Another Country (1962)

James Baldwin: A Voice Forged out of the Fire

James Baldwin quote on Hate
James Baldwin on Hate

The film ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ premiered at the London Film Festival in 2018 with director Barry Jenkins and his crew answering questions. Jenkins is a Scorpio and I was curious to know why he was the one to bring James Baldwin to the screen. So I checked the synastry. Jenkin’s Ascendant, North Node and Jupiter all conjunct Baldwin’s  Moon/Mercury conjunction in Virgo. Jenkins felt called to be the promoter of Baldwin’s work through the medium of film. There is a happy design in these alignments that only astrology can describe.

Barry Jenkins
Barry Jenkins at the London Film Festival (2018)

‘Beale Street’ is a story about first love and injustice towards a young black man. What astonishes me is that it has taken this long for Baldwin to appear in film and to gain recognition.  ‘Beale Street’ is the first time this has happened.  I had always thought it would be ‘Another Country’ (1962) instead- a more complex story. The ‘Beale Street’ story does  not contain any gay characters. Baldwin’s second novel, ’Giovanni’s Room’(1956) does not contain any black characters. Baldwin exercised the regal prerogative of the writer to be as omniscient as he felt appropriate.

 

‘Giovanni’s Room’ was written from a distance to the USA, when Baldwin was in Paris. It is now regarded as an LGBTQ classic though it contains self-hating characters, it reveals exactly how a person can be completely unaware of their own suppressed desires and how that might mark their life forever with a disturbing guilt. The metaphor can be extended beyond sexuality to Americans and how their view their history. Baldwin invested his unease into this book about being gay but into a white protagonist, a blond American called David.  His was a very complex sexuality. Baldwin didn’t like being put in boxes. He used literature in its cross-race and cross-sexual capacity where the author can create characters who are not the author, neither the skin colour or the sexual orientation. Though tone of Baldwin resides in David, how he is at the point of question his conflicted position, neither one nor the other. It was a courageous choice for a young writer in the 1950s and even today would be bold.

James Baldwin
James Baldwin

Baldwin was born in New York in 1924. There is no known birth time but a lot can be gleaned from the planetary positions of that day.  His sun in Leo is blessed with a trine from Jupiter in Sagittarius. His is a well-situated Mercury, being in the sign of Virgo.The Moon is conjunct Mercury lending him the power of his words to reach the public at large. But it is also trine both Venus which means also sextile the Moon. He was master of  beautiful prose- beauty in its truthful mode,  not in its prettiness- that touches people to the core which was the result.  As a writer his range included plays, novels, essays and often overlooked was his immense skill as an orator. In debates he had few rivals. Listen to his triumph over William Buckley Jnr in this debate from the Cambridge union England in 1965. He mastered that skill of being ultra-cool while being at the same time absolute master of rhetoric and thus very persuasive. He received a standing ovation.

Professor of English at Yale, Caryll Phillips, believes that the rise of Baldwin’s star again should not astonish anyone. He said “I think the person who has probably articulated what it means to be an American and what it means to be black, with more eloquence than anybody else in the last century, is Baldwin.” I think the claim is deserved.  The Moon/Mercury alignment happens to be opposite Mars in Pisces in the 5th house, so Baldwin certainly had no lack of creative tension and inner fire from which to draw inspiration for his work. His Mars is also trine to Venus, and his artistry is visibly captured in an aesthetic. He was cool and smart, both a hedonist and an intellectual. People commented on his ‘elegance’ and ‘poise’. He could drink whiskey, laugh loud, and he could even sing.

Baldwin is strong on emotions with so many planets in water signs, so he could build up enormous steam and affect people on a visceral level. Yet he spoke in the most urbane and charming tones.  Both Cardinal and Mutable are strong but the Fixed modality is less so. He was adaptable and clever and probably one of the most astute observers what was going on during the Civil Rights movement.  Put him in the witness box and you would get the full and human story.

There is a theory that unaspected planets act in willful ways, could be repressed and operate as an inferior function that causes trouble in life.  It also acts like a singleton planet, a point of focus, of ambivalence. Baldwin had Pluto without aspects in Cancer, and while some say it applies only to personal planets, he did become the greatest critic of his home country, spitting out fire and brimstone in his critiques of  the United States. He claimed this was really ‘love’. This critique was in the hope that it would change and that black people could claim back their human dignity of which they had been robbed. Perhaps he did not feel secure in the USA, but only in the south of France where he was at least anonymous and which was close to his Venus on the Descendant in astrocartography. It might also suggest some power and control issues of feeling insecure. Also, he died of stomach cancer. Pluto is in the sign of Cancer which rules the stomach.

He was a fine speaker, unsparingly honest, yet ironic, incendiary and often moving. He dissected the social wounds of American society – its blindness to its own moral dilemmas. He was a natural in the limelight, in front of a microphone and camera, and his writing even had an actor’s tone, and flourish. In another great speech at Berkley (1979) about being black he is provoking but also humorous with expert pacing.  His flow and tone of his prose  had the rhythms of the bible; it is also steeped in the Blues and Jazz and he said of black people in America, sons and daughters of slaves,“we forged ourselves out of this fire.”

He called the USA  “this melancholy country… just ask any Indian” and the word he used was ‘genocide.’ He knew about real pain with that Saturn exalted in Libra. He had that tone of natural authority when he spoke and people paid attention adopting the role of disciples. He sought to discover what connects you to other people and he said that ‘only suffering affords illumination’. Life through the eyes of Jimmy Baldwin was passionate. He said that the goal of the artist is to find your identity. This is the journey of the sun in Leo- to find its purpose along the yellow brick road, to reveal its narrative through life. He also said that when you are young you create personalities to take the weight of experience but they crumble and this falls back on who you ‘really’ are, so his process was to achieve greater and greater authenticity – so to avoid “identity that will not bear the noonday sun.” This is the Libra Saturn speaking.  These are at the same time the words of a Leo-father speaking to the nation that disowned him.

James Baldwin and Nina Simone
James Baldwin and Nina Simone

Baldwin had Saturn holding the scales, adjudicating the law about relationships, giving everyone fair play, being the suave diplomat but this  Saturn is also opposed by Chiron in Aries where it stays longer than any other sign. So he was enveloped in suffering and teaching everyone how suffering can elevate the soul. At aged 14 he overheard his parents reveal that his father was not his biological father.  It was a secret not meant to be told and it had a shock impact.  The Libran flavor to  Saturn also made him extra loyal, as Leos usually are to friends and lovers alike- just more so with this placement. He was loyal to Lucien Happersberger the Swiss artist with whom he had an on off affair/friendship that lasted a life time. Happersberger was a Virgo so his sun was most likely close to Baldwin’s Moon/Mercury. They remained friends even after Lucien married Diana Sands who had acted in one of Baldwin’s plays. Baldwin’s list of friends speaks for itself: Marlon Brando, Yves Montand, Miles Davis, Ray Charles,  Nina Simone, Beauford Delaney, Josephine Baker and Margueritte Yourcenar. These were not just celebrities he happened to meet, but people who loved to be with him, spend time with him and bathe in his Leonian light.

Another Country (1962)
Another Country’ (1962)

Baldwin developed into a kindly but stern shaman, visibly embodying the collective pain of being an exceptionally articulate black man in a country that did not want that type of person, even less know what to do with him. He took on the dramatic role of translator of pain, being expert witness to the murkiness of the social and political turmoil. Being black and gay automatically confers upon you the Chiron experience of wounding and vulnerability in a society that vilifies you twice over: once for your skin colour in a white-dominated culture, and second for sexual orientation which allegedly compromises your masculinity. Today, this is very real: it is young gay black men who have the highest probability of committing suicide in the UK. It was no coincidence to me that the lead character in Barry Jenkins’ other film, ‘Moonlight,’(2017) is called Chiron. Baldwin described the character of Rufus in ‘Another Country’ as the ‘black corpse floating in the national psyche’. This image is striking as it fuses both Chiron and Neptune into its theme of loss and sacrifice. Rufus jumps off a bridge and kills himself.

Jimmy Baldwin could make sense of the ambiguities, especially the sexual, as this Saturn in Libra is conjunct the Muse asteroid Erato, inspirer of erotic poetry. Younger blacks needed to hear Baldwin’s message embodied in ‘Giovanni’s Room’ and ‘Another Country’ decades ago, and still need to hear it. These words in the quote only hint at what he was capable ‘Hatred … never failed to destroy the man who hated”.  With new books and documentaries being published, Baldwin’s influence is now sinking in deeper than ever.

He regarded himself as an artist, and for a Leo the world was certainly a painter’s canvas and an actor’s stage, but he was also visibly an activist who did not fall prey to partisan politics. He was instrumental in the civil rights movement, and an important contributor to its goals, but he skillfully stayed on the sidelines. This is hard for a Leo, to gracefully play second fiddle to the lead actors, but at least he did not get assassinated like Malcolm X, Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King, all of whom he knew personally. Politics was crucial to him, but he also spoke more like a Stoical philosopher and saw through to a deeper humanity. He wasn’t afraid to quote Nietzsche -another firebrand who wrote incendiary essays – who said “I stand before my highest mountain and my longest journey and therefore must descend deeper than ever”  He meant to descend into the quagmire of race relations in the USA. This gave Baldwin a prophetic edge. He was conscious of the privilege of his role in shaping society, yet he was criticized for this touch of bombast by contemporary black authors who failed to see his style had the rhetorical power and genuine honesty that keeps people reading today.

James Baldwin 1972
James Baldwin in 1972

There’s also a touch of the Promethean in Baldwin. Prometheus is associated with Uranus. He defied the gods to bring fire to humans in order to enable them too to become like gods. Baldwin’s Uranus is saturated in the deep waters of Pisces yet fizzing with psychic profundity. This Uranus is trine to his MC making that ‘wake up and think’ part of his public reputation.  His book of essays about race ‘The Fire Next Time’ (1963) can still read as if commenting on 21st century shootings of young black men in various hoods of the USA. Now that there is more tolerance for his being gay,  Baldwin’s influence is expanding with younger writers making more direct hommage to Baldwin. See the work of authors such as Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jesmyn Ward whose books engage with Baldwin’s ideas in a fresh way for the new generation.

His thoughts on death resonate like an Old Testament prophet from ‘The Fire Next Time’:

“Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. 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, the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death–ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life. One is responsible for life: It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return.” 

What happened to Baldwin in the black movement was that he was  tolerated, but regarded as dangerously ‘unreliable’ just as Baldwin poses David in ‘Giovanni’s Room’ as unreliable narrator. For the black movement, Baldwin not black enough because he slept with white men i.e. the ‘enemy’ and that was considered ‘a problem’.  Yet ironically, Baldwin has turned out to be a strong, beguilingly humane, yet still angry ‘voice’ that called for justice. The very reason we are reading him today is that this voice is reasonable, forceful, ironic, probing and intelligent, not strident or completely off-balance. I note that this sun was conjunct the asteroid Minerva, represented by the owl, and he had an owlish look as his was a very strategic and subtle kind of wisdom- the kind associated with Minerva. He was not the obvious leader then, but from the 21st century vantage point, he is.

with Marlon Brando, Civil Rights March 1963
Baldwin and Brando, 1963

I have been reading Baldwin for decades and dip back in from time to time- very good to do in this current Mercury Retrograde in Leo. He was small – only 5ft 6 inches- but he looms larger than life with the Jupiter in fiery Sagittarius, and the Mercury giving his wizardy with his craft of words. He would have been a great and ‘mercurial’ raconteur to have at the dinner table- entertaining and thought-provoking. It is hard to say what makes him stand out: his blackness obviously, and the big Leo heart, and the distinctive voice. There have not been many like him who can cross these boundaries forbidden to others -from gay to straight, from black to white, appealing to males and females equally. His appeal eschews empty labels.

His oratory alone puts him among the greats- better than Winston Churchill as Baldwin could improvise a great speech without notes. His prose also is stately, very socially aware, designed also to be read aloud. Jenkin’s film of ‘Beale Street’ uses an accomplished music score to create a mood of love in the manner of Hong Kong director, Won Kar Wei. The tones are saturated brown and blue and earthy and the effect is moving. In 1964, bisexual director, Tony Richardson, planned to make  Baldwin’s novel ‘Another Country’ into a film with Baldwin’s script, and I would have loved to see that project come to fruition. But sadly, it was never made.

Chart James Baldwin
Baldwin natal chart

The last word about him has to be that he was compassionate and humane storyteller. Neptune is strong in Leo widely conjunct his sun, and closely conjunct his North Node. One of his stated goals was to write like Henry James with “perception at the pitch of passion”. This he certainly did- just read the scene of how David first meets and beds Giovanni, for example- but there is a greater goal which was the preacher with an avuncular twinkle in his eye, to say that love should not stop at the personal. The love of his black brothers and sisters extended graciously and without hesitation to white people, then extended beyond to embrace everyone into a love of all humankind.

©Proteus Astrology, August 2nd, 2019

 

 

www.proteusastrology.co.uk

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Kieron Devlin

 

London-based and trained astrologer at Proteus Astrology on Facebook:

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He writes for Celestial Vibes Magazine edited by Aswin Balaj.

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