In the second chapter of All Those Strangers: The Art and Lives of James Baldwin, an unorthodox and engaging biography, Douglas Field confronts the “Disneyfication of the FBI,” highlighted by his own search of the bureau’s website that includes 1884 archived pages on Baldwin.
Field seeks to re-examine, complicate, and enrich many of the mainstream responses to Baldwin’s writing and “lives,” as the title notes. The disproportionately large and now easily accessible FBI files serve as a provocative reason to read this biography that never attempts to be comprehensive. However, I was drawn ultimately to the “Love Is in the Air” section of Chapter 3: James Baldwin’s Religion: Sex, Love, and the Blues, in which Field weaves together passages from Baldwin’s fiction and essays to stress the radical politics of the unappreciated author’s commitment to the power of love.
Politics features prominently in Field’s mostly thematic approach to Baldwin—the politics of sexual identification, the politics of race, and the politics of being an artist/public intellectual. And all of that, of course, is illuminated against the backdrop of the partisan politics of the U.S. and world during Baldwin’s life throughout the mid- and late twentieth century.
Baldwin suffered then and since his death charges he was too focused on race, he wasn’t focused enough on race, he was too focused on sexuality, he wasn’t focused enough on sexuality, he was too political, and he wasn’t political enough.
Running throughout Baldwin’s life were his own demand that he was a witness, an artist as witness (as Field’s quotes Baldwin from 1969, “‘I am not a public speaker. I am an artist'” [p. 67]), and as Field weaves together, a profound message about loneliness and the radical power of love—all of which, I think, has been as under-appreciated and insufficiently examined as Baldwin himself as a major writer and thinker.
“The Touch of Another”
Field challenges those who label Baldwin not political enough by first noting love for Baldwin is not “sentimentality,” and second, “his definition of love is explicitly active and political” (pp. 95, 96).
Baldwin’s insistence on the power of love is part of his “radical rewriting of Christian,” Field explains; then drawing on Leo Proudhammer in Baldwin’s novel Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone:
[S]ome moments teach one the price of the human condition: if one can live with one’s pain, then one respects the pain of others, and so, briefly, but transcendentally, we can release each other from pain.
Field adds: “Baldwin explicitly replaces salvation through prayer with what Leo refers to repeatedly as ‘the touch of another: no matter how transient, at no matter what price'”:
Baldwin’s emphasis on “touch” is both physical and spiritual, suggesting being moved (to be touched) but also the physical act of reaching out to another. By emphasizing the physicality of touch, Baldwin continues his critique of the way in which American Puritanism prohibits and inhibits both bodily and spiritual contact, which he explicitly refers to as the damage caused by “a fear of anybody touching anything.” In order to redress this, Baldwin insists that we must overcome our “terror of the flesh,” what he also calls “a terror of human life, of human touch.” (p. 96)
Later in this section on love, Field adds Baldwin’s view on the “sensual,” drawing on The Fire Next Time:
The word “sensual” is not intended to bring to mind quivering dusky maidens or priapic studs. I am referring to something much simpler and much less fanciful. To be sensual, I think, is to respect and rejoice in the force of life, of life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread. (qtd. in Field, p. 98)
In the next section of Chapter 3, In the Beginning Was the Word, Field hits what I think is the key to Baldwin’s lifelong emphasis of touch and love: “Baldwin’s first novel is also a remarkable exploration of loneliness” (p. 101).
Baldwin’s art and lives, then, are fueled by and efforts against the very human condition of loneliness made manifest by human institutions such as the church and human organizations such as religion. Baldwin sought the power of love to reinstate humanity, but was in no way trying to erase the day-to-day and often harsh realities of race or sexuality.
On Touch and Loneliness: Baldwin’s Echo
However we are compelled to frame it—coincidence, karma—immediately upon reading the section above in Field’s biography, I noticed three pieces that seem to suggest that Baldwin was not only speaking to an enduring human reality but also quite possibly shouting down a well.
“American men,” writes Mark Greene, “in an attempt to avoid any possible hint of committing unwanted sexual touch, are foregoing gentle platonic touch in their lives. I’ll call it touch isolation.”
Greene offers a historical perspective on the culturally shifting attitudes toward platonic touching between men that has been rendered taboo due to the rise of homophobia in the twentieth century. Greene also notes how touch is common between adults and babies, but for boys, that intimacy is gradually replaced “with the introduction of [a] ‘get tough’ narrative.”
Addressing the taboo of touch in schools, Jessica Lahey asks, Should Teachers Be Allowed to Touch Students?:
The sensory experience of touch can’t be divorced from the emotional experience, [David J. Linden] explained, because the way humans perceive touch depends on its social context. An arm thrown over your shoulders by a domineering boss is perceived very differently than an arm thrown around your shoulders by a trusted friend, for example. “The sensation is perceived differently because the emotional touch centers in the brain are receiving signals about social nuances, even if the touching is identical,” and these nuances, Linden explained, are one of the reasons it’s so hard for schools to create rules governing touch.
When I see the word “swim” on a sports website, I expect to find coverage of the sport of swimming. I’m crazy like that. But if you know anything about Sports Illustrated or their annual swimsuit edition, you can guess what I found: photos of models in bikinis, sitting on beaches and lounging in meadows and perching in groups on convertibles, but none of them actually swimming.
Further, she muses about her experiences with people talking about being hesitant to swim:
The whole matter wouldn’t be worth mentioning except that I know people — many people — who tell me that they don’t swim or that they feel uncomfortable swimming because they don’t want to be looked at.
It makes me very sad. I love swimming. I would like other people to love swimming. But these people don’t swim. And they are not unusual; Body Positive Athletes reports, “93% of people have identified a fear of judgement about their size, shape, or level of fitness as a barrier to starting physical activity.”…
I don’t know how to make uncomfortable people feel comfortable about putting on a swimsuit, how to combat our obsession about how we look and how other people look.
From touch taboos to paralyzing body image phobias—is this not the tyranny of the Puritanical Baldwin deplored?
Are there not messages here about the power of radical love (self-love, love of others)—”we can release each other from pain”—that Baldwin demanded?
There is a sadness to these questions, ones that remain with Baldwin’s words echoing in the background—words that seem not to touch us.
Field also turns to Baldwin’s “Nothing Personal,” where Baldwin too seems resigned: “I have always felt that a human being could only be saved by another human being. I am aware that we do not save each other very often” (p. 98).
In “Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood,” Baldwin acknowledges, “This rage for order can result in chaos, and in this country chaos connects with color” (p. 827). And then:
Freaks are called freaks and are treated as they are treated—in the main, abominably—because they are human beings who cause to echo, deep within us, our most powerful terrors and desires.
Most of us, however, do not appear to be freaks—though we are rarely what we appear to be….
We are part of each other. (p. 828)
“[O]ur most powerful terrors and desires,” then, found in all we do not touch, cannot touch, and thus, loneliness.