Although they were contemporaries and lived in the same city for a good chunk of their lives, I have not been able to find out whether Jean-Paul Sartre and James Baldwin met in person. There is anecdotal evidence that Baldwin did not appreciate his early mentor, Richard Wright’s, friendship with Sartre and Beauvoir. But his name is mentioned alongside the towering figures of “Black existentialism”, e.g. W. E. B. Du Bois, Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright himself.
What brought these two names together in my mind was the angst of going back home, or to the place I considered my home until quite recently. It was the dread of returning to Lund after three “love-filled” weeks in Barcelona, the profound emotional distress that the once distantly caring Sweden nurtures in me, that led me to a passage in Baldwin’s 1956 novel, Giovanni’s Room:
“Would you rather go to Italy? Would you rather visit your home?” He smiled. “I do not think I have a home there anymore.” And then: “No. I would not like to go to Italy – perhaps, after all, for the same reason you do not want to go to the United States.” “But I am going to the United States,” I said, quickly. And he looked at me. “I mean, I’m certainly going to go back there one of these days.” “One of these days,” he said. “Everything bad will happen – one of these days.” “Why is it bad?” He smiled, “Why, you will go home and then you will find that home is not home anymore. Then you will really be in trouble. As long as you stay here, you can always think: One day I will go home.” He played with my thumb and grinned. “N’est-ce pas?” “Beautiful logic,” I said. “You mean I have a home to go to as long as I don’t go there?” He laughed. “Well, isn’t it true? You don’t have a home until you leave it and then, when you have left it, you never can go back.” “I seem,” I said, “to have heard this song before.” “Ah, yes,” said Giovanni, “and you will certainly hear it again. It is one of those songs that somebody somewhere will always be singing.”
While re-reading and reflecting on these words, Sartre famous aphorism – one that my father liked to use as an essay question in his exams – hit me. “Hell is other people”. I am too tired to discuss what Sartre meant by this, but I will, some day. For now, I take it literally. As someone who has devoted his career to thinking about identity and belonging, I am obviously aware that what makes home “home” is family, friends, significant others – among other things of course. And it is true that I have lost many of the ties that bind over the last couple of months. Not that I regret losing them. Several years’ worth of emotional and material investment going down the drain just like that, but, at the end of the day, good riddance. It was meant to be, one way or another. True friends will remain, and I still owe a great deal to those who disappeared or will have to disappear soon, for being there for me when it mattered.
And yet, as one of the protagonists in Baldwin’s novel put it, “home is not home anymore”. Will I be able to give Sweden another chance? Will Sweden give me another chance? I don’t know. Do I have the energy to start over? Am I willing to set out on yet another journey to find a new home? I am not sure. I am old(er) and I am tired.
Does one need a home? Or can the longing for home be replaced by ever-changing, temporary homes, where loved ones can be found? Now, these are not rhetorical questions.