Don’t write about Woman, write about a woman. This is a simple statement but controversial.
Toni Morrison was recently appointed at Columbia University, a nice gesture. Morrison would not be teaching. She would not be publishing in any academic publications. She likely will not publish much more fiction because she is rapidly approaching her mid-eighties. “Her papers” will never be released in any form to the public and will not be viewed by any biographers. Her public refusals of Henry Louis Gates Jr. to catalog her life and African American heritage needs no additional commentary. The same is true for her repeated refusals to find a memoirist (for those dear readers who do not know—nearly all ‘memoirs’ are in fact written and compiled by other people and the ostensible subject combs through a finished project).
If Columbia does not expect a sudden start to Morrison’s academic career, has doubts about her continued career as a writer and does not, or should not, expect to be the recipient of Morrison’s generosity then there is no soft answer for why she was offered this position. But the answer is not difficult. Columbia University has joined an ever greater number of the public who read Morrison to make themselves feel better about themselves.
Few judge her on whether the prose is good or what she has to say because she’s long past being an author who is understood. Or an author at all. She is an empty memorial to everything and, so, nothing at all. She’s taught, at best, and at worst she’s just another author passing the public like two dark ships at night. And we’ll probably have nice little articles, perhaps a few honors, about a Morrison completely unrelated to anything other than the article-author’s own peccadillos and loves for quite some time.
Few people appear to be reading her books. One can pick up a glut of once read, perhaps, copies of Beloved for less than a dollar: the foisted remains of each successive high school class that struggles through a book presented by aging diversity ‘trail blazers.’ Unsurprisingly, her latest novel, God Help this Child, is currently ranked in the mid 1400s on Amazon, which in fact represents something of a crest in terms of sales potential as Amazon has recently begun combining all mediums—Audio CD, Kindle, Audible Audio. Never before has it been easier to buy a book no one else does.
That Morrison is not read because Morrison—as a person—no longer matters is a neat, linear progression I think more would make if they considered it. It also explains why Morrison, as a New York Magazine piece summarized, “decades after she won her Nobel, [her] place in the pantheon is hardly assured.”
For example, elsewhere in the article, in a burst of unintentional self-parody, the same writer fired off a slew of meaningless pretensions that explain more about the article’s author than Morrison. She writes, Morrison is successful even when she isn’t successful or, in the article writer’s words, writers with “smaller ambitions” would “live on contentedly in this plush purgatory.”
But what I found especially telling in this piece was a final, parting paragraph. Tacked on, perhaps, but truncated just as the article becomes interesting. The author writes: Morrison will escape the “plush purgatory,” and “pass the test” when “Chloe Wofford is gone, and Toni Morrison is all that’s left.”
Chloe Ardelia Wofford is Toni Morrison’s real name and, curiously enough, her preferred name—as she has stated almost incessantly since the end of her first marriage and, likely, stated long before its end. “Oh God! It sounds like some teenager—what is that?” She laughed through one interview with the Times. “But Chloe,” she explains “That’s a Greek name. People who call me Chloe are the people who know me best. Chloe writes the books.” Toni Morrison, Ms. Wofford clarifies, does the tours, the interviews, the “legacy and all of that.”
Her legacy, so far, is bracketed by discussions of her Nobel Prize. Note well how the international community has approached Morrison, memorializing and promptly forgetting about her. Like ‘yeah, yeah, yeah—African American literature, great stuff, see you later.’ They made a nice gesture, handed out a few medals and became (I’m reminded of Tony Judt’s comment) another gnome in the land of forgetting.
And note well how the Times, serenely unaware of its own complicity, writes in the same article that Wofford does not even have control of her own name—as if that was an accusation directed against anyone but the people who appreciate her body of work. Gawker famously remarked, on the announcement that there would be a Morrison book this year, declared that there was already a ‘Best Book of 2015.’ Enter Columbia University to finally prove, channeling Dr. Johnson’s Gospel of Matthew, that pride must have a fall to prove that it is the true thing and not merely the mock.
Or, perhaps even better, a tendentious article with the word ‘vision’ in its title. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/12/magazine/the-radical-vision-of-toni-morrison.html?_r=0 As the author explains, but doesn’t get at the heart of, “The Bluest Eye,” “Sula” and “Song of Solomon” are a bold holy trinity of “classics.” How do we know this? They were the jumpstart to a “literary culture that had to either diversify or die.” And if we ignore the uncomfortable fact that literary culture died anyhow along with most of the reading public, then we get at the heart of what Morrison was to the author from virtually the very beginning. Not so much a writer, or even an artist, but a thing that everyone just wished would hurry up and die so that she could be memorialized and symbolized. And since she has (unfortunately) lingered on, we will just go ahead and memorialize all her work as “classics” before she dies.
She is often discussed in terms of her audience, the older black women who fan themselves with her book covers at her readings, the teenage girls who sigh on buses and trains while reading “Sula” for class, the young male rappers who have interpolated lines from “The Bluest Eye” into their songs.
Here the author comes so, so close to making that point. I take for granted that the “older black women” who fan themselves with Morrison’s book covers, apparently just the book covers, are just as real to the author as the “young male rappers” who have “interpolated” lines from “The Bluest Eye” into their song. By that I mean not real at all. Instead, they are reduced from an actual group of people to symbols whose actual existence is irrelevant. Morrison herself flatly reflected across other people, other times, because Morrison doesn’t exist as a person to the author either. Morrison is the ultimate mirror, and like all mirrors merely reflects back at the author the author’s own opinions.
This sort of empty memorializing, Morrison “on her own terms,” is both flatly untrue if the author is writing from the Old Gray Lady and is also a choice to evaluate Morrison on no terms at all. If I evaluated you on your own terms that would only be evaluating you on whatever items I thought were neat. Cool. Exciting. Not ‘terms’ in the classical, objective sense of the word but random notes that I bang on about. The author almost admits it, “Morrison serves as a totem for so much of this energy.” Totems don’t write, they just accumulate whatever superstitions the devoted attribute to the object. Phrased a little differently, Morrison is in fact a totem.
This sort of thinking isn’t limited to popular venues. Even odd academic pursuits, such as the recent Toni Morrison: Memory and Meaning, is ready for those heady times when we are completely free from living with Wofford. As the introduction explains one essay, “For Stave, Sweet Home is a riff on the Garden of Eden with its ‘lush pastoral setting’ that is far from innocent. She then engages both Jazz and Paradise as a ‘startling critique of the Judeo-Christian God,’ positing salvation not as religious reward but as the ‘result of human forgiveness and connectedness.’” This essay must assume that Ms. Wofford is dead—most of these essays have to as a preliminary matter. Because if they don’t their ‘research’ is useless. On one hand they can write and write and analyze. On the other they can call her up and ask.
Less interesting, but also relevant, is the creation of Morrison as a weapon. She explains herself well: her vision of God, Judeo-Christian and all, is one of forgiveness. This anthropomorphic being creates bridges and, as the cliché goes, he does not destroy them. But here, as is elsewhere, Morrison is ‘actually’ criticizing the author’s own peccadillos. Perhaps it’s an elaborate coincidence, and that it so happens that Morrison was actually thinking that when she wrote of her conception of Judeo-Christian God she was also criticizing Judeo-Christian God—or, at least, a form. But when a whole book, a whole industry, springs up where author’s appropriate Morrison for their own views coincidence begins to look like deliberateness.
I am not saying that they must pick one side or the other. I’m merely commentating on the choice they have created for themselves. One or the other: whatever Ms. Wofford happens to say is beside the point. Her ‘true’ meaning is irrelevant and the meaning that they pull from her works, which inevitably has a meaning near and dear to their own lives, is of primary importance. Literary hashish for the 21st Century.
Part of this is inevitable. Books are never written for most Americans. They simply are not. How many comments begin “I’ve never read (m)any of Ms. Morrison’s books but…?” And when you reduce book-reading even further to all dozen African-American study programs that require their students to read novels, the pool only gets smaller. The calculus, then, is that more people will care about Morrison if she is divested of her thorny, real-person edges and transformed into being a feel good story about black experience.
Young, male rappers and old, porch-bound spinsters coming together with NYT article writers to sit in a circle around the figure of Morrison–the NYT’s writer leading the discussion, of course. It doesn’t have any meaning, but in the garden of forgetting not having a point is rarely fatal. In fact the opposite is true, so Morrison herself can be left at the door (and must be). Such that someone can be quoted, criticizing the establishment, “black literature, black art, has always been put in a separate category” almost simultaneously as Morrison herself is saying ‘I write on my own terms, African-American literature first and distinct from literature over all.’ Oh well.
I had spent hours with Morrison, accosting her with questions, thinking about her, observing her, and yet for the first time I understood Morrison was a person with real human concerns.
And for the last time.