Daniel May (publisher): Earlier this year, my best friend, who works as a special education assistant, helped organize the first Minneapolis teacher strike in over half a century. I flew home to walk the picket line with him, and the energy on the sidewalk was infectious. It was hard not to get swept up in the sense of community and purpose and possibility, and I came back to New York buzzing from the feeling of vicarious solidarity.
The strike lasted three weeks, and a deal was struck that, while significant, was far from sufficient to address the fundamental problem: teachers in the Minneapolis district make on average $14,000 less annually than those in neighboring St. Paul; the discrepancy is even worse compared with suburban districts. As the school year came to its slow end (the district extended the year to compensate for time lost during the strike), many of the staff who had walked picket lines through those frigid winter weeks left for jobs in other districts. For my oldest and closest friend, the collapse of the community that he had worked so hard to build and which had struggled so hard together was devastating. In a long conversation the last week of the school year, he told me that he felt like a ghost.
What do we do with the awful pain of political struggle? With the disappointments that so often follow hopes of transformation? With the alienation from movement and organization that so much involvement in movement and organization provokes? Those questions have been lingering with me since that conversation, and as they’ve tumbled around in my head I found myself turning back to James Baldwin’s 1972 memoir No Name in The Street, which is, among other things, one of the most searing accounts of political grief that I’ve ever encountered.
Grief—for loves lost, families undone, and a country blind to its own brutality—is a constant theme through all of Baldwin’s writing, but in No Name it is the ever-present subject, and it is by no means clear through the work whether that grief will ultimately give way to hope or possibility or life. Through the essays, grief is braided together of various strands: Baldwin’s darkening despair at the country’s capacity to recognize the most basic facts about itself; his struggle to face the chasm that has opened up in his and his nation’s life with the murders of Dr. King and Malcolm X; and a growing sense of alienation from the community that made him, a community from which his fame leaves him estranged as he is more and more asked to speak on its behalf.
Early in the book, Baldwin writes that “hope – the hope that we, human beings, can be better than we are – dies hard. Perhaps one can no longer live if one allows that hope to die. But it is also hard to see what one sees. One sees that most human beings are wretched, and, in one way or the other, become wicked: because they are so wretched.” And yet, (as he puts it a few pages earlier), while “most people are not, in action, worth very much” every human being is an “unprecedented miracle. One tries to treat them as the miracles they are, while trying to protect oneself against the disasters they’ve become.” Doing so, Baldwin concedes, is an act of faith. As is all politics.
Throughout No Name, Baldwin reminds his readers that to live a life of that faith, or, if you like the word better, hope, leads one at times necessarily into despair. In those times, we need guides to the darkness—not necessarily to lead us out of it (there are no easy outs, the book constantly insists) but to remind us that even and perhaps most especially in our darkest moments, we are with the great many who have weathered storms as or more devastating than our own, and we are with those that will follow. That is not always enough, but there is more than a small degree of comfort in such company.
Siddhartha Mahanta (contributing editor): In a standard V.S. Naipaul book, a cloud of repugnance hangs over every character. Hailing from a newly independent country typically somewhere in the West Indies or Africa, Naipaul’s protagonists find themselves breaking under the strain of assimilation in some Western milieu. Usually, they are trying and failing, largely through no fault of their own. The experience renders them invisible and bitter. They internalize the cruelty of dislocation. They are ignorant to the fact that their every careless action, dashed-off remark, or sour joke reveals a hidden prejudice or outright hatred: for themselves, for their fellow displaced people, as well as for those who did the displacing.
In a Free State, the Trinidadian author’s 1971 Booker Award-winning experimental novel, deals with these themes in four thematically interconnected stories. In a prologue, an unnamed passenger on a ferry from Greece to Egypt witnesses the bullying of an older, mentally unwell homeless man. In a short story, Naipaul traces the struggles of an Indian servant in Washington, DC who liberates himself from his employer only to find his latent prejudices toward Black people activated during his ensuing struggles to survive as a truly “free” man. Another short piece tells the dark tale of a West Indian man driven to violence as his fanciful illusions about climbing into the elite, educated life in Britain fall away. In a novella of sorts, two Brits—one a gay government official with a troubled past, the other the unhappy wife of another official—travel through a newly independent, unnamed African nation and former British colony (Uganda, we are meant to presume), amid what they gradually come to realize are the early days of a violent political upheaval; the travelers’ contrasting attitudes toward whether Britain had any business in this place at all, as well as their respective attempts at sexual dalliances, provides the tension that propels the strange, absorbing narrative. There’s much more to say about each of these stories. But in case it’s in any way unclear, they offer no comfort, no affirming lesson about the subaltern class bootstrapping its way into social visibility or happiness.
Naipaul’s characters seem incapable of articulating their sense of fracture, of finding the emotional lexicon to convey the sense of tragedy and loss that come from being born into empire. These traumas are where Naipaul always seems most comfortable. He appears to revel in the unpleasantness, often drawing on his own experiences and those of his family to force upon his characters—and his readers—violent emotional and psychological confrontations. Tidy resolutions are nowhere to be found.
Naipaul thrusts his characters, including the Brits, into contexts that expose the brittleness of their supposed freedom. By the 1970s, the chains of colonialism are, in theory, broken. But those touched by it, servants and masters alike, still find their possibilities, hopes, and dreams curtailed. The brutal, dehumanizing hierarchies of the past are technically gone, only to be replaced by the realities of economic exploitation in a rapidly globalizing world. The human capacity to simply not see those deemed inferior, either along ethnic or class lines—or some combination of the two—endures, and powerfully so. (As novelist Neel Mukherjee put it in a 2018 piece about the book for The Paris Review: “What if nations are broken in such profound ways by the experience of colonialism that freedom can only launch them into a state of replicating the selfsame power structures, similar instruments of oppression of its own peoples?”) In its wake, it turns people cruel and resentful—impulses not unfamiliar to Naipaul, a man who had an acknowledged penchant for acts of violence in his sexual relationships.
What will always bring me back to Naipaul is the maddening, debasing, darkly hilarious vision of a post-colonial creature. Does he yearn for the colonial days, as some have suggested? This question feels reductive to me: Colonialism happened, and whatever it broke—civilizationally and personally—doesn’t just go back together. This is a gnawing discomfort Naipaul is content to sit with. He’ll allow his mostly male characters to feel a sense of wonder as they step off the gangplank and venture into the big city, and show us through their eyes the marvels and visceral pleasures of Western excess. Then, without warning, the dream gives way to nightmare: characters buckling under the strain of endless shifts busing tables and cleaning kitchens; absorbing slurs and taunts from passersby; struggling with being understood, despite speaking English—proper, accented, Anglophile English; and reeling from sexual humiliations and insults to their fragile masculinity. The little indignities and everyday struggles metastasize, making the newly arrived hard and cold, consumed by self-interest and the prerogatives of survival in a world that will not recognize their basic humanity.
The possibility that I might in any way identify with these characters and their frustrations unsettles me. More specifically, the notion of accepting a world that does not recognize you, respect you, or dignify you as an individual, only as a signifier of a history broken long before you entered it, sends me reeling. This is the unsparing, often enraging stuff of Naipaul. I can’t seem to get enough of it.
Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): After a short, brutal illness, the recent loss of my friend Michael Lardner—the heart and soul of the Marxist Education Project, where I often gave talks—has led me to reflect on death. This week, I will recommend some of my favorite short stories in which death features prominently and movingly.
First is James Joyce’s “The Dead,” the final story in his first book, Dubliners. I’ve often regretted, and I’m probably not alone, that Joyce did not continue to write the way he wrote in this book, in which every story is written in a stirring, perfectly formed language. “The Dead” is Joyce’s farewell to classical fictional forms, and he bids adieu with as perfect, as musical a piece of writing as has ever been produced in English.
There’s little story here: the events take place at a Christmas gathering, and though there are disagreements about Irish politics around the table, it’s all of no consequence. Then, a tenor attending the dinner sings a song, and a happily married woman in attendance suddenly remembers Michael Furey, a young man from her youth who once sang it for her, and who later died for love of her. Her husband realizes that his wife has been transported to the time and place of that love. The power of music, of love, and of memory are the subjects of “The Dead,” and its final sentences are almost impossible to read, so painful, so true are they: “Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”
Next is J.D. Salinger’s “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” from Nine Stories. I’ve never gone more than a couple of years without reading this book since first doing so when I was 17, 53 years ago. The brilliance of its writing, the perfection of its tone, its quiet buildup to its abrupt ending still shocks me. The best of Salinger—well, actually, that’s The Catcher in the Rye—but some of the best of American short story writing is in this volume, and the wonder and mystery of “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” remains an extraordinary feat.
Finally, from Jorge Luis Borges’s collection Labyrinths, there’s “The Witness.” I recommended this to Michael when he got his fatal diagnosis, telling him that when I thought I was going to die last year it was this three-paragraph story—if it can be called that—about what it is that dies with us when we go, that played an important role in giving me the strength not to let my heart kill me.
I’ll leave the final word to Borges, from the closing paragraph of that story: “[O]ne thing, or an infinite number of things, dies with every man’s or woman’s death, unless the universe itself has a memory, as theosophists have suggested. In the course of time there was one day that closed the last eyes that had looked on Christ; the Battle of Junin and the love of Helen died with the death of one man. What will die with me the day I die? What pathetic or frail image will be lost to the world? The voice of Macedonia Fernandez, the image of a bay horse in a vacant lot on the corner of Sarrano and Charcas, a bar of sulfur in the drawer of a mahogany desk?”
Before you go, a few more things:
-Jewish Currents Culture Editor Claire Schwartz’s first book of poems, Civil Service, is out this week! To quote the publisher: Claire “stages the impossibility of articulating freedom in a nation of prisons. Civil Service probes the razor-thin borders between ally and accomplice, surveillance and witness, carcerality and care--the lines we draw to believe ourselves good.” Fans of our culture coverage, and especially our poetry, won’t want to miss this.
-Next Thursday, August 11th, at 7 pm Eastern, our friends at Alte are hosting a screening of Peter Odabashian’s documentary My 2020, about a mixed-race family gathering to navigate a pandemic, political upheaval, and isolation together. The event, which is part of the Celebrating Aging Series, will be in Rosendale, New York, and will include a post-screening discussion with the director. Sign up here!
-Lastly, we would be remiss to not recommend a print subscription to our forthcoming summer issue! If you enjoy our newsletter and the recommendations you see each week in the Shabbat Reading List, we are sure you’ll love the in-depth reporting, essays, reviews and more that Jewish Currents magazine has to offer. Subscribers receive three gorgeous issues a year plus a special winter gift delivered directly to your home. Every subscription dollar we receive goes to supporting our staff, producing the magazine, and building the Jewish Currents community.
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