Jazz as an Alternative to Death
“It’s repulsive to think you have to suffer that much” (Baldwin 132). Many would argue that in life, pain outweighs pleasure. Freud contends that although we are unable to reconcile with the truth because it frightens us, each and every one of us has an unconscious desire to die. Death, according to Freud, is the ultimate escape from the sufferings and hardships which define human life and reality. In “Sonny’s Blues,” James Baldwin confronts this dark truth about human nature in his character, Sonny. Sonny’s suffering becomes so unbearable that he refuses to accept it as an inevitable condition of the human experience; he refuses to “take it”: “’But nobody just takes it,’ Sonny cried, ‘That’s what I’m telling you! Everybody tries not to’” (Baldwin 133). Rather than directly embrace death, Sonny seeks relief and control in other, alternative forms. At first, Sonny finds escape in the form of a heroin addiction; it gives him a sense of control and allows him to impose a superficial order on his life. Later on, however, Sonny learns that through his music he is able to impose a real, empirical order on the chaos of his internal sufferings. This order manifests itself in the form of jazz music.
Freud believed that all human behavior is motivated by instincts. The death instinct, as Freud saw it, motivates us to be satisfied and at peace. In a sense, the goal of all human activity and toil is to be finished. We work so that by finishing our work we can be at rest. Because life is defined by activity, and death is the ultimate rest, the goal of life is essentially death. However, because the nature of death is uncertain, there exists a very powerful aura of fear around it, one that represses our desire to die and forces us to turn to other, more familiar ways of escape. These means of escape manifest themselves in a variety of different ways: books, movies, drugs, sex, music, etc. Despite their seeming disconnectedness, these escapes all have a common ability, they allow one to set reality, with all its sufferings, aside, if only for a short period of time. They also allow one, through expression, to impose order on the chaos inside.
For Sonny, this is the appeal of heroin. Heroin gives him a sense of control, if only a superficial one: “It makes you feel-in control. Sometimes you’ve got to have that feeling” (Baldwin 131). Sonny, like all people, is continuously motivated by the death instinct. He is motivated towards finding an end to the constant activity of life, towards peace. However, like most people, Sonny does not see death as an immediate option, for him too death is unknown and fearful territory and therefore the desire to die is repressed into his unconscious. Like all unconscious desires, the desire to die is expressed in the conscious, but in an indirect way. In this case, Sonny’s desire to die presents itself to his conscious in the form of escapist behaviors such as drug addiction: “No, there’s no way not to suffer. But you try all kinds of ways to keep from drowning in it, to keep on top of it, and to make it seem-well, like you” (Baldwin 132). Sonny admits to both his brother and himself that there is no way to avoid suffering completely, but there exists outlets through which the suffering becomes bearable, manageable. Sonny explains that if you are able to impose some degree of order on the suffering, you can still retain your identity. In a sense, heroin gives Sonny the ability to look at himself in the mirror and see, not just a vast ocean of hardships, but also a familiar face looking back at him.
The sense of control that heroin gives Sonny, which allows him to “keep from drowning in it,” is a false sense. The more one becomes dependent on a drug like heroin, the more control one relinquishes to the drug itself. Eventually, Sonny is no longer in control, but rather the heroin and the people who provide it. This becomes a gateway for even more suffering and pain. Luckily for Sonny, he has found an alternative to this downward spiraling phenomena in music. “But the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air” (Baldwin 137). Through his piano, Sonny is able to grasp the chaos within and impose an empirical order on it by translating it into musical notes. Sonny’s escape into music then becomes the conscious representation of the unconscious death instinct. By imposing order, Sonny is decreasing his amount of suffering, and therefore moving towards peace and rest. The words of Sonny’s brother, upon hearing his jazz, are a testament to the power of music to transport us from the hardships of everyday life:
And it brought something else back to me, and carried me past it, I saw
my little girl again and felt Isabel’s tears again, and I felt my own tears
begin to rise. And I was yet aware that this was only a moment, that the
world waited outside, as hungry as a tiger, and that trouble stretched above
us, longer than the sky (Baldwin 140).
The world is a cruel place, “as hungry as a tiger,” and he must do everything he can to remind himself of this while he is being drifted aloft by Sonny’s music.
Freud’s death instinct manifests itself in the physical world in the form of escapist behaviors. These behaviors, some socially acceptable, others not, are the familiar alternative to the fearfulness of the unknown realm of death. For Sonny, suffering stems from a lack of control, and he seeks control in various forms. At first, he thinks he has found this control in the way heroin makes him feel, but this is only a superficial control. Eventually, Sonny turns to music in order to impose a higher, empirical order on the chaos of his internal state. As Sonny is unable to confront his desire to die directly, death, for Sonny, becomes music. Music is a sanctuary from the constant suffering, just as death would be.