John Pistelli


“Sth, I Know That Woman”: Notes on Toni Morrison

I started writing this four days ago. In the meantime, while gawping at Twitter to see which way the wind blows, as I do, like Ozymandias in Watchmen sitting before his hundreds of screens, I noticed that when an eminent critic (white, albeit gay and Jewish—I never know exactly what counts for the progressive stack) had the temerity to offer a dissenting opinion in the vicinity of this essay’s subject, he was greeted with a perhaps troubling response. See, e.g., here and here. A critical opinion, tartly expressed, to be sure, was answered with the promise of social media mobbing for anyone who offers a similar view. Positing a untenably unitary, exclusive, and racialist cultural inheritance (“it’s not your tradition”) and defending it with the threat of group action—what might we call that? Based on the vindictive and academic (in the pejorative sense) reductionism of contemporary sociology, I will be told, “The oppressed cannot be oppressive!” History laughs at such vague and self-serving moralism: every empire was once somebody else’s colony. So here is my little essay for whatever it is worth:

Toni Morrison is one of the major writers in my life; I wonder if anyone else has taught me more about how to write a novel, and I mean in nuts-and-bolts terms of structure and pacing and contrast and rhythm and symbolism. God Help the Child is winging its way to me, probably by drone, even as we speak, and I look forward to writing about it. And, if I may say something that both conforms to our current Age of Identity Politics and transgresses against its implicit codes of propriety, I’ve always observed as many points of similarity between Morrison and myself as of difference: we are both esoterica-loving lapsed/weird Catholics from working-class-cum-petit-bourgeois backgrounds in immigrant-heavy Rust Belt cities. The world she writes about is one I recognize at least in part; the mordant wit that structures her fiction (rarely addressed by humorless commentators) is a sensibility I am attuned to—it has particular roots in black culture, but I suspect it is also nourished by industrial, immigrant, even Catholic experience. I know how this sounds; the very landscape is crying out, “No, not yet,” as at the end of A Passage to India. I don’t feel this way about any other living black female writer, but then I don’t feel it about any living white male writer either (with the possible exception of DeLillo, who admittedly fits the relevant demographic profile even better). Great writers are unique; that is why they’re great.

Turning from feelings to ideas, I am grimly amused at the exhortation to revere Morrison on political grounds. People making such arguments are, in the guise of racial fealty, disrespecting her achievement by not giving her work the critical reading its classic status merits. As she disdainfully observed in a 1989 Time interview, “Black literature is taught as sociology, as tolerance, not as a serious, rigorous art form.” Does Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah’s account of Morrison, in its willfully performed sitting-at-the-feet-of-the-master breathless faux-naivete, sound more like sociology and tolerance or like rigorous art criticism?

By and large, I think of Morrison as among the troubling visionaries, with the likes of Yeats and Lawrence: the politics of her brilliant novels strike me as irrationalist, essentialist, and even, on occasion, fascistic. If, in deference to Mr. Laymon as quoted above, we must compare only within “racial” traditions, a marked contrast within classic African-American fiction can be found in Nella Larsen’s painfully and exquisitely tough-minded work (juxtapose Quicksand with Tar Baby), as well as in that of the man I am about to cite in the next sentence; the comparison that suggests itself is, of course, to Baraka. Why, as Samuel R. Delany asked, is the villain of The Bluest Eye a gay mixed-race foreign pedophile intellectual? Why is Tar Baby‘s hero an abusive rapist in search of racial authenticity who deals out some implicitly justified roughing-up to his Europhile model girlfriend? (Even John Leonard, who rarely let a critical word about Morrison escape his typewriter, balked at Tar Baby.) The late D. G. Myers was not wrong to be suspicious of Beloved‘s implicit endorsement of race memory, nor is Amy Hungerford wrong to detect an often ersatz religiosity aided by anti-intellectualism in the oeuvre at large.* After these early works, the feminist-gnostic cosmos of Paradise (all in all, an underrated novel) marks a turn toward greater universalism, though sex has replaced race as the moralized metaphysic. To answer in advance the objection that I suspect is forming on your lips or at your fingers’ ends, doesn’t the urgency of Morrison’s political context mitigate her political vision? At the risk of ejecting myself from polite company forever, I would say it does not; was the situation of the Irish in Yeats’s time much less urgent? was Lawrence’s experience as a marginal working-class dissident not traumatic? If “tough times” excused all political excesses, then we would build statues to Pol Pot.

As with Yeats and Lawrence, there is a lot to criticize here; as with Yeats and Lawrence, Morrison’s language is too rich, her imagery too memorable and endlessly suggestive, her textual world too distinctive and unmistakably hers, for the work to be derogated on ideological grounds alone. She artfully brings together many things, braiding European and African myth, white and black literature, male and female experience, as never before, and for that art she will remain representative: a locus classicus. Literature stands or falls on aesthetic merit, deny it how we will, and Morrison’s work surely stands:

In ocean hush a woman black as firewood is singing. Next to her is a younger women whose head rests on the singing woman’s lap. Ruined fingers troll the tea brown hair. All the colors of seashells–wheat, roses, pearl–fuse in the younger woman’s face. Her emerald eyes adore the black face framed in cerulean blue. Around them on the beach, sea trash gleams. Discarded bottle caps sparkle near a broken sandal. A small dead radio plays the quiet surf.

There is nothing to beat this solace which is what Piedade’s song is about, although the words evoke memories neither one has ever had: of reaching age in the company of the other; of speech shared and divided bread smoking from the fire; the unambivalent bliss of going home to be at home–the ease of coming back to love begun.

When the ocean heaves sending rhythms of water ashore, Piedade looks to see what has come. Another ship, perhaps, but different, heading to port, crew and passengers, lost and saved, atremble, for they have been disconsolate for some time. Now they will rest before shouldering the endless work they were created to do down here in paradise.

As William H. Gass has said, the serious reader’s taste has to pass the bar of the classics, but on the question of truth, every reader is invited to differ with even the most revered and beautiful text. To dismiss Morrison’s fiction qua art is to miss a landmark in the history of the modern novel; to insist that her sociopolitical vision be accepted without question is absurd and patronizing—to her! The classics must be read critically; that, as Toni Morrison once told Oprah Winfrey when the latter’s exasperated audience queried the necessity of re-reading complex prose, is called literature.

*For Samuel R. Delany’s strong critique (he compares it to the Klan) of The Bluest Eye, see “Dear Q—” in About Writing; for John Leonard on Tar Baby, see “She Gives You Dreams” in his collection (get a load of the title) The Last Innocent White Man in America; for D. G. Myers’s harsh and controversial assessment of Beloved, see here; for Amy Hungerford’s statement on what she takes to be Morrison’s religious obscurantism, see chapter four of Postmodern Belief: American Literature and Religion since 1960. Lending credibility to these analyses, which converge on the thesis that Morrison promotes a cultural politics of primitivism and essentialism with worryingly totalitarian affinities, is the differing political positions of the commentators: Delany is a Marxist-feminist-deconstructionist-queer theorist; Leonard a multiculturalist social democrat; Myers a religious neoconservative and critical legatee of Yvor Winters; and Hungerford an advanced liberal and New Historicist of some sort.

One comment on ““Sth, I Know That Woman”: Notes on Toni Morrison

  1. Pingback: Louise Erdrich, Love Medicine | John Pistelli

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This entry was posted on 12 April 2015 by in essays, fiction, literary criticism, literature and tagged , , .
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