Tending the fire


This month, the Scourge is in France enjoying the revelatory art, the countryside and, of course, the food (who wouldn’t love a culture that serves a baguette smeared with butter and then camembert as lunch?). Our blogging antihero has been busy tooling around the City of Light and, thus far, hasn’t checked the papers, but he’ll be posting Scourge-related thoughts during his time across the pond.

Last week in Paris, he followed in the footsteps of literary great James Baldwin, which made the Scourge think about the role of heretics not only in the incense-fogged halls of religion but also in the cultural institutions we treat with sacerdotal gravitas. We don’t need an altar to assign religious significance to a place or system. Many people who otherwise call themselves anti-religion worship money, books, politics or science with a level of devotion that would make a Bendectine blush for shame. Those same organizing stuctures of power, whatever they may be, also have their detractors who are punished by the votaries of state/class/race/community with as much fervor as any Inquisition.

I joined Julia Browne’s walking-tour of Baldwin’s Parisian haunts and landmarks, learning about the man, the black culture of Paris and so much more. The Scourge first read Baldwin in college and fell in love with his rousing voice, but it wasn’t until the plane ride to Paris, that he consumed Giovanni’s Room, possibly the most heartbreaking love story he’d ever read.

Baldwin, raised in Harlem, went to Paris like many black artists to escape the crushing racism of America (which he chronicles so perfectly in The Fire Next Time). While in France, he grew to understand himself as an American, a black American and as a gay man, and his first book, Go Tell It On the Mountain, the gateway to his own creativity, was finished in a room above the Parisian Cafe de Flore. He spent the rest of his life in France, but he journeyed back to the United States to give lectures throughout the south and meet with civil rights leaders, lending his insightful and incisive voice to what he later came to call “the latest slave rebellion.”


The FBI dogged the steps of artists who defied American “values,” whether they were Communists (suspected or actual, as in the case of Richard Wright), proponents of equal treatment for blacks, or sexual subversives. The cafés of Paris in St. Germain des Pres where expat intellectuals gathered to discuss their ideas were also seedbeds of surveillance and betrayals, so that a sense of paranoia went hand-in-hand with every friendship and heated debate over existentialist ideas. Baldwin had almost 2,000 pages of material in his FBI file, reportedly much higher than Wright’s.

Through his writing and lectures, Baldwin was a true heretic who defied the  cultural/economic/governmental/educational institutionalized racism and homophobia of the States, not to mention his belief that Christianity contributed to the continuing slave mentality of black Americans. He spoke out against systems of oppression with an eviscerating clarity and candor, refusing to recant because he understood that bowing to a deformed culture, crippling oneself with the inimical “virtues” of a system whose moral compass is spinning wildly out of control means that we, too, are lost in a wilderness with no guiding instrument to find our way home, and in that kind of wasteland, we’re all barbarians.

Until next Sunday…the heretic’s day.

In other news of the faithful:

Switzerland might impose heavy fines on the Muslim family of two teen boys who refused to shake their teacher’s hand. In the land of Heidi, it’s traditional for a student to shake their teacher’s hand at the beginning of the day, but given that the teacher in question was a female, the boys refused (women are evil, sex is evil, blah, blah, blah). Switzerland has decided that “the public interest with respect to equality between men and women and the integration of foreigners significantly outweighs the freedom of religion.” Amen!

In Iran, recent college graduates were arrested and subjected to 99 lashes for drugs rape looting violence …a co-ed party. And we lifted sanctions on this country, right? I guess human rights don’t hold that much economic interest for the United States, after all.





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