Saturday, September 23, 2006

Seeing the Devil

As many of you know, I (Pete) found out that I would be teaching an introductory Chicano literature course four days before the semester started. Since then, I have been struggling to keep my head above water and, as a result, haven't been blogging. Recent comments by Hugo Chavez about the current U.S. administration, however, made me remember my promise to post the James Baldwin quote from our wedding ceremony in context. So here it is, from a commentary on The Exorcist.

The film terrified me on two levels. The first ... involved my deliberate attempt to leave myself open to it, and to the extent, indeed, of reliving my adolescent holy-roller terrors. It was very important for me not to pretend to have surmounted the pain and terror of that time of my life, very important not to pretend that it left no mark on me. It marked me forever. In some measure I encountered the abyss of my own soul, the labyrinth of my destiny: these could never be escaped, to challenge these imponderables being, precisely, the heavy, tattered glory of the gift of God.

To enounter oneself is to encounter the other: and this is love. If I know that my soul trembles, I know that yours does, too: and, if I can respect this, both of us can live. Neither of us, truly, can live without the other: a statement which would not sound so banal if one were not endlessly compelled to repeat it, and, further, to believe it, and act on that belief. My friend was quite right when he said, "So, we must be careful--lest we lose our faith--and become possessed."

For, I have seen the devil, by day and by night, and have seen him in you and in me: in the eyes of the cop and the sheriff and the deputy, the landlord, the housewife, the football player: in the eyes of some junkies, the eyes of some preachers, the eyes of some governors, presidents, wardens, in the eyes of some orphans, and in the eyes of my father, and in my mirror. It is that moment when no other human being is real for you, nor are you real for yourself. This devil has no need of dogma--though he can use them all--nor does he need any historical justification, history being so largely his invention. He does not levitate beds, or fool around with little girls: we do.

The mindless and hysterical banality of the evil presented in The Exorcist is the most terrifying thing about the film. The Americans should certainly know more about evil than that; if they pretend otherwise, they are lying, and any black man, and not only blacks--many, many others, including white children--can call them on this lie; he who has been treated as the devil recognizes the devil when they meet. At the end of The Exorcist, the demon-racked little girl murderess kisses the Holy Father, and she remembers nothing: she is departing with her mother, who will, presumably, soon make another film. The grapes of wrath are stored in the cotton fields and migrant shacks and ghettoes of this nation, and in the schools and prisons, and in the eyes and hearts and perceptions of the wretched everywhere, and in the ruined earth of Vietnam, and in the orphans and the widows, and in the old men, seeing visions, and in the young men, dreaming dreams: these have already kissed the bloody cross and will not bow down before it again: and have forgotten nothing.

So that's the context for the quote, in which the "us" in "Neither of us, truly, can live without the other" refers as much to groups divided by ideologies of race as to any two individuals. There's a lot that can be said about this quote, but one thing I think we can take away from it is that Baldwin then knew the Devil better than either Bush or Chavez does today.

The source is Baldwin, James. "The Devil Finds Work" In The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction 1948-1985,pp/ 635-636. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1985. Someday I may post the story of how I bought this book for $10.00 in downtown El Paso, but this is enough for now. The only other thing I can say is that everything I have read about contemporary life in Vietnam suggests that the generation that has grown up there after the war is all too happy to forget the past. I wonder if this will be true of Iraqis.


Blogger Olga said...

Ugh, unfortunately I just read an article in a two-month old Vanity Fair (Hilary Swank is on the cover!) about the devastation that Agent Orange has wreaked, and is still wreaking, on much of the Vietnamese population. They're still waiting for that nightmare to end.

BTW, I only just got these new posts on my Bloglines account, so maybe your readership is not dwindling, but behind on their reading. :-)

October 02, 2006 8:02 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home