I was riding the train back to the city yesterday with my friend Dan and we were talking about some of the struggles he was having in reconciling his reading of James Baldwin's Notes of a Native Son with the Harlem he was living in this summer. He was wrestling with what historians call "presentism." His struggle was to put aside his own experience and try to reside fully in Baldwin's world of Harlem in the 1950's; he wanted the past to somehow confirm his present understanding. The issue, then, is one of time. But is it possible to be "timeless?"
Baldwin is a particularly difficult person to read in this way because he possesses the remarkable capacity to arrive at "timeless truths." But part of the reason he can achieve this is precisely because he is such a good historian. What he understands deeply is that "people are trapped in history and history is trapped in them." Perhaps along with Toni Morrison and Robert Penn Warren, I think of Baldwin as being one of the great American historians. For example, here he is talking about the role that history plays in our lives,
"For history, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do...In great pain in terror one enters into battle with that historical creation, oneself, and attempts to recreate oneself according to a principle more humane and more liberating; one begins the attempt to achieve a level of personal maturity and freedom which robs history of its tyrannical power, and also changes history."
I was telling Dan, who had been a student at CITYterm, that one of the reasons that we had so many authorship seminars during the semester was partly based on my experience of meeting Baldwin when I was in high school. It was a profound moment and one that I unpacked for years because it had so many layers. I already loved the way he wrote--the way he manipulated words and ideas--but I left that seminar with a feeling that I was unable to put into language until much later.
In short, I came to realize that part of the reason I responded to Baldwin the way I did was because he was beautiful. This was not an obvious conclusion because Baldwin was not, by first glance, someone you would say that about. This forced me to re-evaluate what I thought beauty was, and how, in truth, what I had been doing was confusing beauty with attractiveness. So often what is described as being being beautiful is far less than that; it is not something that lifts us up but something more mundane and generic. And, at the same time, "unattractive beauty" slips by without our even noticing.
I have spent many hours reading Baldwin and always with this thought in the back of my head--where did that beauty that I recognized that night come from? Part of the reason, I was telling Dan, as Metro-North rolled into the 125th street station, was because I think he "entered into battle with that historical creation, oneself" and that he did attempt to recreate himself "according to a principle more humane and more liberating." He used the past in order to be fully present in that personal re-creation. That is no easy feat, and one we might all aspire to.
The effect was, in fact, to be in the presence of beauty. Years after meeting Baldwin I was reading Annie Dillard's meditation Pilgrim at Tinker's Creek and came across this line, "The answer must be, I think, that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is to try to be there." Why I was there that night as seventeen year old high school student, I have no idea, but I have been eternally grateful; it changed my life. And the more I keep the difference between beauty and attraction straight, the more I am there for the performance.