"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Toni Morrison 1931-2019

Harold Bloom on Toni Morrison

The Chelsea House collections of critical writings about Toni Morrison's work now span half a dozen volumes, all introduced by Harold Bloom.  With art I seek out guidance from Robert Hughes; with literary fiction, I go to Bloom.

Toni Morrison, in a speculative essay on literary canon-making, proposes the difficult critical quest of uncovering the hidden obsession with African-Americans that has haunted the American novel throughout its history. Her principal example is to sketch a reading of Moby-Dick in which Ahab's manic obsessiveness with the whiteness of the whale becomes a synecdoche for white America's compulsive relation to the African-American aspects of its culture, past and present. Morrison's reading is in the mode of D.H. Lawrence's Studies in Classic American Literature, where what Lawrence saw as the doom of the white race is prefigured in Ahab's compulsiveness. I am of many minds about Morrison's critical project, if only because it would give yet another dimension to the unhappy procedure of uncovering just how much of white America cannot be exorcised from African-American fiction. Morrison's five early novels, culminating in Beloved, are possible candidates for entering an American canon founded upon what I insist would be aesthetic criteria alone, if we still retain any such criteria after our current age of politicized response to narrative, dramas, and poems has passed.

Morrison, like any potentially strong novelist, battles against being subsumed by the traditions of narrative fiction. As a leader of African-American literary culture, Morrison is particularly intense in resisting critical characterizations that she believes misrepresent her own loyalties, her social and political fealties to the complex cause of her people. If one is a student of literary influence as such, and I am, then one's own allegiances as a critic are aesthetic, as I insist mine are. One is aware that the aesthetic has been a mask for those who would deny vital differences in gender, race, social class, and yet it need not be an instrument for the prolongation of exploiting forces. The aesthetic stance, as taught by Ruskin, Pater, and Wilde, enhances a reader's apprehension of perception and sensation. Such a mode of knowing literature seems to me inescapable, despite times like our own, in which societal and historical resentments, all with their own validity, tend to crowd out aesthetic considerations. Yet, as an artist, Morrison has few affinities with Zora Neale Hurston or Ralph Ellison, or with other masters of African-American fiction. Her curious resemblance to certain aspects of D.H. Lawrence does not ensue from the actual influence of Lawrence, but comes out of the two dominant precursors who have shaped her narrative sensibility, William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf. Faulkner and Woolf have little in common, but if you mixed them potently enough you might get Lawrence, or Toni Morrison.

Lest this seem a remote matter to a passionate reader of Morrison, I would observe mildly that one function of literary study is to help us make choices, because choice is inescapable, this late in Western cultural history. I do not believe that Morrison writes fiction of a kind I am not yet competent to read and judge, because I attend to her work with pleasure and enlightenment, amply rewarded by the perception and sensation that her art generates.

Reading Alice Walker or Ishmael Reed, I cannot trust my own aesthetic reactions, and decide that their mode of writing must be left to critics more responsive than myself. But then I reflect that every reader must choose for herself or himself. Does one read and reread the novels of Alice Walker, or of Toni Morrison? I reread Morrison because her imagination, whatever her social purposes, transcends ideology and polemics, and enters again into the literary space occupied only by fantasy and romance of authentic aesthetic dignity. Extraliterary purposes, however valid or momentous they may be for a time, ebb away, and we are left with story, characters, and style, that is to say, with literature or the lack of literature. Morrison's early novels leave us with literature, and not with a manifesto for social change, however necessary and admirable such change would be in our America.

Morrison herself has made very clear that she prefers to be contextualized in African-American literature, or in an American literature that ceases to repress the African-American presence. I am neither a feminist nor an African-American critic, nor am I a Marxist, a deconstructor, a Lacanian, a New Historicist, a semiotician. And yet I scarcely would agree with several of the contributors to this volume, who would maintain that my theories of literary influence simply reduce to yet another logocentric, capitalistic, white male symbolic system that has no validity or relevance for reading and understanding the work of an African-American feminist andbMarxist novelist. Literary texts emerge from other literary texts, and they do not choose their forerunners. They are as overdetermined aesthetically as their human makers are overdetermined erotically. It is a great sorrow that we cannot choose whom we are free to love, and it is almost an equal sorrow that the gifted cannot choose their gift, or even the bestowers of their gift.

We are free to choose our ideologies, but eros and art, however intertwined they are with cultural politics, cannot be reduced to cultural politics alone.

As an African-American woman, Toni Morrison has developed a powerful stance that intervenes forcefully in the cultural politics of her time and place, the United States as it stumbles beyond the year 2000 of the Common Era.

As a novelist, a rhetorical tale-teller, Toni Morrison was found by Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner, two quite incompatible artists, except perhaps for the effect that James Joyce had upon both of them. Morrison's marvelous sense of female character and its fate in male contexts is an extraordinary modification of Woolfian sensibility, and yet the aura of Woolf always lingers on in Morrison's prose, even as Joyce's presence can be felt so strongly in Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway and in Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury. Faulkner's mode of narration is exquisitely modulated by Morrison, but the accent of Faulkner always can be heard in Morrison's narrators, even as Joseph Conrad's authorial stance never quite left Faulkner. Consider the plangent closing passages of The Bluest Eye, Sula, and Song of Solomon:

....And now when I see her searching the garbage—for what? The thing we assassinated? I talk about how I did not plant the seeds too deeply, how it was the fault of the earth, the land, of our town. I even think now that the land of the entire country was hostile to marigolds that year. This soil is bad for certain kinds of flowers. Certain seeds it will not nurture, certain fruit it will not bear, and when the land kills of its own volition, we acquiesce and say the victim had no right to live. We are wrong, of course, but it doesn't matter. It's too late. At least on the edge of my town, it's much, much, much too late.

The Bluest Eye

Shadrack and Nel moved in opposite directions, each thinking separate thoughts about the past. The distance between them increased as they both remembered gone things.

Suddenly Nel stopped. Her eye twitched and burned a little.

"Sula?" she whispered, gazing at the tops of trees. "Sula?"

Leaves stirred; mud shifted; there was the smell of overripe green things. A soft ball of fur broke and scattered like dandelion

spores in the breeze.

"All that time, all that time, I thought I was missing Jude." And the loss pressed down on her chest and came up into her throat.

"We was girls together," she said as though explaining something.

"O Lord, Sula," she cried, "girl, girl, girlgirlgirl."

It was a fine cry—loud and long—but it had no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow.


Milkman stopped waving and narrowed his eyes. He could just make out Guitar's head and shoulders in the dark. "You want my life?" Milkman was not shouting now. "You need it? Here."

Without wiping away the tears, taking a deep breath, or even bending his knees—he leaped. As fleet and bright as a lodestar he wheeled toward Guitar and it did not matter which one of them would give up his ghost in the killing arms of his brother. For now he knew what Shalimar knew: If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.

Song of Solomon

Even decontextualized, without the narratives that they culminate, these conclusions retain considerable lyrical and dramatic vitality. If I stumbled upon them anywhere, I would know them for Morrison's fictional prose, and I do not hear any voices in them except for Morrison's passionate and caring cry of the human, her own particular eloquence. And yet part of appreciating Morrison's command here of sensation and perception involves attending to the genealogy of her art. It is not a question of allusion or of echoing but of style, stance, tone, prose rhythm, and mimetic mode, and these do stem from an amalgam of Faulkner and Woolf, the father and mother of Morrison's art, as it were. Woolf and Faulkner are poets of loss, who search past and present for the negative epiphanies of vanished moments, possibilities, radiances, hopes. The narrative voice in Morrison turns always upon the negative magic of the romancer. Her perfect sentence is: "If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it." That is her epitome, but it would serve also for the most Morrisonian beings in Faulkner: Darl Bundren in As I Lay Dying and Lena Grove in Light in August. And it would illuminate also the perfect heroine of Woolf, Clarissa Dalloway, whose sensibility hovers at making that surrender in the air that Septimus Smith made, only to discover that he could not ride it. The pure madness of integrities of being that cannot sustain or bear dreadful social structures is as much Morrison's center (and not just in The Bluest Eye) as it is Woolf's and, with a difference, Faulkner's. The most authentic power in Morrison's work is the romance writer's sense that "it's much, much, much too late," that one's cry of grief and loss "had no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow." In some sense, all of Morrison's protagonists leap wheeling towards the death struggle, with the fine abandon of Faulkner's doom-eager men and women. Toni Morrison, in her time and place, answering to the travail of her people, speaks to the needs of an era, but her art comes out of a literary tradition not altogether at one with her cultural politics.


6 August 2019

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