Tuesday, December 29, 2015

`Maverick, Idiosyncrasy, Rebel, Nonconformist'

“Influentiality most often depends on accessibility and, by implication, on imitability. That, in turn, hints at a consistency of method that can be addressed, absorbed, parsed, replicated, developed further by others; that moves easily from the specific to the general, from idiosyncrasy to convention.” 

This is from Lost Chords: White Musicians and Their Contributions to Jazz, 1915-1945 (Oxford University Press, 1999) by the late Richard M. Sudhalter, from his chapter devoted to Pee Wee Russell and Jack Teagarden. It comes more than seven-hundred pages into his scholarly revision of jazz history aimed at setting straight a record much deformed by politics and race. The chapter begins with an account of Russell and Teagarden’s first meeting, in Houston in 1924. He describes their introduction in a music store as “just a footnote, even a romantic conceit—but symbolically it’s a richly fateful event, bringing together two of [the] most resolute individualists to emerge from the early jazz years. Both soon became stylists as easy to recognize as they were difficult to imitate, and their very inimitability presents students of jazz history with an intriguing conundrum.” 

I intend to apply Sudhalter’s musical thesis to literary history, but first listen to his elaboration. Russell and Teagarden were two of the most brilliant, idiosyncratic and immediately recognizable of all jazz musicians, and for that reason, Sudhalter says, neither left a “major stylistic progeny.” Neither had the sort of “direct and diversified” influence on subsequent musicians as, to cite some of Sudhalter’s examples, Louis Armstrong, Lester Young, Benny Goodman and Charlie Parker. Jazz history has favored such stellar and widely emulated figures, he writes, “as if to suggest that the degree to which an individual style affects those of others is a measure of its importance and, by implication, its stature.” 

The obvious analogies in literature from the same period are Joyce and Eliot, inarguably the most influential writers of the twentieth century, and I have no intention of disputing the achievement of either. What I find troublesome is the neo-Darwinian assumption that the overwhelming influence of such writers, their dominance of critical, academic and (to a lesser degree) readerly attention, supplants the worth of other, “lesser” writers. To acknowledge Joyce’s accomplishment in fiction is not to declare, for instance, the novels of Janet Lewis or Christina Stead irrelevant or unworthy of a reader’s attention. One species doesn’t render another a biological (or literary) cul-de-sac. Nor is the “major/minor” distinction of much use. Kipling and Waugh are indisputably “major” and a hell of a lot of fun to read, but neither receives Kafka’s reverent reception. What I’m proposing is an easing of critical strictures and an acceptance of readerly reality: No one, I hope, wants to snub James Gould Cozzens or Anthony Powell in order to pretend he’s yet again enjoying Finnegans Wake. Back to Sudhalter:
“But such conflation of influentiality with importance inevitably scants those who have sailed into the wind, applying unconventional concepts and methods in the service of creativity—and utter inimitability. And, somehow, it relegates such individualists to secondary rank. Even the vocabulary often used to identify them—maverick, idiosyncrasy, rebel, nonconformist—implies anomaly, departure from a norm. A benign judgment, perhaps, but a judgment nonetheless."

1 comment:

Subbuteo said...

Virtuosity - how you say something - is not the same as brilliance of content - what you say. I will happily accept Joyce's or Nabokov's unrivalled virtuosity with no desire to quibble. It's like admiring Paganini. What Rossini, Mozart, Bellini etc provide is different from mere virtuosity, however. They provide something, in terms of what they say to me with which I want to engage and have a large appetite for. Paganini needs them. I read Ulysses recently and was duly impressed, especially by the huge technical possibilities he opens up for novelists. I don't think I'll re-read it because what it told me did not satisfy the appetites I referred to (Conrad does), and time is too short to waste. What you say matters because, after all, words are there to convey meaning, experience and that which affects us. Technique is not the aim.