Louis Armstrong’s Unknown Addiction

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Louis Armstrong’s Unknown Addiction
    Emil Sirbulescu Louis Armstrong’s Unknown Addiction, or the (Un)Willing Autobiographer Autobiography is the simultaneously historical record and literary artifact,  psychological case history and spiritual confession, didactic essay and ideological testament. Albert Stone 1. Introduction The lyrics of Louis Armstrong’s piece “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” reveal surprising linguistic peculiarities which bring the famous singer’s musical work much closer to a linguist’s job. Here are some revealing excerpts: You like potato and I like potahto, You like tomato and I like tomahto Potato, potahto, Tomato, tomahto, Let’s call the whole thing off […] So if you like pyjamas and I like pyjahmas, I’ll wear pyjamas and give up pyjahmas For we know we need each other so we, Better call the whole off off Let’s call the whole thing off. It looks as if the poet/singer plays with his words, discovering unexpected mean-ings, and thus offering himself to new interpretations. It is an invitation to a close reading of his writings, which reverberate with the sounds, vocabulary, and sentence structures of his native New Orleans. Indeed, it is quite unusual to consider Luis Armstrong as an author, and most of the European fans of his songs know little or nothing of Satchmo’s published works. Actually, there are two books written: Swing that Music  (1936), and Satchmo: My Life in New Or-leans  (1954), to which we should add  Louis Armstrong in His Own Words    228 Emil Sirbulescu (1999), a collection of letters. A closer approach to his writings reveals a differ-ent person, a sharp observer of the world around him, of those people and events that eventually shaped his existence. This is what I have been trying to capture in this presentation: a different and almost unknown facet of Satchmo’s not so simple personality. It is not our intention to retell the Satchmo story, but to place his memoirs in the much larger tradition of African American life writing. Un-doubtedly, Louis Armstrong was not only one of the greatest jazzmen in the his-tory of the genre. He was an American institution, a jazz ambassador to the world. His rich personality, his love of the music he played and the people with whom he played it, his joy of life, were engulfing. 2. On Autobiographies and Memoirs The Concise Oxford Dictionary  offers several definitions for the memoir and au-tobiography. Briefly, we are dealing with a historical account or biography writ-ten from personal knowledge or special sources, a personal account of one’s own life, meant to be published, which may  take literary form. The literary form is not compulsory. Generally speaking, a memoir – or an autobiography, as the case may be – is a rather special category of diary, having certain sources and functions. Auto- biographies are not written to remain unknown. Moreover, they have been writ-ten by artists or non-artistic personalities who use the word, sound, and their art to justify themselves to their contemporaries and posterity. Their importance re-sides in the events they describe and comment upon. It is very possible that they will later become literary works in themselves, and that the author will be later considered as their own character, but the initial function of a memoir or an au-tobiography is not an aesthetic one. Autobiographies written by different celebrities are meaningful as far as the respective celebrities have behind themselves a richness of actions they ac-complished, or events they witnessed or even set in motion. Thus, we have auto- biographies of Saint-Simon, Churchill and De Gaulle, Chaplin and Louis Armstrong. The question is: Are they literary works? Maybe not, but they all have the chance to become so. There are several causes that contribute to the alleged inaccuracy or even imposture that has been attributed to autobiography. As early as 1929, in his  As- pects of Biography , André Maurois systematizes these causes into a number of categories. The first category Maurois mentions is “oblivion.” According to the  Louis Armstrong’s Unknown Addiction 229 French biographer, we are prone to forget many of the events of our existence. Further on, Maurois refers to what he calls “distortion” or “voluntary amnesia”  justified by aesthetic reasons, mostly in the case of those authors who happen to  be talented artists as well. Then, there is another kind of distortion due to a natu-ral censorship exerted by the spirit upon everything disagreeable. Censorship may also be exerted by decency. Last but not least, there is voluntary censorship due to reason. Certain events in one’s life are later explained by rationalization. He/She invents a system of causes for which the event would constitute the ef-fect. Thus, an event is conferred with an exemplary value. Actually, the event is the work of chance. One important aspect should not be ignored: in this particular case, the lack of authenticity is not a literary criterion. As a matter of fact, all authors dec-lare that they are totally sincere, and we must take this at face value. The au-thor’s introduction, an always present component in the structure of any confes-sion, usually resorts to a reversal of the conative function of language – that cap-tatio benevolentiae  supported by such elements as sincerity and uniqueness common to all authors, irrespective of time and place. In order to stand on our guard against any ambiguities, we should not forget that any individual in this world will only tell of him/herself stories that can be encoded. The same materi-al – the word – is used for the most intense passions and for the most insignifi-cant sensations. The word is used by the author to talk about him/herself or about his/her characters. Individuals with the most unusual experiences are not more favored than those exhibition visitors who can only utter the ‘How beauti-ful!’ stereotype in front of the paintings on display. The literature of confession is and continues to be a convention, just like all other literary conventions. Finally, whatever an author presents about himself is a certain image that he/she might not recognize after a while. Kio Gisors, the protagonist of Ma-lraux’s  La condition humaine  records his own voice on discs. When listening to the recordings, he fails to recognize it. His father explains: “We hear the voice of the others with our ears, while our own voice we hear with our throat; even if you plug your ears, you will hear your own voice.” This might be the mechan-ism we could imagine as characteristic of the author and his/her autobiography. Philippe Lejeune, in his essay “The Autobiographical Pact,” gives the fol-lowing definition to the autobiography: “[autobiography] is a retrospective narr-ative produced by a real person concerning his own existence, focusing on his individual life, in particular on the development of his personality” (192).  230 Emil Sirbulescu Commenting on Lejeune’s definition, Kenneth Mostern considers that it “would quickly take us into the referential problematic on the side of the necessity of reference to a thing called a ‘personality,’ probably […] an already given and unconstructed reification” (Mostern 33). Later on, the French critic acknowl-edges the inadequacy of this definition when it comes to establish whether a text  belongs or does not belong to the genre of autobiography, and he introduces the notion of the ‘autobiographical pact,’ the very word ‘pact’ being an explicitly metaphysical notion rather than a contractual metaphor. Such an autobiographical pact comes in several forms which have in common “their intention to honor” the “signature” of the autobiographer. This intention is demonstrated with reference to the title page of any given book; it is here that “we make use of a general textual criterion, the identity (‘identical-ness’) of the name  (author-narrator-protagonist). The autobiographical pact is the affirmation in the text of this identity, referring back in the final analysis to the name  of the author on the cover” (Lejeune 13, 14). Further on, the same author offers a surprising addition to his definition: In spite of the fact that autobiography is impossible, this in no way pre-vents it from existing. Perhaps, in describing it, I in turn took my desire for reality; but what I had wanted to do, was to describe this reality in its reality, a reality shared by a great number of authors and readers. (131-32) In  Autobiography and Black Identity Politics: Racialization in Twentieth-Century America , Kenneth Mostern offers a pattern that allows readers to prop-erly understand contemporary theories on autobiography. We are invited to posi-tion ourselves according to two distributive axes: an axis of referentiality, and an axis of subjectivity. In this case, “Referentiality” refers to the question of whether autobiography is to be understood as representing, or as nonrepresentational with regard to, a real world external to the text. “Subjectivity” refers to discussions of the posi-tion of the speaking subject, the “I” (or, in those few cases without “I,” the point of view) which narrates the autobiographical text – its social po-sitioning and construction, its number, its autonomy, its relationship to other subject-positions. No definition of autobiography is possible without some explicit or implicit position along each of these axes. (28)  Louis Armstrong’s Unknown Addiction 231 In his seminal study The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Con- sciousness  Paul Gilroy refers to the tradition of African American autobiogra- phy, and considers that autobiography “expresses in the most powerful way a tradition of writing in which autobiography becomes an act or process of simul-taneous self-creation and self-emancipation” and the presentation of a public persona thus becomes a founding motif within the expressive culture of the African diaspora […] Eagerly received by the [abolition] movement to which they were addressed, these [autobio-graphies] helped to mark out a dissident space within the bourgeois public sphere which they aimed to suffuse with their utopian content. The auto- biographical character of many [public] statements is thus absolutely cru-cial. (69) Kenneth Mostern comments on Gilroy’s statement only to conclude that “The tradition of African-American writing is thus one in which political com-mentary necessitates, invites, and assumes autobiography as its rhetorical form” (11). According to Mostern, Gilroy’s claim that the autobiographical mode of political representation is, then, a culturally-based ethical pattern, is borne out by the extent to which nearly all   African-American political leaders (regardless of poli-tics; self-designated or appointed by one or another community) have chosen to write personal stories as a means of theorizing their political  positions. (11-12) In his “Race,” Writing and Difference  (1985) Henry Louis Gates Jr. con-tributed the following comment on Black autobiography: The narrated, descriptive “eye” was put into service as a literary form to  posit both the individual “I” of the black author as well as the collective “I” of the race. Text created author; and black authors, it was hoped, would create, or re-create, the image of the race in European discourse. The very  face  of the race was contingent upon the recording of the black voice . Voice presupposed a face, but also seems to have been thought to determine the very contours of the black face. (11) One interesting approach to the genre is that offered by William Spenge-mann who, in his The Forms of Autobiography: Episodes in the History of a Li-
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