Making the Changes

Marabi Nights, Merry Blackbirds, Epistles and Exiles: Jazz in South African Literature 1950-1970. Review article surveying works by Gwen Ansell, David Coplan, Michael Titlestad and others. English in Africa (October 2010). Full text here (PDF). At the end of But Beautiful – a 1991 collection of imaginative improvisations on the lives of great mid-20th century American jazzmen - Geoff Dyer quotes a thought experiment by George Steiner.  In his book Real Presences (1989)the intellectual asks us to “imagine a society in which all talk about the arts, music and literature is prohibited,” where only the real thing, the act of creation itself, is permitted. In this “republic for writers and readers,” there would be no secondary, parasitic discussion about the latest exhibitions or concerts, no more essays debating the finer points of Hamlet’s madness. Instead, in Steiner’s vision this would constitute an ideal artistic climate where the columns of reviewers and professional opinion makers would be abandoned in favour of listings of coming events, all other commentary rendered redundant since, Steiner maintains, the experience of any genuine work of art also constitutes the best critique in and of itself, and the continuum of which it is part. Yet while he dismisses this utopia and moves on – “the fantasy I have sketched is only that” – Dyer uses it as a starting point to explore a real place that for much of the century “has provided a global home for millions of people: It is a republic with a simple name: jazz” (183-4). (Continue reading...)