"The Meaning of Toni Morrison"

When it was announced that Toni Morrison was the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature last October, the world cheered. It was a magical moment—a surprisingly anticipated moment. While we hadn’t expected it or waited for it, the awarding of the Nobel Prize to Morrison felt exactly right when it happened. It is probably fair to say, in fact, that awarding the Noble Prize in Literature to Toni Morrison was a “coronation” for a writer who by all standards is considered the most gifted writer of our generation.

Morrison has a wide following. She is loved, read, and quoted not only by literary scholars but also by other writers, by ministers, lawyers, social workers, anthropologists, historians, musicians, and lay individuals the world over. The interpretive and transformative powers of her work are encompassing; the middle passage, slavery, urban alienation: traditional community values, male female relationships, ethnic belonging; love, loneliness, memory, healing, and recovery are all addressed in the world of her fiction. She is challenging to read; her innovative command of language has us always reaching beyond the linear, the ordinary, and the comfortable. Her courage to suggest the radical, the unexpected, the irrational—challenging the victimization of Black men; drawing Black women as larger than life; positing the return of ghosts, the anger of trees, the absence of navels, the flight of men, the affection of birds; and the naming and revealing of racism in the most haunting and personal of ways—evokes not only awe and admiration but also ire, disbelief, and confusion in many of her readers. Still, when we want the poetic, the insightful, the visionary for our time, when we want to summon the bard to tell our epic story, Toni Morrison’s is the name we will call.

Why we view Morrison this way, why she has become a literary icon in our contemporary culture, attracting and inspiring such a wide following is a question worth pondering. For if we can begin to discover why Morrison appeals to us in this way and what her works mean to us individually and collectively, perhaps we can begin to understand more about our needs as a society and the role of the writer in the contemporary world.

In the ancient sense of the term the writer is a “seer,” one who has the vision to tell the people in narrative and verse what is happening to them, one who can see, interpret, and record the “once-upon-a-timeness,” as Morrison calls it, of our lives. Such an individual has always been a valued member of the society—from the African’s griot, to he Hebrews’ David, to the Greek’s Homer. The randomness and chaos of the lived life is made clearer to us with the order and clarifying distance provided by he writer’s verse and story—even if we don’t always agree with that ordered vision. The writer’s remembrances become the record books of our human complexity and possibility, their metaphors the keys, their imaginings the vision through which we understand and interpret our world.

We are a nation hungry for such reflective interpretation. Part of the American heritage is in living lives so fast, so forward-looking that we have little time or inclination to look back to see what our lives have meant or where, because of their particular turns, our collective lives have placed us upon the stage of human drama. This has been especially true for African Americans—so preoccupied have they been with the work of having to support the web of national life on their shoulders on the one hand and of being suffocated by its stifling weight on the other—that they have not been able to stand back from it to see their central meaning in its making. Morrison has provided that vision and that interpretation of the lives of African Americans. In fact, that has been the major focus of her work: “I am concerned in all of my writing with the elaborately socialized world of Black people…I think long and carefully about what my novels ought to do. They should clarify the roles that have become obscured; they ought to identify those things in the past that are useful and those things that are not, they ought to give nourishment.” And in so doing, in showing the philosophical and metaphorical, indeed, the triumphant possibilities of the lives of African Americans—those historically discredited in the society—she has not only validated and provided interpretive meaning for their lives, but she has also shown in the examples of transformation in the lives of the discredited, the healing possibility of the writers visionary interpretation of humanity in the lives of others. For those who read and truly understand the interpretation that Morrison has given to African American lives, the result has been a renewed vision, a calming, a lifting up, a joyfulness in the knowledge that despite an historical intention to discredit them by the larger society and despite their own lack of a self-conscious knowledge of the metaphorical and, indeed, mythical implications of their lives, African Americans have, indeed, been living just that kind of life: mythical and metaphorical, central to the unfolding of the American drama and, indeed, the drama of the world.

From self-hatred to self-discovery, from flights of suicide to protective killings, from children’s games to women’s friendships, from lost love to madness, from classconflicted romance to family quarrels, from the middle passage to life in the urban 20s, Morrison has, in six powerful novels, brought a larger, interpretive meaning to all the large and small taken-for-granted and misunderstood aspects of African American life and history. As the Thirty-Mile Woman did for Sixo in Beloved, Morrison “gathers [us], the pieces that [we are], she gather[s] them and give[s] them back to us in all the right order.”

Morrison is also important to us because, in a world where language is limited and abused, destructive and despairing, she restores for us the good, transformative qualities of language—its wonder, its power, and its magic. Morrison takes seriously the crafting of words: running them together, leaving spaces, inverting their normal order, revealing their origins, echoing the syncopated rhythms of music with them. “I try to clean up the language,” she says, “and give words back their original meaning, not the one that’s sabotaged by constant use…. If you work very carefully, you can clean up ordinary words and repolish them make [them] seem alive again.” From proper names to nick names, from chants to echoes, from common words to the nonsensical, from open spaces to word remnants, Morrison makes us pay attention to what we do, and what we can do with words.

This “word work,” as she calls it, is perhaps her greatest gift—making us see extraordinary meaning in our lives with the ordinary words that we have spoken for generations. She invites us in-- to dramas that not only provide us an understanding of the possibility and complexity of our humanness, but dramas that also awaken us to the connotative and denotative, the aural and visual potential and beauty of language. Morrison gives us language so meticulously crafted in her novels that we stand in awe of both the “means and the end,” the construction and the effect, of the artifacts she creates. That we can see the “well-wroughtness” of the text again, see the value and possibility of self-conscious manipulation of the language—its aesthetic beauty, its embedded meaning and transformative power—is what excites us and attracts us to Morrison’s work. We listen again, we play with the language again, we respect its potential again.

And finally, and perhaps most importantly, Morrison provides for all of us, a society so eager to debunk myths and cut to the quick our history and our heroes, a renewed faith in the power of the mythical. Nearly all possibility for the magic, the wonder, and the exemplary in our individual lives has been lost in the debunking. Morrison restores the regenerative, spiritual, and instructive power of myth not only to explain the present, but also, to explain the past and chart our future. “I want to dust off the myths,” she says, “make them mean whatever they may have meant originally.” In a world that daily reduces us to the finite, the seen, the immediate, the “blood-and-guts” version of ourselves, where we value neither the large myths of the ancestors nor the small magic of individual lives, we want someone to believe that the larger drama goes on, that we are a part of it, and that there is meaning in the individual lives we lead. We want someone with the historical, moral, and creative authority who not only believes in the possibility of our lives but who can also show us in story that the drama can still be performed and still be useful. By crafting her fiction so carefully and believing, as she does, that stories can affect how we live our individual lives, how we understand history, and how we see and interpret the lives of others and move toward the future, Morrison has given back to us one of our most precious human resources: the narrative—the tool we humans use to bring order and meaning to our lives.

That we are charmed by Morrison’s mythologizing of the lives of the individuals in her stories, even as we live in a society that daily seeks to strip the mythical from our lives, that, indeed, we desire the mythic, indicates an important contradiction in our contemporary lives: that even as our popular and political culture seeks to destroy the mythic, we, as a human tribe, still yearn for and are drawn to a writer who proclaims myth’s power. We are drawn to Morrison’s belief that, even in misdirection and confusion, in triumph and despair, our lives mean something, connect us to something that is as old and certain as the universe.

So we as a nation celebrate the anniversary of Morrison having been named the winner of the 1993 Nobel Prize for Literature and contemplate what it means to have one of our own as a Nobel Laureate in these contemporary times, let us cheer, again, and say “Thank you, Toni Morrison.” For we are fortunate to have in our midst a writer who dares to engage again the ancient role of writer as “seer” and tell us, in human terms, what is happening to us; who dares to call attention again to the embedded power and beauty of language; who dares to lift our lives beyond the nakedness and hopelessness of the newsreel and recasts us clothed in the hopefulness of all our mythical possibilities; one, finally, who dares to make the work of writing imaginative stories a beautiful, healing, and transformative act in our world. -Carolyn Denard -Reprint from TMS Newsletter Spring 1994 Vo1. No.2