He read greedily but understood selectively, choosing the bits and pieces of other men's ideas that supported whatever predilection he had at the moment. Thus he chose to remember Hamlet's abuse of Ophelia, but not Christ's love of Mary Magdalene; Hamlet's frivolous politics but not Christ's serious anarchy. He noticed Gibbon's acidity but not his tolerance, Othello's love for Desdemona, but not Iago's perverted love of Othello. The works he admired most were Dante's; those he despised most were Dostoyevsky's. For all his exposure to the best minds of the Western world, he allowed only the narrowest interpretation to touch him.
--The Bluest Eye
The Bluest Eye is a great novel because Toni Morrison didn't yet know how to write a novel; no one told her to show instead of tell, and we can be thankful for that, because it's the book of someone with much to tell, someone rather mysterious, someone who spent the rest of her writing days showing us things that are often hard to understand. I like the above paragraph for any number of reasons, but one of which is surely its rarity: Morrison had not yet developed her characteristic slyness, her refusal of direct allusion. Sula never refers to Mrs. Dalloway, The Scarlet Letter goes unmentioned in Beloved, but they are there, haunting presences. The maturer Morrison is not about to name-drop the greatest hits of the canon, but that is not because she is anti-canon, whatever that means. It has long seemed to me that she ended the culture war for all thinking people when, responding to a conservative caller on a C-Span2 interview, she said that the point of opening the canon was not to read less, but to read more. To read more. Not only more texts, surely, but to read all texts more, and better, and with Roland Barthes's caution in mind that those who do not re-read are condemned to read the same story everywhere.
Morrison in Sula or Beloved will not send us off, eager scholars, to Woolf or to Hawthorne, to catalogue a reference; instead she teaches us to read more: to encounter Woolf's Septimus for the first time--because I read Mrs. Dalloway after I'd read Sula--and think of Shadrack, an African-American Great War veteran, shattered by his experience at the front, who does not commit suicide like Septimus but instead founds National Suicide Day in the town of Medallion, a day when he would ring a cowbell and carry a hangman's rope while announcing that this was the only day of the year to kill yourself or anyone else. A day to focus on death, to get it out of the way; a communal ritual that became part of the fabric of the town. How different is this from Septimus's throwing it all away, an event that makes Mrs. Dalloway feel the fun, feel the thrill of life. Woolf's community in the novel is a community of privacy, one in which each cloistered soul can sense and feel connected to every other cloistered soul, though the souls cannot commune. Words won't do it--Mrs. Dalloway's husband never does manage to say that he loves her; Mrs. Dalloway thinks that it is not love or religion that can bring her together with the woman in the window of the house across from her own. Morrison dares us to imagine an elevation of this privacy into the public realm: instead of the private man--Private Shadrack--taking his life, he brings himself and his terror of the unexpectedness of violence and death (an unexpectedness that makes life meaningless) into the life of the town, to deal with it as a community. The private life is not curdled in the space of the public: it takes on meaning there. Later in the novel, the community's death wish has fatal consequences, the madness--the madness driven by racism and capitalism--is also communal, and the action is too. A public life is not always good, but it is there, it is envisioned. Morrison's art is political in the etymological sense of the word: it is art about the polis. Morrison reads Woolf, then reads more.