It is, thankfully, increasingly commonplace to see the ‘Great White Intellectual’ as both reflecting and emerging from conditions that required others to be silenced. Silenced not necessarily by direct action (though that can be the case as well) but silenced in the sense that there is much to do in life. And for those not afforded the economic or cultural opportunity of dedicating extra time for the process of reflecting and articulating then, well, there is just not much time or energy to leave a paper trail. One of the simplest examples is Soren Kiekergaard’s work being possible in the context of his (sometimes overstated) inheritance and lack of social/kinship obligations.
This can be seen within fictional narratives as well of course, as in John Williams’s Stoner where William Stoner’s melancholy intellectual plight is made possible by a black hired hand who works for cheap on his father’s farm (a character who takes up about two or three lines in the book). While I have lost some of my former zeal for the great white men of philosophy, the shine on white male authors in fiction has largely remained intact. I loved the above mentioned Stoner. I was thoroughly impressed with volume 1 of Robert Musil’s The Man without Qualities. But it was in finishing James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk and then starting Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer that I think something finally shifted in my understanding of or being sensitive to the material conditions in which these works are produced.
[Unnecessary critique warning: Yes, I know this observation will not hold true in all comparisons]
I find the comparison between Miller and Baldwin intriguing. Both authors are not shy in their use of potentially offensive language and often boldly address issues of sex, race, and religion. Bodies are not mere surfaces for projection but emit smells and fluids, they glide or are abrasive, they caress or they strike. Both authors are also intensely reflective allowing themselves extended digressions on the philosophical significance of a given event or expression. It is in the role of the individual in relation to their context that marks a stark and jarring divergence.
Beale Street is an account of a young black couple who were recently engaged with the woman, Tish, learning of her pregnancy. The man, Fonny, is sent to jail on rape charges after a woman singled him out in a police line (Fonny was the blackest in the line and it was black man who raped her).
Tish and Fonny’s families struggle with how to support Tish and raise the money for Fonny’s defense. All this within the larger realities racial discrimination keeping them even more vulnerable. These are individuals thrust together for the sake of survival . . . and survival is not assured. This is why the opening page of Tropic of Cancer was so jarring when Miller writes, “I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive.” Good for you Henry.
There is a place for Miller’s work and it is no wonder he shows up so often in the work of Deleuze and Guattari. In their work Miller is the ‘minor author’. These are the only great authors “having to conquer one’s own language, in other words, to attain that sobriety in the use of a major language, in order to place it in a state of continuous variation. . . . Conquer the major language in order to delineate in it as yet unknown minor languages.” (A Thousand Plateaus, 105). Miller is trying to break out from (and break up) what causes suffering (or simply expose it) while Baldwin is trying to survive. Baldwin is already in flight.
I wonder if it also for this reason that Baldwin, as sharp and biting as any, is also far more touching even loving than I imagine Miller could ever be. An individual breaking out and breaking up is constant strain but communal fugitivity (even in its strategic moves) also has cold nights and extended times where one must simply wait and make music or love.