Facing Consequences: Baldwin and Maimonides

LEFT: James Baldwin seated, with his arms resting on his knees, burning cigarette in his left hand; typewriter visible behind his shoulder; curtained window (maybe hotel room); RIGHT: portrait of Maimonides wearing, with mustache and beard, in turban and robe, with medallion on ribbon around his neck.

Maimonides’ The Guide for the Perplexed has a lot to say about “faces.” It has even more to say about “vision,” which The Guide considers separate from any eyesight-based phenomenon. James Baldwin (1924-1985, z”l) also pursued “faces” and “vision” in his writing and speaking. Centuries and cultures apart, their works on these themes have a great deal in common.

Maimonides

The Guide for the Perplexed includes a series of chapters on Hebrew vocabulary, using examples of biblical usage to illustrate various meanings of the expression. Tracing the cited verses can be a poetic and philosophical exercise of its own. Although it’s helpful to keep in mind that the author’s stated focus is on avoiding or clarifying anthropomorphism in God-language, there is much more to glean from his careful and thorough vocabulary explorations.

The chapter on “Panim [פָנִים] (face),” as mentioned previously, outlines a range of usage. (The entire chapter is here, at Sefaria). One meaning is “the presence and existence of a person,” with the more specific meaning of two parties “both being present, without any intervening medium between them.” On cursory reading, these seem innocuous enough: simply being in the same place at the same time. But Maimonides’ examples suggest that it’s not so simple.

Presence

The three examples Maimonides gives for “presence and existence” are quite intense:

  • the Adversary bets God that Job, if provoked, will blaspheme “to your face [al panekha]” (Job 1:11);
  • following the death of Nadav and Abihu, Moses tells Aaron that God is sanctified “in the face of all the People [al-p’nei kol ha-am]” (Lev 10:3); and
  • Gen 25:18, which The Guide translates as follows:
    “He died in the presence (pene) [i.e., in the lifetime] of all his brethren”

This last example — from the story of Ishmael — is described by some translators as “difficult” and “enigmatic,” and the language seems to carry some level of aggression. (See below for Hebrew details.)

Confrontation

Maimonides goes on to add that “in the same sense the word is used” when Moses and God “speak face to face [panim el-panim]” (Exod 33:11) “i.e., both being present, without any intervening medium between them.” His examples:

“Come, let us look one another in the face” (2 Kings 14:8), and also “The Lord talked with you face to face” (Deut 5:4).
The Guide, as translated by M. Friendlander, p.96

In the first example, Judah’s King Amaziah asks Israel’s King Jehoash for confrontation [nitra-eh panim] in battle; Jehoash suggests Amaziah retreat, but Amaziah refuses and the two meet face-to-face [yitra-u panim] (14:11), resulting in Amaziah’s defeat. In the second, Moses retells what happened at Sinai, which also involves a kind of retreat:

Face to face [panim b’fanim] did YHWH speak with you on the mountain,
from the midst of the fire
— I myself was standing between YHWH and you at the time,
to report to you the word of YHWH;
for you were afraid of the fire,
and would not go up on the mountain —
— Deut 5:4-5, Fox Translation

Maimonides’ stated intent for this chapter does not alter the overall impression left by these examples: Being “in the face of” or “face to face with” another seems to involve some level of challenge or danger.

While Maimonides’ examples are particularly intense, the more thorough listing in Brown-Driver-Briggs Lexicon (1906) suggests that “facing” in the Bible is not casual. (Maimonides explains that he is not aiming for “exhaustive” exploration of word usage because The Guide is “not a philological treatise” — Pt 1: Ch 10, p.38.) Mishnaic Hebrew extends to more casual and mundane usage, but Talmudic usage also carries layers of meaning, with Bible passages interwoven in the discussion.

Direction

An earlier discussion in The Guide, reflects on the underlying verb:

Panim, the Hebrew equivalent of face, is derived from the verb panah, “he turned,” and signifies also “aim,” because man generally turns his face towards the thing he desires.
— Pt 1:Ch 2, p.23

The phrase in consideration is from Job 14:20 — “…m’shaneh panav va-t’shalchehu” — which Maimonides translates as “He changed his face (panav) and you sent him forth.” It is understood midrashically (based on Midrash Tanchuma, from 500-800 CE) as referring to Adam, who “altered his intention and directed his thoughts to the acquisition of what he was forbidden” and so was banished from Eden.

Centuries after Maimonides, James Baldwin focused much of his writing on the import, and serious consequences, of an individual’s change of intention and direction of thoughts.


Background: Assumed and Reclaimed

The Guide suggests that its author had vast quantities of Jewish text, scripture and later tradition, easily available — probably in his own memory — and that he assumed the same on the part of his reader(s)…. the work is ostensibly addressed to a single individual, his son-in-law. He also knew the work of Muslim, Christian, and ancient Greek scholars. For those of us who do not have such recall, looking up the verses Maimonides mentions is a great aid in reading The Guide. In recent years, Sefaria added the full text of Friedlander’s translation, complete with hyperlinks to the biblical passages — Sefaria’s links, by the way, correct citation errors in the print edition — which facilitates tracing citations.

James Baldwin’s writing is brimming with allusions and direct references to secular and sacred text. Like Maimonides, he lived at cultural crossroads and navigated a variety of worldviews. And like Maimonides, his work contains references to political and literary elements which are not as obvious to a many readers today as they once were. For those of us without ready recall and understanding of Baldwin’s milieu, looking up his references is an important aid in reading his work. The internet makes such simultaneously facilitates and complicates such research — with so much available but so much shared without citations or context. Reminder: Free, on-line access to historical and current periodicals is available through many public libraries.



LEFT: James Baldwin seated, with his arms resting on his knees, burning cigarette in his left hand; typewriter visible behind his shoulder; curtained window (maybe hotel room); RIGHT: portrait of Maimonides wearing, with mustache and beard, in turban and robe, with medallion on ribbon around his neck.
James Baldwin (1964) and R’ Moshe Ben Maimon (c.1180)

Image descriptions and credits below.


Baldwin

“Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

This is one of Baldwin’s most quoted sentences, dropped into a wide variety of settings. It has been used over the decades to urge attention to a range of injustices and systemic problems. But it also shows up in self-help teachings and appears on inspirational home decorations.

On its own, this one sentence does not tell us what needs changing, who should face it, or how facing is accomplished. The ambiguity allows the quotation to act like a chameleon, fitting into whatever surrounds it. And this is both a testament to the power of Baldwin’s language and a betrayal of what he actually wrote:

Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced. The principal fact that we must now face, and that a handful of writers are trying to dramatize, is that the time has now come for us to turn our backs forever on the big two-hearted river. “As Much Truth As One Can Bear,” New York Times, Jan 14, 1962
Widely available through free public library access to NYT archives;
also in The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings. NY: Vintage, 2010

The oft-quoted line was originally the set up, not the punchline. His point was specific. What he wanted writers — as well as readers and critics — to face in 1962 no longer exists in the same way, but his thoughts about how facing is accomplished are still worth exploring…. and quite reminiscent of Maimonides’ exploration.

Multiple Truths

The intensity of Maimonides’ examples (above) is reflected in Baldwin’s illustrations of “multiple truths of a people are revealed by that people’s artists.” In the space of one paragraph he calls to mind three examples —

  • Uncas from The Last of the Mohicans (Fennimore Cooper, 1826),
  • Lucas Burch from Light in August (Faulkner, 1932), and
  • Lambert Strether from The Ambassadors (Henry James, 1903).

— meant to outline aspects of failing at

* note that Baldwin’s underlying focus on gender here,
and in his work more generally, is way beyond the scope of this post

Deeper experience (than mine, e.g.) with these works, and with Baldwin, surely adds additional layers to the reading. But even passing familiarity warns the essay’s reader that, as with the biblical examples in The Guide, “facing” involves challenge and danger, sometimes fatal….

…it is probably no accident that this attempt to discuss even a few elements of Baldwin’s multifaceted presentation is yielding longer and longer sentences (sorry if they’re too much for this medium)….

Particular Truth

Before long — and all this is squeezed into eight pages — Baldwin turns to the same biblical imagery Maimonides employed:

…In short, by the time of World War II, evil had entered the American Eden, and it had come to stay.

I am a preacher’s son. I beg you to remember the proper name of that troubling tree in Eden: it is “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”

Throughout this essay, and his other work, Baldwin addresses the nation at large about its colonialism and racism; it is the U.S. literary world, however, that he believes has responsibility of growing up — as the first couple did in eating from that tree –and figuring out to “put ourselves in touch with reality.”

Younger American writers… take it upon themselves to describe us to ourselves as we are now…. The trouble is deeper than we wished to think: the trouble is in us….[and we have yet to] stare our ghastly failure in the face.”

“Facing,” as Baldwin outlines it, involves altering intentions and directing thoughts anew, as Maimonides describes the biblical Adam doing. “To face,” as Baldwin sees it, involves presence and confrontation, but also intention and direction of thinking. U.S. writers — and, implicitly, publishers and readers and critics who help to create the nation’s literary landscape — must be willing to view and name more faces, reminiscent of how Rabbi Meir kept onmareh lo panim,” making visible more faces/facets:

What the writer is always trying to do is to utilize the particular in order to reveal something much larger and heavier than any particular can be. Thus Dostoevsky, in The Possessed, used a small provincial town in order to dramatize the spiritual state of Russia. His particulars were not very attractive, but he did not invent them, he simply used what there was. Our particulars are not very attractive, either, but we must use them. They will not go away because we pretend that they are not there. — penultimate paragraph of the “As Much Truth…”

Revealed and Hidden

“As Much Truth…” opens with Hemingway — along with Fitzgerald, Dos Pasos, and Faulkner — as writers of great, albeit uneven, achievement which had become touchstones in devaluing newer work. Baldwin mentions “The Killers” but none of the other Nick Adams stories, until that final allusion to “The Big Two-Hearted River.”

Baldwin urged the literary world to turn its back forever on that river. But the essay’s approach itself, viewed from a vantage point five decades on, serves to illustrate how “the common penny of language” shifts, rendering “what words hide and what they reveal” more complex as distance grows between Baldwin’s time and circumstance, in 1962, and ours.

Within literary criticism and scholarship today, the final paragraph of “As Much Truth As One Can Bear” is sometimes quoted as a whole. Scholars still reference Hemingway’s “theory of omission” and the “masculine responsibility” trope which was part of the U.S. literary landscape in the mid-20th Century. Outside academia, though, the common quoting of the first sentence of this essay’s closing, without the second, means that we lose many facets of what Baldwin had to say about “facing.”

The 1962 essay includes extraordinary gems about “truth” and “success” and the role of artists — in addition to the nearly tautological and oft-quoted “face” maxim. It also includes complexly gendered language, a response to Philip Rahv’s “Paleface and Redskin” dichotomy, and references to literature that is no longer as central to recreational and educational reading lists as it once was.

We can isolate and continue to learn the gems, treasuring and passing them along out of context. We can delve more fully into what Baldwin was facing back then and try to understand his position from there, learning — or maybe, relearning — parts of our literary history. Ultimately the question is a version of this: How much do we remember and address again and how much do we leave, following the admonition to “forever turn our backs”?


Perhaps, as with Amalek, and the admonition to remember to forget, we must at least occasionally — the Jewish calendar asks us to do this twice a year — pause to consider what it is that we are meant to forget.

This post is not the first discussion to note the irony in considering “As Much Truth As One Can Bear” years, or decades, after it was written. We are in a position not unlike Baldwin’s back then:

[Writers today] are under the obligation to go further than their elders went. It is the only way to keep faith with them.

The same challenge is faced by Torah and Talmud students today who must choose how best to keep faith with the elders by learning and transforming even the difficult faces of the text.


NOTES

Maimonides/Rambam

Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (c.1125-1204) is known as “Rambam” or “Maimonides.” — More about him and his works at Jewish Encyclopedia and My Jewish Learning.

The Guide for the Perplexed was published around 1190 CE. It was written in Classical Arabic using Hebrew script. It was translated into Hebrew around the time of his death by a contemporary. The Guide‘s stated intent in the series of vocabulary-focused chapters is to remove any suggestion of anthropomorphism in God-language.

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Ishmael and His Kin

Robert Alter deliberately renders Genesis 25:18 in awkward English — “In despite of all his kin he went down” — that “reproduces the enigmatic character of the whole clause in the Hebrew.” He notes that the phrase, “in the presence of all his kin [al-p’nei chol-achav],” is found in the blessing of Ishmael (Gen 16:12) and adds that it’s usually translated as “alongside” or “in the face of.” But he also discusses the verse’s final verb, [nafal, נָפָל], which influences how “al-p’nei” is read:

The verb is equally opaque: its most common meaning is “to fall”; some have imagined it has military meaning here (“to attack” or “to raid”); others have construed it as a reference to the “falling” of his inheritance.”
— Alter, The Five Books of Moses. Norton, 2004

Ibn Ezra (12th Century, Spain) suggests that “his portion or his lot fell among his brothers,” while Everett Fox (Schocken, 1995) translates: “…in the presence of all his brothers did [his inheritance] fall.” Many others follow Rashi (11th Century, France) and Genesis Rabbah (62:5) rendering the verb as “dwell” or “camp” or “settle.” The Sefaria Community translation offers: “…he settled facing his brothers.”

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Angels and God’s Face

Maimonides’ goal here, in this “panim/face” chapter, is proving that the biblical expression “face to face,” when applied to an encounter with God, should be understood as “the perception of the Divine voice without intervention of an angel.” Angels are an accepted part of Maimonides’ worldview and a regular element in his discussions. Prophecy by way of angels and dreams, he argues repeatedly, is consistent with a non-corporeal Divine. Receiving a message, without intervention of angel or dream, is a special circumstance in the Bible. That, too, has its limits, however; he goes on to remind readers — citing “And my face (panai) shall not be seen (Exod 33:23) — that God’s “true existence, as it is, cannot be comprehended.”

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LEFT: James Baldwin seated, with his arms resting on his knees, burning cigarette in his left hand; typewriter visible behind his shoulder; curtained window (maybe hotel room). CC BY-SA 4.0 — R. L. Oliver, Los Angeles Times – https://digital.library.ucla.edu/catalog/ark:/21198/zz0002s24h. File:JamesBaldwin1964.jpg. 1 Jan 1964.

RIGHT: portrait of Maimonides wearing, with mustache and beard, in turban and robe, with medallion on ribbon around his neck. Image identified as “traditional portrait” in the public domain. uploaded to WikiCommons by Blaisio Ugolino

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