Of Yachts and Fossils

Who ever knew it, but seizing yachts is very popular! And despite the reporting that will tell you that they are impossible to re-sell, as if that makes the seizures moot, taking the oligarchs’ prized possessions scratches a weird itch in the afflicted that actually bothers the comfortable if you know what I mean and I think you do. These are ridiculous manifestations of not only conspicuous consumption, but also conspicuous waste. It also beggars belief that no useful purposes can be devised for these vessels.

Anyway, to the broader situation of Russia, and trying to strangle their economy without strangling the world economy – unless we de-fossilize our energy sources, the former will always be the latter:

This is a coherent platform for left-of-center parties across the globe: a law-and-order crackdown on international kleptocracy, and mass electrification and renewable energy to weaken the repressive and despotic petrostates. It is not a quick fix (though confiscatory wealth taxes ought to work quickly enough), and it is perhaps not as viscerally satisfying to our bloodthirsty pundit class as more fighters and missiles. But in the medium term the “solution” to the “problem” of Russian aggression is not trying to surgically crash their economy while protecting ours (an impossible tightrope to walk so long as high-income nations fail to quit fossil fuels). It may be impossible now to use Apple Pay to ride the Moscow Metro—it may even be impossible, temporarily, for particular Russian-born billionaires to anonymously purchase London pieds-à-terre—but it is still very easy to take the money you made selling natural gas to Berlin and ask a lawyer in New York to explain how to hide it it in South Dakota. The only sensible Russia policy is to make it unprofitable to be the sort of state it is. This approach would also have the side benefit of improving the sorts of states all of us reside in, and perhaps even of saving human civilization. Defeating Russia, by necessity, requires defeating fossil capital.


Image: Andrey Melnichenko’s SY A sailing yacht that at least looks like a sail boat.

Of these so lately baptized kinsmen

A quote from James Baldwin that I included in Dark Polska goes something like, “The future of America can only be as bright as that of the black man.” No truer words, Mr. B (though he may have used ‘Negro’ as was his wont), and at times this seems more promising for our country than others. Ahem.

Nonetheless, a great American writer none of us reads enough – thus, instantly qualifying him for another Friday Reading.

This is from the essay “Stranger in the Village” from Notes of a Native Son, Beacon Press, 1955.

Every legend, moreover, contains its residuum of truth, and the root function of language is to control the universe by describing it. It is of quite considerable significance that black men remain, in the imagination, and in overwhelming numbers in fact, beyond the disciplines of salvation; and this despite the fact that the West has been “buying” African natives for centuries. There is, I should hazard, an instantaneous necessity to be divorced from this so visibly unsaved stranger, in whose heart, moreover , one cannot guess what dreams of vengeance are being nourished; and, at the same time, there are few things on earth more attractive than the idea of the unspeakable liberty which is allowed the unredeemed. When, beneath the black mask, a human being begins to make himself felt one cannot escape a certain awful wonder as to what kind of human being it is. What one’s imagination makes of other people is dictated, of course, by the Master race laws of one’s own personality and it’s one of the ironies of black-white relations that, by means of what the white man imagines the black man to be, the black man is enabled to know who the white man is.

I have said, for example, that I am as much a stranger in this village today as I was the first summer I arrived, but this is not quite true. The villagers wonder less about the texture of my hair than they did then, and wonder rather more about me. And the fact that their wonder now exists on another level is reflected in their attitudes and in their eyes. There are the children who make those delightful, hilarious, sometimes astonishingly grave overtures of friendship in the unpredictable fashion of children; other children, having been taught that the devil is a black man, scream in genuine anguish as I approach. Some of the older women never pass without a friendly greeting, never pass, indeed, if it seems that they will be able to engage me in conversation; other women look down or look away or rather contemptuously smirk. Some of the men drink with me and suggest that I learn how to ski-partly, I gather, because they cannot imagine what I would look like on skis-and want to know if I am married, and ask questions about my metier. But some of the men have accused le sale negre-behind my back-of stealing wood and there is already in the eyes of some of them that peculiar, intent, paranoiac malevolence which one sometimes surprises in the eyes of American white men when, out walking with their Sunday girl, they see a Negro male approach.

There is a dreadful abyss between the streets of this village and the streets of the city in which I was born, between the children who shout Neger! today and those who shouted Nigger! yesterday-the abyss is experience, the American experience. The syllable hurled behind me today expresses, above all, wonder: I am a stranger here. But, I am not a stranger in America and the same syllable riding on the American air expresses the war my presence has occasioned in the American soul.

For this village brings home to me this fact: that there was a day, and not really a very distant day, when Americans were scarcely Americans at all but discontented Europeans, facing a great unconquered continent and strolling, say, into a marketplace and seeing black men for the first time. The shock this spectacle afforded is suggested, surely, by the promptness with which they decided that these black men were not really men but cattle. It is true that the necessity on the part of the settlers of the New World of reconciling their moral assumptions with the fact -and the necessity-of slavery enhanced immensely the charm of this idea, and it is also true that this idea expresses, with a truly American bluntness, the attitude which to varying extents all masters have had toward all slaves.

Anyone’s Mercy

Better late than never. From Giovanni’s Room, by James Baldwin.

David is alone in Paris while his beloved Hella is off in Spain trying to figure out the depth and nature of her love for him. He meets a gay bartender, Giovanni, in a known gay bar and soon begins living with him in, as the title suggests, Giovanni’s room.

Thus begins David’s journey into the openness of his homosexuality and his eventual break with Hella. The novel is a fascinating story of self-deception coming to light on the part of David, and the brilliance of Baldwin’s explicit writing on homosexuality far in advance of the novel’s time.

Baldwin’s choice of how to present his story is fascinating. Virtually all the men in the story are homosexual, it is as though we are living in a Paris in which there isn’t a single straight male. Hella sort of looms in the background as a female presence, but the males are all within the circle.

At the same time this unanimity of community is belied by the way they have to live, with a sort of hanging gloom of unacceptability and hiddenness which dominates the life style. Virtually no one has a real relationship of any lastingness and that seems to be what Giovanni himself is seeking, with David the chosen partner. David is completely unaware of this and is a troubling character in that he appears to be astonishingly unaware of any of this oddness. Perhaps Baldwin was striving to have David so blown away by his situation that he couldn’t think clearly about it. That explanation would work logically, but if so, Baldwin didn’t write it very well for me, since I was often interrupted in my reading by this uncertainty as what to make of David’s mindset.

The dominant form of relationship we find are purchased and promiscuous sexual relations between aging and wealthy homosexuals and young good looking men like Giovanni and David, though David himself, while completely aware of this behavior has only Giovanni as a partner. Unlike the other young me, including Giovanni, David is to some vague extent, financially independent. He just has trouble getting his father in the U.S. to release David’s own money to him.

Perhaps Baldwin simply reflects the internalization of this form of life in the homosexual community of the time. That would make sense. There weren’t better realistic options, so they had to live as the did; a survival tactic. But reading it in 2004, when gay marriage itself is such a dominant social issue, one sees other forms of homosexual union, unions of intimacy, faithfulness and monogamy and everyday family structures, that I couldn’t help but be struck by the artificiality of the form of homosexual community which Baldwin reveals to us. He is convincing. I sure he got it right and that’s the way it was. Perhaps it is the seeming “naturalness” of it in Baldwin’s treatment that brought me up short.

A minor theme of significance is Hella’s struggles with her budding feminist consciousness, again, a theme and treatment of Baldwin that is far in advance of his time.

There isn’t a huge treatment there, but Hella is a woman, in love with David, and willing to lose him rather than be with him if she’s isn’t fully in love with him. She knows her life must be her own, and that she lives in a world which understands her best as an adjunct to a man.

`You mean, I can’t be at your mercy? But you can be at mine?’ I laughed. `I’d like to see you at anyone’s mercy, Hella.’

`You may laugh,’ she said, humorously, `but there s something in what I say. I began to realize it in Spain — that I wasn’t free, that I couldn’t be free until was attached — no, committed — to someone.’

`To someone? Not something?’

She was silent. `I don’t know,’ she said at last, `but I’m beginning to think that women get attached to something really by default. They’d give it up, if they could, anytime, for a man. Of course they can’t admit this, and neither can most of them let go of what they have. But I think it kills them – perhaps I only mean,’ she added, after a moment, `that it would have killed me.’

`What do you want, Hella? What have you got now that makes such a difference?’

She laughed. `It isn’t what I’ve got. It isn’t even what I want. It’s that you’ve got me. So now I can be — your obedient and most loving servant.’

I felt cold. I shook my head in mock confusion. `I don’t know what you’re talking about.’

‘Why,’ she said, `I’m talking about my life. I’ve got you to take care of and feed and torment and trick and love — I’ve got you to put up with. From now on, I can have a wonderful time complaining about being a woman. But I won’t be terrified that I’m not one.’ She looked at my face, and laughed. `Oh, I’ll be doing other things,’ she cried. `I won’t stop being intelligent. I’ll read and argue and think and all that — and I’ll make a great point of not thinking your thoughts –and you’ll be pleased because I’m sure the resulting confusion will cause you to see that I’ve only got a finite woman’s mind, after all. And, if God is good, you’ll love me more and more and we’ll be quite happy.’ She laughed again. `Don’t bother your head about it, sweetheart. Leave it to me.

Light From a Fire

That James Baldwin does not occupy more of a place in the canon of twentieth-century American literature says much more about us than it does about him. While I have been hard on him at times, it is not – nor could it be – to the detriment of his remarkable talents. My complaints focus on the nature of his contributions – I wanted more novels, less polemics – but again, this is more my problem than his.

And I’ll admit that he was reaching for something, aspiring to something, as well – a power across the forms of which I see him to have chosen one over the other. In this struggle for plainspoken offense on behalf of truth, it is possible to both let him pass and grow hostile with impatience. Instead of trying to support my argument, I’ll present evidence against it, or rather, take the liberty of ceding the floor to him on the very subject. From Notes of a Native Son, this is the beginning of his essay, Everybody’s Protest Novel:

In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, that cornerstone of American social protest fiction, St. Clare, the kindly master, remarks to his coldly disapproving Yankee cousin, Miss Ophelia, that, so far as he is able to tell, the blacks have been turned over to the devil for the benefit of the whites in this world – however, he adds thoughtfully, it may turn out in the next. Miss Ophelia’s reaction is, at least, vehemently right-minded: “This is perfectly horrible!” she exclaims. “You ought to be ashamed of yourselves!”

Miss Ophelia, as we may suppose, was speaking for the author; her exclamation is the moral, neatly framed, and incontestable like those improving mottoes sometimes found hanging on the walls of furnished rooms. And, like these mottoes, before which one invariably flinches, recognizing an insupportable, almost indecent glibness, she and St. Clare are terribly in earnest. Neither of them questions the medieval morality from which their dialogue springs: black, white, the devil, the next world – posing its alternatives between heaven and flames – were realities for them as, of course, they were for their creator. They spurned and were terrified of the darkness, striving mightily for the light; and considered from this aspect, Miss Ophelia exclamation, like Mrs. Stowe’s novel, achieves a bright, almost lurid significance, like the light from a fire which consumes a witch. This is the more striking as one considers the novels of negro oppression written in our own, more enlightened day, all of which say only: “This is perfectly horrible! You ought to be ashamed of yourselves!” (Let us ignore, for the moment, those novels of oppression written by Negroes, which add only a raging, near-paranoiac postscript to this statement and actually reinforce, as I hope to make clear later, the principles which activate the oppression they decry.)

Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a very bad novel, having, in its self-righteous, virtuous sentimentality, much in common with Little Women. Sentimentality, the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion, is the mark of dishonesty, in inability to feel; the wet eyes of the sentimentalist betray his aversion to experience, his fear of life, his arid heart; and it is always, therefore, the signal of secret and violent inhumanity, the mask of cruelty. Uncle Tom’s Cabin – like its multitudinous, hard-boiled descendants – is a catalogue of violence. This is explained by the nature of Mrs. Stowe’s subject matter, her laudable determination to flinch from nothing in presenting the complete picture; an explanation which falters only if we pause to ask whether or not her picture is indeed complete; and what constriction or failure of perception forced her to so depend on the description of brutality – unmotivated, senseless – and to leave unanswered and unnoticed the only important question: what it was, after all, that moved her people to such deeds.

But this, let us say, was beyond Mrs. Stowe’s powers; she was not much of a novelist as an impassioned pamphleteer; her book was not intended to do anything more than prove that slavery was wrong; was, in fact, perfectly horrible. This makes material for a pamphlet but it is hardly enough for a novel; and the only question left to ask is why are bound stil within the same constriction. How is it that we are so loath to make a further journey than that made by Mrs. Stowe, to discover and reveal something a little closer to the truth?

But that battered word, truth, having made its appearance here, confronts one immediately with a series of riddles and has, moreover, since so many gospels are preached, the unfortunate tendency to make one belligerent. Let us say, then, that truth, as used here, is meant to imply a devotion to the human being, his freedom and fulfillment; freedom which cannot be legislated, fulfillment which cannot be charted. This is the prime concern, the frame of reference; it is not to be confused with a devotion to Humanity which is too easily equated with a devotion to a Cause; and Causes, as we know, are notoriously bloodthirsty. We have, as it seems to me, in this most mechanical and interlocking of civilizations, attempted to lop this creature down to the status of a time-saving invention. he is not, after all, merely a member of a Society or a Group or a deplorable conundrum to be explained by Science. He is – and how old-fashioned the words sound! – something more than that, something resolutely indefinable, unpredictable. In overlooking, denying, evading his complexity – which is nothing more than the disquieting complexity of ourselves – we are diminished and we perish; only within this web of ambiguity, paradox, this hunger, danger, darkness, can we find at once ourselves and the power that will free us from ourselves. It is this power of revelation which is the business of the novelist, this journey toward a more vast reality which must take precedence over all other claims. What is today parroted as his Responsibility – which seems to mean that he must make more formal declaration that he is involved in, and affected by, the lives of other people and to say something improving about this somewhat self-evident fact – is, when he believes it, his corruption and our loss; moreover, it is rooted in, interlocked with and intensifies this same mechanization. Both Gentleman’s Agreement and The Postman Always Rings twice exemplify this terror of the human being, the determination to cut him down to size. And in Uncle Tom’s Cabin we may find foreshadowing of both: the formula created by the necessity to find a lie more palatable than the truth has been handed down and memorized and persists yet with a terrible power.