of his review of The Arrangement, a novel by Elia Kazan:

Memory, especially as one grows older, can do strange and disquieting things.  Though we would like to live without regrets, and sometimes proudly insist that we have none, this is not really possible, if only because we are mortal.  When more time stretches behind than stretches before one, some assessments, however reluctantly and incompletely, begin to be made.  Between what one wished to become and what one has become there is a momentous gap, which will now never be closed.  And this gap seems to operate as one’s final margin, one’s last opportunity, for creation.  And between the self as it is and the self as one sees it, there is also a distance, even harder to gauge.  Some of us are compelled, around the middle of our lives, to make  a study of this baffling geography, less in the hope of conquering these distances than in the determination that the distances shall not become any greater.  Chasms are necessary, but they can also, notoriously, be fatal.  At this point, one is attempting nothing less than the re-creation of oneself out of the rubble which has become one’s life…

Baldwin and “the writer’s subject”

I suppose that it has always been difficult to be a writer.  Writers tell us so; and so does the history of any given time or place and what one knows of the world’s indifference.  But I doubt that there could ever have been a time which demanded more of the writer than do these present days.  The world has shrunk to the size of several ignorant armies; each of them vociferously demanding allegiance and many of them brutally imposing it.  Nor is it easy for me, when I try to examine the world in which I live, to distinguish the right side from the wrong side.  I share, for example, the ideals of the West–freedom, justice, brotherhood–but I cannot say that I have often seen these honored; and the people whose faces are set against us have never seen us honor them at all.

But finally for me the difficulty is to remain in touch with the private life.  The private life, his own and that of others, is the writer’s subject–his key and ours to his achievement.  Nothing, I submit, is more difficult than deciphering what the citizens of this time and place actually feel and think.  They do not know themselves; when they talk, they talk to the psychiatrist; on the theory, presumably, that the truth about them is ultimately unspeakable.  This thoroughly infantile delusion has its effects: it is contagious.  The writer trapped among a speechless people is in danger of becoming speechless himself.  For then he has no mirror, no corroborations of his essential reality; and this means that he has no grasp of the reality of the people around him.  What the times demand, and in an unprecedented fashion, is that one be–not seem–outrageous, independent, anarchical.  That one be thoroughly disciplined–as a means of being spontaneous.  That one resist at whatever cost the fearful pressures placed on one to lie about one’s own experience.  For in the same way that the writer scarcely ever had a more uneasy time, he has never needed more.