Thursday, December 12, 2013

there isn’t any other tale to tell

This is a blog about art and how it threads through my life—how it echoes and provokes, baffles and annoys, lifts me up and saves me over and over.

I know you probably thought it was a blog about cancer and my bad attitude toward, well, many things.

I’m teaching an undergrad writing workshop right now, in which my students and I read “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin. It’s kind of the story of the ant and the grasshopper, as told by someone with sympathy for both of them. The ant—the older of two brothers—narrates. He teaches high school in a rough Harlem neighborhood, where he’s survived by keeping his head down and working hard. His brother Sonny is a jazz musician with a drug problem that lands him in jail for a time.

Jacob Lawrence's Cafe Comedian.
The older brother doesn’t get why Sonny needs to escape into the oblivion of heroin or the cryptic notes of non-Louis-Armstrong-style jazz until his own daughter dies of polio. Then his brother’s music becomes a kind of primal scream for him—the thing that expresses human suffering and also lifts him out of it. The inherently fleeting nature of the lift—that ability to see God only in one’s peripheral vision—is the beauty and the tragedy of music, of life.

I said: “But there’s no way not to suffer—is there, Sonny?”

“I believe not,” he said, and smiled, “but that’s never stopped anyone from trying.” He looked at me. “Has it?... But you try all kinds of ways to keep from drowning in it, to keep on top of it, and to make it seem—well like you. Like you did something, all right, and now you’re suffering for it…. Maybe it’s better to do something and give it a reason, any reason.”

The older brother tries to avoid suffering in the way that I do, by believing it’s his job to suffer and taking the blows. Sonny is trying to say, I think, that just trying to make sense of the universe is a form of magical thinking, a desperate attempt at salvation. I’m not sure if I’ve totally got it, but, well, sometimes I tell myself that it’s my job to fold my hands and wait humbly as everyone I know has babies. Like I’ll show the universe how good I am. Except that won’t get me a baby any faster than throwing a screaming fit would (lord knows I’ve tried this too). The nature of suffering—even my small, first-world, gratitude-infused suffering—is that it is impartial to how you handle it.

Jacob Lawrence's Ironers.
So what does that leave us? What can we all have? Music. Art. Baldwin says it better than I ever could, and so “Sonny’s Blues” feels to me like the most beautiful and spiritual story I’ve ever read.

One of my students said it was a cautionary tale about heroin. I think it actually makes a really good case for heroin, or at least explains better than anything why someone would do it.

Here are some of my favorite quotes:

[These boys] were filled with rage. All they really knew were two darknesses, the darkness of their lives, which was now closing in on them, and the darkness of the movies, which had blinded them to that other darkness, and in which they now, vindictively, dreamed, at once more together than they were at any other time, and more alone.

Did anyone ever describe the internet age better?

The darkness outside is what the old folks have been talking about. It’s what they’ve come from. It’s what they endure. The child knows that they won’t talk any more because if he knows too much about what’s happened to them, he’ll know too much too soon, about what’s going to happen to him.

Did anyone ever describe age better?

And then, this prayer in the form of an artist’s statement:

Creole began to tell us what the blues were all about. They were not about anything very new. He and his boys up there were keeping it new, at the risk of ruin, destruction, madness, and death, in order to find new ways to make us listen. For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it must always be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.

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