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.
I would guess that she performs this political re-reading procedure–this re-politicizing of the canon–in each of her novels, but it would take a doctoral dissertation to prove it (and if I ever return to academia, it’s a dissertation I’d give serious thought to writing). Here, at the beginning of her career, she tells us in a novel for the first and last time how to read, how to read more. No list of books, with each item crossed off for each text read, constitutes reading if you are only receptive to the narrowest interpretations, the most selfish, the most private, the ones that reward our prejudices or the ones that allow our ease with acidity and our disinclination toward tolerance.
It’s often said that so-and-so is the ideal writer for the times, for late capitalism or whatever, because he (usually he) analyzes late capitalist culture so well: think of Pynchon on San Narciso, DeLillo in the condom store, Gibson on trend-spotting. Morrison is capable of some of this too. Here, in The Bluest Eye, she does what Alan Moore–another great writer, at least in his pre-magic days, of the polis and late capital–tried and failed to do in Promethea: describe the effects on people of the physical ugliness and impersonality of our material surroundings. But Morrison, unlike Moore, does not seem to imagine that these surroundings reach us by magic; she knows there is an ideology of production to which the ugliness can be traced.
There is nothing more to say about the furnishings. They were anything but describable, having been conceived, manufactured, shipped, and sold in various states of thoughtlessness, greed and indifference. The furniture had aged without ever becoming familiar. People had owned it, but never known it.
The sofa, for example. It had been purchased new, but the fabric had split straight across the back by the time it was delivered. The store would not take the responsibility….
You could hate a sofa, of course–that is, if you could hate a sofa. But it didn’t matter. You still had to get together $4.80 a month. If you had to pay $4.80 a month for a sofa that started off split, no good, and humiliating–you couldn’t take any joy in owning it. And the joylessness stank, pervading everything. The stink of it kept you from painting the beaverboard walls; from getting a matching piece of material for the chair; even from sewing up the split, which became a gash, which became a gaping chasm that exposed the cheap frame and cheaper upholstery. It withheld the refreshment of a sleep slept on it. It imposed a furtiveness on the loving done on it. Like a sore tooth that is not content to throb in isolation, but must diffuse its own pain to other parts of the body–making breathing difficult, vision limited, nerves unsettled, so a hated piece of furniture produces a fretful malaise that asserts itself throughout the house and limits the delight of things not related to it.
People had owned it, but never known it: our epitaph. DeLillo could not do better; neither could Moore, because the couch did not get there by magic, but rather was conceived, manufactured, shipped and sold according to rules whereby a company’s savings on costs and maximizing of profits trumps beauty, care, responsibility: an anti-communal ideology of thoughtlessness, greed and indifference. Toni Morrison is not a liberal novelist because her novels make no common cause with this ideology.
Supply-side economics says that if government cuts the taxes on and reduces the regulation of private enterprise–if government cuts the costs of couch-makers and lets them sell their damaged goods with impunity–then the money will trickle down (a metaphor suggestive of urine or vomit) to employees, service workers, consumers. This is obvious nonsense. Costs will go down, I don’t doubt, but wages won’t rise and prices won’t fall because this is inimical to the ideology of cost-cutting and profit-maximizing. We’re told this is right-wing thought. Yet this is now our approach to the world: globalism so-called–supposedly a specimen of liberal thought–is but supply-side economics writ large. The couch-sellers can go wherever they like, in whatever tax haven or hovel of cheap labor, and the Thomas Friedmans of the world assure us that the rising tide will lift all boats, that developing countries will at last develop. But they never tell us who then will make the couches; they can’t tell us. In the meantime, every worker in every corner of the world can have the ugly, split couch we used to reserve in America for poor people. This is the contemporary face of liberalism. Toni Morrison is not a liberal novelist.
But she may well be the ideal writer for the times. She does in a paragraph what other novelists do in a book, but her language slows us down enough to make us read that paragraph and read it more. She keeps to small communities and slim novels that come out every five or seven years; she asks us not to read more and more pages, but more and more meaning.
She shows us another world: the world of late capitalism sometimes, but more often a world before it, or tangential to it. Not an un-capitalist or anti-capitalist world necessarily: but a world in which community is possible, means something, a community of ritual where suicide is reconceived as a purgative of one day rather than the wasting of a life; or a community of murder, of the murder of a young girl’s spirit, indeed, because communities, true communities, are capable of such things. But communities can learn, can grow–whereas the couch-makers only learn to expand to new markets. Communities are organic. This is what serious anarchy means: not radical atomization, but a radical situation where being most oneself and being most in a community are not mutually exclusive states, but commensurate, compatible, complementary.