Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Music, Identity and Ralph Ellison



I am reading Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man at the moment. This is a book that I can't even really say anything about, except "Go read it." It is powerful, painful, poetic, a book written about an America that has long-since disappeared, from a point of view that doesn't exist anymore. It is surprisingly beautiful, much more than I expected it to be. Having read a lot of black Caribbean writers - Maryse Conde, Franz Fanon, Patrick Chamoiseau - I am struck by Ellison's superiority to them in many ways, as he is somehow able to capture the essence of belonging-yet-not-belonging by presenting an experience both concrete and symbolic, real and metaphorical. Or maybe his writing is clearer to me simply because while he describes the same experience as the African and Caribbean writers, the story is located in a country I know well. Set in America, this narrative is able to convey something personal to me that the others cannot. Like I said, I'm not ready to write about it yet; at this point I am stupid to do anything but say "Read the book." .

Ellison was a musician before he was a writer, and consequently the book is rich with passages centered on music. They slip in at odd moments, supporting the narrative almost like little decorative (but functional) columns. Nearly all the scenes in the book rely on musical references as a way of reaching the reader and conveying an experience that would be otherwise untransmittable. My favorite so far is a description of a kind of 'trip' the narrator has as he's listening to a recording of Louis Armstrong playing "What Did I Do to Be so Black and Blue?" The speaker has smoked some questionable weed given to him by someone in the street, and while listening to the music he experiences something which he describes as a descent into the music.

So under the spell of the reefer I discovered a new analytical way of listening to music. The unheard sounds came through, and each melodic line existed of itself, stood out clearly from all the rest, said its piece, and waited patiently for the other voices to speak. That night I found myself hearing not only in time, but in space as well. I not only entered the music but descended, like Dante, into its depths.

I wrote a paper not long ago about the link between Caribbean storytellers and jazz musicians. I had no idea this passage existed then. It makes me want to revisit that paper and do something with it, to branch out from French literature, as these experiences are all connected. Ellison makes of the lived experience a poetic realm where the visual, the aural and the emotional merge to create what we call reality.

1 comment:

Chicken & Waffles said...

"The Invisible Man" made a huge impression on me when I read it in high school. I've read it since and agree it is a work of understated genius, one which I am pleased has been rediscovered and Ellison appreciated. I think your analogy here is right on.