Sunday, January 10, 2010

Strange Bedfellows: Sun Ra and Ayn Rand

"First take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye."

Meanwhile, in Solo-land...Lindsay Perigo has been attacking his arch-nemesis Robert Campbell for various offenses via his appreciation of avant-garde space-case jazz musician Sun Ra, (specifically by utilizing a specific live performance video of atonal cacophony.) Perigo is not a fan of jazz in general, but this particular piece would "alienate" most jazz fans as well. I've no personal need to defend Campbell, or even Sun Ra, but I do not advocate cheap shots in an ideological argument, from friends or foe. (But of course, a well-reasoned argument would take precious time away from Perigo's bully-boy tactics.) Putting that feud aside, it can be argued that Perigo is employing the "weak man argument," and taking this one bit out of context from the larger project. (By all means, criticize away, but do it right.) But if "crisis equals opportunity," this charade offers an opportunity to discuss an interesting anecdote about Ayn Rand's approach to her art that may surprise some who think of her as an "esthetic fascist."


I'm not a Sun Ra fan myself, but there are a few pieces that I find listenable, Disney-esque even, and even though the Sun Ra philosophy, er, "equation" is an eclectic mishmash, his overall story is a best understood (and provides a stronger basis for Objectivist criticism) as a mythic metaphor, if considered from Joseph Campbell's "hero's journey" approach. Best-case scenario: His was a flamboyant, "afro-futuristic" version of Alex Haley's Roots, in the sense of creating a mythology. Rand comments on that aspect of Haley's story:

"What came across was a national legend, the creation of a myth about the black people in America, a myth in the best sense of the word...They were like strangers stranded among other people in this country. They had no spiritual past, in the way that Western civilization has a past in mythology (particularly Greek mythology), in religious stories, in the history of heroes."
This is what Herman Blount had done with the Sun Ra mythology, borrowing from Egyptian myths and science-fiction to create a fantasy metaphor. Rand herself defended fantasy as a legitimate form of fiction: "the author indulges in metaphysical exaggeration, but the meaning of the story is applicable to human life." Sun Ra may also have been simply loony-tunes, and truly believed that he
was from Saturn, taking the persona too far...but in the metaphorical sense, his attitude was no different from Rand's. Yes, she changed her name, mainly to protect her family from Soviet retaliation, but there's the other aspect that Rand emphasized, of not being bound by tradition, heritage, or family (which, incidentally, was her criticism of what Roots had come to mean): "Don't ask me about my family, my childhood, my friends or my feelings. Ask me about the things I think." Rand herself never claimed to be from Saturn, but she is also accused of being disconnected from reality herself with her self-image of being an Athena-like figure, born fully-formed from the head of Zeus (philosophically speaking, of course.) Similarly, Sun Ra's "Saturn" persona was a "cosmic" metaphorical parallel to Rand's take on what it meant to be an American, not bound by national identity, but by philosophy:

"I couldn't approach black people with the truth because they like lies. They live lies … At one time I felt that white people were to blame for everything, but then I found out that they were just puppets and pawns of some greater force, which has been using them … Some force is having a good time [manipulating black and white people] and looking, enjoying itself up in a reserved seat, wondering, "I wonder when they're going to wake up."

That said, given the eclectic philosophical sources of the ideas, there is plenty to criticize about Sun Ra from an Objectivist perspective (he's certainly not a "proto-Objectivist.") But putting even all of that aside, there's an interesting parallel here between Sun Ra's project and a project once proposed by Ayn Rand. Briefly stated, Sun Ra's theme was a space-age "afro-futurism" of good-versus-evil with astronomical symbolism. Because of the space imagery, there is an "alien" sound to certain tracks...it was a "program music" approach to depicting interstellar turbulence. But there's also a more "down-to-earth" explanation for the cacophony: the character of Sun-Ra was saving the black race from the "Overseer," a pimp-overlord destroying the community from within. Noisy sections would be appropriate, programmatically-speaking, for such a character.


Now, some Objectivists may say that is no excuse for atonality. Rand herself might have argued against a piece like "There Are Other Worlds" with a "Yes, but how are they applicable to man?" But those people might not be aware of a similar idea proposed by Objectivism's founder, as documented in the recent Anne Heller biography Ayn Rand and the World She Made. (Also documented in James A. Pegolotti's Deems Taylor: A Biography.) An interview with Joan Kennedy Taylor reveals that Rand "asked him to write an operatic rendition of Anthem, using romantic themes to identify the heroes and atonal music to represent the authoritarian social order." Ironically, Deems turned her down: "Although flattered, the elderly man didn't want to compose atonal music."


The operatic Anthem was never produced, but the rock band Rush took a more conservative but similar approach on their tribute to Anthem, 2112, with quieter, acoustic approach to the protagonist and a hard-rock approach to the authoritarian "Priests" of Syrinx. One can only imagine what the opera would have sounded like, (and Perigo would, I'd bet, use it as evidence that Rand was, indeed, a "musical ignoramus,"), but it's interesting to see Rand, for once, rebuffed for being "too avant-garde." Imagine if the project had been completed, and Rand was attacked for the atonal parts alone...(well, this is what happened with the infamous Whittaker Chambers review of Atlas Shrugged, which reified the harsher parts of Atlas Shrugged to smear Rand a Fascist: "From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: 'To a gas chamber-go!")


Does this make Sun Ran a "proto-Objectivist?" Of Course not. Rand and Sun Ra were still light years apart. But their orbits did cross a shared path, methodologically speaking, if for a brief, cosmic moment...and their respective stories show the dangers of engaging in the "weak man argument," no matter how emotionally satisfying it might feel.


Oh, and Space is still the place.

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