re: James Baldwin, truth,(Chinese) medicine, harmony, heartbreak, illness, death
by 伊凌 yi ling
preface: Started writing in the time between western and Lunar New Year. I’ve been dawdling on finishing this on-going piece because JM’s brilliance is something I hope I can respond adequately to, though certainly cannot approach. Let’s try this!
We begin with…
JM’s response/the query:
Connecting the first two texts:
It’s pretty screwy that the most known english translation of Chinese Medicine texts is from an appropriating ass white man Ted. Leave my ancestors alone and go heal your own ancestral ways by your own ancestral ways. (Thanks Anjali Nath for this specific understanding.) Baldwin offers this framework of truth, a realm, a “web of ambiguity, paradox, this hunger, danger, darkness.” In this, the human being’s freedom and fulfillment, neither which can legislated or charted…these dynamics which cannot be circumscribed, not even to the grand generalization of a noble “Humanity” (which Baldwin quickly points out to be a quick tyrant in and of itself). Nor is the truth of the human being merely a member of a group, society or data set for science. This is a mystery which is the novelist’s job to reveal, but, per my reading, to keep from fragmenting into aspects.
Perhaps what first caught my attention of the connection between texts was this word, “web.” I posted a photo from “The Web That Has No Weaver: Understanding Chinese Medicine” by Ted Kaptchuk. I’ve been reading this per my friend Ethan’s recommendation, who’s a martial artist of Taiwanese descent, born in Jersey and now is in acupuncturist school. It’s been helping me articulate these philosophies and instincts in English, though I often still run into insufficiencies.
What is Baldwin pointing to in this? A mysterious truth that is uncompromisingly complex, yet what we must seek to read and the writer seeks to reveal. To understand this without defaulting to laziness of mind/spirit and resorting to violent simplification and degradation of imagination and seeing…
As Baldwin writes from within visceral degradation, in the u.s. empire, in an empire that does not acknowledge it’s violent and degrading foundation, in a degradation that uses “society, group, science” to justify colonial theft and condemn Baldwin in his true aristocracy…
“The Negro boys and girls who are facing mobs today come out of a long line of improbable aristocrats–the only genuine aristocrats this country has produced. I say ‘this country’ because their frame of reference was totally American. They were hewing out of the mountain of white supremacy the stone of their individuality.” (from The Fire Next Time)
…he writes from the wisdom of two complexities. The complexity of being caught in empire and the complexity that is within himself as a human being and boundless…that the truth of himself, of all human beings, is caught in a complexity that requires revelation and movement to distinguish (but not dissect!) and “free us of ourselves.” He writes from an embodied truth, that which counters everything society throws at him as a queer Black man, a person of color, an uncle, a writer, an artist, a person who loves freedom.
Perhaps this is why I was drawn to responding with a valuable perspective from Chinese medicine, which has long brought a methodology and philosophy that has somatically stayed integrated (in my experience learning from monks and teachers and family in Taiwan) with spirit/energy/body/environment. It has been developed over millenia of study, each with certain variation, but that continuity offers a depth and breadth of study that is a treasure of understanding the cosmos within one’s being.
To JM’s counter:
Indeed, this Chinese medicine is our culture, a study that has interwoven and shaped our language and interactions with land and each other, governance and history. It draws me because it’s a way of looking into what is ancient and seeing those truths refracted in what is “new.” And it is also assistant the responsibility, the task I have to understand myself, group, society. As Antonio Gramsci says, history has left in us an infinity of traces. The task is to compile an inventory of the traces left in us. To try to understand…to transform from an unitarian identity into an identity that includes the other without suppressing the differences. This, Gramsci says, is the great goal.
On a violent use of pre-existing/original harmony
It’s interesting, Weishin just pointed out on my post about “chopsticks unity” on FB the dangers of harmony. Indeed, the overemphasis (which I don’t see in the text I offered) may be used in other contexts to emphasize “pre-existing/original harmony.”
This is certainly a subtle, vicious, violent…an elegant domination, and domination all the same. I’ve seen this at temples, in families, in people I’ve treated internally, in my own processes as I move through traumas. We say heartbreak is the beginning of all illnesses and small fractures, those hairline fractures that are easy to avoid accountability for (e.g. for microaggressions, for denial, for gaslighting, for delaying support).
For example, a friend of mine is dealing with a (possibly terminally) ill parent. Having lost a parent already, and with strained relationships with her sibling, her remaining parent is trying to take this opportunity of illness to enforce the “you and your sibling are the only one left. You must stick together. You’re all you ever have now!” Then the parent’s new wife tries to blame my friend for being the one who caused her father’s illness for staying away from his abusive dynamic.
In this “web” of lies and darkness, the enforcement of returning to original harmony disregards the original trauma, the turning away from truth, which is the remaining parent’s responsibility. Furthermore, what the parent is enforcing is his own meaning vs. the truth which stands and emits, resonates and relates in unity with the truth of each other person. Meaning is often confused for truth.
Still there are importance in understanding meaning, what has been “enforced” or forcibly lived out, even if it is not the truth. I think from my body work practice, that it’s vital to understand how someone has been straining herself (through stretching, questions about lifestyle and such)…the corporeal, psychological, ecological and moral strain, in order to support her in re-centering in her truth. If something is not resonating, out of syncronity/unity, we must know what is shattering. The human being has an incredible instinct for healing, though often submerged, especially under domination which thwarts the genius of “original” instincts. But these can all be reset, rebalanced. We must ask as we support someone in their healing, why do you need to hold onto something? to feel alive? so that means you experience death most of the time.
I hope something in here warrants a good continual inquiry. Thanks to JM for the question! I’ll continue my studies with this expanded awareness and curiousity.