Last Thursday, Cornell welcomed back author and professor Toni Morrison MFA ’55 for a public conversation about her novels and other works. Prof. Morrison, Robert F. Goheen Professor of English, Princeton University has been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama and the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for her novel Beloved. She is the second American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. Africana Center Director Prof. Gerard Aching M.A. ’90 Ph. D. ’91, German studies, set the stage for what would be an intimate conversation-style interview between Morrison and long-time colleague Prof. Claudia Brodsky, Princeton University, Comparative Literature, saying, “personal empathies are rare, valuable and worthy of celebration.”
Opening the discussion, Brodsky declared an appreciation of Cornell’s special awareness of the fact that “the literary imagination has to do with the lives we lead, and not just in an abstract way.” This served as an apt segue into Morrison’s memories of her time as a student. Of her decision to come to Cornell, she stated that there were three main reasons: the faculty — she “remember[s] at least three of them” — the beauty of the seasons in Ithaca and Cornell’s “pink” and liberal” reputation, largely spurred by its notoriously non-denominational Sage Chapel. She reflected fondly, paused for a moment and then asked, “The agricultural school … is that still here?”
As Morrison began to discuss her recent lecture series at the Harvard Divinity School, entitled “Goodness, Altruism and the Literary Imagination,” she sought to dispel the notion that evil is more interesting than goodness in literature. Morrison stated that goodness in literature is “personified very often as mute,” while the theatricality of evil grants it a “blockbuster audience.” “Evil has vivid speech; goodness bites its tongue,” she said, citing the many ways in which the glamorous portrayal of evil throughout literary history has overshadowed that of goodness. “I was always a little bit bored by demonstrations of evil,” Morrison said. “It always relies on the same things — a top hat and a cane, maybe a little theme music. But goodness doesn’t have anything because it can’t use anything.”
“Good” characters, she remarked, are “never clever or sophisticated or educated.” It’s a trend related directly, she thinks, to World War One and “certainly World War Two”— events which construed goodness as trivial. What Morrison gets at here is the very predication of postmodern literature, which asserts that violent, catastrophic events such as World War Two, the Holocaust, the dropping of the atomic bomb and more recently, the attacks on the World Trade Center have shattered perceptions of human beings as basically good and undermined the ability of art to express what is truly noble. Theodore Adorno once said, “To write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric,” and Walter Benjamin once wrote, “The art of storytelling is reaching its end because the epic side of truth, wisdom, is dying out.” Morrison’s narratives have all striven to find a way to push against this perceived absence of goodness, be it through the bildungsroman of A Mercy, the story of a sacrificial scapegoat in Sula, or the homecoming epic of her most recent novel, Home. “Goodness is really and truly hard,” Morrison said, explaining that “trying to find words for it is all [she has] ever really known.”
But when Brodsky asked her friend if she found there to be anything different about very recent literature, she said she didn’t think so. In fact, she said she has not really read a lot of contemporary literature. This admission was more than a little worrisome. In a Paris Review interview, Morrison responded to a question about whether or not, as a child, she had known that she wanted to be a writer. She responded, “No. I wanted to be a reader. I thought everything that needed to be written already been written or would be. I only wrote the first book because I thought it wasn’t there, and I wanted to read it when I got through.” What has happened to that “or would be?” Has she given up thinking that that hope can be realized?
Of what recent literature she has read, Morrison said there was sometimes beautiful language, but the “thrust and effort is toward trying to describe something corrupt or lacking,” and that it was all just “too easy.” While it’s easy to see where she’s coming from — contemporary neuroses do little but shift the blame for evil, and much of the current literature falls somewhere between helplessly angry and completely irrelevant — it is a little insulting to insist that there is no one else out there writing about goodness. What about Dave Eggers, who is often cited as someone who picks up where Hemingway leaves off and puts in what he left out? Who wrote, in his novel What is the What, “How blessed are we to have each other? I am alive and you are alive and so we must fill the air with our words. I will fill today, tomorrow, everyday until I am taken back to God.” What about Miranda July and Jennifer Egan and Cornell’s own MFA candidate Stevie Edwards who writes, in her poem “Goodbye to the Poetics of Recklessness”: “Keep every death you’ve hoarded in me. I don’t need your gaudy chandeliers of ‘just one more time.’ I can close my eyes and be filled with light.” Morrison complains of the glamour of evil in our writings, but there are writers today whose work says and sometimes nearly shouts that peace can be glamorous, too.
Beloved, the novel that earned Morrison her Pulitzer, tells the story of a slave who, upon impending capture, kills her infant daughter to spare her the pain of slavery. Brodsky referenced a conversation that she and Morrison had previously, saying “you had trouble finding a couple of sentences in your own text in which the act of infanticide is committed.” Morrison says she didn’t realize this while she was writing, but that afterwards, it made sense because structure is message: “the act that those kinds of sentences represent was already done and had already happened. What’s more interesting is how could it happen and what is next?” The same applies to Paradise, in which the first sentence is “They shot the white girl first.” We never find out which girl is the white girl and, therefore, the predominant act of violence is buried in the text. “I don’t want you to think about the thing,” Morrison says, stumbling over these words of emphasis. “I always thought that evil needed the drumroll and that is because it is not interesting — it is only devastating.”
Brodsky then asked Morrison about her play Desdemona, written as a post-script to Shakespeare’s Othello and occurring in the after-life of its main characters. The biggest twist to this addendum is the removal of the character of Iago. Morrison says he weighs the original play down—he is constantly talking, and he represents the “white gaze.” Challenging her on this point, Brodsky asked “whose eye, whose language,” is viewing and telling the story. Here she brought the discussion back to the “African-American novel”— what it is, what it should be, what is usually isn’t. What it is usually, she says, is either a defense or an aggressive attack of an oppressor. But if you take out the oppressor completely, “an open world appears.”
Morrison then spoke about a moment in her novel Home when goodness finally speaks, with a character breaking down and near-shouting, “Inside you is that free person. Locate her and let her do some good in the world. ” The force of the revelation as it is foisted upon the main character is, “you’re a girl, you’re black, you’re young, and that might be problematic to you. But you’re a person.” It’s a point that we, tragically, are still not done making. Oppression of any one member, any one subgroup, of mankind, diminishes us all. It’s not about sympathy, it’s about empathy — derived from a recognition of the absolute arbitrariness with which these oppressions have been assigned and administered; that is, based on randomly selected specifics of a lowercase “h,” lowercase “c,” human condition.
One of the most important relationships in Morrison’s play Desdemona is between the title character and her nurse and servant, Barbary. Morrison abandoned the name “Barbary” for a “new Mali name,” after realizing that it is a word that is used “when people really want to say Africa.” In truth, the history of the word “barbarian” is closely tied to the geographical term Barbary, to the “Berbers” of North Africa, and the Latin word “barbaricum,” meaning “land of the barbarians.” But the Greek “barbaroi” means simply “those who do not speak one’s own language,” and in recent literature it has been used predominantly to imply wordlessness, or silencing by exclusion. Desdemona thinks that she and Barbary were always friends, to which Barbary replies, “You don’t even know my name.”“But,” she says, “I have thought long and hard about my sorrow. No more willow. Afterlife is time and with time there is change. My song is new.”
Morrison’s emphasis on names is not reserved only for the politically-renamed Barbary. Desdemona herself tells us that her name means “doomed,” or even “death. But she also notes, “I am not the meaning of a name I did not choose.” She loved Othello for his stories, the ones that Shakespeare never told and Morrison now tackles. Of her own life she says it was “shaped by my choices, and it was mine.” What is implied here is said explicitly in Prof. Aching’s introduction: Reading and writing have a literal capacity “to build historical complexities.” Morrison conveyed with awe to the audience in Statler Auditorium that the native language of Rokia Traoré, the Malian composer and singer who wrote the music for Desdemona, is Bombara — a spoken-only language. In order to perform her music publicly, to have the lyrics passed around and projected, Traoré had to translate an unwritten language. Morrison doesn’t know for sure, but she imagines Traroré must have developed a way to write it down so that she could create these translations. Just for herself. It is, she feels, the only explanation.
“We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives,” Morrison stated in her 1993 Nobel lecture. Her gift as an author comes from the way she doggedly researches the time periods and people that history has forgotten in order to give voice to those who are unable or as-of-yet unwilling to find and take it for themselves. It is also found in the way she encourages us all to “do language.” “Make up a story,” she said in her Nobel lecture. She means it indiscriminately: “For our sake and yours, forget your name in the street; 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.”
To borrow a phrase from her work, she is “doing the good that God refuses,” giving something that is more interesting, more “hard-won,” more altruistic than silence, more glamorous than the evil of silence. In short, she is translating goodness.