Tuesday, April 4, 2017

On The Devil Finds Work (2)

I would like to add to a point I made about Baldwin's The Devil Finds Work.

The following words do not appear in Baldwin's essay: "privilege," "representation," "hegemony," "social construction," "problematize," "decolonization," and "performance." These words do not appear in his book because he wrote his book before his critique of American society became institutionalized within academic departments that needed to develop a lexicon that could define the ideas he struggles with as quickly and easily as possible. The term "identity" does appear:
The question of identity is a question involving the most profound panic--a terror as primary as the nightmare of the mortal fall. This question can scarcely be said to exist among the wretched, who know, merely, that they are wretched and who bear it day by day--it is a mistake to suppose that the wretched do not know that they are wretched; nor does this question exist among the splendid, who know, merely, that they are splendid, and who flaunt it, day by day: it is a mistake to suppose that the splendid have any intention of surrendering their splendor. An identity is questioned only when it is menaced, as when the mighty begin to fall, or when the stranger enters the gates, never, thereafter, to be a stranger: the stranger's presence making you the stranger, less to the stranger than to yourself. Identity would seem to be the garment with which one covers the nakedness of the self; in which case, it is best that the garment be loose, a little like the robes of the desert, through which robes one's nakedness can always be felt, and, sometimes, discerned. This trust in one's nakedness is all that gives one the power to change one's robes.
We can parse this more carefully, and I tried to parse this in my class this morning in about 15 minutes. I think I really needed 60. Anyway, I just want to point out that the term "identity" has no clear meaning, but a multitude of meanings, the way words have a multitude of meanings for Keats and Shelley. My class tried to name them all. We couldn't. The term is a mystical incantation for Baldwin. Likewise, the terms "splendor," "wretched," and "stranger" become difficult to define thanks to the repetition of the words. Is the stranger a member of a different social construction? Is the stranger a representative of a different consciousness? Baldwin tears down the borders between our discussions of race, class, sexuality, and privilege and a more complicated, pre-political definition of the self.

When you write, try to use the many words in the English language that Baldwin used and see what you can do with your own vernacular. You may end up saying something no one has said before.

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