I was walking home listening to the amazing Esperanza Spalding on a recent episode of the Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me! podcast (start at 20:00). She made double entendres about playing bass. She talked about how she started out playing the violin, and then tells us how she found her way to her one true love:
Esperanza: “When I saw that bass, I [knew] that’s what I wanted the whole time.”
P: “What drew you to playing the bass?”
Esperanza: “Nothing that I can recall. But the sound is tremendous, you know, it sits on your hip bone, and it vibrates your skeleton, and it’s like, kind of musically orgasmic. It’s incredible, I have to confess… It’s purely for self-interest of pleasure.”
P: “What’s crazy is… that’s the dirtiest thing anyone’s said on public radio and it’s all totally allowable.”
Esperanza: “I can start a hotline where people can call in and we talk about jazz…”
I found my way online and saw her recommendation to listen to James Baldwin’s The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity. The reading brought a lump to my throat. I couldn’t find the complete transcription online (outside of reading The Cross of Redemption available on Google Books), so for kicks, since I have to work hard to maintain my fast typing speed from the days of 10 simultaneous AOL chat windows and Mavis Beacon games, I typed out an excerpt that I found particularly compelling.
I really don’t like words like “artist” or “integrity” or “courage” or “nobility.” I have a kind of distrust for all of those words because I don’t really know what those words mean. Any more than I really know what such words such as “democracy” or “peace” or “peace-loving” or “warlike” or “integration” mean.
And yet, one is compelled to recognize that all these imprecise words are kind of attempts made by us all to get to something which is real and which lives behind the words. Whether I like it or not, for example, and no matter what I call myself, I suppose the only word for me when the chips are down is that I AM an artist.
There IS such a thing. There IS such a thing as integrity. Some people ARE noble. There IS such a thing as courage. The terrible thing is that all of these words, the reality behind these words, depend ultimately on what the human being, meaning every single one of us, believes to be real.
The terrible thing is that all these words, the reality behind them, depend on choices one has got to make forever and ever and ever, every day.
I am not interested really in talking to you as an artist.
It seems to me, that the artist’s struggle for his integrity is a kind of metaphor, must be considered as a metaphor for the struggle, which is universal and daily, of all human beings on the face of this terrifying globe to get to become human beings.
It is not your fault, it is not my fault, that I write. I would never come before you in the position of a complainant for doing something that I must do.
What we might get at this evening, if we are lucky, if the mic doesn’t fail, if my voice holds out, if you ask me questions, is what the importance of this effort is.
It would seem to me that, however arrogant this may sound, I want to suggest two propositions.
The first one is, that the poets, by which I mean all artists, are finally the only people who know the truth about us. Soldiers don’t. Statesmen don’t. Priests don’t. Union leaders don’t. Only poets. That’s my first proposition. We know about the Oedipus complex not because of Freud but because of a poet who lived in Greece thousands of years ago. And what he said then about what it was like to be alive is still true, in spite of the fact that now we can get to Greece in something like five hours and then it would have taken I don’t know how long a time.
The second proposition is really what I want to get at tonight. And it sounds mystical, I think, in a country like ours, and at a time like this when something awful is happening to a civilization, when it ceases to produce poets, and, what is even more crucial, when it ceases in any way whatever to believe in the report that only the poets can make. Conrad told us a long time ago (I think it was in “Victory,” but I might be wrong about that): “Woe to that man who does not put his trust in life.” Henry James said, “Live, live all you can. It’s a mistake not to.” And Shakespeare said — and this is what I take to be the truth about everybody’s life all of the time — “Out of this nettle, danger, we pluck this flower, safety.” Art is here to prove, and to help one bear, the fact that all safety is an illusion.
I highly recommend reading more about James Baldwin. Brain Pickings has some amazing highlights.
“Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins. Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but most of all, endurance.”
“You’re playing the game according to somebody else’s rules, and you can’t win until you understand the rules and step out of that particular game, which is not, after all, worth playing.”