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Want to Know What Freedom Feels Like? Listen to Jazz (as Sartre Recommended)


A simple cathartic exercise frees us from the anguish of existence.

One of jazz’s distinctive qualities is improvisation. In fact, this very trait turned jazz into the  revolutionary genre it is today. The talent of the great jazz musicians made the very possibility of improvisation into an element of all music, in composition and in performance, and breaking from a long canonical tradition of following established forms and procedures.

In this characteristic, and in a more symbolic sense, jazz has been seen as an exercise in freedom. In our own cultures, not many spaces allow for spontaneous, subjective expression. Improvisation suddenly acquires, no doubt, the value of metaphor: this is what happens when we give free rein to what we think, feel and we’re able to express it.

With profound lucidity and sensitivity, one of the very first to note this was Jean-Paul Sartre, the existentialist philosopher who in his novel Nausea wrote a clear testimony to the liberating potential of jazz.

One song runs through the story from beginning to end: “Some of These Days.” The protagonist, Antoine Roquentin, seems to have it attached the song to his heart and clings to it as though it’s one of the few things keeping him afloat. In his first appearance in the novel, Roquentin’s experience of the song is described thus:

The last chord has died away. In the brief silence which follows, I feel strongly that there it is, that something has happened.


Some of these days

You’ll miss me honey

What has just happened is that the Nausea has disappeared. When the voice was heard in the silence, I felt my body harden and the Nausea vanish. Suddenly: it was almost unbearable to become so hard, so brilliant. At the same time, the music was drawn out, dilated, swelled like a waterspout. It filled the room with its metallic transparency, crushing our miserable time against the walls.

Music is, for this character, a vehicle of liberation insofar as it allows him to express in another way what until that moment hadn’t found expression by any normal means: his own anguish, his indifference, his desire for belonging.

In the context of Sartre’s philosophy, this attitude is an example of how the anguish of existence can find “redemption” through art. It may be time for the human being to realize that living implies freedom, but also contingency. We’re free but only within a defined framework of circumstances, and that, according to Sartre, is the cause of anguish. That is our reality.

And so, we create art as a sort of “unreal” mirror that reflects our anguish. It provides us with a redemptive image, that famous catharsis of Aristotelian thought that operates as a transformation in the way we experience the world.

This argument is deeply Nietzschean. From his earliest works, Nietzsche argued that the arts form a path to knowledge, both of reality and of ourselves. The methods followed, different from those of Platonic and Apollonian reason, allow for the possibility of obtaining revelation not gradual or logical but sudden, and improvisational. For example, suddenly, while listening to a song, watching a movie or admiring a painting, we can simply realize that we can be free, any of us, even in the midst of our own circumstances.


*Image: Ed Uthman – Flickr / Creative Commons

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