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.


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.


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.

Freud On Group Production (And ‘Intellectual Property’)

In ‘Group Pyschology’, (Standard Edition, XVIII, 79; as cited in Peter Gay, Freud for Historians, Oxford University Press, 1985, pp. 150), Sigmund Freud writes:

[A]s far as intellectual achievement is concerned, it remains indeed true that the great decisions of the work of thought, the consequential discoveries and solutions of problems, are possible only to the individual, laboring in solitude. But even the mass mind is capable of mental creations of genius, as proved above all by language itself, as well as by folk song, folklore and the like. Beyond that, it remains unsettled just how much the individual thinker or creative writer owed to the stimulus of the crowd among which he lives, whether he is more than the completer of mental work in which the others had participated at the same time.

The Grand Old Man of Psychoanalysis is, as usual, quite perspicuous here (As Gay notes in a parenthetical remark, his concluding ‘reasonable aside…joins, once again, individual and social psychology.’) His choice of examples of the works produced by ‘the mass mind’ are, in particular, telling: language, folk song, and folklore.  Without the first, there is no language to be used as the medium of expression by the novelist, the poet, the writer; no home, as it were, for them to set up safe camp and experiment, boldly, perhaps striking out where none dared have gone before. Idiosyncrasy must have an orthodoxy to pit itself against. Without the second a giant repository of sources for classical and popular music alike is inaccessible.  Bach, it must be remembered, drew heavily on German folk music for some of his most famous compositions; rock and roll owes its provenance to the blues etc. As in language, folk songs and music provide a foundation upon which many an impressive superstructure, sometimes radically different from its lower levels, may be built up. Without the third, similarly, the wellsprings of stories–long and short alike, plays, novels, dries up. The child hears these at her mother’s and grandparent’s knees; she learns them in school; and again, further sorties into territories visible, but not yet ventured into by them, are suggested.

The ‘individual, laboring in solitude’ is not denied any of the credit that is her due by her drawing upon these sources of inspiration. It is her particular and peculiar utilization and deployment of these source materials that is the cause of our appreciation and praise. Our acknowledgement of the genius’ work only tips over into fantasy–and counterproductive restraints on borrowing and creative amendment–when we imagine that her productions  issued as singular emanations from her, and only her, alone. Moreover, the true value of the genius’ contributions does not lie in the solitary splendor of her literary, visual, or musical creations; rather, it is that those creations, by being poured back into the collective cultural potlatch, become fecund sources of further artistic production for those who follow in her footsteps.

We are born into a made world; when we leave, we’ve laid a couple of bricks ourselves. With the mortar and materials of those who came before us.

Graham Greene on Happiness

In a post last year on the subject of happiness, I had cited Freud and Burke–the founders of psychoanalysis and political conservatism, respectively. Their views of happiness spoke of the seemingly necessarily transitory nature of the sensation we term happiness–Freud even enlists Goethe to help make this claim–that happiness was marked by brief, fleeting intensity, by its ‘novelty and contrast’.

Today, for a slightly different perspective, I’m going to enlist Graham Greene, a member of that class of humans with perhaps exceptional insight into the human condition, the novelist. Greene always was, in his autobiographical writing, very frank about his depression, psychoanalytic treatments, and the influence these had on his writing and in the case of psychoanalysis, his understanding of the supposed relationship of the unconscious to creativity; his views on happiness should be of interest here.

During the course of a series of interviews conducted by Marie Françoise-Allan, Greene, in speaking of his childhood says:

[H]appiness is repetitious, while pain is marked by crises that which sear the memory. Happiness survives only in the odd incident. Being happy is almost like making love: One attains a state of blissful ‘nothing’–one does not remember, one remembers only happiness, a state of contentment.

This is quite a mixed bag. First, happiness is described as ‘repetitious’–perhaps it is a mental state which recurs or is more temporally extended than pain, which is described in terms similar to the ones that Freud and Burke used to describe happiness. Here, Greene seems to suggest that happiness is a mental state with continuity, one which acquires its distinctive quality because of its ‘sameness’, its invariance. But then, happiness is described as surviving only in ‘the odd incident’, a return to the episodic state described by Freud and Burke. And lastly happiness is compared to the orgiastic pleasures of ‘making love’, a ‘blissful nothing’ which is perhaps supposed to be like the Buddhist nirvana, but with very few particular features to it, so much so that the subject remembers no details but just the sensation (or lack of it). Happiness is now analogized to a ‘petite mort‘ a little dying, a little flirtation with a state of nothingness. (It should be clear that in these descriptions Greene is taking the side of the philosophical inquiry into happiness that suggests it is a psychological term like ‘melancholia’ as opposed to that which would consider it a ‘value term, roughly synonymous with well-being or flourishing’ (Dan Haybron, Stanford Encyclopedia, ‘Happiness‘).)

This does not amount to very coherent view of happiness. Perhaps it is because of Greene is answering a series of questions about the happiness of childhood, and so his memories of that time have suffered the attrition of memory. Indeed, his interlocutor makes a great deal of this loss of memory in this session, remarking on how Greene’s childhood does not play a particularly prominent role in his autobiographies. And Greene’s quickness in ending his answer with a brief ‘We were happy’ also seems to suggest a desire to move on, almost as if the memories of that happiness were too painful to bear. So Greene might have unwittingly left us with at least one more possible facet of this ever elusive phenomenon: happiness might be that sensation, which when remembered later, produces a state distinctly unlike it, a mixture of regret, melancholia, and the fear that that sensation will not be experienced again.

Excerpt from: Marie Françoise-Allan, The Other Man: Conversations with Graham Greene, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1983.

Writing Under the Influence: Greene on Benzedrine

Stories of Adderall-inspired writing binges by over-achieving students keen to upstage their cohorts and get the best grades possible are now old hat. And perhaps so are stories of writers fueling (or attempting to fuel) their writing sessions with a variety of intoxicating, calming, inspirational and brain-cobweb clearing substances. These have ranged from the ubiquitous nicotine (cigarettes, the most common of all, said to steady the nerves and enable concentration) to caffeine (to keep awake, to stimulate; most famously employed by Balzac, whose coffee consumption was truly awe-inspiring), alcohol (perhaps to reduce the anxiety associated with the blank page), marijuana (to provoke, hopefully, the odd creative thought or two); the list goes on. (I am not optimistic about the prospects of hearing any success stories associated with alcohol and marijuana when it comes to writing; certainly, in the case of alcohol, it seems to have led to too many careers being derailed.)

At first glance, Graham Greene‘s writing career does not seem to suggest ever having needed chemical stimulation to get the writing engine fired up. He wrote twenty-seven novels, two volumes of verse, four volumes of autobiography, three travel books, eight plays, ten screenplays, four collections of short stories, and four children’s books. But even he sometimes felt the need to dip into the substance reservoir in order to get an ambitious task undertaken.

By 1938, Greene had mastered the art of finishing a novel in less than a year. Still, his earnings from his writing were not enough to take care of a writer with a family that included two children. A commercially successful work was called for, one that would serve as ‘entertainment’ (to use Greene’s own term for the works in his oeuvre he deemed less serious).  Greene had returned from his travels in Mexico, joined the Officers’ Emergency Reserve and was hard at work on The Power and the Glory.

An ambitious plan presented itself: he would write an ‘entertainment’ in the mornings while continuing to work on The Power and the Glory in the afternoons. A studio was rented and work began on The Confidential Agent with Greene suitably fortified:

I fell back for the first and last time in my life on Benzedrine. For six weeks I started each day with a tablet, and renewed the dose at midday. Each day I sat down to work with no idea of what turn the plot might take and each morning I wrote, with the automatism of a planchette, two thousand words instead of my usual stint of five hundred words. In the afternoons, The Power and the Glory proceeded toward its ends at its own leaden pace, unaffected by the sprightly young thing that was overtaking it.

Six weeks to finish a novel at two thousand words a day, while simultaneously working on another novel. The mind boggles. This regime was not without its costs:

I was forcing the pace and I suffered for it. Six weeks of a Benzedrine breakfast diet left my nerves in shreds and my wife suffered the result. At five o’clock I would return home with a shaking hand, a depression which fell with the regularity of a tropical rain, ready to find offense in anything, and to give offense for no cause. For long after the six weeks were over, I had to continue with smaller and smaller doses to break the habit. The career of writing has its own curious forms of hell. Sometimes looking back I think that those Benzedrine weeks were more responsible than the separation of war and my own infidelities for breaking our marriage.

I own a battered paperback copy of The Confidential Agent, which I have not read thus far. When I do, I’ll be especially attentive for any traces of a jittery, wired Greene.

Note: Excerpts from: Graham Greene, Ways of Escape, Pocket Books, New York, 1980, pp. 72-74.