Oscar Wilde on Jazz

Even the New Orleans Rhythm Kings Must’ve Practiced Once In A While.

“Catachresis” remains an awfully clever sounding word from my more intellectually (and metabolically) active days.  Technically, it means a mistake or even an abuse of language, but one professor saw it as a a tool for understanding.  For example, Oscar Wilde’s artistic pronouncements can seem harsh:

All fine imaginative work is self-conscious and deliberate. No poet sings because he must sing. At least, no great poet does. A great poet sings because he chooses to sing.

and his flowery prose and references to Greek mythology might seem dense:

We are sometimes apt to think that the voices that sounded at the dawn of poetry were simpler, fresher, and more natural than ours, and that the world which the early poets looked at, and through which they walked, had a kind of poetical quality of its own, and almost without changing could pass into song. The snow lies thick now upon Olympus, and its steep scarped sides are bleak and barren, but once, we fancy, the white feet of the Muses brushed the dew from the anemones in the morning, and at evening came Apollo to sing to the shepherds in the vale.

Yet “abusing” Wilde’s words with some carefully placed substitutions works wonders:

We are sometimes apt to think that the [horns] that sounded at the dawn of [jazz] were simpler, fresher, and more natural than ours, and that the world which the early [players] looked at, and through which they walked, had a kind of [simple] quality of its own, and almost without [effort] could pass into [jazz]. The [dust] lies thick now upon [Storyville], and its [homes] are [boarded down] and [bought-up], but once, we fancy, the [Black] feet of [musically unschooled, artistically unconscious "naturals"] brushed the [dirt] from the [streets] in the morning, and at evening came [Buddy Bolden] to [blow] to the [grateful passers-by] in [New Orleans].

All of a sudden Wilde doesn’t seem nearly as harsh, his topic not so distant.  All of a sudden the image of carefree, unconscious artistry is belied by the sound of breakneck tempos and perfectly balanced ensembles.

The final words of the paragraph begin to sound downright intuitive:

But in this we are merely lending to other ages what we desire, or think we desire, for our own.

Replace “lending” with “tweeting” or “blogging,” and it’s hard to tell when this was written.

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