Are you one of those people who pride yourself on your willpower, on your ability to make a decision and carry it through? If you’re indeed one of those, then James Baldwin would have a thing or two to tell you. I think, we all probably, in one phase of life or another, believe that we are able to achieve whatever future goals that we lay down, that as long as we put in the hard work, the harvest time would soon come. But without faith and humility, can it be so?
“For I am – or I was – one of those people who pride themselves on their willpower, on their ability to make a decision and carry it through. This virtue, like most virtues, is ambiguity itself. People who believe that they are strong-willed and the masters of their destiny can only continue to believe this by becoming specialists in self-deception. Their decisions are not really decisions at all – a real decision makes one humble, one knows that it is at the mercy of more things than can be named – but elaborated systems of invasion, of illusion, designed to make themselves and the world appear to be what they and the world are not….I had decided to allow no room in the universe for something which shamed and frightened me.” - James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room.
Before wrapping my work for 2009, I was in the middle of reading a very tasty novel that I’ve found during one of the Lifeline’s book fairs. The reading continued as I took the book with me back to Brisbane to spend the Christmas and New Year break with the folks. The book sharply shines some lights on the subjects of emancipation, masculinity and of course love. From a writer who was a civil rights activist and a close friend of the jazz legend Nina Simone, you can expect accurate and at times, poetic social commentaries on the cultural differences of Paris and New York, on masculinity and self-deception.
New York through James’ eyes is ‘It’s very high and new and electric – exciting, it’s hard to describe. It’s very – twentieth century’; ‘All the time to come. There’s such power there, everything is in such movement. You can’t help wondering - I can’t help wondering – what it will all be like – many years from now’. And Paris, it is simply ‘No city is more beautiful than Paris’; ‘Paris is old, is many centuries. You feel, in Paris, all the time gone by. That isn’t what you feel in New York’
A good book I believe make you see a certain aspect of our human nature or allow you to philosophise certain ideas as you digest the words. What I got out of the book is that if you denial certain part of yourself in order ‘to allow no room in the universe for something which shames and frightens me’ then you are no more than a ghost of your reality, you’re not really living a full life. Giovanni, I believe, represents an idea of what a real human is, someone that understands love, someone who is generous with his emotions and stands up for his dignity. Above all, within the decisions that he makes, he allows room in the universe for things that might shame and frighten him. Though his fate was tragic, I believe his life is much more fulfil, in comparison to David (the main character), who has yet to distinguish his real self and his ideal self and therefore the process of accepting his ‘real self’ has not quite progressed.
While I can’t help but feel certain connection of James Baldwin’s to Satre and Flauberts’ view on existentialism, for it seems as though those who live like real humans, their fate always end in tragedy (Giovanni, Emma Bovary and Matthieu Delarues), but these perhaps are real decisions made by the authors – a decision to make the characters humble, and their fates are at the mercy of more things than can be named…