I’m constantly thinking about “elsewhere.” My favorite stanza from W.H. Auden’s “Fall of Rome” is the final one where, after having catalogued the corruptions and disasters of a dying civilization, he writes:
Altogether elsewhere, vast
Herds of reindeer move across
Miles and miles of golden moss,
Silently and very fast.
The first time I visited Tokyo—actually, every time I visit Tokyo—I have the same experience. It’s in this sea of strangers whose language I do not speak and whose customs I do not understand and whose culture I gaze at in total bewilderment that, somehow, I always run into myself. I don’t know how else to explain it. Only there, where difference is total and complete, do I ever feel like I am in genuine contact with myself, whatever that is and whatever that means.
So this chapter in Glaude’s story about Baldwin, called “Elsewhere,” has been particularly fascinating, as it recounts Baldwin’s life in Paris and, more importantly, in Istanbul, where he wrote much of his best work and lived more fully in himself, though he never learned the language and remained and outsider. But Baldwin eventually, I think, finds that “elsewhere” within himself, and Glaude extends the lesson to us all in a brilliant passage that I’ve copied into my journals for reference when I feel trapped or unable to make any sort of difference here: