Alfred P. Knopf, 368 pages
Reviewed by J. Stephen Rhodes
Toni Morrison’s death leaves the United States bereft of a distinctive prophetic voice, for she engaged her readers with a remarkable blend of truth telling, nuance, artfulness and compassion that is currently in short supply in the public arena. In this, her last published book, she has assembled a collection of essays, lectures, speeches and meditations that forms an apologia for her life’s work, as well as a challenge to readers to engage with the world in all of its immediacies and complexities, tragedies and joys.
She makes it clear that the kind of writing she undertakes seeks to unsettle, call into question and demand a deeper look: “Writers can disturb the social oppression that functions like a coma on the population, a coma that despots call peace … [because] truth is trouble. It is trouble for the warmonger, the torturer, the corporate thief, the political hack, the corrupt justice system, and for a comatose public.”
A central theme in many of these writings is displacement, which she first introduces in terms of the mass movements of people across national and cultural boundaries, and the disturbances these movements cause in politics, business and local communities. “At no other period have we witnessed such a myriad of aggression against people designated as ‘not us.’” It is a world that has returned to a medieval mentality where walls and weapons figure prominently. Yet, she argues, humane art and writing can challenge and heal this anti-immigrant mentality. In her commencement address at Sarah Lawrence College, she proposes that “goodness is not only better and good for you, it is more interesting, more complicated, less predictable, more adventuresome.” Evil, by contrast, may be sensational, but it is ultimately boring. The American melting pot offers riches.
Morrison also employs displacement to get at a central motif in her fiction in terms of content as well as style. Regarding the opening of her most famous novel, “Beloved,” she states that she wants the reader to feel the core displacement experienced by every slave. “The reader is snatched, yanked thrown into an environment completely foreign … snatched just as the slaves were from one place to another, without preparation and without defense. No lobby, no door, no entrance — a gangplank (but a very short one).” This is why the presence of the haunting by spirits in the novel’s opening also is important, in that a certain mistrust for the reader is built into the narrative — as was the untrustworthiness of the world for the slave.
Morrison further extends displacement to speak about the bankrupting of language, what she calls “the systematic looting of language.” Words lose their nuance and complexity, particularly when they are used to subjugate and demonize. The purpose of racist and sexist language, for example, is certainly not to cultivate knowledge or the mutual exchange of ideas. However, she does not lay this only at the feet of those who wish to dominate and maintain their control. She makes it clear that the undoing of language involves collaboration by the broader population, fed on a diet of sentimentality, numbing, and sensationalism.
Each one of these writings can be read in isolation with great benefit — some as short as a couple of pages, a couple over 20 pages. Taken as a whole, the collection is a brilliant testimony not only to Morrison’s writing, but to who she was.
J. Stephen Rhodes is a retired Presbyterian pastor, theological educator and the author of three books of poetry. He lives in Charleston, South Carolina.