Toni Morrison’s prose is also an engagement with the ways in which the erosion of language, autonomy, tradition, and community has profound implications for the psychological lives of black subjects.
The passing of Toni Morrison earlier this week leaves an irreparable void in the transnational cultural landscape. She was not only an archivist of unprecedented eloquence, expressing the history of black Americans in its various mundane, euphoric and abysmal dimensions; his works, like his strong intellectual ethics, have also examined with lucid honesty and unwavering compassion, the lingering legacy of racial injustice in the form of trauma, alienation and fragmented relationships. Of The bluest eye, through Beloved and Sula, To paradise, Jazz, and Song of Solomon, Morrison’s writing is passionately invested in the elaboration of the relation of language to the silences on which white empires are built, and to the disruptive power of the unspeakable, those atrocious or ecstatic experiences which attack the coherence of the whole personality. by pushing grammar and syntax to their limits. .
How to navigate through the many injunctions to hold one’s voice, how to use a kind of language to reconstitute the abrasions left by another, how to inhabit the literary technique to authentically configure through the image, the gesture and the song, the forbidden, the sublime, and oblivion: Morrison’s books portray survival, hope and recovery by exploring the deep structure of racism. Racism as she sees it is, among other things, the exhaustion over the course of history of the vital richness of black existence, its emotional textures, its creative practices and sensory topographies, its unique ways of to feel, to remember and to be in the world. As a writer seeking to remedy this loss through what Sethe in Beloved (1987) calls ‘memory’, Morrison’s prose is also an engagement with the ways in which the erosion of language, autonomy, tradition, and community has profound implications for the psychological lives of black subjects. .
In Morrison’s narrative universes, there is no restitution without promise and possibility of healing, no effective idiom of protest without space for care, and no true politics of subversion without vulnerability. The work of freedom and rehabilitation is incomplete without the identification of the underlying, inherited grief and its participation in a shared task of grief. It is this therapeutic radicalism, his awareness of the inextricable connection between activism and affect, politics and the psyche, empowerment and healing, that gives Morrison’s writing a resonant timbre through time and time. space.
Nobel laureate Toni Morrison died on August 5, 2019. Image via Twitter
Morrison began her career with a powerful critique of the invisibilization and erasure of African American culture brought about by the imposition of norms, ideals and standards, including those defining female beauty, which are exclusively and homogeneously white. The object of his criticism in The bluest eye (1970) is the painful coming of age of its young protagonist Pecola Breedlove, and the schizophrenic self-division produced by his obsessive fixation on whiteness is matched only by a self-destructive disgust. A black girl surrounded by white stereotypes of desirability in a dizzying excess of popular culture and returning pedagogical credentials, proof of her own “ugliness,” Pecola is defeated by what Morrison identifies as the absence of affirmative signs of difference and stimulants. in which to anchor its identity. In Beloved, Morrison continues to explore the dilemmas of inhabiting ideologically charged spaces from which alternative paradigms of self-representation have been displaced by the hegemony of white universalism. However, the antithesis of Beloved as Pecola comes as a phantom word struggling to acquire semantic legitimacy. It embodies the repressed reverse side of the dominant systems of meaning, a discarded and erased testimony that resurrects from exile to liberate black vernaculars. His insatiable demand for stories, his endless questions about the recesses of the characters’ past, their desires, their sorrows, their material treasures and their clandestine journeys, allows Sethe and his family to gradually reconstruct the history of the Sweet Home community in a vocabulary which is authentically and inalienably theirs.
The need to reclaim a language for oneself is not simply a political gesture in Toni Morrison’s writing. It is linked to the process of recovering, in both senses of the word, from the ill effects of living in the shadow of the race. “Make up a story … tell us what the world has been like to you in the dark places and in the light.” Don’t tell us what to believe, what to fear. Show us the wide skirt of belief and the point that unties the caul of fear » – that’s Morrison’s maxim for writing. Language is not only the place of contestation of claims of personality and property, of rights and privileges, of the extension of visibility to those who are erased from the social horizon; it is also the means in and through which the black community can practice self-esteem and perform acts of self-healing. Healing is one of Morrison’s central concerns, recurring as an event, metaphor, and concept in many of his fictional and non-fictional works.
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In an article written for The nation in 2004, following the re-election of George Bush, Morrison struggles with paralyzing desperation to console himself by recalling the precise role of creative and journalistic writing as bastions of resistance and forces of dissent amid chaos organized designed by modern neoliberalism. States. Forms of counter-discourse are not only necessary as instruments of exhibition, they also offer alternatives to the languages of surveillance, war and commodification. In his Nobel Lecture, Morrison masterfully exposes the relationship between language and forms of institutional or ideological control, be it white imperialism, Western capitalism or American racism. Power is consolidated by suppressing linguistic diversity and by usurping the expressive resources of those it subjugates. Among the many ubiquitous effects of the history of racism in America, the plundering, impoverishment and erasure of the languages of black communities is the most insidious, because to render a society devoid of its modes of creating meaning is take away its ability to recognize itself in its singularity and deprive it of the means to cope with this loss.
Language is what brings the writer Toni Morrison into the same space as her oppressed and hurt characters.
For Morrison, cultural recovery, the restoration of the health and vigor of black societies eviscerated by colonialism, slavery and institutional racism, must go through the restoration and taking possession of the repertoire of linguistic forms brutalized by the exercise of white supremacy. Writing, conversation, artistic creation, and the daily processes of remembering and translating are essential to collective healing. Language is what brings Morrison the writer into the same space as her oppressed and injured characters, allowing her to offer her craft as a saving common ground: “There is no time for despair, “she said,” no room for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we make language. This is how civilizations heal.
Racial trauma and recovery
An important part of Morrison’s critical strategy in dealing with questions of the Black experience is his close attention to the psychological registers of the race, the symptoms of its debilitating presence in daily life, and its role in shaping the race. collective unconscious of a community. Morrison is wary of reducing the complexities of African American lives to quantifiable sociological data, even though she refrains from transforming her characters into symbolic and mythical archetypes. In his passionate meditations on language, Morrison suggests that “language can never ‘encompass’ slavery, genocide, war. Nor should he aspire to arrogance to be able to do so. Its strength, its bliss is within its reach towards the ineffable.
The history of slavery thus appears in Beloved not in a linear or direct fashion, but through a slow and irregular recall dispersed throughout the story in the form of linguistic fragments, bodily sensations and sequences of images. Sethe and Paul D, both former runaway slaves, negotiate the trauma through repressive mechanisms: the scar tissue on Sethe’s back is a constant reminder and intimate presence of the experience of racist violence, even then. that the numbness of his skin serves as an external marker of buried and unresolved psychic wounds. Paul D, his lover, imagines a coping mechanism in the form of an image of a rusty iron box, in which he imagines hiding his scarifying memories of the plantation. However with Beloved’s return from the grave to her mother’s house as a guest whose radical otherness is unconditionally welcomed by Sethe, and following her visceral hunger for the testimonies of her loved ones, storytelling, nomination, reiteration, rhythm and verbal discourse become modes of materializing repressed memories and bringing about the progressive metamorphosis of the nature of the trauma.
These unofficial and intimate discourses of racial memory constitute a new language born in spaces of education, empathy and hospitality, through which accumulated trauma can be expressed, transformed and released. In Beloved more than anywhere else, Morrison develops the association between racism, violation and psychic injury, and explores the therapeutic potential of heteroglossic and polyphonic discourses on the fringes of official statist narratives. It is by radicalizing language, by freeing it from what Morrison Playing in the dark (1993) calls “hidden signs of racial superiority, cultural hegemony, and disdainful ‘otherness’ of people and language” as the rich and vibrant emotional and psychic aspects of experience, history, and language. testimony of blacks can be articulated. For Morrison, in order to take part in the atrocity of racism, we must look beyond the language of rights, autonomy and political emancipation, into these alternative micro-languages of private and creative engagements with the grief, loss, pain and death. , and broaden the concept of justice to include healing.