The Trouble With a Secret Life

Jay Thompson
September 15, 2010
Comments 3

James Baldwin died when I was four and has spent this month as a saintly, intimidating presence on my shoulder, while I’ve worked on a manuscript and read his 1961 novel Another Country.

Saintly: For the explosive, shimmery depth of feeling in his novels which managed to not overflow and destroy his active and kind life (despite the homophobic bullshit and front-line racial ugliness he encountered).

Intimidating: To present certain material in a work is to argue for that material’s importance, maybe its primacy, and Baldwin’s novel is full of extremities: cornered argumentative fury, singing description of the city, and ecstatic sex. (You hear Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Truman Capote smirking about the book at the upscale party opening Capote.)

There’s jazz, publication, sex of every entangled configuration, a suicide, brutal violence, and lots of fights. Men and women, black and white, gay and straight. “The trouble with a secret life,” Baldwin writes, “is that it is very frequently a secret from the person who lives it and not at all a secret for the people he encounters.”

Nothing goes unjudged. On race: Baldwin noted in his essay collection The Fire Next Time that “a vast amount of the Negro problem is the white man’s profound desire not to be judged by those who are not white, not to be seen as he is.” No one in Another Country is spared such sight. On art: one character’s huge commercial success of a novel (a mystery called The Strangled Men) is, at root, a failure because it’s a failure of the author’s will. His book “had been written because he was afraid, afraid of things dark, strange, dangerous, difficult, and deep.”

It’s OK to call as base-basic a feeling as lust or hate an ache. I love Baldwin for suggesting that we can look at people and not see first their lonely embodiment and objective laughable smallness, but their coronas of energy and anguish, bigger than a life’s facts. This is not to escape judgment. Low-soul and high-soul–lust or hatred, that is, and philosophical scrutiny–are simply leveled in Another Country, inseparable.

And, once the book’s central stories have skidded themselves out, Another Country ends in rapture, from the perspective of a young gay Frenchman flying to America for the first time, eager for his lover, out of place, and enthralled by the sun. To choose to end this way (my thought’s simplistic, maybe) is to argue that a story can end this way–in joy.

Last winter I watched a dancer wrapped in collapsible vacuum-cleaner hose crinkle her way under the curtain, and I had the thought that the artist’s work doesn’t differ much across media. First you take note of the modality that obsesses you (say things’ and bodies’ dynamism for dance; human passion for fiction; image and talk-music for poetry). Then you observe and collect from that modality. Then you draw your material together with whatever form you have, leaving out everything prosaic.

As: the choreographer, vacuuming, had heard the hose crinkle once; Baldwin had felt a secret life rebound against a hard, knowing part of himself, or saw the sculptural hardness in winter in a poor boy’s or black boy’s face. Materials, materials, haloed or filthy.

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