James Baldwin on How to Live Through Your Darkest Hour and Life as a Moral Obligation to the Universe
By Maria Popova
“Yesterday has already vanished among the shadows of the past; to-morrow has not yet emerged from the future. You have found an intermediate space,” Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote of life’s most haunting hour. But what we find in that intermediate space between past and future, between the costumed simulacrum of reality we so painstakingly construct with our waking lives and reality laid bare in the naked nocturnal mind, is not always a resting place of ease — for there dwells the self at its most elemental, which means the self most lucidly awake to its foibles and its finitude.
The disquietude this haunted hour can bring, and does bring, is what another titanic writer and rare seer into the depths of the human spirit — James Baldwin (August 2, 1924–December 1, 1987) — explored 130 years after Hawthorne in one of his least known, most insightful, and most personal essays.
In 1964, as the Harlem riots were shaking the foundation of society and selfhood, Baldwin joined talent-forces with the great photographer Richard Avedon — an old high school friend of his — to hold up an uncommonly revelatory cultural mirror with the book Nothing Personal (public library). Punctuating Avedon’s signature black-and-white portraits — of Nobel laureates and Hollywood celebrities, of the age- and ache-etched face of an elder born under slavery and the idealism-lit young faces of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Georgia, of the mentally ill perishing in asylums and the newlyweds at City Hall ablaze with hope — are four stirring essays by Baldwin, the first of which gave us his famous sobering observation that “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.”
At no time does the terror within, Baldwin argues in the third essay, bubble to the surface of our being more ferociously than in that haunting hour between past and future, between our illusions of permanence and perfection, and the glaring fact of our finitude and our fallibility, between being and non-being. He writes:
Four AM can be a devastating hour. The day, no matter what kind of day it was is indisputably over; almost instantaneously, a new day begins: and how will one bear it? Probably no better than one bore the day that is ending, possibly not as well. Moreover, a day is coming one will not recall, the last day of one’s life, and on that day one will oneself become as irrecoverable as all the days that have passed.
It is a fearful speculation — or, rather, a fearful knowledge — that, one day one’s eyes will no longer look out on the world. One will no longer be present at the universal morning roll call. The light will rise for others, but not for you.
Half a century before the physicist Brian Greene examined how this very awareness is the wellspring of meaning to our ephemeral lives and a century after Tchaikovsky found beauty amid the wreckage of the soul at 4AM, Baldwin adds:
Sometimes, at four AM, this knowledge is almost enough to force a reconciliation between oneself and all one’s pain and error. Since, anyway, it will end one day, why not try it — life — one more time?
After singing some beautiful and heartbreaking Bessie Smith lyrics into his essay — lyrics from “Long Road,” a song about reconciling the knowledge that one is ultimately alone with the irrepressible impulse to reach out for love, “to grasp again, with fearful hope, the unwilling, unloving human hand” — Baldwin continues:
I think all of our voyages drive us there; for I have always felt that a human being could only be saved by another human being. I am aware that we do not save each other very often. But I am also aware that we save each other some of the time.
That alone, Baldwin insists, is reason enough to be, as Nietzsche put it, a “yea-sayer” to life — to face the uncertainty of our lives with courage, to face the fact of our mortality with courage, and to fill this blink of existence bookended by nothingness with the courage of a bellowing aliveness.
In a passage that calls to mind Galway Kinnell’s lifeline of a poem “Wait,” composed for a young friend on the brink of suicide, Baldwin writes:
For, perhaps — perhaps — between now and the last day, something wonderful will happen, a miracle, a miracle of coherence and release. And the miracle on which one’s unsteady attention is focused is always the same, however it may be stated, or however it may remain unstated. It is the miracle of love, love strong enough to guide or drive one into the great estate of maturity, or, to put it another way, into the apprehension and acceptance of one’s own identity. For some deep and ineradicable instinct — I believe — causes us to know that it is only this passionate achievement which can outlast death, which can cause life to spring from death.
And yet, so often, we lose faith in this miracle, lose the perspective we call faith — so often it slips between the fingers fanned with despair or squeezes through the fist clenched with rage. We lose perspective most often, Baldwin argues, at four AM:
At four AM, when one feels that one has probably become simply incapable of supporting this miracle, with all one’s wounds awake and throbbing, and all one’s ghastly inadequacy staring and shouting from the walls and the floor — the entire universe having shrunk to the prison of the self — death glows like the only light on a high, dark, mountain road, where one has, forever and forever! lost one’s way. — And many of us perish then.
What then? A generation after Little Prince author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry composed his beautiful manifesto for night as an existential clarifying force for the deepest truths of the heart, Baldwin offers:
But if one can reach back, reach down — into oneself, into one’s life — and find there some witness, however unexpected or ambivalent, to one’s reality, one will be enabled, though perhaps not very spiritedly, to face another day… What one must be enabled to recognize, at four o’clock in the morning, is that one has no right, at least not for reasons of private anguish, to take one’s life. All lives are connected to other lives and when one man goes, much more goes than the man goes with him. One has to look on oneself as the custodian of a quantity and a quality — oneself — which is absolutely unique in the world because it has never been here before and will never be here again.
Baldwin — whom U.S. Poet Laureate Gwendolyn Brooks described as “love personified” in introducing his last public appearance before his death — wedges into this foundational structure of soul-survival the fact that in a culture of habitual separation and institutionalized otherness, such self-regard is immensely difficult. And yet, he insists with the passion of one who has proven the truth of his words with his own life, we must try — we must reach across the divides within and without, across the abysses of terror and suspicion, with a generous and largehearted trust in one another, which is at bottom trust in ourselves.
Echoing his contemporary and kindred visionary Leonard Bernstein’s insistence that “we must believe, without fear, in people,” Baldwin adds what has become, or must become, the most sonorous psychosocial refrain bridging his time and ours:
Where all human connections are distrusted, the human being is very quickly lost.
More than half a century later, Nothing Personal remains a masterwork of rare insight into and consolation for the most elemental aches of the human spirit. For a counterpoint to this nocturnal fragment, savor the great nature writer Henry Beston, writing a generation before Baldwin, on how the beauty of night nourishes the human spirit, then revisit Baldwin on resisting the mindless of majority, how he learned to truly see, the writer’s responsibility in a divided society, his advice on writing, his historic conversation with Margaret Mead about forgiveness and responsibility, and his only children’s book.
Published April 23, 2020