Max Heidelberger

Max is a displaced Virginian who finds himself living in Princeton, NJ with his wife and their "child," a Bernese Mountain Dog named Calvin. The Shenandoah Valley is where his heart lies, and he finds that reading a good book on a Virginia porch is about as good as it gets. You can follow him on Twitter @MaxHeidelberger

Prophesying Fire: The Legacy of James Baldwin

When James Baldwin’s famous account of America’s race crisis, The Fire Next Time, was first published in 1963, the critic Frederick Wilcox Dupee penned a review in the February issue of The New York Review of Books, which begins charitably enough: “As a writer of polemical essays on the Negro question James Baldwin has no equals.” But from this point onwards, Dupee’s review devolves into condescension. Dupee’s thesis is that Baldwin “exchanged prophecy for criticism, exhortation for analysis, and the results for his mind and style are in part disturbing.” After dismissing out of hand Baldwin’s epistle “My Dungeon Shook” as “not good Baldwin”—leaving the reader to wonder just what Dupee means by “good Baldwin”—Dupee turns to the much more famous and extensive second portion of the book, “Down At the Cross: Letter From a Region of My Mind.” Dupee admits that much of what is found here is “unexceptionably first-rate,” praising Baldwin’s account of his childhood and his “data” on the Nation of Islam—the content of Baldwin’s brief interview with the movement’s leader, Elijah Muhammad. But against the analysis that Baldwin levels against Dupee himself, as a member of the white majority and shareholder in white power as a critic of art, Dupee mounts a defense. He begins with a quote from Baldwin:

“’White Americans do not believe in death, and this is why the darkness of my skin so intimidates them.’ But suppose one or two white Americans are not intimidated. Suppose someone coolly asks what it means to ‘believe in death.’ Again: ‘Do I really want to be integrated into a burning house?’ Since you have no other, yes; and the better-disposed firemen will welcome your assistance. Again: ‘A vast amount of the energy that goes into what we call the Negro problem is produced by the white man’s profound desire not to be judged by those who are not white.’ You exaggerate the white man’s consciousness of the Negro.”

Aside from providing a list of now-iconic lines from Baldwin, Dupee reveals his own prejudice and fear in his rebuke of Baldwin’s attempts to make clear the parameters and effects of systemic racism. In questioning what it means to believe in death, Dupee’s own ambivalence and ignorance is exposed; Dupee ironically shows that he himself does not know. Dupee’s final proposition, that Baldwin “exaggerates the white man’s consciousness of the Negro,” reinforces a reality that Baldwin himself articulated in terms that were nothing less than luminous: the complete lack of whites’ consciousness of black life. Perhaps if he had not so quickly glazed over “My Dungeon Shook,” Dupee would have realized that Baldwin had described this same unconsciousness: “I am writing this letter to you [Baldwin’s nephew], to try to tell you something about how to handle them [whites], for most of them do not yet really know that you exist.”[1]

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Dupee’s review aside, The Fire Next Time is widely regarded today as a classic of literature, and essential reading for any student of race in America. In the two essays that comprise the small book, James Baldwin describes the status of the African American persons in American society, the religious ramifications of race, and the necessary response. The book’s brilliance is that it offers criticism that is both cultural and constructive—a point that Dupee fails to appreciate, even if he rightly identifies Baldwin’s prophetic tone. This tension, between constructive prophecy and criticism, has been born out throughout African American literature, and the dialectic remains apparent today in Baldwin’s successors. Baldwin’s legacy reveals an ongoing conversation in African American literature between the impulse to place hope in a future that has not yet come, and the urgent need to protect the body and safeguard African American life in the present.

This conflict has much to do with the historic relationship of American Christianity to both African American oppression and liberation; a topic that is well beyond the breadth of this discussion. Nevertheless, in much contemporary African American literature, there is a tendency to attend to the black body and threats posed to it by whiteness, and to see this attention as being at odds with constructive prophetic discourse. By this line of thinking, attention to the present means an attention to the body, and to attend to a hoped-for future is to separate oneself from life as it is truly lived. Few would disagree with the truth that defense of the body is defense of life. However, there is a life-giving aspect to prophecy as well, and “good Baldwin,” Baldwin at his best, critiques the bodily abuses of the present through both anthropological criticism and outward attention to prophetic hope.

Over the past year, Baldwin’s legacy has been taken up by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jesmyn Ward. Jesmyn Ward’s new anthology, The Fire This Time, is a spiritual sequel to Baldwin’s incendiary work, and Coates’ Between the World and Me offers a Baldwin-esque bildungsroman, narrating the experience of growing up black in a white nation. These writers are re-embodying Baldwin’s voice for an America that remains as racialized and divided as ever.

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In her introduction to her anthology The Fire This Time, Jesmyn Ward identifies a crucial fact that Dupee missed, and which Baldwin knew well: Baldwin wrote for a black audience in a white world. In the aftermath of the killing of Travyon Martin, Ward “realized that most Americans did not see Trayvon Martin as I did.”[2] There was little understanding of Martin’s death as a tragedy outside of the black community, leading Ward to realize that Martin’s embodiment meant something different to non-black Americans.[3] In the wake Martin’s death, the experience of reading Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time transported Ward: “It was as if I sat on my porch steps with a wise father, a kind, present uncle, who… told me I was worthy of love.”[4] Ward felt inspired to re-present this tradition—passing the torch of struggle to a new generation of black children, activists, and thinkers—through an anthology. As an anthology, Ward’s book offers a catalogue of powerful, visionary voices, a community in which a frightened child might find “a wise aunt, a more present mother, who saw her terror and despair threading their fingers through her hair, and would comfort her.”[5] The result of Ward’s formal decision to assemble an anthology is that Baldwin’s voice is multiplied through many mouths, making The Fire This Time a recalibration and expansion of Baldwin’s original message for the present.

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The book is divided into three segments, oriented to past, present, and future: Legacy, Reckoning, and Jubilee. Legacy and Reckoning consumes the bulk of the book, while Jubilee is relegated to the final twenty pages. Ward bemoans this fact, but also acknowledges its underpinnings: the past is “inextricably interwoven… in the present” and yet “bears on the future.”[6] Ward also admits to “a certain exhaustion,” an exhaustion no doubt felt across the African American community in 2016.[7] It’s hard to speak of jubilee, of prophecy, when racial violence and futility appear at every turn. To imagine a different future is difficult for Ward, and if her anthology is deficient, it is due to a deficit of the imagination; a deficit born of suffering, but a deficit nonetheless.

The future remained very much in view at the end of Baldwin’s essay. The final lines of “My Dungeon Shook” roar of Biblical judgment and justice: “God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!”[8] This line, taken from a slave spiritual, does not refer to the fire of revolution, but to the fire of judgment. This is a fire that brings resolution and justice; a fire that signals not the endurance of struggle, but the end of struggle. Baldwin meant to speak of fire as a warning; judgment is coming, and we ought to prepare ourselves. This was the religious angle that Dupee saw and feared. When Ward invokes Baldwin’s prophecy in the title of her own anthology, she is representing this religious voice, but blunting its prophetic edge. To speak of the fire this time means to look for the fire again and again, in the present. The future is awash in doubt, and justice is far from a forgone conclusion. For Ward, the sin of racism and racialized violence is one that must be repented of forever, without end. As a permanent, immovable brand on the American consciousness, there will be not one, but many judgments. That is why the central chapter of Ward’s collection bears the name Reckoning; and Ward’s is a sense of reckoning has to do more with taking account of the state of things, rather than hoping for a new reality.

Aside from shifting Baldwin’s prophetic voice form the future to the present, Ward offers a different sort of rationale for the task of exposing America’s racist history. Of her new collection, Ward writes, “I believe there is a power in words, power in asserting our existence, our experience, our lives, through words. That sharing our stories confirms our humanity.”[9] The rationale for Ward’s collection is an anthropological one, rooted in narrative. In sharing stories, we are speaking and empower ourselves. There is an inward turn here, to sharing the self, and in so doing, liberating the self, and confirming the self’s perception of the world. Baldwin’s turn is quite the opposite, focused outward. In “My Dungeon Shook,” Baldwin writes to his nephew James of a different kind of commitment. Not a commitment to reckoning, but a commitment to love.

“There is no reason for you to try to become like white people and there is no basis whatsoever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you. The really terrible thing… is that you must accept them. […] You must accept them and accept them with love. For these innocent people have no other hope. They are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.”[10]

This is a provocative piece of writing. In the context of black liberation, acceptance and liberation—turned towards the white oppressor—seems incredible. Baldwin is asking his nephew to love his white neighbor away from the inhibitions which keep her from seeing him as he is: fully human, and capable of both giving and receiving love. While Ward’s anthology offers space to vent and discuss trauma, Baldwin’s text is a call to neighbor-love: “these men are your brothers—your lost, younger brothers.”[11]

Baldwin’s call to love is a call to an identification of the other, not identification of the self: “we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are.”[12] Baldwin knows who he is, and so he can identify the other. One senses from Ward, and from her colleagues, that the racial crisis of the twenty-first century is one of self-identification. Ward’s anthology focuses on issues relevant to black identity: Rachel Dolezal’s imitation of blackness, the complexities of family heritage, knowing one’s rights in a police state, and the condition of black life. These are all internal concerns which Baldwin himself knew well, crimes “for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive.”[13] And yet Baldwin does condescend, through his anger and hurt, to offer something to the wicked innocence of whiteness, to love his white neighbors by revealing to them their crimes, and in so doing, find healing.

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Like Ward, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ also reckons with the realities of his time, and evokes Baldwin’s own aesthetic through his beautiful syntax and searing critique. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ ascension to the mantle of Baldwin has been met with some controversy, however, largely due to Coates’ assertion that Baldwin’s method—the way of love—cannot stop bodies from piling in American streets.

“…all our phrasing—race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy—serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.”[14]

Between the World and Me is a letter to Coates’ son, sharing Baldwin’s epistolary form. But of Baldwin’s letter lays the burden of love upon his nephew James, Coates wants nothing more than to see the burden lifted from his own son. Coates will not condescend to Dupee and other whites in the service of a better world. To his son, he writes “the birth of a better world is ultimately not up to you. […] You are a black boy, and you must be responsible for your body in a way that other boys cannot know.”[15] Likewise, Coates has no time for the ideals that Baldwin espouses, prophecy in particular: “You must resist the common urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law, toward fairy tales that imply so irrepressible justice.”[16] In Coates’ uncompromisingly physical world, a black boy’s only responsibility is for himself, and for the actions of other black bodies. Coates’ tone is not cynical, but realistic. He is frank about the realities he sees, and his hope is agnostic at best.

And yet Coates is not immune to the fairy tales he condemns. Coates’ unique take on Marvel Comics’ Black Panther shows that Coates has at least a propensity to entertain other realms than the world of flesh and blood in which he lives. Like Baldwin, Coates is searching for something imaginative—perhaps we can call it an eschatology, but it may be better described as a mythology—to mediate the crisis in the streets. Coates writes how as a child “I found the tales of comic books to be an escape, another reality where, very often, the weak and mocked could transform their fallibility into fantastic power.”[17] Coates’ fascination with comic books is not unlike Baldwin’s own fascination with religion. In “Down at the Cross,” Baldwin writes of the thrill of worshipping:

“It took a long time for me to disengage myself from this excitement, and on the blindest, most visceral level, I never really have, and never will. […] There is still, for me, no pathos quite like the pathos of those multicolored, worn, somehow triumphant and transfigured faces, speaking from the depths of a visible, tangible, continuing despair of the goodness of the Lord.”[18]

The hypocrisies of the church were not lost on Baldwin,[19] but he understood the imaginative power, the motifs, that religion could offer him. Coates, no doubt, sees something similar in the mythic world of superheroes. The Marvel Universe, like the Christian tradition, is populated by transformed and empowered individuals. Coates’ realism is thus punctuated by something like the Biblical motifs that Baldwin himself draws upon, even if their worldviews are at odds.

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Time will tell whether the literary offerings of Ward and Coates will retain the enduring value of Baldwin’s own work. In the present, they render interesting reinterpretations of Baldwin’s legacy, seeing in Baldwin both inspiration for and divergence from their own view of America’s race crisis. Ultimately, their differences are philosophical: both Ward and Coates speak with frank realism, while Baldwin himself was nothing less than an idealist, believing that human beings have the capacity to do better:

“If we—and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others—do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world.”[20]

Baldwin’s is a high calling, and perhaps, more than fifty years after the publication of The Fire Next Time, other writers are correct to question whether it is too high. Regardless, Baldwin’s followers have not lost his prophetic voice and his certainty, the borderline-religious conviction that Dupee could not stand. Dupee has no time for prophecy. Rather than dealing with Baldwin on Baldwin’s terms, Dupee would rather be dealing with a black man remade in his own white image: “When Baldwin replaces criticism with prophecy, he manifestly weakens his grasp of his role, his style, and his great theme itself.” By this, the end of Dupee’s review, it’s unclear just what “great theme” Dupee has in mind. On this point, “My Dungeon Shook” could have offered Dupee a saving insight: these words are not for him. Dupee finds in Baldwin’s work a storm of fear and confusion, but so would anyone who is guest to a conversation between individuals they know little of and care little for.

But Baldwin’s great theme—his prophetic certainty that America places itself under imminent judgment—no longer requires a critic’s endorsement. It has been carried on well enough in our time. Baldwin’s history speaks for itself. The critic’s role, and the role of Baldwin’s heirs, is now to assess how close we stand to the imminent blaze that the great man foresaw. It may be that we are engulfed already.

 


[1] James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time, “My Dungeon Shook,” 6.

[2] Jesmyn Ward, “Introduction” in The Fire Next Time, 4.

[3] Ibid., 6.

[4] Ibid., 7.

[5] Ibid., 8.

[6] Ibid., 9.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Baldwin, The Fire Next Time, 106.

[9] Ward, “Introduction,” 10.

[10] Baldwin, “My Dungeon Shook,” 8.

[11] Ibid., 9.

[12] Ibid., 10.

[13] Ibid., 6.

[14] Ta-Nehesi Coates, Between the World and Me, 10.

[15] Ibid., 71.

[16] Ibid., 71.

[17] Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Return of Black Panther” in The Atlantic, April 2016. http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/04/the-return-of-the-black-panther/471516/

[18] Baldwin, “Down at the Cross” in The Fire Next Time, 33.

[19] Of his experience in the church, Baldwin writes “I was… able to see that the principles governing the rites and customs of the churches in which I grew up did not differ from the principles governing the rites and customs of other churches, white. The principles were Blindness, Loneliness, and Terror.” Baldwin, “Down at the Cross,” 31.

[20] Baldwin, “Down at the Cross,” 105.

The Falling Star of the Self

When short forms are everywhere, from Facebook to Twitter, everyone fancies themselves a minor poet. Social media has provided the form, and now the content of poetry skews towards a celebration of the unadorned, defiant self.

My favorite example of this phenomenon is from John Updike, specifically his last collection of poetry, Endpoint. Assembled late in his life and published mere weeks before his own death, the collection starts out by cataloguing Updike’s recent birthdays. In “March Birthday, 2002, and After”, Updike awakens “alone and older, the storm that aged me / distilled to a skin of reminiscent snow.” Updike begins by describing this particular day in the manner of a weather report; the placid, snow-bound morning after the howling blizzard of his life. Ordinarily, a weather report would have something to offer the local community. Prepare for difficult driving conditions. Make sure to shovel your driveway. Updike’s imagery here is rich, but circular, having to do with Updike himself. This is not a weather report, but an Updike report, a final word of sorts. Having found ample time to contemplate his death, Updike relishes the opportunity to put the finishing touches on a life defined by self-reflection. Concluding “March Birthday”, Updike makes all days his own: “Birthday, death day—what day is not both?”

There’s something being said here about the confluence of experiences bound up in each 24-hour period; there’s also something being said of Updike himself. Specifically, we are told that each new dawn is an opportunity to celebrate the life of Updike, a gratuitous existential attempt to vaunt the self over all things, to make Updike the center of Updike’s own world, to have the final word.

For a long time, Endpoint was the only book of Updike’s that I owned. For this I blame David Foster Wallace, whose essay, “Certainly the End of Something or Other, One Would Sort of Have to Think”, is responsible for turning me off Updike and his work. In this scathing review of Updike’s late science-fiction novel Toward the End of Time (1997), Wallace lumps Updike with the other “Great Male Narcissists” of his generation, or—to use the Wallacian acronym—GMNs. The novel is an apocalyptic, futuristic meditation on the end of the self, of the world, whatever; for Wallace, the novel’s subject matter is beside the point. The novel flounders not because Updike is a bad sci-fi writer, or even a bad writer, but because Updike has fallen for a certain generational symptom. While the novel is indeed “clunky and self-indulgent,” Wallace is most critical of an attitude operative in Updike’s generation: the deterioration of a “brave new individualism” into “the joyless and anomic self-indulgence of the me-generation…the prospect of dying without even once having loved something more than yourself.” It was with Wallace’s critique in mind that I picked up Endpoint, and I found Wallace to be tragically correct.

This attitude has not gone away with modernists like Updike, but has bled over into the equally self-referential tendencies postmodern culture through the valuation of identity and independence. While we may now withhold judgment of others’ truths and are hesitant to totalize with our own, we still cultivate our private worlds with as much zeal as the GMNs—curating our self within the ether of the internet. So I am excited by poets who can take us—take me—outside of this interiority.

Ocean Vuong is one such poet. His first collection, Night Sky With Exit Wounds, is a profound contemplation not of the self in isolation, but the self in transaction. Vuong was born in Vietnam, the son of a Vietnamese farm girl and an American soldier, and raised in America by his mother and grandmother. Inhabiting a body that is both queer and racially complex, interior reflection for Vuong is not indulgent, but vital; what does it mean to inhabit a body that is threatened, a body that doesn’t fit common racial and sexual categories? In spite of this, Vuong, does not capitulate to the self-referential impulse. Rather, his poetry extends beyond himself, seeking to understand, to thank, and to forgive.

In recounting a tryst with another young man behind a baseball dugout in “Because It’s Summer”, Vuong describes a sexual experience not in terms of self-gratification, but of gratitude: “…but you don’t / deserve it: the boy & / his loneliness the boy who finds you / beautiful only because you’re not / a mirror.” Vuong’s lines are fragmentary, trapping words that evoke desperation and hope: deserve, loneliness, beautiful, mirror. Rather than using sexuality as a means to assert the self or resolve a crisis of identity, Vuong’s taut syntax transforms the experience into an undeserved grace. Vuong understands both himself and his partner to be selves in isolation. Inhabiting queer bodies, both boys have found each other in loneliness, and find each other beautiful because they are not “a mirror,” not the same. While they share a kind of loneliness, they inhabit different selves.

This experience of both sameness and difference calls Vuong out of himself, and for this inversion Vuong has no response but a fervent stream of “thank you thank you thank you… because that’s what you say / when a stranger steps out of summer / & offers you another hour to live.” Rather than celebrating or bemoaning the self, Vuong celebrates the other, recognizing how his needs are met by the body and companionship of another. Here Vuong does not celebrate self-reliance, but surrender, a surrender evoked in the brevity of the lines themselves as they cascade in small rivulets down the page.

This exteriorizing of the self through the other is replicated in a poem about Vuong’s relationship with his father, ‘To My Father / To My Future Son’. In this particular poem, Vuong imagines himself as both father and son, inhabiting the difference and sameness that characterized “Because It’s Summer”: “Look, my eyes are not / your eyes. / You move through me like rain / heard / from another country.” These lines manage to address both Vuong’s American father and Vuong’s unborn son—perhaps never to be born. Both figures move through Vuong “like rain,” familiar and close, and yet infinitely distant, “heard from another country.” There is intimacy, “you move through me,” and rupture “my eyes are not / your eyes.” Vuong’s suggestion to his father and son, across these paradoxes, is again to refuse the impulse to seize, to possess, and control: “If you are given my body, put it down.” Vuong’s father is to release the body of his son, and Vuong himself, as a possible father, is to operate as a body separate from that of his son. This is not a celebration of the singular self, but a chastening reminder that there is more to the self than singularity.

These complex relationships remain a permanent problem for Vuong, but this does not keep him from offering an answer. Responding to these complexities, and chastening the self, is the role of poetry. In the closing lines of “For My Father”, Vuong writes, “Turn back & find the book I left / for us, filled / with all the colors of the sky forgotten by gravediggers. / Use it. / Use it to prove how the stars / were always what we knew / they were: the exit wounds / of every misfired word.” Vuong’s “book,” his own poetry, is a means to gently dissect and understand the complex of relationships that constitute the self.

The poetry collection serves as a kind of key, filled with “colors… forgotten,” words that illuminate and teach. These words are not docile things, however; they are sharp and dangerous. Words are inherently relational, disclosing meaning only in plurality, in the context of other words. Because all words are neighbors, one “misfired” word can transform the truth of the entire sentence. This same relationality applies to the language we offer in service of ourselves and of the other.

In Vuong’s eponymous metaphor, our descriptions are like falling stars that emerge, fast and aflame, from the inscrutable darkness of space. These descriptions can serve us by imposing categories in language, but they can also do harm to the self for the exact same reason, cutting off alternative identities, revealing new truths at the expense of others. This is how language leaves “exit wounds” when “misfired” from the self. Faulty descriptions can do much harm, and are never made in a vacuum.

The metaphor is complex and rich, but the lesson is clear: selves are understood in descriptions, in language, and in relationship. Knowing this, Vuong calls his reader to risk the harm of language to know others as well as themselves. The self, if indeed a complex of relationships that are not easily described, requires extensive work, humility, and others to grasp. There is the risk of harm in the exchange, but the beauty of language draws us on our journey of understanding.

For Vuong, poetry is not a matter of asserting the self, but a matter of meeting other selves across the natural distances that exist between us. When such meetings occur, as in “Because It’s Summer”, our obligation is gratitude, not control. The words we offer in service of our self-description to others tear out of us like falling stars, motes of light in the darkness of the self, making us vulnerable. In watching for these stars, Vuong‘s poetry is turned outwards. It is an expression gratitude for the sight and touch of the other, bearing wounds with words in search of intimacy.

This poetry is a repudiation of Updike’s type of poetry with its attempt to have the last word, and to have it by himself, unshared. Where Updike would know himself through himself, Vuong seeks to know himself through others.

Vuong’s poetry emerges as a beautiful and gracious offering, seeking empathy while eschewing a self-referential impulse. In the first line of his opening poem, “Threshold”, Vuong writes that “In the body, where everything has a price, / I was a beggar.” Maybe this is the self we need to reimagine today. Not as kings, shaping our relationships and identities to suite us, but as supplicants, kneeling in the streets for a little communion, a little bread.

Cold Wars and Culture Wars

Ilya, a Soviet dissident living in mid-twentieth century Russia, seeks out his former teacher, Victor Yulievich, at his home in Moscow. Needing encouragement for dark times, Ilya hopes for a conversation that will rekindle the idealism and exhilaration of his schoolboy years. Upon his arrival Ilya finds Victor asleep in his library, a glass of vodka close at hand. The scene provides Ilya with a moment for stark reflection. “He would have to ask him: Why he was lying there all alone, half-drunk, surrounded by the finest works of Russian literature? Maybe it was true that only beauty would save the world, or truth, or some other high-flown garbage; but fear was still more powerful than anything else.” Referencing the famous platitude from Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, Ilya casts Victor as a kind of holy fool, one whose ideals are too noble and naïve to survive. Lying in a heap among these beautiful books, Victor encapsulates the crisis of the arts in Soviet Russia, becoming the emblem of Russia’s estranged relationship with its artists.

This relationship is a central concern of Ludmila Ulitskaya’s The Big Green Tent. Told largely through the eyes of three Soviet dissidents—a musician, a photographer, and a poet—and their families, The Big Green Tent demonstrates the bizarre relationship Russia shares with its own artists, paradoxically celebrated and censored. As Ultiskaya wryly notes in the novel, the 18th Century poet Pushkin may be the patron saint and founder of Russian literature, but not even he escaped the surveillance of the Tsar’s secret police: “The past was no better than the present. […] One had to try to escape, to wrestle free from every era, so as not to be devoured by it.” In Ulitskaya’s vision, the Russian artist is both intensely gifted but also destabilizing, traversing the borders of Russia’s history, trying to breath new life into communities while eluding the authoritarian state.

Ulitskaya herself is no different. As a vocal opponent of Putin and his policies, Ulitskaya has denounced contemporary Russia on many occasions, even as her literary fame has grown. While her writings celebrate the rich history and literary heritage of Russia, they also offer a scathing indictment of its political and social accomplishments. Thus The Big Green Tent is a Russian novel in the classical sense, expansive and complex, both celebrating and deploring its culture of origin.

Eschewing a typical timeline, the novel moves effortlessly between various moments in the lives of Ulitskaya’s characters, assembling a collage of human striving. This collage, inherently fractured (characters move frenetically into and out of marriages, across national borders, and amidst national crises) is reconciled under the eponymous Big Green Tent. This central image, described in the fevered dream of Ilya’s abandoned wife, Olga, is a place without doors, without borders: “a pavilion, all shining and golden,” where the dead and the living line up together to gain entrance. Here, in this eschatological vision, artistic expression is freed from authoritarian censorship. Inside the Big Green Tent there is “nothing,” but nevertheless those who enter the tent experience a sensory explosion. “There’s a particular scent, something you can’t even imagine, and everything is shining.” Unbounded by words or images, and circumscribed by no authority, the tent represents the unfettered possibility of free expression. This eschaton for artists is the realization of the unfulfilled hopes of Ilya and his friends.

While certainly a work of historical fiction, The Big Green Tent is grounded in the imagined future of Russian dissident artists. To use the H. Richard Niebuhr’s terminology, The Big Green Tent is “internal history;” history told from the perspective of the participants, a history into which we are invited to “think with poets rather than with scientists.”[1] Seen from this artistic vantage point and pressed towards a particular end (the communal ideal of the Big Green Tent), The Big Green Tent provides not only an account of the Soviet dissident experience as confessed by the community of Russian artists, but also offers an imaginative and prophetic vision of what the relationship between artist and community could, and indeed must, become.

Ulitskaya’s artists are made for community. And yet, for the stereotypical artist, community is supposed to be difficult. Ever since modernity, artists have been cast as social outcasts, tormented and alone in their genius. Artist and writer Makoto Fujimura tackles this stereotype head on, reinventing artists as mearcstapas, an Old English word for “border stalkers.”[2] As mearcstapas, artists lead from the margins, having a role “that both addresses the reality of fragmentation and also offers a fitting means by which artists can help people from all our many and divided cultural tribes learn to appreciate margins, lower barriers to understanding, and start to defuse the culture wars.”[3] Concerned with the polarization of truth and falsehood in the contemporary American “culture wars,” Fujimura identifies the permeability and fluidity of artists as they ply their craft. Far from casting artists as loners or outsiders, Fujimura describes artists as those who leave and then return to their communities, bringing new knowledge and insight. In this way, the role of the artist is twofold, both destabilizing and generative. Likewise, the artists of Ulitskaya’s The Big Green Tent are mearcstapas as well, voicing their dissent and combating the fear that is rampant in their communities through music, literature, and images. Ilya sneaks between alleys and over rooftops to photograph the bloody stampede in Trubnaya Square during Stalin’s funeral, capturing images of the violence to send in secret to the West. Sanya, crippled at a young age and unable to further his career as a piano player, pursues in secret an evolutionary theory of musical systems. Mihka, stigmatized as a Jew, is imprisoned in a labor camp for sharing his love of literature with a coworker. By exercising their freedom and engaging with their communities, Ulitskaya’s artists flirt with death. In each case, cooperation with KGB authorities leads to the end of these characters’ art and, either literally or symbolically, their lives. Contrary to the stereotypical image of the “lonely artist,” it is not the isolation of introversion or excessive self-awareness that leads to the untimely deaths of Ulitskaya’s artists. Rather, it is rigorous engagement within their communities, the itinerant and critical engagement of the mearcstapa, that leads to their undoing.

Ulitskaya points to a purpose for the arts beyond expressing dissent; her artists do not merely voice disapproval with the world in which they live. Nor are they simply destroyed by their own contexts. In spite of all that is set against them, artists create new worlds of their own. This is true revolution. Recognizing the musical genius of the crippled Sanya, the professor Kolosov realizes that this boy, too, understands that art is inherently transformative. “They were few and far between, the temporal forerunners of humanity, people who not only presaged the new world, but were also able to analyze and research it.” When Sanya hears music, he hears the end of the world and the beginning of a new one; the world of the Big Green Tent. The artist becomes a prophet.

Prophecy aside, Ulitskaya’s characters do not achieve the ideal of the Big Green Tent in their lifetime. They are undone by circumstance, fate, and in some cases simply poor planning. But little moments of reprieve shine through; in cultural climates which stifle the arts, whether Cold War or Culture War, artists can enjoy solidarity and find a modicum of peace. As Ilya awakens his drunken teacher, he finds that his own mind has gone blank. “What had Ilya wanted to ask him? What did he want to tell him? Nothing. This was just what he had wanted: to sit down and drink a glass together, to commiserate with each other, to feel mutual sympathy, compassion, love. They drank in silence. And Ilya felt better.” The Big Green Tent balloons over Ilya’s head, if just for a moment. For Ilya and Ulitskaya, perhaps this, for now, is enough.

 

[1] H. Richard Niebuhr, The Meaning of Revelation, 37.

[2] Makoto Fujimura, Culture Care, 39.

[3] Ibid.

The Worlds Numbers Built

A young Michael Clune sits in front of his family’s television long after the jumbled noise of the VCR tape has stopped, absorbed in a primordial void of static, waiting for something. What is he waiting for?  He does not know. After 30 minutes, the static begins to take form. From the nonsensical ocean of static frizz, a single symbol emerges: a winged ‘W’ hovering over the formlessness of the black and white slats. “I was ready for the words at the end of television,” writes Michael Clune. So began his initiation into a new world of video games. But Michael has barely scratched the surface of this new revelation; what awaits him beyond the ‘W’ at the end of television is the binary at the end of language. What Michael has yet to realize is that ‘W’ is a fabrication of an even deeper reality: the terrifying determinacy of numbers.

Gamelife, by Michael Clune, is a memoir about coming of age in a time when technology has just begun to dominate children’s imaginative and emotional worlds. It is also, therefore, a timely memoir. Millennials are the first generation to be raised with easy access to virtual realities. C.S. Lewis once wrote that George McDonald’s fairy tales baptized his imagination. Clune’s imagination is baptized by the Commodore 64 and a library of floppy disks: Suspended, The Bards Tale II, Wolfenstein, and Elite. This changing world leads Clune to adjust his own understanding of reality. Through powerful storytelling, he demonstrates how, for better or for worse, video games provide narratives, hermeneutics, and revelations that shape how adolescents move through the world. “My imagination was as weak as a bay’s arm until computer games trained it. I can’t even remember the things I imagined before computer games.” Video games, though a kind of artifice, act as formative agents, teaching him how to understand his environment, God, life and death, and himself by training him through intensive repetition that would put a Suzuki pedagogue to shame. In narrating this formative aspect of gaming via memoir, Clune demonstrates the influence that virtual reality can exert on human lives. Though mediated by technology, the game worlds players inhabit, however temporary, take on lives of their own through their sheer expansiveness, becoming seamlessly merged with players’ interpretations and implicit philosophies.

Take, for instance, Michael’s experience of video game statistics. After facing an impossibly tough boss battle in The Bard’s Tale II, Michael wonders what it means to be hit for 490 points of damage. “What did it look like? What did it sound like? What did it feel like?” This arbitrarily large number, an expression of the “damage” the boss was able to inflict on Michael’s in-game avatar, begins to work on Michael’s imagination. For Michael, numbers become the key to completely new imaginative horizons, some of which are terrifying in their numerical precision.

Perhaps it is this precision that Michael’s parents fear in his experience of video games. When Michael’s mother realizes that The Bard’s Tale II is a role-playing game similar to Dungeons & Dragons, she confiscates it immediately: “It’s turning kids into satanists. They’re acting out the violence from it in school!” The video game becomes a forming subject; while still a fiction, “it” is nevertheless capable of transforming children into real life versions of the in-game characters. There is an intuitive linking of the numerical values and landscape of the game with the moral values of the real world. Though the game is a fantasy, it is not a stretch to imagine that it bears out real-world consequences. The numbers, their proportions, can be extrapolated into life itself. Like many evangelicals who grew up in the 90s, I was raised in a home where video games were strictly regulated based on content. Rather than dismissing these fears, Clune validates them. “I don’t think you have to be an evangelical Christian to know that there is such a thing as an evil truth and to know that it leaks constantly from the fantasy of numbers,” Clune observes dryly. Clune’s “evil truth” is that the numbers are, in a sense, more real than words. Words are insufficient, pale imitations of reality. “If we talk to nature or God in words, it doesn’t understand us. Words just sound like noise to nature.” Words are static. The primordial ‘W’ that emerges from the television static before Michael’s eyes is simply formlessness given shape.

While words are superficial, Clune claims that numbers are a fundamental scientific reality; they determine everything—even morality. Numbers can explain something as simple as a children’s game, or candles on a birthday cake. Numbers can describe the funnel of a tornado, or the severity of an earthquake. Numbers are utterly determinative—terrifyingly so. Clune’s revelation is that video games are, just like the world behind our computer screens, “numbers become flesh.” The numbers are real, and the images that wrap them are simply a shell. This is true of both fantasy and ‘reality’; the preeminence of numbers, Clune claims, is one of the universe’s foundational truths. If, as Clune claims, numbers are the cellular building blocks of reality, then real life is actually a video game that we are always playing. “All you really need for a good body is something that sees, something that knows, and some numbers underneath.” Perhaps this is all you need for a system of ethics as well.

The lessons that Clune learns from video games are not novel. In fact, in the utilitarianism of John Stuart Mill, western philosophy already has an ethical system based on mathematics. In Utilitarianism, Mill writes, “the ultimate end… is an existence exempt as far as possible from pain, and as rich as possible in enjoyments, both in point of quantity and quality.” For Mill, experiences of pleasure and goodness are quantifiable, being that which afford the greatest enjoyment to the largest number of people. What follows is Mill’s metric for evaluating the morality of a pleasure:

“If I am asked, what I mean by difference of quality in pleasures, or what makes one pleasure more valuable than another, merely as a pleasure, except its being greater in amount, there is but one possible answer. Of two pleasures, if there be one to which all or almost all who have experience of both give a decided preference, irrespective of any feeling of moral obligation to prefer it, that is the more desirable pleasure.

Moral obligation is a construct, inferred from the subject’s environment. Morals are mathematical realities, relative statistics of pleasure, pain, and profit that are learned through experience as the subject moves through society and the physical world. The sanctions we experience that prevent us from doing degenerate things do not descend from on high, as though morals were arbitrated by a divine force or figure. Rather, these sanctions are agreed upon numbers, “numbers given flesh,” as Clune would say. Mill writes that “the sanction… is always in the mind itself; and the notion, therefore, of the transcendental moralists must be, that this sanction will not exist in the mind unless it believed to have its root out of the mind…” For Mill, moral sanctions are inferred imaginatively from one’s environment. There is no transcendental morality informing our decisions. The norms we receive are inferred from the mathematic and scientific realities that surround us; how many people are impacted by this good? Is this good desirable by the majority? What causes the least harm?

This idea was a forerunner of the “radical empiricism” that would be developed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by philosophers like William James and Bertrand Russell. Taking Mill’s theory a step further, radical empiricists insisted that mathematical truths were logically perfect, and inherently superior to the linguistic interpretations that enshrouded them. Reality, at its base, is a series of mathematical syllogisms, and language is devoid of meaning unless it directly describes (however poorly) these syllogistic realities. Such a view does away with the need for any supernatural or extra-scientific experience; all that we are left with are the cold, mathematical reality of the universe. This is the “evil truth” of numbers.

It makes sense that this empirical framework is more evident in video games than in lived experience. As virtual worlds assembled on purely mathematical principles, video games are perfectly empirical. A video game avatar’s entire world is circumscribed by numbers and code. Boundaries, abilities, and mortality are strictly delineated by the game’s design. While video games offer the façade of endless possibility, they are in fact profoundly limited. Clune’s avatar in The Bard’s Tale II may wander through its 8-bit landscape in a parody of perfect freedom. But then, in combat, a boss strikes Michael for 490 damage. This is a simple equation, empiricism in its barest form: 490 damage equals death. Numbers become an uncheatable barrier. To get by the dragon, troll, or sorcerer you need to play the numbers game. Divide and multiply. Like any child, Clune reaches to understand this reality, making imaginative leaps in the process. The numbers inflate the battle on an exponential scale, and Clune can’t get his head around them. They reach beyond his lived reality, and somehow they seem more real. The numbers present an actual quantity, nearly tangible in its specificity. There is no mystery, no deus ex machina. All that remains is the machine.

Video games teach Clune, with more honesty than his own social world, the difference between how things appear, and how things are. Numbers, angles, lines of sight; the structure of video games come to structure the world his body inhabits. They offer his imagination a hermeneutic, an interpretive lens, to grapple with the confusion and disorientation of puberty in public school, moving to a new home, and divorce. In a life of constant change, there is something therapeutic, even preferable, about living in a world in which everything is explicable and predictable. As Clune describes his real-world experiences alongside the video games he played at the time, he integrates reality and fantasy, interchanging them, even confusing them. Video games have been mapped onto his life.

I was surprised and disturbed by Gamelife. It is not only an engaging read, but a poignant one as well, depicting a difficult childhood through the lens of virtual reality. Video games are not merely toys. They grip us, much like a painting, a film, or a novel. The images they present stick in our minds, and become points of reference for us. Though they are not “real” per se, we receive their meanings as applicable to our lives because of their believability. Clune’s memoir is an honest assessment of what video games are capable of, both as a form of entertainment and a form of education. Video games are not escapes from reality, but tangents. And as tangents, they are half-truths. Our world is, in a sense, circumscribed by numbers. This boundedness is an “evil truth,” or at least a limiting one. And yet, the inexplicable remains. None of us actually describe our lives in terms of syllogisms or formulas; we do so with stories and images, and even develop our own unique terminology for these experiences. Video games can teach us much, but they cannot circumscribe our reality, even though we may want them too. And sometimes, when we question this reality, we arrive at a different answer than Clune.

“What did it look like? What did it feel like?” When I was a ten-year-old playing Pokémon Red Version, I wondered how a tiny Pokémon, like the worm-like Caterpie, could possibly survive an attack from one of its larger brethren. If a Snorlax (visualized in the game as an obese, narcoleptic sloth) performed a ‘Body Slam’ on a tiny Caterpie, shouldn’t the smaller Pokémon be squished to death? After all, I knew what happened to insects that were trampled in real life. But in the game world, if the Caterpie was “leveled” enough, if it had enough hit points to receive the damage from its foe without “fainting” (Pokémon’s sanitized version of in-game death), it would in fact survive the blow, shrugging off the weight of a creature more than twenty times its size. This fact was fundamentally at odds with reality as I experienced it outside of the game world. That I could revive my tiny Pokémon to fight again after such an onslaught made no sense. Wouldn’t the Caterpie simply become flattened, squished, or otherwise cease to exist? What would happen in the real world if the same amount of force were exerted?  Instead of intuitively using virtual reality to question and clarify my lived experience, I was doing the opposite. I was taking what I knew of the real world to reveal the artifice of the game.

Clune was formed by The Bard’s Tale II, but only insofar as he chose that reality over another. The Bard’s Tale II wasn’t “right” about numbers being our fundamental reality, and when we think about it, The Bard’s Tale II had no authority to make such a declaration. Nevertheless, Clune wanted The Bard’s Tale II to be right, in the same way that many of us want our imaginations to be right. The trap of the video game, as a completely immersive experience, is that it makes its case so persuasively. We are persuaded because video games have the capacity to become reality to us, as they did for Clune. This is why Clune’s memoir is so valuable. We, too, should reflect further on the imaginative transformations that are occurring as we move through a world in which the digital and the physical, the ‘0’ of binary and the ‘W’ of language, are increasingly enmeshed.

Interpretation and Loneliness

In the introduction to Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, a transcript of a five-day-long interview with late writer David Foster Wallace, David Lipsky describes his book as “the one way of writing about him that I don’t think David would have hated.” This is a remarkable claim, given Wallace’s own apprehension about the very same interview. “If you wanted,” says Wallace (in both the film and the book), “you’re gonna be able to shape this essentially how you want. And that to me is extremely disturbing. Because I want to be able to try and shape and manage the impression of me that’s coming across.” Wallace’s desire to curate his own image is a familiar one to many of us, a desire compounded today by the proliferation of social media personas and tampered images. Interpretation is a risky and dirty business. It is this confusion of what people truly are and hope to be, before others and before themselves, that James Ponsoldt’s film adaptation of Lipsky’s transcript, The End of the Tour, gets exactly right. What many of us clumsily refer to as the problem of interpretation, and which is known in academia as hermeneutics, Wallace gracefully and soberly understands as loneliness.

It bears mentioning that David Foster Wallace’s relatives have publicly voiced their opposition to the film. And the onscreen interpretation of Wallace by actor and comedian Jason Segel is no small irony, given Wallace’s own prolific writing on, and self-admitted addiction to, television and film. The movie, to it’s credit, does not shy away from this dynamic, and takes pains to portray Wallace’s obsession with television: Segel’s Wallace watches the dénouement of Broken Arrow with slack-jawed, panting attention, and guiltily admits to Jessie Eisenberg’s Lipsky that he can’t keep a TV in his house, because it would be on all the time. It’s little touches like these that give the film the true-to-life veneer of a biopic, while masking the reality that viewers are actually watching an interpretive journey that has already been mediated once through Lipsky’s book. But these new interpretive layers have caught many viewers off guard, and the discontinuities can be frustrating at first.

For instance, in Slate, Forrest Wickman meticulously demonstrates the un-truth of Wallace’s “church dance” at the end of the film. According to Wickman, the image of Wallace dancing in church, while beautiful and therapeutic in the context of the narrative the film presents, may have been only as real as the lie Wallace was known to tell reporters.

“[Wallace] often told journalists he was going to church as cover for his attendance at recovery meetings, to stave off a relapse into drug and alcohol addiction. And if the brief vision of Wallace dancing is meant to be taken non-literally, as a moment of him finally achieving freedom from his own self-consciousness, it’s quite untrue to the rest of the movie—which is very much about how David Foster Wallace was a terribly sad, lonely person who could never truly escape his own head. 

The scene “rings false” as, in Wickman’s words, the film is “fooled by its own subject.” And Wickman sets the record straight in short order, with a flurry of anecdotes, quotations, and other evidences of the real Wallace’s purported inability to enjoy the fictional moment presented in the film. In Wickman’s view, it’s false of the film to portray Wallace in this way, and demonstrates a kind of exploitative, directorial stupidity.

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Wickman has fallen for the film’s biopic sheen, and is evaluating the film’s success or failure based on what he assumes to be the responsibilities of biographical art. There are two notable characteristics of a perspective like Wickman’s. Firstly, there is a moral obligation, both to the subject and the audience, to get the story exactly right, and it is the subject itself that becomes the judge of accuracy (and this becomes even more complex when the subject committed suicide seven years ago). Secondly, when an interpretation “fails” based on the standards we have just discussed, it is morally or artistically at fault?

Another recent example of this fraught relationship is Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet, which opened at the Barbican in London this month. The production quickly reneged on its decision to open the play with the famous “to be, or not to be” soliloquy due to public backlash; a New York Times critic opined, “You’re bringing out your big showbiz number at the beginning and it’s hard to take seriously after that.” Again, we have the same attitude at play: there’s something exploitative, “showbiz-y,” in reorganizing Hamlet, or in depicting David Foster Wallace at a church dance. The masterpiece and the master ought to be left alone, we are told, to speak for themselves, to decide for themselves what they want to and should in fact be. But the obvious problem is that they can’t. Each individual performance of Hamlet is, by nature, an interpretation. There is no primordial Hamlet that we can return to. Shakespeare himself does not decide what Hamlet is. The performers and the director now perform this duty, attempting to offer something new to the discussion, to pour new wine into new wineskins. Likewise, every word penned by David Foster Wallace, after his death (and if we’re honest, even before), becomes an opportunity for something different and expansive.

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The End of the Tour is a movie about loneliness and fame, about how we craft our image and appreciate (or detest) the images of others. Interpretation can be a lonely act, as individuals are isolated in their own heads, with nothing but their personal judgments and concerns. In the film, Lipsky and Wallace both appear in the role of the self-conscious critic, with their deep insecurities, their fear of being misunderstood, misinterpreted, or simply “made a fool” of, to use Wickman’s verbiage. Each man dreads the interpretive power of the other: “I don’t mind appearing in Rolling Stone,” Wallace tells Lipsky, “but I don’t want to appear in Rolling Stone as somebody who wants to be in Rolling Stone.” At another point in the film, Wallace believes that he has reached an understanding of Lipsky’s simmering jealousy and admiration, and tries to call him out: “I don’t think you want be to me.” Lipsky replies just a little too quickly, “I don’t.” This is interpretive judo. Both men are feinting, watching their footwork, and occasionally opening themselves up to strike, cautious not to reveal their next move, or their next weakness. Neither one truly grasps the other’s character; a truth that Wallace seems to poignantly understand. This heightened individualism is at play in the critical voices that have attended Cumberbatch’s Hamlet and Ponsoldt’s End of the Tour. The critical impulse, while not always misguided, is a lonely one.

Wallace spent a lot of time thinking about this problem. In his conversations with Lipsky, he offers this insight:

“There’s a certain set of magical stuff that fiction can do for us. […] One of them has to do with the sense of… capturing what the world feels like to us, in the sort of way that I think that a reader can tell ‘Another sensibility like mine exists.’ Something else feels this way to someone else. So that the reader feels less lonely.

Wallace believed that fiction could identify the reader’s own observations and insecurities, offering company for an otherwise lonely mind. It is at this point that The End of the Tour finds hope. At the end of the film, Lipsky offers up his own interpretation of Wallace at a reading of Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, following Wallace’s death. The camera hovers at Lipsky’s shoulder as he reads to a room of sober-faced bookies.

“When I think of this trip, I see David and me in the front seat of the car. It’s nighttime. It smells like chewing tobacco, soda, and smoke. […] The wheels are making their slightly sleepy sound of tape being stripped cleanly and endlessly off a long wall. On the other hand, we seem not to be moving at all, and the conversation is the best one I’ve ever had.

Lipsky tellingly begins, “when I think of this trip,” placing himself, the interpreting subject, in the role of storyteller. The interpretive community responds attentively, hanging on to Lipsky’s every word. It is in this context that the film cuts to Wallace’s ecstatic dance. After the writer’s life closes, his books are reopened, his words remembered, and new interpretive worlds open up. It is now possible for us to imagine Wallace dancing in church.

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Artists—directors, musicians, writers—need this interpretive space, and we need to relinquish our modernistic notions of truth to give it to them. While we don’t want to delude ourselves with false hopes and images, we also should not live in fear of the interpretive nature of our lives and worlds. The reality of interpretation, especially the interpretive power of fiction, was a great hope to Wallace throughout his own life-long struggle with loneliness. “We all suffer alone in the real world,” Wallace said in a 1993 interview with Larry McCaffery, “True empathy’s impossible. But if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with our own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside.” [2] If Wallace is right, the problem of interpretation is inaccurately labeled. Rather than a problem to be addressed, interpretation is the inescapable and life-giving reality of our common experience as human beings. While this reality can be, as Wallace noted, “extremely disturbing,” it is also deeply natural, and good. In light of this reality, The End of the Tour is best understood as an interpretive retelling of five days of David Foster Wallace’s life. Whether the film succeeds as an interpretation will be the topic of much future discussion, but we should be careful if we expect it to succeed as anything else.

Citations

1. David Lipsky, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace (New York, NY: Broadway Books, 2010).