The Light That Bridges the Dark Expanse Between Lonelinesses: James Baldwin on How Long-Distance Love Illuminates the Power of All Love
By Maria Popova
The longer I live, the more deeply I learn that love — whether we call it friendship or family or romance — is the work of mirroring and magnifying each other’s light. Gentle work. Steadfast work. Life-saving work in those moments when life and shame and sorrow occlude our own light from our view, but there is still a clear-eyed loving person to beam it back. In our best moments, we are that person for another.
In learning this afresh — as we must learn all the great and obvious truths, over and over — I was reminded of a passage by James Baldwin (August 2, 1924–December 1, 1987) from Nothing Personal (public library) — his 1964 collaboration with the photographer Richard Avedon, his high school classmate and lifelong friend, which contains some of Baldwin’s least-known yet most intimate writings, including his antidote to dog-hour despair and his counterforce to entropy. (In the years since I first wrote about this forgotten treasure, it has been unforgotten in a new edition by Penguin Random House — regrettably, without Avedon’s photographs, razing the spirit of collaboration between friends that occasioned the project in the first place; redemptively, with a foreword by the dazzling Imani Perry, who considers herself Baldwin’s “pupil in the study of humanity” and who writes splendidly about his enduring gift of reminding us how reading “allows us to recognize each other” and “makes everything seem possible.”)
In the final of the book’s four essays, Baldwin writes:
One discovers the light in darkness, that is what darkness is for; but everything in our lives depends on how we bear the light. It is necessary, while in darkness, to know that there is a light somewhere, to know that in oneself, waiting to be found, there is a light.
This light, Baldwin intimates, is most often and most readily found in love — that great and choiceless gift of chance.
Love becomes a lens on the world, on space and on time — a pinhole through which a new light enters to project onto the cave wall of our consciousness landscapes of intimate importance from territories of being we would have never otherwise known.
Pretend, for example, that you were born in Chicago and have never had the remotest desire to visit Hong Kong, which is only a name on a map for you; pretend that some convulsion, sometimes called accident, throws you into connection with a man or a woman who lives in Hong Kong; and that you fall in love. Hong Kong will immediately cease to be a name and become the center of your life. And you may never know how many people live in Hong Kong. But you will know that one man or one woman lives there without whom you cannot live. And this is how our lives are changed, and this is how we are redeemed.
What a journey this life is! Dependent, entirely, on things unseen. If your lover lives in Hong Kong and cannot get to Chicago, it will be necessary for you to go to Hong Kong. Perhaps you will spend your life there, and never see Chicago again. And you will, I assure you, as long as space and time divide you from anyone you love, discover a great deal about shipping routes, airlines, earth quake, famine, disease, and war. And you will always know what time it is in Hong Kong, for you love someone who lives there. And love will simply have no choice but to go into battle with space and time and, furthermore, to win.
A master of metaphor — that handle on the door to new worlds — Baldwin takes the case of what we call long-distance love and finds in it a miniature of all love.
All love bridges the immense expanse between lonelinesses, becomes the telescope that brings another life closer and, in consequence, also magnifies the significance of their entire world.
All love is light’s battle against the entropy continually inclining spacetime toward nothingness, against the hard fact that you will die, and I will die, and everyone we love will die, and what will survive of us are only shoreless seeds and stardust.
Published January 31, 2022