Baldwin Knot

I have been staring at the quotation below for the past few weeks, unable to process how it means. Yes, of course, I have frames and paradigms through which to understand it, but they feel inadequate. So I will continue to stare.

But there are a great many ways of outwitting oblivion, and to ask whether or not homosexuality is natural is really like asking whether or not it was natural for Socrates to swallow hemlock, whether or not it was natural for St. Paul to suffer for the Gospel, whether or not it was natural for the Germans to send upwards of six million people to an extremely twentieth-century death. It does not seem to me that nature helps us very much when we need illumination in human affairs. I am certainly convinced that it is one of the greatest impulses of mankind to arrive at something higher than a natural state. How to be natural does not seem to me to be a problem—quite the contrary. The great problem is how to be—in the best sense of that kaleidoscopic word—a man.(James Baldwin, “The Male Prison”)

2 thoughts on “Baldwin Knot

  1. It is possible Baldwin wrote that without fully understanding ‘how it means’. Perhaps the sentences and their ideas and the excellent word choices fell into place according to an internal writer-rhythm and he let the quote be. I sometimes think good writing defies the gravity of logic and all you can then do is ‘stare’ into the depths of such quotes.

  2. Alas, I am cursed by the burden of my profession to think through language.

    Perhaps I should clarify that I am struck by the absurdity of the examples Baldwin uses to imagine the “logic” of the natural, and also the series of juxtapositions he then suggests: Socrates, Paul, the holocaust, homosexuality. The differing sites and scenes for and occasions of injury, their scope and scale, but also what feels as their lack of equivalence. Though, I guess, what joins all of them is the notion of “justice” (no matter its jurisdiction) in relation to “the natural.” But I want to be historical, which is to say that this statement from 1954 inhabits a different knowledge economy from that we now have. And his skepticism toward the “natural” might be taken in different ways and used for different purposes.

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