Baldwin's "The Fire Next Time" and Pluto
Updated: Jul 20
I recently read in a New York Times article (“Everyone Likes Reading. Why Are We So Afraid of It?" By A.O. Scott) about Roland Barthes’ distinction between two kinds of literary work: texts of pleasure (which comfort, grant euphoria, confirm the status quo) and texts of bliss (which discomfort, and unsettle cultural, social, political assumptions).
For me, The Fire Next Time is a text of bliss. Baldwin asks white readers to look honestly at our assumptions and at ourselves. He suggests that “people are not, for example, terribly anxious to be equal (equal, after all, to what and to whom?) but they love the idea of being superior…. Furthermore, I have met only a very few people … who had any real desire to be free. Freedom is hard to bear.” He speaks to Blacks’ understandable rage, and of white liberals having the ability to “deal with the Negro as a symbol or a victim but [having] no sense of him as a man.”
He’s also honest about his own efforts to discover who he is if he’s not choosing “the Avenue” where Black youths explore sex and drugs, and if he’s left the Church and doesn’t get married - all three options being ways to fend off the realization that life may hold little promise for American Blacks. He’s facing into the shadow of American society and trying to come out the other side with his compassion intact — no small feat. And he's trying to show us the way through, too.
Astrologers might think of Baldwin’s role as Plutonic, as he asks us to give up our comfortable, but false, beliefs. “Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have.”
Baldwin speaks to his own loss of the beliefs that fortified him against fear — “the slow crumbling of my faith, the pulverization of my fortress” — and he knows that, as with higher Pluto, once we’re no longer using extraordinary amounts of energy to keep our fortress intact and hide our shadow from ourselves, we can experience “change not on the surface but in the depths — change in the sense of renewal.” We connect with a new energy, which Baldwin identifies as love, which “takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.”