A necessary follow-up to last week’s post about James Baldwin: there’s a campaign under way to save the house he lived in in Provence. Developers want to turn the property into apartments. Writer Shannon Cain and Baldwin’s neighbor, Helene Roux, who knew Baldwin when she was a schoolgirl, are leading the fight to turn the property into something else: a haven for writers and artists; or, if not that, at least a preserved house whose historical importance is acknowledged.
Kim Willsher’s article does more than outline the all-too-common struggle between developers and neighborhood residents. It conveys the love that was part of Baldwin’s personality and the love his neighbors had for him. I was aware of both of those loves in writing “Articulate Rage,” but I did not know how to put the reality of that love across in combination with the ideas that Baldwin was wrestling with, ideas that are crucial to his identity as a writer. The closest I could come to it was to simply tell you that I love the man’s work. Usually, I don’t love anybody’s work unless I can feel love coming from a writer, either from the love he has for writing itself or from his personal ethos, transmitted from the page. I can’t love a writer unless, on some level, I can feel that he loves me.
A subjective response, I know, but we all have them, and don’t dare try to tell me that we don’t. We know when a writer is being honest with us. We know when a writer’s indignation is rooted, not in natural maliciousness, but in a kind of love he wishes us to see and turn toward. Baldwin was that kind of writer; so is Gretel Ehrlich in The Solace of Open Spaces. Such writers help us in the necessary but difficult task of learning how to live without pretense. Although most of us are rooted to a particular place, a particular set of life circumstances, it’s important to realize that both Baldwin and Ehrlich had to move away from the places whereupon they were grounded in order to see those places most clearly. Baldwin’s move was motivated by social and political events; Ehrlich’s by personal ones.
What I take from those two moves is something I’ve said before: writers do what they have to do in order to learn to see. It is traumatic to have to leave a place we love, but sometimes it is necessary for our growth. Let me add to that thought one last positive idea: it is not always necessary to leave, but when it is, we carry the best part of the place we love with us when we go. Although leaving costs us something emotionally when we go, the price is seldom more than we can afford to pay. The reason is simple. Where any of us live, most of the time, is in our minds. Our home is there, in our thoughts, memories, and perceptions, not in the walls that surround us at the moment. That claim, I suppose, could be read as a argument for going ahead and knocking down the stone walls of Baldwin’s place in France. But it could equally be read as an argument in the other direction. How many homes are there in the world, after all, whose occupant transcended in his work the place where he stayed? Not many, I would think. We need reminders, now and then, (and markers, too) that such lives are possible. That is the best argument I know for preserving the place where James Baldwin lived.