Book Review: Go Tell It on the Mountain, by James Baldwin

James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain is exquisitely written and filled with poignant truths. Here’s one concerning the resentment of children toward dutiful parents:

Through a storm of tears that did not reach his eyes, he stared at the yellow room; and the room shifted, the light of the sun darkened, and his mother’s face changed. Her face became the face that he gave her in his dreams, the face that had been hers in a photograph he had seen once, long ago, a photograph taken before he was born. This face was young and proud, uplifted, with a smile that made the wide mouth beautiful and glowed in the enormous eyes. It was the face of a girl who knew that no evil could undo her, and who could laugh, surely, as his mother did not laugh now. Between the two faces there stretched a darkness and a mystery that John feared, and that sometimes caused him to hate her. (p. 22 of 1963 Dial Press edition)

Here’s one concerning the resentment of wives toward dutiful husbands:

Sometimes it occurred to him to do the Saturday shopping on his way home, so that she would not have to do it; in which case he would buy a turkey, the biggest and the most expensive he could find, and several pounds of coffee, it being his belief that there was never enough in the house, and enough breakfast cereal to feed an army for a month. Such foresight always filled him with such a sense of his own virtue….She would sit in the kitchen, cold with rage and staring at the turkey, which, since Frank always bought them unplucked and with the head on, would cost her hours of exasperating, bloody labor. (pp. 93-94)

Upon the whole, though, the book is dominated by the binary relationship between sin and salvation. “‘You think that’s all that’s in the world is jails and churches? You ought to know better than that, Ma.’” (p. 25) Somewhat monotonously, few characters in the book do know better than that. The existence of a third way is hinted at very occasionally, as in “Perhaps his life had been wicked, but he had been very good to her” (p. 177); but Baldwin never suffers his characters to elaborate upon it, nor does he ever do so as narrator, for the result, no doubt, would be didactic. Rather, Baldwin lets the binary stand, leaving it to the reader to lament.

Even if the fork in the road offers only two choices, one path should lead to redemption…shouldn’t it?

On Goodyisms

Once, several years ago, I was driving around with a close friend whom we’ll call Socrates, when we saw a bumper sticker proclaiming, “I Support Women in the Arts.” Socrates turned to me, rolled his eyes, and groused, “Well, I do not support women in the arts.”

I understood. My friend Socrates, who was (and remains) quite supportive of women in the arts, was mocking the bumper sticker’s implication that he wasn’t.

Socrates was reacting, in a natural if unfortunate way, to a goodyism, or weaponized platitude, a non-controversial statement designed to elevate the status of its invoker. Cheap to the point of costing nothing, the goodyism yields a great return, in the form of moral superiority and its concomitant political advantage. Holier than thou is a phrase that can be associated with goodyisms; yet for the balance of this essay, I would like to discuss not the holiness that the goodyism confers upon its wielder but the opprobrium that it delivers upon thou.

Many goodyisms, especially those one might see on bumper stickers, are subtle exercises in demagoguery. The goal of demagoguery is to make its audience ask itself, “Who could possibly be against _______?” In the current example, the operative question is “Who could possibly be against women in the arts?” The real answer is “Nobody,” which points to the hallmark of the goodyism: the lack of any serious opposing position, its non-controversial nature. However, the implied answer is “Scum,” and since the goodyist has taken a certain position, it follows that everyone opposed to him is scum. It matters not that no one really is opposed to him on the ground beneath which he has raised his banner (women in the arts, in this case); all that matters is that the banner has been raised. Defying no one, he has nonetheless issued a call of defiance. Hearing it, his audience is compelled to choose sides, either to stand beside him on the moral high plain or to sink into the scum.

That the audience is indeed so compelled is illustrated by the Lenny Bruce routine about one-upmanship in religion, in which one villager promises to give up five farms and three rivers for the Lord, and the next villager, not to be outdone, promises to give up ten farms and eight rivers. In our example, we are invited to pledge our farms and rivers for the sake of women in the arts, and nobody wants to be behindhand in making the pledge. The member of the flock who offers the fewest farms and rivers is branded a profane person; and the one who remains silent must surely be a lurking devil, for “Whoever is not with me is against me.”

The goodyism, therefore, is an offensive weapon disguised as a defensive one. It is passive-aggressive. It is designed to provoke a response (or a non-response), to divide the community on the basis of that response, and to anathematize everyone on the wrong side of the divide. The fact that it is gratuitous, based on an obvious proposition, highlights its offensive character.  Since silence gives consent to the demonization implicit in the goodyism, there is really no choice but to push back against it. The worst thing you can do, however, is to return fire with irony, as Socrates did, if only to me, by joking that he was against women in the arts. Remember, the goodyist has set a trap for you; he has all but accused you of heresy. You have ample reason to be irritated, but giving vent to your annoyance with an irreverent jest only makes it easier for him to spring the trap. It is much better to answer with a purer form of humor, to cut him down to size. The next time someone aims a goodyism at you like “I Support Women in the Arts,” say to him what my father would often say to me: “Bully for you. Now what do you want, a dog biscuit or a cat biscuit?”

My Dream

Here is a description of a dream I had in the early 90s in Taiwan. It is the most intricate dream I have ever experienced and can be broken down into four phases:

Phase I. I am around six years old and am standing in a desolate, Middle Eastern landscape, devoid of any man-made structure, that feels like the “Holy Land.” Nearby is a small pond, and two bearded and robed young men are fishing in it. They are fussing in a primitive way, and I am rather put off by them; looking closely, however, I see that their fishing tackle consists of long blades of grass, with neither hooks nor bait, which they are swishing through the water.

Although no one speaks, the knowledge comes echoing over the hills that God is approaching. I notice a figure emerging through waves of pulsating heat, walking down an incline toward me, as I continue to stand near the pond with the two grass-fishing men. At the wordless realization “It’s Her,” I see that God is a Native American woman, apparently in her mid-twenties. She comes to stand slightly upslope from the pond, and I follow her eyes as she regards the two fishermen: They have both landed healthy-looking, silver-skinned fish, which seem willingly to have threaded themselves through the jaw on the hookless, baitless blades of grass. The men pull their catches out of the water and begin wrapping the blades of grass around their necks, with the fish held in place at the backs of their necks, above their shoulder blades. They tie the grass around their throats, climb the few paces uphill to where God is standing, and fall to their knees before Her in devotion. I fixate on the fish: They are baking in the sun on the backs of the men’s necks, curling their tails upward as they die.

God senses my distress. Turning Her attention to me, she calms me telepathically:

“You must not feel bad for the fish, nor must you think ill of these men for their ritual. They are simple, but their hearts are pure.”

She smiles. “If this ritual is upsetting to you, you do not have to follow it. You do not have to do anything that upsets you.”

She opens Her arms and hugs me to her bare chest, stroking my shoulders, neck, and the back of my head.

I enjoy perhaps five seconds of bliss in Her embrace, but then I hear a clamor to my left, like the clanging of pots and pans. I turn in that direction, and when I do so, I become part of a changed scene; I never see the pond, the fishermen, nor God again.

Phase II. I am in the same Middle Eastern barrenness, but temples and altars now dot the slope. My age is now about fifteen or sixteen.

A portly man is shuffling up to the altar nearest me. He is dressed in a khaki military uniform and seems to be a British soldier of intermediate rank, perhaps a sergeant. He is in a fretful haste and his mess kit and canteen bang together, producing the racket that had seized my attention.

I intuit that the British army is being evicted from the Holy Land and that the sergeant wants to “grab a quick prayer” before leaving. Kneeling at the altar, he begins to pray, but his vexation remains throughout, so that he is praying and cursing at the same time.

A different sort of noise, like the clattering of dishes, rolls in from the right, and I turn in that direction.

Phase III. The landscape is unchanged, but I am now twenty.

I am looking at the Last Supper, as seen in the painting by da Vinci, except that dinner is alfresco. I advance toward the central seat, where Jesus is supposed to be, and find that he is Mark Twain. The disciples to the left and right are behaving like a pack of unruly children, elbowing each other and knocking over their drinks; and Mr. Twain wears an expression of the most grudging indulgence, brimming with sarcasm, rolling his eyes as if to say, “You’d better have mercy on these clowns, Father, because I just want to strangle them.”

I sit opposite Mr. Twain, and we begin sharing the same dish, passing the plate back and forth, helping ourselves to a little at a time. After a few rounds of this exchange, Mr. Twain scrapes off the last morsel and returns the empty plate to me. He produces another supernaturally ironic smile.

An electronic beeping from my right distracts me, and I turn to look.

Phase IV. I am twenty-four (the age at which I had the dream) and in Taiwan (where I lived when I dreamt it).

I am in a cavernous big-box warehouse store. Merchandise-laden shelves tower heavenward, reaching almost to the bare rafters, eclipsing the light. I’m standing in the checkout line, along the conveyor belt, just behind my American roommate, waiting for him to complete his purchases. However, he begins hitting on the cashier, a Taiwanese girl barely twenty. She is unresponsive and unamused. She reaches under the counter, pressing a button, at which the whole scene becomes an image on a TV screen, a video recording now serving as evidence at my roommate’s trial for sexual harassment. The End.

My interpretation: Each phase of the dream seems to correspond to a moment in world history and in the development of religion. Phase I is the Primitive phase, showing the hopeful moment when a religion of ritual evolves into a religion of love. Phase II is the British or imperialist phase, in which religion has been corrupted by power, significantly an unsustainable power. Phase III is the American phase, based on a parody of a painting, populated by quarrelsome chosen ones, and devoted to the worship of Irony, which proves an unfulfilling dish. Finally, Phase IV depicts the post-historical age in which we live: materialist, litigious, godless, and loveless.