Thursday, September 18, 2008

The army general & the philosopher

James Baldwin's Sonny's Blues demonstrates a perfect example of a character foil. Furthermore, this foil describes two very realistic mindsets. The eldest brother whose name is never mentioned attacks life's problem with order, or rather, he distracts himself from life's problems and intricacies by keeping order. In contrast, Sonny allows life to seep into him through every pore and often finds himself overwhelmed with its complexity and mystery.

This tension between opposites drives the story forward. From the start, we find Sonny in prison for heroin use, but unlike his friend who we first meet, Sonny is far from a dead beat loser. Surprisingly, though, Sonny's brother and his friend, whom the brother despises, are not that different--each numbs himself to life's hurt and mystery through daily distractions--either drug use or control.

We find ourselves absorbed with Sonny as he asks question concerning the essence of humanity. Why must humans suffer? Is there something beautiful in suffering? Yet, the most marked aspect of this short stories concerns Sonny's way to speak his frustrations. Sonny chooses music, specifically the blues (appropriately), to communicate his ails. I think Sonny's music comes from his soul, and music itself is above the constraints of language, so Sonny's blues are his way of connecting himself to the world. Sonny may never find answers to his woes, but if the woes were to sit inside him like a rock he would inevitably drown in life's problems.

Sonny's blues keep Sonny sane by allowing him to express himself to the world.

James Baldwin creates marvelously complex characters for stories that investigate interesting questions through unique mediums. For example, the questions: how does one survive and what does it mean for one to survive played out through the interaction of two brothers, the eldest a retired army office with a family and the second a loner musician just out of prison for heroin use.

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