BY MATTHEW HERBERT
In The Curtain, Milan Kundera’s best book about the idea of the novel, Kundera calls four of his favorite writers his “central European Pleiades.” It’s a nice phrase. Pleiades is a rather amorphous constellation. Its stars don’t really arrange themselves to look like anything in particular, but there they are, keeping each other company.
Kundera’s Pleiades of writers likewise just sort of occupies the same neighborhood, the band of mental and geographic space that throughout European history has been alternately succored by Germanic and Russian ideas and marauded by Germanic and Russian power. People tend to forget that Bohemia (to take just one central European place as an example) belonged to Europe by dint of literature, politics and religion for centuries before it was allowed to be absorbed into its “natural” place as a Soviet satellite in 1945. Similarly for Poland. But I digress already. The point is, Kundera tells us he loves a group of authors loosely unified by the fact that they speak from this traumatized space, reminding us that unique human voices are constantly in the process of being silenced (sometimes by laughter, usually by forgetting).
Over the last few months I’ve been getting to know the writings of James Baldwin, and it has been a thrilling discovery. Baldwin is an electrifying writer, deeply engaged in my favorite problems—the meaning of life and the utility of politics. Like all great writers, he stands alone; his voice is unique.
But he does occupy a certain space, a certain neighborhood. There are kindred writers near him who seem to have been visited by similar inspirations and who occasionally have taken up the same causes. Two of them just happen to be among my favorites. And so I tend to think of the three of them together: Baldwin, Orwell and Camus.[i]
Although I think the three of them would have hit it off at a party, I don’t think any of them ever pursued a friendship. Orwell died in 1950 and was working feverishly on 1984 for several months before that; Baldwin came to France only in 1948, and I don’t think his exile, which included stays in Switzerland and Sweden, ever took him to England, where Orwell sat, dying, over his typewriter.
Baldwin does mention seeing Camus, his “tense, intelligent, troubled face,” at a Paris café, but there is no evidence the two got to know each other or pursued a literary dialogue. It is wonderful to think of the essays such a friendship might have produced.
But maybe it is even more delightful to contemplate what really happened—three great ships passed one another in the night, fighting against the same heavy storm of oppression but winning through to similar visions of courage and optimism.
The most obvious thing that binds all three writers together is a certain two-layered struggle for liberation. Virtually all their writings were conditioned by an epochal political struggle that more or less defined their careers. Orwell battled constantly against totalitarianism. Camus fought, with the pen and the sword, against German fascism. Baldwin was a leading African American liberationist. To varying degrees, though, they all thought of these collective struggles as special cases of the individual’s struggle for meaning and identity, a point I will come back to.
On the surface, I suppose the most notable similarity between Baldwin, Camus and Orwell—and the one that drew my attention in the first place—was how restless they all were when it came to writing about their causes. All three changed register often, and effortlessly, it seemed, between journalism, novels and essays to describe the problem of human freedom from different angles.
The fact that Baldwin had to write (the novel) Go Tell It On the Mountain, the essays in Notes of a Native Son, and countless book reviews to put his main ideas on the table testified that his ideas were very big indeed. And so it is with Camus and Orwell. All the arguments they advance in their essays and articles about ethics, politics, and the duty to stand up for freedom come voluably to life in their works of fiction. You would hardly think that Orwell, when he noted down the little psychological tricks English schoolteachers played to denigrate young, bed-wetting boys, (“Such, Such Were the Joys”) that he was gathering material for the greatest political novel the world had yet seen. But that’s how it was. For all three writers, their observations demanded, not just to be recorded in journals and newspapers, but also to be projected onto a vision of being human that could capture readers’ imaginations and inspire them to think, “That could be me,” suffering the wrongs of the ruling class.
All three were gadflies. They all punctured myths that contributed to the ruling class’s ability to oppress the rest of society. Orwell is perhaps best known in this regard, but his message has a double edge that is not widely recalled or celebrated. Yes, he railed heroically against totalitarianism in the forms he faced during his lifetime—fascism in Spain and Germany, Communism in the Soviet bloc—but he also reminded his liberal democratic readers, somewhat subversively, that their comfort and prosperity sprang from the rapaciousness of capitalism and its concomitant movement, colonialism. When England’s ruling class in the 19th century began to find it hard to exploit English workers beyond certain bounds, they duly conquered foreign lands, where they enslaved even poorer workers whose skin color invalidated any claim they might have made to have “human rights.”
Baldwin would have liked this. Well, he would have admired Orwell’s perspicuity and moral courage; I doubt he would have liked hearing any more about European colonialism than the things he already knew. Baldwin’s myth-puncturing message comes through with searing simplicity: America does not have a Negro[ii] problem, he wrote; it has a white problem. Until white, European America examines itself sincerely on the questions of why it chose to build its wealth on Negro slavery and how it managed to maintain an untrammeled sense of innocence about this founding crime, it will never be able to drop its dehumanizing attitude toward black Americans. It is not a question of figuring blacks out, it is a question of whites figuring themselves out.
No one likes having intellectuals tell them what they are really thinking, feeling or doing. We all believe we know quite well what we are up to, and the derivative facts of history or biases of society lay no claims on our personal choices in the here and now. This attitude puts writers like Baldwin, Camus and Orwell, who are so deeply concerned with human freedom, in the position of Old Testament prophets. Their job is first to get the attention of the unreflective, self-defensive masses and then tell them unattractive truths about themselves.
Camus goes farthest. For three centuries before World War Two, science had been steadily displacing the Abrahamic god (indeed any god) as the furnisher and law-giver of the universe. Almost everything we once magically thought had come straight from God ended up having a natural explanation that could be observed and verified. By the late 19th century Nietzsche believed it was time for Europeans to come clean: they had not really believed in a creative god or Christian ethics in a long time. Wasn’t it time they admitted their world had been, in Max Weber’s term, disenchanted? One problem thrown up by this view was that it put people clearly in the position of authoring their own morality. Was humanity ready for this responsibility?
Not quite. I do not wish to put Camus in too neat a box, but his barb to the human conscience was essentially to repeat Nietzsche’s prophecy in light of two ruinous world wars and the new horror of potential nuclear apocalypse. Christian Man’s robustly demonstrated will to kill his (mostly Christian) enemies and now his ability to self-exterminate surely gave the lie to the idea that we were guided in our every enterprise by a beneficent father. Humans could end the world very much on their own, and it was the mutual fear and hatred among the most enlightened, self-satisfied Christians that had brought this new era about.
Camus called on the citizens of this new world to summon the courage to admit they lived under a “vast, indifferent sky.” If a god were guiding our actions, surely it was not the Nazarene who told us to turn the other cheek and forgive our neighbor seventy times seven times. We mock the very idea of that god to think he was present above Auschwitz or Alamogordo as we fired the ovens and then built the Bomb. Better, by far, to admit we had done all this on our own. It was the only way we could etract ourselves.
Baldwin discovered that travel and self-reflection educates us as to the extent of our moral responsibility. He was raised to preach the doctrines of Christian love that had led to slavery, world wars, genocide, and the threat of nuclear extinction, the same facts that had impressed Camus. Go Tell It On the Mountain is a lightly fictionalized account of Baldwin’s life at 14, when he was to be ordained as a preacher in his stepfather’s Harlem church.
Baldwin did not become a preacher, though, at least not for long. He escaped the confines of Harlem and left for Europe, where he learned how to write for a living. “And in fact, in Paris,” he writes in Nobody Knows My Name, “I began to see the sky for what seemed to be the first time. It was borne in on me—and it did not make me feel melancholy—that this sky had been there before I was born and would be there when I was dead. And it was up to me, therefore, to make of my brief opportunity the most that could be made.” This vast, indifferent sky was the same one that haunted Camus.
Among other things, the standard religious myths are designed to help us perpetually put off our responsibilities. Baldwin, Camus and Orwell all face this revelation straight on. When we acknowledge, as Baldwin did in Paris, how brief our opportunity to build a life is, and how no Heaven exists to help us or to redeem our transgressions, we realize that now is the moment to act and here is the place to start. The here and now are all we have, a realization both bracing and liberating. Orwell draws this feeling out beautifully in this passage from “Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool”:
[A] normal human being does not want the kingdom of Heaven: he wants life on earth to continue. This is not solely because he is “weak,” “sinful” and anxious for a “good time.” . . . Ultimately it is the Christian attitude which is self-interested and hedonistic, since the aim is always to get away from the painful struggle of earthly life and find eternal peace in some kind of Heaven or Nirvana.
A loose kind of existentialism binds all three together. For Baldwin, for Orwell, and especially for Camus, being oneself was just a special case of being anyone at all. They all felt the pull of Nietzsche’s terrible freedom, away from class, religion and other givens that dictate our identities, and toward an intellectually honest life, where we are stranded without rules or definitions that tell us who we are. It would be trivial to say all three are radical free thinkers; it would come a little closer to the heart of the matter to say they all feel a common duty to live lives of unbossed thought and to accept what Camus called a “life without appeal.”
In Notes of a Native Son, Baldwin offers this observtion, as good a summary of the existnetial stance as has been written, in my opinion:
It began to seem that one would have to hold in mind forever two ideas which seemed to be in opposition. The first idea was acceptance, the acceptance, totally without rancor, of life as it is, and men as they are: in the light of this idea, it goes without saying that injustice is a commonplace. But this did not mean that one could be complacent; for the second idea was of equal power: that one must never, in one’s own life, accept these injustices as commonplace but must fight them with all one’s strength.
Baldwin’s wonderful phrase “without rancor” expresses much the same thing as Camus’s “without appeal.” It voices a refusal to believe in any kind of magical escape from fate, chance, or mortality, or as Orwell puts it, “the painful struggle of earthly life.” For me, this is the point where the three men converge: they are all deeply committed to accepting life as it is. They are all optimistic about the bet one places on life, despite deep misgivings about how unjust one’s fellow man can be, particularly if he has managed, by luck or by wile, to acquire power.
I do all three writers a slight disservice by stopping here. None of them ended their conceptions of the human situation with the idea that we must simply keep a stiff upper lip and leave off religious nonsense. They all reserved a special role for love and friendship that comes as close to redeeming us as anything can. We live without appeal, yes, but not without consolation, and it is to that topic I hope to come back soon.
[i] Googling around to check some facts for this article, I discovered Susan Sontag had noted Camus’s similarities to Baldwin and Orwell in a 1963 review for the New York Review of Books. I avoided reading it, just to keep my own thoughts fresh, but if you like my comparison, you’ll want to read Sontag too.
[ii] I realize this term has gone out of fashion, but Baldwin uses it throughout his writings, and I have gotten used to it.