Reading Albert Murray in the Age of Trump - by Greg Thomas


@Greg_Thomas: I’m enjoying getting to know Albert Murray’s writings, and though I’ve been absorbing the pages of his Collected Essays & Memoirs (in particular, “The Omni-Americans” and “The Hero and the Blues”) pretty slowly, I’m feeling that it’s worth taking my time with his thought—it’s strong stuff. I’m finding a lot to like, intellectually and stylistically, in his prose, and I can definitely see its relevance to our contemporary moment. One thing’s for sure: Murray challenges us to think.

It also seems a bit required to translate from Murray’s mid-20th century context into the present, tracing how certain referents have shifted, and where the continuities reappear. For example, Murray writes disapprovingly about (scientistic) “social science” (which he sometimes mockingly calls “social science science fiction”), for promulgating an inadequate narrative of the human condition. He criticizes writers and artists whom he sees as subsuming their craft (consciously or not) to “ideological” ends.

Yet I know that Murray is not apolitical. In my reading, he expects a certain kind of excellence and psychological independence of his moral heroes, and I sense he wants to spur people toward some transcategorical heroism. I have not yet gotten very deep into “The Hero and the Blues,” but his opening premise rings like a big booming bell for me when he writes:

Storybook images are as indispensable to the basic human processes of world comprehension and self-definition (and hence personal motivation as well as purposeful group behavior) as are the formulas of physical science or the nomenclature of the social sciences. Such basic insights as may be derived from the make-believe examples of literature, are moreover, as immediately applicable to the most urgent problems of everyday life as are the “scientific” solutions."

I’m like, tell me more!

He then goes on, interestingly (& pragmatically), to make a strong case for the “instructional” value of the literary arts for human existence, which I think is a fruitful area to explore. I definitely embrace Murray’s fundamental intuitions on the composite nature of identity, the social function of art, and the importance of defining human excellence as a transcendent value (beyond intellectual conformism).

One topic I would also be interested in discussing is Murray’s faith in the American ideal (of course, as Omni-), and how this might be put in contemporary dialogue with a perhaps-justified pessimism (or at least skepticism) regarding the American project as such, in this even more rapidly planetizing and technologically accelerating phase that we’re in. Do we need to find another basis for the “rooted cosmopolitanism” you mention in the piece? Might this concept broadly serve to find a way forward for a democracy in crisis?

I really hope some other people on the “integral” and “cooperative” and “social justice” and “consciousness” cultures will get curious and read a couple of Murray’s essays with us. There’s definitely an opportunity for some cross-pollination here! And the overall mind jazz will certainly benefit from the example of Murray’s musical mind and precision prose.

Dear Marco,

Thanks for the note and post!

I agree that certain updates are necessary for today. I also agree that Murray is ultra-relevant now.

Early In the essay I make passing mention of a Murray critique of what, today, we call identity politics. As rooted as he was in his idiomatic culture, and as supportive as he was of the Civil Rights movement, he framed them within the context of rights as an American citizen rather than primarily as part of an identity-grievance group.

That ties into your point about American ideals, which for him were more than just nationality-based; it was part of a cosmopolitan cultural ideal whereby Americans are heirs of the best thought of all times and places, and, at our best, are a cutting-edge extension of European civilization.

With regard to a pessimism and skepticism about the American project, or pessimism per se as rhetorical strategy and approach, he leaned on Kenneth Burke’s distinction between a frame of rejection and a frame of acceptance.

A frame of rejection complains that life is unfair and proclaims it shouldn’t be that way. Murray admits that there have been literary masterpieces written from that frame. A frame of acceptance, in contrast, realizes that life is unfair, that shit is fucked up, yet instead of moaning about it, accepts the heroic challenge to fight for the good, the true, and the beautiful, to approach life with skills honed to a pitch of mastery so that you can improvise on the breaks of life like a champion.

Murray gravitated to a frame of acceptance because (among other reasons I could add) it is the mode of the epic. Murray affirmed life, he rarely complained about it. Others can and have chosen to reject, be skeptical, and pessimistic; he chose otherwise.

Why so will be fodder for our conversation! As will be rooted cosmopolitanism, indeed, as a way forward in a democracy in crisis. I think this two-word philosophical idea encapsulates, in one fell swoop, blue to yellow and turquoise as vMemes in Spiral Dynamics.

Not to be pessimistic, Marco, but I’m not confident that we’ll be able to rustle up more than a handful of people to participate in a live discussion–if that. That’s one reason I thought a duet may be better. But if, based on the response to your post today, there are more likes, comments and feedback than I expect, I’ll be very happy to have been proven wrong.

I feel this way primarily because I considered the the response to the Ralph Ellison-Amiri Baraka content underwhelming. Ellison and Baraka were both better known than Murray. Since folks are unlikely to have read Murray, getting them to dig in his texts to prepare for our session may be a bit too optimistic.

We’ll see. But I’m definitely overjoyed, Marco, that you have taken such a keen interest in Murray’s ideas and work! Cats like you, with intellectual depth and aesthetic appreciation and insight, were Murray’s favorite students.



Thanks for the reply, @Greg_Thomas! I definitely would love to follow up with a live convo and will be in touch to plan that soon. And honestly, I don’t care if it’s just you and me—it’s a conversation worth having, and I trust folks will pick up on it and even join in sooner or later.

If we make the music, they will come. I believe this. :smile:

This is a good clarification on what I thought might be a more nation-centric viewpoint:

And Burke’s distinction between a “frame of rejection” and a “frame of acceptance” brings to mind Nietzsche’s critique of ressentiment and his own embrace of the affirmative YES to life. Indeed, Nietzsche’s thoughts on the “birth of tragedy” (in ancient Greek drama) and his advocacy for Dionysian renewal remind me quite a bit of Murray’s views on the Blues as life-postive transmutation of suffering.

Speaking of which, I’m going to go have a much needed weekend and stomp some of my own blues. :saxophone:

Thanks again…

Dear Marco,

Nice riff! I’ll go with your optimism; let’s swing that recorded chat soon.

I’ve long thought of Murray’s emphasis on art as affirmation of life as Nietzschean. And since Kenneth Burke scholars have demonstrated a strong influence of Nietzsche on Burke’s works in the 1920s through the mid-1930s, perhaps the influence of Burke on Murray is a source of that connection. And regarding resentment specifically, I think Murray viewed it as impractical and not conducive to mastery and action, whether Burke’s symbolic action or archetypal heroic action.

In this way, Murray is in accord with Kierkegaard, who in The Present Age wrote:

“The ressentiment which results from want of character can never understand that eminent distinction really is distinction. Neither does it understand itself by recognizing distinction negatively (as in the case of ostracism) but wants to drag it down, wants to belittle it so that it really ceases to be distinguished. And ressentiment not only defends itself against all existing forms of distinction but against that which is still to come. …. The ressentiment which is establishing itself is the process of leveling, and while a passionate age storms ahead setting up new things and tearing down old, raising and demolishing as it goes, a reflective and passionless age does exactly the contrary; it hinders and stifles all action . . .”

When I looked through Murray’s library there were numerous collections of philosophy, including works by Nietzsche, with notes and underlining. Yet it may be more feasible to deem Thomas Mann’s literary and aesthetic ideas as more primary an influence. As you’ve seen in The Hero and the Blues, all from Mann’s Tonio Kroger, the Joseph tetralogy, and The Magic Mountain in fiction to Mann’s essays such as “Freud and the Future” to “The Coming Victory of Democracy” were profoundly influential on Murray’s conception and perspective.

When Murray saw how Mann used the sonata form and Wagnerian leitmotifs in his fiction, he realized that he could do the same with the devices and musical forms found in the blues and jazz.

As we say in the idiom, I’ve gotta jet, my man. So make sure to . . .

Keep swingin’,

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Those are some excellent connections to make, Greg, and help define more of the intellectual constellation that Murray was conversing with in his work, particularly Kennth Burke and Thomas Mann, with Nietzsche also in the mix (as he often is). I hadn’t realized Kierkegaard had written on ressentiment, but it makes sense given his passion for individual transcendence toward the divine. Ressentiment is certainly impractical from that perspective as well!

I’m afraid to say, you’ve given me some more homework to do. But I’m looking forward to our talk on 6/20!