Reading James Baldwin’s Existential Hindsight in Go Tell It
on the Mountain
This essay reads James Baldwin’s first novel, Go Tell It on the
Mountain, through the lenses of European existentialism and Black
existential thought to arrive at a new understanding of the novel itself as well
as essential stages of its development. Archival sources and close reading
reveal Baldwin’s historically and existentially informed artistic vision,
summed up in the terms hindsight and insight.
His thoughtful, uncomfortable engagement with the past leads to a recuperated
relationship to the community and constitutes existential hindsight, which
informs his inward understanding of himself—his insight. This
investigation draws on various works from Baldwin’s fiction, essays,
interviews, and correspondence to arrive at a better understanding of the
writer’s intellectual and artistic development, focusing especially on
the professed objectives behind, and major revisions of, the novel. I conclude
the essay through a close reading of the conversion scene that constitutes Part
Three of Go Tell It on the Mountain.
more ‘spiritual’ aspects of oneself without succumbing to forms of oppression
such as organised religion or personality cults? Such questions have led anarchists into many different directions, embracing existentialism, Taoism, paganism to extreme forms of isolationism and even hedonism. Yet, for most, the
process of being in the world is inextricably linked to that of becoming and
linked to questions of strategy developed in the previous section of the book.
Moreover, the question of being must be part of a holistic and integrated critique.
The contributions in
Simone de Beauvoir and a Global Theory of Feminist Recognition
which motivate the chapter's turn to Beauvoir's feminist
existentialism in The Second Sex ( 1972 ). Section 3 identifies in
Beauvoir's earlier text The Ethics of Ambiguity ( 1948 ) her understanding of the struggle for
recognition as an ambiguous tension between human agency and the
constraints of the body and situation. Suggesting that Beauvoir's
cosmopolitan universalism lies firstly in the common risk
& Faber, 1994), p. 22.
13 SE xxi, p. 21.
14 Ford Madox Ford, Mr Fleight (London, Howard Latimer, 1913), p. 76.
15 Gunnar Brandell writes of Darwin’s challenge to religious beliefs as the
necessary precursor to Freud’s (Freud: A Man of His Century, Brighton,
Harvester Press, 1979, p. 59). Freud would probably have included that of
16 I am thinking of his classic statement that ‘everything is permitted if God
does not exist’ in Existentialism and Humanism (London, Methuen, 1984),
17 Ideas gleaned from Otto Weininger’s Sex and Character ((1903) New
, according to this ‘law’, the immanent filling of the vacuum by presence. Thus,
the via negativa, for Thomas, balances between the emptiness of
absence and the fullness of expectation. And it is within that carefully
balanced tension and its engendered waiting ‘on that lean / threshold,
neither outside nor in’ that, according to the via negativa experience,
deity is finally located (10). Such waiting in tension is in keeping with
the Kierkegaardian existentialism often associated with Thomas. For
example, D. Z. Phillips, in his book R. S. Thomas: Poet of the Hidden
Stirner, anarchy, subjectivity and the art of living
. For the anarchist, poetic language – in all its
apparent illogicality – provides the logical mode of expression for the creation
of a life of lived poetry, a means for breaking through the dominant logic, and a
repository for the savoir-vivre necessary to live in conditions of chaos.
Ontological anarchy, modernity and postmodernity
As a synthetic thinker, Bey constructs a bricolage of materials derived from a
variety of sources including anarchism, situationism, existentialism and surrealism. However, his formulations concerning ontological anarchy remain exemplary
endorsement of existentialism (see Morland, 1997), her framing of the means
and ends of actions in this way is useful. It is also commensurate with poststructuralist theories of identity, which reject the liberal construction of the autonomous free rational agent as ‘natural’ and look to the social construction of the
subject by society. This critique is also central to Moore’s article on Max Stirner,
which also offers a ‘way out’ of this particular dualism.
As indicated in our introduction, Stirner’s controversial place in intellectual
history has recently
between historical conditions and concept formation. Indeed it will become clear
that had Adorno discussed Heidegger’s concept of historicality at greater length,
perhaps even making it and not authenticity the focus of the title, the encounter
would have been more clearly delineated. For what Heidegger shares with existentialism is less significant than what he shares with Adorno: a dispute for the inheritance
of the Western philosophical tradition. Adorno reads this tradition as culminating in
negative dialectics, because philosophy, ‘which once seemed to have been
follow in the steps of a tradition that privileges
‘nothing’ on stage while exposing that the nothing that critics such as
Martin Esslin, Vivien Mercier and Alain Robbe-Grillet had perceived
in Waiting for Godot and Endgame was far too full of somethings.
Theodor Adorno, who in his ‘Trying to understand Endgame’
(1958) argued that the nothing which characterises the Beckett
stage (and page) could not be read as a content, exploded (possibly even before it had become an ingrained critical tradition) the
comforting association between Beckett and existentialism which
critical theory. And, in different mode, the positions which emerged
from Jean-Paul Sartre’s fusion of existentialism and
négritude , for which see especially his
Colonialism and Anti-Colonialism (London: Routledge,
2001; first published 1964).
Padmore, How Britain Rules Africa , p.