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The Omni-american

June 2024
22min read

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.


WHEN HE WAS SEVENTY, ALBERT MURRAY SCUTTLED AROUND MANHATTAN with the energy of a far younger man. A decade later, two spinal operations having cruelly diminished his orbit, Murray needs one of those four-pronged aluminum canes to inch down a sidewalk, bitter punishment for a naturally impatient man. Albert Murray’s big, handsome grin, which turns a listener into a coconspirator in whatever iconoclasm he is hatching at the moment, gets flashed less often now.


WHEN HE WAS SEVENTY, ALBERT MURRAY SCUTTLED AROUND MANHATTAN with the energy of a far younger man. A decade later, two spinal operations having cruelly diminished his orbit, Murray needs one of those four-pronged aluminum canes to inch down a sidewalk, bitter punishment for a naturally impatient man. Albert Murray’s big, handsome grin, which turns a listener into a coconspirator in whatever iconoclasm he is hatching at the moment, gets flashed less often now. Still, Murray keeps his pique pretty much under control (there is too much to do). One day last summer he journeyed to a lower Fifth Avenue show room. Since Murray spends most of his time in chairs, a good one is vitally important. “Something,” he said, disarming the suave salesman with that smile, “something that’ll let me write two, three more books.”

Albert Murray didn’t publish a book until he was fifty-four. A fellow who prides himself on being at home anywhere in the Western world, a connoisseur of Paris’s sights and sounds as well as New York’s, he was too busy accumulating experiences and perceptions to work at getting them down on paper. When he finally did, the books came in a flood, nine in twenty-five years: the essay collection The Omni-Americans (1970); the autobiographical travelogue South to a Very Old Place (1971); three lectures on art titled The Hero and the Blues (1973); an essay on jazz called Stomping the Blues (1976); Good Morning Blues , Count Basic’s auto-biography, as told to Murray (1985); a fictional trilogy, Train Whistle Guitar (1974), The Spyglass Tree (1991), and The Seven League Boots (just published); and a second essay collection, The Blue Devils of Nada , also just out.


In a fairer world (which he doesn’t expect; life, he loves to repeat,is nothing but a “low-down dirty shame”), Albert Lee Murray, who became an octogenarian last May, would be prized as one of our great men of letters, a polymath whose immediate concerns may be American culture and jazz music, but whose glance takes in the entire sweep of Western history, literature, and art. To the extent that Murray is known, it is as the theorist of (and coiner of the term) omni-Americanism , which holds that American culture is composite at its core, that black and white Americans are each other’s cultural ancestors. But Murray’s ideas about our common heritage, as fascinating and fruitful as they are, are a mere byproduct of his primary goal: to understand the nature of art and to defend artistic activity as a basic, utterly indispensable response to the human condition.

THERE’S A richness in the Negro response to adversity.... We invented the blues; Europeans invented psychoanalysis.”

MURRAY’S LIFE STORY doesn’t strike him as improbable, though it is: to him it’s just a piece of what he calls “America’s incontestably mulatto culture.” Born out of wedlock in 1916, he was adopted by an Alabama working couple and given a happy childhood in a neighborhood outside Mobile known as Magazine Point. Bright and curious, he was earmarked early by teachers and sent to the Mobile County Training School (whose principal, Benjamin Francis Baker, was the sort of model of passionate turn-of-the-century rectitude Murray’s lifelong friend Ralph Ellison repeatedly memorialized in essays: ramrod-straight educators, the sons and daughters of slaves, tirelessly and in near-total obscurity steering the grandchildren of slaves into America’s mainstream).

Booker T. Washington was only two decades dead when Murray enrolled in Washington’s school, the Tuskegee Institute (Ellison, a mysterious, alluring upper-classman, was already there), where he would later teach. Losing himself in the library stacks, he devoured the entire Western canon—but especially Mann, Joyce, Proust, Hemingway, Malraux, and Faulkner, cultivating, meanwhile, an expert taste in what was then black popular music—Ellington’s, Basic’s, and Armstrong’s jazz—and becoming as much of a fashion plate as limited means allowed. He saw no incongruity in a black crosstie-cutter’s son from Alabama aspiring to the literate elegance he pored over in the pages of his favorite magazine, the then brand-new Esquire .

Murray used a career in the Air Force (he left a major) to become a world traveler. Stationed in Morocco in the mid-fifties, he hopped the Mediterranean to Paris, Rome, and Athens, sampling their cafés and cultural treasures. Shipped to Massachusetts, he became a habitué of Cambridge jazz- and book-loving circles. He already had haunted late-forties Manhattan while earning a master’s degree at New York University.

In 1962 he and his wife, Mozelle, and daughter, Michele, settled in New York City. There he remained, pursuing his writer’s vocation in earnest and cultivating friendships with New York-based jazz musicians from Ellington to Wynton Marsalis, whose intellectual development Murray has overseen in almost fifteen years of discussions, arguments, and bull sessions. Murray serves on the board of directors of Jazz at Lincoln Center, which doesn’t begin to indicate his impact on the influential concert series. He is its philosopher-in-residence.

Murray’s thought isn’t hard to summarize; one of the admirable things about the set of ideas he unshyly calls Cosmos Murray is that it is a cosmos. His views add up to a cohesive, elegant whole, making him a rarity in today’s attenuated intellectual world: a system builder, a visionary in the grand manner.

He grounds his thought in the notion of literature as “equipment for living,” not a disinterested contemplation of the world but an active engagement with it. The basic literary motive, says Murray—storytelling—inheres in every human being; indeed, without inventing stories and metaphors to order our raw experience, we would be unable to function. The artist, playing, improvising, shaping, becomes the model for the rest of us, who struggle to wrest meaning from the flux and chaos that underpin our lives, our brief term on earth. The artists with the clearest vision of the nothingness at the heart of human existence, Hemingway, Mann, and Malraux, make up Murray’s pantheon, into which he inducts a fourth member, Ellington.

JAZZ, IN FACT, PROVIDES MURRAY WITH HIS KEY concept, the “blues idiom,” a phrase he uses to describe both his heroes’ artistic method and their unsentimental view of the world. For him, blues idiom has a double meaning. On the one hand, it connects with “down-home Negro USA,” the Deep Southern birthplace of the blues and jazz, but on the other, it transcends ethnic connotations. It is the aesthetic of the novelist, painter, or jazz musician who has mastered the high-wire act of affirming his existence, of celebrating himself, in the face of adversity. Adversity might be the grinding misery of Negro slavery or the lack of meaning modern, existential man sees at the root of all life. Life may be pointless, but it is nonetheless livable if approached with the courage and physical grace of a Hemingway toreador, or the novelist’s shaping eye, or the jazz musician’s joy in pulling beauty, wit, and meaning from thin air. For Murray, any great artist is doing the same thing: keeping what he calls the blue devils of nada at bay.


That is the central idea of the small book that underlies Murray’s entire project, The Hero and the Blues , whose final chapter, “The Blues and the Fable in the Flesh,” is as exciting a piece of intellectual trailblazing as anything written in the last quarter-century. Murray’s coupling of jazz with literature—with all the fine arts, via their defining activity, the improvising creativity of the human mind—is a lasting achievement and one that likely will be built on by others in years to come.

In the end Murray may endure more as a thinker than as a novelist (he would strenuously disagree; he sees himself as a writer of fiction). In any case, his best prose is wonderful indeed. Jazz isn’t just a source of ideas for Murray; he has worked hard to model the rhythms of his sentences on those of jazz. His best-written books, Train Whistle Guitar and South to a Very Old Place , are studded with the rolling cadences of down-home speech, perfectly grasped.

In South to a Very Old Place he imitates the child-loving, baby-talking women he grew up surrounded by, sliding, sentence by sentence, into high-grade nonsense: “Play the little man for Mama, Albert Lee. Just play the little man for Mama. That’s all right about that old booger man. You just be the little man for Mama. You just be my little Mister Buster Brown man. Mama’s little Buster Brown man ain’t scared of no booger man and nothing else. Mama’s little man ain’t scared of nobody and nothing in creation, or tarnation either. Because Mama’s little man is Mama’s BIG man, just like him daddy that’s what him is. That’s exactly what him is, betchem bones. Him momom Mittchem Buttchem Bwown. Momoms itchem bittchem Mittchem Buttchem Bwown; betchem tweet bones.”

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.

I’ve called the blues idiom “part of the existential equipment that we Americans inherited from our captive ancestors.” Who has suffered the greatest foul play of the people who came to America? The Negro, right? There’s a richness in the Negro response to adversify. There is resilience, inventiveness, humor, and enviable elegance. We invented the blues; Europeans invented psychoanalysis. You invent what you need. And when I say “our captive ancestors,” I’m talking to all Americans. The blues is white Americans’ heritage too. That’s why they can identify with something that is so idiomatically down-home brownskin as jazz.

• Does blues music reflect the feeling called the blues?

The blues as such is depression, melancholia, despair, disintegration, sadness. Blues as music is a way of making an aesthetic statement with sound. It swings! Its insouciance and elegance are the best antidote for the blues as such. The conventional American thinks blues music is sad. That’s hillbilly music; hillbilly music is crying music. Conventional Americans think Negroes are crying when they’re singing the blues. They’re not; they’re getting ready to have a good time!

• What does your term omni-Americans mean?

It reflects my basic assumption that the United States is a mulatto culture. First, let’s put things in a world context. Go back to what [the French poet] Paul Valéry called Homo europaeus , a composite of Greek logic, Roman administration, and Judeo-Christian morality. That’s what makes a European different from somebody in India, Japan, or Africa. Now send him across the Atlantic. You get what [the American author] Constance Rourke identified in American Humor —a book, by the way, that has the status of a bible with me—as a new composite: of the ingenious Yankee, the frontiersman, who’s part Indian, and the Negro. All Americans, I don’t care if it’s a neo-Nazi, are part Yankee, part backwoodsman, part Negro.


So that’s the definition of American culture: Homo europaeus with an overlay of this new composite. American culture is the cutting edge of European culture, and the most effective, most sophisticated stylization of the American spirit is found in jazz.

• So we are all omni-Americans?

All of us. The omni-Americans are the Americans. My conception makes Americans identify with all their ancestors. It lets me identify with John Jay, you with Frederick Douglass.

Incidentally, once you start looking for examples of mulatto culture, you find some fascinating ones. Will Marion Cook, for instance, was a student of Dvořák in the 1890s, who put Dvořák in touch with Negro spirituals and later became one of Duke Ellington’s mentors. That’s a perfect example of omni-Americanism. You can trace a line from Dvořák, the epitome of the classical European composer, through Will Marion Cook to Duke Ellington.

• Doesn’t this bring us to the late John Kouwenhoven, whose The Beer Can by the Highway and Made in America are two more of your bibles?

Yes, it does. Kouwenhoven’s concept is that American culture comes from the interaction of vernacular or folk tradition with learned or academic tradition. For instance, Ellington realized that to create an arrangement that showcased a soloist like, say, Armstrong, was to make an American concerto.

• I’d never thought of it in those terms—the jazz solo as the American concerto.

Of course! What is a concerto? A showcase for a solo instrument. And isn’t the cocktail lounge, the after-hours joint, the gin mill the obvious source of American chamber music?

Anyway, what few of any of Kouwenhoven’s readers seem to have understood is that this interaction occurs within the context of free enterprise. Don’t reduce it to economics; I’m talking about free endeavor: an experimental attitude, an open- ness to improvisation. The disposition to approach life as a frontiersman, you see, so piety does not hold you back. You can’t be overrespectful of established forms; you’re trying to get through the wilderness to Kentucky. I’m not talking about a royal road to Rome; I’m going to Kentucky, and I’ve got all these goddamned redskins to mess with! Do you see what I mean? It’s open-minded experimentation, and you don’t have it anywhere else; you only have it in America. The interaction of French, Italian, German, and English music with African music by itself doesn’t add up to jazz. The synthesis needs our context of free enterprise.

Underlying everything else in jazz is the concept “All men are created equal.” The blues is not the creation of a crushed-spirited people; it’s the product of a forward-looking, upward-striving people. Jazz is only possible in a climate of freedom.

• Wait a minute. Slavery? Racism? That’s a climate of freedom?

Nowhere in the world that I know about but America is everybody born saying, “Anybody up there in the government is there through the consent of the governed. We can kick the rascals out at any time.” O. K., you had a side issue: “Well, these people have a different color skin.” But Negroes were not less American than anybody else. They expected the same thing.

• But there was—is—a huge contradiction between the ideology of equality and the reality.

That’s not as important as you might think. We got all those Negroes segregated? That’s unimportant, compared with the fact that they shouldn’t be. It’s not the fact that they’re segregated but the fact that if they were segregated in another society, it wouldn’t even matter. Can’t you see that?

What was guaranteed to the average dirt farmer in England by the Magna Carta? Who cared about peasants in Russia, including after communism made them more peasant than ever? What did the French small farmer get from the Revolution? He didn’t grow up with the heritage every American has.

IF YOU want to find the blues idiom in literature, don’t read any so-called black writers; read Hemingway.”

• In other words, the Constitution was, and is, an explosive ideology. It promises freedom.

Right. The point is: The promises, the guarantees of the Constitution became the birthright of all Americans. That’s what is important. If you had a million slaves, it didn’t mean the same thing as if you didn’t have these guarantees. Were they free in Africa? They were owned by their chief. The first they ever heard of freedom as a right was over here. Blacks weren’t complaining for all those years about being taken away from Africa; they were complaining about being excluded from full participation in American society. Also, what the “back-to-Africa” spokesmen visualized was an American social system, not a traditional African one. The important thing is that the official promise existed: “All men are created equal.” Now you had something to appeal to.

• How do you see yourself first, as American or as black?

I can’t separate those things. I’m an American, that’s all. I was already an American before I was ever conscious that I was black. I was already breathing, I was already hearing railroad trains, I was already hearing sawmill whistles, I was already hearing automobiles, I was hearing the English language. I looked around and saw all these different people, and they looked like people that belonged around me. Some of them were white, some of them were Indian, some of them were Creole, and so on. That some talked one way and some another seemed natural. That there were conflicts also seemed natural. Conflicts exist just about everywhere.

When I hear the term black writer , certain alarms go off. Remember, the last thing I want to be mistaken for is a spokesman. If I’m not one of the best living American writers, no thanks for being one of the best living black writers. I’m trying to make sense of all American culture, using the Hemingway principle of writing about what you know about. You achieve universality through particulars, so if a critic says, “Murray has mastered the black idiom,” I’m proud of that. I would also be proud if somebody said I’d mastered French, Italian, Latin, or the stream-of-consciousness technique. I’m striving to be a representative twentieth-century American writer.

Black , by the way, isn’t even a term I use. I’m not black, I’m a shade of brown. And African-American is a term I don’t understand. I prefer Negro myself. Better still, colored people . That’s a fine term. It’s ambiguous enough to denote us, because we’re an ambiguous people.

• What writer exemplifies the blues idiom?

The attitude toward experience that Hemingway expresses strikes me as a literary equivalent to what I find in the blues. Let me put it this way: If you want to find the blues idiom in literature, don’t read any so-called black writers; read Hemingway. These other guys, all they’re talking about is justice and injustice. They ain’t ever going to equal Hemingway, who’s talking about life and death.

• What other artists?

Bearden’s approach to composition has the same spirit of improvisation you find in jazz. So do Calder’s mobiles and stabiles.

• One might well ask, What on earth does Alexander Calder have in common with Count Basic?

Basic could make one note swing. Calder could make one piece of metal swing. Look, what I’m trying to do is account for the sources of an adequate aesthetic for dealing with contemporary experience. I’m just trying to find an adequate form, and I haven’t found one anywhere that does it better than what I call the blues idiom. Hemingway used bullfighting to work out an aesthetic for literature; I use jazz.

• And you have worked to make your writing style the verbal equivalent of jazz.

Yes. I got the idea from reading Thomas Mann. Mann was of consuming interest to me; he was what really got me going. My Thomas Mann file dates back to 1938, when I had just become curious about writing and was studying literary devices. I read the preface to The Magic Mountain , where Mann talks about how he took the leitmotif method from Wagner. He was using music as a model. The idea appealed to me tremendously. Now, Mann’s context was Bach, Beethoven, and Wagner. What was mine? I started checking through American music. One thing that did not do it for me was Rhapsody in Blue . So I thought, What’s closest to me? And Luzana Cholly, the blues guitar player from Train Whistle Guitar , was one of the first characters I drew, in 1951. Here’s what I said about writing fiction way back then: “We all learn from Mann, Joyce, Hemingway, Eliot and the rest, but I’m also trying to learn to write in terms of the tradition I grew up in, the Negro tradition of blues, stomps, ragtime, jumps and swing. After all, very few writers have done as much with American experience as Jelly Roll Morton, Count Basic and Duke Ellington.”


• So you went all around the block, by way of Thomas Mann, to come back home.

You’d never get where I got by just listening to a goddamn guitar player in a honky-tonk. You’d never write a novel. I had to come through novels, and there were no Negro novels that reached the level of sophistication I was reaching for. The New Negro , Alain Locke’s anthology of the so-called Harlem Renaissance, was sandlot stuff compared with Eliot, Pound, Mann, and Joyce.

• Your fiction is largely the product of a long grappling with what you say are the four basic narrative categories. Can you explain your very particular understanding of tragedy, comedy, melodrama, and farce?

In order to have a story, you have contention. You have a desire, a wish, but something’s in the way. So you have agon—struggle. The one that carries the values we identify with, we call the protagonist. The one that threatens those values is the antagonist. One is indispensable to the other. No dragon, no hero.

Now, what are the interactions of this antagonism? When the protagonist is overcome, it’s a tragedy. When he succeeds and he reaches a new perception of life and resolves his misunderstanding, it’s a comedy. If you wipe out the dragon, that’s melodrama. You have what the Greeks call a deus ex machina , the resolution of the antagonism through efficient engineering. It’s like a Western, where the gunfighter comes into town and kills the bad guy as the swordsman once slew dragons. That’s what social science literature does. All these poor people can’t do such and such because they’re poor, so you wipe out poverty.

• And farce?

Well, farce means you accept the fact that the whole shebang could come apart at any time—your universe, everything you know. Farce brings you closer to the point of view Hemingway expressed as “winner take nothing.” You’re back to entropy, back to the fact that life adds up to nada , to nothing.

• It sounds like modern consciousness.

To me, farce is an expression of the truly contemporary sensibility. But a new kind of farce—what I called straight-faced farce. That’s the Murray dimension. Most exemplars of the modern consciousness go after despair. But farce lets you face what Hemingway faced: that the winner shall take nothing. That ultimately it doesn’t matter whether you succeed or fail. You’re gonna die, man. There’s a beautiful love affair, and the bride and groom are killed the next day. But you persist.

Now, here is where it all hooks up. To me, the blues idiom and farce are more or less synonymous. And they embrace all the categories. The blues idiom lets you deal with tragedy, comedy, melodrama, and farce in the same statement. Take a blues song. The lyrics are tragic. The lyrics tell a tale of woe. But the presentation counterstates that. The musicians are playing something full of life and joy and mockery; that’s the comic aspect. The jazz musician is the questing hero of melodrama, who crafts a sword, his chops, his technique, to slay the dragon of the blues. But the entire blues statement is a farce, a recognition that you can establish order but it always reverts to chaos. The blues will be back tomorrow!

DON’T tell me about Thomas Jefferson owning slaves; he wrote the Declaration of Independence.”

• In The Seven League Boots , I miss a sense of struggle, of Scooter grappling with conflict, inner or outer. He has a pretty easy sail.

Why do you say that? He doesn’t yet know what he wants to do with himself. What’s he accomplished?

• He’s the bassist in the best jazz band in America.

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.

You’re goddamn right. It’s about time, what with all those particles and waves and outer space and all the stuff we now know. When you’re conscious of that, how can you cling to that other stuff? When you realize how precarious life is. This little chicken-shit star we’re on, it ain’t nothing, man. If you’re going to live in terms of that, what the hell is evil? Somebody gets cancer nine months after he wins a million dollars. Did money help him? Is his disease a punishment for some trespass? I don’t think so. So the problem is to find the way of accepting that it’s a farce.

• Well, most people don’t even get to the point where they perceive the nothingness, the absurdity. And if they do, they run from it as fast as they can by surrounding themselves with fictions, illusions, and comforts.

Now you’re getting to it. That’s the point. Love is something you want to hold onto when you find it. Friendship. All these things. You’ve got emotions. You are capable of delight. But if you’re sophisticated, you also go beyond that, because people are coming and going all the time. You see a guy at a funeral; he almost forgot about death. He should have known all the time it wasn’t going to last forever. But you keep going. See, that’s what Mann gets at in The Magic Mountain : I will never let death have sovereignty over my thoughts! That is the big moral of The Magic Mountain . In Mann, in Hemingway, you get beyond that lightweight stuff. The problems in Cosmos Faulkner are correctable, a matter of human fallibility. In Cosmos Hemingway the problems are inherent in the nature of things. Faulkner may have lots of complicated stuff going on, but Faulkner stops short of the void. Hemingway keeps going.

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