Far Cry

a column by
Brian Morton

Susan Sontag

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of chairing and speaking at a memorial meeting for my old friend [the novelist and essayist] Susan Sontag. Because it was held in London, rather than in New York, or in Paris, where Susan is buried; because the panel consisted of friends and admirers rather than combatants; and perhaps because Brits make uneasy controversialists at the best of times and are for all their faults notably relaxed about a person’s sexuality and sexual politics (she was widely decried in America for not being more open about her bisexual relationships, which were not mentioned in some of the main obituaries and for her perceived “failure” to lift the feminist debates of the 1960s and 1970s above their middlebrow level); for all these reasons the meeting’s tone was affectionate and admiring. London’s skyline may well have been shaped by the Luftwaffe, but the present day cityscape doesn’t have a gap where airliners were flown into iconic buildings, so perhaps Susan’s comments on the 9/11 attacks – she stated with perfect plainness that the hijackers could not be dismissed as “cowards”, nor could their act be considered mysterious or meaningless – do not have the same startling resonance there.

One shouldn’t make guesses about the composition of a public audience but I would also assume that in Britain, her constituency would more likely be made up of photography students for whom her monograph on the subject is a set text, admirers of her late novels The Volcano Lover and In America (the former is about Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton, after all), and possibly cancer and/or HIV/AIDS sufferers who have drawn courage rather than mere comfort from Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and its Metaphors; all these rather than readers of Styles of Radical Will or the early “experimental” fiction.

I was initially discomfited at the thought of sitting alongside Susan’s friends when my acquaintance with her had been irregular and until near the end not very close, so it was reassuring to find that the others had had very much the same experience: short and infrequent contact but with a vastly disproportionate. It turned out that I had known her longer and, with one exception, better than the others. Even so, we shared one fundamental impression beyond others, and that was Susan’s seemingly limitless appetite for experience. The sheer weight and range of her published work points clearly to a writer who could bring an evenly suspended attention to almost any aspect of the cultural scene, from avant-garde music to popular film. She was capable of spending the morning writing about anything on that spectrum or about something as raw as the WTC attacks, then visiting three art galleries in the afternoon, catching a new movie before supper, and then maybe a late-night Godard retrospective before retiring. And you can be sure that somewhere in the interstices there, she would be reading and annotating.

A year before she died, Susan and her son David Rieff joined my wife and me for a day in Glasgow. She was visibly ailing and clearly tired, but in the course of a short day she walked round Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s wonderful School of Art (clearly moved by a place she’d read about so often), quizzed us closely about the history of the Glasgow Soviet and the great George Square riot that followed World War One, admired the Cunard-styled Art Deco interior of [restaurant] Rogano, and jumped a taxi to view Sir William Hunter’s (in)famous obstetric models at the Hunterian Museum.

If she had a cultural blind spot – and this is the point of such a roundabout introduction – it was jazz. She held it in no apparent disregard. It simply wasn’t on her radar, on only in the most general way. We spoke of this sometimes, her with a certain fatalism (only 24 hours in the day, after all), me with a certain relief at being a nose ahead in one subject at least, but it set me thinking to what extent the ideas and values she espoused over the years were applicable to jazz, even if she hadn’t chosen to apply them. Unlike Norman Mailer – a very roughly comparable figure, albeit antipodeally different – who has cheerfully applied his metaphysics and eschatology to everything from plastic cutler to the Sun Ra Arkestra, Susan was not inclined to speak ex cathedra on subjects that were unknown to her.

There are passages in “’Thinking Against Oneself’”, one of the essays in Styles of Radical Will, which might seem to apply to jazz – though the piece itself is about [Rumanian philosopher] E.M. Cioran, but I suspect that might be no more than word-play. Much more positive might be to look at what Sontag wrote in what must be, after On Photography and the two “illness” books, her most influential discourse.

The main thrust of her 1964 essay book is in the title it shared with a subsequent collection: Against Interpretation. In it, Sontag suggested that we were too much concerned with extracting meaning from our cultural objects, reducing them to a “message”, and thus not nearly concerned enough with the forms of those objects and their actual effect on us; criticism should not be so bound up with interpretation that it fails in its basic duty, which is to help us “feel more” in the presence of art. As more than one defender of interpretation has suggested, this insistence on presenting “the work” as it is in itself rather than a reflection of some current ideology (Marxist, Freudian, Christian, whatever) is hardly new; it might be called Victorian, but it also squares with the familiar commonsensical sneer that we’re “reading too much into something simple”. She suggests further on that “in place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art”.

Now I don’t know who among us consciously gives a bugger about the hermeneutics of jazz, but I can easily anticipate nervous winces at the thought that jazz erotics might mean nothing more than a queasy return to the word’s presumed derivation from the sexual act. Then again, when you take the sex out, or the dance that precedes and represents it, what you have left might be thought to be fit for no-one but Dr Dryasdust. So, there’s a small dilemma right off.

One area of musical interest absolutely shared with Susan was the music of Shostakovich, and – pace her earlier strictures – we spent a good deal of time talking about what the composer had “meant” by the Fifth Symphony or the Eighth String Quartet. This is basic stuff in Shostakovich studies and it goes right to the soggy heart of a debate about whether he was a dissident or a temporizer, or even a loyal Soviet whose work was hi-jacked to serve other ends. The reality, of course, is that he was none of these but instead a sublimely gifted man whose politics were basically democratic but whose only real ideology was music, and with a purview that included everything from Bach to jazz.

The point of the digression is that listening to Shostakovich for years with the implied question “what is he thinking/feeling/saying here? and here?” hanging in the air before me has rendered the whole process of interpretation extremely self-conscious and has made me rethink, not always successfully, what values should be brought to jazz criticism. When I described Against Interpretation as among Sontag’s most “influential” works, I should perhaps have said “influential, but more in the breach than the observance”. There is a strong tendency in cultural criticism to abandon your own premises once you’ve got the first, theoretical chapter out of the way, and go digging for “meaning” in the rest. In the same way, we almost all of us revert at some point to truffling for significance in a piece of music. That’s easy enough if it’s called “Attica Blues” or “Canadian Sunset” or “In memoriam John C”, but it takes on a different and more treacherous strain if it’s called “Fragment #4”.

My own original model when it came to jazz – and other critical - writing was [the Englishman] Max Harrison, who could turn in a 2000 word piece without a single value judgment, political or psychological extrapolation. I tried for a time, only to have editors hand back copy and say “Yeah, very nice, Brian, but did you actually like it?” or “Fine, but I think we need to have a sense of what it’s about”. At that time, I occasionally spelled a music critic whose approach to reviewing – much admired by those same editors and apparently by the newspaper public – consisted largely of describing how a piece of Liszt made her feel licked from head to toe with a strange heatless flame (I’m not making this up) and then, two paragraphs later, doused in icy water. Call me unduly literal, or too quick to jump on a mixed metaphor, but if the flame was heatless, wasn’t the water bucket a bit superfluous? Call me prudish, but isn’t this taking the erotics of music a step too far in the wrong direction?

Enough of rhetorical questions, because there are real ones here as well. Is this closer to what Sontag meant when she said criticism should convey the experience of a particular work? Or does it expose a seeming contradiction in her essay about form and content? Sontag startled some of her readers by rejecting pure or abstract experimentalism in art. I think the answer to it – quite apart from reminding you that consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds – is in the space between creation and reception. We as readers and listeners should not go looking for meaning (or certainly not for a meaning) but that doesn’t mean that artists should make it easy, or save us from ourselves, by creating art that quite deliberately excludes meaning.

With some of these thoughts in mind, I recently undertook a nervous survey of one month’s jazz criticism with a view to finding out what it is we do go looking for when we listen to this music, and listen to it in order to write about it, which isn’t quite the same thing, sadly. It was a nervous exercise because one’s fellow-writers mightn’t enjoy the quis custodet custodes? tone of it. Writing about criticism when you practice it is like living in a glass house; put down the stone and pick up the window-cleaning mop. Just to add additional complexity and savor, both myself and the editor of this august magazine were among the critics sampled.

What I went looking for in particular were: attempts to describe the music formally (or “technically”, as some might say); attempts to locate it in some wider historical context; attempts to gauge the artist’s emotional temper at the time of performance; and straightforward value judgment. The last of these was inevitably the easiest to track, not least because of that sorry recent practice of saying (in February) that such-and-such a record was a top five cert for my record-of-the-year poll (in December). We’ve all done it, and we all forget or change our minds before the clocks go back. What was interesting was how very few reviews – fewer still among British critics – avoided any overt statement of likes or dislikes. It might be argued that a piece of text that appears over your name is by definition an opinion piece and might as well be overtly so. I’ve been advocating for years that editors revert to the old TLS style and experiment with unsigned reviews for a month or two, just to see how much of the ego drops away. The other dimension to this is authority. Just as a rave Susan Sontag review will make it onto the paperback cover with her name attached, mine will almost certainly appear as “Superb – Sunday Herald (Glasgow)”. You’d pay more attention if Dan Morgenstern thought a record was great than if Joe Blow did, even if Joe were offering you more in other directions.

That’s where this gets complicated. One class of review that immediately stood out was the self-consciously contextualized sort, where the critic makes a real point of showing his awareness of the previous two albums and a rare 1985 LP on a now-defunct Italian label. (Please assume that the words “We’ve. All. Done. It.” Appear after each subsequent point.) Nothing wrong with this if it adds to the discourse, but it’s an approach that leads you quickly towards the shoals of “development” and “evolution”, the idea that an artist’s progress, or not, can be gauged by dipping in at what are, after all, rather arbitrary points for an improvising musician. I was fiercely pleased to find one critic caught out by the most suckerfish (W.A.D.I.) of all sucker punches, describing a record as “a big step on from X’s last” when it was in fact recorded before its predecessor. (The novelist David Plante once told me that his early books were published in reverse order, having been pulled from the desk drawer once the fifth or sixth was picked up, but that critics invariably enthused how he was coming on as a stylist.)

Of some forty-six reviews sampled (and it was a genuinely random scan from a slew of papers and magazines my wife demanded I remove from the kitchen table, if you must know) not one identified a tune by its key, other than a reference to a track that was called “Blues in D”, and only four mentioned specific time-signatures. Of that same forty-six, a staggering thirty-eight related the style to some other artist. That’s most usually done when dealing with a younger figure who may still be working through influences or who hasn’t yet sufficient presence on the scene to be identifiable on his own terms. There were some howlers. One piece described as a “basic 12-bar blues” most certainly wasn’t. One curiously misidentified a trombone solo as by the trumpeter. And somebody failed to recognize “Molten Swing”. That was me.

There was, as ever, a certain reaching for language fresh enough to express fresh reactions to fresh sound - how many ways are there left to describe a tenor saxophone? – and a certain fudging of uncertainty by the yoking together by violence of apparently contradictory ideas: thus, one disc was “delightfully bleak”, another was “playfully downbeat”. This is having your cake and eating it too. (I freely confess to having attended regular AA meetings. That’s Adverbials Anonymous. “I’m Brian.” Hi, Brian! “I’m an adverbial and it’s been two days since I put –ly at the end of a word. Nearer three days, probably . . . sheeit!”) Along with unsigned reviews, I’m very much in favor of a quota system for adverbs, so you’d be allowed “deliciously” or “meltingly”, but not both.

Obviously, a random trawl of this sort had to have some restricting parameters, so I paid most mind to different reviews of the same record. This was where the most glaring “contradictions” came out. One that was described as “fierce and fiery” by one reviewer was heard as “wry, philosophical” by another, and given that the immediate context was the same track it’s hard to fall back on the hope that one was talking about an agit-prop piece, the other about a bittersweet ballad. One artist was described, without any biographical support or obvious connection to the music being discussed, as sounding like “a man whose strings had been cut, leaving him to flail unsupported until he learns a new locomotion”. Another was “asserting that music is a force not just for feeling good but also doing good” which would be fine by most of us except I don’t think the musician in question was “asserting” any such thing. Little of the music was given an overt political meaning, though one 9/11-titled piece was described as a “sob of rage that turns into an assertion (!) of the human spirit” when what I heard was a very orthodox construction that owed more to Bill Evans’s “Very Early” than to Coltrane’s “Alabama”, which was the reviewer’s reference point.

There’s a joke you hear a lot round December when editors approach the reviewing team for their respective ten best records of the year, a process which used to depend on relative consensus but which in these days of wildly proliferating labels and accelerating release sheets is way beyond the Condorcet method. The e-mail back almost always reads “Here are my choices - ask me again on Monday and I might give you ten different ones – lol - J”. It’s meant to be a high-minded disavowal of anything as vulgar as putting jazz in a chart, but it raises another valid point and one that brings us right back round to Susan Sontag.

Susan – and this is key – changed her mind. Her approach to photography in The Pain of Others is markedly different to that in On Photography. Her attitude to the Balkans and to American and UK involvement there changed too, though admittedly as the result of an actual sojourn in Sarajevo. She freely admitted that had she reviewed a particular film on Saturday instead of Friday afternoon, or on the basis of a third viewing, what she said might have been different. Her resistance to “meaning” was not so much to meaning in the abstract as the idea that one interpretation could establish hegemony over a text. When T. S. Eliot said of Henry James that he had a mind so fine it was never violated by a single idea, the key word is violated; Eliot wasn’t saying that James didn’t have a single thought in his head, just that he didn’t let one take over. I loved and admired Susan Sontag because ten minutes in her company made you feel like a better person, made you determined to work harder and more honestly, and above all, made you think that changing your mind wasn’t a sign of weakness, nor of capricious strength, merely that you were exercising your basic right to have different thoughts today and under this sky than you had yesterday under that one.

Ironically, the only place where I am routinely allowed to change my critical mind is in what might seem the least flexible of all media. In successive editions of The Penguin Guide to Jazz, Richard Cook and I have tweaked, altered, rewritten and sometimes plain turned upside down our assessment of particular records and artists. Nothing I have ever written in now more than thirty years has caused such irritation and fury. The removal of a star here, the addition of a bracket there – you wouldn’t think that would be noticed, let alone commented on, but it’s the single most common object of (non-factual) correspondence.

Reviews are supposed to be part of a dialogue, even if the “facilitator” isn’t part of the ongoing discussion. I’ve never written a review that I didn’t wish I could write again a month, or six, or twelve further on. I’ve even asked editors to allow me to “revisit” books or discs I felt had received short or misleading shrift. Some think its quaint or something out of a Pol Pot self-criticism session. Most just point sadly to the pile of new stuff waiting to go out. So, onward, with teeth gritted against undue certainty.

With Against Interpretation always on my reference shelf in front of me, I vow every time I write a review header to concentrate on the thing itself, what it is in itself, how it makes me feel in a non-incidental way (in other words, don’t expect to like the new Charles Gayle when you’re spangling with migraine), and don’t, don’t, don’t treat a record like a lock that needs picking. And just about every time, the resolution doesn’t survive the first paragraph. Sorry, but we’ve all done it.

Brian Morton©2007

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