Inspired by a James Baldwin speech called "The Artist Struggle for Integrity," this piece was composed for konverjdans' May/June 2019 showcase.
Please see the full manuscript of speech below, patiently transcribed by konverjdans co-founder, Tiffany Mangulabnan, while in flight to the Philippines:
(00:00) I really don’t like words like “artist”, or “integrity”, or “courage”, or “nobility”; I have a kind of distrust of all those words because I don’t really know what those words mean, any more than I really know what such words as “democracy”, or “peace”, or “peace-loving”, or “war-like”, or “integration”, mean. And yet, one’s compelled to recognize that all these imprecise words are kind of attempts, made by us all, to get to something which is real and which lives behind the words. Whether I like it or not, for example, and no matter what I call myself, I suppose the only word for me, when the chips are down, is that I am an artist. There is such a thing. There is such a thing as integrity. Some people are noble. There is such a thing as courage. The terrible thing is that all of these words, the reality behind these words, depend, ultimately, on what the human being – meaning every single one of us – believes to be real. The terrible thing is that, all these words, the reality behind them, depend on choices one has got to make, for ever and ever and ever, every day.
(2:14) I am not interested, really, in talking to you as an artist. It seems to me that the artist’s struggle for his integrity is a kind of metaphor, must be considered as a metaphor, for the struggle, which is universal and daily, of all human beings on the face of this terrifying globe, to get to become human beings.
. . . What we might get at this evening, if we are lucky . . . is what the importance of this effort is. . . . I want to suggest two propositions: the first one is that the poets, by which I mean all artists, are finally the only people who know the truth about us. Soldiers don’t, statesmen don’t, priests don’t, union leaders don’t; only the poets. That’s my first proposition. We know about the Oedipus complex not because of Freud, but because of a poet who lived in Greece thousands of years ago. And what he said then, about what it was like to be alive, is still true. . . The second proposition is what I really want to get at tonight, and it sounds mystical, I think, in a country like ours and a time like this, but something awful is happening to a civilization when it ceases to produce poets and, what is even more crucial, when it ceases, anywhere, whenever, to believe in the rapport that only poets can make.
(5:33) Shakespeare said – and this is what I take as being the truth about everybody’s life, all of the time: “Out of this nettle, danger, we pluck this flower, safety.” Art is here to prove, and to make one bear, to help one bear, the fact that all safety is an illusion. It’s in this sense that all the artists are divorced from and even opposed to, necessarily, any system whatever. Let’s trace it, just for kicks, for a minute. . .
(06:25) The first thing an artist finds out, when he’s very, very young – when I say young, I mean before he is fifteen – that is to say . . . before he or she has had enough experience to begin to assess his or her experience. And what occurs at that point, in this hypothetical artist’s life, is a kind of silence. For reasons he cannot explain, to himself, or to others, he does not belong anywhere: maybe you’re on the football team, maybe you’re a runner, maybe you belong to a church, you certainly belong to a family. And abruptly, in other people’s eyes – this is very important – in other people’s eyes, you begin to discover that you are moving, and you cannot stop this movement, to what looks like the edge of the world. Now what is crucial, and one begins to understand it much, much later, is that if you were this hypothetical artist; if you were, in fact, the dreamer that everyone says you are; if, in fact, you are wrong not to settle for the things that you cannot, for some mysterious reason, settle for; if this was so, the testimony, in the eyes of other people, would not exist. The crime of which you discover, slowly, that you are guilty is not so much that you are aware, which is bad enough, but that other people see that you are, and cannot bear to watch it, because it testifies to the fact that they are not. You are bearing witness, helplessly, to something which everybody knows and nobody wants to face, least of all the hypothetical misfit, who has not yet, as I said, learned how to walk, or talk, and doesn’t know enough about experience to know what experience he has had. Well, one survives that. No matter how.
(09:40) By and by, your uncles and your parents and the church – stop praying for you! They realize it won’t do a bit of good; they give you up. And you proceed a little further, and your lovers put you down. They don’t know what you’re doing either. And you can’t tell them, ‘cause you don’t know. You survive it. And in some terrible way, which I suppose no one can ever describe, you are compelled, you are corralled, you are bullwhipped, into dealing with whatever it is that hurts you. And what is crucial here is that, if it hurts you, if it hurts you, that is not what’s important: everyone’s hurt. What is important, what bullwhips you, what corrals you, what drives you, torments you, is that you must find some way of using this to connect you with everyone else alive – this is all you have to do it with. You must understand that your pain is trivial except insofar as you can use it to connect with other people’s pain, and insofar as you can do that with your pain, you can be released from it. And hopefully, it works the other way around too: insofar as I can tell you what it is like to suffer, perhaps I can help you to suffer less. Then you make – oh, fifteen years later, several thousand drinks later, two or three divorces, god knows how many broken friendships, and an exile of one kind or another – some kind of breakthrough, which is the first articulation of who you are, which is to say your first articulation of who you suspect we all are.
(11:55) When we were all very young; when I was very young – and I am sure this is true of everybody here – I had assumed that no one who had ever been born was only five feet, six inches tall, or been born poor, or been born ugly, or masturbated, or done all those things which were my private property when I was fifteen. No one had ever suffered the way I suffered. And then you discover – and I discovered this through Dostoevsky – that it is common: everybody did it. Not only did everybody do it – everybody’s doing it. And all the time. It’s a fantastic and terrifying liberation. The reason it’s terrifying is because it makes you, once and for all, responsible to no one but yourself. Not to God the Father, not to Satan, not to nobody, no other living: just you. If you think it’s right, then you’ve got to do it. If you think it’s wrong, then you mustn’t do it. And we all know how difficult it is, given what we are, to tell the difference, not only between right and wrong, because the whole nature of life is so terrible - somebody’s right is always somebody else’s wrong. And these are the terrible choices one has always got to make.
(13:30) Alright, I said the cat survived all that. And this is a very crucial thing; you know, dirty socks can make you feel like nothing but a dirty sock: you walk into a room and somebody says, “What do you do?” and you say, “I write,” and they say, “Yeah, but what do you do?” And you wonder: what do you do?? And what’s it for? Why don’t you get a job?! And somehow, you can’t. And finally you learn this in the most terrible way, because you would try. You _____? of someone on the edge of a field, and it’s cold on the field, and there’s house over there, and there’s fire in the house and food, and everything you need, everything you want, and you make all kinds of efforts to get into the house – and they will let you in, they’re not being cruel – they recognize you as you come to the door, that’s all. And they can’t let you in, you get in and let’s say for five minutes, and you can’t stay. When I was much younger people used to say – and this is very serious, and not just a confession, I’m not just being self-indulgent – “Alright, you were working, now stop working, have a drink, forget it! Why you so serious all the time? You can’t write all the time, Jimmy. Relax!” Have you ever had anybody tell you to “relax”?
(15:12) Alright, you get through all that. You'll have made your first breakthrough. You’ll have heard your name. And here comes the world, again. The world you first encountered when you were fifteen, the world which has starved you, despised you – here it comes again. This time it is bearing gifts. The phone didn’t ring before – if you had a phone. Now, it never stops ringing. The people saying, “What do you do?” – they say, “Won’t you do this?” And you become, or you could become, a “very important person”. You find yourself in the position of a woman I don’t know, who sings a certain song, in a certain choir. The song begins, she says, “I said I wasn’t gonna tell nobody, but I couldn’t keep it to myself.” You come full circle. Full circle. Here you are again . . . and you must decide, all over again, whether you wanna be famous, or whether you want to write. And the two things, in spite of all the evidence, have nothing whatever in common.
(17:00) Now what is it, at the point that the artist, since I must put it this way, begins to come of age, that he cannot keep to himself? This is the trickiest part of the whole argument. I was having lunch today with two very good friends of mine – or one very good friend of mine and a friend of his. And they’re both artists. (I wasn’t trying to be sardonic, the friend of the friend is a man I admire very much, but the other one is a cat I really, you know, dig.) . . . My friend is an actor, and his role, which we all know he ought to play – in fact, we all know – anyone who loves him, and he has no choice to play it, sooner or later – we all know that he’s a little afraid to. And God knows he should be. But he knows he’s got to do it. And his friend was saying to him, and I paraphrase it very awkwardly:
(18:21) “You must remember that most people live in almost total darkness. It is true,” said this friend, “that we drink too much, we suffer from stage fright, and you may get an ulcer, or die of cancer, and it is true, that it is all very, very hard, and gets harder all of the time. And yet, people, millions of people – whom you will never see, who don’t know you, never will know you, people who may try to kill you in the morning – live in the darkness, which, if you have that funny, terrible thing which every artist can recognize and no artist can define, you are responsible to those people – to lighten their darkness. And it does not matter what happens to you: you are being used in the way a crab is useful, the way sand certainly has some function; it is impersonal, this force that you didn’t ask for, and this destiny which you must accept, is also your responsibility. And if you survive it, if you don’t cheat, if you don’t lie, it is not only, you know, your glory, your achievement, it is almost our only hope. Because only an artist can tell, and only artists have told, since we have heard of man, what it is like, for anyone who gets to this planet, to survive it. What it is like to die. Or to have somebody die. What it is like to fear death. What it is like to fear. What it is like to love. What it is like to be glad. Hymns don’t do this; churches really cannot do it. The trouble is that, although the artist can do it, the price that he has to pay himself and that you, the audience, must also pay, is the willingness to give up everything to realize that, although you spent twenty-seven years acquiring this house, this furniture, this position; although you spent forty years raising this child, these children, nothing, none of it, belongs to you. You can only have it by letting it go. You can only take, if you are prepared to give. And giving is not an investment. It is not a day at the bargain counter. It is a total risk. Of everything. Of you. Of who you think you are. Who you think you’d like to be. Where you think you’d like to go. Everything. And this forever, forever.
(22:02) Now, I, if I may put it this way, and all my tribe, if I may put it that way, find this very hard to do. And it’s very hard on my mother, and my sisters and my brothers, and all my friends, and it’s very hard on me, and I may fail in the next two seconds. But then one has got to understand that as I, and all my tribe – I mean artists now – that if it is hard for me, if I spend weeks and months, avoiding my typewriter (and I do) sharpening pencils, trying to avoid going where I know I got to go, then, one has got to use this to learn humility. After all, after all, there is a kind of saving egotism too, but cruel, and dangerous, but also saving, egotism, about the artist’s condition, which is this: I know that, if I survive it, when the tears have stopped flowing and the blood has dried, when the storm has settled, I do have a typewriter, which is my torment, but it’s also my work. If I can survive it, I can always go back there, and if I have not turned into a total liar, then I can use it, and prepare myself, in this way, for the next inevitable, and possible fatal, disaster. But if I find that hard to do – and I have a weapon most people don’t have – then one must then understand how hard it is for almost anybody to do it at all!
(23:51) And this is where the whole question – in my own private, personal case of being an American artist, of being not yet sixty-five years old, and of being an American Negro artist, in 1963, in this most peculiar of countries – begins to be a very frightening assignment. One is dealing with, all the time, the most inarticulate people that I, at any case, have ever encountered, the most inarticulate group of people I’m ever likely to encounter for a very long time, at least in this century – inarticulate, and illiterate, in a very particular and difficult-to-describe way, unlettered in the language – which may sound a little florid, but there’s no other way I can think of to say it – totally unlettered in the language of the heart, totally distrustful of whatever cannot be touched, panic-stricken at the very first hint of pain – are people determined to believe that they can make suffering obsolete, who don’t understand yet a very simple physiological fact, that the pain which signals a toothache is a pain which saves your life.
(25:36) This is very frightening. It frightens me half to death. And I’m not talking now merely about race, and I’m certainly not talking merely about Southerners. I’m talking, really, about two-thirds of my public and technical allies: people who believe that it is time that the country became a real democracy, people who believe that segregation is wrong, people who are made to march on picket lines, who yet have overlooked something else. And they are still under the illusion, I think, that what they have overlooked has something to do with social questions and, in my particular case anyway, that it has something to do with Negroes. I would like to live long enough – don’t misunderstand me, but I would like to live long enough to see that word, or the use to which it’s put, struck from the American vocabulary.
(26:52) In effect, there is no “Negro problem”. . . . I am tired of people saying, “What should I do?” They mean, “What should I do about the ‘Negro problem’? What can I do for you?” There is nothing you can do for me! There is nothing you can do for Negroes! It must be done for you! One is not attempting to save twenty-two million people. One is attempting to save an entire country, and that means an entire civilization. And the price for that is high: the price for that is to understand one’s self. . . The time has come, it seems to me, to recognize that the framework in which operate ways on us too heavily to be borne and is about to kill us. It is time to ask very hard questions and to take very rude positions at no matter what price . . .