My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Albert Murray is, as the fashion journalists say, having a moment. His collected non-fiction and fiction/poetry have now been canonized by the Library of America (in volumes published in 2016 and 2018, respectively) and his insights on race, American identity, music, and literature are now being rediscovered by a wider readership.
Murray, who lived from 1916 to 2013, was an African-American critic and novelist most active in the mid-20th century and known for his writing on what he called “the blues idiom” and its intersection with literary modernism. While I had heard Murray’s name before, I was first urged to read him by friend and correspondent Matthew St. Ville Hunte, whose brilliant review-essay on another Murray reissue—Murray Talks Music—is a good place to start learning about the writer:
Major critics do not achieve that status by possessing impeccable taste; it is not the highest calling to have the cleanest scoresheet. Indeed, there is something foppish and epicurean about striving to merely have all the right opinions at the right times. Instead, the major critics are the ones with the strong opinions, the ones who aren’t receptive to every new experience, the ones whose defiant inflexibility may bend the culture towards the future. Major critics have major themes, which ballast their writing and allow them to rise above merely being tastemaking. Just as Edmund Wilson had modernism and Trilling had the liberal imagination, Albert Murray had the blues idiom.
This is both a perfect and a somewhat odd moment for an Albert Murray revival. Odd because his ideas and emphases are almost anathema in this time of the left-liberal literati’s retrenchment, its increasingly shrill insistence, enforced by regular social media mob actions against wreckers and traitors, on a Marxist-derived reductionist approach to human identity and a moralistic attitude toward the nature and purpose of art, the latter coupled with impatient defenses of inquisitorial censoriousness. They want to pull books from the shelves and pictures from the walls; who could possibly doubt that if, say, the Rushdie affair happened today, all of literate Brooklyn would high-mindedly excuse those calling for the “racist” novelist’s head? Three or four times in just the last week, I have run across laments about the almost Soviet gap between what liberal writers, educators, and media professionals feel they can say in public and what they are saying in private. (What they are saying in private, let me tell you, is nothing other than what I just said—we can say it; but we will have to overcome our own pusillanimity, which is admittedly a tall order!)
On the other hand, the popular adversaries of the above trends are not much less deadening in their reductions than the left-liberal literati; the “Intellectual Dark Web” leaves a lot to be desired, especially intellectually. Everything today decays into the worst kind of simplistic political argument, cable TV crossfire obsolesced because now generalized—it feels as if we are all talking heads in hell. What a perfect time, then, to read and re-read an intelligent, complex writer who argues for the importance of myth, archetype, and ritual, for the universality of art, without succumbing to the cruder polemics of a Jordan Peterson, a writer who insists upon the cultural autonomy and political independence of African-Americans in a register more alive to nuance and tragedy than Kanye West’s Twitter.
With the Library of American reprints, Murray’s entire oeuvre—some 2000 or 3000 pages—has come flooding back all at once; but as I am a slow, lazy reader, and as we all have to start somewhere, I have decided to focus on The Hero and the Blues, a short collection of three lectures published in 1973. In this small but carefully composed book, Murray outlines his thesis that art’s function derives from ancient rituals meant to ensure community survival by embodying a hero’s story. Art shows us how our fictional surrogate, a Representative Man, is or is not adequate to the challenges posed by life. In this way, art demonstrates how we ourselves should live:
It is the writer as artist, not the social or political engineer or even the philosopher, who first comes to realize when the time is out of joint. It is he who determines the extent and gravity of the current human predicament, who in effect discovers and describes the hidden elements of destruction, sounds the alarm, and even (in the process of defining “the villain”) designates the targets. It is the story teller working on his own terms as mythmaker (and by implication, as value maker), who defines the conflict, identifies the hero (which is to say the good man—perhaps better, the adequate man), and decides the outcome; and in doing so, he not only evokes the image of possibility, but also prefigures the contingencies of a happily balanced humanity and of the Great Good Place.
Such faith in art’s universality and individual- and community-shaping power—its precedence over all disciplines, particularly the social sciences—was of course unfashionable by the late 20th century, and even more unfashionable when race (or gender or class) was at issue. Hailing the artist as primordial maker, Murray echoes the resounding modern manifestoes: Shelley’s “Defence of Poetry,” Emerson’s “The Poet,” Woolf’s “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” Lawrence’s “Why the Novel Matters.” But his own context was the postmodern one that defined and still defines the human being as a “subject” circumscribed by social context, the creation of language rather than language’s shaper.
As a result, says Murray, fiction has sold its birthright to the sociologists and psychologists (dismissively metonymized by Murray as “Marx-Freud,” a hybrid monstrosity of shallow thinking). Novelists have given up tragedy, comedy, and farce for the lower art of melodrama: a story where narrowly material and social success is the goal rather than any broader confrontation with the nature of things. The higher modes of tragedy, comedy, and farce, by contrast, deal not just with the social context and material well-being emphasized by the protest writers; they put the hero into conflict with the essentials, Emerson’s “lords of life”—the tragic hero transcends them even as he is defeated by them, the comic hero overcomes them through the social regeneration of marriage, and the farcical hero evades them through nimble caprice amid absurdity.
Murray sees the hero of tragedy, comedy, and farce as defined by what he calls “cooperative antagonism”—that is, heroism is necessitated by adversity. This in turn implies that adversity is not to be avoided even if one could, that “safety”—to put it in contemporary pop-psychobureaucratic terms—is not to be sought as a political telos, especially because it is incompatible with freedom:
Heroism, which is, among other things, another word for self-reliance, is not only an indispensable prerequisite for productive citizenship in an open society; it also that without which no individual or community can remain free. Moreover, as no one interested in either the objectives of democratic institutions or the image of democratic man can ever afford to forget, the concept of free enterprise has as much to do with adventurous speculations and improvisations in general as with the swashbuckling economics of, say, the Robber Barons.
Here Murray comes into conflict with prevailing political thought about race in America on the left. (Though it should be said that this is not at all the main topic of the book, which is primarily an aesthetic treatise.) By capitulating to Marx-Freud and salvation through superior political management, black writers offer themselves up as objects of pity and study to white intellectuals, and in the meantime they give up their people’s own contribution to world culture: the blues tradition, whose improvisatory craft demonstrates how oppression may be transcended through artful ritual. As Hunte comments in his review:
The blues, as explained by Murray, are not the wails of lamentations, melancholic outpourings for the woebegone and disconsolate. Au contraire, the blues are intended to dispel such feelings, not wallow in them. The blues constitute a battle against chaos and entropy and in their broadest interpretation, lie at the heart of any artistic endeavor. But this is not merely art as entertainment, though it must certainly be that as well. This is art as ritualized survival technique.
Committed to the autonomy of art, Murray refuses to explain black expression as simply the result, the epiphenomenon, of slavery and oppression; he sees it, rather, as the intellectual and sensuous mastery by brilliant craftsmen of their adverse context. For this reason, he makes an extended comparison between the blues ensemble and the Elizabethan theater, and between Duke Ellington and Shakespeare: African-American art, like European art, is not a primitive eructation of the volk but the work of master crafters committed to improving the polis. Blues is thus the epitome of all true art, the heir of those rituals that assembled themselves into the epic from which all later music and narrative derives. Murray goes so far as to recommend that black experience become the paradigm of American experience in general, that all American artists become black blues artists—not as cultural appropriators, mind you, but as fellow crafters who rightly recognize the genius after which they ought to pattern themselves if they want to overcome their own troubles. The writing of Marx-Freud, by contrast (he singles out Wright and the later Baldwin; in our own day, he might mention Coates and Rankine),
concerns itself not with the ironies and ambiguities of self-improvement and self-extension, not with the evaluation of the individual as protagonist, but rather with representing a world of collective victims whose survival and betterment depend not upon self-determination but upon a change of heart in their antagonists who thereupon will cease being villains and become patrons of social welfare!
The title notwithstanding, there is surprisingly little about the blues per se in this book. Much of it is rather a reading of two of Murray’s favorite modern writers, Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Mann, both of whom he sees as modeling heroic fiction. His enthusiastic discussion of Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers as the depiction of a nimbly exilic hero rather than a Moses bound for the Promised Land will make any reader realize that they should go beyond Death in Venice and The Magic Mountain with Mann, while his praise of Hemingway makes that writer’s seeming outdatedness itself look like little more than a quirk of our own cynical era.
I would like to conclude with Murray’s defense of experimentation in the arts. Whenever anyone starts talking about myth and archetypes as underlying literature the way Murray does, people understandably get suspicious: doesn’t that lead to artistic complacency and stereotypes, to political conservatism of the least thoughtful variety? But Murray was a partisan of modernism, not a marketer of Joseph Campbell monoplots to Hollywood nor a vendor of supposedly antediluvian sexual wisdom like some we could name today. Modernism’s motto was “make it new”—myths and archetypes are the “it,” but “new” is the point. Formal inventiveness, new ways of telling the old stories, are the aesthetic correlate of the social renewal presaged by true art’s rituals of survival and transcendence, the bearing of vital traditions through every challenge:
Implicitly, experiment is also an action taken to insure that nothing endures which is not workable; as such, far from being anti-traditional, as is often assumed, it actually serves the best interests of tradition, which, after all, is that which continues in the first place.
Revivals of unjustly neglected or forgotten authors may also renew tradition: so, if you want surprisingly prescient and relevant wisdom from almost half a century ago, it is a good day to read Albert Murray.
 1973 was the same year of publication, incidentally, as Toni Morrison’s Sula, and only one year later than Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo. It would be a great reading experience to take these three books in sequence, each correcting the excesses and omissions of the other: Reed cares, like Murray, for black expression as ritual action, but he puts this in an Afrocentric and anti-colonial context that Murray would find too culturally exclusivist and anti-American; as for Morrison, her vision of heroism incorporates more of the negative and the nihilistic than Murray seems willing to acknowledge—Murray may believe in “cooperative antagonism,” but Morrison believes in the devil—and she also, crucially, portrays female heroism, whereas Murray’s vision of the hero is (like all his favorite novelists) male.
 Murray would recognize the aforementioned social-media flayings as ritual actions, and he values farce above all genres—somewhat as Northrop Frye values satire, derived from the satyr play, the goatish (we would now call it “inappropriate”) caper that capped tragic trilogies in ancient Athens)—because of its power to counter the solemnity of ritual and mock ideologies before they become so aggrandized that they menace the community:
Farce breaks the spell of ritual. It counterbalances the magic which ritual works upon the imagination. It protects human existence from the excesses of the imagination and operates as a safeguard against the overextension of ideas, formulations, and formalities. After all, extended far enough, even the idea of freedom becomes a involving security measures and thus a justification for restrictions which exceed those that generated the thrust toward liberation in the first place. The world is, or should be, all too familiar with totalitarian systems which began as freedom movements.
“Should be”—you can say that again.