Habits of Thought

There is an admonition James Baldwin made somewhere that sticks with me. It moved me enough to make a note on a scrap of paper—too hastily to cite title, text, page number. “Baldwin does not say that systems of power are unimportant,” I scratched out. “He insists that liberation is also a mandate on individuality: how one separates oneself from the ‘habits of thought [that] reinforce and sustain the habits of power.’”

It’s a good motto—to recognize and resist such habits of thought—when writing about sex, power, and media, as I have done quite a bit. It is a useful frame for any subject that generates a simple story of cause and effect, good and evil, the kind of story that is then beaten mercilessly into our collective head without pause for us to wonder why. Baldwin, of course, was not doling out advice to journalists; he was talking about the challenge of life in the face of everything that works to diminish or destroy it.

The effort to develop defiant, humane habits of thought unites the works noted here, a motley bunch, in the best sense of that much-misused phrase.

The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction, 1948–1985 by James Baldwin
Quotations or paraphrases of Baldwin have sprouted everywhere again since the police killing of George Floyd. But Baldwin does not last because we need evidence of barbarity at the heart of the American experience, particularly as it involves Black people. If we have not learned that by now, there really is no hope. This collected nonfiction remains revelatory because it is less interested in cataloguing horrors than in the questions: What moves people—not just the Bad Man, or Men—to the deeds they do? And how is it that those in opposition may so easily adopt the logic of the very thing they deplore? I often return to an essay he wrote when he was only twenty-four, “Everybody’s Protest Novel.” It is famous because part of what he does is what many a hungry young writer does to get noticed: blast a book then in the virtuous cannon (Uncle Tom’s Cabin), and blast a contemporary writer then revered as a truth-teller by the political-literary set (Richard Wright). The essay’s sustaining value, though, lies in approaching the aforementioned questions, problems that would interest Baldwin all his life. Harriet Beecher Stowe (about whose abilities as a novelist Baldwin was pitiless) is notable, he says, because her determination to say This is horrible! is activated by a spirit—“hot, self-righteous, fearful”—not so different from the panic that “sought to exorcise evil by burning witches,” or from “that terror which activates a lynch mob.” Luxuriating in slavery’s every elaboration of violence, Stowe ignores all but the most superficial aspects of human beings, especially “her people,” white people, about whose motivations she is blindingly incurious. For Baldwin, the “protest novel” fails its protagonists, and literature, and lived experience. In his reading, Wright’s Native Son fails its own politics, because in eliciting our agreement that yes, indeed, it is by violence that Bigger Thomas “for the first time redeemed his manhood,” it reinforces white categories of Blackness—not to mention masculinity. Wright denies his character (and our conscience) the complexity and contradictions of a person, “his beauty, dread, power.” Across 690 pages the essays in this book consider the price of our history and the costs of failing to accept the full burden of our humanity.

Portrait of James Baldwin with the statue of Shakespeare Albert Memorial. Photo: Allan Warren/WikiCommons
Portrait of James Baldwin with the statue of Shakespeare Albert Memorial. Photo: Allan Warren/WikiCommons

Sex Panic and the Punitive State by Roger N. Lancaster (2011)
Lancaster relates the decades-long expansion of the violence system—policing, profiling, surveillance, presumption of guilt, mass incarceration, and various regimens of harsh punishment—to the one realm that almost everyone agrees necessitates it: sex, terror and loathing of sex, accusations and crimes involving sex. Even as the prison state has increasingly lost favor with people across the political spectrum, sex-related charges have driven the fastest-growing imprisoned population and the most-baroque mechanisms of social death (sex offender registries, effective banishment from society, indefinite detention in mental institutions via civil commitment), with little dissent. The language of protection becomes its opposite as notifications of danger around every corner make a folly of safety. Lancaster, an anthropologist who has a dazzling facility with forms (ethnography, political and historical analysis, personal narrative, polemic), explores the serial sex panics that, since the late 1960s especially, stoked a politics of fear that laid the emotional ground for both liberals and right-wingers to embrace the devastating logic of the war on crime and, later, the war on terror. (QAnon’s apocalyptic ravings about child sex-trafficking from which only Donald Trump can save us are a contemporary extension of this, whether or not the exponents actually believe their spewings.) The result: a “poisoned solidarity,” communal feeling forged out of mutual identification against a series of shape-shifting demons, individuals who may or may not be guilty, whose crime may be grievous, nonexistent, or anywhere on a scale of harm, but whose monstrous figure, manufactured and reproduced by the media, has functioned to reinforce a singular message, Be afraid, fortify the ramparts.

Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life by Theodor W. Adorno (1974; most recent edition, 2020)
Translated from the German by E. F. N. Jephcott

“Reflections from Damaged Life” is the subtitle of Adorno’s astonishing compendium of aphorism, cultural analysis, and dialectical wrestling. He wrote it while in exile in California, between 1944 and 1947, in the shadow of extermination and nuclear holocaust, and at the giddy dawn of mass-consumer capitalism. This is a book of ceaseless companionship—one is never “done” with it—because the processes it describes are likewise ceaseless. Adorno dissects the forces that enlist our accommodation, our allurement to the shiny object or popular idea, and that seek to absorb resistance and sell it back to us as another bauble. It is a hard book, a beautiful book, one whose voice may sometimes summon the reader to severe objection or to weeping, but always, always to thought. Adorno evaluates everything from the US landscape to childhood nostalgia to fascism to the time-study efficiencies of production. He abandons the reader neither to chilly reason nor to sentiment, seeing emotion, memory, fantasy, and love as impulses that are to be “at once preserved and surpassed in the thought which has escaped their sway”—the thought which leads to judgment and makes knowledge possible. Nor, for all its concern with barbarism, is it a despairing book. Toward the end, in a fragment that begins with the memory of a nursery song, he writes: “The capacity for fear and for happiness are the same, the unrestricted openness to experience amounting to self-abandonment in which the vanquished rediscovers himself. What would happiness be that was not measured by the immeasurable grief at what is? For the world is deeply ailing. He who cautiously adapts to it by this very act shares in its madness, while the eccentric alone would stand his ground and bid it rave no more. He alone could pause to . . . realize not merely that he is still alive but that there is still life.”

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (1937)
A foundational novel about women’s sexual desire and self-direction, Their Eyes bears rereading for so much more than the blossoming pear tree. There is the intimate artistry of the language; the double-voicedness of it (first person and omniscient third person, vernacular and refined); the folkloric grounding of its depiction of vivid, complex individuals in similarly complex communities. There is Hurston’s authority in holding contradictions in exquisite tension and, finally, her simultaneous recognition of the joyous, sorrowful human quest for freedom and the conditions of unfreedom that lay the stony road for that quest. This is decidedly not a protest novel of the type Baldwin derides; it is a radical act of will and imagination. For her manifold flouting of convention, Hurston was mocked and scorned by her male peers of the Harlem Renaissance (the book was compared to a minstrel show by Richard Wright, with “no theme, no message, no thought”), her work ignored as part of the Black artistic cannon by the later male-centric Black Arts Movement, ultimately resurrected by Black women artists and scholars in the 1970s. That trajectory unavoidably links the writer’s work to reflection on her life and risks. In her own experience, Hurston studied anthropology, collected Southern Black myth and folklore for the Federal Writers Project, traveled the Caribbean, knew success and failure as a writer, was married and divorced, was falsely accused of molesting a child and arrested before the case was dismissed, worked as a maid, a librarian and a teacher, and died in obscurity. Like her protagonist, Janie Crawford, she embodied the idea that “you got tuh go there tuh know there,” you’ve got to find out about living and thinking for yourself. Janie’s happy ending, so to speak, is that she gets to find out. She has lived—to experience love, and knowledge of her own mind, and the immeasurable grief of standing at the crossroads where “a man is up against a hard game when he must die to beat it,” and a woman must decide for herself to survive.

Miracle Fair: Selected Poems of Wislawa Szymborska by Wislawa Szymborska (2001)
Translated from the Polish by Joanna Trzeciak

Szymborska is praised for her “skeptical intelligence” on the back cover of this collection of poems—which I carried for years while traveling and pursuing an as-yet undone book about decline and valiance—and also for her “wonderment.” This twinning probably encouraged me to buy the book, but words on back covers are always inadequate. What one returns to in these poems is the tragedy beneath ordinary things. Not just vestiges of wars and torture and historical forgetting—“Those who knew / what was going on here / must make way for / those who know little. / And less than little. / And finally as little as nothing”—but the tragedy of inattention. Szymborska finds wonderment in the work of ants, in death’s defeats, in “so many commonplace miracles” of the title poem, “just take a look around”: “An additional miracle, as everything is additional: / the unthinkable / is thinkable.” That is a good motto too.

What never wears out, for me, anyway, is Szymborska’s heart for the human person, who acts and is acted upon, endlessly, for all time: “I return to you, to the real world, / crowded and dark, full of fate: / to you, a girl looking in vain / and a one-armed youth, at a wrought-iron gate.”

JoAnn Wypijewski is the author of What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About #MeToo: Essays on Sex, Authority and the Mess of Life, recently published by Verso.