“I had to inhale all the books”: Coates the Canonist

Since Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me dropped a couple of weeks ago, the book has been reviewed by a brigade of critics, including the tidal choruses of Twitter. Most of the serious evaluations have been positive; some are even euphoric. They’re still pouring in, and I’m down with consensus: the man’s prose is exhilarating, his ethical intelligence acute, his historical knowledge vast. The book’s meditation on American racism has immediately become required reading, and I needn’t add to what many other critics have said about that general line of his critique. Here I’d like to focus on a smaller but nevertheless significant aspect of the work: I want to examine the bookworm’s Between the World and Me and speculate briefly on what that says about Coates’s writing mind.

In a recent series of tweets, John Warner (@biblioracle) remarked that in contrast to James Baldwin, to whom he is often compared, Coates has a voice more reminiscent of the classroom than the pulpit. I agree. Granted, Baldwin was just as much of an intellectual, and there is a sermonic element in Coates’s address to his son, but Coates sounds more like Toni Morrison when she’s in critic mode. (A mode where, ironically, she wrote BTWM’s only cover blurb, which names Coates Baldwin’s heir.) He explicitly, repeatedly identifies himself as a reader with catholic tastes, as a self inseparable from an education in books (among other things, of course). BTWM inhabits a corpus of critical theory, much of it “Western,” even though its author, like Malcolm X, the bibliophilic hero of his youth, rejects Eurocentric models of cultural capital that laid claim to this tradition of thought. Plato and Said and Nietzsche and Henry Louis Gates and dozens of other writers inform the book without being openly referenced; others who actually are named, like DuBois and Hurston and Baraka, mark Coates’s entrance into intellectual adulthood. His work underscores the centrality of writing and reading—the centrality of printed texts—to the intellectual equipment of any serious person.

Since childhood, when his mother challenged him to write in response to frustrations, Coates had what he calls “the gift of study” (a gift suppressed in most people.) This readerly gift is the twin of his need to write; and these acts form a critical humanist consciousness. He sees “the craft of writing as the art of thinking.” Writing well requires “a confrontation with my own innocence, my own rationalizations,” for “loose and useless words [a]re not separate from loose and useless thoughts.” Speaking of “the art of journalism,” he deems it “a powerful technology for seekers,” a claim that can be generalized to all ambitious writing. His version of the Socratic examined life is fundamentally textual.

Further, Coates is a canonist. Not in the normative way that, say, Harold Bloom or Matthew Arnold are, because they see canon-formation and maintenance as primarily an Anglo project; but rather in terms of a basic belief that some texts really are better than almost all others and thus worth passing along to younger generations first. To be sure, he envisions a democratic canon which is constantly interrogated and supplemented, but he’s still a Great Books man. Canonicity is a principle, not a specific roster of content.

The canon isn’t the possession of any particular institution, not even Coates’s beloved Howard. When he began working out his canon, he drew upon the frameworks and resources of the university but remained a free agent “made for the library, not the classroom.” His emerging archive of Great Books flowed into what he calls Mecca, the embodied network of black knowledge, imagination, and experience that encompasses and exceeds the school. Mecca is a lifeworld, is all the breathing human treasure of the African diaspora, a diaspora that called him to read everything he could and cull meaning from the pile. At Howard’s Moorland library, he began to understand that “My reclamation would be accomplished, like Malcolm’s, through books, through my own study and exploration.”

His theory and practice of the library rest on the idea of an ecumenical canon where “Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus,” a quip he borrows from the journalist Ralph Wiley (who was responding to Saul Bellow’s dickhead quip that Zulu culture produced no literary consciousness). The canon is fluid and sometimes internally contradictory—he calls it “the discordant tradition”—because the examined life is like that, too. Being “politically conscious” entails “a constant questioning, questioning as ritual, questioning as exploration rather than the search for certainty.” Shades of Lionel Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination here. Indeed, canonicity enables inquiry in the first place, inquiry which in turn permits modifications of the canon. I suspect Coates and T.S. Eliot would disagree about a lot of things, but here they are brothers. Between the World and Me embeds historical and political critique in a continuum of reading just as Eliot’s essay “Tradition and Individual Talent” conceptualizes literature as a dialectic between a textual canon and the authorial self.

Coates is also a materialist. Our physical bodies do not merely house preexisting souls, they somehow engender these souls. Mind is brain, brain is mind. There is no God nor any consolatory, absolute form of meaning. History has no telos–“the god of history is an atheist,” Coates assures his son. We, and in particular people who live under assault, as African Americans do, have only an endless struggle to be honest about the past, live with dignity in the present, and perhaps imagine the slow possibility of better futures.

“I tell you now that the question of how one should live within a black body, within a country lost in the Dream,” he writes, “is the question of my life, and the pursuit of this question, I have found, ultimately answers itself.” We have “constant interrogation” of and “confrontation with the brutality” that constitutes American history. His fundamental aim, then, is embodied critique: a representation of what it is like to be an American reader and writer with black skin.

Reading, writing, and thinking: these are physical acts for Coates, and in their concreteness they oppose what he calls the Dream, the normative national story in which America is an innocent, uniquely beneficent place predicated on a healthy bank balance of whiteness, which is less a skin tone than an existential ideal. “The Dream thrives on generalizations,” he warns, “on limiting the number of possible questions, on privileging immediate answers. The Dream is the enemy of all art, courageous thinking, and honest writing.” One of the most trenchant aspects of Between the World and Me is how it enlists the idea of Great Books in a counterattack on the very white-dominant narrative that has long claimed canonicity for itself–that, in fact, has treated print culture in general as an Anglo-European property. This countering move continues a campaign begun by earlier black intellectuals like Henry Louis Gates and Stanley Crouch.

You should buy a copy of BTWM, because it’s a rare honor when you can help a legit thinker get paid. Dude deserves millions. But I hope to look back in fifty years and find the text to be just one part of the Coates wing of the great unfolding American library. Poetry, claims Wallace Stevens, is the scholar’s art. So is the kind of fire Coates has been writing for a half-decade now. The man stores his gunpowder on the bookshelf.

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2 thoughts on ““I had to inhale all the books”: Coates the Canonist

  1. Pingback: Cormac McCarthy’s Mostly White, Male Mythology: Rethinking the Canon | the becoming radical

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