Interview with: Albert Murray

That shelf is where my real stuff is. See it start with Joyce and come up to Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald. That's it. That's the contemporary literature I read. Those people in those books up there on the shelves provide a solid base to enable us to get to it all.

There's Mann's Joseph and His Brothers. I discovered this the year I finished college. I was on my own, I had plenty of time to read, and I could really get into it. The flow of the thing, the articulate way, the humor the guy had, and the learning really knocked me out. I said, this guy's really a student.

And Auden, he's got so much good poetry: "Part of us all hate life and some of us are completely against it" or "Everyman adopts to food the scientific attitude / When he wants to kiss his wife leads the politicians life / And so far as is known, he's an artist when alone." To me that was hip. That was the kind of hip guy I wanted to be.

That's what books did. I knew all that other stuff. I knew the 920 Special with Coleman Hawkins, was listening to Basie and Lester Young Doggin' Around, but Auden was the guy putting all that together: September 1st, 1939 (Another Time) "I sit in one of the dives / On Fifty-Second Street / Uncertain and afraid / As the clever hopes expire / Of a low dishonest decade: / Waves of anger and fear / Circulate over the bright / And darkened lands of the earth, / Obsessing our private lives; / The unmentionable odour of death / Offends the September night."

And I could see him sitting on Third Avenue in a bar, sitting at the table with his cigarette and his book, got his drink in his hand. Edmund Wilson and his wife used to say about Auden, "He was just about the biggest slob we ever loved." The guy was really awful but I was really taken with his poetry. That poetry could be made of that, you see? It was updating Eliot and Pound and those guys. He was effortlessly erudite.
All that poetic stuff, you can write prose that way now. Mann could do it. Hermann Broch could do it. Whew, that Jean S. Untermeyer translation of The Death of Virgil, it couldn't have been better in German than it is. She put some kind of English in that. Louis Untermeyer's Modern American Poetry, Pound, Eliot, and Yeats, this was where the big league stuff was. You can't put Langston Hughes and those guys in that league.

Unfortunately, so many of these black studies people are trying to bootleg some third and fourth rate stuff out as being on the level. I wouldn't want anybody to think that because they'd think I don't know anything about poetry and I'm supposed to know as much about poetry as anybody else. And these guys don't think they have to know it. They just brow beat everybody and say, you all prejudice.

Here is a book I read in high school: The New Negro. This was there in the 1920's and waiting for me when I came of high school age in the 1930's. So by summer of '33, getting ready for the junior year of '34, getting ready for the Juniors Oratorical Contest, where you had to write your essay and present it, show what you could do, I was looking up stuff to write mine and I called my essay The New Negro.

I started my oratorical contest statement with this first paragraph: "In the last decade something beyond the watch and guard of statistics has happened in the life of the American Negro and the three norns who have traditionally presided over the Negro problem have a changeling in their laps. The Sociologist, the Philanthropist, the Race-leader are not unaware of the New Negro, but they are at a loss to account for him. He simply cannot be swathed in their formulae. For the younger generation is vibrant with a new psychology; the new spirit is awake in the masses, and under the very eyes of the professional observers is transforming what has been a perennial problem into the progressive phases of contemporary Negro life. Could such a metamorphosis have taken place as suddenly as it appeared to? The answer is no; not because the New Negro is not here, but because the Old Negro had long become more of a myth than a man."

I was reading this in '33, '34 and yet black studies has not gone back to pick up on this stuff. These guys spend all their time talking about social power, which is fine if you've been reduced to a statistic in the folklore of white supremacy or the fakelore of black pathology, but not if you've got a real mind. Not if you're a real human being. Not if you are Stephen Daedalus. Not if you are Tristan. Not if you are Joseph. Not if you are Telemachus.

What they should be trying to find out is what is happening. They should be reading Constance Rourke's Roots of American Culture. That's a classic. You got a sense of definition of American culture. This and Kouwenhoven were two of my major touchstones in approaching a study of what an American context involves: Beer Can by the Highway and Made in America. These are fundamental attempts to define E Pluribus Unum.

The way pluralism works in a society, the strands don't have to loose their identity in order to be interwoven with other things. But, you see, dumb-assed people grab a hold of a thing and they going and talking about something on the left side of the Zulu River where they can't understand what anybody was saying. All this crap that they're talking about now, all this superficial multi-culturalism and politically correct stuff, they're just ripping off anything that will sell.

They should read Malraux. You want to know what the 20th Century's like, it's Malraux. He's the one whose writing captures the central argument of freedom vs. totalitarianism. He says, "The only victory that's possible for man is a victory against chaos." Art is the bulwark against chaos. Write it down. I've always been one thousand times more interested in art than in politics. That's what Malraux said.

When you start out with that then you're as mature as Hemingway. See, all these people criticizing Hemingway, none of them are as mature as Hemingway. Eliot and these guys sound adolescent. They really miss it. Hemingway knew that you dominate chaos with style, the only victory the human consciousness can have over chaos or entropy is style.

See those Hemingway books. Look up there. Winner Take Nothing. Now that's profound. If you miss this you end up being a fool, an idiot; you try to criticize him for the things that the newspaper articles criticism him for. That's not where he lived. Here's Hemingway, and this is consistent with the bullfighter and everything else, "Winner Take Nothing." That's it. "Unlike all other forms of lutte or combat the conditions are that the winner shall take nothing. Neither his ease, nor his pleasure, nor any notions of glory, nor, if he win far enough, shall there be any reward within himself." Like in Ecclesiastes, "Vanity of vanity, all is vanity."

That has nothing to do with macho. What they call macho is not macho anyway. See, macho is not for a guy who's six feet two, macho is for a guy that's five feet four, five. That's what macho is. He could go out there and make a six foot guy look like a fool and he could take a bull that weighs a ton and make a goddamn fool out of the bull, that's macho.

That's what the Spanish mean by that. They don't care how big you are. They will take you on because they got courage and they got a faith and skill in art. In other words, it's not power but art. Everybody wants to say that Hemingway believed in power. Hemingway's favorite hero was the bullfighter and the bullfighter wanted to wrestle with the bull, control the bull with style. If you don't realize that the central thing in Hemingway is art, then you miss Hemingway. Chaos is the given. Improvisation is the way you can make your way through in a heroic way. Now that's profound.

Contrast that with The Wasteland, with the assumption in The Wasteland that something went wrong and the Fisher King lost his potency. That the land reflects the malady of the ruler, so if the king is on evil times, if he's impotent, then the streams don't run, the trees don't put out fruit. That implies that they once did and it was a golden age. Hemingway won't give you that.

That's what Murray calls the Hemingway epiphany; what Murray calls it is the sweat on the wine bottle. You remember when Jake and Bill go up to fish, when they go to the bullfights in Paloma, and they get up early in the morning, and they go up and fish these streams, and it's icy cold in the streams, and they take a couple of bottles of white wine with them, and they put the wine in the stream, and they fish, and they clean the fish, and they go down and get that wine out, and there's that sweat on the wine bottle, like the sweat on a wine glass when you got chilled wine, or the clouding up of the champagne. If you miss that, you miss life, Jack.

It's like the point of orgasm: if you missed it, you missed it. So that's what art is. You freeze that a little bit, that's the biggest victory. That's what Malraux calls a victory over chaos. That's what Hemingway was talking about.

Reading's the liberating device because it makes the world yours. It's like Miss Metcalf says in my book The Spyglass Tree: windows on the world. You see, when you sit in the library you own it. How can you segregate a guy who's coming to terms with the whole world? If your acceptance of the ancestral imperative is to qualify as a hero you got to regard jeopardy as an opportunity. You see a dragon, see, it separates the men from the boys. What you get from education, from reading, is you get seven league boots, a longer stride.

People who are really involved with books aren't bookworms, they're more thoroughly involved than bookworms, because they're constantly applying practical significance to books. Literature as basic equipment for living, Kenneth Burke used to call it. Without that, without a sense of form, without a sense of purpose, without a sense of beginning, middle, and end, what we have is insanity.

We have chaos, which is insanity. Nothing means anything. Given the tendency, the wonderful tendency, to play, you get ritual, which is the reenactment of something practical; a ceremonial reenactment which is supervised by priests is religion. A playful reenactment supervised not by a priesthood but by referees and umpires is recreation. You see, the ultimate extension, elaboration, and refinement of that reenactment made possible by the play element is art.

It's the playful element that makes for the elegance which adds up to art. The art keeps that idea alive when it's not available to you physically. This fits in with the blues. You stomp the blues, that means you purify the society of those invisible menaces to happiness, or to form, or to equilibrium, but in the process of doing it you stomp so elegantly and with so much style it becomes a fertility ritual.

It's not about oppression and money, it's about stomping the blues away and having a good time. You don't know at what point you cross that line but at some point everybody start shaking. There it becomes existential. They know all about that at the black social club.
Interviews with: Diana Vreeland | Fran Lebowitz | Albert Murray | John Waters | Susanna Moore | Fab 5 Freddy | Alan Pryce-Jones