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ALBERT MURRAY SEES AMERICAN CULTURE AS AN incandescent fusion of European, Yankee, frontier, and black. And he sees what he calls the “blues idiom” as the highest expression of that culture.
September 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 5
That’s not his objective. And why should he be in pain over that? You’ve come up in an age of bullshit psychology and psychiatrists, so you think everybody should be sick. I don’t think so. I think the blues is the answer. If you can swing and you’ve got your health, you can get through things. If you view the antagonist as cooperative, struggle becomes opportunity. Is the jazz soloist struggling or is he being creative? Why was Louis Armstrong always smiling? People have had to make something up. “He must have been suffering from something , to create such art!” I didn’t see it. I didn’t see it in Duke. Do you see it in Duke?
• No, he had pretty smooth sailing.
How about Basie?
• Smooth sailing.
Went from one thing to another. Once a guy becomes successful, everybody accuses him of not having to struggle. It’s like Negro basketball players. “Oh, he’s a natural athlete.”
• How can a reader identify with Scooter if everything is so easy for him?
The reader can take him as an ideal. Now the reader’s got someone he could aspire to be like. Scooter has to fail? Every genius failed before he succeeded? I don’t think so.
• It might give the story some drama, some suspense.
If that’s what you’re after, you can write a melodrama. See, a person with a conventional mind would be perfectly happy if the mob ran Scooter out of Hollywood because he’s shacking up with a white woman. I wouldn’t write a story like that. It would wreck the whole thing that I’m getting at, because it becomes civil rights. I’m not writing about civil rights. I’m writing about what happens to a talented—or at any rate, competent—person. If Thomas Mann can write about gifted people, why can’t I? I really don’t see that Scooter has it any easier than [James Joyce’s] Stephen Dedalus.
• Stephen Dedalus sweats a whole lot more.
He’s a jig-cropping Irishman! He can’t swing! You’ve got to tell some stories about some guys who can swing. I mean, that’s a pretty square guy in Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, who, incidentally, was my close friend and literary colleague and who knew exactly what he was doing—namely, writing a conventional Dostoyevsky-type novel. I’m not writing that kind of story. I’m writing about people I admire and identify with, like Duke Ellington. Is self-discipline a matter of suffering?
Scooter does what the protagonist of a farce does: He’s trying to keep his balance and find himself. You want to drag me back into the old stuff. The guy’s got to do this or that? No. He’s having a hell of a time trying to find out what it is he’s supposed to do. You see, you’re looking for the same old story. I have a different perception of life. It’s Cosmos Murray: Scooter and elegance versus entropy. My narrative structure is not geared to a tightly knit plot. It is a picaresque story, more a matter of one thing following another than one thing leading to another. To me, the “and then and then and also and also and next after that” of a picaresque reflects a sensitivity consistent with contemporary knowledge of the universe. The connection between that and the requirements of ongoing improvisation in the jam session should be easy to see.
• So the antagonist is entropy, nothingness, meaninglessness.
Yes. And you don’t have to think of it as evil. It’s as impersonal as nature. Hemingway’s bull is not evil. It’s easy to go into sin versus righteousness, but if you start out with the conception of life as a farce, you’re never really going to win.
• So what’s the point then?
What is the point of life? Nothing. It’s just like grains of sand, except that we have human consciousness, so however many bars we have, we try to make them swing.
• The winner may take nothing, but he’s still the winner.
You’re still clinging to a materialist conception that my work is against! Hemingway doesn’t mean that. He means that what people are brought up to think is a prize is not a prize. You know the whole quotation, right? “The winner shall take nothing; neither his ease, nor his pleasure, nor any notions of glory; nor, if he win far enough, shall there be any reward within himself.” No reward within himself! He doesn’t even achieve a lasting equilibrium.
• But he wins. You’re not going to tell me Hemingway wasn’t a competitive SOB.
You’re confusing the writer with what he wrote. The man has to live up to everything he writes? That’s what I tell people about Jefferson when they go on about him owning slaves. He put the basis for their freedom into the Declaration. Don’t tell me about Thomas Jefferson owning slaves; he wrote the Declaration of Independence.
• So Scooter’s life isn’t about winning or losing.
Just living, man. It’s how many bars can you swing.
• That’s a very, very sobering way of looking at life.