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Diction Addiction: The Drug of Language in “Sonny’s Blues”

Emily Rapport

Emily Rapport (class of 2016) is from Columbus, Ohio. She plans to declare an English major. Emily is the chair of Dinner at Davidson, a student leader of the Eliminate Digital Divides project, a class senator, a writing center tutor, and a member of Warner Hall Eating House. Emily spent the past summer living in Charlotte with the Davidson Education Scholars program and is passionate about community-based education. Her essay was written for Professor Zoran Kuzmanovich’s English 220: Literary Analysis.

In “The Jazz Harmonies of Connection and Disconnection in ‘Sonny’s Blues’,” Susanna Lee explains that drugs, as described in James Baldwin’s story, “compromise emotional presence long before they dismantle practical functioning. Before the addict ends up on the street, that is, he occupies (at times for years) a liminal space in the world, communicating with people from the other side of the wall, separated from human feeling by a sort of invisible film.”1 Lee describes Sonny and his nameless friend, the story’s principle heroin users. Yet Lee’s definition also seems to describe the character most averse to literal drug use: the narrator. Lee unwittingly provides a fitting description of how the narrator of “Sonny’s Blues” hides behind an “invisible film” composed not of drugs, but of language. The narrator’s addiction to his own language initially prevents him from experiencing his own emotions and connecting with Sonny. The story charts his ability to accept new modes of expression, particularly gesture and music, and displays how this change affects his attitude towards life in Harlem through the interlocking dichotomies of darkness and light, childhood and adulthood.

The opening scene introduces the narrator’s reliance on metaphor to represent his emotions. For instance, the narrator says, “A great block of ice got settled in my belly and kept melting there slowly all day long. . . .It was a special kind of ice. It kept melting, sending trickles of ice water all up and down my veins, but it never got less.”2 The narrator uses such comparisons to express his feelings in a way that emphasizes language while denying his actual feelings to both himself and the reader. Keith Byerman calls this “the narrator’s practice of reading events through the vehicle of his own language,” which suggests that language acts as an intermediary between the speaker and the world, an intermediary that in this case prevents honest expression of feeling.3 The scene also introduces the interlocking motifs of darkness and childhood and their expression through music. The story opens when the narrator reads about Sonny’s arrest in the newspaper. After continuously re-reading the news article, the narrator says, “I stared at it in the swinging lights of the subway car. . .and in my own face, trapped in the darkness which roared outside.”4 The narrator gives sonic properties to the visual concept of darkness, foreshadowing the relationship between darkness and music.

The opening scene also links this image of darkness to the narrator’s image of his brother as child. The narrator, a school teacher, projects his image of his students onto Sonny; he conjures an image of Sonny “about as old as the boys in my classes” because he doesn’t know what Sonny looks like as an adult.5 He connects his ideas about children to blues Diction Addiction: The Drug of Language in "Sonny's Blues"darkness when he asserts that his students’ reliance on the movies hinders their perceptions of the real world: “All they really knew were two darknesses, the darkness of their lives, which was now closing in on them, and the darkness of the movies, which had blinded them to that other darkness.”6 Edward Lobb reads this quotation as the narrator’s opinion that “bad art, like heroin, is merely a refuge from the real world,” as opposed to good art of the blues that appears later in the story.7 However, at this point in the story, the narrator is ignorant of the power of the blues, which suggests that the narrator does not distinguish between good and bad art; rather, his attitude towards the movies is indicative of his general attitude toward art, which includes music. In the narrator’s mind, music prevents young people from dealing with “the darkness into which they are born,” the Harlem ghetto.8 Music constitutes a second darkness more terrible than the first, because, like a drug, it hinders the ability to deal with the real world. The narrator is at this point unaware that his reliance on language serves a similar function.

The narrator’s interaction with Sonny’s childhood friend allows the narrator to reduce the validity of Sonny and his peers by comparing them to children. He turns to simile to antagonize the youthfulness he sees in Sonny’s friend: “I couldn’t stand the way he looked at me, partly like a dog, partly like a cunning child.”9 His addition of an animal to the comparison deepens his suggestion about the inferiority of children and their modes of expression. The narrator  then watches a barmaid dance to a jukebox and explains, “When she smiled one saw the little girl. . . beneath the battered face of the semi-whore.”10 This description continues the narrator’s ongoing suggestion that the relief music offers is only for the ignorant and simple-minded, the drug users and whores of the Harlem streets, who are at once dangerous and childlike. The narrator also uses language in the scene to express his contempt for drugs. Though Sonny’s friend offers him the chance to better understand his brother through a description of heroin use, the narrator rejects him: “I certainly didn’t want to know how it felt. It filled everything, the people, the houses, the music, the dark, quicksilver barmaid with menace.”11 The narrator’s attitude towards addiction is similar toward his attitude toward music, and he associates both with the menacing darkness of Harlem. The narrator “psychologically retreats” when drug use is mentioned, which suggests that he is close-minded to escape methods other than his own.12 Ironically, the psychological retreat the narrator makes with language is similar to the psychological retreat of drug use. The narrator uses metaphor as a drug to prevent himself from experiencing and expressing the pain of feeling. He associates the expression of feeling with children: “I felt that in another moment I’d start crying like a child.”13 To the narrator, feeling itself is as childish as the musical or emotional expression of it. He rejects all of these systems of expression, choosing instead to numb himself with language.

When the narrator finally sees Sonny for the first time after his arrest, he notes that Sonny “looked very unlike my baby brother. Yet, when he smiled, when we shook hands, the baby brother I’d never known looked out from the depths of his private life, like an animal waiting to be coaxed into the light.”14 The simile continues the narrator’s habit of using language to compare his brother and his peer group to both children and animals, which deepens the narrator’s assertion that Sonny is less perceptive than himself. Additionally, the passage suggests that, since Sonny is “waiting to be coaxed into the light,” he is currently trapped in the darkness of the urban drug scene, a darkness whose opposite, relief, is a separate entity that he associates with light. At this point, the narrator still sees dark and light as a dichotomy, with darkness as the suffering that must be avoided and escaped.

Ironically, the psychological retreat the narrator makes with language is similar to the psychological retreat of drug use. The narrator uses metaphor as a drug to prevent himself from experiencing and expressing the pain of feeling.

The narrator uses language to retreat from reality into a flashback. He slips instantly from past to present tense while recounting details: “And the living room would be full of church folks and relatives. There they sit.” (Ibid., 64.)) Recalling this scene in the present tense suggests that the narrator is reliving his memory in the narrative present. In this way, his language is an escape that temporarily replaces reality, much like a drug. However, the image he presents in this flashback begins to expose the contradictions in the dichotomies between both darkness and light and childhood and adulthood. The narrator fixes on a darkness that isn’t just outside, but also exists inside, visible on people’s faces:
“every face looks darkening, like the clouds outside”15 Light, the presumed antidote to darkness, does not ease suffering, but rather makes it worse: “And when light fills the room, the child’s is filled with darkness”16 This paradox suggests the falsehood not only of the dichotomy between darkness and light, but also the dichotomy between childhood and adulthood. The child the narrator describes–presumably himself–is portrayed as exceptionally perceptive. The narrator says, “the child knows that they won’t talk anymore because if he knows too much about what’s happened to them, he’ll know too much too soon, about what’s going to happen to him.”17 This memory acknowledges both that children are more perceptive than they appear and that they grow to become adults, which unsettles the dichotomy between ignorant childhood and perceptive adulthood that the narrator relies upon to assert his superiority over Sonny. These contradictions set the scene for the narrator’s worldview to change, although he is still too confused by his own language to realize it.

The brothers’ respective addictions to language and heroin have prevented them from connecting to each other. As the flashback continues, gesture is introduced as a possible mode of communication. When Sonny tells the narrator that he is going to become a piano player, the narrator says, “I sensed myself in the presence of something I didn’t really know how to handle, didn’t understand. So I made my frown a little deeper”18 In the face of a communication struggle, the narrator suggests that his facial expression might help convey his message to Sonny, whose powers of language he believes inferior to his own. Yet the narrator does not have this same confidence in the power of Sonny’s gestures. After Sonny tells his brother than classical music does not interest him, the narrator says, “he paused, looking hard at me, though his eyes would help me understand, and then gestured helplessly, as though perhaps his hand would help”19 The narrator uses qualifiers like “as though,” “perhaps,” and “helplessly” to suggest that Sonny’s gestures are futile, which places the blame on Sonny for the narrator’s own inability to read him. The narrator channels this sense of his own superiority into another assertion that Sonny is young and foolish: “With another part of my mind I was thinking that this would probably turn out to be one of those things kids go through and that I shouldn’t make it seem important by pushing it too hard.”20 Yet, the narrator’s closing image suggests that Sonny may not be the child that the narrator makes him out to be: “But the worry, the thoughtfulness, played on still, the way shadows play on a face which is staring into the fire.”21 This image suggests a callback to the narrator’s memory of the adults whose faces darkened in front of the children, which places Sonny on an adult level for the first time, though subtly. The paradoxical image of dark shadows and fire further suggests that the narrator’s firm ideas about the darkness of suffering are changing, and he may soon start to perceive both his own and his brother’s suffering differently.

The narrator continues to devalue Sonny’s expressive powers when his primary form of expression switches to music. The narrator is firm in his assertion that the music could not possibly make sense to Isabelle and her family: “And the sound didn’t make any sense to her, didn’t make any sense to any of them–naturally.”22 He returns to his method of using simile to control and qualify his surroundings, but there are more apparent contradictions in his word choice. The narrator notes, “It was as though [Sonny] were all wrapped up in some cloud, some fire, some vision all his own; and there wasn’t any way to reach him.”23. Here, the narrator mixes comparative objects with connotations of darkness (cold) and light (heat). Though the narrator does not understand his brother’s reliance on music, his ideas about light, darkness, and musical expression seem to be evolving, whether or not he is cognizant of it. Before, the narrator suggest that music made people blind to the darkness, a darkness which must be abandoned and escaped. Now, his mixed images of light and darkness suggest the beginnings of a realization that in Harlem,”freedom lies in the recognition of the darkness and the light from which the darkness comes.”24 Music plays a dual role in suffering, perpetuating suffering by providing a cathartic expression of it. Oddly, the narrator seems to rely on music at the end of the scene: “I started down the steps, whistling to keep from crying, I kept whistling to myself, You going to need me, baby, one of these cold, rainy days.”25 He uses music the same way he uses language: as a drug that masks feeling. He is himself one of the boys who uses the movies to ward off the darkness and pain of his world. Sonny uses music as a tool for feeling, rather than as a prophylactic against it. It is no wonder that this use of music sounds “weird and distorted” to the narrator.26

The next section of the story begins us back to the narrative present, and with it, the narrator’s turning point. He immediately reveals details about the death of his daughter. His language in this section is straightforward and literal, which distinguishes it from the rest of his discourse. The only simile comes at the end, and it conveys the emotional devastation of the daughter’s death for the family: “where Isabel is weeping against me seems a mortal wound.”27 This break from the narrator’s typical language style suggests the possibility for the narrator to recognize new modes of expression in light of his daughter’s death. Though the daughter’s death is the catalyst for the narrator’s reunion with Sonny, he does not present us with details until this point, well over midway through the story. It seems that the narrator’s reflection on his biography have already begun to affect his willingness to express himself. This disclosure of information, both in content and form, indicates a potential turning point in both the brothers’ relationship and the narrator’s understanding of alternative modes of expression.

This potential crystallizes at the revival meeting, which the narrator notes takes place shortly after Sonny begins staying with the narrator’s family. The narrator acknowledges that this is a point when something is changing: “It was strange, suddenly, to watch, though I had been seeing these street meetings all my life.”28 He watches as “the woman with the tambourine, whose voice dominated the air, whose face was bright with joy, was divided by very little from the woman who stood watching her, a cigarette between her heavy, chapped lips, her hair a cuckoo’s nest, her face scarred and swollen from many beatings, and her black eyes glittering like coal. Perhaps they both knew this, which was why, when, as rarely as they addressed each other, they addressed each other as sister.”29 The narrator seems to recognize a different power of music–not the prevention of emotion, but the expression of feelings and the creation of brotherhood. This new idea seems to be perpetuated by Sonny’s reentry into his life. Though he resorts again to simile to describe the music, he now recognizes its power over the audience: “the music seemed to soothe a poison out of him.”30 Here, for the first time, the narrator uses figurative language to express, rather than deny, music’s powerful therapeutic function.

Yet the conversation that follows between the brothers shows that the narrator has not yet overcome his addiction to the language that he relies upon to avoid the pain of suffering. Once again, the narrator discredits Sonny by comparing him to a child, noting that he looked, “from where I was standing, almost like a schoolboy.”31 Sonny attempts to use this moment of shared musical experience to connect to the narrator through the narrator’s own preferred form of expression: figurative language. But Sonny’s choice of comparative object makes this connection impossible: he says, “her voice reminded me for a minute of what heroin feels like sometimes. . .It makes you feel sort of warmblues Diction Addiction: The Drug of Language in "Sonny's Blues" and cool at the same time. And distant. And–and sure.”32 Sonny’s choice to compare the music to the feel of heroin fails to connect to the narrator on two levels. The narrator has already established both his aversion to drug use and descriptions of it and also his aversion to direct descriptions of feeling, which he always denies in favor of comparisons to concrete objects. This failed connection sets the stage for the narrator to continue denying Sonny’s modes of expression. The narrator notes: “[Sonny] looked at me with great, troubled eyes, as though, in fact, he hoped his eyes would tell me things he could never otherwise say.”33 The narrator once again denies Sonny’s facial expressions as a communication method, and also continues to assert that the language that is beyond Sonny’s capability is the superior form of expression. The narrator will always resort to language, as evidenced by his commentary on his own questions: “‘And what about you?’ I asked–I couldn’t help it.”((Ibid.))

Midway through this conversation, however, something changes. The narrator asks his brother, “‘There’s no way not to suffer–is there, Sonny?'” Sonny replies, “‘I believe not. . .but that’s never stopped anyone from trying.'”34 This concise and eloquent response, unusual for Sonny, unlocks the narrator’s ability to read the messages Sonny sends him. Suddenly, the narrator learns something from Sonny’s facial expressions, which he previously dismissed: “I realized, with this mocking look, that there stood between us, forever, beyond the power of time or forgiveness, the fact that I had held silence–so long!–when he had needed human speech to help him.”35 The triumph of gesture causes the narrator to doubt the merit of his addiction to words. For the first time, words fail the narrator:”I wanted to say more, but I couldn’t. . .it all would have sounded empty–words and lies.”36 This recognition causes him to see his brother differently. Once again, the narrator notes the conflict between child and adult within his brother differently. Once again, the narrator notes that Sonny”stopped, looking inward, looking helplessly young, looking old.”37 The narrator’s sentence structure, which de-emphasizes “young” through the qualifier “helplessly” and ends emphatically on “old,” suggests that he finally considers Sonny an adult, one capable of expressing himself through words, gestures, and perhaps even music.

The nightclub scene displays the narrator’s new willingness to accept his brother’s alternative modes of communication while reintroducing several motifs that reveal the implications of this change. The nightclub creates an alternative space of darkness:”the lights were very dim in this room and we couldn’t see.”38 This reference to darkness and blindness harkens back to the narrator’s description of the movies at the start of the story. Now, though, the narrator’s understanding of darkness has changed, for he recognizes that the darkness of suffering and the light of relief are inextricably linked, as indicated by the indigo light in the nightclub, which contains both. Once again, the narrator acknowledges that Sonny’s gestures are valid forms of expression: “Sonny was part of the family again. I could tell from his face.”39 The narrator describes the music as if it were language, which endows the music with language’s expressive power: “The dry, low, black man said something awful about the drums, Creole answered, and the drums talked back.”40 Finally, it seems, the narrator has learned to hear Sonny’s alternative mode of expression, which finally allows him to feel his suffering and the suffering of his loved ones: “I saw my mother’s face again, and felt, for the first time, how the stones of the road she had walked on must have bruised her feet. . .I saw my little girl again and felt Isabel’s tears again, and I felt my own tears begin to rise.”41 Music has transcended the narrator’s previous mode of expression by allowing him to feel , rather than providing him with an avenue to deny feeling; as Lobb explains, “Sonny’s music breaks the silence that has existed between the brothers, and breaks down the wall of reserve that has removed the narrator, for all practical purposes, from the human community.”42 This wall of reserve is reminiscent of the all of “invisible film” in Lee’s description of drug addicts. Sonny’s music, it seems, provides the rehabilitation the narrator needs to recover from his language addiction and reconnect more directly to the world.

Though the narrator has grown to recognize alternative modes of expression, he is still, limited by his tendency to represent the world by his own linguistic inventiveness.

Yet the story’s ending reintroduces a sense of ambiguity as to whether this change in the narrator will lead to actual understanding with his brother, setting the stage for the narrator’s potential relapse into language’s mediating effect. The narrator seems unconvinced that this moment of communication will transcend the darkness outside: “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.”43 This allusion to Isaiah initially seems to suggest that the scotch and milk that the narrator buys his brother will serve not only as a symbol of communion, but also a shared relief from a lifetime of suffering. However, the simile marks a return to the narrator’s emphasis on figurative language to describe his surroundings, which limits his ability to connect to others. The “for me” frames this comparison exclusively in the realm of his private understanding, which suggests that even if the gesture is meant to renew the narrator’s connection to Sonny, his linguistic tendencies will continue to prevent robust communion. As Lee explains, “The ‘for me’ of the last sentence underscores, as does the title ‘Sonny’s Blues,’ the ultimately individual nature of experience–an individuality, as we see through the narrative, both heightened and mediated by communion with another.”44 Though the narrator has grown to recognize alternative modes of expression, he is still, limited by his tendency to represent the world by his own linguistic inventiveness.

By learning to accept the alternative modes of communication of gesture–especially music–the narrator learns to break the dichotomies between light and darkness and between childhood and adulthood, dichotomies that he has used to keep order in his world and deny his feelings. The ending’s ambiguity suggests that this is a fight that the narrator will have to continue. This reading of the story carries implications for the wider black community. The narrator notes that “Sonny’s fingers filled the air with life, his life. But that life contained so many others.”45 Just as Sonny’s blues encompass the stories of a community, “Sonny’s Blues” tells the story of a people. In charting the narrator’s addiction to and the beginnings of recovery from a drug-like use of extravagant language that has prevented him from the immediacy of empathetic feeling, Baldwin hints  that perhaps the narrator’s drug poses a greater threat to the black community than does Sonny’s. As John Reilly explains, the narrator’s acceptance of Sonny’s world compels him to “abandon the ways of thought identified with middle-class position which historically has signified for Black people the adoption of ‘white’ ways.”46 The narrator’s journey towards an acceptance of his community parallels Baldwin’s own journey. In an interview, Baldwin states that, after discovering the blues, “I finally realized. . .that I was ashamed of where I came from and where I had been. I was ashamed of the life of the Negro church, ashamed of my father, ashamed of the Blues.”47 Infused with personal conviction, Baldwin’s story sends a message not just to the black community, but also to the entire human community, about the painful histories that must be experienced and acknowledged in the journey to transcend suffering.

 

Bibliography 

Baldwin, James. “Sonny’s Blues.” In The Story and Its Writer: An Introduction to Short Fiction, edited by Ann Charters, 58-80. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2011.

Byerman, Keith. “Words and Music: Narrative Ambiguity in ‘Sonny’s Blues’.” Studies in Short Fiction 19, no. 4 (1982): 367-72.

Goldman, Suzy Bernstein. “James Baldwin’s ‘Sonny’s Blues’: A Message in Music.” Negro American Literature Forum 8, no. 3 (1974): 231-33.

Lee, Susanna. “The Jazz Harmonies of Connection and Disconnection in ‘Sonny’s Blues’.” Genre: Forms of Discourse and Culture 37, no. 2 (2004): 285-300.

Lobb, Edward. “James Baldwin’s Blues and the Function of Art.” International Fiction 6 (1979): 143-48.

Miller, D. Quentin. “Using the Blues: James Baldwin and Music.” In  A Historical Guide to James Baldwin, edited by Douglas Field, 83-110. New York: Oxford UniversityPress, 2009).

Reid, Robert. “The Powers of Darkness in ‘Sonny’s Blues’.” CLA Journal 43, no. 4 (2000): 443-53.

Reilly, John M. “‘Sonny’s Blues’: James Baldwin’s Image of Black Community.” Negro American Literature Forum 4, no. 2 (1970): 56-60.

 

 

 

  1. Susanna Lee, “The Jazz Harmonies of Connection and Disconnection in ‘Sonny’s Blues’,” Genre: Forms of Discourse and Culture 37, no. 2 (20045): 295. []
  2. James Baldwin, “Sonny’s Blues,” in The Story and Its Writer: An Introduction to Short Fiction, ed, Ann Charters (Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2011): 58. []
  3. Keith Byerman, “Words and Music: Narrative Ambiguity in ‘Sonny’s Blues’,” Studies in Short Fiction 19, no. 4 (1982): 371. []
  4. Baldwin, 58. []
  5. Ibid. []
  6. Ibid. []
  7. Edward Lobb, “James Baldwin’s Blues and the Function of Art,” International Fiction Review 6 (1998): 147. []
  8. Robert Reid, “The Powers of Darkness in ‘Sonny’s Blues,” CLA Journal 43, no. 4 (2000): 443. []
  9. Baldwin, 59. []
  10. Ibid., 60. []
  11. Ibid. []
  12. Suzy Bernstein Goldman, “James Baldwin’s ‘Sonny’s Blues’: A Message in Music,” Negro American Literature Forum 8, no. 3 (1974): 231. []
  13. Baldwin, 61. []
  14. Ibid., 62. []
  15. Ibid., 65. []
  16. Ibid. []
  17. Ibid. []
  18. Ibid., 67. []
  19. Ibid., 68. []
  20. Ibid., 69. []
  21. Ibid., 70. []
  22. Ibid., 71. []
  23. Ibid. []
  24. Reid,452. []
  25. Baldwin, 72. []
  26. Ibid. []
  27. Ibid. []
  28. Ibid., 73. []
  29. Ibid. []
  30. Ibid. []
  31. Ibid., 74. []
  32. Ibid. []
  33. Ibid., 75. []
  34. Ibid. []
  35. Ibid. []
  36. Ibid., 76. []
  37. Ibid. []
  38. Ibid., 77. []
  39. Ibid., 79. []
  40. Ibid. []
  41. Ibid., 80. []
  42. Lobb, 146. []
  43. Baldwin, 80. []
  44. Lee, 298. []
  45. Baldwin, 79. []
  46. John M.Reilly, “‘Sonny’s Blues’: James Baldwin’s Image of Black Community,” Negro American Literature Forum 4, no. 2 (1970): 444. []
  47. quoted in D. Quentin Miller, “Using the Blues: James Baldwin and Music” A Historical Guide to James Baldwin, ed. Douglas Field (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009): 90. []
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