Thursday, November 03, 2005

Report on Eli Siegel's lecture on Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, by Michael Palmer

On May 9, 1975, Eli Siegel discussed one of the important literary works of the 20th century, Heart of Darkness, written by Joseph Conrad, who lived from 1857 to 1924. In its suspense, its mystery, its powerful use of the English language, this story has affected people deeply and also made for some of the greatest controversy in the history of literature. Critics have puzzled over its meaning and the essense of the main character, Mr. Kurtz.

Heart of Darkness is a story told by Charles Marlow to men on a cruising yawl on the Thames River, near London. Mr. Siegel saw Marlow as standing for Joseph Conrad himself. Marlow had been a riverboat pilot for a European Trading Company on what seems to be--although it is never named--the Congo River in Africa. He describes the several stages of his journey, seeing Europeans, known as "Pilgrims" horribly using people in the Congo as slaves, putting them literally in chains and even killing some--all for the purpose of taking riches, mostly ivory, from the country. Marlow hears about Mr. Kurtz from different people he meets during the journey. Kurtz runs a trading station for the Company and has supplied more ivory than anyone else. Meanwhile he is a person who has knowledge about art and culture, and is cared for very much by the Africans who are feared and treated with contempt by other Europeans. Marlow determines to meet Kurtz, and near the end of the story he does-- but Kurtz, very ill, soon dies uttering his mysterious final words: "The horror! the horror!"

The meaning of these words, and the character of Kurtz is what critics have debated. As this lecture was being studied, Marion Fennell, a student in the class, told of a book of critiques of Heart of Darkness, edited by Harold Bloom, she had been reading; and she gave a summary on what various critics say of this novel: "Many see Kurtz as having given in to the worst instincts of man--he is referred to as an "abominable hero," "the hollow man," and "a Dantesque sort of devil."

But in this lecture, Mr. Siegel, using many passages from the story, showed something so different: that Kurtz, whom he called "one of the great characters in 20th century fiction," stands for the best thing in man. Despite being in the midst of some of the most horrible aspects of European colonialism in Africa, Kurtz is after something very good.

About the meaning of Heart of Darkness, Mr. Siegel said: "If you go deep into your heart, you will find something like landscape, something not seen. What Kurtz wanted to do was to see that the world can be liked." And about Kurtz's final words, "The horror! the horror!" Mr. Siegel said: "What this means is key to the work. It is taken to mean, as [the critic H.L.] Mencken implied, that when you go deep you find nothing--no meaning. [But] the attitude of Aesthetic Realism is that the individual mind has so far been horribly unjust to reality, including the reality that is not oneself--and that is the horror."

"The large thing in this story," Mr. Siegel said, is that there have been objections to acquisition, possessiveness. One [objection] is the kind that Thoreau and Emerson had--that [acquisition] is not fitting for man. Conrad," Mr. Siegel continued, "is one of the persons, as was Galsworthy, who was against acquisition." Then Mr. Siegel read this description from Heart of Darkness of what a particular group of Europeans was doing to the resources of the Congo. Marlow says:

"This devoted band called itself the Eldorado Exploring Expedition, and I believe they were sworn to tear treasure out of the bowels of the land was their desire, with no more moral purpose at the back of it than there is in burglars breaking into a safe."

"This is Conrad talking as a very Left person, Mr. Siegel said. "Exploitation," he stated, "is the same as robbery." And he pointed out that Kurtz doesn't get along with the acquisitive people, even as he works for the Company and is their top ivory-getter. They mistrust Kurtz's interest in the people of the Congo, and the fact that they care for him. " I cannot say that Conrad makes complete sense of this," Mr. Siegel observed, "but he's trying to deal with it." Kurtz, he explained, was after aesthetics--the oneness of opposites. He felt, "You've got to be entirely for yourself....But God you can't be mean! You have to be interested in whatever lives." "This is the question of Aesthetic Realism," Mr. Siegel said, "how not to be a heel and also not be a misguided idealist; how you can be interested in yourself and what exists in a beautiful fashion. The implication is that Kurtz was trying to do this in the Congo." That Kurtz was interested in knowing the world, not acquiring it, can be seen in the words of a young Russian man whom Marlow meets as his boat draws near Kurtz's station. The Russian says of Kurtz:

"We talked of everything," he said, quite transported at the recollection. "I forgot there was such a thing as sleep. The night did not seem to last an hour. Everything! Everything, of love, too." "Ah, he talked to you of love!," I said, much amused. "It isn't what you think," he cried almost passionately. "It was general. He made me see things--things."'That phrase, "He made me see things," Mr. Siegel said, "is important." "A love of things," he explained, "is equivalent to love of the world." The Russian also says about Kurtz: "Ah, I'll never, never meet such a man again. You ought to have heard him recite poetry--his own, too....Oh, he enlarged my mind."

When Marlow finally reaches the station, he sees around Kurtz's house, poles containing the remains of shrunken human skulls. Critics have pointed to this, along with his getting of ivory, as evidence that Kurtz has "given in to evil." But the native Africans revere Kurtz, and don't want him to leave, though he has become gravely ill. And Marlow sees Kurtz is angry at the acquisitive people around him--the Africans working with the company manager. Marlow says:

"It was as though an animated image of death carved out of old ivory had been shaking its hand with menaces at a motionless crowd of men made of dark and glittering bronze." Commented Mr. Siegel,

"These men are made of bronze, not feeling anything--those given to acquisition. It is a fight, it always has been, and Conrad was interested in it. The desire in Kurtz [was] to see what the world was like, and also to have a good effect. What is more important, to know the world honestly or to have it? Mind is interested in knowing the world."

As Kurtz is carried towards Marlow, there appears on the shore what Conrad describes as "a wild and gorgeous apparition of a woman...savage and superb, wild-eyed and magnificent," with "a tragic and fierce aspect of wild sorrow." This woman, Mr. Siegel said, "represents the beauty of Africa." She appears tragic and grief-stricken at the possibility of Kurtz's departure. This is another way that Joseph Conrad has Kurtz standing for the oneness of something primitive and something cultured.

Marlow persuades Kurtz to leave the jungle for medical assistance, and during the trip back down the river, he and Kurtz talk for hours. Kurtz tells of his plans for the future and of his "Intended," the girl he plans to marry. But as the boat is stopped for repairs, Kurtz's condition worsens and he dies. Marlow, who later came close to death himself from an illness, tells of the profound effect Kurtz's final moments had on him:

"Since I had peeped over the edge myself, I understand better the meaning of his stare, that could not see the flame of the candle, but was wide enough to embrace the whole universe, piercing enough to penetrate all the hearts that beat in the darkness.""I don't think Conrad," commented Mr. Siegel "if there wasn't love in Kurtz, would talk of his having 'a glance piercing enough to penetrate all the hearts that beat in the darkness.' This is kindness, good will....Kurtz did have the acquisitive in him, but he tried to make some sense of his desire to be useful, his desire to be kind, and his ability."

Eli Siegel's comprehension of the character of Kurtz was new--the way his seeing of Ibsen's Hedda Gabler was. He said about Heart of Darkness: "Conrad is not clear about Kurtz...but there is the feeling that Kurtz stands for all the possible goodness of the world, as Hedda Gabler does."

The final part of Heart of Darkness, Mr. Siegel read in its entirety, saying "it is as poetic a part of the book as any." Marlow, back in London, speaks with Kurtz's cousin and a journalist, and learns that Kurtz also had enormous talents as a musician and as a political leader. He then visits the woman Kurtz planned to marry, who is not named, but referred to throughout the book as "the Intended."

"Who was not his friend who had heard him speak once?" he asks her, and she replies: "He drew men towards him by what was best in them." She looked at me with intensity. "It is a gift of the great."

The way Kurtz is spoken about, Mr. Siegel pointed out, is not the way an author would describe someone he sees as having sold out. "Mencken felt the hero of Conrad was dramatic nullity," Mr. Siegel explained, but the way this woman speaks "is not an advocate of nullity." And he said, with great feeling, "You can almost tear up the floor when you see what people haven't seen in Kurtz." The Intended says to Marlow:

"You were with him--to the last?" "To the very end," I said shakily. "I heard his very last words"--I stopped in a fright. "Repeat them," she murmured in a heartbroken tone. "I want--I want--something--something to--live with..." "Don't you understand, I loved him--I loved him--I loved him." I pulled myself together and spoke slowly. "The last word he pronounced was--your name." I heard a light sigh and then my heart stood still, stopped dead short by an exulting and terrible cry of inconceivable triumph and unspeakable pain...."I knew it--I was sure!"...she knew. She was sure. I heard her weeping..."

Said Mr. Siegel: "So [Kurtz's last words] 'The horror' are changed into 'I love you." And I think the deep reason for this is in what Mr. Siegel said next:
"What is the deepest and most secret thing in the world? Does it speak well of the world? Aesthetic Realism says it is the oneness of opposites, and I am asking for honesty about that. The large thing is to look at this story and be critical of everything related to it, including what I'm saying." He then read what various critics have said about this story, including the English novelist, E.M. Forster, and the American critic, H.L. Mencken, who writes:
"The exact point of the story of Kurtz in Heart of Darkness is that it is pointless. Kurtz's death is as meaningless as his life. The moral of such a story is a wholesale negation of all morals."

As a person who once felt the world was basically meaningless, and that evil seemed to be the strongest thing, I am glad to have had the chance to study what Mr. Siegel was showing in this class---that the world can be liked only by wanting to know it in its fulness--both what is good and what is bad, evil or ugly. He concluded this great lecture by saying:
"The chief thing in behalf of the world is that reality is a oneness of opposites and the oneness of opposites is the same as all value in the world--the same as beauty, the same as goodness, the same as kindness."

Michael Palmer

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

"Ethics As Possibility," Part 3, and conclusion of an Aesthetic Realism Class given by Eli Siegel; reported on by Michael Palmer

In the final part of this great class, Mr. Siegel showed that what Ibsen was dealing with as drama--the large, ethical battle between telling the truth and lying--was being fought out dramatically in America at that time, October, 1969. He read what he called "an important article" in the Washington Post, titled, "Casual Willingness to Lie, Important Lesson of [Green] Berets" by Joseph Kraft. Our country was in the midst of the brutally ugly, unjust Vietnam war, trying to impose profit economics on the Vietnamese people, who wanted to own their land in a different way. There was growing objection in America to what we were doing, and just five days after this class, on October 15, 1969, many Americans would be taking part in a huge demonstration and march in Washington and elsewhere, called "The Vietnam Moratorium." Mr. Siegel, who was passionate in his opposition to this war from its beginnings, calling it the most unethical war in American history, said of the Kraft article: "Yesterday, a victory against falsity and the lie appeared in the Washington Post--the clearest statement about the lie on which the Vietnam War is based."

About that lie, he asked:

"Is it possible for people honestly to get to a kind of government that is not the same as private enterprise as a way of life? Is it possible or does it all have to be fomented by agitators?....It's gone on and made for more pain than people realize....Korea had to do with this, Cuba, Guatemala, Indonesia. It has a long history based on the lie--that no person would want industry owned in common. "

He read portions of the article about the effort by U.S government officials to cover up the killing in Vietnam by a special elite force of the U-S Army, the "Green Berets." Former Ambassador Robert Komer is quoted as saying about the false report he wrote on the war: "I was asked to show progress. I wasn't asked to show the dark side."

"I use the word lie," said Mr. Siegel. "The lie is a personal thing, but occasionally it's a national means." And with historic perspective, he described the big lie that anything other than profit economics is against democracy....":

I was tremendously moved by what Mr. Siegel said as he concluded this his­toric lecture. He said: "There are possibilities of people wanting to be friendly to other people, thinking really that the skies and the waters and the land have a right to be cared for, and in a deep sense had, owned, by all the people." And he said, of Americans about to state their ethical objection: "October 15th will be a great day because it will be said (in the Moratorium), with Hedda Gabler somewhere present, that we have given too much credence to the lie."

Now in 2004, with Americans increasingly objecting as we see startling and horrendous evidence of lying in various places, the need for Aesthetic Realism and how it sees ethics is more urgent than ever.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

"Ethics As Possibility," Part 2 of a report of an Aesthetic Realism class by Michael Palmer

Here is Part 2, of a report of a remarkable class given by Eli Siegel October 10, 1969, part of a series Eli Siegel gave on one of the important plays in the history of drama, Henrik Ibsen's Hedda Gabler of 1890. (Part 1 is below). I'm glad to have heard this class for many reasons--but in particular, because through it I came to have a deeper respect for women.

"Lovborg," he said, is "a somewhat learned [writer]...given to impressive theory, and also given to drink and flattering women." Hedda asks Thea how her friendship with Lovborg came to be.

TE. Oh, it grew up gradually, I gained a sort of influence over him.

HG. Indeed?

TE. He gave up his old habits. Not because I asked him to, for I never dared do that. But of course he saw how repulsive they were to me; and he dropped them.

HG. Then you have reclaimed him--as the saying goes--my little Thea.

TE. So he says himself at any rate.

Commented Mr. Siegel, "The sense of a woman's vanity and the sense of how to build it up was in Lovborg." And he added, "A subtitle of this play [could be] 'The Need for Compliments.' Contrasting the ethics of Thea and Hedda, Mr. Siegel explained, "Hedda Gabler wants to be praised truly if at all. Mrs. Elvsted wants to hear the praise first and the truth later, if at all. This is the first big division of ethics--As soon as there is a disproportion between yourself and the universe, there is the tendency to lie....I don't think Mrs. Elvsted loved the truth as much as [Hedda Gabler]....If we loved the truth 40 percent as much as ourselves, we'd be doing pretty well."

He then gave examples of injustice from man to woman and woman to man in some of the great works of literature--including Greek Drama, and the operas Carmen, Aida, and Tosca. And he said that there was something new which Ibsen was after in this play--even though he himself doesn't make it clear enough. What that something is Mr. Siegel described when he said:"A woman was able to ask a man questions which enabled him to see his thoughts more clearly, express himself more clearly, present them more effectively,"--and it was not liked, not acknowledged, by the man. "It's not that Ibsen says this [directly] but we have to ask why Hedda Gabler is displeased?"

It was exciting to hear Mr. Siegel then read from a 1903 New York Times review of a Manhattan Theatre production of Hedda Gabler, in which the reviewer writes:

"Mrs. Fisk played Hedda Gabler, the presentation of a part which [another actress, Eleanora] Duse studied ten years."

Actresses haven't known how to play Hedda, Mr. Siegel pointed out, because she has not been understood, but he said: "If a part is worth studying 10 years [as Duse did] and all that [Hedda] is is ill-natured, why do you have to study for so long?" The reviewer described the play as "strangely disquieting." And what Mr. Siegel said about that statement explains the art of Ibsen and why the play, while not being understood, has been liked by audiences. He said:

"The purpose of art is always, deeply, to bring something that can be called serenity, repose, to make for quieting. But because of the honest stirring, one is supposed to feel less at odds with oneself and the world."

That "honest stirring," we saw, is what Hedda Gabler makes for. She questions the complacency of people, their motives. She is going after what is true. Said Mr. Siegel, "To see that someone felt that honesty was worth a lot should not be disquieting, it should be encouraging and very often one is encouraged by being upset a little." The reviewer, comparing Hedda to one of the most famous characters of French fiction, Flaubert's Madame Bovary, writes: "All the glitter and tinsel of romance is absent in this Emma Bovary of the North. Even the romantic excuse for Emma's downfall is missing." And Mr. Siegel showed that this comparison is unfair to Hedda Gabler. "Emma Bovary quite definitely was a lady waiting for a man on a white horse," he said, "and that is not present in Hedda Gabler." "[Hedda]," he said, "felt that the man on the white horse would be someone...willing to have himself deeply affected by a woman, not neces­sarily complimenting her or going through all the congratu­lations and all the obeisance associated with love in the Palazzo."
Check back soon for Part 3, and the conclusion of this great class
Regards, MP

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

"Ethics As Possibility," Part 1 of a Report of an Aesthetic Realism Class by Michael Palmer

Eli Siegel saw the Isben play Hedda Gabler in a new way--
different than how it's been previously seen

The class I'm reporting on of October 10, 1969 titled "Ethics as Possibility," was part of a series Eli Siegel gave on one of the important plays in the history of drama, Henrik Ibsen's Hedda Gabler of 1890. Mr. Siegel used a portion of the play to show how ethics has to do centrally with whether we want to tell the truth or lie. "Ethics," he explained, "is always concerned with choices--one, what to do; two, how beauti­ful will what I do look to me, to people and maybe to God."

Mr. Siegel proceeded to show what the character of Hedda Gabler truly is, and that critics in both the 19th and 20th centuries have misjudged her. "It was thought," he said, "that she was more bent on ruining the lives of people than being accurate and being just." But he said Hedda was looking for honesty from people in a way that, while it often made a person uncomfortable, was deeply good and on the side of ethics.

In a previous talk, Mr. Siegel had spoken about the deep bitterness Hedda Gabler had because a man resented the fact that she had an intellectual effect on him and his work. Eilert Lovborg is the man who, because of questions Hedda asked him and discussions they had, came to write an important book, but instead of acknowledging the effect, Lovborg prefers to see their relationship as physical and sexual. This is false and is deeply insulting to Hedda, and as the plot develops, has tragic consequences.

The action of the play begins some time after Hedda knew Lovborg. She has recently married Jorgen Tessman, a scholarly but extremely dull and insensitive man. As Act One opens, they have just returned to Christiania, Norway from their honeymoon in Italy, and they are visited by Thea Elvsted, a woman Hedda had gone to school with. Thea has left her husband, a Sheriff, and come to Christiania in search of Eilert Lovborg, who had been working as a tutor for her husband's children. At first she lies to the Tessmans, saying it was her husband who sent her to find Lovborg. But when Hedda questions her alone and asks what sort of man her husband is, Thea reveals the truth. She says:

T. Elvsted. I don't think he really cares for anyone but himself--and perhaps a little for the children.

H. Gabler. And for Eilert Lovborg, Thea?

TE. For Eilert Lovborg? What puts that into your head?

HG. Well, my dear--I should say, when he sends you after him all the way to town. And besides, you said so yourself to Tessman.

TE. Did I? Yes, I suppose I did. ( No--I may just as well make a clean breast of it at once! For it must all come out in any case.

HG. Why, my dear Thea--?

TE. Well, to make a long story short: My husband did not know that I was coming.

HG. What! Your husband didn't know it!

TE. No, of course not. For that matter he was away from home himself--he was travelling. Oh, I could bear it no longer, Hedda! I couldn't indeed--so utterly alone as I should have been in the future.
Some critics have seen Thea's leaving her husband as courageous, honest, bold, but "one of the principle things in ethics," Mr. Siegel pointed out, "is motive. It is not the deed." Thea Elvsted, he explained, was disappointed in her husband--his desire to understand her was certainly not great enough--but the main reason she left him is essentially selfish.

Check back for Part 2 of this class to be published soon

Best regards,

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Music Shows How We Want to Be: Artie Shaw's "Nightmare," Part 2, by Michael Palmer

Control and Crying Out in the Clarinet

When Shaw comes in a second time, on a longer solo, he is deep, thoughtful and yearning; you feel he is looking for something and is not satisfied as he leans on blues notes that sound sour, painful, and don’t quite fit the background harmony. As the solo progresses, he goes further, becomes more abandoned, goes higher and higher in the instrument’s range—nearly three and a half octaves. Every phrase takes in more and more territory; and surprisingly that steady beat underneath, which earlier seemed so ominous, now seems to support him, encourage him on even as it remains so tight, just two semitones. What a contrast to the range of the clarinet!

(Shaw clarinet solo)

So different from “Nightmare,” dark, minor and portentous, is a song Artie Shaw is very much associated with: Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine,” which is mellow, beguiling and in the major. It was one of Shaw’s biggest hits, and audiences would demand he play it again and again. These two compositions were recorded in the same year, 1938, and it thrilled me to see that the same opposites are central in both of them: the contained and the expansive, something tight, held back, and something that surges forward, together with a persistent, ongoing beat.

(Opening of “Beguine The Beguine”)

Isn’t it something to think that the same man is identified so closely with these very different pieces—one upbeat, with a smooth, undulating melody, the other severe, dissonant, critical. It shows that Artie Shaw, like every person, was trying to put opposites together.

As “Nightmare” concludes—with that dark, inexorable pattern below, the brass blaring out above, and that final bright cymbal crash—we get an emotion that’s very satisfying. This music is brash, it’s bold, it’s critical, it doesn’t smooth things over. We can imagine audiences in the late 1930s, worried about what was happening in Europe, and trying to make sense of their own lives, pleased to hear it played by a big band, to hear something troubling given artistic form. And audiences today can feel this too. In fact, “Nightmare” is part of the background score to the current film, The Aviator.

As we listen to that last assertive minor chord with its crashing cymbal, we feel there’s something honest going on. Reality is not summed up--we feel there’s more to see.

(Conclusion of “Nightmare” starting with the end of Shaw’s solo
when he seems at the top of his range)
For your comments, please email me: and/or visit my website.
Kindest regards,

Friday, January 21, 2005

Music Shows How We Want To Be: Artie Shaw’s “Nightmare," Part 1 by Michael Palmer

The education Aesthetic Realism, founded by American poet and critic Eli Siegel (1902-1978), describes what makes for beauty in music and shows how music comments centrally on what we’re hoping for in our lives. “All beauty,” Mr.Siegel stated, “is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” There is not one thing that music does,” Siegel once said in a lecture “that does not say something about how a person should organize himself, too.”

The composition “Nightmare” by the late Artie Shaw is a great example of this. It wowed me when I first heard it as a teenager living in the Bronx. It was on a big band radio show. The announcer would come on and say, “Now, live from the Blue Room of the Hotel Lincoln, the music of Artie Shaw and his orchestra”--and the band would come in with the opening bars of “Nightmare.” Hearing that intense, heavy, unrelenting beat, and Shaw on the clarinet seeming to cry out--I would get goose bumps—-and I still do!

As I think of that time in my life, it’s surprising that I liked this music so much. Though I cared for sports, I was a very contained person; I didn’t like exploring new territory, being tossed about. I preferred familiar, comfortable, smooth ground; and so I held myself back, and while I felt “safe” inside, I often wanted to yell out. I had no idea that the reason this music, aptly called “Nightmare,” with its dissonant, ominous wail, excited and satisfied me so much was because it opposed my desire to be smoothly contained, and gave outward form to my hope to break out of that deadening narrowness I had welcomed. Many people go around in a kind of quiet nightmare, not knowing how they got there or how it can change.

In an early Aesthetic Realism class I attended, Eli Siegel asked me: “Do you think you want to change, but you also want to remain exactly as you are?” I said, “Yes.” And he asked: “Are you fond of the status quo and the status no?” I was. I remember, for instance, going to a singles club hoping to meet a woman, but waiting for someone to come to me and start a conversation. I thought my mere presence was enough. But I was wrong, and usually left alone, blaming others for being unsociable. I came to see what I was really hoping for as Mr. Siegel asked me: ”Do you think there is something impelling you to have to have a good effect on someone? Is there an imperative there?” The answer was yes—and my fortunate life these years ratifies that “yes,” a thousand fold.

What Is This Music About?

I see in “Nightmare,” which Artie Shaw composed and arranged himself, a dramatic tension between the confined and the explosive: something painfully contained struggling to break free. As we heard, it begins with that thudding, repetitive pattern on the trombones, saxophones, and drum. The low saxophones are playing a tight, chromatic figure that is almost airless. The rest of the band comes in suddenly in the high register, and the effect is like an electric shock. The high and low aspect of the band are almost in a combat, and out of it, in the middle register, Artie Shaw enters on the clarinet.
It’s important to say that Shaw felt this music, with its nightmarish quality, represented him so much he used it as his theme song. What was impelling him? I feel these sentences by Eli Siegel from Self and World help explain it:

"One thing that can be seen in dreams and also in life is that on the one hand we want to go ahead, and on the other hand we want to check ourselves.... We should see, however, that the desire to be wild and abandoned and the desire to be self-restricting are common desires, and are present all the time, both when we sleep and when we are awake."

As I studied the life of Shaw for a public seminar at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation, I came to see that this desire to go ahead and also check himself, to be both abandoned and self-restricting troubled him very much. An innovative bandleader during the heyday of the swing era in 1930’s and early 40’s, Shaw, writes music historian George Simon, “was a searcher, a man looking for something new, something different.” And he could be very kind, generous; becoming the first white bandleader to hire a Black singer, Billie Holliday, and supporting her with a beautiful insistence despite the terrific bigotry and racism she had to face as she traveled with him and his band in the South. And Shaw also cared very much for knowledge, taking courses in French literature so he, as he said: “could read men like Flaubert, Proust and Baudelaire.” But he was also snobbish, looking down on fellow musicians who he felt were not as intellectual as he was. And unfortunately, he had contempt for his audiences, describing them as “musically illiterate.” Had he studied Aesthetic Realism, he would have been able to learn from the very music he wrote, and his life—which included pain about love—would have been so much more fortunate. In an important paper, Martha Baird, poet and critic of music, wrote of Shaw’s “Nightmare,” saying:

"Artie Shaw is intense. There is a kind of pain in the tone of his clarinet, but he has control too and he knows what he is doing. [And she also wrote] You feel Artie Shaw wept a lot."

Please check back soon for Part 2 on
Artie Shaw's great jazz composition "Nightmare"


Sunday, January 16, 2005

Basie, Williams, and the Blues

Joe Williams, Count Basie Orchestra "Every Day I Have the Blues"
By Michael Palmer

In the Opposites in Music class, I've been seeing how Eli Siegel's principle, "The resolution of conflict in self is like the making one of opposites in art," is true about music as such, including music I've cared for.

The song I speak about is one that affected me very much when I first heard it on the William B. Williams disk jockey program--sometime in the 1950's‑‑the wonderful baritone Joe Williams singing "Every Day [I Have the Blues]" with the Count Basie orchestra. At that time in my life I was feeling pretty low, thinking I'd gotten "bad breaks"--not knowing what I was to learn later from Aesthetic Realism, that my own aloof, disdainful attitude towards the world and people was taking the life out of me. And I had no idea that the reason this music stirred me is because in it the Basie band and Joe Williams take that feeling so many people are prone to, of "having the blues", and give it a form, an energy and liveliness that definitely contradicts the very mood of what is being said. Here is how it begins:

[PLAY :00 through :48 & FADE]

In Eli Siegel's lecture, Poetry and Cheerfulness, he said: "One of the important things about art is that it can take something sad and sincerely put it into a swift rhythm."

And that's what happens here. As we heard, Count Basie himself is at the piano, setting the blues mood in his distinctive way, with both major and minor sixth on the way down the scale: [Edward Green demonstrates].

A beautiful thing here is the rhythm, the way Basie takes that downward shuffle and gives it critical, energetic edge with those sharp, staccato right hand chords. [EG demonstrates]
Then Basie turns the scale around, goes up, and signals the band to come in; and they do--with that deeply swinging rhythm.

[PLAY :09 to :31 and fade]

We feel immediately something sad has a cheerfulness and form as the brass begins, with the saxophones following, and all the while, the rhythm section of Basie at the piano, Freddie Green on guitar, Eddie Jones on bass, and Sonny Payne on drums keep a steady and lively beat.

As Joe Williams comes in, he sings with tremendous energy and a smile in his voice on the complaining words:

Every day, Every day I have the blues
Every day, Every day I have the blues

He shows that something and someone matters to him; he's not cool and aloof like I was:

Well you see me worry baby
Because it's you I hate to lose.

He is affected, and the orchestra is affected as well. Williams and the saxophone seem almost to be in a conversation with the sax sympathizing with him as he sings:

Nobody loves me, nobody seems to care.
Nobody loves me, nobody seems to care
Speaking of bad luck and trouble
Well you know I've had my share.

[PLAY from 1:23 through 2:28 fast fade]

The message is sad, but as Williams emphasizes certain words, and exchanges phrases with that sassy saxophone, played by Marshall Royal, it sounds lively.

I once felt there wasn't much to get too excited about. In fact, I didn't even think things were worthy of outwardly complaining about. Unlike Joe Williams in this song, I went for inward brooding, worked hard to maintain a smooth exterior, and increasingly felt remote from people and dull. In an Aesthetic Realism class, Mr. Siegel explained:

"Aesthetic Realism says every state of mind has a cause, whether it's moderate, bitter or depressed. Does your feeling moderate have a cause?....Do you feel right now that your living pitch is high enough? Would you like to be keener in your sense of life?"

I answered "yes," and Mr. Siegel said, with kind humor that I love, "If I had my way, I'd have you go through the motion of a Russian kazatzka and yell at the same time." He explained:

"Once we make reality a failure, we ourselves feel a failure and dull. Do you get a triumph in making reality not a success? Would you like all the clocks to run down?"

This was exactly what I was doing, and I'm happy to say what I heard that day marked the beginning of a big change in my life. I've seen that there's nothing uglier, more unethical than getting a triumph out of hoping reality is a failure. It is contempt, and it's the cause of every injustice and cruelty in the world today. And I've seen the joy, the exhilaration that comes from trying to be honest about reality, seeing it truly, is the real success in life.

I've learned in the "Opposites in Music" class that the Blues themselves arise from like of the world--an affirmation of form in sound even as a person wails, complains, and is sad. The way Joe Williams and the Basie band work together, we feel anything but "clocks running down." Instead, we feel reality matters, it gets to us, and we're excited and composed at once.

There's precision in the arrangement, which is by Ernie Wilkins, but the band and soloists do things in a wild, delight­fully unexpected way. When Williams comes back to the refrain "Nobody loves me/Nobody seems to care" a second time, he just throws his head back and shouts it out in a way that's anything but moderate, smooth. In fact, it's so raw, it startles you--this is no cool customer--and we respect him. There's beautiful courage in that sound. I learned that Joe Williams studied operatic singing but was prevented by the racism of the time from pursuing a career in it. Meanwhile, he loved the blues tradition, and he became famous for what was called his "voice breaking" cries. On the liner notes for this recording, it is said

"They call Joe Williams a "blues bawler" and they say that when he sings he has a "bawl," which is largely true."

Yes, and there's honesty in that bawl.

[PLAY 2:29 to 3:53 and fade]

And Williams concludes on a surprising, very long and very high note on the sound of oooo. I think the sense of wonder after all that complaint and misery is great--and it has an ethical message. To end so sweetly and gently after all that wailing is a tribute to the Aesthetic Realism idea that every person's deepest desire is to like the world, and that the criterion for an honest complaint is whether it enables us to care more, feel more for the whole world. I think this music definitely answers yes!

[Play 4:20 or 4:21 to end]