How to Ground Ecstatic Experience in Human Motivation

27 May
James Baldwin published The Fire Next Time, with its two long essays, in 1963, and its enormous success put Baldwin on the cover of Time Magazine.

James Baldwin published The Fire Next Time in 1963. It contained the long essay, “Down at the Cross,” and a letter to his nephew, “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One-Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation.” After the book’s enormous success, Time put Baldwin on its cover.

One of the great regularities of human existence is that many of us, at one time or another, feel as though we’ve become the conduit for some superhuman energy. The source differs: God, the artistic muses, love, sex, drugs, and probably a host of others. When writing about such experiences, our language must necessarily match the intensity of the moment, relying on metaphor and on diction and syntax that transcend the everyday or commonplace. But when the moment is over, when the essay or story must move on, how does the language (and, therefore, the essay/story itself) come back down to regular life?

James Baldwin’s famous essay, “Down at the Cross,” included in the book The Fire Next Time, contains an astounding moment of spiritual ecstasy and then immediately grounds that experience in human desire and motivation. You can’t read the essay online, but you should go find a copy at the library or bookstore. It contains so many quotable passages and great pieces of writing that to discuss them all would mean excerpting the entire essay.

How the Story Works

Baldwin is writing about a conversion experience that he had as a teenager. His best friend had taken him to his church, and after a summer of increasing sexual confusion, Baldwin was suddenly overcome one day during a church service:

“One moment I was on my feet, singing and clapping and, at the same time, working out in my head the plot of a play I was working on then; the next moment, with no transition, no sensation of falling, I was on my back, with the lights beating down into my face and all the vertical saints above me. I did not know what I was doing down so low, or how I had got there. And the anguish that filled me cannot be described. It moved in me like one of those floods that devastate countries, tearing everything down, tearing children from parents and lovers from each other, and making everything an unrecognizable waste. All I really remember is the pain, the unspeakable pain: it was as though I were yelling up to Heaven and Heaven would not hear me. And if Heaven would not hear me, if love could not descend from Heaven—to wash me, to make me clean—then utter disaster was my portion.”

This is the intense moment of ecstasy that Baldwin experiences, a moment of human relief that he later calls “at once so pagan and so desperate.” He does not understand how, exactly, it happened, and he feels inadequate to the task of describing the sensation of it. So he turns to metaphor: “like one of those floods that devastate countries” and “as though I were yelling up to Heaven and Heaven would not hear me.” It would make sense if this passage came at the end of the essay because how can anyone follow up something so powerful? How can an essay move forward from such a climactic scene?

Here is how Baldwin solves this problem:

“I was saved. But at the same time, out of a deep, adolescent cunning I do not pretend to understand, I realized immediately that I could not remain in the church merely as another worshipper. I would have to give myself something to do, in order not to be to bored and find myself among all the wretched unsaved of the Avenue. And I don’t doubt that I also intended to best my father on his own ground.”

Baldwin may have experienced the divine, but when he gets up off the floor, he’s still human. He’s still baffled by what is happening to him (“a deep, adolescent cunning I do not pretend to understand”), but the force is no longer an unearthly one but, instead, intrinsically human.

This shift from the sublimely divine to human motivation is common in many religious texts. It’s in the Book of Exodus when Moses goes up the mountain to receive the commandments. He’s blasted by the presence of God. Then, he comes back down the mountain and into human desire. His reaction to the carrying-on of his people is purely human as well: he smashes the commandments in anger and then has to go get new ones made. This shift is also present more generally in the New Testament, when Saul gets knocked off his horse and blinded on the road to Damascus. He was a zealot for one cause before the incident, and even though he changed his name to Paul, he remained a zealot afterward, only for a different cause. In both cases, the touch of the divine is interpreted and grounded in human motivation and personality.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s ground a moment of ecstasy in specific human motivation, using the passage from James Baldwin’s essay “Down at the Cross” as a model:

  1. Find a moment of ecstasy. You can write a new one, but what may be better is to find one that you’ve already written in an unfinished draft of a story or essay. These types of moments tend to sit uneasily in our writing. We want to convey how it feels to have such an experience, but we’re often not sure how or where to do it. So, think about the drafts sitting in your proverbial drawer, collecting dust. What moment of ecstasy (intense spiritual, mental, or physical experience that transcends normal, everyday life) have you tried to write about? Find that draft or passage.
  2. Sum up the result of the experience. Usually, the change is something along the lines of “I was a changed person.” The question is what kind of change took place. How were you or your character fundamentally different after the experience than before? Baldwin sums up his experience in three words familiar to any American: “I was saved.”
  3. Explain how that change fits in with the person you inescapably are. Any change worth its salt has a real-world impact, and yet the change almost never results in a reversal so complete that it leaves you unrecognizable. So, when Baldwin writes, “I could not remain in the church merely as another worshipper,” he’s not talking about a result of the change but about a character trait that had been present all along, a refusal to blend in. So, identify a trait in you or your character that is present before the experience and explain how that trait directs your behavior after the change. If you’re stumped, try using the same introductory phrase that Baldwin uses: “I realized immediately…” Follow the idea through to its practical conclusion. So, Baldwin writes, “I would have to give myself something to do, in order not to be to bored and find myself among all the wretched unsaved of the Avenue.” Because he cannot simply go along, because of his active, searching mind, he must engage himself in the change to an exceptional degree. In your piece, think about the ways that you or your character react to the change, in the context of the character trait, in practical and necessary ways.
  4. Explain how the change impacts the dynamics of an existing relationship. While the change might alter the relationship, it might also simply play into the dynamic that exists. So, Baldwin writes, “And I don’t doubt that I also intended to best my father on his own ground.” That tension between father and son already existed, and Baldwin’s experience in the church merely gave that dynamic another way to manifest itself.

Remember, the goal is to ground an experience that seems unreal or unearthly in the very earthly and real life you’re portraying (yours or your character’s).

Good luck!

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