The Liberating Clarity Of Toni Morrison's Words

The author, who died Monday at age 88, knew language isn’t limitless. But she wrote like it was.

“We die. That may be the meaning of life,” Toni Morrison pronounced in her 1993 lecture for the Nobel Prize in Literature. “But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”

Morrison, a writer who measured life more precisely and profoundly than any other, died at age 88 on Monday night. She published her first book, “The Bluest Eye,” at 39, after years working as a book editor focused on publishing great, often underrecognized, black writers. In the decades that followed she produced masterpiece after masterpiece: “Sula,” “Song of Solomon,” “Tar Baby,” “Beloved” ― eleven novels in all, along with numerous essays, books of history and criticism, a smattering of plays and poems, a handful of children’s books. In 1988, she won the Pulitzer Prize for “Beloved.” In 1993, when she was awarded her Nobel Prize, she became the first black woman to receive the award in any category.

Acclaimed novelist Toni Morrison, pictured in Paris in 2012.
Acclaimed novelist Toni Morrison, pictured in Paris in 2012.
PATRICK KOVARIK via Getty Images

In Morrison’s oft-quoted Nobel lecture — as in much of her other work — mortality and language appeared as the great forces of human existence. Still, as profound as her respect for language was, that respect was predicated on an understanding of its limits. Language fails; language gestures toward that which it cannot embody.

“Language can never ‘pin down’ slavery, genocide, war. Nor should it yearn for the arrogance to be able to do so,” she said in her speech. “Its force, its felicity is in its reach toward the ineffable.”

Death, she reminded us, has no such limits. It comes implacably for us all.

But only an artist so convinced of her tool’s inherent constraints could persuade the rest of us to forget them, to read her writing and feel so free. In her fiction and in her nonfiction, Morrison wrote with the sort of rare, deeply felt precision that slips into a reader’s mind and becomes a voice in their head. She found the exact words to make a difficult truth unfurl in your brain as if you’d unknotted it yourself, as if you’d always known it at your bones.

Even truths that are, in fact, utterly revelatory. Morrison’s novels are, for so many readers, an initiation into a new understanding of art’s possibilities, of black American experience, of motherhood and love, of slavery and hate, of death.

For me, the first revelation was ”Beloved,” the story of a mother, Sethe, so desperate to keep her daughter from being captured and sent back to slavery that she kills her. I read it in college; it was the first novel I’d read that didn’t soft-peddle the horrors of slavery or preach about them in clinical or mildly condescending terms. It grabs you by the throat from the first, unforgettable sentences: “124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom.”

When Paul D., Sethe’s partner, learns that she once killed her child, he is aghast:

“This here Sethe talked about love like any other woman; talked about baby clothes like any other woman, but what she meant could cleave the bone,” he thought. “Your love is too thick,” he tells her, but Sethe doesn’t even know what “thin love” could be. Love is not a cross-stitched motto in Morrison’s work; it can have fangs. It can need those fangs in a way many of us are privileged never to even dream of.

In the foreword of my edition, Morrison writes of how she approached writing ”Beloved: “To render enslavement as a personal experience, language must get out out of the way.”

It’s an odd thing to write about a rendering created entirely of language, but this awareness of how words can obfuscate is what allowed Morrison to wield them with such rapier sharpness. She was allergic to pious platitudes and convenient archetypes. It was the experience, not the language, that came first; it was the sense of being, as she writes in the foreword, “kidnapped, thrown ruthlessly into an alien environment,” and the creeping feeling that “the order and quietude of everyday life would be violently disrupted by the chaos of the needy dead; that the herculean effort to forget would be threatened by memory desperate to stay alive,” that animated the book.

Morrison often said that she wrote not to white people ― not to educate or explain to them ― but to people like those she wrote about. “When that happens, very strangely, or rather, very naturally, what also happens is that you speak to everybody,” she told an audience at Portland State University in 1975. “And even though it begins as inward and private, and gets its own juices from itself, the end result is it’s communication with the world at large.”

By not expecting language to do more than it could, by not allowing it to shape her own view of the world, she constructed a language in service of herself and her subjects and readers. She created a language imbued with a great force, a great clarity, a great persuasiveness. Her words make sense to us, even when they’re describing something previously unimaginable, because she allowed the words to follow truth.

“Language can never ‘pin down’ slavery, genocide, war. Nor should it yearn for the arrogance to be able to do so. Its force, its felicity is in its reach toward the ineffable.””

- Toni Morrison

Amid the election of Donald Trump as president, his “fake news” tirades and news that actually is fake, it became popular to revisit the writings of George Orwell and other (mostly white) dystopian writers, in hopes of comprehending how far a society without a useful language could fall. As my colleague Julia Craven pointed out recently, we should be turning to Toni Morrison. Her passion for keeping language specific, rooted in truth, interiority and experience rather than in a consensus-seeking lockstep, offered a sharp corrective to mealy-mouthed news reporting on the “dry kindling of race relations,” to the poisonous spread of white supremacy through irony, and to the sanctimonious rhetoric that disguises racist policy with an acceptably tolerant veneer.

Her writings through the years have such clarity that they feel immediate, as if written yesterday; decades ago, she unerringly diagnosed societal illnesses that many Americans, especially many white Americans, only noticed symptoms of within the past three years.

“Official language smitheryed to sanction ignorance and preserve privilege is a suit of armor polished to shocking glitter, a husk from which the knight departed long ago,” she said in her Nobel speech. “Yet there it is: dumb, predatory, sentimental. Exciting reverence in schoolchildren, providing shelter for despots, summoning false memories of stability, harmony among the public.”

Often, in these times, language feels like a prison, a distraction, or a broken implement. Morrison’s love for language allowed her to see that it has always been these things, and also that we have the power to turn it into something beautiful, free, and vital.

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