Dean Koontz wrote, “I’m so different. You’ve always respected that difference, and you’ve always trusted it. Trust me now. There’s a reason I am the way I am…There’s always a reason.” You can learn a lot from people who view the world differently. They can teach you to feel something new, to experience life in a way you never imagined possible. Oftentimes, people think that these types of people are outlandish to say the least. Artists, musicians, scientists, poets and writers – these types of people bring about new and fresh ideas by the bundle. Unfortunately, not everyone sees things the way they do, if for no other reason than because they do not understand the way their minds work.
This is very true in the case of the narrator in James Baldwin’s short story “Sonny’s Blues.” The narrator’s brother, Sonny, comes across as the typical suffering artist who just wants to play jazz all the time, and his brother is just the opposite – a math teacher who has his family to think about. They aren’t close by any means and lead very contrasting lives. Both these men have experienced some pretty heavy situations in their lives thus far. Both have experienced pain and the death of family members and loved ones. However, experiencing pain does not necessarily make up the qualities of a suffering artist. In fact, one does not need to experience any serious type of pain, suffering, or agony to be considered an artist. Sonny understood that. His brother, however, took a bit longer to be convinced of what, in the back of his mind, he might have known all along to be true.
Being an artist is all about perception. It consists of how someone sees the world as well as what they intend to do about what they take notice of. Sonny and the narrator react to things conflictingly. Both experienced the tragic deaths of their uncle, parents, and the narrator’s children. Everyone reacts differently to situations like this. The narrator reacts by denying any and all emotions regarding these events. He does not want to think about them. He wants to pretend they never happened. Sonny, however, reacts differently. To a true artist, the world at times can be sensory overload, and it helps to have some sort of a relief to assist in making sense of it all. This is probably why Sonny, among many other artists in the world, is more prone to depression as well as alcohol and drug addiction. Though these addictions are not healthy was of making the thoughts go away, they are used as a temporary escape from the noise going on inside an artist’s head. While the narrator decides that keeping quiet about what has happened to him will make his life better, Sonny knows better. This is what led him to music in the first place.
Any artist, suffering or not, has thoughts going on in his or her head all the time. Thoughts about the world, its inhabitants, and how they may or may not change things or events that makes up this world. Sonny most likely experienced this. James Baldwin writes, “The music seemed to soothe a poison out of them; and time seemed, nearly, to fall away from the sullen, belligerent, battered faces.” When Sonny plays the piano, he experiences something his brother does not understand. Not yet. When his fingers hit those keys, the world just sort of gets quiet, and for a brief moment, or even the extent of the song he is playing, things make sense and everything is just right in the world. It’s perfect. Baldwin also writes, “But when 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.” This is how Sonny deals with any type of pain or stress that comes his way. This is how he differs from his brother, and this is what makes him a good artist.
What makes a great artist is a person’s ability to make others realize what they have realized. A big part of being an artist is perception. This includes both what a person sees and what they hear in their day to day life. It does not always have to do with suffering, but with how the world is viewed through their eyes and ears. Baldwin writes, “And when you finally try to get with it and play it, you realize nobody’s listening. So you’ve got to listen. You’ve got to find a way to listen.” An artist’s job is not just to view, listen, and learn. The huge key to being a fantastic artist is his or her ability to make others hear what they are listening to and to see what they are seeing. If he or she does the job veraciously, others will be able to connect with them. Having a connection with people, even just a small sum of them, is often times what keeps us sane in this crazy life.
This is something Sonny struggled with enlightening the people in his life throughout most of the story, as he most likely felt very disconnected from his family. No one listens to him or acknowledges that he has something to say that can help everyone cope with the past and move forward to the future. That in itself is the point of art, in all its forms. One of the greatest struggles of any artist is to find the power to effect change, to make people listen. How many people really have that power?
Sonny did not make this big connection until later when he convinces his brother to come to a club he will be playing at. It seems apparent that upon first entering this new world that he obviously does not encounter often, the narrator is unsure of neither how to behave nor what to expect. This is often how non-artists first encounter the thoughts and viewpoints of an artist whose ideas they are convinced they will never fully comprehend. Somewhere along the lines, things change. The same people who called the artists, scientists, poets, musicians, and writers outlandish and incompetent now understand where these people are coming from.
Baldwin writes, “All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it…But the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing on it as it hits the air.” As the narrator hears his brother’s music, he finally makes the connection. It’s inherently clear that this is the moment Sonny truly becomes an artist, suffering or not. It is when the narrator realizes the reason for his brother’s passion for music. His music picks up where his words fail. The narrator suddenly feels peace among a strange and often chaotic world. Although Sonny performs no new music, he keeps the meaning behind the tunes real and pertinent. He creates an outlet to make sense of life.
This, of course, does not work if no one is listening. However, in the grand scheme of things, that is the point of a true artist. The job is make others hear and see what you notice each and every day. Baldwin also mentions that “Freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last, that he could help us to be free if we would listen, that he would never be free until we did.” The whole objective of the artist is to make people understand how he or she thinks. This doesn’t always mean the artists suffering. It could very well just mean that they feel trapped, that they’re struggling to find a way to get what they need to say out in the open for all to hear, understand, and appreciate. The artist’s job has forever been to make sure people appreciate the little details in life many people often forget about.