Reading Toni Morrison: An Early Love

For years I wouldn’t read Toni Morrison.  No skin off her nose, but our separation did come as a surprise to me, following as it did a period in my reading life when I would have ranked her among my favorite authors.

For me it had been love on the very first page.  I encountered her first in college, as did so many, through Beloved. Second term, sophomore year, I took a group tutorial called, astoundingly, “The Philosophy of Religion”.  The course catalog should have read something like: “Two impossibly broad and historically opposed disciplines, set up so as the one can sound off about the other.” Might not its converse, “The Religion of Philosophy” have been the more challenging course? But we were young, me and my rather small milieu, new to the life of the mind, and eager, incredibly so, to make tracks into the interior of the continent where we believed that life thrived, and from which we could emerge with our intellectual trophies, and this, we knew, would make all the difference.

It was a good class. Once a week, six of us, four earnest students and two equally earnest professors, one from each of the paired departments, crowded into a tiny windowless office with numbing off-white walls and not-quite full-spectrum overhead lighting for discussion.  The professors, a man in his late thirties with a sweet, comfortable-with-nerditude face and wire-rimmed glasses (phil.), and a slightly stocky, birkenstocked cotton-skirtted woman with longish red hair (rel.), assigned only four books, all novels: The Sleepwalkers, by Hermann Broch, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera, Beloved, and Franny and Zooey, by J. D. Salinger.  With the exception of the Salinger, I can’t fathom how the novels were railroaded into the class’s topic.  I just know that, at the time, Broch went right over my hair-do, but Kundera and, especially, Morrison, struck me as something so new under the sun that reading them further seemed imperative if I meant to continue using my ABCs. (Looking back, I think that if I had been of a somewhat more grounded sensibility, it would have been Salinger who would have affected me this way.  As it was, it took me much longer to arrive at his doorstep, and I’m not sure he’s ever extended to me the warm invitation to enter his world received and accepted by most other serious readers in English. Perhaps I will be late in this way too, as I have been in so many others…) Something about this Czech and this African-American, their philosophic weight, political engagement, stylistic exoticism, and, in Morrison’s case, romantic sweep, lit my fire as few others had.

Beloved was the novel from which I learned to trust the narrator even while mistrusting my own perceptions. The intensely weighted prose, the high drama brewed in an alembic of temporal fluidity, the cultural vehemence, all of it strained, gloriously, my comprehension. After turning the last page, I felt like a new reader. I quickly snapped up her four previous novels and swallowed them whole.  Bad for digestion of course, but I was more interested in a sort of orgiastic glaze that they imparted than in assimilation of their considerable nutrients.  I tore into them, convinced that the key to my whole future rested in the hands of this strong-featured black woman, and my job was, through some vague projective magic, to convince her of my devotion. I had, thus far, read very little Shakespeare, no Faulkner, no Woolf, and, most cogently, none of the Greeks.  Which means that almost everything she wrote about was new to me.  I had never before encountered children bearing the children of their fathers, mothers who strangle their infants, or dowse their sleeping sons in gasoline and light them, women without navels old enough to have midwifed several generations of a single family, men with names like Stamp Paid, Milkman, Macon Dead, Tar Baby, names too transparently referential to external energies to be be anything but real, or at least true.

Then there was the writing itself.  How about that first paragraph of The Bluest Eye, lifted directly from the “Dick and Jane” reader, printed first in all its stupefying banality, then repeated without punctuation, and a third time without spaces between words —such self-conscious artifice, and yet so remarkably effective, a bone-chilling wind of words.  Or this erotic evocation from Sula:

Then summer came. A summer limp with the weight of blossomed things. Heavy sunflowers weeping over fences; iris curling and browning at the edges far away from their purple hearts; ears of corn letting their auburn hair wind down to their stalks. And the boys. The beautiful, beautiful boys who dotted the landscape like jewels, split the air with their shouts in the field, and thickened the river with their shining wet backs. Even their footsteps left a smell of smoke behind.

Okay then. And, of course, the famous last page of Beloved, which begins:

There is a loneliness that can be rocked. Arms crossed, knees drawn up; holding, holding on, this motion, unlike a ship’s, smooths and contains the rocker. It’s an inside kind—wrapped tight like skin. Then there is a loneliness that roams. No rocking can hold it down. It is alive, on its own. A dry and spreading thing that makes the sound of one’s own feet going seem to come from a far-off place.

This seemed to me the very height. If such sentences were possible, who would want to write anything else?

Read my next post to find out how this hazy glow of love I felt for Toni Morrison went the way of all hazy glows, and how it was, with time, replaced by a more sober and abiding admiration.  But, until then, perhaps you have a favorite Toni Morrison novel? A favorite passage? Any opinion about her as an artist? If so, I hope you’ll share it.

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