Jean-Paul Sartre on How American Jazz Lets You Experience Existentialist Freedom & Transcendence

In Jean-Paul Sartre’s 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 jazz—specifically 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 Sartre’s 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 “Jew”—“a 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 nov­el­’s 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, Sartre’s use of jazz in Nau­sea is more like Al Jol­son’s in The Jazz Singer, a “cre­ative act of mis­hear­ing and ven­tril­o­quism,” or a “gen­er­a­tive inau­then­tic­i­ty.”

Sartre’s 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 Roquentin’s 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 Roquentin’s nau­sea and the exis­ten­tial­ist’s cri­sis. And it is the jazz record­ing’s “irre­al­i­ty” that resolves it.

Sartre’s 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 Roquentin’s 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 “Nick­’s 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 Nick’s. It fas­ci­nates.” Like Roquentin’s record­ing, the Nick­’s 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 (I’d agree!) and instead refer to Sartre. But I’d 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 Gille­spie’s “Salt Peanuts” from 1947, above.) But it does not aban­don musi­cal form alto­geth­er in a sus­tained, form­less “cli­max of the moment,” as Sartre’s sex­u­al­ized phrase alleges.

Yet in this new jazz—the crash­ing, chaot­ic bebop so unlike the croon­ing big band and show tunes Sartre admired in the 30s—it 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, Sartre’s 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 can’t even hear the jazz, you watch some men on a band­stand sweat­ing in time, you’d 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, sympathy—all 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 Sartre—using a phrase that would soon resound in Jack Ker­ouac’s com­ing exis­ten­tial appro­pri­a­tion of jazz—“on 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.

via frac­tious fic­tion

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Philoso­pher Jacques Der­ri­da Inter­views Jazz Leg­end Ornette Cole­man: Talk Impro­vi­sa­tion, Lan­guage & Racism (1997)

Lovers and Philoso­phers — Jean-Paul Sartre & Simone de Beau­voir Togeth­er in 1967

Jazz ‘Hot’: The Rare 1938 Short Film With Jazz Leg­end Djan­go Rein­hardt

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness


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Comments (8)
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  • Lisa says:

    I enjoyed read­ing and lis­ten­ing to this excel­lent post

  • Nemo says:

    Sartre prob­a­bly meant the Cab Cal­loway ver­sion-

  • erdem says:

    Adnan Menderes was a Turk­ish Prime Min­is­ter hanged by the mil­i­tary jun­ta after 1960 coup d’e­tat by the way :)

  • Toad says:

    “erdem” is correct–the paper linked to was not writ­ten by Adnan Menderes but by two pro­fes­sors at Adnan Menderes Uni­ver­si­ty. Lit­tle typo.

    Nice post, though, regard­ing the per­ils of writ­ing beyond one’s exper­tise.

    I’m remind­ed of lin­er notes from a Char­lie Park­er com­pi­la­tion I used to have, where the writer mused: “How for­tu­nate the lis­ten­er who is com­ing upon this music for the first time.” Even today, if you come to bebop fresh from less har­mon­i­cal­ly and rhyth­mi­cal­ly adven­tur­ous music it real­ly can sound enchant­i­ng­ly alien, and it can be like find­ing some­thing new under the sun.

  • Michael says:

    Nice indeed, but why “tran­scen­dence”? It would be inter­est­ing to dis­cuss about it.

  • thomas drew says:

    Satre’s def­i­n­i­tion of tran­scen­dence is com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent to the one here, and there­fore this arti­cle is ren­dered rather mean­ing­less.

  • S. Muller says:

    Sartre wrote about Sopie Talket and Al John­son in “The Child­hood of a Lead­erin” 1939.

  • SHAY MULLER says:

    Sophie Tuck­er — In the sto­ry
    “THE CHILDHOOD OF A LEADER” Cor­rec­tion

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