Graham Lock, Blutopia

978-0-8223-2440-9_prBlutopia is not the first of Graham Lock’s books I’ve read. I’d gone to the library, having started a Sun Ra kick (transformed, over the read, to an Ellington kick, to Braxton), and found this on the shelf in the section, which unfortunately doesn’t actually have a straight biography on Ra. This worked.

Put briefly, the book relates–out of chronological order, significantly–the work of Sun Ra, Duke Ellington, and Anthony Braxton through their relationships to ideas of the Black past and future. While Ellington might superficially seem the odd man out, I was aware enough of his agenda (“agenda” sounds pejorative, but it’s not) to know that while he comes from a different era he fits with the other two in the sense of taking an approach to music as not only making a bunch of records but making, as do Ra and Braxton, philosophical, ethical, and historical arguments.

An undercurrent in the book involves the general inadequacy of actually-existing critical writing on Black music generally and what we call “jazz” in particular. Critics are generally white and the best-intentioned carry with them a cultural baggage that leaves them prone to misinterpret the music and musicians. Lock as much as any white critic I’ve read successfully self-corrects for his own baggage and given this alone is worth the read. There is a type of anti-racist white person who displays his or her understanding of race, which may be very solid on its own merits, in an attempt, impossible at this moment, to extricate himself or herself from white privilege, or at least from the subjective feelings of guilt it brings. It’s a clever form of the classically white privileged sense of personal purity. Anyway, this really doesn’t seem to be Lock’s motive. Above all, he is moved by the experience of the music and by a sense that his role is to learn from the musicians, for whom he clearly has a deep, genuine respect and, in the case of Braxton with whom he has worked closely over decades, real friendship.

In a nutshell, then, Lock’s point is that none of the three musicians here understood their own music by correlating their work to some European aesthetic, despite the fact that the white critical establishment viewed and continues to view all three precisely through that European aesthetic lens. Sun Ra, then, becomes a kook, if a talented one. Ellington and Braxton both somehow become “less black” in their aesthetic. Ellington’s lengthier work, “Black, Brown, and Beige,” to take an example, becomes an attempt to adopt European symphonic norms in a jazz band setting, while the influence of Stockhausen and Cage on Braxton is overemphasized to the extent that it obscures all other discussion of how his music developed. Lock takes the radical step of suggesting that what these people said about their own work and selves should be taken seriously. “Black, Brown, and Beige,” far from looking to European symphonic models, was to Ellington of greater length than his previous work and more complex in its structure for the simple reason that he was telling a longer and more complex story, that of black people in America. Braxton for his part stresses that his is not an intellectual music but a spiritually functional one, and that his drawing from cosmopolitan sources is an entirely African approach.

I treat myself by getting a book out of the jazz section of the library to read. It’s rare that I don’t plow through it quickly–only when I find the basic argument offensive will I not bother finishing it, and while I will at times disagree with an author it’s rare that I find one genuinely offensive. Lock, though, I knew from past experience and I trusted him. Blutopia did not betray that trust. Truthfully, given the paucity of writers on his particular subjects (save Ellington, and particularly with Braxton), he’s essential reading.

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J.R.R. Tolkein, The Two Towers

the_two_towers

As I write this I’m already a bit into The Return of the King. Despite what seems to be its reputation as the relatively boring middle bit, I thoroughly enjoyed The Two Towers. These books pass the most important test I give to books at this point in my life: I enjoy reading them.

Having said this, and feeling like the whole point of this blog is to say something, I’ll say that there are all kinds of flaws in Tolkein. The reverence with which some people approach his work, and the issuing of every single piece, it seems, of material he wrote to prepare for the trilogy, seems completely unwarranted. I know that there are classes offered in Tolkein as I’ve spoken with people who have taken them. I can imagine devoting a few classes to the work in a larger course, but a full course seems to me a desperate measure by untenured faculty to offer something–anything–which will boost their enrollment. The best use of Tolkein is to read the novels, not to study them.

One of the common praises sung of Tolkein is that he “invented a whole world” and “invented entire languages” that people spoke. These praises are generally presented with an endearing type of fanboy credulousness. But while Tolkein is certainly, in his creation of Middle Earth, hugely inventive, what is actually more interesting to me, reading it, is the extent to which it is visible that he did not invent out of whole cloth. This doesn’t make it less of a creation, but rather gives a sense of what it actually means to create. It’s not that there’s nothing new under the sun, because that’s not true. History doesn’t just repeat itself despite the cliche.

And so what’s interesting is not the extent to which Tolkein doesn’t invent something new. What he was clearly trying to do was to create a novelistic approximation of the type of otherworldliness one encounters in pre-Christian English literature, Beowulf specifically, and also like the various Scandinavian sagas. That literature presents worlds very different from the ones we inhabit. There’s magic, for example. Yet they are written not as fantasy, or not seeming to be as fantasy, but rather as a record of how things were, magic included. Behind the formal execution of those works, the actual words on a page, there is a full conception of a way the world works, or worked we would say from our current vantage point.

So, we should not say that the world of Tolkein’s is actually different than our own. A quick google reveals all kinds of predictable discussion about the underlying racism of Tolkein’s presentation. Predictable in that it’s not hard to see in the reading of it, and predictable how lots of people try to pretend it’s not there. This bit describes the problem well:

Tolkien did not write in a vacuum. Caught up in a generation of global war that profoundly and permanently altered British culture, he saw the world in terms Samuel Huntington might have recognized: the “clash of civilizations” in which East and West are pitted against one another. It is not a coincidence that Tolkien locates evil in Middle Earth in the East and South, or that the Haradrim mercenaries recruited by Saruman are readily identifiable as North African Arabs. Nor is it a coincidence that the dividing line between good and evil, the river Isen, is a homonym of the common German surname Eisen, and is given the same meaning (“iron”).

I will say that I was shocked but not surprised that at one point Orcs referred to some of the Rohirrim–people from Rohan–as “white skins.” It just made it all clear.

This isn’t about Tolkein as much as it is about how one goes about creating art. Tolkein clearly saw the world in a way that reflected the racism of the British Empire in which he grew up and which he defended. I can get past that. It doesn’t make him a bad writer. God help me if it’s only my worst qualities that count. What’s interesting to me is how generally well Tolkein actually does in presenting his world with an air of versimilitude. It’s only in moments like that use of “white skins” that the fictive nature of the endeavor peeks through. Really, it’s very good.

The same applies to Tolkein’s “invented” languages. Rohirrim, a plural, is a good example. Yes, Tolkein put a lot of effort into inventing an elfish language, etc. But the “-im” plural rang really familiar to me when I read it. It was one of those moments where, despite the best efforts of the author, the fictive nature of the novel becomes visible. It’s like a scene in a movie where you see the overhead mic dip onto the screen. The source for this plural–at least as it reads, which is the real test–would be seraphim & cherubim. My point is not that Tolkein wasn’t inventive, but that what he invented didn’t come out of nowhere.

The big problem in Tolkein, as a read, is the massive contrast between the thoughtfulness of the setting and the shallowness of the characterization. As I start to read The Return of the King, Gandalf is developing some depth as a character. Memory is imperfect, so maybe it was on display in The Two Towers as well. Here’s Gandalf, the wonderful celestial being, who flies off the handle at the slightest inconvenience. Not horribly interesting, but complex in a way that none of the other major characters are. None, except Gollum.

We'll tip our hat to Ralph Bakshi.

We’ll tip our hat to Ralph Bakshi.

Were I to advance a bold thesis, I’d say that Gollum absolutely ruins The Lord of the Rings as a work of literature, not because he’s poorly characterized but on the contrary because he’s the only figure in the series that is thoroughly well-drawn. I will say that once Gollum fully entered the narrative I had this sense that, for the first time, I had encountered a real person in this book. I thought of Tolstoy–now this is a real writer, I thought, with a real novel. Every tiny character in War and Peace is as well-drawn as Gollum, if through Tolstoy’s complete mastery of the small, telling detail. And those are the tiny characters. I thought, Tolstoy gave us hundreds of these characters, and Tolkein gives us one. I am not so much making a judgement as I am reporting a thought process. What is true is that, as I experienced it, the depth of Gollum only served to make all of the other characters look shallow. This is a real problem.

Octavia Butler, Mind of My Mind

I told a friend that I thought that Octavia Butler was the best writer of her generation, and was told that, given for example Toni Morrison, who really is fantastic, I was perhaps hyperbolic.  Mind of My Mind, however, is good enough to make that claim.  I got my copy in a mass-market paperback at the library.  It is now available in a volume, entitled Seed to Harvest, which contains four novels of her Patternmaster series.  I’ve only read this one (of that series), as it was the one on the shelf in the library when I felt like grabbing one of her books.

To rehearse the plot, which is at some basic level beside both my point here and the point of this blog: an immortal has been breeding a master race of sorts for a few millenia, and is about at the point where he–it’s significant that Doro, the immortal, is a man, as the book is a critique of patriarchy, of actually-existing patriarchy–is about to make a major breakthrough in his project.  His breakthrough, named Mary, is an exceptionally powerful telepath, and the book in a nutshell deals with the struggle between Doro and Mary.

That’s all one needs to know about the plot.  More to my point is how phenomenally well Butler goes about her project, which at base is to create a critical speculative fiction, to use her preferred term (as opposed to sci-fi).  Her plots are imaginary, but the target of her critique is the United States as it actually existed in her lifetime, more or less the same United States as we have today.  She begins with centering her work on people from social groups that do not wield power in this country, and in this case, as in all of her books I’ve read, she centers the story on a Black woman, Mary.  She does so with an interesting technical device: the novel bounces between difference characters’ perspectives, each section headed with the first name of the character.  The only character, however, whose perspective is written in the first person is Mary.  This is typical Butler, insofar as she is writer enough to use very simple technical devices unobtrusively to make very big, important points about our world.  Throwing the center of her narrative this way off of this country’s center–the wealthy white male–she forces the reader into a critical examination of the United States.

I have read a moderate amount of fantasy as I’ve gotten older, really out of a nostalgia for my childhood in which I played Dungeons & Dragons.  Generally in the genre, magic more or less just happens.  There is no explanation of how it works, and I suppose that the mystery of it is maybe part of the appeal.  It allows one to fantasize.  That said, it is to Butler’s credit that she uses her portrayal of psychic power to make a broader point.  It struck me in an episode with one of the psychic characters–part of Doro’s attempt to breed his superhuman race–who had the ability to heal.  She did so as part of a church service.  People who needed healing would come, get healed, and everybody in the audience would be impressed by God’s healing power as manifested through this woman, and go home–go home, crucially, more tired than they arrived.  They were tired because the healer did not just magically make illness go away, but drew energy from the audience, literally.  She needed big audiences to do her healing, because otherwise she would have to suck out too much energy out of people, and they would notice that something was wrong with the process.  This is, again, Butler using a fairly simple and, when one bothers to think of it fairly obvious plot detail to make a larger, more important critical point.  Nothing comes without some corresponding cost.  The relatively great power of some comes necessarily from the relative disempowerment of others.  So too with wealth.  This is the story of modern American racist, capitalist patriarchy.  I would add that I say “obvious” only once it’s pointed out.  Conceiving of this stuff is an entirely different, not-at-all obvious process.

Buy the book.  Read it, already.