What Voltaire Meant When He Said That “We Must Cultivate Our Garden”: An Animated Introduction

What Voltaire Meant When He Said That “We Must Cultivate Our Garden”: An Animated Introduction

“Voltaire’s goal in writing [his 1759 satire Candide] was to destroy the optimism of his times,” says Alain de Botton in the School of Life video above, “an optimism that centered around science, love, technical progress, and a faith in reason.” These beliefs were folly, Voltaire thought: the transfer of faith from a providential God to a perfect, clockwork universe. Candide satirizes this happy rationalism in Doctor Pangloss, whose belief that ours is the best of possible worlds comes directly from the philosophical optimism of Gottfried Leibniz.

The preponderance of the evidence, Voltaire made abundantly clear in the novel’s series of increasingly horrific episodes, points toward a blind, indifferent universe full of needless cruelty and chaos. “Hope was, he felt, a disease,” de Botton says, and “it was Voltaire’s generous goal to try and cure us of it.” But as everyone who has read Candide (or read a summary or brief notes on Candide) knows, the novel does not end with despair, but on a “Stoic note.”

After enduring immense suffering on their many travels, Candide and his companions settle in Turkey, where they meet an old man sitting quietly under a tree. He tells them about his philosophy, how he abstains from politics and simply cultivates the fruits of his garden for market as his sole concern. Invited to feast with the man and his family, they remark upon the luxurious ease in which they live and learn that they do so on a fairly small plot of land.

Voltaire loved to goose his largely Christian readers and delighted in putting the novel’s parting wisdom, “arguably the most important adage in modern philosophy,” in the mouth of an Islamic character: Il faut cultiver notre jardin, “we must cultivate our garden.” What does this mean? De Botton interprets the line in the literal spirit with which the character known only as “the Turk” delivers it: we should keep a “safe distance between ourselves and the world.”

We should not, that is, become overly engaged in politics, and should devote ourselves to tending our own livelihood and welfare, not taking more than we need. We should leave our neighbors alone and not bother about what they do in their gardens. To be at peace in the world, Voltaire argued, we must accept the world as it is, not as we want it to be, and give up utopian ideas of societies perfected by science and reason. In short, to “tie our personal moods” to human affairs writ large is to invite endless misery.

The philosophy of Candide is not pessimistic or nihilistic. A happy, fulfilled human life is entirely possible, Voltaire suggests, if not human happiness in general. Candide has much in common with the ancient Roman outlook. But it might also express what could be seen as an early attempt at a secular Buddhist point of view. Voltaire was familiar with Buddhism, though it did not go by that name. Buddhists were lumped in, Donald S. Lopez, professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies at the University of Michigan, writes at the Public Domain Review, with the mass of “idolaters” who were not Christian, Jewish, or Muslim.

Yet the many Jesuit accounts of Eastern religion reaching Europe at the time circulated widely among intellectuals, including Voltaire, who wrote approvingly, though critically, of Buddhist tenets in his 1764 Dictionnaire philosophique. As the secular mindfulness movement has done in the 21st century, Lopez argues, Voltaire sought in the age of Enlightenment to separate miraculous legend from practical teaching. But like the Buddha, whose supposed biography Voltaire knew well, Candide begins his life in a castle. And the story ends with a man sitting quietly under a tree, more or less advising Candide to do what Voltaire had heard of in the “religion of the Siamese…. Meditate in private, and reflect often on the fragility of human affairs.”

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

Orson Welles Narrates Animations of Plato’s Cave and Kafka’s “Before the Law,” Two Parables of the Human Condition

Orson Welles Narrates Animations of Plato’s Cave and Kafka’s “Before the Law,” Two Parables of the Human Condition

You’re held captive in an enclosed space, only able faintly to perceive the outside world. Or you’re kept outside, unable to cross the threshold of a space you feel a desperate need to enter. If both of these scenarios sound like dreams, they must do so because they tap into the anxieties and suspicions in the depths of our shared subconscious. As such, they’ve also proven reliable material for storytellers since at least the fourth century B.C., when Plato came up with his allegory of the cave. You know that story nearly as surely as you know the ancient Greek philosopher’s name: a group of human beings live, and have always lived, deep in a cave. Chained up to face a wall, they have only ever seen the images of shadow puppets thrown by firelight onto the wall before them.

To these isolated beings, “the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images.” So Orson Welles tells it in this 1973 short film by animator Dick Oden. In his timelessly resonant voice that complements the production’s hauntingly retro aesthetic, Wells then speaks of what would happen if a cave-dweller were to be unshackled.

“He would be much too dazzled to see distinctly those things whose shadows he had seen before,” but as he approaches reality, “he has a clearer vision.” Still, “will he not be perplexed? Will he not think that the shadows which he formerly saw are truer than the objects which are now shown to him?” And if brought out of the cave to experience reality in full, would he not pity his old cavemates? “Would he not say, with Homer, better to be the poor servant of a poor master and to endure anything rather than think as they do and live after their manner?”

Plato’s cave wasn’t the first parable of the human condition Welles narrated. Just over a decade earlier, he engaged pinscreen animator Alexandre Alexeieff (he of Night on Bald Mountain and and “The Nose,” previously featured here on Open Culture) to illustrate his reading of Franz Kafka’s story “Before the Law.” The law, in Kafka’s telling, is a building, and before that building stands a guard. “A man comes from the country, begging admittance to the law,” says Welles. “But the guard cannot admit him. May he hope to enter at a later time? That is possible, said the guard.” Yet somehow that time never comes, and he spends the rest of his life awaiting admission to the law. “Nobody else but you could ever have obtained admittance,” the guard admits to the man, not long before the man expires of old age. “This door was intended only for you! And now, I’m going to close it.”

“Before the Law” describes a grimly absurd situation, as does Welles’ The Trial, the film to which it serves as an introduction. Adapted from another work of Kafka’s, specifically his best-known novel, it also concerns itself with the legal side of human affairs, at least on the surface. But when it becomes clear that the crime with which its bureaucrat protagonist Josef K. has been charged will never be specified, the story plunges into an altogether more troubling realm. We’ve all, at one time or another, felt to some degree like Joseph K., persecuted by an ultimately incomprehensible system, legal, social, or otherwise. And can we help but feel, especially in our highly mediated 21st century, like Plato’s immobilized human, raised in darkness and made to build a worldview on illusions? As for how to escape the cave — or indeed to enter the law — it falls to each of us individually to figure out.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Haruki Murakami Will Host a Radio Show & Help Listeners “Blow Away Some of the Corona-Related Blues”

Haruki Murakami Will Host a Radio Show & Help Listeners “Blow Away Some of the Corona-Related Blues”

in Literature, Music | May 19th, 2020 Leave a Comment


Image by Ilana Simon

Characters in Haruki Murakami’s books see emotions in colors and hear them in sounds—the sounds, specifically, of The Beatles, Shostakovich, Sarah Vaughan, and thousands more folk, pop, rock, classical, and jazz artists in the novelist’s immense record collection. We must occasionally suspend some disbelief as readers, not only in the fantastic elements in Murakami’s work, but in characters who seem to know almost as much as the author does about music, who are always ready with references to deep cuts. Murakami “is not (quite) a musician,” writes Dre Dimura at Flypaper, “but he has a greater command of music as an art form than most musicians I know, myself included. How is that possible?”

Dimura’s explanation touches on aspects of Murakami’s life we’ve covered before at Open Culture: his longstanding passion for jazz, and time spent as the owner of a jazz bar before he became a novelist; his penchant for listening to music in his study for hours and hours on end as he undertakes his marathon writing sessions.

Murakami has not only shared his encyclopedic musical knowledge through fictional characters; he also hopes to turn his massive collection of approximately 10,000 records into a public archive, along with all his books and papers: “a place,” he says, “of open international exchanges for literature and culture.”

Four decades after his jazz club days, Murakami again became a DJ in 2018 when he took to the airwaves to play several 55-minute sets called Murakami Radio on Tokyo FM. Now, amidst the uncertainty and anxiety of COVID-19 lockdowns, he will again play records for his fans in Japan on a show this Friday called Stay Home Special. “I’m hoping that the power of music can do a little to blow away some of the corona-virus related blues that have been piling up.”

Murakami isn’t being Pollyannish about the “power of music.” The phrase may be cliché, but fans know from reading his books how music plays a significant role in even the most mundane of social interactions, the kind we’d come to take for granted before the virus spread around the world. The author offers music as a friendly overture. In a characteristic image, he wrote before his first radio broadcast in 2018:

It has been my hobby to collect records and CDs since my childhood, and thanks to that, my house is inundated with such things. However, I have often felt a sense of guilt toward the world while listening to such amazing music and having a good time alone. I thought it may be good to share such good times with other people while chatting over a glass of wine or a cup of coffee.

Though he’s been characterized as a novelist of isolation, and is “regarded as a recluse in Japan,” Murakami sees the need to make deep connections these days. And he recognizes music’s power to create shared emotional spaces, the kind of thing it seems so hard to find in our new fragmented, quarantined lives.

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A 3,350-Song Playlist of Music from Haruki Murakami’s Personal Record Collection

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

“Lying Bastard” by Clint Margrave. Book Review.

“Lying Bastard” by Clint Margrave. Book Review.

Grim, uncouth, and hilarious: these are the adjectives I’d use to describe Lying Bastard, the upcoming debut novel of prolific poet and polemicist Clint Margrave. The story follows the mindscape of suicidal adjunct English professor Berlin Saunders, lying on the floor playing dead during a school shooting as he traces his steps to the present. The prime suspect is a student with whom Saunders has developed a unique relationship and the juxtaposition between Saunders’ abject depravity and the student’s militant conspiracism acts as the relational and moral fulcrum of the story. In forty-three succinct chapters of clear and crisp prose, Margrave constructs a debased and absurdist universe all too like our own, while reflecting the contradictions of our time with discomfiting clarity.

The book incorporates many themes: modern masculinity, alienated youth, the chaos of America, the unfathomable and bottomless rage boiling beneath our polarized politics and the seeming inability of our institutions to address the challenges we face. But, above all, the book is about lying, our most readily accessible tool to close the gap between ourselves and others, and the accumulating existential strain of the lies we tell. The books asks: in what kind of world do lies become more palatable than truths and are we living in such a world?

And how were his students really any different from him? How were their little lies different from the daily little lies he told them? Really, the whole education system was just one large cesspool of liars: students lying to teachers, teachers lying to students, students lying to students, administrators lying to teachers, the government lying to administrators, the government lying to teachers, the government lying to students. What differentiated the act of plagiarism from any other of the countless lies being spun around the nation?

As he drags his way through the existentially barren wasteland of academia, Saunders’ deadpan inner narrative has the ring of Chuck Palaniuck’s Fight Club mixed with Albert Camus’ The Stranger with a dash of Bukowski thrown in. His perceptions are as astute as they are depressing—which is perhaps the point. But, interspersed beneath the awkward, the mundane and the passive aggressive are those fleeting moments of human intimacy that remind us of the Other beyond the Self. We crave such moments, but we are loath to admit as much, for that would involve grappling with the terrifying reality that we need each other—a fact rendered all the more glaring by the current pandemic. The only thing scarier than the idea of being cosmically alone is the unnerving fact that we are alone together. Margrave smuggles these subtle moments of mutual recognition into the story as if on an underground railroad: through smoke breaks, shared beers, evening walks and the like.

That some of the novel’s strands are reminiscent of Camus is no coincidence, as Margrave’s polemic excursions attest. Camus’ protagonist Meursault proclaims, while awaiting his death, “I opened myself up to the gentle indifference of the world.” One anticipates Saunders coming to a similar revelation, though perhaps not quite as gentle. In excavating his creation, Camus says,  “Meursault is afflicted by what I call the madness of sincerity. The character is distinguished by his never wanting to say more than he feels. It is this tenacious refusal, this fascination with authenticity, of what one is and what one feels, that gives meaning to the entire novel.” Saunders has the precise opposite affliction.

To give you a taste of book’s humour and tone, here is the description of a student and faculty protest against allowing Hooters—a restaurant franchise which mingles scantily clad waitresses with overpriced hot wings—to sponsor the school’s sports team:

“WHAT DO WE WANT?” a voice repeated in the megaphone as the crowds came stampeding down the hall. “EQUALITY” the crowd of protesters yelled in response. He had nothing against Hooters, though he’d never been there. He did remember hearing they had good chicken wings. Those poor chickens. Nobody was marching for them. They also wanted equality. They just wanted to live. They had breasts too, but instead of objectifying them, we ate them. He imagined the faculty storming down the hallway as a bunch of chickens, protesting Hooters chicken wings. “WHAT DO WE WANT?” “TO LIVE!” “WHAT ARE WE GOING TO GET?” “DIPPED IN RANCH!”

One criticism that could levelled at the book is that its range of characters is too broad. There are too many of them and their names are too easily forgotten. But, even here, breadth doesn’t impede depth, and even those who are less central to the narrative are more than blank-faced non-player characters. They have dreams, flaws and desires. They just happen to be more significant as part of the protagonist’s inner cosmos than as individuals in their own right—which is often how life is. Ultimately, an awareness of the web of familiar faces, names and swirling psychological complexes that surround us is the closest many of us come to a sense of community.

When I asked him what motivated him to write the book, Margrave mentioned two things. The first was the rise of postmodern ideology and woke culture on campus, which, when he began writing, had yet to be clearly identified in the media. And the second was his experience teaching Iraq vets:

I often felt an affinity for my students, particularly some of these guys who had been through war while I was just hanging out at the university. To many on the left, they were stereotyped as the cliché redneck, militia, gun-toting types … the kind many would fear might shoot up a school and I never found them to meet that stereotype. (They were also slightly conspiratorial, but often well-read or at least engaged with the world). I wanted to turn that narrative upside down, and turn it back on the academics who were crazier in many ways.

Margrave’s strength is in uncovering the universal in the specific, without forgoing the intricate contours of the particular nor glibly settling for vagueness. What keeps the reader turning the pages is more than sharp prose and canny social commentary: it is an underlying gravitational pull toward revelation and cathartic release. And, in that regard, Margrave doesn’t disappoint.

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Homage to Albert Murray

Homage to Albert Murray

The Omni-Americans: Some Alternatives to the Folklore of White Supremacy by Albert Murray. Library of America, 260 pages.

When I first met Albert Murray, in the spring of 1994, I was a relatively young man, thirty-one years old, and he was in his upper seventies. At the time, I worked at a reference publication called Current Biography, and my excuse for visiting Murray’s book-filled Harlem apartment, which I would do many more times over the years, was to profile him. Murray had by then published some half-dozen books—essay collections, novels, a memoir, an as-told-to autobiography of Count Basie, and Stomping The Blues, his classic meditation on jazz and blues—connecting music, literature, race, and the American identity in his singular manner. His work had meant a lot for me, one book standing above the rest.

I had grown up in the 1960s and ‘70s in an all-black neighborhood in Washington, D.C., before leaving for the Midwest as a college student, where I slowly found my way to integrated circles. I was now in New York, in an interracial marriage and a new father to a biracial child. As happy as I was about those developments, they raised some tricky questions. In my youth, I had bought into the idea of America as a—remember this term?—melting pot, and while I still played down the importance of skin color in my own life, a touch of this country’s race obsession had over time penetrated my consciousness. The result was confusion. What did it mean for me to be in non-black circles? Was the difference between me and those around me truly meaningless? I was, contrary to what some must have thought, proud to be black, but did being black in an integrated world mean losing part of yourself? Which part? And what would be left? No one I knew seemed to have the answers.

And then I read The Omni-Americans, Murray’s first book, originally published in 1970 and now reissued in a fiftieth-anniversary edition by the Library of America. It would be difficult to overstate the impact that this essay collection, especially the title essay, had on my life. The Omni-Americans made it clear that American blacks and whites (and Americans of Asian, Native, and Latinx descent, too) are unlike people anywhere else in that they have, however little any number of them may want to admit it, comingled, both physically and culturally, to the extent that the nation is, in Murray’s words, “incontestably mulatto.” Black culture is of course a central part of this mix, and what I took from the book was that there was no place in America a black person could go—even if there were places that person wouldn’t particularly want to go—and not still be among his or her or their own.

Did being black in an integrated world mean losing part of yourself? Which part? And what would be left? No one I knew seemed to have the answers.

To be sure, that view put Murray at odds with black separatists, who felt that it was folly to identify with a country that had for so long oppressed them. Murray countered that it was equally a folly to voluntarily give up one’s place in a nation one has helped to create. One could be—one was—both black and American, the two contained in a single person, who not only was integrated but had integrity. This was the piece of the puzzle I had been missing, the insight that allowed me to get on with my life and my writing, as I factored Murray’s insights into my own developing ideas about race and family, about jazz and books and film.

And so my trip to Murray’s home was as much pilgrimage as work. That first visit set the tone and pattern for those to follow: in a chair pulled up to Murray’s desk, where he would sit among papers and books, I would do much more listening than talking while he held forth, his words coming as rapidly as notes from the bell of a jazz saxophone as his thoughts roamed over the subjects of literature, music, and history. Once in a while he would send me to his extensive bookshelves in search of a passage from a novel he wanted to read to me; if I was really lucky, he would break out a bottle of Armagnac and a couple of glasses. At his memorial service, one speaker noted that Murray might have written more books if he spent less time with younger people. But if books are a way of ensuring that one’s ideas live on, then so, in Murray’s view, were the afternoons he invested in aspiring writers of the kind I was then.

“No man ever steps in the same river twice,” Heraclitus tells us, “for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” It might also be said that no one ever reads the same book twice. The reader, obviously, changes between one reading and another—growing older, learning more—but the book changes, too, taking on new shades of meaning with the changing historical context. I am no longer thirty-one; 1970 was a long time ago, and so was 1994. With regard to The Omni-Americans, perhaps the most striking change wrought by all of this, at least for me, is how Murray himself comes across on the page. A writer who insists on the Americanness of blacks might be thought by some to be complacent, to equate accepting one’s Americanness with accepting the status quo. Even in 1994, I thought that was not true of Murray—but I had forgotten how very much it is not true.

The original edition of The Omni-Americans appeared at a time when the wound in black Americans’ collective psyche from Martin Luther King’s assassination was still fresh. Many blacks had abandoned integration as a goal in favor of separatism and nationalism, ditching King’s nonviolent protest to embrace the mantra of self-defense. “Black Power” was the slogan, Afros grew out to there, and Africa, not America, was the land many blacks sought to identify with—you never saw so many dashikis in your life, at least not in black neighborhoods like the one in which I was then seven years old. Meanwhile, there were modest signs of the success of the Civil Rights Movement in the realm of culture, with blacks popping up here and there in non-stereotypical roles in TV shows or on their own shows. At any rate, it was difficult, whether one watched TV, flipped through magazines, or read books, to escape the subject of what ailed black America, the clueless and condescending nature of much of the discourse captured perfectly by the ubiquitous phrase “the black problem.” (“I always thought white people were the ones with the problem,” I remember an African American character quipping on the sitcom All in the Family, speaking for millions.)

Murray uses the approach of one of the jazz musicians he holds in such high esteem, stretching a simple idea in so many directions that its mother wouldn’t recognize it.

Into this mix came The Omni-Americans, which celebrated the advances made by the Civil Rights Movement while rejecting seemingly every other trend of the time. One the one hand, Murray critiqued black nationalists of all hues, who he felt were relinquishing their birthright: Why should we, by refusing to identify with our country, voluntarily cede to others what we helped build? At the same time, Murray attacked those who wrote about the wretchedness of black life, not only the avowed racists but also—and especially—the ostensibly well-intentioned social scientists, usually but not always white, who, in their supposed efforts to help blacks, portrayed the very people they sought to assist as being less than human, who painted black culture as a large-scale pathology. Murray was not denying that things were tough for his community, nor was he asking blacks simply to accept their lot; he just maintained that black life should not be defined solely as suffering. The Omni-Americans was to “provide a basis for action,” he writes in the introduction, action that would resist the misrepresentation of American blacks.

The book has three parts. In the opening essay, “The Omni-Americans,” Murray offers a kind of overture of his themes. He begins by asserting and celebrating the central place that blacks have historically played in the country—in terms of everything from culture to physical labor, before moving on to an indictment of the above-mentioned misrepresenters. The Negro Family: A Case for National Action, popularly known as the Moynihan Report, comes in for some savage treatment here. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s study offered a “sociological” explanation for the phenomenon of single-mother black households, attributing it to a debilitating strain in black culture that stemmed from slavery. Murray attacked the study for its essentialist assumptions about the inferiority of blacks, noting that “the Moynihan Report is the stuff of which the folklore of white supremacy is made.” The essay concludes with a celebration of the resilience of black culture as represented by the blues, which Murray defines as its signature artistic achievement. “[W]hen the Negro musician or dancer swings the blues,” Murray writes, “he is fulfilling the same fundamental existential requirement that determines the mission of the poet, the priest, and the medicine man. He is making an affirmative and hence exemplary and heroic response to that which André Malraux describes as la condition humaine.” This is vintage Murray, linking the achievements of black Americans with those of people everywhere whose ultimate aim is to define, and thus advance, the human story.

The essays in the second section, “The Illusive Black Image,” are combative, intended as Murray puts it, “as sketch page erasures of images that were unlikenesses.” In a number of these pieces, Murray uses the approach of one of the jazz musicians he holds in such high esteem, stretching a simple idea in so many directions that its mother wouldn’t recognize it. “Oneupmanship in Colorful America” takes issue with the term “nonwhite,” a symbol, for Murray, of the way white Americans set themselves as the standard and everyone else as a deviation. “Who That Say, What Dat, Every Time Us Do That?” is an extended response to a supposedly sympathetic white southerner’s statement that he “had never met a Negro who didn’t trust white people too much and that he had met very few who really understood what white people were really doing to them.” Much like a horn player who sets out to see what a single musical phrase will yield, Murray works up a prose lather whose theme is essentially, We understand more than you think we do, buster.

The third section, “Getting It Together,” is made up of essays on black consciousness. Those include the wonderful “Identity, Diversity, and the Mainstream,” a meditation on black art, tradition, and culture through the ages—much of it “oral rather than written.” Murray argues that blacks should not overlook the shining examples of achievement here at home—he cites the music of Duke Ellington as a pinnacle of such achievement—while pining for lost connections to Africa. At the same time, he points out that an American educational orientation allows blacks to research that largely oral African culture in a way that they might not be able to otherwise. The essay concludes:

[I]t is all too true that the “Americanization” process that captive Africans were forced to undergo stripped them of many of the native accoutrements that they held most dear and wished to retain. But it was also a process of Americanization that has now equipped and disposed them not only to reclaim and update the heritage of black Africa but also to utilize the multicolored heritage of all mankind of all the ages.

This is all well and good. But for my money, what makes The Omni-Americans essential reading half a century after its publication is not that it celebrates and defends blacks (who, Lord knows, can always use defending), or that it finds a novel angle from which to mount that defense (counter-attacking black people’s so-called friends as well as their declared enemies), or even that it showcases Murray’s inimitably lively prose (Richard Wright “was still given to ripping red hot pages of accusations from his outraged and smoldering typewriter and angrily flinging them all the way back across the Atlantic and into the guilt ridden lap of America”). No—the reason to read Murray is the quality of his that we so desperately need today and always, the quality that his work might just encourage in us: namely, his utter refusal to be sentimental, his unwillingness to be swayed by received notions about race or by anything other than a clear-eyed look at what is in front of him, his having “a mind so fine, no idea could violate it,” as T.S. Eliot noted about Henry James.

Murray’s arguments were based not so much on loyalty to black Americans as on a commitment to truth, whose cold light he turned on brown-skinned folks too. As much as he admired leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, for example, he did not think they walked on water. And Murray’s own lack of sentimentality allowed him to see the same quality in those whom black leaders had to deal with, powerful whites whose moral sense could not be too heavily relied on. Check this out:

There is, as no man of good will would ever dispute, everything to be said for the high priority that most Negro leaders and spokesmen have always placed on emergency measures to counteract poverty, exclusion, and injustice. But in giving so much emphasis to the moral aspects of the case, they often seem to neglect the fundamental nature of the hardheaded pragmatism that underlies so much American behavior. Sometimes Americans are disposed to fair play and sometimes they are not.

In other words, black leaders should appeal to whites’ sense of self-interest, which would motivate them in ways that altruism would not. If whites could be made to see their own actions as investment rather than charity, they would be more willing to help. Americans, Murray concludes, “almost always invest their time, money, and enthusiasm in assets with promise, not liabilities. Even those who become involved in salvage operations have been sold on inherent potential.” 

Murray’s arguments were based not so much on loyalty to black Americans as on a commitment to truth, whose cold light he turned on brown-skinned folks too.

Murray considered fiction to be one of the most important means of capturing life in all its complexity; his heroes included Faulkner, Hemingway, and Thomas Mann. For that reason, he took aim at a publishing industry that encouraged blacks to write tales of woe that portrayed dark-skinned people as little more than victims of oppression, and he was equally contemptuous of black writers who fell into this trap. “It is about time,” he writes, “U.S. Negroes realized that whether or not these particular white friends themselves have any literary taste and maturity (and one wonders), they do not assume that Negro writers have any.  . . . To be conned by such self-styled good will as is usual with so many of these cheap-note aristocrats is not only to invite contempt and not only to encourage it, but also to deserve it.” In The Omni-Americans, Murray criticizes writers including Richard Wright and James Baldwin for producing the kind of dehumanizing protest literature that the latter had once deplored in the work of Harriet Beecher Stowe (and, famously, of Wright himself). One book he does celebrate is Invisible Man, by his longtime friend and fellow Tuskegee University alum Ralph Ellison, for embodying the blues tradition.

Murray never became a household name in the way that, say, Ellison or Baldwin did. Yet in his lifetime he attracted a set of disciples including Stanley Crouch and Wynton Marsalis (one of his collaborators on Jazz at Lincoln Center), and avid readers like Henry Louis Gates (editor of the LOA volume). Over time he has also won a kind of cult following; Murray devotees, whether they discover each other at cocktail parties or on social media, instantly know they have something in common—a way of thinking about literature and music, about the country and living in it.

Murray died in 2013 at age ninety-seven. I wonder what he would have had to say about so much that has happened since. What, for example, would he have made of the Black Lives Matter activists who came on the scene at just about the time he left it? A passage from The Omni-Americans leads me to think he would have cheered them on:

It is the political behavior of black activists, not that of norm-calibrated Americans, that best represents the spirit of such constitutional norm-ideals as freedom, justice, equality, fair representation, and democratic processes. . . . It is the non-conforming Negro who now acts like the true descendant of the Founding Fathers–who cries, “Give me liberty or give me death,” and who regards taxation without representation as tyranny.

Murray was a thinking patriot, the best kind, the only good kind—one who knew that to serve our country, one must not celebrate or rationalize whatever America does but must seek to make it better, to help the nation strive to live up to its ideals of democracy and many-as-one, even if we never quite get there. I miss that about him, as I miss so much else about my handsome, cantankerous old friend—his high-pitched and rapid speech, his sense of humor, his throaty laugh, his fondness for reading aloud to me passages from books he loved, the Armagnac he occasionally shared with me. Not long ago, thinking of him, I bought a bottle of Armagnac and had some at home. It wasn’t the same.