Baldwin the exorcist

He wrote to free the heart from hatred and despair.

James baldwin’s memoir No Name in the Street begins, as many memoirs do, with the writer’s very first memory. He is not yet five years old. His mother says to him, “I have a good idea,” and then, looking at a piece of black velvet, she puts it away in the closet. From this inconsequential action, little Jimmy reasons that an idea is something tangible like a wad of velvet. It can be put away. Baldwin does not pursue this parable in print, but everything he writes is an act of finding and saving. Mediocre writers make allowances for losing things. But in Baldwin nothing is lost. The tangible experiences of growing up in Harlem, hating his stepfather, becoming a boy preacher, leaving the church, leaving America, learning to write, flourishing in a White man’s world, and falling in love are material ideas, with heft, feel, and duration. They are pent-up in his body. They release their own light for all to see.

Baldwin’s account of his life (in both its nonfiction and fictional versions) exposes the intersectional roots of religion, psychology, race, and sex. These are the subjects of everything he writes, and in everything he writes he is an actor. His story moves from the Pentecostal fires of Harlem to Greenwich Village, to Paris, to Switzerland, to Istanbul, and to his final home in the south of France. He is forever leaving some place or someone, but never jettisoning what came before. The church, he says in an essay titled “The Devil Finds Work,” is “carried within us” even when its form is left behind. Like a wad of cloth put away for safekeeping.

His is not the spiritual memoir that begins in unbelief, crests in conversion, and ends in spiritual certainty. His life complicates that plot, as most lives do. His story begins in cyclonic belief from which he runs for his life. It ends in a whole new understanding of himself, one that is informed by the original storm, now spent. The older Baldwin is like the lover who mourns his lost love but is somehow sustained by it; he is the old man who knows that he was once full of fire and is still warmed by it.