The Terror Within and the Evil Without: James Baldwin on Our Capacity for Transformation as Individuals and Nations
By Maria Popova
“The self,” the poet Robert Penn Warren observed in his immensely insightful meditation on the trouble with “finding yourself,” “is a style of being, continually expanding in a vital process of definition, affirmation, revision, and growth, a process that is the image, we may say, of the life process of a healthy society itself.” Indeed, if the great humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm was correct, as I believe he was, in asserting that self-love is the foundation of a sane society, our responsibility to ourselves — and to our selves — is really a responsibility to one another: to know our interiority intimately and hold our darkest sides up to the light of awareness. But part of our human folly is that we do this far less readily than we shine the scorching beam of blameful attention on the darknesses of others.
That is what James Baldwin (August 2, 1924–December 1, 1987) explores in a magnificent 1964 piece titled “Nothing Personal,” found in The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction (public library) — the indispensable volume that gave us Baldwin on the creative process and his definition of love.
A year after he contemplated “the doom and glory of knowing who you are and what you are,” Baldwin writes:
It has always been much easier (because it has always seemed much safer) to give a name to the evil without than to locate the terror within. And yet, the terror within is far truer and far more powerful than any of our labels: the labels change, the terror is constant. And this terror has something to do with that irreducible gap between the self one invents — the self one takes oneself as being, which is, however, and by definition, a provisional self — and the undiscoverable self which always has the power to blow the provisional self to bits.
Echoing Bruce Lee’s assertion that “to become different from what we are, we must have some awareness of what we are,” Baldwin turns his critical yet uncynical intellect toward our capacity for self-transformation — the most difficult and rewarding of our inner resources comprising our collective potentiality:
It is perfectly possible — indeed, it is far from uncommon — to go to bed one night, or wake up one morning, or simply walk through a door one has known all one’s life, and discover, between inhaling and exhaling, that the self one has sewn together with such effort is all dirty rags, is unusable, is gone: and out of what raw material will one build a self again? The lives of men — and, therefore, of nations — to an extent literally unimaginable, depend on how vividly this question lives in the mind. It is a question which can paralyze the mind, of course; but if the question does not live in the mind, then one is simply condemned to eternal youth, which is a synonym for corruption.
Complement this particular portion of the wholly invigorating The Price of the Ticket with pioneering social scientist John Gardner on the art of self-renewal and Tibetan Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön on self-transformation through difficult times, then revisit Baldwin on freedom and how we imprison ourselves, the artist’s struggle, the writer’s responsibility in a divided society, and his increasingly timely forgotten conversations with Chinua Achebe about the political power of art, with Margaret Mead about identity, race, and the experience of otherness, and with Nikki Giovanni about what it means to be truly empowered.
Published August 14, 2017