The Omni-american

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In nine books, irrespective of genre—in South to a Very Old Place , with its stylish, playful flow, in Train Whistle Guitar , with its knottily graceful, razor-sharp evocations, in Stomping the Blues , driving home its argument in one subtly shaded verbal riff after another, in The Hero and the Blues and its merciless logic, in these and his other works—Murray has made his mark for the ages.

Let’s start with some of your basic ideas. Tell me about your concept of the different levels of artistic activity.

Sure. Art is the process by which raw experience is stylized into aesthetic statement. Now, that process can take place on three levels. There’s the folk level, which is the illiterate level. There’s the pop level, which has the widest appeal. It can range from the folk to the most highly refined, so the pop artist has the broadest resources, but his bane is ephemerality. The highest level is fine art. That’s the ultimate extension, elaboration, and refinement. If you understand what goes into creating jazz, the degree of sophistication involved, you realize that it’s a fine art.

But jazz has its origins in the first, folk level.

Of course. Everything starts there. Bach and Beethoven, Shakespeare and Goethe came out of barbarians and peasants, those Celts and Saxons and people from the steppes. It all starts on an ignorant level. As you develop a greater mastery of your means of stylization—more technique, more sophistication in your perceptions—you move to another level. When jazz was the popular music, Duke Ellington was writing “Echoes of Harlem,” which goes beyond popular music. Somewhat like Shakespeare, who was writing popular plays—otherwise he couldn’t have gotten that many people into the theater—but whose development took him beyond pop feedback into the realm of sophisticated taste and intellectual refinement.

THE MOST effective, most sophisticated stylization of the American spirit is found in jazz.”

• You see the artist as an educator.

Yes. Here’s a quotation from my book The Hero and the Blues : “As he turns page after page, following the fortunes of the storybook hero, the reader is as deeply engaged in the educative process as if he were an apprentice in a workshop. Indeed, he is an apprentice, and his workshop includes the whole range of human possibility and endeavor. His task is to learn from the example of journeymen and master craftsmen such skills as not only will enable him to avoid confusion and destruction, but also will enhance his own existence as well as that of human beings everywhere.”

• What is your quarrel with the social sciences as the basis of education?

Oversimplification of motive. Questionable underlying assumptions. The social function of literature, of all art, is to help the individual come to terms with himself upon the earth, to help him confront the deepest, most complex questions of life. You see? The human proposition! If you deal with sociological concepts, you never deal with the basic complexity of life. You reduce everything to social and political problems, stuff like whether or not the red ants like the brown ants. The storyteller is not someone who tries to solve a voting problem or some type of social problem. The guy wasn’t trying to solve some political problem in Elizabethan England when he was writing Hamlet . You get what I’m saying?

When you look at the deeper and much more complicated personal problems, you’ll find that the oldest answers are still the answers. There’s nothing outdated about fairy tales, about legends, about the religious holy books, and so forth. When you know how to decode them and apply them to your life—well, you approach wisdom.

• What’s an example of a novel that you would fault as having a social science point of view? Richard Wright’s Native Son ?

Exactly. It’s based on Marxist ideology. It’s based on the idea that an oppressed person will become a dangerous animal. Where does Murray take issue with that? Murray’s got what he thinks is a more basic concept—that you also can be made , or developed, not simply destroyed, by adversity. In other words, the concept of antagonistic cooperation. No dragons, no heroes; no temptations, no saints.

• What is the blues idiom?

It’s an attitude of affirmation in the face of difficulty, of improvisation in the face of challenge. It means you acknowledge that life is a low-down dirty shame yet confront that fact with perseverance, with humor, and, above all, with elegance.