Toni Morrison's therapeutic radicalism imbued her writing with a timbre that resonates across time and place

Toni Morrison’s passing earlier this week leaves an irreparable void in the transnational cultural landscape. She was not only an archivist of unprecedented eloquence, voicing black American history in its diverse mundane, euphoric, and abysmal dimensions; her works, like her robust intellectual ethics, also examined with clear-eyed honesty and unflinching compassion, the persistent legacy of racial injustice in the form of trauma, alienation, and fragmented relationships. From The Bluest Eye, through Beloved and Sula, to Paradise, Jazz, and Song of Solomon, Morrison’s writing is passionately invested in working out the relationship of language to the silences on which white empires are built, and the disruptive power of the unspeakable, those atrocious or ecstatic experiences that assail the coherence of personality while pushing grammar and syntax to their limits.

How to navigate through the many injunctions to hold one’s voice, how to use one kind of language to replenish the abrasions left by another, how to inhabit literary technique in order to authentically configure through image, gesture, and song, the forbidden, the sublime, and the forgotten: Morrison’s books enact survival, hope, and reclamation by delving into the deep structure of racism. Racism as she sees it is, among other things, most markedly, the depletion through the course of history of the vital richness of black existence, its emotional textures, creative praxes, and sensory topographies, unique ways of feeling, remembering, and being in the world. As a writer seeking to address this loss through what Sethe in Beloved (1987) calls “rememory,” 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 the promise and possibility of healing, no effective idiom of protest without space for care, and no genuine politics of subversion without vulnerability. The work of freedom and rehabilitation is incomplete without the identification of underlying, inherited grief, and its participation in a shared task of mourning. It is this therapeutic radicalism, her consciousness of the inextricable connection between activism and affect, politics and the psyche, empowerment and healing, that gives Morrison’s writing a timbre resonating across time and place.

 Toni Morrisons therapeutic radicalism imbued her writing with a timbre that resonates across time and place

Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison passed away on 5 August 2019. Image via Twitter

Racist Erasures

Morrison began her career with a powerful critique of the invisibilisation and erasure of African American culture brought about by the imposition of norms, ideals and standards, including those defining feminine beauty, that are exclusively and homogeneously white. The focus of her criticism in The Bluest Eye (1970) is the painful coming of age of her young protagonist Pecola Breedlove, and the schizophrenic self-division produced by her obsessive fixation on whiteness matched only by a destructive self-loathing. A black girl surrounded by white stereotypes of desirability in a dizzying surfeit of popular culture and pedagogical references that reflect back to her, evidence of her own ‘ugliness,’ Pecola is undone by what Morrison identifies as the absence of affirmative and empowering signs of difference in which to anchor her 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 Beloved as Pecola’s antithesis arrives as a phantom parole struggling to acquire semantic legitimacy. She embodies the suppressed underside of dominant systems of signification, a discarded and effaced testimony that resurrects from exile to liberate black vernaculars. Her insatiable demand for stories, her interminable questions about the inner recesses of the characters’ pasts, their desires, sorrows, their treasured material possessions and clandestine journeys, allows Sethe and her family to gradually reconstruct the history of the Sweet Home community in a vocabulary that is authentically and inalienably their own.

Healing Language

The need to reclaim a language of one’s own is not simply a political gesture in Toni Morrison’s writing. It is tied with the process of recovery, in both senses of the term, from the damaging effects of living under the shadow of race. “Make up a story...tell us what the world has been to you in the dark places and in the light. Don’t tell us what to believe, what to fear. Show us belief’s wide skirt and the stitch that unravels fear’s caul” — this is Morrison’s maxim for writing. Language is not only the site for contesting claims of personhood and property, rights and privileges, for extending visibility to those obliterated from the social horizon; it is also the medium in and through which the black community can practice self-regard, and perform acts of self-recuperation. Healing is one of Morrison’s central concerns, recurring as event, metaphor, and concept in several of her fictional and non-fictional works.

Also read: Toni Morrison, a giant of American literature, perfected a confluence of lyricism and no-nonsense truthtelling

In an article written for The Nation in 2004 in the wake of George Bush’s re-election, Morrison struggles with crippling despair only to take comfort in recalling the precise role of creative and journalistic writing as bastions of resistance and forces of dissent in the midst of the organised chaos engineered by modern neoliberal states. Forms of counter-discourse are not only necessary as instruments of exposure, they also offer alternatives to languages of surveillance, war, and commodification. In her Nobel lecture, Morrison masterfully exposes the relationship between language and forms of institutional or ideological control whether it is white imperialism, western capitalism, or American racism. Power consolidates itself by suppressing linguistic diversity and usurping the expressive resources of those it subjugates. Of the many pervasive effects of the history of racism in America, the plunder, impoverishment, and erasure of the languages of black communities is the most insidious, for to render a society destitute of its modes of meaning making is to take away its ability to recognise itself in its singularity, and deprive it of the means with which to address this loss.

The writer leaves behind a rich cannon of literature that explores the plight of African-Americans, their experiences and conflicts.

Language is what brings Toni Morrison the writer into the same space as her oppressed and injured characters.

For Morrison, cultural convalescence, the restoration of the health and vigour of black societies eviscerated by colonialism, slavery, and institutional racism, needs to take place by restoring and taking possession of the repertoire of linguistic forms brutalised by the exercise of white supremacy. Writing, conversation, art-making, and everyday processes of remembrance and translation, are critical 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 salvific communal terrain:There is no time for despair,” she says, “no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilisations heal.”

Racial Trauma and Recovery

A significant part of Morrison’s critical strategy in dealing with questions of Black experience consists of her close attention to the psychological registers of race, the symptoms of its debilitating presence in everyday life, and its role in shaping a community’s collective unconscious. Morrison is wary of reducing the complexities of African American lives into quantifiable sociological data, even as she refrains from turning her characters into symbolic and mythic archetypes. In her impassioned meditations on language Morrison suggests that “Language can never “pin down” slavery, genocide, war. Nor should it yearn for the arrogance to be able to do so. Its force, its felicity is in its reach toward the ineffable.”

The history of slavery thus appears in Beloved not in a linear or straightforward manner but through slow, irregular recall dispersed throughout the narrative as linguistic fragments, bodily sensations, and image sequences. Sethe and Paul D, both escaped former slaves, negotiate trauma through mechanisms of repression: the scar tissue on Sethe’s back is a reminder and a constant intimate presence of the experience of racist violence, even as the numbness of her skin serves as an external marker of buried, unresolved psychic wounds. Paul D, her lover, devises a coping mechanism in the form of an image of a rusted iron tin, into 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 accommodated by Sethe, and following her visceral hunger for the testimonies of her loved ones, storytelling, naming, reiteration, rhythm, and verbal parley, become modes of materialising suppressed memories and bringing forth the gradual metamorphosis of the nature of trauma.

These unofficial, intimate discourses of racial memory constitute a new language born in spaces of nurture, empathy, and hospitality, through which accumulated trauma can be expressed, transformed, and released. In Beloved more than anywhere else, Morrison elaborates the association between racism, violation, and psychic injury, and explores the therapeutic potential of heteroglossic, polyphonic discourses at the margins of official statist narratives. It is by radicalising language, by freeing it of what Morrison in Playing in the Dark (1993) calls “hidden signs of racial superiority, cultural hegemony, and dismissive “othering” of people and language” that the rich and vibrant affective and psychic aspects of black experience, history, and testimony can be articulated. For Morrison, in order to take to task the atrocity of racism, one has to look beyond the language of rights, autonomy, and political enfranchisement, into these alternative micro-languages of private and creative engagements with grief, loss, pain, and death, and expand the conception of justice to include healing.

Updated Date: Aug 11, 2019 10:05:44 IST