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.

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I believe I’m gonna drown this morning

March 5, 2010

Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” is nominally a ghost story. Perhaps her most celebrated novel, it tells the tale of Sethe, an escaped slave from the American south, who remains haunted by an act of infanticide she was compelled to commit whilst on the run. The pivotal moment in the early sections of the novel centres on the appearance of her daughter’s ghost almost twenty years after she was desperately killed by Sethe. Emerging from the river running alongside her mother’s home, the ghost (who comes to be known as Beloved) arrives to interrupt and stake a powerful claim over Sethe’s new life. I want to reprise this scene of Beloved’s arrival and return in order to listen to it, to listen closely to a music Morrison has at work deep within its structure:

By late afternoon when the carnival was over, and the negroes were hitching rides home if they were lucky – walking if they were not – the woman had fallen asleep again. The rays of the sun struck her full in the face, so that when Sethe, Denver and Paul D rounded the curve in the road all they saw was a black dress, two unlaced shoes below it, and Here Boy nowhere in sight.

“Look,” said Denver. “What is that?”

And, for some reason she could not immediately account for, the moment she got close enough to see the face, Sethe’s bladder filled to capacity. She said, “Oh, excuse me,” and ran around the back of 124. Not since she was a baby girl, being cared for by the eight-year-old girl who pointed out her mother to her, had she had an emergency that unmanageable. She never made the outhouse. Right in front of its door she had to lift her skirts, and the water she voided was endless. Like a horse, she thought, but as it went on and on she thought, No, more like flooding the boat when Denver was born. So much water Amy said, “Hold on, Lu. You going to sink us you keep that up.” But there was no stopping water breaking from a breaking womb and there was no stopping now. She hoped Paul D wouldn’t take it upon himself to come looking for her and be obliged to see her squatting in front of her own privy making a mudhole too deep to be witnessed without shame. Just about the time she started wondering if the carnival should accept another freak, it stopped. She tidied herself and ran around to the porch. No one was there. All three were inside – Paul D and Denver standing before the stranger, watching her drink cup after cup of water.

“She said she was thirsty,” said Paul D. He took off his cap. “Mighty thirst look like.”

The woman gulped water from a speckled tin cup and held it out for more. Four more times Denver filled it, and four more times the woman drank as though she had crossed the desert. When she finished there was a little water on her chin, but she did not wipe it away. Instead she gazed at Sethe with sleepy eyes. Poorly fed, thought Sethe, and younger than her clothes suggested – good lace at the throat, and a rich woman’s hat. Her skin was flawless except three vertical scratches on her forehead so fine and thin they seemed at first like hair, baby hair before it bloomed and roped into the masses of black yarn under her hat.

This is a passage soaked in the trails of amniotic fluid. Morrison has assembled a spectral reimagining of birth. Beloved, the ghost of a child killed too young, has risen from the water with an unquenchable thirst. Conversely her mother, Sethe, is saturated. She is overcome with a need to void, to flush out the water from inside her. Morrison structures this scene by way of implication. A residual connection, a previousness is being named between Beloved and Sethe, but only in the absence of its naming. And it is water – a thirst that needs to be quenched and liquid that needs to be flushed – which carries all this information.

I’m interested in Morrison’s structuring of this passage around the showing of something that is never adequately named, but instead carried by water. In fact, I’m fascinated by how, in the absence of something being said, something being named, a musicality emerges (like water) to fill its space. Morrison, in short, writes this passage in a way that sounds like Aretha Franklin’s “Drown In My Own Tears”. Listen:

“Drown In My Own Tears” is a tale of water substituting for a traumatic absence. A relationship ended, the ties that bind irrecoverably broken, her thirst for affection continually threatens to drench her. Franklin’s performance is defined by a precariousness. A deep breach has been opened and the thirst that follows can only be satisfied by water enough to drown. It is this precariousness which activates the sensory experience of hearing “Drown” rolling into action whilst reading Morrison shape the reencounter between Beloved and Sethe. There is never enough water to fill the void, yet it is also always overflowing. There is always desire for more, but sometimes more is just too much. This then is the monumental achievement of “Beloved”. Morrison is able to build her writing in a way that sounds like Franklin singing in all her profound simplicity.