Toni Morrison, Nobel Prize-winning author and arguably our First Lady of Letters, passed away last evening, August 5th, at the age of 88.
She left this earth as a new book of essays, The Source of Self-Regard, along with a recently released documentary entitled Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, introduced long-time fans and new readers alike to her towering intellect and broad vision. These works could not have come along at a better time.
Now that she has died, we will have to rely on the power of Morrison’s words; the clarity of her vision for social justice; the love of art, music, and literature that permeates the meditations in The Source of Self-Regard and the interviews in The Pieces I Am more than ever.
At the end of “Peril,” the very first offering in The Source of Self-Regard, Morrison makes the bold statement that, “A writer’s life and work are not a gift to mankind; they are its necessity.” And through 350 pages of speeches, essays, and meditations, she shows why.
There are 43 pieces in The Source of Self-Regard, and they cover a range of topics that are all timely in an age of disinformation, fake news, and a willing disregard for the power of language to bring empathy and healing. Speaking of the limitations of rage in an address delivered to Amnesty International entitled “The War on Error,” Morrison writes,
“Rage has limited uses and serious flaws. It cuts off reason and displaces constructive action with mindless theatre. Besides, absorbing the lies, untruths, both transparent and nuanced, of governments, their hypocrisy so polished it does not even care if it is revealed, can lead to a wearied and raveled mind.
We live in a world where justice equals vengeance. Where private profit drives public policy. Where the body of civil liberties, won cell by cell, bone by bone, by the brave and the dead withers in the searing heat of ‘all war, all the time,’ and, where facing eternal war, respect for, even interest in, humanitarian solutions can dwindle.”
In a beautiful eulogy to James Baldwin, Morrison wrote that the author “made American English honest — genuinely international….You stripped it of ease and false comfort and fake innocence and evasion and hypocrisy. And in place of deviousness was clarity; in place of soft, plump lies was a lean, targeted power….You replaced lumbering platitudes with an upright elegance.”
The same could be said of Morrison.
Both the book and film give us a chance to see a wise mind at work. In the documentary, the most illuminating insights come when Morrison is talking directly into the camera. In several of the essays she touches on the process she went through in writing her novels. It is fascinating reading for anyone who cares about how writing becomes wisdom. In reference to the writing of Beloved, the Nobel Laureate notes that her work with the historical books of slavery led her into a trap of confusing data with information and knowledge with hunches, so much so that overcoming her arrogance about how much she knew was her first obstacle.
“What I needed was imagination to shore up the facts, the data, and not be overwhelmed by them. Imagination that personalized information, made it intimate, but didn’t offer itself as a substitute. If imagination could be depended on for that, then there was a possibility of knowledge. Wisdom, of course, I would leave alone, and rely on the readers to produce that.”
Relying on her readers as active participants in her writing reflects the sentiments put forth by author Rebecca Solnit, who once said, “The object we call a book is not the real book, but its seed or potential, like a music score. It exists fully only in the act of being read; and its real home is inside the head of the reader, where the seed germinates, the symphony resounds. A book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another.” In a perceptive essay entitled, “Invisible Ink: Reading the Writing and Writing the Reading,” Morrison points to the fact that the text and the reader have another party involved in interpretation — the author.
“What I could not clearly articulate (in an earlier essay) was the way in which a reader participates in the text — not how she interprets it, but how she helps to write it. (Very much like singing: there are the lyrics, the score, and then the performance — which is the individual’s contribution to the piece.)
Invisible ink is what lies under, between, outside the lines, hidden until the right reader discovers it….The reader who is ‘made for’ the book is the one attuned to the invisible ink….
Withdrawing metaphor and simile is just as important as choosing them. Leading sentences can be written to contain buried information that completes, invades, or manipulates the reading. The unwritten is as significant as the written. And the gaps that are deliberate, and deliberately seductive, when filled by the ‘right’ reader, produce the text in its entirety and attest to its living life. . . .
Clearly, the opening sentence of Paradise is a blatant example of invisible ink. ‘They shot the white girl first, and then took their time with the rest.'”
There is so much to stimulate and challenge the reader in both this masterful book and the timely documentary. The sweeping search for truth is formidable and worth the effort. Because, as Morrison notes in her meditation on memory,
“…the crucial distinction for me is not the difference between fact and fiction, but the distinction between fact and truth. Because facts can exist without human intelligence, but truth cannot.”
Toni Morrison, rest in peace.
More to come…