Men Writing As Women, And Vice-Versa

A few days ago, I excerpted a passage from James Baldwin‘s If Beale Street Could Talk (Bantam, New York, 1974)  in which the central character, a young woman named Tish, describes her–and her boyfriend, Fonny’s–perceptions of Bell, the policeman who has sent Fonny to jail.

Tish:

But I was beginning to learn something about the blankness of [Bell’s] eyes. What I was learning was beginning to frighten me to death.

Fonny:

When their paths crossed, and I was there, Fonny looked straight at Bell, Bell looked straight ahead. I’m going to fuck you, boy, Bell’s eyes said.

My annotation concluded:

Only Baldwin, I think, could have captured–in quite this way–the aura the black man feels radiating out at him from a policeman: the resentment, the sense of being marked as a target, the implicit and explicit violence, the desire to destroy whatever it is that makes him into a man who can hold his head high. The policed see and experience the police very differently; they know they are looked at through a different lens.

Except that in the passage I noted, Fonny’s perceptions–that of a black man–of Bell are actually those of Tish–a black woman–for she is the narrator of the story. Baldwin, a male writer, has written a novel in first-person where the gender of the narrator is not his. This, as might be imagined, is not a task that novelists often attempt. Our own interiority is hard enough to ‘capture’; the description of another kind of subjectivity is particularly intractable task. Third-person descriptions of another gender are a little easier than first-person perspectives, even if only marginally. (As Meg Toth noted in the discussion I make note of below, “Inhabiting a different perspective is not the same as writing well about it in the third person….So many authors write sensitively and insightfully about main characters of the opposite sex, but using first person to do so is rare.” Baldwin even provides us an explicit description of Fonny and Tish’s love-making; it is a remarkable scene, powerful and sensitive.)

What makes Baldwin’s novel particularly interesting is that our pre-encounter-with-the-text expectation is that we will read Baldwin as one of the most vivid male articulators of a distinctive ‘literary black rage.’ (Richard Wright would be yet another.) But instead, Baldwin turns his attention elsewhere. In the case of my reading of If Beale Street Could Talk, considerable anonymity preceded it: I had never heard of it, a sad commentary on my knowledge of Baldwin’s work; I found it a battered paperback copy on a stoop in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and intrigued, brought it back home with me; when I opened it to read, I had not even read the jacket description; this made the little shock I experienced on finding out that Tish was the narrator especially distinctive and pleasurable. There is something to be said for skipping reviews.

Note: After reading Beale Street, I made the following query on Facebook:

Favorite novel written in first-person where the author’s gender is not the same as the central character’s?

The response to this quest was gratifying; I will post the list that emerged–including novels that are actually written in third-person–anon. It is very rich; I’m looking forward to the reading that lies in store.

James Baldwin On A White Policeman’s Eyes

In James Baldwin‘s If Beale Street Could Talk (Bantam, New York, 1974) Fonny, a young black man, is in jail for rape–his supposed victim’s eyewitness identification is probably mistaken; ‘outside,’ his pregnant girlfriend, Tish, wonders about the policeman, Bell, who arrested Fonny. Bell had wanted to arrest Fonny for assault ever since he had violently defended Tish from a young Italian man’s unwelcome advances, and had only been thwarted by a white bystander, an Italian woman who owned the store Tish was shopping in.

Now, as the Tish’s family fights to prove Fonny’s innocence, Tish is haunted by Bell; she knows his name; she ‘sees’ him everywhere; she has memorized his badge number. Since that day Tish first met Bell, he has come to reside in her self as an abiding memory, an unforgettable and disturbing impression:

I had certainly seen him before that particular afternoon, but he had been just another cop. After that afternoon, he had read hair and blue eyes. He walked the way John Wayne walks, striding out to clean up the universe, and he believed all that shit: a wicked, stupid, infantile motherfucker. Like his heroes, he was kind of pigheaded, heavy gutted, big assed, and his eyes were as blank as George Washington’s eyes. But I was beginning to learn something about the blankness of those eyes. What I was learning was beginning to frighten me to death. If you look steadily into that unblinking blue, into that pinpoint at the center of the eye, you discover a bottomless cruelty, a viciousness cold and icy. In that eye, you do not exist: if you are lucky. If that eye, from its height, has been forced to notice you, if you do exist in the unbelievably frozen winter which lives behind that eye, you are marked, marked, marked, like a man in a black overcoat, crawling, fleeing, across the snow. The eye resents your presence in the landscape, cluttering up the view. Presently, the black overcoat will be still, turning red with blood, and the snow will be red, and the eye resents this, too, blinks once, and causes more snow to fall, covering it all. Sometimes I was with Fonny when I crossed Bell’s path, sometimes I was alone. When I was with Fonny, the eyes looked straight ahead, into a freezing sun. When I was alone, the eyes clawed me like a cat’s claws, raked me like a rake. These eyes look only into the eyes of the conquered victim. They cannot look into any other eyes. When Fonny was alone, the same thing happened. Bell’s eyes swept over Fonny’s black body with the unanswerable cruelty of lust, as though he had lit the blowtorch and had it aimed at Fonny’s sex. When their paths crossed, and I was there, Fonny looked straight at Bell, Bell looked straight ahead. I’m going to fuck you, boy, Bell’s eyes said. [pp. 185-186.]

Only Baldwin, I think, could have captured–in quite this way–the aura the black man feels radiating out at him from a policeman: the resentment, the sense of being marked as a target, the implicit and explicit violence, the desire to destroy whatever it is that makes him into a man who can hold his head high. The policed see and experience the police very differently; they know they are looked at through a different lens.

Finding Philosophy in Literature

This semester, I am teaching Philosophical Issues in Literature. PIL is one of Brooklyn College’s so-called upper-tier core courses; all graduating students are required to take a pair of these. Unsurprisingly, just about every student registered for my class told me during the first day’s introductions that they were taking the class because of a pair of familiar reasons: a) they needed an upper-tier core to graduate and my section had slots available and b) this section worked best with their academic and work schedule. (This ‘confession’ out in the open, I made my usual promises to try to make a core course as painless as possible.)

So, not Philosophy of Literature, but rather philosophy in literature. The former subject concerns itself with rather more traditional philosophical concerns: the nature of literature, fictional objects, the semantics of fictional works, and so on. The latter seeks to show philosophy may be found in literature, how authors do philosophy via their literary works, how indeed, a coherent philosophical vision can be presented in a variety of literary formats. In reading literature,  ‘morals’ can be drawn; metaphysical and ethical theses uncovered; aesthetic standpoints elicited. The anthology I have chosen as my text for the semester features extracts from novels, short stories, poems and plays; a blurb on the back suggests that as much philosophy may be found in a good novel as in anything written by Kant or Mill. I agree; it’s why teaching this class has long been on my short list of ‘want-to-take-this-on-at-some-point’ items.

If the classroom discussion that took place in the second class meeting is any indicator of how the semester will go, I’m inclined to be cautiously optimistic that my pre-semester enthusiasm for the class was justified: while some students appeared initially reticent about discussing the assigned readings (extracts from Invisible Man, Puberty Blues and Giovanni’s Room), yet others were remarkably enthusiastic, and as the class progressed, had pulled in other students with their responses to the material.  A provocative reading sometimes generates a provocative response, and then it’s off to the races. By the end of the class, we had made interesting connections between the repression of homosexual identity and the internalized self-diminution of the black man in Jim Crow America, between the immigrant’s struggles to maintain coherence in his twin identities, the dilemmas of the conscientious objector, and adolescent struggles to adjust to peer group pressure. Among other things.

While the extracts in the textbook are grouped according to philosophical themes–such as self-identity, duty to others etc–and accompanied by little primers to the issues tackled in them, I am inclined to let the initial reading be a  trifle unguided so as to be able to elicit slightly unmediated responses to the text. My hope is that this will broaden the scope of our responses to the readings and make the ensuing class discussions even more eclectic. My class is set in Brooklyn; my students are a remarkably diverse group, and they promise to bring to their readings of the classics a singularly unique standpoint.

It promises to be a great semester.