James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time

The Fire Next TimeThe Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The two essays collected in this book—both structured as letters, one to Baldwin’s nephew and one “from a Region in [His] Mind”—assess the racial situation in America at midcentury. The second is the more historically interesting, as it is built around Baldwin’s meeting with Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam. This confrontation inspires Baldwin’s reflection on his own background as a preacher and on how his adult rejection of religion informs his commitment to “the transcendence of the realities of color, of nations, and of altars,” even as his experience of racism leads him to sympathize with the men and women drawn to the Nation of Islam’s manichean mythos.

As a number of Goodreads reviewers have pointed out, The Fire Next Time is dated, in the sense that its polemical targets have waned in power and new political configurations have replaced them. Religion in general is slowly declining in influence in the United States; neither Christianity nor the Nation of Islam are the forces they were in the 1950s and early 1960s. The Cold War is over (not that Baldwin takes it very seriously as an ideological conflict—his relative lack of engagement with Marxism separates him from his peers, Wright and Ellison). And America is less and less an “Anglo-Teutonic” and Protestant nation; and “Anglo-Teutonic” and Protestant are more or less what Baldwin means by “white” in this book, since that ethno-religious descriptor connotes the fear of death and aversion to sensuality to which Baldwin attributes anti-black racism. This book’s polemic against WASP frigidity above all marks it as a document of its time; its defense of a life lived through sensual engagement with existential reality will find a purely aesthetic expression, for instance, in Sontag’s Against Interpretation, published three years after The Fire Next Time, but many writers of the postwar period made a similar case. Such oracular pronouncements as “white Americans do not believe in death” seem to belong to a different emotional world from that of the present, with its Beyoncé-besotted bourgeoisie.

Baldwin’s reputation has risen in the last decade to unassailable heights. And I wonder if some of his popularity is due to less than creditable reasons, as evidenced by this book, the overall effect of which is to flatter the reader—the black reader because Baldwin asserts that African-Americans are “the only genuine aristocrats this country has produced” (due to their creative endurance of unimaginable adversity) and the white reader because Baldwin promises that they will be liberated from their self-imposed childishness when they acknowledge their need for love (he says they are regarded by African-Americans as “slightly mad victims of their own brainwashing,” rather than as, say, willful bigots or tyrants). And there is a kind of African-American exceptionalism in this book (“[The Negro] is the key figure in his country, and the American future is precisely as bright or as dark as his”) that resolves itself finally into full-blown American exceptionalism of the old city-on-the-hill variety:

Anyway, the point here is that we are living in an age of revolution, whether we will or no, and that America is the only Western nation with both the power and, as I hope to suggest, the experience that may help to make these revolutions real and minimize the human damage.

Baldwin opposes love to power; by “love” he seems to mean agape—Christian love, charity—as reinterpreted by Existentialism to suggest constant self-transformation in the face of the other. This is the residue of the Christianity he otherwise renounces. But I wonder if they are so opposed—Baldwin himself parenthetically notes that some forms of love are only achievable via power—and if it is not important to grasp how what calls itself love is sometimes power too. Here I think Baldwin suffers from his focus on religion; as a meditation on the route from oppression to totalitarianism and violence, I think Richard Wright’s “How Bigger Was Born,” though older, is somewhat more cogent than The Fire Next Time, because it is more global in its implication and accounts for larger currents of 20th-century ideology (fascism, communism) that Baldwin tends to neglect.

The perfectly unimpeachable reason for Baldwin’s eminence is his style. In a contemporary review of this book, F. W. Dupee wrote, somewhat condescendingly and in the context of disparaging Baldwin’s political “prophecy,”

He is in love…with syntax, with sentences that mount through clearly articulated stages to a resounding and clarifying climax and then gracefully subside…Nobody else in democratic America writes sentences like this anymore. It suggests the ideal prose of an ideal literary community, some aristocratic France of one’s dreams.

As with all great literary works, the style is the evidence for the vision, the enticement inspiring the reader to act on the “You must change your life.” In Baldwin’s wished-for utopia, the world transfigured by the struggle to love and the confrontation with death, where race and religion have fallen away as irrelevant to the existential agon, we will all express ourselves with the languidly intelligent and seen-it-all grace, the cultivated anger and desire, of his sentences:

Time catches up with kingdoms and crushes them, gets its teeth into doctrines and rends them; time reveals the foundations on which any kingdom rests, and eats at those foundations, and it destroys doctrines by proving them to be untrue.