So, no Toni Morrison for me. Not for years. A bit like being a literary vegan, in retrospect. I believed myself to be done with all that moralistic agenda exemplified by sentences like, “You your best thing, Sethe. You are.” Done, I was, with all those freighted character names I had once thought so searching and apt, names like Circe, and Milkman. No more self-consciously high prose as matrix for illiterate or half-literate descendents of slaves. Was their inherent dignity really so fragile as to require it? I’m not saying I didn’t touch a Morrison novel. I touched them all right. I would take them off my shelf, leaf through them, read a paragraph, or a page, then, as if practicing for a polygraph, I’d shake my head, will my pupils to shrink, slide them back between Momaday and Munro – careful not to bend their covers, of course – and construe myself superior to all that… superiority.
All this cant was on account of my wanting to be a writer myself. When I sat with my notebook before me, blue ballpoint in hand, Toni Morrison would start pounding in my head like a pick-up truck’s bass. I tried to write sentences like hers, but they floated off the page, sometimes with whole paragraphs in tow, unanchored as they were to any driving concern which could hold them in place. The same problem attended my efforts with Ulysses. In both cases, I was too impressed by “great writing” and its corrollary, “writing greatly”, to plum my own dubious depths and steadily amass a personal vision of sufficient honesty and scope out of which might arise a necessary style.
Then came 2008. Two books by American authors were published that year each bearing a marked debt to Faulkner. Specifically, Absalom, Absalom!. Both, in very different ways, repaid the debt with interest. The first was Peter Matthiessen’s Shadow Country, which offered up its tribute overtly, complete with the conflagration of an emblematic mansion, and a central theme which could be summed up by the famous Faulknerian jewel, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” The second was A Mercy.
I read it. And then, I read it again.
I will not say that Morrison’s is the better book, but it is the stealthier. Both Absalom, Absalom! and Shadow Country are about the fallout of unchecked ambition, the expanding circle of damage around one man’s power-mad rampage into primordial America. In each, a man, white, decides that greatness inheres in taking, be it land, be it the freedom of others, or the spiritual well-being of his own descendents. In A Mercy the “taker” is Jacob Vaark, an Anglo-Dutch trader who has carved out a small holding in the wilderness of what would one day be New York. Vaark, known to his dependents as “Sir”, has in common with both Thomas Sutpen and Edgar J. Watson an explorer’s nervous system and a kind of Calvinistic shrewdness aimed at making good on the land. But he lacks a taste for subjugation. As a white man and a land owner, the law of the still largely inchoate land (The Revolutionary War is still ninety years off) has imposed advantages upon him, and he certainly lives his way into those advantages. He does acquire a slave, but it is with a sense of realism and necessity rather than inclination or entitlement. Sutpen and Watson are ambiguous monsters, not wholly evil, but dangerous, larger than life, and at home with their own rapacity. Vaark is more or less sympathetic, responding simply and smartly with what he has been given to what arises before him. He surely works for success, but his “superman” gene is recessive. By subtracting out the Neitzchean imperative, what might be called an “ubermensch neurosis”, from her white male land-and-slave owner “taker”, Morrison disallows the traditional romantic resting place for our concept of evil as residing in character, thereby exposing its true and awful “banality.”
Morrison’s perennial theme is the dynamics of slavery, in her universe always more of a pas de deux than most people are comfortable with. In A Mercy, each of her characters is, in one way or another, trying to make an escape. Vaark gathers about him a small society of dependents, mostly women, each on the lam from a dire, enslaving past: Rebekka, Vaark’s wife, from heretic-burning England; Lina, a Native American, from her plague-ridden village, conquered and burned to the ground; the strange girl named Sorrow, ego-shattered and pregnant, from the trauma of a shipwreck; and Florens, the slave girl Vaark purchases from a deliquescent Catholic plantation owner in “Mary’s Land”. Also among them are two white men, Scully and Willard, one young, one middle-aged, working off indenture. They share each other’s bed as well as their workload. This piece of undiscussed common knowledge, far from making them outlaws, gives them an aura of groundedness which mostly eludes the women. They make an artful contrast to the free black man whom Vaark hires as an blacksmith for his mansion. Morrison has said that in this novel, she “wanted to separate race from slavery,” and by making it clear that the free black man, his own boss, earns much more than the two white men, who will likely not live long enough to emerge from under their debt, she again disallows us our comfortably liberal head shaking about that terrible “slavery thing” that some bad people used to do to other people based on their skin color or ethnicity. Slavery cuts across all barriers and takes no prisoners.
On Florens is bestowed the “mercy” of the title. Vaark (“Sir” to her) had originally wanted to purchase Florens’s mother. Ascertaining that Vaark could provide a less cruel life than the one she had endured, she presses her daughter upon him, begging him to take her instead. He agrees. But Florens is not of an age to understand her mother’s motives for giving her away, and, even if she was, the “mercy” would still be forever tied to abandonment, or worse, disposal. She arrives at Vaark’s farm scarred and deeply needy. Wide open and raw, she falls hard in love with the sexy free blacksmith. Their lovemaking is transformative for her. She believes herself needed at last. She will be everything to him, as he is to her. Vaark dies, and Rebekka contracts smallpox. The blacksmith had once proved uncanny in curing Sorrow of the disease, so she sends Florens on the three-day journey through the wilderness to summon him from the village were he lives. When Florens arrives on his doorstep, she finds that he has taken in a small black boy, a foundling, and is raising him. Her hatred of this child, this other, this competitor, is as wild as her love for the blacksmith. The story turns on how she navigates this crisis, or rather fails to, causing a catastrophe which reveals her to the blacksmith as the slave she is, not for being bought by Sir, but made a slave by her own mind.
Unlike Beloved, this is not a book about redemption. In the end, no one comes to Florens’s aid. No one can, least of all herself. And yet there is redemption in Morrison’s art, distilled, pressed, agate-like, into a true late style. And I am quite done, I believe, with being done with her.
In 1992 I graduated from college and began working in a bookstore (Considering the way of Borders, this may one day become a point of nostalgia, like my great grandfather working as a trolly car conductor.). Toni Morrison published Jazz that year, so I used my employee’s discountlet and, as with each of her previous novels, ate up the pages. My heart beat slightly faster – don’t plead ignorance of the feeling, I know you know it – as I opened to the first page and discovered those first sentences:
Sth, I know that woman. She used to live with a flock of birds on Lenox Avenue. Know her husband, too. He fell for an eighteen-year-old girl with one of those deepdown, spooky loves that made him so sad and happy he shot her just to keep the feeling going. When the woman, her name is Violet, went to the funeral to see the girl and to cut her dead face they threw her to the floor and out of the church. She ran, then, through all that snow, and when she got back to her apartment she took the birds from their cages and set them out the windows to freeze or fly, including the parrot that said, “I love you.”
This was the Toni Morrison I knew and loved, writing books like Beethoven wrote sonatas, holograming the entire work into the opening measures. I continued loving her as I turned each subsequent page, loved her as my bewilderment mounted, loved her through those lyric interludes:
…But there is nothing to beat what the City can make of a nightsky. It can empty itself of surface, and more like the ocean than the ocean itself, go deep, starless. Close up on the tops of buildings, near, nearer than the cap you are wearing, such a citysky presses and retreats, presses and retreats, making me think of the free but but illegal love of sweethearts before they are discovered….
loved her even as my bewilderment turned to bafflement so that by the end I had no idea what I had just read. It seemed she had set for me a riddle, like Princess Turandot, and, alas I was not to be her Calaf. I still loved her, or said so while idly rubbing my vulnerable neck, but there was no denying the fact that I had been decidedly chastened.
Then she won the Nobel Prize.
When Paradise came out in 1997, I decided I would not read it until I had read all her previous novels again (My inner Puritan lives for this kind of arbitrary injunction.). As a result, I never got around to reading it. Reason being, it was about this time that I tried to get serious about being a writer myself. All my reading had accumulated in what amounted to a literary bladder that most desperately needed easing. The solution, I thought, was to try to be a novelist myself. I started one project after another, grinding out words in a notebook, thinking this was the morally upright way to go about it, never getting past about thirty torturous pages. I read The Bluest Eye, then Sula, then had to stop. I found her voice too strong, too monumental. Trying to write while reading Toni Morrison was like trying to sleep in a hot, airless apartment with Charlie Parker blasting above my head. Out of defense, I decided to agree with those critics who found her writing “sententious”, “operatic”, “self-conscious”, “self-important”, “heavy-handed.” I began to read other writers, like Alice Monro and William Trevor, great writers whose plain, condensed prose can be many-hued, but never purple. I remember resorting books on my shelf and coming across Jazz. I opened again to the first page. “Sth, yourself,” I said, and put it where it belonged.
But this pose of disdain was struck precariously over the memory of the unalloyed pleasure I had while first learning to untangle Beloved. The spontaneous delight, as taken in shooting stars or a Baryshnikov jette, that accompanied the reading of each subsequent book, (save, perhaps, Tar Baby, which seemed uncharacteristic) had not gone anywhere. Which meant I always secretly suspected her detractors, myself included, of a kind of prudery. Or, or perhaps, bald envy.
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.