The Cheevers and the Baldwins


baldwin brando

Found at the Y, in a New York Times Magazine piece about Mary Cheever:

According to him [the fiction writer John Cheever], their issues [marital conflicts] are myriad: He wants to have sex all the time, for example, and she wants to have sex almost none of the time. He acknowledges, in fairness to Mary, that he is quite often impotent—ostensibly because he has a ferocious appetite for alcohol and perhaps because he finds himself lusting steadily, irrepressibly, after men.

Here, in less than 60 words, is a whole history of sex, and perhaps of literature, in the United States. (See as well, Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises.) I am now waiting for a daring writer to explore what it felt like for Mrs. Cheever to be in bed and having sex with a man who was drunk, physically dysfunctional, and wishing she were a man.

Found online in an excerpt from a book about James Baldwin: 

In his nonfiction work, The Devil Finds Work, Baldwin writes that his father [David Baldwin, his stepfather in fact] accused him of being the “ugliest boy he had ever seen.” Baldwin “had absolutely no reason to doubt him,” besides, his “father’s hatred” of his “frog-eyes” was not really a dig against him. He had his mother’s eyes. When his father called him ugly, “he was not attacking” him but his mother, Berdis Baldwin (and his biological father too?). For David Baldwin, James was his mother’s sin; his eyes functioned like the mark of Cain, . . . When he, however, as a small boy, 10 or 11, saw megastar Bette Davis on the big-screen—“pop-eyes popping”—he felt he “had caught [his] father, not in a lie, but in an infirmity. For, here, before [him], after all, was a movie star: white: and if she was white and a movie star, and was rich: and she was ugly.”

While I agree with the scientists who say that the human brain was an accident of evolution and will likely soon enough prove to have put homo sapiens at too much of a disadvantage to survive, . . . Still, this week I can be thankful to have a brain, reading and reflecting capacities included, so that I can wallow in the complexities of life, of writing, and of the human psyche and society.

Bette Davis

Among the wonderful observations of Freud’s Das Unbehagen in der Kultur (Civilization and Its Discontents; in James Strachey’s translation):

Life, as we find it, is too hard for us; it brings us too many pains, disappointments.  In order to bear it we cannot dispense with palliative measures. . . .   There are perhaps three such measures: powerful deflections, which cause us to make light of our misery; substitutive satisfactions, which diminish it; and intoxicating substances, which make us insensitive to it.

We can of course understand what Freud meant, and what he meant writing as a Jew in Vienna in 1930! But this particular week of 2015 has made me think that those hard times (and long hours listening to suffering people?) caused Freud to ignore just how satisfying and intoxicating one of our palliative measures can be. I am not thinking of sex or love, which he discusses in his text, but of reading. This week I have in mind these two rich, reverberating fragments about the Cheevers and the Baldwins.


Credits & Links

Top photo: Marlon Brando with James Baldwin at the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington.

Second photo: Bette Davis.

Sara Corbett, “Mary Cheever: She stayed with him despite everything,” New York Times Magazine, 21 December 2014. Corbett’s article was part of, and can be found within, The Lives They Lived, an excellent set of short pieces on people who died in 2014. My son recommends the piece on Red Klotz, whose basketball team lost 14,000 times (to the Harlem Globetrotters). As the writer Sam Dolnick puts it, “Red Klotz made losing his life’s work.” Many people, famous and not, have done a lot worse.

Josiah Ulysses Young III, James Baldwin’s Understanding of God: Overwhelming Desire and Joy (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

James Baldwin, The Devil Finds Work (Vintage International, 2011).

Along with the excerpt from Young’s book, my Baldwin searching also led me to an excellent Ebony piece from July 2013: The Fire This Time: James Baldwin on George Zimmerman. The descriptive subhead: “Joshua Adams says the legendary writer’s likely response to the killing of Trayvon Martin and subsequent acquittal of Zimmernan can be found in one of [Baldwin’s] most famed works.”

Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, translated by James Strachey (W. W. Norton, Reprint edition, 2010).

The original title of this piece was Does reading interrupt life, or life reading? But that is also the title of a set of one- and two-liners from, December 2013.

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