Study Guide

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing: Traitor to the Nation, Volume I: The Pox Party Art and Culture

By M.T. Anderson

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Art and Culture

Revolving my thoughts upon this curious state, I resolved thus: I would not fail 03-01. I would not fail my mother. I would prove the superior excellence of my faculties.

From that day, my studies took on a new intensity.

And I played the violin like a very devil. (1.12.5-7)

Octavian's all about pleasing people, including Mr. Gitney, even though he's just found out that his entire life has been a scientific experiment to prove the intelligence of Africans. If you ask us, we'd be pretty irritated about being lied to about our lives. But not Octavian. He's an overachiever out to impress, especially when it comes to his music skills. By the way, the whole reference to the devil comes into play again later on in the book when Mr. Sharpe makes him dress up as a devil while playing "The Devil's Trill" at Faneuil Hall.

Thou hast not heard fiddling, Joan, until thou hast heard this tiny being, legs thin as sumac twigs, produce such tones; which sweet music dazzled not merely in its display of speed and accuracy, but most in its gravity; the child being able to introduce an element of melancholy into even the liveliest of passages. (1.12.5)

Dr. Fruhling's writing a letter to his wife Joan about how the College generally is a den of sin, except for Octavian's violin-playing. What's interesting about this part is how amazed Dr. Fruhling is that Octavian's a tiny "being" and able to insert "melancholy" into his music. Why italicize those words anyway? Why all the awe over Octavian's "being"-ness or his emotional depth?

I cannot doubt that at first his interest in her songs was forensic, nothing but fodder for an article to be published in a forthcoming issue of the Philosophical Ephemera of the Novanglian College of Lucidity. As he listened to her Africk monodies, though, their unaccountable rhythms, their outbursts and their alien allusions, he grew passionate about them, and would often importune her to sing them again; which she did not, after she reached the age of sixteen or seventeen. She would always demur, saying, "You would not hear these olden, shrieking things." (1.15.9)

This is all about Mr. 13-04's (the music teacher) fascination with Cassiopeia's songs from her motherland. It's clear that Octavian thinks Mr. 13-04 likes the music because it's different, "Other," exotic even. It might be worth considering whether Octavian also is fascinated with those songs for their "unaccountable rhythms, their outbursts and their alien allusions"—after all, he doesn't know anything much about Cassiopeia's homeland either.

"Sir, you, Mr. Painter. Do you see the spots where pictures lately hung, now sold off to pay the debts of your academy's intransigence? I would like a simple mural there depicting the sciences and arts allegorized, sitting on top of Utility."

The painter hesitated. "Sitting atop Utility? Are they… hurting him? What is Utility?"

"Perhaps an ox," said Mr. Sharpe. "With an humble countenance." (2.3.19-21)

Wonder what bad art might look like? Just imagine Mr. Sharpe's mural. Sure, the painter might make the whole thing look amazing, but the idea of it just kind of goes against the whole idea of art for art's sake. In Mr. Sharpe's world, the arts only exist if they have a practical purpose—a utility.

By the transport of books, that which is most foreign becomes one's familiar walks and avenues; while that which is most familiar is removed to delightful strangeness; and unmoving, one travels infinite causeways; immobile and thus unfettered. (2.8.2)

We couldn't have said this better ourselves. Octavian's explaining his love for books to us, a love that's even more pronounced since—at this point in the novel—he isn't allowed to read any books with a storyline under Mr. Sharpe's orders. Which brings up this thought: note how eloquently Octavian's words are. Would he be so eloquent about the significance of books if he were still allowed to read them? Is he this poetic, in part, because he misses them so much?

Cheerful and gay. Sweetness and light. These words stood before me like a rebuke of everything I loved in music. I held them before me as we pulled up by Faneuil Hall. I took my teeth around them as I sat behind a column at the theater, waiting to step out and play. I meditated upon them when I made my way out before the orchestra, before the silent multitude of Boston's finest citizens. I gazed before me, and, holding the bow aloft above the strings, envisioned Mr. Sharpe's gray face, turned to the side, as he instructed me, "Remember beauty. Sweetness and light. Cheerful and gay"—and I began the sonata. (2.9.33)

Could you imagine anyone telling Prince (as in the Artist Formerly Known as Prince, not Octavian) how to play or sing his music? No, right? Especially if the person doing the telling has no clue what good music is. But this passage is setting us up to think that Octavian—who hates what Mr. Sharpe is asking of him—is going to do just that—play "The Devil's Trill" sweetly and lightly. But of course that's not what happens (insert evil cackle)…

It is, however, with pleasure that I write—and at the time, with pleasure that I marked—that many in that convocation had found my rendition not without merit; though I cannot imagine that their compliments were not due in part to their pity for my obvious distress, rather than any sympathy for a performance distorted by pride and pique. Young men pressed my hand, vowing I had spoke more of the vile institution of slavery in my few moments of sonata than all the preachers in Boston in a year; I bowed my head and thanked them, though I little believed myself responsible for stirring their sympathies. (2.9.44)

Who knew that a performance Octavian considers "easy blasphemy" (2.9.41) could sway an audience so much? We wonder though—what do these people who congratulate Octavian find so amazing? The brilliant performance? Or the black slave boy performing? Or are those two things inseparable?

Music hath its land of origin; and yet it is also its own country, its own sovereign power, and all may take refuge there, and all, once settled, may claim it as their own, and all may meet there in amity; and these instruments, as surely as instruments of torture, belong to all of us. (2.10.4)

Octavian's going on about the power of music the way people can go on about the all the great possibilities of America. That's because to him, music really is welcoming, and in a way that American hasn't been to him. Music has no boundaries, as shown by the fact that all these African slaves are playing with him in a band, at Faneuil Hall.

The afternoon sun was cast across the floor. Where the bowing and leaping should soon commence, there the old man slid and spun by himself, his arms fluttering, making pretty courtesies to chairs; pausing for a pas de Basque; his heels thumping; executing secret glissades in beeswax.

Silence and sunlight were his partners. (2.22.13-14)

Octavian is watching one of the other slaves, an old man, wax the floors in preparation for the pox party. But waxing isn't just what he's doing; he's dancing—specifically (at least to Octavian) ballet. Hey… work doesn't always have to be just work. Finding and creating beauty can happen in even the worst situations. In fact, maybe that's when grace and beauty are most necessary.

And then, this she offered to me, my one truth: "Our language," she said, "is not spoken, but sung… Not simply words… and grammar… but melody. It was hard… thus… to learn English… this language of wood. For the people of your nation, Octavian, all speech is song." (2.31.49)

Cassiopeia's last words to Octavian are a true gift: they tie him to his homeland and show him that all his musical talent may not just come from the scholars at the College. Not that we're saying he's naturally talented because of his Oyo background, but Cassiopeia's words comfort him because it shows his own language and culture to be full of beauty and art too.

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing: Traitor to the Nation, Volume I: The Pox Party Art and Culture Study Group

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