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    Book Tour: A Leap into the World of Another Mind

    Making Room for Eccentricity with Sun Ra, Kurt Gödel, and Virginia Hamilton.

    By Phil Christman

    September 7, 2021
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    Book Tour is a bimonthly review by Phil Christman of new titles, each exploring a theme to trace hidden connections among books and writers.


    One of my all-time favorite conversational exchanges occurs in a profile of the singer-songwriter Tom Waits. The interviewer sits at a tavern, awaiting the great man – a circumstance which occasions the near-inevitable pun on his last name – and as she does she strikes up an acquaintance with a homeless man who is wandering through. The man pulls a wagon, which is covered in signs predicting an imminent apocalypse. The world will end in mere months, the man tells her. (Looking up the profile again, I see that it is from 2002 – a year that, given its proximity to this country’s disastrous and immoral invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, was certainly apocalyptic for a lot of people – and, oddly enough, that the profile’s author is Elizabeth Gilbert, of later Eat Pray Love fame. Time, time, time.) Waits arrives, and immediately recognizes the man, who is apparently in the habit of pulling his festooned wagon down the middle of the road. “God redirects traffic around me so I don’t get hit,” says this pilgrim to Tom Waits, whereupon that supremely sensible and magnanimous man replies: “I don’t doubt that. I like your wagon.”

    I think about this exchange a lot. It seems to me to offer a model for how we ought to respond to other people’s weirdness: with a bit of Keatsian negative capability, a probably-not-but-who-knows shrug, a gratitude that the social world is broader and stranger than we are. (Certainly, one cannot imagine the greatness of a Tom Waits – the understanding with which he elucidates even extreme states of consciousness, expressed in a seemingly endless profusion of voices, a roar or creak or ghostly whine for every soul – achieved any other way.) But this sort of openness is hard to maintain, even for those of us who have often benefited from it in others. Eccentricity and paranoia, too, have become products with their own fandoms, and some of those fandoms send hate mail to the parents of school-shooting victims. Last century’s harmless “ice cream is a plot by the government” ranter may be this decade’s vaccine denialist, and who can blame a resident of this violent country if, when a man starts to shout at nobody in particular while we’re doing our shopping, we look for a gun-shaped bulge in his pants and wonder if there’s good cover in the Outdoor Furniture aisle? Various abuse scandals have reminded us that sometimes the argument “He’s not bad, he’s just a little off” can be a cover for behavior that is both extremely bad and extremely off. All of this is real, but we need to notice that it’s happening alongside a gentrification of public spaces and informal mores – spikes on a bench, to keep a homeless person from weirding us out by sleeping there – that isn’t so defensible. Social media collapses contexts and flattens codes of manners and behavior: don’t touch that irony; you don’t know where it’s been. We don’t like weirdos. We have our reasons.

    Our highly-individualistic-in-theory society has struggled with this problem before, of course. In Journey to the Edge of Reason, Stephen Budiansky’s highly readable new biography of the great mathematician Kurt Gödel, we hear the story of the day that this brilliant refugee from Nazi-occupied Austria took his American citizenship test. Having studied the Constitution and its separation of powers carefully, he had discovered a fatal flaw by which a bad actor could turn the United States into a dictatorship. Neither Budiansky nor, apparently, any of his sources have preserved the details of Gödel’s argument. I can think of a few possibilities. In any case, Gödel’s friends Albert Einstein and Oskar Morgenstern accompanied him to his test, partly to make sure that he did not bring this up with the examiner. (He did it anyway. The examiner, luckily, was tolerant of intellectuals, having administered Albert Einstein’s oath of citizenship.) Stories like these are charming; the devouring insanity of Gödel’s last years, when he literally starved himself to death, are less so. But our strengths tend to have structural connections to our weaknesses. Gödel’s capacity for sheer abstraction, for imagining mathematical relations in themselves without reference to actual quantities of things, enabled him to construct the theorems that made his name (and that Budiansky explains in a non-mathematical appendix that even I could follow). Would we want him any other way?

    The jazz composer and pianist Sun Ra, one of the greatest American weirdos, came from a town – Birmingham, Alabama – that was both terribly racist and “extraordinarily tolerant of individuality.” So writes John Szwed in Space Is the Place, a biography first published in 1997, and quietly republished late last year. The city’s mayor built a replica Roman temple to live in, for example, and he required his servants to join him in his habit of wearing togas – “a different color for each day of the week.” There was also a local musician named Black Herman who told people that he was descended from Moses and that he could work miracles. Sun Ra was named after him.

    But I have made a terrible mistake. Sun Ra was not named after Black Herman. There was a human child whose parents named him Herman, in tribute to this musician, when, in 1914, that child committed the terrible but common blunder of being born. Having been born, that baby, Herman Poole Blount, eventually died, in 1993. Man that is born of woman is of few days: a raw deal, which no sensible person accepts. As a boy, Herman Blount went to a Baptist church with his family, but he never understood why Jesus had to die. He certainly intended not to. He came, he later said, from the “creative system” and not the “reproductive system.” Another time, he said that “[i]t is important to liberate oneself from the obligation to be born.”

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    Cover art from the album “Jazz by Sun Ra”

    Thus Sun Ra, a being who was not Herman Poole Blount (a hideously arrhythmic name, he thought), who was not born in 1914, did not come from Alabama. He came from Saturn. He wore mock-Egyptian headdresses, rarely slept, practiced music at all hours, and followed both in his life and music a rhythm that seemed sure to him and inaudible to almost everyone else. (When the musicians in his band got nervous that the train was late, he would make them unpack and repack their bags. In the same way that going to the bathroom at a restaurant magically forces one’s food to arrive, this trick caused the train to appear, just as the musicians finished up.) The world became aware of him during mid-1950s, when he started to release the hundreds of records that would eventually make up his discography, an oeuvre that influenced everyone from John Coltrane to John Cage to Charles Mingus to Sonic Youth, and which still sits right on the line between “daringly experimental” and “unintelligible.” (To enjoy him, one must say, to every musical move he makes: “I don’t doubt it. I like your wagon.”) After he was famous, Sun Ra was prone to telling people who asked him about his childhood things like this: “I came from somewhere else, where I was part of something that is so wonderful there are no words to express it.” Or: “At three, the Creator separated me from my family. He said, ‘Well, I’m your family.’ … I was there but I wasn’t there.” He had liberated himself from the obligation to be born. As he revised his personal biography and the rules of jazz, he revised language, too, as he spoke it, in the way that a jazz soloist takes a chord apart and rearticulates it, or the way a rapper unbuilds a word syllable by syllable and then builds it back up, slightly retouching each morpheme as he goes, into a new statement. Szwed quotes an example: “Birth was the beginning of death, a ‘berth’ being a place for sleeping, to ‘be-earthed’ was to be buried (‘a true birthday is the day of your death’).”

    Our strengths tend to have structural connections to our weaknesses.

    His intellectual life was rich and unlicensed. During his time in Chicago in the 1940s, he and a friend started a sort of fly-by-night think-tank, issuing broadsheets in which they explained the suppressed history of Black culture. The young Coltrane was among his readers, and Sun Ra, at least, believed that the Nation of Islam got the idea of issuing broadsheets from him. He read obsessively, though not systematically, and his favorite books were the sorts of nineteenth-century Keys To All Mythologies that have so long formed the weird intellectual delta where White fundamentalist Protestants, Black separatist mythmakers, and occultists all gather. He read Godfrey Higgins’s Anacalypsis, an 1836 study that purports to uncover the true religion from which all others have grown; he read Alexander Hislop’s The Two Babylons (1853), that classic of learned anti-Catholic paranoia. He read various out-of-date-even-then Egyptologists, and C. F. Volney’s Ruins of Empires and the Law of Nature (1791), a Romantic-era study that attributes the invention of civilization to Black people. A lot of the people he read were racists – the sorts of Victorian gentleman-scientists who claimed to have proven through etymology that the Anglo-Saxons were the lost tribe of Israel. But in these sorts of myths, you can reverse the insult as easily as you switch the labels on a jar. If your author claims that the Egyptians invented civilization, but that these Egyptians were Whiter-looking than today’s Egyptians, then you could surely find some old word or legend with which to “prove,” on equally tenuous grounds, that a group of White interlopers had sneaked in and knocked off the original, dark, civilized, “Negroid” Egyptians and sold them into slavery. Such an essentialized myth of origins can be transformed as easily as Herman Poole Blount can become Sun Ra. One of his favorite books in this genre was Theodore P. Ford’s 1939 study God Wills the Negro, which God certainly does. The aim of Sun Ra’s writing, even at its most tedious or tendentious, was to prove this elementary fact to the young Black people that he saw around him.

    Like Black Herman, he claimed to work wonders, and others also made such claims for him. Norman Mailer, reviewing an early concert, said he didn’t like the music but that it had cured his toothache. The greatest wonder he worked was his band, the Arkestra:

    When a musician approached Sonny and asked if he could join his band, he often answered that it wasn’t his, it was the Creator’s, and he was only carrying out orders. Part of his orders seemed to be to welcome into the band a few musicians with emotional and drug-dependency problems and make them a special part of his plan. Sometimes these were people who were not especially good musicians and could not succeed in other efforts in life and might even be destructive if left on their own. He would complain (“Why does the Creator send me such knuckleheads?”), but he knew they had something to offer, a vision to express; even the illiterate or the child knows something unique and important, he said, and we could know what that was if only the right discipline could be brought to bear. And discipline and control were required to create a band which could at once include musicians from the very best music schools and amateurs; intellectuals and comedians; those who had given up otherwise lucrative careers and those who had never held a job; and sociopaths whom only their mothers, the army, or prison might be able to restrain.

    To make such a wild garden of human beings flourish: surely there is something of the miraculous in this.

    He had all the failings of an eccentric. He could be whimsical, tyrannical. If he felt like practicing at three in the morning, members of the Arkestra – who often lived with him, especially after his late-career move to Philadelphia – were expected to get up and do his bidding. He could be sweet but he was always remote, and his birth family did not all appreciate being effaced from his story. In his sermons and expostulations to Black people, he could fall into a kind of New Agey victim-blaming: I have slipped the bonds of racism with the power of my mind. Why don’t you? An enthusiast of the space program, he blamed the Challenger disaster on NASA’s having failed to run itself on the same principles as did the Arkestra. His movie, Space Is the Place (1974), is fascinating, but it’s also sour, sexist, and misanthropic, a sort of blaxploitation-film-cum-End-Times-story in which God kills basically everybody except the Arkestra.

    I am moved by his stubborn, childlike refusal to acknowledge death, to give it a place in the order of things, and I admire the consistency of his efforts to belong to the creative and not the reproductive order. But such commitments do have the effect of making suffering, like birth and death, a thing that the victim conspires in. The meticulousness of Szwed’s research, the sympathy and imagination with which he illustrates precisely how Sonny Blount became Sun Ra, has the effect of reclaiming him for time, taking him back from the world of creation to the world of reproduction, where music follows predictable patterns, where babies must be born and must die, where people invent barriers and borders that permit them to oppress other people. He never suspected that the Creator he sought to serve might be the sort of Creator who would follow him onto, and even into, that earth, then lead him out of it again. I have faith that this is true. Sometimes, I do doubt it.

    When I read that the Library of America was issuing a volume devoted to the works of the late author Virginia Hamilton, I swung right into action: I googled “Virginia Hamilton.” I did not know anything about this writer, who turns out to be one of the best-selling and most rewarded authors of children’s fiction in this country’s history. This is why I hadn’t read her; as a kid, I suspected that any book that won a Newberry Medal was a secret plot by adults to teach me an important lesson. I foiled the adults by reading unimpeachably stupid things: Star Wars tie-in novels and the like.

    Virginia Hamilton turns out to be something even more exciting than a good children’s author: she is one of our great chroniclers of eccentrics. Take Junior Brown, the hero of 1971’s The Planet of Junior Brown, who kept reminding me, as I read, of Sun Ra. He is sweet, friendly, but remote – there but not there. A musical prodigy, he plays a silent piano with cut strings (his mother hates the sound of his practicing). He knows the keyboard so well that he can hear the music anyway. As the book opens he has spent the past several months skipping school, at school, which is a funny way to play hooky. With his best friend, Buddy – who by the way is the ringleader of a secret mutual-aid society for homeless boys – he has been hiding in a secret room, building a huge model of the solar system. His and Buddy’s protector in this endeavor is a former-teacher-turned-janitor (he got tired of the teaching rat race) named Mr. Pool.

    Mr. Pool, in any book published today, would be portrayed as a creep at best. In this book, he’s simply a guy who recognizes that the classroom is not always the best place for a kid to learn. Sometimes a kid just needs to hide out for several weeks and build a working model of the solar system, while also sorting out his problems with his hypochondriac, piano-hating mom, and also his neurotic piano teacher, who believes there is an enfeebled relative in the next room. Junior’s attitude toward this invisible dependent could be summarized as I don’t doubt it; but by the end of the novel his own sanity is imperiled, and Buddy takes center stage. On the planet of this novel, adults are too stupid, too self-involved, or (though this is mostly implied) too racist to help Hamilton’s children-heroes. Luckily the kids are all right, and occasionally a Mr. Pool comes along to help them help themselves. As dystopian in its portrait of the broader society as it is utopian in its portrait of the shared world of self-reliant friends, the book is named for Junior, but it’s Hamilton’s depiction of Buddy – a tolerant, loyal, and resourceful kid, who does a better job understanding Junior than most of us do our own relatives – that lingers in the mind.

    The Library of America volume offers as well Zeely (1967), Hamilton’s metafictive debut; The House of Dies Drear (1968), a pleasantly haunted mystery novel with ties to the history of the Underground Railroad; the Gothic Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush (1982); and Hamilton’s masterpiece, M. C. Higgins, the Great (1975). By the time of this novel, Hamilton’s style has grown strong enough to fully support her vision. If some of the details in the earlier books stretch credulity, in M. C. Higgins we never question a thing, even as our hero, a teenage boy who lives in the hill country of North Carolina, surveys his grandmother’s hill from atop a forty-foot pole that marks the gravesite of his ancestors. (He won it as a gift from his father, after he swam across the Ohio River.) The sentences capture the cadences of M. C.’s thought, his speech, which seem naturally adapted to phrasing his world. That world consists of his mother and father and siblings and the songs they sing; of a traveling academic, who wishes to record those songs (M. C. fantasizes that the recordings will make his mother famous); of Luhretta, a cute, slightly older young woman who is similarly passing through; and of the huge mound of pollution, the “spoil-heap,” that threatens the physical integrity of M. C.’s family home. We don’t see the inevitable moment when this heap spills. We see only M. C.’s unfolding awareness that the place is his to defend, that these people are his to love, and that they’ll be there even when Luhretta has returned to the city. It’s a novel about Black joy enduring, even when you can’t make the slag-heap go away.

    Virginia Hamilton was doing daring, moody, singular character studies in these books and, with her seemingly limitless faith in children’s ability to make sense of the world, to intuit the difference between “sometimes people are like this” and “you, reader, should be like this” – a faith that seems, to put it lightly, not to be the current norm within the field – selling it as children’s fiction. Like all the best character-driven fiction, her work is an act of open-ended empathy and negative capability, a leap into the dark world of another mind. It helps us learn to say to other people, when they show us who they are: I don’t doubt that. And what else?

    Contributed By portrait of Phil Christman Phil Christman

    Phil Christman teaches first-year writing at the University of Michigan and is the editor of the Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing.

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