The "Maw of Western Culture": James Baldwin and the Anxieties of Influence

By Miller, Elise | African American Review, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview
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The "Maw of Western Culture": James Baldwin and the Anxieties of Influence


Miller, Elise, African American Review


In No Name in the Street, his 1972 autobiography, James Baldwin reports a curious memory. A "young white man, beautiful, Jewish, American," Baldwin recalls, "ate his wife's afterbirth, frying it in a frying pan":

   He did this because--who knows--Wilhelm Reich, according to him,
   had ordered it.... By this effort, he made his wife and child a part
   of himself. The question which has remained in my mind, no doubt, is
   why so extreme an effort should have been needed to prove a fact
   which should have been so obvious and so joyous. By the time he told
   me, he had lost both the wife and the child, was virtually adopting
   another one, black this time ... and though he did not know it, was
   now helplessly and hopelessly in love with a small black boy, not
   more than ten. (52-53)

Baldwin seems to intend this story to illustrate America's "emotional poverty" and "terror of human life"; it also serves to introduce his interest in questions of sexual preference, sexual identity, and race (55). The young father wishes to ritualize his biological bond--with mother and son--by consuming parts of them both, but his desperate need to feel connected inspires a perversion of the boundaries of self and other, male and female, white and black. As Baldwin tells the story, the widower compounds his confusions by thinking he can replace his estranged family with a black boy, through a compensatory, incestuous attachment that transgresses racial and generational boundaries.

But the story also contains a lesson for writers, and Baldwin enlists Henry James to explain: "'Only connect,' Henry James has said. Perhaps only an American writer would have been driven to say it, his very existence being threatened by the failure, in most American lives, of the most elementary and crucial connections" (54). The social failures observed by James are grotesquely illustrated by Baldwin's account of the young man, but when it is read in the context of Baldwin's autobiographical explorations of race and writing, it also raises, I would argue, what Baldwin called the "question of assimilation." As a narrative of affiliation, incorporation, and adoption, the afterbirth story dramatizes the cultural, intellectual, and psychological experience of replacing "habits of feeling, thinking, and acting by another set of habits which belonged to strangers ..." (Nobody 16).

As a "bastard of the West," an "interloper," a "suspect latecomer, bearing no credentials," as he describes himself in Notes of a Native Son, Baldwin wrote with the acute consciousness of a stranger who struggles to adopt, or adapt to, parts of the culture that preceded him (6-7, 164). Feelings of envy, competition, and exclusion can be gleaned throughout his autobiographical writings; these literary allegiances and estrangements are expressions of an "elaborate, mediating process that relates self to other, subject to object, inside to outside" (Cheng 176). The figure of swallowing a new mother's afterbirth is one of many metaphors that Baldwin uses to explore his anxieties about assimilating, and assimilating into, American culture. References to eating, digestion, and expulsion--as well as images of sodomy and castration--exemplify the unconscious reverberations of Baldwin's conscious literary projects, reverberations characteristic of primary processes of symbiosis and annihilation. Taking something deep into the self to the point where it becomes a part of the self, as the young man did with his wife's afterbirth, can nourish and sustain, but it can also engender its psychic opposite, a fear, as Baldwin describes it, of "simply being swallowed up, of disappearing in the maw of Western culture ..." (Nobody 16). (1)

As an allegory about taking in--or on--the work of predecessors, the afterbirth story is framed by a number of references to James, a writer Baldwin once described as "my master" (Leeming, "Interview" 55). As Baldwin explains in No Name, his alienating experiences as an American writer living in exile in Europe were eased by reading James, "who had been there before me and had had the generosity to clue me in" about Parisians' indifference to Americans (40).

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