Monday, December 13, 2010

Genius & Madness

"There are no wrong notes." - Thelonius Monk

[T]he same utopia of "equanimity", which as such gave the estate society its cultural surplus, will allow or have to allow the formation of an unreactinonary anticipatory illumination that is not self=evident and is unsettling. It is here that excitement finds peace, time becomes space and looks upon this as if everything has found its place - I am talking about an anticipatory illumination that could never be realized in an ideology of the status quo, but, rather, has been connected to it like an explosive, as though it could always engender the most stimulating surplus beyond the ideology. By not receding to a metaphysical plus, the elimination of a class ideology enables the entire novum of surplus to become one that no longer needs to be one beyond ideology or one above false consciousness, which only protrays objective falsehood, even in its best form. Instead of this, a surplus is needed beyond the elimination of social contradictions that has really begun. . . . [This] is a surplus of the utopian conscience and concern in a world, which itslef has not arisen with the classless society, free from antagonisms and antagonistic contradictions. Nor is the surplus finished with the contradiction of the subject and its own objectifications to which it is still tied as to a stranger. Nor is the surplus finished with the contradiction in which the totality of the actual exists as one that has not yet become and stands in relation to everything that has become inadequate.
"Ideas as Transformed Material in Human Minds, or Problems of an Ideological Superstructure (Cultural Heritage), in The Utopian Function of Art and Literature, Ernst Bloch, p. 41
How we come to understand what constitutes "genius" when it comes to art depends on how one sees culture. Is it the spontaneous creation of gifted individuals who have some inborn lifeline to truths too powerful for expression in any other form (this would be Blake, say, or Nietzsche's hyper-romanticized view of the aesthetic life)? Or is it the working out, the cutting through, our illusions and the lies we are force-fed, placing before us the frightening reality we all face, forcing us to make choices we have no desire to make? Is it even, perhaps, that individuals who produce such works are so in tune with the contradictions, subtle and overt, of our society that what they produce is understood in bourgeois terms as "genius", yet is nothing more or less than the bald-face expression of the real? Again, Nietzsche (hardly a revolutionary soul) once claimed that few people could gaze upon the world as it really is and stay sane; he applauded such madness, however, as a sign of gifted individual superiority.

Seeing artistic creation as a singular event, the result of some peculiar alchemy of talent, hard work, and the presentation of individual achievement is part and parcel of the jazz aesthetic. From the start, jazz - even more than the compositional achievements of European art musics - was understood to be a musician's music, rather than a collective music. Oh, there were great bands and orchestras, from James Reese Europe right up to today's various jazz conglomerations. Yet, far more important has been the role of the individual. Buddy Bolden and Freddy Keppard. Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet. Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. When one thinks of jazz, one thinks of great individuals.

No one, I believe, exemplified this individualism more than Thelonius Monk. The usual picture one has of Monk, the quiet man, his fingers not curved as they are supposed to be, but splayed and forked, creating dissonances and melodic phrases that are so intricate they seem simplistic. One sees him, an odd hat upon his head, getting up off his piano bench, eyes closed, turning in tight circles, his hands gesturing with the soloist's chorus, only to find his seat again and come in exactly on cue. There is an individual. There is genius at work.

This review of a new biography of Monk raises some interesting questions regarding the relationship, now a cliche, between genius and madness. I believe, however, these questions to be unintelligible if one asks a whole different series of questions, ones it seems neither the reviewer nor the biographer, considered asking. To what extent was Monk's approach to music rooted in his twin status as an African-American in a racist society, and one who lived most of his life in poverty in a rigidly stratified society? To what extent was the joy one finds in listening to Monk's musical craftsmanship, to the creation of melody in dissonance, an overcoming not only the musical straightjackets he inherited from all his teachers and mentors, but the surrounding society that determined him and his music to be of less worth because of its roots and practitioners? To what extent was this same joy an expression of real human possibility?

Finally, to what extent was Monk mad? Oh, I understand that there are such things as mental illness, and that bipolar disorder, from which Monk apparently suffered, can be debilitating. All the same, is confronting this illness important for understanding him as an artist? Or, perhaps, was the diagnosis of mental illness part of the structure within which we come to understand those rare individuals who place upon our eyes and ears the tools with which to see and hear more clearly the contradictions and dissonances that surround us? Mental illness is one thing, no different in type than diabetes or some other chronic ailment. Madness, however, and the usual aesthete's insistence there is some link between it and the usual understanding of genius, have no role to play in grasping who Monk was, what he did, or how he lived his life or created the music that he did. We can hear what Bloch calls the "anticipatory illumination" as we listen to the joyful melodies, the intricate, sometimes odd-sounding harmonies that Monk labored over for so long precisely because, rather than being mad, or some genius isolated from the rest of humanity, Monk was - as is clearly revealed by the reviewers comments on the biography - immersed in the realities of the many contradictions that trapped him. He presented, in his music, a way to overcome those contradictions, and people called him mad, called him a genius, and confounded his medical condition with his social and aesthetic position. They could thus dismiss as "peculiar" his dervish-like dancing as a sign of mental illness, rather than a lesson we who are still trapped within the web of contradictions still have to learn.

(h/t TNI)

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