Sunday, February 20, 2011

Dies irae

I have been delighting in the majestic language of James Baldwin in his Collected Essays. It is almost always an exceptional treat to read non-fiction by great fiction writers. Most of them seem to have an automatic knack how not to write in bad language. In great contrast with academics - especially academic literary critics (odd, but there you are). Baldwin certainly writes great prose, but that's only one aspect of the essays - the language fuses with the thinking: the thoughts and the medium they are expressed in fuse (this must surely be true of all great writing). I don't know much about Baldwin, I'm sure the private person is different from the public writer, probably less likeable. I don't much care - here he takes painful issue with American racial tensions (always at the heart of the republic which should never be forgotten) and African-American experience not in a particularist way, but in a universal way (which universality can only be reached through particular experience, particular circumstances). I am supposedly a very rare thing, a white liberal without personal historical guilt, but I am a Burkean liberal after all. We should remember the particular awful, unspeakable things done in the past, being done today, but they are fundamentally universal failings, humankind's failings. Our failings.