March 6, 2020
Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.
“There’s more truth in myth than in truth.” – Natalie Diaz
Toni Morrison’s Nobel Prize speech clearly demonstrates her brilliance. She speaks in parables that are simultaneously straightforward, honest, and complicated. In this speech, Morrison delivers a story of some children who approach an old, blind woman and ask her what they have in their hands. With thoughtful and careful detail, Morrison analyzes this myth in her trademark style. First, she envisions one answer, and then begins again from another perspective. The ability to place multiple perspectives side-by-side is her invaluable gift to the world. Morrison understands that seldom does a question have just one answer and that, furthermore, any answer might have multiple meanings. Most of all, she understands that individual human experiences drive the answer to the question, and therefore also drive the meaning of the narrative. This is essential in understanding society. In the speech, she says, “The vitality of language lies in its ability to line the actual, imagined and possible lives of its speakers, readers and writers. Although its poise is sometimes in displacing experience it is not a substitute for it. It arcs towards a place where meaning may lie.” She reminds us that speech is an effort at communication, and communication requires an openness and willingness to understand one another. Most importantly, speech is our tool toward making the world accord with what we wish to find. This pervasive, Morrisonian trait exists in all of her works of fiction.
“Recitatif” is one of only two short stories that Morrison wrote . In this story, two young girls come to know each other through a group home or shelter. Both have mothers who are incapable of caring for their needs, so for a few years, they struggled through life in a shelter. Though of different races, the two come to rely upon one another. Morrison never clearly identifies either one as anything specific, which is part of the story’s mastery. As the children grow, difference is placed upon them by the outside world. They watch for and begin to understand the application of labels. For example, they are in the orphanage where most of the children were “real orphans with beautiful dead parents in the sky,” which makes these girls (whose parents still live) outcasts and among the lowest in status. This story confronts questions of race, identity, honor, honesty, friendship, and courage. When the young girls meet as adults, they grapple with the fact that they too potentially mistreated others in the shelter. Even now, years after their orphanage experience, the story questions identity without ever clearly marking anything. Perhaps this is what Morrison alludes to her in Nobel Prize winning speech when she says, “Unmolested language surges toward knowledge, not its destruction.” In other words, labels and apparent concrete truths may create an environment devoid of perspective. Morrison, however, aspires toward “unmolested language.”
The idea of presenting characters without a clearly constructed identity may be in response to the concrete images of “otherness” that Morrison identifies in so many early American writers. In an essay entitled “Romancing the Shadow,” she writes, “[I]t is difficult to read the literature of young America without being struck by how antithetical it is to our modern rendition of the American Dream. How pronounced in it is the absence of that term’s elusive mixture of hope, realism, materialism, and promise. For a people who made much of their ‘newness’ – their potential, freedom, and innocence – it is striking how dour, how troubled, how frightened and haunted our early and founding literature truly is.” She claims that from the fear and doubts of the unknown environments, the writers tended towards romance as “an exploration of anxiety imported from the shadows of European culture.” This allowed early American writers to confront fear and to tackle it. Morrison continues, “For young America it [romance] had everything: nature as subject matter, a system of symbolism, a thematics of the search for self-valorization and validation – above all, the opportunity to conquer fear imaginatively and to quiet deep insecurities. It offered platforms for moralizing and fabulation, and for the imaginative entertainment of violence, sublime incredibility, and terror – and terror’s most significant, overweening ingredient: darkness, with all the connotative value it awakened.” In other words, she posits that ideas of freedom are built upon and perhaps a result of previous (and ongoing) oppressions. Furthermore, that what has been visually noticed becomes written, spoken, repeated, and eventually implicit. She writes, “Knowledge, however mundane and utilitarian, plays about in linguistic images and forms cultural practice.”
In the Nobel Prize speech, Morrison explains that even though the old woman cannot see the children, let alone what is in their hands, she knows the power of language. Morrison narrates that the old woman “thinks of language as susceptible to death. In peril… Salvageable only by an effort of the will.” Therefore, through imaginative efforts she formulates her speech, frames what she wants to say, and makes meaning of this encounter. She mines the moment for all of its depth. Likewise, every one of Morrison’s works achieves this goal. She mines experience, both shared and individual, placing them side-by-side and, thus, opens the door to interpretation and understanding. In her speech she says, “We die,- that may be the meaning of life. But we do language – that may be the measure of our lives.” In reading Morrison’s works, the reader accesses this potential conduit which opens minds, doors, and ideas. Her powerful words are like a path filled with obstacles which require thoughtful, intelligent, honest introspection. This path can only lead to improvement. I encourage you to pick up one of the many works by Toni Morrison this month, in honor of Women’s History Month.
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