Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Articles [NAJP]

Aesthetics in Journalism--and History

My wife came into my office just now to complain that I'd ruined the rest of her planned reading by encouraging her to pick up Ryszard Kapuscinski's The Shadow of the Sun. After she finished, nothing else matched up. Kapuscinski, as you may know but I did not until an ex-student recommended the spoiler in question, was a Polish journalist who died in 2007. I've read many books about Africa, but in nonfiction not even Joseph Lelyveld's Move Your Shadow, Basil Davidson's Africa in History, or Adam Hochschild's King Leopold's Ghost is as powerful as Kapuscinski's casual-looking essay/reportage collection, which begins with Ghanaian independence in 1957 and ends sometime in the late '90s. Kapuscinski was clearly a swashbuckler, and I never altogether trusted his many cultural generalizations or his grim worldview. But his Communist background clarified his understanding of colonialism and its European minions. And I winced at the way one of his best chapters connects the vanity of francophonie, as the French call their ongoing campaign to maintain their language's international hegemony, to the genocide in Rwanda. On my only visit to Africa, to attend a performing arts conference in Cote d'Ivoire in 1995, a year after the worst Rwandan slaughter began, I wrote about francophonie too, including two deaths connected to the conference. But never did I suggest how much more murderous it could be, because I didn't know.

Wanting to post, though, I thought I should glance at Kapuscinki's Wikipedia page. And when I did I realized I was probably out of my depth. Some Wikipedia links are useless, but John Ryle's long attack on The Shadow of the Sun from TLS is something else: a scrupulous, untendentious, scholarly survey of Kapuscinski's factual errors, wild exaggerations, and unsupported allegations. As I said, I had detected braggadocio and bias in this book I admired (and still do admire). And in fact I was relieved to learn, for instance, that his claim that there's not a single bookstore in Addis Ababa is simply untrue. I didn't want Africa to be as bleak as Kapuscinski suggested, and I didn't really believe it was. Nevertheless, some of Ryle's evidence makes Kapuscinski look more self-serving anyone should be comfortable with. And then I Wiki-linked to Geoff Dyer's Guardian rave and felt my sympathies shifting again. I don't like Dyer's jazz book But Beautiful for much the same reason Ryle doesn't like The Shadow of the Sun. I believe its flights of imagination are self-aggrandizing, making too much of Dyer and not enough of the musicians they supposedly celebrate--and in the process condescending to those musicians. But writing straight criticism he does a good job of defending a method he and Kapuscinski share.

Which allows me to proceed to the small point I was originally planning to raise. In one of the many great scenes in The Shadow of the Sun, a Spanish travel writer arrives at Kapuscinski's guest-house in Bamako and circulates around the somnolent street chatting with locals who, as usual in this book, are barely sentient in the scorching sun. Then he blows a whistle and the neighborhood comes alive. "In a matter of seconds" everyone is dancing as a few children and then many adults beat out rhythms on tin cans and their own bodies. This isn't just a party, Kapuscinski says: "this was something different, something bigger, something loftier and more important." Suddenly these "idle and superfluous" survivors are "determined," "decisive," "able to express themselves." The Spaniard takes a lot of photographs and then the episode is over. He thanks the participants--no money seems to change hands--and they converse for a while before dispersing back to their hovels.

Although to his credit Kapuscinski's tone is admiring and respectful, this scene could obviously be understood to throw a rather cynical light on the cliche of an Africa imbued with music. But it could just as easily be understood to exemplify the organizing function of African music. Certainly it's striking that in the four excellent books mentioned in the first paragraph, this is the only extended reference to music I found; even Davidson's cultural history The African Genius barely mentions music, and that in passing (insofar as I can tell from skimming the half I never got around to finishing for precisely that reason). Since most of my nonfiction reading about Africa has naturally focused on music, and since whatever African visual artists taught Picasso and Modigliani I feel quite certain that it's in music that Africa made itself felt most powerfully in world culture (although not economics), this is a major omission. How can any historian pretend to describe any African society or culture without pondering this art form?

The relevance of this post to arts journalism? Gosh, I dunno. Ask your managing editor if he or she has any ideas.

1 Comment

By Chris Hurst on September 3, 2010 7:31 AM

At some point, Kapuscinski's work was tagged with the term "magic journalism," and there was always the nagging worry that there was more "magic" than "journalism" in it. Kapuscinski gave that a backhanded acknowledgement in his last book by describing how he was inspired by Herodotus, both the father of historians and the father of playing fast and loose with the facts.

Kapuscinski is one of my favorite writers, but I'm not a journalist or a historian. I think of him as a writer like Sebald or Chatwin or Geoff Dyer (a good writer apart from lousy "But Beautiful"), a writer who should be enjoyed but not taken at face value. Fiction, in other words. If I was a journalist, having fiction described as journalism would bother me.

Articles, Sept. 2, 2010


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