I believe I’m gonna drown (reprise)

March 12, 2010

I have always wanted to develop a way of writing that was irrevocably black. I don’t have the resources of a musician but I thought that if it was truly black literature it would not be black because I was, it would not even be black because of its subject matter. It would be something intrinsic, indigenous, something in the way it was put together – the sentences, the structure, texture and tone – so that anyone who read it would realise. I use the analogy of music because you can range all over the world and it’s still black……I don’t imitate it, but I am informed by it. Sometimes I hear blues, spirituals or jazz and I’ve appropriated it. I’ve tried to reconstruct the texture of it in my writing – certain kinds of repetition – its profound simplicity…..What has already happened with music in the States, the literature will do one day and the when that happens it’s all over.

The passage above is an excerpt from an interview Toni Morrison gave to Paul Gilroy in the mid 1990s. (The full text can be found in Gilroy’s “Small Acts: Thoughts on the Politics of Black Cultures”) Her comments could be considered a template or even a sounding board of sorts for something I was attempting to get across with my first post on the American novelist. I’m fascinated by the variety of positions Morrison is able to stake out for her writing in such a short space of time. In particular she reflects on of the status of her work’s Blackness, and through that consideration of its Blackness, a musing on its musicality.

Morrison makes a series of advances and withdrawals in this exchange with Gilroy. She appears to be intricately mapping out the aesthetic ground from which to encounter her work. Firstly she expresses a desire for her writing to be “irrevocably black”. This is an ontological wish. Her writing needs to exist as a way of being, as a way of being Black that cannot be refuted. But she puts a tactical rejoinder on this claim, perhaps as a way of undercutting its apparent reductiveness. The desired blackness of her art has little or no relationship to her own status as a Black American. The irrevocable Blackness (a Blackness that can’t be anything but Black) she strains for has nothing to do with subject matter either. The writing does not have to be about Black people, the community, the nation. The irrevocable Blackness Morrison speaks of here then is apparent in the assembly of the writing itself. There is something deep in its structures, in its tactility (“texture and tone”) which means that its Blackness would become self evident to those who encountered it (“so that anyone who reads it would realise”).

In effect Morrison produces an anti-architectural schema. She wants her writing to be Black in a way that can not be refuted (and that can even be felt). But this desired Blackness has nothing to do with her own, nor does the writing have to be about Blackness. A soundscape arrives to fill the space Morrison opens up and quickly withdraws from without ever quite leaving. There is another kind of thinking of identity and essence at work in this passage. One which breaks down those forumulations only to try to build them in another way, a way that sounds like Black music. She is not putting forward a case for repetition but a much deeper form of critical mimesis for her writing. An irrevocable Blackness which is not Black because of her but because of its music. The ability of words to attain the tactility, the straight up feel of sonic experience. I guess this in some sense was what I was trying to set off between Morrison and Aretha Franklin in the last post. An exchange that is seemingly obvious but all too evasive at the same time.