Stanley Crouch. The Artificial White Man: Essays on Authenticity.
The theme of Stanley Crouch's Artificial White Man is authenticity--a rather tall order the definition of which Crouch never really makes clear. Authenticity presumably implies possessing or projecting some pristine quality or essence, but given the fact that we are all constituted with layers of socialization and acculturation, how are we to tell when we arrive at the truly authentic? To compound matters, Crouch especially praises writers and musicians who extend themselves beyond race, social class, or ethnicity to imagine lives and perceptions and experiences different from their own. Underneath or beyond our layers, he seems to be saying, in spite of different "styles," the arts link us to universal discoverable human responses. But is not art, in the final analysis, artifice, and if so, can one then employ inauthenticity to achieve the authentic? Or, put another way, does the artist deceive to attain the truth?
But if Crouch is a little vague about what authenticity means, he is quite certain about whom or what he dislikes. He doesn't like intellectuals so engrossed in high European culture that they overlook the peculiar democratic dynamics of a native American aesthetic. He dislikes blacks and Caucasians who sentimentalize rude and boorish Negro athletes as somehow being the real thing. In so doing, they reinforce images of black people as primitives. By the same token, he dislikes rap and hip-hop performers who glorify thuggery, sexism, and criminality. Their messages reduce human possibilities while in the process they turn themselves into descendants of 19th-century minstrel figures. He is especially sardonic about the self-serving Michael Jackson, who, Crouch says, views himself and his faltering fortune as victims of race discrimination.
In a couple of essays Crouch devotes himself to American movies and movie directors. He quite approves of John Singleton's films (Boyz n the Hood and Baby Boy) because they manage to humanize and moreover to uncover the complexities of deracinated ghetto youth--rather than simply to depict them as antisocial hoodlums. In a more idiosyncratic piece Crouch represents Quentin Tarantino's films as masterpieces of variegated strands of American life. Here the reader may safely guess that not all filmgoers would share this view. Indeed Crouch lambastes the critic Daniel Mendelsohn, who presumably wrote something less than laudatory about Tarantino's Kill Bill.
On the whole, however, Crouch seems somewhat unsure about what he thinks of the media. In one essay he deplores the simplistic portrayal of blacks and other minorities, but another piece praises the mass media for projecting images of blacks as part and parcel of American life. In a related theme Crouch berates several of today's novelists who confine themselves to writing about the narrow experiences of persons of their own social class. One reason for this lamentable state of affairs, he suggests, is that these authors fear going beyond what they "know"--especially after William Styron underwent critical assaults by black critics for writing The Confessions of Nat Turner. Crouch is equally hard on black critics who, he contends, claim Turner and other blacks are their own "ethnic property." On balance, however, there are American writers who challenge the insularity and inertia of their times. Among these are, of course, the acknowledged masters Ernest Hemingway, Ralph Ellison, and William Faulkner, whose Go Down Moses portrays "different kinds of Negroes, none of whom fit easily into anybody's stereotypes." Crouch also likes Philip Roth (with some qualifications), Joyce Carol Oates, and Saul Bellow. And then there are hosts of less celebrated writers. To name a few: Richard Price, Edward P. Jones, Andrea Lee, Charles Johnson, Lore Segal, and especially Danzy Senna. It is obvious, therefore, that Crouch likes to think of himself as an integrationist in the Ralph Ellison mode and views America, and indeed the world, as a grand mix of interrelated life styles and ethnic cultures. As a consequence his book is as much about authors and musicians who assume his vision as it is about those he regards as artificial or inauthentic.
In one essay Crouch describes Duke Ellington, Ernest Hemingway, and Jorge Luis Borges as artists who successfully transcend conventions to discover underlying truths and realities, happy and tragic, cruel and exhilarating, in worlds and peoples beyond their immediate circumstances. Collected in In Our Time, Hemingway's Nick Adams Michigan stories convey basic themes of birth and suffering and death with alternate "Interludes" of the plight and flight of post-World War I Greek refugees. Borges's surreal Universal History relates fantastic adventures in cities on several continents that, taken together, express the oneness of the human condition. Ellington's genius embraces everything from banal commercial pop to inspired improvisations, transforming elements of these into exquisite compositions. (Although he's not mentioned, one thinks in this regard of Charles Ives.) Crouch is especially taken with Ellington's longer pieces such as "Black, Brown and Beige," which suggest, he says, inexorable miscegenations. He argues as well that musicians like Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, and Thelonious Monk possess in their own ways the same kind of integrative imagination. Finally, he applauds white composers like Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen, and George Gershwin for infusing the feel of "Negro blues" into their music.
Needless to say, like any collection of essays produced over the years, this book yields an uneven impression. As mentioned, Crouch tries to unify his pieces as examples of varying degrees of authenticity, but authenticity, even by Crouch's standards is, in some of his discussions, rather a stretch. How, for instance is Ravelstein, Saul Bellow's novella about the relationship between two Jewish intellectuals, "authentic"? One can think of any number of Bellow's other novels--Herzog, Henderson, the Rain King, Augie March--better suited to Crouch's definition. Crouch also titles each of his chapters as "Blues" of one sort or another, which ends up making the blues mean nothing much at all.
Stylistically, too, one has reservations. Although reviewers often lavish encomiums for Crouch's prose, I find it problematic. Sentences seem to lengthen inordinately as Crouch plows one clause and one phrase into another, ultimately diminishing the effectiveness of whatever it is he wants to say. It may or may not be his editor's responsibility to curb such prolixity, but surely an editor could have cleared up the confusion regarding Crouch's largely favorable review of a book about jazz by Alfred Appel, Jr. We are not told the name of the book (Jazz Modernism) until well into the essay. Unfortunately, here and there in this and other chapters, Crouch adopts a rather bullying, sneering tone often accompanied by cloacal allusions addressed generally to persons with whom he disagrees. Reasonable discourse need not snarl. Nonetheless, one has to admire Crouch's courage in standing up to the media and to academic literary establishments, the mediocrity and decadence of which undermine America's promise. Nor can we dismiss Crouch's insights into how the arts bind together seemingly diverse realities. In short, Crouch challenges us to share his perceptions, and despite irritations, we usually do.
City University of New York, Emeritus
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2006|
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