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Jean-Paul Sartre on How American Jazz

Lets You Experience Existentialist


Freedom & Transcendence
in Literature, Music, Philosophy| March 2nd, 2016 1 Comment

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In Jean-Paul Sartres 1938 philosophical novel Nausea, which he considered one of his
finest works of fiction or otherwise, the stricken protagonist Antoine Roquentin cures his
existential horror and sickness with jazzspecifically with an old recording of the song
Some of These Days. Which recording? We do not know. I only wish Sartre had been
more specific about the names of the musicians on the date, writes critic Ted Gioia in a
newly published essay, I would love to hear the jazz record that trumps Freud, cures the
ill, and solves existential angst.

The song was first recorded in 1911 by a Ukranian-Jewish singer named Sophie Tucker,
who made her name with it, and was written by a black Canadian named Shelton Brooks.
But Sartres hero refers to the singer as an African-American, or as the Negress, and to its
writer as a Jew with Black eyebrows. Was this a mix-up? Or did Sartre refer to another of
the hundreds of recordings of the song? (Perhaps Ethel Waters, below?). Or, this being a
work of fiction, and Roquentin himself a failed writer, are these identifications made up in
his imagination?

In his description of the recording, Roquentin reduces the singer and composer to two
broad types: the jazz singing Negress and the Jewa clean-shaven American with
thick black eyebrows, who sits in a New York skyscraper. This stereotyping creates
what Miriama Young calls an objectification of the voice and the persona behind it. In
the novels strangely happy ending, Roquentin recovers his disintegrating self by attaching
it to these nameless, static figures, who are as repetitious as the record playing over and
over on the phonograph, and who are themselves somehow saved by the music.

Sartre, James Donald argues, still believed in the redemptive power of art. In the last
mention of the record, Roquentin asks to hear the Negress sing. She sings. So two of
them are saved: the Jew and the Negress. Saved. And yet, rather than discovering in the
music a redemptive authenticity, argues Donald, Sartres use of jazz in Nausea is more
like Al Jolsons in The Jazz Singer, a creative act of mishearing and ventriloquism, or a
generative inauthenticity.

Sartres early conception of the redemptive power of art depended on such inauthenticity;
the work of art is an irreality, he writes in 1940 in The Imaginary: A Phenomenological
Psychology of the Imagination. As in Roquentins diary, writes Adnan Menderes, or the
novel itself, in a work of art the here-and-now existence of human being could be shown
as interwoven in necessary relations. But in contrast to the work of art, in the real world the
existence of human being is contingent and for this very reason it is free. It is that very
freedom and contingency out in the world, the inability to ground himself in reality, that
produces Roquentins nausea and the existentialists crisis. And it is the jazz
recordings irreality that resolves it.

Sartres use of the racialized types of Negress and Jew as foils for the complicated,
troubled European psyche is reminiscent of Camus later use of the Arab in The
Stranger. Though he critically explored issues of racism and anti-Semitism at length in his
later writing, he was perhaps not immune to the primitivist tropes that dominated European
modernism and that, for example, made Josephine Baker famous in Paris. (The white
imagination sure is something when it comes to blacks, Baker herself once wearily
observed.) But these types are themselves unreal, like the work of art, projections of
Roquentins imaginative search for solidity in the exotic otherness of jazz. Nearly ten years
after the publication of Nausea, Sartre wrote of the pull jazz had on him in a short, tongue-
in-cheek essay called I Discovered Jazz in America, which Michelman describes as like
an anthropologist describing an alien culture.

In the 1947 essay, Sartre writes of the music he hears at Nicks bar, in New York as dry,
violent, pitiless. Not gay, not sad, inhuman. The cruel screech of a bird of prey. The music
is animalistic, immediate, and strange, unlike European formalism: Chopin makes you
dream, or Andre Claveau, writes Sartre, But not the jazz at Nicks. It fascinates. Like
Roquentins recording, the Nicks Bar jazz band is speaking to the best part of you, to the
toughest, to the freest, to the part which wants neither melody nor refrain, but the deafening
climax of the moment.

Gioia recommends that we abandon Theodor Adorno as the go-to European academic
reference for jazz writing (Id agree!) and instead refer to Sartre. But Id be hesitant to
recommend this description. Jazz, improvisatory or otherwise, does extraordinary things
with melody and refrain, tearing apart traditional song structures and putting them back
together. (See, for example, Dizzy Gillespies Salt Peanuts from 1947, above.) But it
does not abandon musical form altogether in a sustained, formless climax of the moment,
as Sartres sexualized phrase alleges.

Yet in this new jazzthe crashing, chaotic bebop so unlike the crooning big band and show
tunes Sartre admired in the 30sit would be easy for the enthusiast to hear only climax.
This music excited Sartre very much, writes Gioia; he called jazz the music of the future
and made an effort to get to know Miles Davis and Charlie Parker [above and below], and
listen to John Coltrane, though his writings on the subject are more atmospheric than
analytical.

With humor and vivid description, Sartres essay does a wonderful job of conveying his
experience of hearing live jazz as an amused and overawed outsider, though he seems to
have some difficulty understanding exactly what the music is on terms outside his excitable
emotional response. The whole crowd shouts in time, writes Sartre, you cant even hear
the jazz, you watch some men on a bandstand sweating in time, youd like to spin around,
to howl at death, to slap the face of the girl next to you.
Perhaps what Sartre heard, experienced, and felt in live bebop was what he had always
wanted to hear in recorded jazz, an analogue to his own philosophical yearnings. In an
article on one of his major influences, Husserl, written the year after the publication
of Nausea, Sartre describes the way we discover ourselves as outside, in the world,
among others, not in some hiding place. Strong emotions, hatred, love, fear,
sympathyall those famous subjective reactions that were floating in the malodorous
brine of the mind. They are simply ways of discovering the world.

We come to authentic existence, writes Sartreusing a phrase that would soon resound
in Jack Kerouacs coming existential appropriation of jazzon the road, in the town, in
the midst of the crowd, a thing among things, a human among humans. In this way, Gioia
speculates, Sartre likely saw jazz as the musical manifestation of the existential freedom
he described in his philosophical texts. Sartre may have misread the formal discipline of
jazz, but he describes hearing it live, among a sweating, throbbing crowd, as an authentic
experience of freedom, unlike the recording that saves Roquentin through repetition and
irreality. In both cases, however, Sartre finds in jazz a means of transcendence.