“A society must assume that it is stable, but the artist must know, and he must let us know, that there is nothing stable under heaven,” James Baldwin wrote in 1962 as he considered the creative process and the artist’s responsibility in society. “Tyrants always fear art because tyrants want to mystify while art tends to clarify,” Iris Murdoch insisted a decade later in celebrating literature as a vehicle of truth and art as a force of resistance.
That singular power of literary art to cast a clarifying light on society’s most perilous breaking points is what the novelist, essayist, biographer, and jazz scholar Albert Murray (May 12, 1916–August 18, 2013) explores in a portion of his superb 1973 book The Hero and the Blues (public library), which I discovered through a passing mention in theoretical cosmologist and saxophonist Stephon Alexander’s marvelous The Jazz of Physics.
Having lived through two World Wars, the Great Depression, and the cataclysmic dawn of the Civil Rights movement, Murray writes:
In truth, it is literature, in the primordial sense, which establishes the context for social and political action in the first place. The writer who creates stories or narrates incidents which embody the essential nature of human existence in his time not only describes the circumstances of human actuality and the emotional texture of personal experience, but also suggests commitments and endeavors which he assumes will contribute most to man’s immediate welfare as well as to his ultimate fulfillment as a human being.
It is the writer as artist, not the social or political engineer or even the philosopher, who first comes to realize when the time is out of joint. It is he who determines the extent and gravity of the current human predicament, who in effect discovers and describes the hidden elements of destruction, sounds the alarm, and even (in the process of defining “the villain”) designates the targets. It is the storyteller working on his own terms as mythmaker (and by implication, as value maker), who defines the conflict, identifies the hero (which is to say the good man — perhaps better, the adequate man), and decides the outcome; and in doing so he not only evokes the image of possibility, but also prefigures the contingencies of a happily balanced humanity and of the Great Good Place.
To examine the mechanics and ideals of cultural mythmaking is to inevitably consider what makes a hero. Half a century after Joseph Campbell outlined his classic eleven stages of the hero’s journey, Murray locates the heart of heroism in what he terms antagonistic cooperation — the necessary tension between trial and triumph as the outside world antagonizes the hero with adversity that in turn anneals the hero’s character and cultivates in him or her the inner strength necessary for surmounting the trial. In consonance with Nietzsche’s insistence that a fulfilling life requires embracing rather than running from difficulty, Murray writes:
The image of the sword being forged is inseparable from the dynamics of antagonistic cooperation, a concept which is indispensable to any fundamental definition of heroic action, in fiction or otherwise. The fire in the forging process, like the dragon which the hero must always encounter, is of its very nature antagonistic, but it is also cooperative at the same time. For all its violence, it does not destroy the metal which becomes the sword. It functions precisely to strengthen and prepare it to hold its battle edge, even as the all but withering firedrake prepares the questing hero for subsequent trials and adventures. The function of the hammer and the anvil is to beat the sword into shape even as the most vicious challengers no less than the most cooperatively rugged sparring mates jab, clinch, and punch potential prize-fighters into championship condition.
A century after Nietzsche defined heroism as the willingness “to face simultaneously one’s greatest suffering and one’s highest hope,” Murray adds:
Heroism, which like the sword is nothing if not steadfast, is measured in terms of the stress and strain it can endure and the magnitude and complexity of the obstacles it overcomes. Thus difficulties and vicissitudes which beset the potential hero on all sides not only threaten his existence and jeopardize his prospects; they also, by bringing out the best in him, serve his purpose. They make it possible for him to make something of himself. Such is the nature of every confrontation in the context of heroic action.
In a sentiment that calls to mind Viktor Frankl’s impassioned conviction that idealism is our best realism, Murray makes and unmakes an essential disclaimer:
Such a conception of heroism is romantic, to be sure, but after all, given the range of possibilities in human nature and conduct, so is the notion of the nobility of man. And so inevitably, whether obvious or not, are the fundamental assumptions underlying every character, situation, gesture, and story line in literature. For without the completely romantic presuppositions behind such elemental values as honor, pride, love, freedom, integrity, human fulfillment, and the like, there can be no truly meaningful definition either of tragedy or of comedy. Nor without such idealistic preconceptions can there be anything to be realistic about, to protest about, or even to be cynical about.
A century and a half after Emerson pioneered the American ideal of self-reliance as fundamental to a healthy society, Murray writes:
Heroism, which is, among other things, another word for self-reliance, is not only the indispensable prerequisite for productive citizenship in an open society; it is also that without which no individual or community can remain free. Moreover, as no one interested in either the objectives of democratic institutions or the image of democratic man can ever afford to forget, the concept of free enterprise has as much to do with adventurous speculations and improvisations in general as with the swashbuckling economics of, say, the Robber Barons.
In a passage of striking timeliness amid our present cultural drama, Murray returns to the notion of antagonistic cooperation as a centerpiece of heroism, in literature and life:
The writer who deals with the experience of oppression in terms of the dynamics of antagonistic cooperation works in a context which includes the whole range of human motivation and possibility. Not only does such a writer regard anti-black racism, for instance, as an American-born dragon which should be destroyed, but he also regards it as something which, no matter how devastatingly sinister, can and will be destroyed because its very existence generates both the necessity and the possibility of heroic deliverance.
Complement this particular portion of the altogether fascinating The Hero and the Blues with Walter Lippmann’s formulation of what makes a hero in his stunning tribute to Amelia Earhart, then revisit John Steinbeck on heroism and human nature.