Posted by: Lizzie Ross | September 30, 2010

“How lovely it is”

Song of Solomon (1977). Toni Morrison.

Toni Morrison’s writing always seemed to me to stand astride the border between realism and magical realism. The ghost of Beloved, the sharp truths of The Bluest Eye — Morrison creates worlds at the center of which are African Americans, indelibly marked by the horrors of slavery, worlds in which language plays a crucial role as the characters cope with the magic and reality around them.

The edition of this book from Everyman’s Library (1995) includes an introduction by Reynolds Price (watch Charlie Rose interview him in 2009), a white author from the South who finds himself continually stunned by the power of Morrison’s language. He points to the irony of a book written in English, “as foreign as Hittite to the family line of every character (being a dialect of Anglo-American, though every character springs from African homes and tongues)”. Then, he continues with this second point:

One of the larger final meanings of all this action, all these people, lies in the words you’ve just now read — alien words which these people and their parents subdued in under three hundred years and transformed into a means of freedom as rich and richly endowed with craft and meaning as any anciently-rooted tool or weapon formed by the never-imprisoned races, the never-seized and violated.

In her Nobel Lecture, Morrison addresses the issue of language as well, in her tale of the blind wise woman, for whom the bird (dead? alive?) in the hands of the doubters is a metaphor for language not only under threat for its own life, but also under the control of those who would use it to mock those of whom they disapprove. (Sorry for that long sentence, but these are complex ideas.) Morrison then turns the tale around, challenging the old woman for her refusal to understand the people she assumed had come to challenge her.

Song of Solomon has been challenged by white groups, African American groups, and religious groups for its violence, language, profanity, depiction of African Americans, depiction of explicit sex, etc. How should a writer respond to such challenges? I think Morrison’s Lecture suggests something other than outright rejection, but not quite so naïve as “only connect”. But using language to understand each other — to engage rather than to oppress or reject — is essential to working out the differences between those for whom language is their bread and butter, and those for whom language holds a fearsome power.

The final sentence of Morrison’s Nobel Lecture is something she imagines the blind woman saying to the doubters, after they have come to understand each other better: “How lovely it is, this thing we have done — together.” Note that last word.

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Responses

  1. I’m glad you read this one. Song of Solomon and Beloved are both easily among my favorite works of American literature. Weirdly enough, as a German student, I never really had the chance to encounter them academically until I was taking an American literature class while an exchange student in Germany (I was asked to take the class by the instructor who thought it might be fun to have a genuine American voice in there, which probably didn’t help much for Morrison, but when we got around to Faulkner I could offer something a bit more authentic). Still, even though it was an exceptionally odd circumstance to encounter the book, it was very interesting to see how well it resonated with a foreign audience. So, great choice.

  2. I read Beloved years ago, but this was my first time with Song of Solomon. Both are wrenching books, but sometimes we need to be pulled to attention. Thanks for your comment!


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