Sula by Toni Morrison
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Sula is an anarchic novel and a conservative one. Toni Morrison, because she is a sort of multicultural figurehead, passes herself off as (and tends to be received as) some kind of left-liberal; and her later fiction—notably Paradise and A Mercy, both of which tend to de-emphasize race/culture in favor of gender and class, respectively—approaches such a universalist politics. But her writing at its most intense is in the Romantic and modernist traditions of pitting an almost mythicized collective or communal culture against a technological and material progress that extirpates tradition and blunts intense experience. There is no reason why she should not belong to such a broad and rebelliously conservative school of aesthetics, one that encompasses figures as diverse in time, place, and sensibility as Wordsworth and Tanizaki; but in the U.S., when conservatives want to conserve a culture other than that of white people, they tend to be interpreted, understandably, as belonging to the political left. On the other hand, Morrison’s taste for anarchy renders Sula something other than merely nostalgic or nationalistic or reactionary.
Sula‘s two themes, the anarchic and the conservative, run on parallel tracks: the novel is the story of a neighborhood and also a lament over the waning, during the postwar economic boom and the push for integration, of black people’s unique cultural expression and tolerance for eccentricity; and it is also the story of its eponymous heroine, Sula Peace, and her destructive and self-destructive behavior toward her family and toward her best friend, the more “normal” young woman, Nel.
While Morrison hardly denies that racist exclusion—including, crushingly, economic exclusion—structures and necessitates the African-American cultural inventiveness she celebrates, she nevertheless sees its passing as a loss. There is even a slight suggestion in Sula that oppression makes communities and individuals interesting—that the merely happy and prosperous are contemptible. One sees what Morrison means, or at least I do, but as a politics this is either null (aestheticism, best left to fiction or poetry) or dangerous (fascism, a call to collective sacrifice and struggle against decadent, impure, effete others—white people, yes, but it has always seemed to me that the pejorative use of the racial epithet “white” often attracts the prejudicial associations that attach to “gay” and “Jewish” as well).
Sula is largely set between World Wars I and II in The Bottom, a black neighborhood in the Ohio town of Medallion. The town dates back to when a slave-owner tricked a freed slave into accepting, as recompense for work performed, hard-to-farm hill-land because, the master assured him, it was “the bottom of heaven.” The novel begins with a prologue, which Morrison disowns as making too many concessions to the befuddled white reader in her 2004 preface, that introduces and eulogizes the town:
In that place, where they tore the nightshade and blackberry patches from their roots to make room for the Medallion City Golf Course, there was once a neighborhood. It stood in the hills above the valley town of Medallion and spread all the way to the river. It is called the suburbs now, but when black people lived there it was called the Bottom. One road, shaded by beeches, oaks, maples and chestnuts, connected it to the valley. The beeches are gone now, and so are the pear trees where children sat and yelled down through the blossoms to passersby. Generous funds have been allotted to level the stripped and faded buildings that clutter the road from Medallion up to the golf course. They are going to raze the Time and a Half Pool Hall, where feet in long tan shoes once pointed down from chair rungs. A steel ball will knock to dust Irene’s Palace of Cosmetology, where women used to lean their heads back on sink trays and doze while Irene lathered Nu Nile into their hair. Men in khaki work clothes will pry loose the slats of Reba’s Grill, where the owner cooked in her hat because she couldn’t remember the ingredients without it.
Morrison’s strengths abound in this paragraph: the symbolism of a brilliant writer thoroughly educated in the good/bad old days of New Criticism and psychoanalysis (our heroines, one poisonous and one able to be consumed by the community, will correspond precisely to nightshade and blackberry, as Morisson herself points out in her essay, “Unspeakable Things Unspoken”); the fabulism (“there was once” setting the folkloric tone); the angry irony and satire (in those “[g]enerous funds” and that presumably exclusive golf course); and the praise, not simply of organic community as such—which would, as I noted, be mere fascism, to which Morrison descends in the less guarded moments of her early work—but of idiosyncrasy and particularity (“feet in long tan shoes,” “where the owner cooked in her hat”).
The town-as-character is the focus of Morrison’s conservative praise. When the shell-shocked veteran Shadrack comes home to the town from the Great War, he does not kill himself, like Woolf’s alienated urban Septimus (upon whom, among other things, Morrison wrote her master’s thesis in the 1950s). Instead, he institutes National Suicide Day, a day on which he rings a bell and carries a hangman’s noose through the town to invite the people to die and to remind them of death. Later, Morrison’s essayistic narrator informs us that the town does not seek to destroy evil but to recognize its necessity:
In their world, aberrations were as much as part of nature as grace. It was not for them to expel or annihilate it. They would no more run Sula out of town than they would kill the robins that brought her back, for in their secret awareness of Him, He was not the God of three faces they sang about. They knew quite well that He had four, and that the fourth explained Sula. They had lived with various forms of evil all their days, and it wasn’t that they believed God would take care of them. It was rather that they knew God had a brother and that brother hadn’t spared God’s son, so why should he spare them?
Note that Morrison seems to scare even herself here: she retracts the major heresy of this passage’s fifth sentence—in which the Devil is literally part and parcel of God, as much as Christ and the Holy Spirit—to commit the smaller heresy of saying that the Devil is God’s brother at the end of the paragraph.
At the novel’s conclusion, however, the town loses its anti-hero, Sula, who dies young, seemingly of boredom, after having “sung all the songs there are.” She was the evil against which the town had defined itself, and so, on National Suicide Day, the town does in fact commit suicide en masse in the process of destroying a bridge that the government had excluded black men from building by hiring whites, even recently-arrived immigrant whites. (This novel’s palpable resentment of the dominant culture’s economic preference for immigrants over African-Americans, and immigrants’ concomitant adoption of anti-black racism, may provide a warning about how the present-day Democratic Party coalition may be broken up by a canny manipulator—but let me desist, before this review, or indeed Sula itself, is sent as a memorandum to the Trump campaign.)
The novel’s epilogue is set in 1965, a year presented as regressive rather than progressive, a year in which Morrison portrays black people as losing themselves in idiotic materialism as American culture at large opts for a bright and grandiose technocracy that kills the specificity and communal character of experience:
Things were so much better in 1965. Or so it seemed. […] The young ones kept talking about the community, but they left the hills to the poor, the old, the stubborn—and the rich white folks. Maybe it hadn’t been a community, but it had been a place. Now there weren’t any places left, just separate houses with separate televisions and separate telephones and less and less dropping by.
If this sort of volkishness annoys you, then Sula, with its “evil conjure woman” bearing High John the Conquerer and (note that Morrison, who invented the next phrase, seems to think it’s funny too) “the Nine Herbs from Cincinnati” and its wise grandmothers who can read dreams, will indeed annoy you. But Morrison’s tone is sufficiently ironic to prevent an outright romance with “discredited knowledges”—Morrison both believes and she does not believe, a common enough condition for fiction writers, and she is above insulting her ancestors, which she regards as a symptom of white deracination and dehumanization (“White people didn’t fret about putting their old ones away”), like Crusoe alone on his island or Faust selling his soul for knowledge.
Sula is not all nostalgic, though—it is, as I said, also anarchic, a slim Nietzschean treatise, a counter-biblical book (The Book of Sula), on the necessity of self-creation and a totally amoral approach to life. The heroine is our anarchist. As Sula says when her grandmother tells her to have children, “I don’t want to make anybody else. I want to make myself.” In the middle of the novel, after Sula has cut off her own fingertip to scare away ill-intentioned white boys, after she has carelessly killed a child named Chicken Little, after she has watched with cool fascination as her mother caught fire and burned to death, and after she has caused her best friend’s marriage to break up, the narrator observes:
As willing to feel pain as to give pain, to feel pleasure as to give pleasure, hers was an experimental life–ever since her mother’s remarks [that she loved Sula but did not like her] sent her flying up those stairs, ever since her one major feeling of responsibility had been exorcised on the bank of a river with a closed place in the middle [where she drowned Chicken Little]. The first experience taught her there was no other that you could count on; the second that there was no self to count on either. She had no center, no speck around which to grow.
But the novel offers us an option for anarchy besides countenancing murderous or cruel behavior—a rather venerable alternative called art:
In a way, her strangeness, her naiveté, her craving for the other half of her equation was the consequence of an idle imagination. Had she paints, or clay, or knew the discipline of the dance, or strings, had she anything to engage her tremendous curiosity and her gift for metaphor, she might have exchanged the restlessness and preoccupation with whim for an activity that provided her with all she yearned for. And like an artist with no art form, she became dangerous.
Because aesthetic Sula’s evil—and she is evil, as you can see from my list of transgressions above—provides the town with a negative standard of comparison, she improves the town. She makes the women more attentive as mothers and the children better behaved and the men more appreciative of what they have. The novel’s thesis is that “culture” (conservatism) needs a little “art” (anarchy) on which to sharpen its blade: war, said Heraclitus, is the mother of all, and Blake moreover told us, in a proverb of Hell no less, that opposition is true friendship. When Sula’s ex-best-friend Nel realizes at the end what she has lost with the loss of Sula, it is the loss, I think, of excitement and vitality and interest in life, of the nearness of sex and death that alone inspire what orderliness we may aspire to.
Is anyone in the literary mainstream today writing novels this ideologically or morally daring? We may need fewer paeans to empathy and more defenses of evil. Sula makes a marvelously offensive prophecy on her deathbed about when she will be loved; perhaps contemporary novelists might model their future stories upon its ruthlessly amoral vision:
“After all the old women have lain with the teen-agers; when all the young girls have slept with their old drunken uncles; after all the black men fuck all the white ones; when all the white women kiss all the black ones; when the guards have raped all the jailbirds and after all the whores make love to their grannies; after all the faggots get their mothers’ trim; when Lindbergh sleeps with Bessie Smith and Norma Shearer makes it with Stepin Fetchit; after all the dogs have fucked all the cats and every weathervane on every barn flies off the roof to mount the hogs…then there’ll be a little love left over for me.”
I love the brevity of this novel, really a novella. Anyone else would have bored us with 800 pages, given that this is a family saga, a bildungsroman, and the epic of a whole community all in one, which covers half a century. But Morrison weighs her words; she alternates between rich description and explanation (she’ll tell rather than show if she pleases) and passages of coruscating dialogue (modeled on the stichomythia of Greek tragedy—Morrison, recall, was a classics major). Some of it is thinly realized, but I think that is a risk worth taking: folk tales are short, too, but everyone remembers them.
I love the humor of this novel—does anyone ever observe that Morrison is funny? But the whole novel, with its Chicken Little and its National Suicide Day and its violent family named Peace, is sly and droll: she knows she writes narratives of old-time excess in an exsanguinated world, and her tongue is never totally out of her cheek. I love this novel’s audacity, its inventiveness—its two immolations, its one quasi-inadvertent child murder, its collective suicide. (What can I say?—I think exciting things should happen in fiction.) I love its at times hair-raising frankness, which would not be acceptable at all in today’s literary community, as when Sula makes a little speech, which I will not quote so as to spare readers’ sensitivities, wherein she mentions, en passant, what she believes to be white women’s desire to be violated by black men. Shocked? Offended? Yes, she means to offend: she means to remind us of the necessity of evil—a concept that is at least worth contemplating, anyway, since evil does not seem to be going anywhere. Is there some occasional sentimental overwriting? There usually is in Morrison—
Then they left their pews. For with some emotions one has to stand. They spoke, for they were full and needed to say. They swayed, for the rivulets of grief or ecstasy must be rocked.
But there is more of the following—sublime event, precise description: what makes fiction what it is.
She rolled up to the window and it was then she saw Hannah burning. The flames from the yard fire were licking the blue cotton dress, making her dance. Eva knew there was time for nothing in this world other than the time it took to get there and cover her daughter’s body with her own. She lifted her heavy frame up on her good leg, and with fists and arms smashed the windowpane. Using her stump as a support on the window sill, her good leg as a lever, she threw herself out of the window. Cut and bleeding she clawed the air trying to aim her body toward the flaming, dancing figure. She missed and came crashing down some twelve feet from Hannah’s smoke. Stunned but still conscious, Eva dragged herself toward her firstborn, but Hannah, her senses lost, went flying out of the yard gesturing and bobbing like a sprung jack-in-the-box.
Mr. and Mrs. Suggs, who had set up their canning apparatus in their front yard, saw her running, dancing toward them. They whispered, “Jesus, Jesus,” and together hoisted up their tub of water in which tight red tomatoes floated and threw it on the smoke-and-flame-bound woman. The water did put out the flames, but it also made steam, which seared to sealing all that was left of the beautiful Hannah Peace. She lay there on the wooden sidewalk planks, twitching lightly among the smashed tomatoes, her face a mask of agony so intense that for years the people who gathered ’round would shake their heads at the recollection of it.
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