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Everybody Knows My Name

Nothing Personal

by Richard Avedon, by James Baldwin
Atheneum, 92 pp., $12.95

Of all the superfluous non-books being published this winter for the Christmas luxury trade, there is none more demoralizingly significant than a monster volume called Nothing Personal. Manufactured in Switzerland by a special process, boxed and unpaginated, set between snow-white covers with sterling silver titles, and measuring eleven by fourteen inches in size, this tome consists of enormous photographs by Richard Avedon and alternating commentary by James Baldwin, the text set in huge type with about an inch of space between each of the lines. I stress the physical makeup of the book because it reveals the book’s ambitions: no expense has been spared to induce an awe-inspiring effect. One is obviously supposed to handle such a volume with unspeakable reverence, similar to that humility of spirit with which Charlton Heston held Cecil B. DeMille’s papier-maché commandments upon descending from his Hollywood Mount Sinai. But for all the money that went into both productions, the revelations of both are equally synthetic. Nothing Personal pretends to be a ruthless indictment of contemporary America, but the people likely to buy this extravagant volume are the subscribers to fashion magazines, while the moralistic authors of the work are themselves pretty fashionable, affluent, and chic.

Such show-biz moralists have for some time now been a fixture of our cultural life, ever since it became apparent that Americans were eager to reward certain critics who abused them (the reception of Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, not to mention its publication in The New Yorker, did a lot to make this apparent). Vance Packard’s muckraking bestsellers, television’s That Was the Week That Was, Paddy Chayefsky’s The Americanization of Emily (to name just a few such commodities of pop criticism) are all attempts to capitalize commercially on an increasingly self-critical national atmosphere, where even Barry Goldwater can run a campaign complaining about the weakness in the American moral fiber. Now comes Richard Avedon, high fashion photographer for Harper’s Bazaar, to join these other outrage exploiters, giving the suburban clubwoman a titillating peek into the obscene and ugly faces of the mad, the dispossessed, and the great and neargreat—with James Baldwin interrupting from time to time, like a punchy and pugnacious drunk awakening from a boozy doze during a stag movie, to introduce his garrulous, irrelevant, and by now predictable comments on how to live, how to love, and how to build Jerusalem.

The book, however, is mainly Avedon’s, and the really curious thing is why a photographer, who spends much of his career flattering celebrities with soft lights and blurred effects, should also wish to transform these same subjects into repulsive knaves, fools, and lunatics. This has been done with a rush of fury and spite that belies the book’s title. Except for a few sanctified figures like Norman Thomas and John L. Lewis who, along with most of the Negro subjects in the book, enjoy a relative normality, everyone present is seen with a hideously jaundiced eye. Perle Mesta, for example, photographed from the chin up, has acquired a wagging dewlap of a proportion equalled only by the male orangoutang at the Bronx zoo, while Dorothy Parker—though no Aphrodite to be sure—has been provided with the decaying look of a fresh corpse, her face paralyzed, her teeth rotting, her eyes bagged by diseased pouches. Bertrand Russell and Linus Pauling both enjoy the luxury of two-page spreads, Russell looking like Cro-Magnon man—with his chin and nose jutting, and a hearing aid curling out of his ear like a worm—and Pauling like a lifetime inmate of Bellevue, his mad eyes gleefully lit up as if by an explosion of the hydrogen bomb. Even Marilyn Monroe, a perennial Avedon favorite, appears before us in an obviously unguarded moment, slack and listless, stupefied by drugs, drink, or merely life itself.

Along with these unappetizing glimpses of people people are talking about, Avedon has supplied a few pictorial contrasts and comparisons, apparently to give his revenge some thematic purpose and structural unity. A group portrait of George Lincoln Rockwell being given the Nazi salute by four uniformed thugs is juxtaposed with a very naked, very hairy Allen Ginsberg offering a Hindu blessing, his other hand forming a shelf above where his genitals should be. A terribly old ex-slave, with watery eyes and elongated suffering features, is cheek by jowl with Ambassador Adlai Stevenson, pursing his lips like a prissy old queen. Cheryl Crane, her face a total vacuum, peers out at us beside Martin Luther King’s beautiful and purposeful young son, whom she unaccountably resembles. And Harold Arlen and Arthur Miller share facing pages, both looking equally worried about the human race, and equally incapable, for sheer fatigue, of doing a thing to help it.

Although the best photograph in the book—a double spread of the DAR ladies in ceremonial dress—is taken absolutely straight, very few of Avedon’s subjects are free from his satiric comment, which he insinuates by means of lens distortion, foreshortening, and brutal closeups under hot lights that expose every black root in a freshly shaved face. Putting aside the question of whether it is exactly ethical to employ a portrait camera in this manner, we are still left with the unhappy fact that Avedon’s editorializing generally falsifies rather than reveals reality. Consider his treatment of famous political and religious leaders. By making Billy Graham, for example, into a used car salesman in an early stage of paresis, or by transforming George Wallace into a smug Napoleonic egotist, or by giving Eisenhower the dazed stare of one who has been wholly lobotomized, Avedon actually obscures the problem of American leadership, for he suggests that high level stupidity or malice wears no mask, when it is the very surface attractiveness of our politicians, demagogues, and adventurers that most endangers the body politic. Worse than this, Avedon is not above staging a picture in order to make his comment. He thus presents Claude Eatherly—wrongly identified as the “pilot at Hiroshima, August 6, 1945”—holding his hand across his anguished brow in the throes of agenbite of inwit, even though Eatherly’s claim to his wellpublicized conscience has for some time now been exposed as phony.

Still, it is characteristic of show-biz moralists to care less for truth than for sensation, just as it is characteristic of them to hedge their fraudulent protests with equally fraudulent affirmations. True to this spirit, Avedon concludes his book on a note of tremulous uplift. Immediately after harrowing his readers with the nightmare faces of those condemned to mental institutions, he tranquilizes them again with scenes of Love and Brotherhood, returning to that grainy texture he employs to give the skin a Helena Rubinstein glow. Avedon apparently associates happiness with sun and surf, for it is on the beach that his string section begins to swell, mounting through pictures of a smiling young man patting his wife’s pregnant belly, a Negro child and a white young woman holding each other close, and a father balancing his infant son aloft. At last (and here an angelic chorus joins the fiddles), Avedon closes the book with a large sharp photograph of the Atlanta Chapter of SNCC—cleancut, unwrinkled, determined men, women, and children—looking forward into some bright future, presumably when other Americans will no longer expose such nauseating dewlaps, shriveled lips, furrowed brows, carrion flesh, bad teeth, pockmarks, pores, double chins, pimples, or any similar evidence of a malevolent, deteriorating spirit.

The quality of mind revealed in these photographs is, I am afraid, matched by the quality of mind revealed in the text; and this constitutes one of the few unifying links between the pictures and the prose. Like Richard Avedon’s, James Baldwin’s rage is here inspired largely by opportunism, but while the photographer is taking advantage of the times, the writer is letting the times take advantage of him. Once direct and biting in his criticism of American life, Mr. Baldwin has repeated his revolt so often that it has now become a reflex mannerism that curls his fingers around his pen and squeezes out empty rhetoric. In Nothing Personal, certainly, Baldwin has either adapted his ideas to the intellectual chic of the women’s magazines, or he is putting his readers on. How else is one to explain such Norman Vincent Pealisms as “I have always felt a human being could only be saved by another human being”—and “One must say Yes to life and embrace it wherever it is found”—and, again, “All that God can do, and all that I expect Him to do, is lend one courage to continue one’s journey and face one’s end, like a man.”

These are some of Baldwin’s concluding affirmations, designed to harmonize with Avedon’s surf symphony. To accompany Avedon’s rogue’s gallery, Baldwin supplies vestpocket indictments of TV, advertising, architecture, psychoanalysis, and the New York Police Force. But Baldwin’s attacks are significant less for their familiar content than for the conditioned response they are expected to provoke in the reader—and, especially, for the format in which they appear. But lending himself to such an enterprise, Baldwin reveals that he is now part and parcel of the very things he is criticizing; and this curious assimilation accounts in part for something in his writing first noticed by Marcus Klein—his ambiguous use of the word we. Constantly shifting between objective nouns and first person plural pronouns (“talking to Americans is usually extremely uphill work. We are afraid to reveal ourselves because we trust ourselves so little”) or between the generic and the personal (“our opulence is so pervasive that people who are afraid to lose whatever they think they have persuade themselves of the truth of a lie….”), Baldwin exposes a highly uncertain critical identity, never sure whether he is talking for himself, for the Negroes, for Americans, or for the whole human race.

This uncertainty leads him not only into contorted grammar but also into incredible self-inflation. My favorite Baldwinism—and a typical one, though it comes from another context—is this: “If you pretend that I hauled all that cotton for you just because I love you, you’re mad.” When the messianic fit is upon him, Baldwin frequently develops a bass-baritone voice and starts singing “Let my people go,” confusing himself with the whole of Negro history. By the same token, he is presumptuous enough to generalize wildly about the American young (“we have no respect for children”), even though he himself is childless, and to deny the existence of any happy marriages, though he has never been married. The author of Notes of a Native Son was a highly aware and complicated individual; the author of Nothing Personal, and the rest of his recent writings, is merely a self-constituted Symbol, bucking hard for the rank of Legend.

Baldwin’s advancement, however, may be a long time in coming, because as a salvation peddler he has nothing to offer but opiates. “God help that innocent here,” he writes, “that man or woman who simply wants to love, and be loved.” God help him indeed, if such an “innocent” really ex-exists, and that is all he “simply” wants to do. But Baldwin pretends to be that innocent, reducing all our complexity to this one simpleminded notion, making Love the single remedy for all the spite, hatred, and ugliness he sees around him: “For, perhaps—perhaps—between now and that day, something wonderful will happen, a miracle of coherence and release…. It is the miracle of love, love strong enough to guide or drive one into the great estate of maturity….” This sounds like Ibsen’s Nora, slamming the door on Torvald, but it is a Nora who has read nothing but the Ladies’ Home Journal, seen nothing but Inge and Chayefsky plays, learned nothing but the routine wisdom supplied by Doctor Franzblau. And with the invocation of those tired words—love, miracle, release, maturity—and a few more lines of self-hypnosis, James Baldwin’s slippery prose skates along this glossy paper to an end.

Well, America is sick all right, but it is sick in more things than these physicians know. It is sick, very sick, for example, in some of its critics, particularly the two represented here, who make the doctors and the malady seem almost indistinguishable. Nothing Personal shows us an honorable tradition of revolt gone sour, given over to fame and ambition, discredited by shadowy motives, twisted by questionable ideals, turned into a theatrical gesture by café society performers. The participation of Richard Avedon in this hypocritical charade is not of very great moment, since Avedon’s photography—whether he is blandishing or subverting his models—still remains an arm of show business. But the participation of James Baldwin signifies the further degeneration of a once courageous and beautiful dissent. Whether this is temporary, one cannot say. Let us fervently hope it is. But meanwhile it is serious enough to merit our deepest apprehension and regret.

Letters

Avedon’s Reality January 28, 1965

Letters January 14, 1965

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