Poetry Madness

Times Literary Supplement
Sunday, November 23rd, 2003



by Toni Morrison

Dark and light in the territory

A review by James Campbell

There is an arresting moment in Toni Morrison's second novel, Sula (1973), in which the heroine is said to be "guilty of the unforgivable thing — the thing for which there was no understanding, no excuse, no compassion. The route from which there was no way back, the dirt that could not ever be washed away". What is this dirt, this sin for which there is, so emphatically, no forgiveness? We know that Sula has a secret in her life that, with a friend, she has caused the death of a little boy — but that is not it. "They said that Sula had slept with white men . . . . There was nothing lower she could do, nothing filthier."

Interracial friendship (mostly male) is part of the mythology of America, embracing Huckleberry Finn and Jim, Leatherstocking and Chingachook, even overlooking the territory run by the Lone Ranger and Tonto. Some commentators have held it to be the essential New World story. Toni Morrison would object that that story is told from "the centre, which is white" (although readers might find extensions of it in novels such as Another Country by James Baldwin). At any rate, as a reliable guide to the "free republic", or even the contents of a melting pot, it terminates with Sula.

The cross-racial bond is all but impossible, certainly undesirable, in Morrison's fiction; evil hangs about such unions because evil hangs about whites, or "whitepeople", as they are sometimes styled. The most vigorous expression of this feeling appears in Tar Baby (1981), which features a copper-complexioned model, Jadine, who has become the protegee of a degenerate, wealthy white couple on a Caribbean island. Light-skinned black characters in Morrison's novels are objects of loathing: the distinguishing mark of Maureen Peal in The Bluest Eye (1970), for example, is her "long brown hair, braided into two lynch ropes"; a girl in Jazz (1992) is cursed by a "creamy little face" which, if cut open, would show "nothing . . . but straw". The comfortable set-up in Tar Baby involving the "inauthentic" Jadine is disrupted by a dark stranger, Son, who first breaks into the house and is then invited to stay by the amused owner. When a pair of black servants are dismissed for petty theft, Son considers his unlikely host and hostess at table:

"They had not the dignity of wild animals who did not eat where they defecated but they could defecate over a whole people and come there to live and defecate some more by tearing up the land and that is why they loved property so, because they had killed it soiled it defecated on it and they loved more than anything the places where they shit . . . . That was the sole lesson of their world: how to make waste . . . . One day, they would all sink into their own waste and the waste they had made of the world and then, finally they would know true peace and the happiness they had been looking for all along."

After more of the same, Son delivers a lecture to Jadine, soon to become his lover: "White folks and black folks should not sit down and eat together . . . . They should work together sometimes, but they should not eat together or live together or sleep together. Do any of these personal things in life". Jadine, who is after all integration made flesh, can only "smile a tiny smile", and rejoice in Son's sexual athleticism while it lasts.

Son's views are not to be taken as the author's, of course; it is, however, his moral brinkmanship that drives the action of Tar Baby forward. Coming some forty years and a revolution in civil rights after Sula, whose debasement occurred in 1939, he would still condemn her as righteously as did her peers. It is perfectly possible to see what has driven Son into such a corner, while at the same time hoping to coax him out of it, but Morrison shows no inclination to do so. One of the strategies of her fiction is to put the reader on the spot in this way: You expect Son to show more "humanity"? What is the basis of your expectation? The integrationist appeal of Baldwin or Richard Wright, not to mention Martin Luther King, scarcely gets a look-in. When the whites of white eyes glint at the edges of Morrison's stories, they are quickly extinguished not by violence but by a force identical to that which has for so long excluded blacks: culture.

Morrison, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993, has said that she writes out of a consciousness of living in a "wholly racialized world". Her response has been to create a world which is almost wholly African-Americanized, in which separate existence is presented as not only inevitable but good. A central cultural reference of her fictional realm is terror, inspired by the shared memory of unutterably cruel deeds committed by whites, and its sublimation into beauty, at the fingers of a Duke Ellington or a Paul Dunbar. We should not expect Morrison to say, as Baldwin repeatedly did, "There is one race and we are all part of it", nor to try and draw her artistic effort to within touching distance of that at once hopeful and hopeless observation. Dependent for her huge popularity on the tendency towards multi-culturalism, Morrison remains determinedly monoculturalist, concerned to give written form to the taste and texture of Afric an-American life, in a span reaching roughly from the last days of slavery to a nation reshaped by the civil rights movement.

The project is the outcome of a considered choice, but there may also be a failure of imagination to take into account. In The Bluest Eye, Morrison's first novel, the narrator relates an incident which is every bit as striking as the condemnation of the racially promiscuous Sula. A little girl, Pecola, enters a shop run by a Mr Yacobowski. As she gets out her pennies and points at some sweets, "the grey head of Mr Yacobowski looms up over the counter":

"He does not see her, because for him there is nothing to see. How can a fifty-two-year-old white immigrant storekeeper with the taste of potatoes and beer in his mouth . . . see a little black girl? Nothing in his life even suggested that the feat was possible, not to say desirable or necessary."

As posed here, the question is rhetorical — no way he could see her. But to some people, and surely not only "whitepeople", it should be possible to answer it differently. Mr Yacobowski must at some stage in his pre-American, pre-"wholly racialized" life have encountered the elementary tenet that there is one race and we are all part of it, and, who knows, he might have found something "desirable or necessary" in the suggestion. He might see Pecola just because he is a man with feelings and she is a child. But no; no way. Anyway, he will soon understand that Pecola is culturally directed to "see" him as belonging in a category of souls than which "there was nothing lower . . . nothing filthier".

The editorializing tendency ("How can a fifty-two-year-old white immigrant . . .") is much in evidence in Morrison's fiction, one factor in her prevailing moral one-upmanship. Her female narrators are weary experts in the arts of head-shaking and sarcasm of the "good luck and let me know" variety. Her dialogue at times seems cut to fit soap opera. Stanley Crouch, the awkward squad of contemporary African-American letters, has remarked that Morrison's characters "rarely . . . exist for any purpose other than to deliver a message", which contributes to the air of implausibility hanging over so many dramatic encounters in the novels. Morrison has a job putting two people in a room and making them talk like folks. How can characters breathe when the effort to correct the balance of history is using up all the oxygen?

The dominant literary presence behind all Morrison's work is William Faulkner. From the start, she has employed Faulkner's method whereby the narration proceeds under a shadow, only gradually admitting the detail that casts light. "Quiet as it's kept, there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941." The cryptic introduction to The Bluest Eye has been repatterned in almost all her books. With its jigsaw structure and claustrophobic atmosphere, her new novel Love is her most familiar nod to Faulkner yet. Told front-to-back, the story would go something like this: In the years before and after the Second World War, Bill Cosey was the owner of a fashionable "Hotel and Resort", the "best vacation spot for coloured folks on the East Coast"; his wife bore him a son; she died, and the son followed, leaving behind a young wife and a daughter, Christine; Cosey had long been entangled with a mystery woman but for his second wife he chose Heed — aged eleven — the best friend of little Christine; the two women are now grown up and living in hate-fuelled isolation in what remains of the Cosey property, each claiming it as her own; into their lives, trailing echoes of Joe Christmas from Light in August, comes Junior, a girl who has known nothing but trouble; Heed wants her to forge a will, but her mind is on the teenage grandson of a couple of local worthies, whom she coaches into a rampant stud; out of the chaos Junior creates come redemption and healing.

Of course, the tale is not told like that. There are several points of view, switching from first to third person, from italic to roman, past to present. Morrison scatters fragments before her readers, inviting them to trace the significant fact a paragraph or a chapter down the line. The story is framed by the ruminations of a woman known as L, who, like the others, has had her life shaped by the overbearing hotel owner:

"The ocean is my man now. He knows when to rear and hump his back, when to be quiet and simply watch a woman. He can be devious, but he's not a false-hearted man. His soul is down there and suffering. I pay attention and know all about him. That kind of understanding can only come from practice, and I had a lot of that with Mr Cosey."

At times, Love reads like notes for a novel — "Christine accepted his invitation to dinner. By dessert they had plans . . . . As couplehood goes, it had its moments. As marriage goes, it was ridiculous" — at other times like notes for a by now predictable lecture: "It comforts everybody to think of all Negroes as dirt poor, and to regard those who were not, who earned good money and kept it, as some kind of shameful miracle". Whatever happy "couplehood" there is about the place is of the sisterly type, or else is given to the salt-of-the-earth grandparents, Sandler and Vida, copies of Sydney and Ondine from Tar Baby. Morrison's world is not only wholly racialized, but, as she said at the same time (in her non fiction book, Playing in the Dark, 1992), "genderized, sexualized". Men here mostly occupy themselves rearing and humping, looking handsome in hats, and abusing small girls.
Morrison is good at delineating youthful female desire, though that too has been repeated in one novel after another, but grown-up heterosexual partnership is rare and fleeting in her books. The brief interlude in Tar Baby, in which Jadine and Son take refuge in a Manhattan Hilton, before a difference in skin tone forces them apart, is about as close to a successful match that any Morrison characters are likely to come. What love affair could survive prose like this?

"He looked at her face in the mirror and was reminded of days at sea when water looked like sky. She surveyed his body and thought of oranges, playing jacks, and casks of green wine. He was still life, babies, cut glass, indigo, hand spears, dew, cadmium yellow, Hansa red, moss green and the recollection of a tree that wanted to dance with her."

The reader of a disassembled story reasonably expects to come across something solid, around which it coheres. What is there in Love? Homilies galore, of both the pragmatic and metaphorical kind: "You can live with anything if you have what you can't live without"; "He didn't understand: a dream is just a nightmare with lipstick", etc. Twists in the tail, including a final one concerning the Cosey will. Lyrical rumination on the part of L, the first-person storyteller. A wholesale renunciation of "looking for Big Daddy" ("We could have been living our lives hand in hand instead"). Lots of unbridled lust, and the usual association of "floods, white people, tuberculosis, famine and ignorance". Near the end of Love, with that air of smug self-regard often heard in Morrison's narrators, L tells us that "most people have never felt a passion" as strong as that between Heed and Christine, but "if your name is the subject of First Corinthians, chapter 13, it's natural to make it your business". Her business, like her name, we are invited to deduce, is "Love", though there has been little of it in evidence in the tale of sex and greed that's gone before. Readers of the King James version of the Bible will recall the subject of 1 Corinthians, 13, as charity ("Charity suffereth long, and is kind"), but, as Sula will tell you, there is not a lot of that here either.

James Campbell's biography of James Baldwin, Talking at the Gates, 1991, was reissued last year.

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