Toni Morrison

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. 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.

Reviewing Ready Player One, Wool, and The Martian

With a recent announcement by Paramount Pictures that they are going to scoop of the last the ‘holy trifecta’ of self-published fantasy novels I wonder, not for the last time, whether if I am alone in my apathy towards the ‘holy trifecta’ of Ready Player One, The Martian and Wool. They’re almost always mentioned together whenever I browse blogs, reddit or anywhere at all online. I legitimately believe something is wrong with me because I’ve read all three and found all three to be substantially similar, even if the details are all fiddled about, and for those reasons to find them as books to be terrible reads.

Ready Player One was a fluff fest that could be easily devoured and forgotten—sort of like a BigMac. Its careful curator of 80s memorabilia, who occasionally acts like a protagonist, strings together little set scenes that are barely related, which come together and pop apart without much ever happening. Some people come, some die and everyone is steadfastly opposed to personal growth of any sort. Death is followed by resurrection, defeat by victory, but it is impossible to say what, if anything, changed.

Similarly, if read literally, the Martian is about a sociopath stuck on Mars. Read literally it’s someone who has a complete absence of any emotional or psychological depth, much less growth, yet is someone vaguely concerned with proving thirteen year-old science ‘enthusiasts’ wrong about his methods. Or at least that’s the only conclusion I came to after reading this very thin presentation of ‘what-if-stranded-on-Mars?’ Read charitably, it’s a book about someone who has an above average understanding of ‘science,’ if science is periodically explaining a few quirks of chemistry and engineering. That is to say, it’s a book about the author and it shows. It’s certainly not about an astronaut actually on Mars.

I recently read Wool, and I was not entirely surprised for it to be equally devoid of any humanity and primarily concerned with concocting and connecting in a generally linear way a series of somewhat-thought-out scenes that would be more fitting for the ‘big screen’ than literature. It went down easily, sometimes I detected a faint whiff of irony but eventually I assumed that it was unintended self-parody rather than intentional. And again I was struck by the same feeling of not even reading a book, more like a type of frothy summer movie mixed in with an author who never really manages to disguise themselves. An acquaintance sat down with me and sort of hashed out his vision for a movie, but unfortunately we were interrupted so he took it upon himself to inflict on me his vision in an email. Unfortunately because I really don’t have much interest in reading a movie.

In fact, about a year ago, a few months ago and as recently as last week I was recommending for people who were truly divided on what one to begin (of the three, of the two or one of them singularly) to first wait for the movies. “If you really are torn between the three I’d suggest just jumping straight to comic books or a good television series. The books are either written with an eye towards television or edited that way. Or perhaps just read the few pages that are everyone’s “favorite scenes,” because that is exactly what they are. Scenes.” A reader would be much better served by ignoring “the shoehorning into the written word and enjoy them in a few years once Paramount picks them up.”

With obviously bogus protagonists, these authors must now depend on the cunning of their narrative gifts to propel these characters through great events. Finding the keys to the kingdom, finding a way off of Mars with some poop and potatoes, uncovering the secrets of a silo that depends on those very same secrets for its existence. Throughout it all the scenery, while entertaining, never quite matches up with the characters. I’m reminded of an archaic type of film where the scenery, painted on a tarp, is flung through the air by the operators without any prompting from the actors. They can keep up or they can fall behind. They can jump ahead. But the two aren’t related. At most it’s coincidence that they’re in unison.

Of course, Fox ended up picking up the Martian and Wool. Paramount captured Ready Player One. I was sort of right. They finally get to be what they were always meant to be, movies, and I still don’t get why anyone thinks they make good books. They’re scripts, at best, or at least good ideas for scripts. And really I can’t wait for the movies to air because then we can stop pretending that these novels are primarily, or even at all, concerned about sentences.

Camus, “I am not an existentialist”

“No, I am not an existentialist. Sartre and I are always surprised to see our names linked. We have even thought of publishing a short statement in which the undersigned declare that they have nothing in common with each other and refuse to be held responsible for the debts they might respectively incur. It’s a joke actually. Sartre and I published our books without exception before we had ever met. When we did get to know each other, it was to realise how much we differed. Sartre is an existentialist, and the only book of ideas that I have published, The Myth of Sisyphus, was directed against the so-called existentialist philosophers.”

From an interview with Jeanine Delpech, in Les Nouvelles Littéraires, (1945). Cited in Albert Camus: Lyrical and Critical Essays, Vintage (1970)

Court Through a Glass Darkly

The call was insistent. Mr. Kanu! Mr. Kanu, are you here? There was no reply. Next. Mrs. Jacobs! Mrs. Jacobs, are you here? There was a reply. She stood up, went to the podium and quietly stood there waiting her turn to speak unlistening. Not guilty she said. A bench trial or a jury trial? I am not guilty she said. I do not need a trial. The Judge smiled, that is a little beside the point, ma’am.

Man after man, woman after woman. If a courtroom of the guilty and innocent uttering a single statement of their guilt or innocence—‘not guilty,’ ‘guilty’—is an allegory about the futility of justice in modern America where post-modern assumptions of morality make legal niceties Kafka-esque anachronisms, then it’s because you think a courtroom of the guilty and innocent uttering a single statement of their guilt or innocence—‘not guilty,’ ‘guilty’—is an allegory about the futility of justice in modern America where post-modern assumptions of morality make most legal niceties Kafka-esque anachronisms.

The problem with most observations is that they are mirrors. We can look inside the observer but never see the reality the observer sees. In the words of Paul, through a glass darkly. What a cliché, fit for the best collection of post-modern clutter, but I think it’s helpful to consider that this has nothing to do with post-modernism unless I—or you, dear reader—are already making assumptions about post-modern clutter. So the circle becomes full and the shape of this thinking makes writing, for me, sometimes unbearable. I want to describe the world but instead I use other people and experiences as sock puppets. It is not so much crude as it is egotistical.

If there was one way I could write, I would choose to say what people don’t want to hear in a way they wish they’d could. Have you ever considered that you are merely the extra in millions of people’s lives?

So let us learn a little about myself. I read Camus. The co-existence of self and world generates absurdity: “the Absurd is not in man (if such a metaphor could have a meaning) nor in the world, but in their presence together. For the moment it is the only bond uniting me” (The Myth of Sisyphus, trans. O’Brien, Vintage edition, p. 30); “There can be no absurd outside the human mind… But there can be no absurd outside this world either” (ibid., pp. 30-31).

Conversely, Kierkegaard is not concerned with an incomprehensible universe. Quite the contrary. In Christian Discourses he writes that the proper natural response to our encounter with the grandeur of creation is astonishment and adoration of God, not perplexity and offense. Further, he carefully distinguishes this from our response to God’s mercy and forgiveness of our sins, which is what, for him, generates the possibility of either offense or faith.

Am I, the observer of the courtroom, viewing the incomprehensible or an astonishing nature? Both? Perhaps it is cynicism: The hope that someday you’ll have known better all along. After some days in court, I can only imagine fiction sitting at my desk dismayed and outdone by fact. I do not know where that companionship puts me. Am I astonished, am I bewildered? Some days it is nothing. I cannot look beyond the day. If there is any meaning I do not realize it and if I do I do not understand it. It is a curious mix of apathy and ignorance—I do not care that I do not know.

More people are moved in, more people are moved out. Some call it the cattle call. Others call them the room meat—the silent, waiting bodies in the backrows waiting for their misdemeanor plea. Such is the novelty of arraignment.

Perhaps the only reason I write is to understand myself. If observations are mirrors, maybe the reason I like to make them is because I like looking into myself. Not at myself but in. That is a comforting thought.

Reading: The Struggle

Reading: The Struggle

I recently finished Stoner.I expected the book to be worse than what I was told. It was hyped up by magazines, authors and friends. Imagine my surprise when I was able to read the book through in less than a day. It was a wonderful experience. 

It makes me wonder if the problem is not the endless distractions, but the endless and correspondingly poor content that is pushed on the reading public. I spend a good deal of time on the internet. I’m an email addict. But I made time. I did not check my email. It never even occurred to me. Stoner was consumed wholesale. In on big gulp I read M.S’s life. I digested it and then, almost as an after thought, I wondered about this blog. Facebook. The other million amusing and bemusing social media profiles I have. 

So stern, so dire is the article that I wonder if the author hasn’t spent too much time struggling for books that are not written for him. Mr. Parks seems like a kind heart. But somewhat battered, a word he favors, by climbing literary heights that are best suited for others who genuinely enjoy the ascent. People unlike me and unlike him. Perhaps he should be looking for books that he can read on the subway, even if others consider them in the same light as he does Dickens. 

To propose something concrete: only read the books you can read on a subway. Read only the books that will make you miss your stop. Those books will keep the light burning bright inside you. 


And if they all…

And if they all, kneeling with poised palms, millions
billions of them, ended together with their illusion?
I shall never agree. I will give them the crown.
The human mind is splendid; lips powerful, and the
summons so great it must open Paradise

Czeslaw Milosz.

Word Chat and the Other References

The French have a vocabulary of eroticism littered with gems. Jouissance and jouir scrupulously put the facts but they hint at currents that flow beneath. English cannot channel them. Leon Roudiez’s, in his introduction to Desire in Language, is that there are several meanings of jouissance. The meanings “are simultaneous” and at once “sexual, spiritual, physical conceptual.” The definitions are neither sterile and medical nor guttural and grotesque. Yet because of our tradition or some natural limit of expression English comes awkwardly to the bedroom. Sentences can buck with double meanings. But if the word is not diagnosing a condition it is being scrawled on bathroom doors. If we wish to speak of the kind of pleasure we take–the supreme pleasure, say, associated with sexuality at its jagged edge with consciousness–we lack the terms acknowledged and allowed in polite French circles.

The Bible has “knowing,” but it is imperfect. Deep in the prehistory of Greek there was a word root constructed of a k or g, an n, and a vowel. The words springing from this root all have to do with reproduction, both sexual and intellectual: generate, gonad, know, ignorant, and forty others. In the King James Bible a husband knows his wife and begets children. In the Bible’s original Greek procreation is a type of construction, say ‘the Structure of the Orgasm and Making Children.’ There is no bliss and if there is pleasure it is tangential. Continue reading

Today I Noticed

In Latin the difference between liber and liber–freedom and book–is an emphasis on the i. It’s not a coincidence. Books were little packets of freedom. But their concept of freedom was not limited to a generic sense of unrestricted. Unlike most ‘modern’ ideas surrounding freedom, it was not freedom from responsibility but freedom for responsibility. Books did not exist to unshackle minds, though they certainly did that, but they made minds more. Muchier. Stronger, in a sense. A Roman education was to make free men, and these free men would have the mental ability to carry a heavier burden. But even the greatest Roman was always a slave to his father. No one was free, except those who were especially burdened by responsibility.