Life As It Happens: George Orwell, Horace Silver, and the Sound of Surprise
Musical composition should bring happiness and joy to people and make them forget their troubles.
—Horace Silver (1928-2014)
You never know. Things happen. Life happens, death happens, music happens. You set out to write a column about George Orwell and a dog steals the show. Then a thrush. Then a jazz musician. It’s like the old line, “a funny thing happened to me on the way to —” wherever. Or like “Something Happened to Me Yesterday,” the Rolling Stones song from 1967 that wouldn’t let me alone all last week. Now I know why. “No one’s sure just what it was/Or the meaning and the cause.”
So there I am buried in books from the library by or about George Orwell (born on this date in 1903), skimming my way through the Orwellian universe with Mick Jagger singing in my head, when Horace Silver dies. Talk about parallel worlds colliding.
It’s like the moment in 1984 when Winston Smith hears someone singing a song composed “for the benefit of the proles by a sub-section of the Music Department.” Peeking out the window, he sees “a monstrous woman” down in the court below singing, in “a powerful contralto,” “It was only an ‘opeless fancy,/It passed like an Ipril dye,/But a look an’ a word an’ the dreams they stirred/they have stolen my ‘eart awye!”
The funny thing is, she’s singing “the dreadful rubbish” so tunefully that Smith finds it “almost pleasant” to hear.
You never know what Orwell’s really up to when he uses words like “dreadful.” Like the “something dreadful” that happens in his essay from 1921, “A Hanging.”
In a May 22 New York Times column about the “pivotal books” in his life, David Brooks puts the essays of Orwell at the top and dubs him “a master of the welcoming first sentence.”
While it’s mostly true about Orwell and first sentences, “A Hanging” has an undeniably unwelcoming opening: “It was in Burma, a sodden morning of the rains.” The condemned prisoner is a Hindu, “a puny wisp of a man” whose mustache is “absurdly too big for his body,” reminding Orwell of a comedian from the movies. It’s a walk of 40 yards to the gallows and when at one point the prisoner has to step “slightly aside to avoid a puddle on the path,” Orwell, who was an officer with the Indian Imperial Police in his twenties, admits that until then he “had never realised what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man.” As if this were the essay’s intended message, Orwell expounds on “the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide. This man was not dying, he was alive just as we were alive …. He and we were a party of men walking together, seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding the same world; and in two minutes, with a sudden snap, one of us would be gone — one mind less, one world less.”
But “a funny thing happens on the way” to the hanging, something actually not funny at all but “dreadful,” says Orwell, as a “large woolly dog, half Airedale, half pariah” comes seemingly out of nowhere “with a loud volley of barks,” leaping among and around the men, “wagging its whole body, wild with glee at finding so many human beings together.” And before anyone can stop it, the dog makes a dash for the prisoner, jumps up and tries to lick his face.
For a reader, this sudden surprising departure from decorum is, like the woman’s singing in 1984, the opposite of dreadful; it’s the sort of thing only a comic genius with a view of life as enlightened as Chaplin’s might have conceived. The business about “a party of men understanding the same world” is exposition; the romping dog is life as it happens.
Everyone stands “aghast, too taken aback even to grab at the dog.” One of the men escorting the prisoner goes charging clumsily after the happy animal, but it dances and gambols just out of his reach, “taking everything as part of the game.” Another of the jailers throws some gravel, trying “to stone the dog away,” but it dodges the stones and comes eagerly back to them again, “its yaps” echoing “from the jail walls.”
Since you’ve been reading a lot of very nuanced prose up to this point, the yapping, romping, gamboling dog is the equivalent of music, like jazz, “the sound of surprise.” At the apex of life-and-death solemnity, the uncontainable, irrepressible behavior of an animal makes you smile when you should be frowning, lifts your spirits when there is no earthly reason for that to be happening.
What does the doomed man think of this playful intervention? He looks on “incuriously, as though this was another formality of the hanging.”
It takes several more minutes before someone manages to catch the dog. Then Orwell puts his handkerchief through its collar and they move on once more, “with the dog still straining and whimpering.” In describing the grim business at hand, Orwell makes no further mention of the fact that he’s the one restraining the dog. When the noose is fixed around the prisoner’s neck, he cries out to “his god,” chanting incessantly the one word, “Ram! Ram! Ram!” No command has been given the hangman. Everyone’s waiting for the “Ram! Ram! Ram!” to stop. It’s as if he’s being allowed “a fixed number — fifty, perhaps, or a hundred … each cry another second of life.”
Finally the command is given, the lever’s released, the prisoner plummets, “the rope twisting on itself,” and at this moment Orwell lets go of the dog! All this time he’s been restraining the animal, the one lyrical, spontaneous, poetical element in the narrative, its unacknowledged glory, until the fatal moment wherein the dog gallops immediately to the back of the gallows, stops short, barks, and then retreats to a corner of the yard, standing “among the weeds, looking timorously out at us.” The last we hear, the animal is “conscious of having misbehaved itself.” The word “misbehaved” is no more to be trusted than the word “dreadful” here or in 1984, where such spontaneous behavior can put you in Big Brother’s sights and land you in Room 101.
Having compared Orwell’s dog to music, I may be straining at the rhetorical leash to intrude on the Orwellian moment by extolling the virtues of Horace Silver. But thanks to that half-Airedale/Pariah, it makes a kind of sense. Who else, after all, could do justice in music to such happy cavorting in the face of death but the composer of “Nica’s Dream,” “Peace,” “Sister Sadie,” and “Blowing the Blues Away”? The internet makes the accomplishing of such unlikely associations swift and seamless, as happened the other night when I went from a reading of “A Hanging” to the online New York Times headline, “Horace Silver, 85, Master of Earthy Jazz, Is Dead,” to YouTube, which instantly puts you face to face with the man who has given so much serious joy to so many people.
A wave of the iMac wand and here he is very much alive, in person, smiling out at you, in his early thirties, as ready for a romp as an Airedale at a hanging, a vagrant forelock drifting over his forehead, his shoulders hunched; this man is something better than handsome or charming, he could be a gypsy in suit and tie or a surrealist poet moonlighting on piano in a Latin Quarter dive. As he hovers over the keyboard, dark hair tumbling in further disarray, long stiff fingers driving the hypnotic riff that begins “Señor Blues,” this most cheerful and welcoming of musicians takes on the sinister aura of a demented genius capable of “seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding” the same world where “with a sudden snap, one of us would be gone — one mind less, one world less.”
Happenings in 1984
Things happen when you “read around” in Orwell. D.J. Taylor’s Orwell: The Life (Holt 2003) contains a full-page full-face photograph of Orwell’s first wife Eileen that stops you, holds you, and haunts you. Photographs of Orwell himself somehow never really quite happen or adhere; you have to search online to find a smile, which turns up, not surprisingly, whenever he’s shown holding his adopted son.
Look through 1984 and the words and phrases that are set apart from the text proper stand out, most obviously and famously, the slogans of Big Brother. Even more conspicuous, however, are the lyrics of that “dreadful” song (“It was only an ‘opeless fancy”) and the three words Winston Smith finds on a small piece of paper handed him by a young woman he hardly knows — “I love you.”
Life happens, death happens, love happens, and it’s love that seals Smith’s fate, that and the “torrent of song” poured forth by a thrush when he and his lover are standing in the shade of hazel bushes, their hiding place. The music goes “on and on, minute after minute, with astonishing variations, never once repeating itself,” a “flood of music” that flows “all over” him and gets “mixed up with the sunlight” filtering “through the leaves.” It’s a passage that might seem florid or cliched in any other novel, with phrases like “her body seemed to melt into his,” but this is 1984, where “pure love or pure lust” are impossible, where “their embrace” has been “a battle, the climax a victory … a blow struck against the Party. It was a political act.”
But not the singing of the thrush. That’s life as it happens.
For a more in-depth appreciation of Horace Silver, see my July 16, 2008 column, “Charming Persuasion: A Stroll with Horace Silver,” http://www.towntopics.com/jul1608/book.html.