Nobody: Satie, Ulysses, and the Virtue of Anonymity

“When I first met him (Debussy), he was all absorbed in Mussorgsky, was searching avidly for a path not easy to find. In this search I was far ahead of him: the prizes of Rome or other cities did not impede my progress, since I carry no such prize on my person or on my back, for I am a man of the race of Adam (of Paradise) who never carried off any prize – a lazy fellow, no doubt”.

– Erik Satie on Debussy, public lecture, 1922

My favorite part of Homer’s Odyssey is when Ulysses confronts the cyclops Polyphemus. The cyclops asks for his name. Ulysses answers back, ‘Cyclops, you asked my noble name, and I will tell it; but do you give the stranger’s gift, just as you promised. My name is Nobody. Nobody I am called by mother, father, and by all my comrades'”. After the tussle that leaves Polyphemus injured, Ulysses makes his escape. Polyphemus cries out to the other cyclopses on the island for help. What did he say?

Nobody is hurting me. Nobody is escaping. The other cyclopses ignore his plea.

The perfect set up for the perfect getaway.

Ulysses’ anonymity allows him to escape with ease. There is a freedom of mobility granted to him because he is a nobody. In that instance he was a nobody by choice.

Satie’s use of anonymity allows him to pursue musical experimentation. Unlike Debussy, Satie is unburdened by success and the responsibilities that come from it. Sure, Debussy still experimented, but all eyes and ears were gravitating towards him. Pressure was being applied.

Debussy was becoming a somebody. And Satie? Close to a nobody. That anonymity had enabled Satie to stretch without repercussions. The man of the race of Adam was tinkering around. So what?

The perfect set up for the perfect getaway.

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