Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Splendid Sentences, Part 1: James Baldwin on Artists

The artist is distinguished from all other responsible actors in society—the politicians, legislators, educators, scientists, et cetera—by the fact that he is his own test tube, his own laboratory, working according to very rigorous rules, however unstated these may be, and cannot allow any consideration to supersede his responsibility to reveal all that he can possibly discover concerning the mystery of the human being. — James Baldwin, "The Creative Process" in Creative America, 1962

I can read hundreds of James Baldwin's sentences a hundred times, and the 66-word sentence above is one of them. His syntax often surprises and his meaning just as frequently suspends, occasionally dangles, and ultimately satisfies. Baldwin's longer sentences twist and turn, meandering toward a destination that will unsettle, agitate, and challenge, inspiring readers to simultaneously marvel at his syntactic and semantic intents. Whether we agree with his ideas is beside the point; what matters is how we emerge from absorbing them certain of his self-reflective, uncompromising honesty, which is an undeniably transcendent truth in its own right. Notice the last 6 of those 66 words: the mystery of the human being. What a way to capture our imagination by ending on the cryptic and keep us reading!