August 14, 2019

Looking for Toni Morrison (1931-2019): The Library Always Gives Me What I Need

By Stuart Mitchner

You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need.
—The Rolling Stones

After last week’s news of Toni Morrison’s death, I put aside plans for a column on Woodstock and went to the Princeton Public Library looking for one of her novels, preferably Beloved, which I’d never read. My better-late-than-never mission was delusional because there was no way I could do right by a novel of that magnitude in a matter of days, and in any case, the shelves had been cleared of her fiction, no surprise given the PU Professor Emerita’s literary stature and the town’s pride in a former resident. Aside from audio books, the only work of hers available was The Origin of Others (Harvard Univ. Press 2017), which draws on the six Norton Lectures the Nobel laureate delivered at Harvard in spring 2016. That this little book was still there reinforces my semi-superstitious belief that I can always count on the library to give me what I need even when it’s not what I think I want.

What I needed, among other things, was a way to make sense of my inability to literally get into Morrison’s best-known and most acclaimed novel. My problem was that the opening of Beloved seemed to be a contradiction in terms. The first paragraph simply didn’t open for me. I couldn’t get in the door. I know I should have made more of an effort, but all I saw was an enigmatic number: “124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom.” What follows — about a grandmother named Baby Suggs suspended “between the nastiness of life and the meanness of the dead, who couldn’t get interested in leaving life or living it” — left me in the dark. If I’d read farther, I’d have learned that 124 was the street number for what was, in effect, a haunted house. But I didn’t read farther.

I was reminded of my experience with the opening of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury when I first ran headlong into it as a college sophomore: “Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting. They were coming toward where the flag was and I went along the fence. Luster was hunting in the grass by the flower tree.” What flag? Who was hitting what? Who was Luster? Of course once I learned that I was seeing with the eyes of a deaf mute at a golf course, I was at least through the door and into a world so many-leveled and many-voiced that for the first time in my life I started rereading a novel the same day I finished it.

Other to Other

I found several ways to approach Beloved in The Origin of Others. In the lecture titled “Configurations of Blackness,” the author describes her encounter with an art project at the Vienna Biennale: 

“I was asked to enter a dark room and face a mirror. In a few seconds, a figure appeared, slowly taking shape and moving toward me. A woman. When she (rather, her image) was close to me, same height, she placed her palm on the glass and I was instructed to do the same. We stood there face to face, unspeaking, looking into the eyes of the other. Slowly the figure faded and shrank before disappearing altogether. Another woman appeared. We repeated the gesture of touching our palms together and looking into the eyes of the other. This went on for some time. Each woman differed in age, body shape, color, dress.”

Morrison found “this intimacy with a stranger” extraordinary. “Silent, knowing. Accepting each other — one to one.”

I found the anecdote subtly suggestive, first by instinctively assuming Morrison’s point of view, except that I imagined the figure of the woman and forms of women fading, shrinking, disappearing like phantoms as manifestations of the author and her characters. I also saw it as a parable of the relationship between an author and a reader standing outside the mirror of her art. If Beloved was the Other, so was I. We were not one to one but Other to Other. At the same time, the anecdote gave personal narrative force to the theme of a book that asks “Why does the presence of Others make us so afraid?” Besides reading the “configurations of blackness” as a stranger to Beloved, I was responding to the image of strangers silently, knowingly staring eye to eye at a time when paranoia about the Other is driving the news cycle.

As Ta-Nehisi Coates points out in the volume’s foreword, these lectures were given as Barack Obama was entering the last year of his two-term presidency, and while the book’s publication a year later “is not directly concerned with the rise of Donald Trump,” it is “impossible to read [Morrison’s] thoughts on belonging, on who fits under the umbrella of society and who does not, without considering our current moment.”

That was in 2017.

The Vanishing Fisherwoman

Another anecdote from life that Toni Morrison expands on concerns the time when she was living in Grand-View-on-Hudson and encountered a black woman fishing from a sea wall at the edge of a neighbor’s garden. Intrigued and amused by the way the woman was dressed (“men’s shoes, a man’s hat, a well-worn colorless sweater worn over a long black dress”), Morrison engages her in conversation about fish recipes, weather and children. The stranger is “witty and full of wisdom” and goes by a name the novelist hears as “Mother Something.” Looking forward to further conversations, Morrison imagines “a friendship, casual, effortless, delightful.” The next day the woman is not there, nor the next nor the next nor any day that summer. Asking her neighbor if she knows what may have happened, Morrison is told that no old woman ever fished from her wall “and none had permission to do so.”

Feeling “cheated, puzzled, but also amused,” Morrison reads the experience as an illustration of “how vulnerable we are to distancing ourselves and forcing our own images onto strangers as well as becoming the stranger we may abhor.” After obsessing on the situation at length, she regrets the loss of “the implied promises of female comradery.” It’s as if by vanishing, the woman has taken with her “my good opinion of myself, which, of course, is unforgivable,” leading to the thought, “And isn’t that the kind of thing that we fear strangers will do? Disturb. Betray. Prove they are not like us….Why should we want to know a stranger when it is easier to estrange another? Why should we want to close the distance when we can close the gate?” Ultimately, Morrison admits that her “claims on that fisherwoman” were “unreasonable,” that “I was longing for and missing some aspect of myself, and that there are no strangers … only versions of ourselves.”

Finding an Opening

Reading the lecture titled “Narrating the Other,” which includes a lengthy quotation from Beloved, I felt once again as if I were looking into my metaphorical version of the mirror where Toni Morrison had seen a succession of strangers, intimate, silent, knowing, accepting one to one, while I’d seen nothing but a “spiteful” number and the shadow of something I was unable or unwilling to comprehend. Now it was as though she’d anticipated my failure to find my way in the first paragraph and was offering me, or any similarly estranged reader or listener, another view of the novel by way of its ending, which “of course, was not the final word. That would have to belong to the Other, the prime motivator, the reason for the novel’s existence, Beloved herself.”

Whether or not the lengthy passage from the novel she quotes at this point is intended as a display of the power of her style for readers like myself looking for an opening, or as a reprise of its music for readers who know and love it, what followed moved me with a sample of what I’d been missing, one sentence in particular: “Sometimes the photograph of a close friend or relative — looked at too long — shifts, and something more familiar than the dear face itself moves there. They can touch it if they like, but don’t, because they know things will never be the same if they do.” And so, as the Other outside her art, I was redirected to the novel’s first words, able now to make sense of the haunted home where “footprints come and go, come and go.” It’s all too easy to say, but she’s put me in touch with the spirit of the book, I’ve crossed the border, I’m there, in the silent, knowing, accepting moment, one to one, ready to finally read Beloved all the way through.