Robert Cotner

n one of the finest essays of American literature, James Baldwin (1924-1985) delineates key aspects of human nature as we play it out in America. First published in Creative America in 1962, the essay was part of the celebration by the National Cultural Center of the Performing Arts, which culminated in the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC.

A mere seven paragraphs long, the essay has direct intellectual lineage to Emerson in both theme and spirit. “The artist,” Baldwin begins, “must actively cultivate that state which most [people], necessarily, must avoid: the state of being alone.” He then takes the idea of aloneness, turns it in his hands like a cherished, ancient artifact, and deciphers the nuances of its patina. The conquest of the physical world takes so much of our attention, he says, that we fail to “conquer the great wilderness” of ourselves. “The role of the artist, then, precisely, is to illumine 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.”

The aloneness of which he writes is not a romantic musing “beside some silver lake.” It is, rather, the aloneness of “birth or death”; or like the “fearful aloneness which one sees in the eyes of someone who is suffering, whom we cannot help”; or the “aloneness of love.” Aloneness encompasses the “extreme, universal, inescapable” conditions of the human experience — things we would rather not know. “The artist is present,” he says, “to correct the delusions to which we fall prey in our attempts to avoid this knowledge.”

Because society must be grounded in things that are both visible and stable, every society has “battled with the incorrigible disturber of the peace — the artist.” He calls the artist that “breed of men and women historically despised while living and acclaimed when safely dead.” But the artist helps us to understand the unseen “mystery of the human being” and to know that “there is nothing stable under heaven.” It is, and this seems to be the crux of the matter for Baldwin, the acceptance of constant changes and the use of these changes for the greater good of humankind through which we find “our maturity as nations and as people.”

He says panic is inevitable every place in the world where people refuse to accept change — from the “streets of our own New Orleans to the grisly battleground of Algeria.” (If he were writing today, he might have said “from the streets of our own Cincinnati to the grisly battleground of Israel.”) He asserts that a “higher level of consciousness among the people is the only hope we have, now or in the future, of minimizing human damage.” Inescapable as it is that we must live in society — so it is inescapable that we must live privately, inwardly. In facing squarely the truth, personally and nationally, we then must bring the reality of who we are and the ideal of “what we wish to be” into something “resembling reconciliation.” Baldwin observes, “Society must accept some things as real, but [the artist] must know that the visible reality hides a deeper one, and that all our action and all our achievement rests on things unseen.”

Life for an artist in America is little different from that of an artist anywhere — except for certain historical perspectives. The dangers he sees for American artists “rest on the fact that in order to conquer this continent, the particular aloneness of which I speak — the aloneness in which one discovers that life is tragic, and, therefore, therefore, unutterably beautiful — could not be permitted.” The “lover’s war” each artist has with the society, has the potential to bring all people to true freedom and to fulfill the “opportunity which no other nation has of moving beyond the Old World concepts of race and class and caste, and create, finally, what we must have had in mind when we first began speaking of the New World.”

In this essay and in many of his other writings, James Baldwin reveals requisite universals in the human experience, through which people of all cultures, all races, all faiths become human and establish a truly humane society. Such is the profound role of books and ideas, of art and philosophy, which we celebrate month by month and year by year. v

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