By Maria Popova
“A society must assume that it is stable, but the artist must know, and he must let us know, that there is nothing stable under heaven.”
“The sole purpose of human existence,” Carl Jung wrote in his reflections of life and death in 1957, “is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.” Five years later, in one of his least well-known but most enchanting works, the great novelist, playwright, poet, essayist, and cultural critic James Baldwin argued for this existential kindling of light as the sole purpose of the artist’s life.
In a 1962 essay titled “The Creative Process,”found in the altogether fantastic anthology The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction (public library), Baldwin lays out a manifesto of sorts, nuanced and dimensional yet exploding with clarity of conviction, for the trying but vital responsibility that artists, “a breed of men and women historically despised while living and acclaimed when safely dead,” have to their society.
Baldwin, only thirty-eight at the time, writes:
Perhaps the primary distinction of the artist is that he must actively cultivate that state which most men, necessarily, must avoid; the state of being alone. That all men are, when the chips are down, alone, is a banality — a banality because it is very frequently stated, but very rarely, on the evidence, believed. Most of us are not compelled to linger with the knowledge of our aloneness, for it is a knowledge that can paralyze all action in this world. There are, forever, swamps to be drained, cities to be created, mines to be exploited, children to be fed. None of these things can be done alone. But the conquest of the physical world is not man’s only duty. He is also enjoined to conquer the great wilderness of himself. The precise role of the artist, then, is to illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through that vast forest, so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place.
But unlike David Foster Wallace’s heartbreaking and rather matter-of-fact observation — “I’m going to die, and die very much alone, and the rest of the world is going to go merrily on without me.” — Baldwin is careful to point out that this ideal aloneness is not a state of nihilistic resignation but a prerequisite for realizing and inhabiting one’s true identity, rather than donning an identity inherited from society like a traditional costume:
The state of being alone is not meant to bring to mind merely a rustic musing beside some silver lake. The aloneness of which I speak is much more like the aloneness of birth or death. It is like the fearless alone that one sees in the eyes of someone who is suffering, whom we cannot help. Or it is like the aloneness of love, the force and mystery that so many have extolled and so many have cursed, but which no one has ever understood or ever really been able to control. I put the matter this way, not out of any desire to create pity for the artist — God forbid! — but to suggest how nearly, after all, is his state the state of everyone, and in an attempt to make vivid his endeavor. The state of birth, suffering, love, and death are extreme states — extreme, universal, and inescapable. We all know this, but we would rather not know it. The artist is present to correct the delusions to which we fall prey in our attempts to avoid this knowledge.
It is for this reason that all societies have battled with the incorrigible disturber of the peace — the artist. I doubt that future societies will get on with him any better. The entire purpose of society is to create a bulwark against the inner and the outer chaos, in order to make life bearable and to keep the human race alive. And it is absolutely inevitable that when a tradition has been evolved, whatever the tradition is, the people, in general, will suppose it to have existed from before the beginning of time and will be most unwilling and indeed unable to conceive of any changes in it. They do not know how they will live without those traditions that have given them their identity. Their reaction, when it is suggested that they can or that they must, is panic… And a higher level of consciousness among the people is the only hope we have, now or in the future, of minimizing human damage.
In a sentiment that Jeanette Winterson would come to echo decades later — “Art … says, don’t accept things for their face value; you don’t have to go along with any of this; you can think for yourself.” — Baldwin considers the unique position of the artist as a challenger of society’s protective delusions:
The artist is distinguished from all other responsible actors in society — the politicians, legislators, educators, and scientists — by the fact that he is his own test tube, his own laboratory, working according to very rigorous rules, however unstated these may be, and cannot allow any consideration to supersede his responsibility to reveal all that he can possibly discover concerning the mystery of the human being. Society must accept some things as real; but he must always know that visible reality hides a deeper one, and that all our action and achievement rest on things unseen. A society must assume that it is stable, but the artist must know, and he must let us know, that there is nothing stable under heaven. One cannot possibly build a school, teach a child, or drive a car without taking some things for granted. The artist cannot and must not take anything for granted, but must drive to the heart of every answer and expose the question the answer hides.
But the artist’s responsibility to society springs from the artist’s responsibility to him- or herself. Reflecting on the monumental challenge of self-awareness and the notion that “we hardly know our own depths,” Baldwin considers the elusive art of knowing ourselves, which we often evade by seeking to know others instead:
Anyone who has ever been compelled to think about it — anyone, for example, who has ever been in love — knows that the one face that one can never see is one’s own face. One’s lover — or one’s brother, or one’s enemy — sees the face you wear, and this face can elicit the most extraordinary reactions. We do the things we do and feel what we feel essentially because we must — we are responsible for our actions, but we rarely understand them. It goes without saying, I believe, that if we understood ourselves better, we would damage ourselves less. But the barrier between oneself and one’s knowledge of oneself is high indeed. There are so many things one would rather not know! We become social creatures because we cannot live any other way. But in order to become social, there are a great many other things that we must not become, and we are frightened, all of us, of these forces within us that perpetually menace our precarious security. Yet the forces are there: we cannot will them away. All we can do is learn to live with them. And we cannot learn this unless we are willing to tell the truth about ourselves, and the truth about us is always at variance with what we wish to be. The human effort is to bring these two realities into a relationship resembling reconciliation.
Illustration by Maurice Sendak from ‘Open House for Butterflies’ by Ruth Krauss. Click image for more.
His words ring with double poignancy, for Baldwin — a queer Black man — came of age decades before the marriage equality movement and penned this essay a year before the March of Washington, at which Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. Echoing throughout his manifesto for artists is Baldwin’s clarion call for acceptance of all who appear dissonant with society’s forces, for granting equal dignity to the human experience in all of its manifestations:
The human beings whom we respect the most, after all — and sometimes fear the most — are those who are most deeply involved in this delicate and strenuous effort, for they have the unshakable authority that comes only from having looked on and endured and survived the worst. That nation is healthiest which has the least necessity to distrust or ostracize these people — whom, as I say, honor, once they are gone, because somewhere in our hearts we know that we cannot live without them.
Baldwin closes by reflecting on this relationship between the artist and the nation, specifically in the context of American history. In a sentiment that calls to mind Susan Sontag on courage and resistance, he appeals to the artist’s most crucial, most challenging responsibility to culture:
In the same way that to become a social human being one modifies and suppresses and, ultimately, without great courage, lies to oneself about all one’s interior, uncharted chaos, so have we, as a nation, modified or suppressed and lied about all the darker forces in our history.
Societies never know it, but the war of an artist with his society is a lover’s war, and he does, at his best, what lovers do, which is to reveal the beloved to himself and, with that revelation, to make freedom real.