December 19


James Baldwin; image and word


I’m teaching a fiction writing class at Rutgers next semester, and, after hearing this, a few friends from around the world asked if I was going to provide an online version of the classes, for people not in the States. Therefore, here’s the second post in this vague series, presenting thoughts about fiction, here looking at James Baldwin’s great short story, Sonny’s Blues, and using it to talk about plot and symbolism.

I can’t really talk at any length about the story’s plot without talking about its ending, and so I have to spoil the plot in order to write this. Sorry. The story is collected in Baldwin’s Going to Meet the Man, and also in his Early Novels and Stories. If you’d like to read it online, a pretty bad copy, yet the best I’ve been able to find, is here.

In terms of events happening, however, there isn’t much to spoil. The narrator, a schoolteacher in Harlem, reads one morning that his younger brother, Sonny, a jazz pianist, has been arrested for dealing heroin, and when Sonny is convicted and sent to prison, the narrator doesn’t get in contact until his youngest daughter dies of polio, a tragedy which, he says, opens him up to Sonny’s tragedy. He relays to the reader the complex feelings of disappointment, estrangement, and shame that his younger brother’s life evoke in him, but he is not emotionally prepared, when Sonny is released from jail and comes to live with the family, to relate to his brother or trust him. Things change, however, when the two brothers go to a jazz club together.

When writers and critics such as William H. Gass, Antonya Nelson, and James Wood talk about plot being the most juvenile and constricting aspect of fiction, requiring car chases, twins separated at birth, and so on, I want to remind them of a story like Sonny’s Blues—which involves little more external drama than a mother telling a son a story, two brothers talking over a beer, and a jazz performance—but which is brilliantly plotted, leading up to an ending of enormous power.

More is going on in Sonny’s Blues than just its events. The story opens with the main character reading about his brother’s arrest:

I read about it in the paper, in the subway, on my way to work. I read it, and I couldn’t believe it, and I read it again. Then perhaps I just stared at it, at the newsprint spelling out his name, spelling out the story. I stared at it in the swinging lights of the subway car, and in the faces and bodies of the people, and in my own face, trapped in the darkness which roared outside.

From this opening paragraph begins the recurring theme of darkness and light. The narrator can’t believe that Sonny’s is going to prison: “all that light in his face gone out,” and he believes his maths students at school are trapped in two darknesses, the real darkness of their lives, facing endless racism and poverty, and the darkness of the movie theatre, in which, alone, they learn to dream. When Sonny writes a letter from jail, clearly very troubled and scared, he says that he is climbing out of a “real deep and funky hole and just saw the sun up there, outside. I got to get outside.” And the narrator remembers, as a child, listening to the old folks sharing stories, feeling completely safe, yet knowing this moment won’t last: “He knows every time this happens he’s moved a little closer to the darkness outside. The darkness outside is what the old folks have been talking about.”

Slowly the reader understands that the story can only resolve, either for good or bad, if this duality of light and darkness can be resolved. Baldwin’s narrator’s imagery creates a tension in the reader, a tension of values and symbols which, I believe, is the real substance of plot, the essence which the events in stories merely point to, and without which, those events often seem mere confusion. Unless light can come to Sonny, nothing is going to work out, but this seems increasingly impossible, as Sonny, we discover, has been doing heroin his whole adult life, and will most likely go back to it sooner or later.

The narrator asks an old friend of Sonny’s:

“You mean he’ll never kick the habit. Is that what you mean?”

“That’s right,” he said cheerfully, “You see what I mean.”

Growing through the story, however, through these oppositions of imprisonment and escape, light and dark, is the presence of music, and each time music returns, it seems more powerful. “Music” seems to oppose, in Baldwin’s scheme, “reality” or “the world,” a world that is senseless and obscene, a world that would be ridiculous if it were not so horrifying, to which cruelty and contempt is the only effective response. In the opening scenes, we hear a school boy whistling a tune “at once very complicated and very simple,” but the air around the sound is “harsh,” and the sound cannot last, “only just holding its own through all those other sounds.” Then the narrator passes a bar, and hears something “black and bouncy,” music that contains a waitress laughing. Baldwin writes: “When she smiled one saw the little girl, one sensed the doomed, still-struggling woman beneath the battered face of the semi-whore.”

Next, although music is still getting more powerful, we see it failing to communicate, failing to move: the narrator tells the story of his last conversation with his mother, which began with her singing “An old church song, Lord, you brought me from a long ways off,” but he doesn’t seem to understand his mother’s insights into both him and his brother, and she dies soon afterwards; then Sonny’s education in music is described, a self-tuition that is relentless, awe-inspiring, but incomprehensible to the people around him, like living with “some sort of god, or monster.” Finally, as the narrator tries to push himself to search Sonny’s bedroom, he watches a revival group outside, a small group of “three sisters in black, and a brother. All they had were their voices and their Bibles and a tambourine.” He sees how moved the crowd is, “the music seemed to soothe a poison out of them,” that it can heal, it can explain, it can console, though he himself seems on the outside, watching through a window, untouched, interested and sympathetic, but not saved. Significantly, however, there is a trace of light in Sonny’s face once he appears, after the singing is done: “The coppery sun brought out the copper in his skin.”

And, during all this, Baldwin has been modulating the reader’s relationship with the narrator: by this point, we like him, but we sense his limits. The narrator becomes sympathetic to the reader because of his own modesty, saying of his wife, “Isabel… is really much nicer than I am, more open and giving…” and because of his care of his wife’s grief for their lost daughter: “Isabel will sometimes wake me up with a low, moaning, strangled sound and I have to be quick to awaken her and hold her to me and where Isabel is weeping against me seems a mortal wound.” And yet we see, slightly more clearer than he does, his own pride, his own prissiness, his sanctimonious belief in “will-power,” and his failure to understand his brother’s love of music. And more importantly, perhaps, than his own moral limits, we understand his inability to make a change in the world, to take his family out of a housing project, to heal the wound of his daughter’s death, to save his students from darkness. He is rational and good, and everything is going wrong around him. All he can do, for Sonny, even at the limit of his self, is to promise, silently, not to let his brother down again.

All this feels much like life, where things do not seem to resolve, or if they do, they do so imperfectly, and a lesser writer than Baldwin might be willing to leave the story there. Instead, he gives us one more scene, and here all the parts of the plot converge. Sonny brings his brother to a jazz club, where he will play in a quartet, and as soon as they arrive, the narrator realises how great musician his brother must be, as, until now unknown to him, everyone in the club sees Sonny as having “royal blood.” The reader, stuck in the narrator’s point of view all along, understands now that revelations are coming that will take us beyond that point of view. We’ve had the moral side of the story, the arithmetic teacher’s view: now we will get something else. The music begins, and Sonny struggles to play, rusty and uncertain, the band egg him on, and he settles, and the band leader steps back, allowing him to solo. Sonny finally plays at his full power, and in amazing prose, Baldwin describes the insights that land, shatteringly, on his protagonist/narrator.

And Sonny went all the way back, he really began with the spare, flat statement of the opening phrase of the song. Then he began to make it his. It was very beautiful because it wasn’t hurried and it was no longer a lament. I seemed to hear with what burning he had made it his, with what burning we had yet to make it ours, how we could cease lamenting. Freedom lurked around us… And it brought something else back to me and carried me past it, I saw my little girl again and felt Isabel’s tears again, and I felt my own tears beginning to rise.

The narrator knows that this is merely a moment, that the world “waited outside,” but yet something real has happened. The narrator says he understands something, that he has been moved, but perhaps the reader gets to the final paragraph, despite all the amazing language, still unmoved, still waiting for the original light/darkness motif to be resolved, when in an ingenious touch by Baldwin, the narrator orders a scotch and milk for his brother, who puts it on top his piano, and continues to play, the drink lit by the stage lights:

For me, then, as they began to play again, it glowed and shook above my brother’s head like the very cup of trembling.

“The cup of trembling” is from The Book of Isaiah, and is one of tribulations of the world that God promises to take away from his faithful.

Thus saith thy Lord the LORD, and thy God that pleadeth the cause of his people, Behold, I have taken out of thine hand the cup of trembling, even the dregs of the cup of my fury; thou shalt no more drink it again:

Suddenly, in the final line, associations echo through the story, echoes carefully prepared from the beginning, the simple drink transformed into a religious symbol of hope, into a halo over his brother’s head, into a promise that all the world’s sufferers can be free, into a reminder of the fear he still feels for his brother’s addiction, and into a transformation of our narrator. He has watched religious ceremony earlier in the story, and has not been moved, yet the art of his brother’s music brings out a religious sense in him, a greater self, a self revealed by his sudden and confident capacity for metaphor, a self, we suspect, who, having been awakened by his brother’s art, will be better, in all the limited ways possible in this world, at loving his brother and caring for his family. The alcohol present in this final image suggests that Sonny has hardly “kicked the habit,” the horror of the world is still there, but in the narrator, and possibly in Sonny as well, something has changed, and this limited, ecstatic change is all, the story implies, we can hope for, and, if we can sustain it, all we need.

So. What does this reading of the story imply? Firstly that “realism” and “realistic fiction” require suspensions of disbelief possibly as great as those required in more fantastical forms of fiction, where spaceships and lions talk. We must believe that Sonny’s brother is telling us this story without him being aware of all the symbolism that he is putting in, and we must be almost unconscious of that symbolism ourselves, so to not lose our belief in these characters’ reality. We read, “Isabel will sometimes wake me up with a low, moaning, strangled sound and I have to be quick to awaken her and hold her to me and where Isabel is weeping against me seems a mortal wound,” and, to read the story the way it seems to want to be read, we have to identify with this couple who are suffering with grief, and, also, perhaps on a different level of consciousness, connect the thematic dots that Baldwin is laying down. Our narrator is just a guy in New York who has never heard of Charlie Parker; he is like King Arthur/Lancelot/The Fisher King, struggling to save a country that is doomed, carrying a mortal wound, searching for a glowing cup that will save him and his people. If we let either of those views take over, we lose the others.

Secondly: realistic fiction tends towards symbolism whether the writer wants it to or not, and that ending a story is often dependent on resolving the symbols in it, and so a writer who is unaware or uninterested in his or her story’s symbols may either struggle to give it a good ending, or the ending may end up implying something very different to the writer’s intention.

We could ask, well, if that’s true, why not ditch the realistic part of the story altogether? Why do we need to imagine this couple in Harlem, who never existed, crying over a dead girl who has never lived nor died? If realistic fiction is intensely connected to and empowered by the systems of language within it, these oppositions of light/dark, chaos/music and so on, why not just focus on that language, play with words and symbols, and move on from the crude primitivism of unreal characters saying unreal words and trying to overcome their unreal problems?

I’m able, conveniently, to take my answer from Sonny’s Blues itself. Sonny’s Blues suggests, I believe, at least two different levels of consciousness, levels that are not equal to each other, nor, perhaps, translatable to each other: the everyday, logical, moral view of things that we have during our daily lives, and the exceptional, passionate view of things that we have while experiencing great art. One does not make sense to the other: this, I think, is the main reason in the story why Sonny is a junkie—to his brother he seems absurd, horrifying, ridiculous. Nothing Sonny does makes sense, until we enter the world of his art. Now, it might seem that this logical, moral consciousness is the better, and certainly more useful, of the two. It powers our society and makes civilised life possible. The problem is that it doesn’t work. No many how many roads or housing projects we build, no matter how hard we try to be good, the world is just too awful. Much of Sonny’s Blues relates to the experience of being Black in America, but I don’t think Baldwin would want the story to relate only to that experience, and, if so, the implication is that, whatever we try, whoever we are, the world is chaotic and horrifying and the innocent die around us, and rational and moral explanations of it make no sense. Only through art at its peak can we switch to another level of consciousness, one that is not ethical nor rational in same sense as the other is, and “cease lamenting.”

I believe that we need the “primitive” realism of storytelling to let us move to that kind of consciousness. If, instead of “Isabel will sometimes wake me up with a low, moaning, strangled sound,” we read something that aims at pure language, that makes no pretense at telling a story, where there is no moan and no Isabel who could make it, I wonder if it can take us to that higher mental level. When does the magic arrive? Perhaps we need the image, as well as the word, and the image, generally, is of a person trying to prevent something bad happening. Poetry has its own tools to make the magic, and they may have nothing to do with fiction’s, and I don’t want to create a standard that cuts out all forms of surrealism, magic realism, and the rest. What I do find troubling, when reading essays which attack this form of fiction (the realistic-symbolic kind), and even, sometimes, when I read essays that claim to defend it, like James Wood’s How Fiction Works, is that the plotty realism of this type of fiction is described as a luxury, or a silly convention that has overstayed its welcome, something which the mature mind should long to discard. I can’t help feeling that it is this image, of a person struggling, around which meaningful words gather, which is the essential, the gateway to the other world, and that the other qualities of fiction are its luxuries.


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  • Interesting analysis of “Sonny’s Blues” in which Antonya Nelson argues that the story does not have a plot.

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