Liquid Ink

The official website of Gint Aras, Finalist 2016 CWA Book Award

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James Baldwin on society and education

To celebrate Black History Month here on Liquid Ink, I’m quoting from black American intellectuals every day until March. These quotes are all deeply meaningful to me.

Yesterday’s was from Frederick Douglass. Today it’s James Baldwin, taken from his Talk to the Teachers, delivered in 1963.

It would seem to me that when a child is born, if I’m the child’s parent, it is my obligation and my high duty to civilize that child. Man is a social animal. He cannot exist without a society. A society, in turn, depends on certain things which everyone within that society takes for granted. Now the crucial paradox which confronts us here is that the whole process of education occurs within a social framework and is designed to perpetuate the aims of society. Thus, for example, the boys and girls who were born during the era of the Third Reich, when educated to the purposes of the Third Reich, became barbarians. The paradox of education is precisely this – that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated. The purpose of education, finally, is to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself, to make his own decisions, to say to himself this is black or this is white, to decide for himself whether there is a God in heaven or not. To ask questions of the universe, and then learn to live with those questions, is the way he achieves his own identity. But no society is really anxious to have that kind of person around. What societies really, ideally, want is a citizenry which will simply obey the rules of society. If a society succeeds in this, that society is about to perish. The obligation of anyone who thinks of himself as responsible is to examine society and try to change it and to fight it – at no matter what risk. This is the only hope society has. This is the only way societies change.


Photo of James Baldwin from Wikipedia.

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Readers ask: What’s your religion?

I’ll reveal that this question comes from students. I think it’s worth saying a few things about it on my blog.

Obviously, I write a lot about religion. Religion is a powerful force in the game of human fate, with tentacles in everything from political systems to educational institutions, nations’ customs and individuals’ identities. I’ve studied religions both formally and informally, and I’ve read a lot of the sacred books, including the Bible, Bhagavad-Gita and others.

I’m in the school that says you can’t really study Western Civilization without knowing the Bible, and you’re at a massive disadvantage as a student of literature if you don’t know at least the plots of the major Bible stories, including lessons in ethics like the Book of Job, the Sermon on the Mount or Paul’s letters. This isn’t just because every book of note will be packed with allusions to the Bible, but also because certain cultural assumptions trace themselves to a Judeo-Christian understanding of reality.

This is an evasive way of saying I’m neither Christian nor Jewish, but that I have deep reverence for the ethics and lessons of those traditions. Granted, I was raised Catholic, which is a lot like saying you used to be a cop or a member of the Latin Kings. Once you’re in, your mind will forever be affected. You can pawn your badge or burn all your black and gold, but the way you see the world remains. I have an easier time remembering the Act of Contrition than all the passwords I use on the internet.

I don’t identify as Catholic. Beyond that, my personal spirituality is a private matter.

Readers of this blog know I belong to a Zen center. I’ve written about mindfulness and trauma on multiple occasions, and I’m quite open about my meditation practice. Zen practice was as effective, if not more effective at treating my PTSD —at least after a certain period of time— as talk therapy. I stayed on because, frankly, it’s a sensible way of looking at the contemporary world, and I’ve also met wonderful people at the center.

What does a Zen Buddhist believe? My advice to anyone who wants an answer to that question is to try meditating. That’s the answer. While Zen has its set of ethics, it does not offer a list of rules that need to be followed. With the exception of meditation, there’s not really a set of beliefs or behaviors that equal Zen. What’s there to believe, and who’s in position to believe it? That’s a Zen question.

Still…this probably doesn’t satisfy the readers’ question. If I’m going to do something besides evade it, I should probably make an offering. What I’m willing to do is to present a list of questions that currently make up what I like to think of as my spiritual journey. I don’t have answers for them:

  • Is time a line, a circle or some other shape?
  • Is consciousness the result of the brain or is the brain the result of consciousness?
  • Will the individual please stand up?
  • What must be done in order to count beyond one?
  • Where is the past?
  • Where is the future?
  • If Jesus truly believed in paradise, would he have raised Lazarus?



Photo: 9/11 Memorial, New York City 

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The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

I wonder why I freeze up whenever I’m asked the question, “What books are your favorite?” It happened again the other day when a Lithuanian reporter wanted to know about my literary influences. My mind went blank for a few minutes. Oddly, I’ll often feel a sense of mild panic.

Perhaps it’s that the truth sounds cliché. “I love Dostoevsky.” I love the big books about universal ideas. I often wish I had something more creative or exotic to say than this. Perhaps it’s that, when I read the lists produced by other writers, I find so many titles that are new to me. I feel I don’t have new titles to share, only the ones that people already know.

Of course, that’s not true. It just seems true because my favorite books stay with me, permanent parts of my consciousness, invisible to me, in a way, as they shade the lens of my perception. Still, shouldn’t I be able to just rattle them off immediately, and with pride? And why is it that I remember books I love often hours, sometimes days after I’m asked, “What books do you love?”

The book I love about as much as any other but usually forget, like the child I know can do well enough on their own, is Carson McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. I first learned about this book in 1999 while teaching reading in Ann Arbor. I was struck by the title: a sentence, one I believed I understood immediately.

This book is perhaps the one that had the strongest influence on me in the years before I started writing The Fugue. For many years, I used it in college English classes, long before I had gathered that “fiction shouldn’t be used” (It should…read about that here!). In fact, The Fugue borrows (or…depending on your take…steals) McCullers’ episodic structure of vignettes that add up to a novel . Anyone who knows the book and reads The Fugue will sense further influence, no small homage to this unbelievable book.

The characters are so deep and interesting, so colorful yet also ordinary, obviously from the same town, one that’s thoroughly Southern but could exist in most parts of America. A deaf mute who works in a jewelry store. A young girl who aspires—her aspiration tragic from the get go—to be a classical musician. A roughneck who wants to organize labor but seems unable to work. An abusive Greek epicure. The owner of a diner, a finite observer with enormous emotional baggage. A black communist. His prophet-like daughter. Another woman obsessed with making her daughter into a Hollywood doll (a daughter eventually maimed by a boy with a gun). An overbearing wife harboring a tumor the size of an infant.

The themes? Poverty. Race. Suicide. Sexuality. Homosexuality (kinda) and asexuality (maybe) and hypersexuality (oddly). Femininity. Opulence. Self-aggrandizement. Masculinity. Codependence. Alcoholism. Western Civilization. Philosophy. Domestic violence. Identity (spiritual, cultural, national…pick a number). Communication. Silence. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter only appears to be a portrait of a community but is, in fact, a deep and ever-searching philosophical novel.

I’m writing this post to remember placing The Heart is a Lonely Hunter at the top of my list of favorite and influential books next time I speak to someone about it. Also, if you’ve never read it, here’s one to put on your list for 2016.