- 1 Toni Morrison, Paradise, 1997.
Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge. […] Sexist language, racist language, theistic language–all are typical of the policing languages of mastery, and cannot, do not permit new knowledge or encourage the mutual exchange of ideas. […]
Language can never live up to life once and for all. Nor should it. […] Its force, its felicity is in its reach toward the ineffable.
Toni Morrison, Nobel Lecture, 1993
1In her famous speech “Ain’t I a Woman?,” illiterate but charismatic former slave and black abolitionist Sojourner Truth firmly instituted a womanist tradition of theological questioning when she took the podium to defend the dignity of women against theological attacks from a group of ministers:
I have heard much about the sexes being equal. I can carry as much as any man, and can eat as much too, if I can get it. […] As for intellect, all I can say is, if woman have a pint, and a man a quart—why can’t she have her little pint full? You need not be afraid to give us our rights for fear we will take too much,—for we can’t take more than our pint’ll hold. […] Why children, if you have woman’s rights, give it to her and you will feel better. You will have your own rights, and they won’t be so much trouble. I can’t read but I can hear. I have heard the bible and have learned that Eve caused man to sin. Well, if woman upset the world, do give her a chance to set it right side up again. The Lady has spoken about Jesus, how he never spurned woman from him, and she was right. When Lazarus died, Mary and Martha came to him with faith and love and besought him to raise their brother. And Jesus wept and Lazarus came forth. And how came Jesus into the world? Through God who created him and a woman who bore him. Man, where is your part? (Truth 198)
2Truth’s stance may be labelled womanist in the sense Alice Walker gave to the word in the epigraph to her 1983 collection of essays In Search of our Mothers” Gardens: a spiritedand spiritual individual, the womanist is “a black feminist or feminist of color” both characterized by her “outrageous, audacious, courageous or willful behavior” and her commitment to the “survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female,” who “Loves the Spirit” but also “loves love and food and roundness. Loves struggle. Loves the Folk. Loves herself. Regardless” (Walker xi). “Not a separatist, except periodically, for health,” the womanist is a balanced fighter for personal and relational integrity, whose quest for wholeness is rooted in her spiritual awareness of reality. Tinged with humour, Walker’s definition perfectly fits Truth’s speech, whose mixture of common sense and bravado actually questioned the fundamental sexist arguments regarding women’s alleged inferiority, notably the most potent Christian stigmatization of woman as the cause of human evil. The distinctive spiritual quality of this black tradition of feminist theological struggle as it developed in later African American fiction written by women is what this essay would like to examine, notably through the now iconic work of Toni Morrison.
- 2 See also Baker’s seminal study, Workings of the Spirit. The Poetics of Afro-American Women’s Writi (...)
- 3 Quoted in Carolyn A. Mitchell’s “I Love to Tell the Story: Biblical Revisions in Beloved,” (Iyaser (...)
- 4 Brian McHale, Postmodernist Fiction, New York : Methuen, 1987.
- 5 We are here generalizing Mitchell’s specific remark about Sethe:
“If […] Sethe’s calvary is the mur (...)
3In “There Is No More Beautiful Way: Theory and Poetics of Afro-American Women’s Writing,” Houston A. Baker Jr. would seem to support this approach of Morrison’s fiction when he suggests that “the success of a poetics of Afro-American women’s writing should be measured by the extent to which such an enterprise […] offers broadly comprehensive analyses of the guiding spirituality to be discovered in the imagistic fields of black women’s writing” (Baker 154).2 In Morrison’s fiction, this “guiding spirituality” may best be labelled “combative” both in the sense of her womanist struggle to deconstruct the sexist and racist interpretations of the Fall and in Cornel West’s use of the terms, “which describe the tangible struggle between body and soul—not as the traditional religious battle of one to overcome the other, but the more challenging struggle of the two to work in tandem with each other.’3 Culminating in Consolata’s claim (used as the title to this essay) that Eve and Mary should never be severed nor opposed, Morrison’s deconstructive strategy regarding the Fall is one side of her arguably postmodern strategy: as Ann-Janine Morey argues, quoting Brian McHale,4 “push epistemological questions far enough and they “tip over” into ontological questions” (Morey 256). In Morrison’s case, the “tipping” point comes less as a radicalization of modernism’s “intractable epistemological uncertainty” (ibid.) than as a redemptive revelation, once traditional racist and sexist prejudices have been disposed of. Standing “on the threshold of enlightenment” (Powell 150), Morrison’s predominantly female characters then enter an experience that seems to answer the “vexed issue” of their resurrection (Mitchell 183).5
4Initially, Morrison seems chiefly concerned with the Fall as a destructive social ideology of exclusion, targeting black women. At this point, Northrop Frye’s analysis of the ideological use of myths appears quite relevant:
An ideology starts by providing its own version of whatever in its traditional mythology it considers relevant, and uses this version to form and enforce a social contract. An ideology is thus an applied mythology, and its adaptations of myths are the ones that, when we are inside an ideological structure, we must believe, or say we believe. Belief, in its usual sense, does not go beyond a declaration of adherence to an ideology. […] Persecution and intolerance result from an ideology’s determination, as expressed through its priesthood […] backed up by its ascendant class in general, to make its mythological canon the only possible one to commit oneself to, all others being denounced as heretical […] or evil. This means that there is a strong resistance within an ideology to placing its excluded initiative, the myth it lives by, into focus and examining it in a broader perspective. (Frye 23-4)
- 6 We are here referring to the strong imprint of the Calvinistic dogma on US culture.
5Now, placing the myth of the Fall, which mainstream U.S. society seems to live by,6 into focus appears to be precisely what Morrison’s fiction is intent on doing.
6In The Bluest Eye, for a start, Morrison substitutes good looks for morality so as to expose the destructive character of WASP norms. The postlapsarian setting first signals the racist use of the myth with its subtle shift from moral to aesthetic values (eventually causing their conflation): in this story of a little black girl’s obsession with getting blue eyes, the sign of beauty in her segregated social environment, black people’s cardinal sin appears to be ugliness.
- 7 Owing to the number of Morrison’s novels studied, the title/page system will be preferred to the a (...)
You looked at them and wondered why they were so ugly; you looked closely and could not find the source. Then you realized that it came from conviction, their conviction. It was as though some mysterious all-knowing master had given each one a cloak of ugliness to wear, and they had each accepted it without question. The master had said, “You are ugly people.” They had looked about themselves and saw nothing to contradict the statement; saw, in fact, support for it leaning at them from every billboard, every movie, every glance. (Bluest Eye 38-9)7
7The predictable wages of sin are banishment and exclusion from Paradise. Accordingly, Pecola’s family lives on the margins of society in a nondescript place contrasting with the model WASP home, whose description serves as an opening to the novel. Unsurprisingly, the knowledge the Breedloves acquire from not living up to this white ideal is the gospel of racial inferiority and exclusion, which breeds a perverted kind of love based on self-hatred and culminates in incest and schizophrenia for the young heroine.
8Probably Morrison’s only dystopian novel, The Bluest Eye examines the perversity of a social mechanism resting on the exclusionary power structure of the biblical Fall while promoting what the myth purportedly denounces: the body. In fact, the bluest eye is an apt metaphor for a society whose vision seems totally conditioned by its idea of perfection as determined by physicality. At the same time, the black characters are prevented from taking part in this Eden of physical perfection at key moments when their sensuality or physical appearance causes them indelible shame—a feeling traditionally associated with the Fall. This is the case for Cholly, the heroine’s father, whose pleasurable sexual initiation is cut short by the sneering gaze of white men or for his wife, Pauline, who blames her “general feeling of separateness and unworthiness” on her deformed foot (ibid.) and will later perceive the degradation of her private life to have started when she lost her front tooth (108). Couched in explicit biblical imagery, the destruction of Pauline’s marital happiness—a prelapsarian feeling of harmony conveyed through the image of the “rainbow inside” that she experiences after making love with Cholly (121)—signals the defeat of the body and the triumph of the moral persona:
She came into her own with the women who had despised her, by being more moral than they. […] She joined a church where shouting was frowned upon […] and became a member of Ladies Circle No 1. […] Holding Cholly as a model of sin and failure, she bore him like a crown of thorns, and her children like a cross. (117)
9Eve turned Christly martyr, she welcomes redeeming responsibility in the home of a well-to-do family, where she finds “beauty, order, cleanliness, and praise” (118), all the while “equating physical beauty with virtue” and forgetting “lust and simple caring for” when it comes to her own family (113). The paradoxical result for such a worshipper of physical beauty as saintliness is her own daughter’s wish for physical disintegration, a response to domestic violence and lack of love.
“Please, God,” [Pecola] whispered into the palm of her hand. “Please make me disappear.” She squeezed her eyes shut. Little parts of her body faded away. […] Only her tight, tight eyes were left. They were always left. (44)
10Placing this examination of the Fall myth back onto the moral terrain, Sula questions the Christian sinner/saint dichotomy typical of theological female characterization by confronting the vile temptress Eve to the virtuous mother Mary through the complex moral duo formed by Nel and Sula.
11Explicitly structured around the myth of the Fall, the plot outlines the evolution of the two female characters” friendship from the edenic time of their childhood bond to their separation in adulthood. As children, Nel and Sula experience the ecstasy of twin souls, who had first met in dreams “that always included a presence, a someone, who, quite like the dreamer, shared the delight of the dream” (Sula 52). “Daughters of distant mothers and incomprehensible fathers […], [who] found in each other’s eyes the intimacy they were looking for” (ibid.), the little girls” resemblance is at first only qualified by one sign, the portent of future moral division: Sula’s Cain mark over one of her eyes, a birthmark that “was to grow darker as the years passed” (53).
12“In the safe harbour of each other’s company” and “joined in mutual admiration” of life as they “watch each day as though it were a movie arranged for their amusement” (55), Nel and Sula enjoy a prelapsarian experience of moral innocence that is abruptly interrupted by Chicken Little’s death when he slips from Sula’s hands and drowns in the river. From then on, Nel will silently endorse the role of the innocent witness, leaving Sula to carry alone the entire moral burden of the accident. Completing the Fall, Nel’s marriage to Jude coincides with Sula’s departure, a slow process of division that will culminate when Sula returns and has a short affair with Jude. From then on, Nel will behave as the righteous wronged victim, while Sula espouses the role of sinner. This is made clear in the comparison of Sula’s attitude to life with a deliberate fortunate fall:
Nel was the first person who had been real to her, whose name she knew, who had seen as she had the slant of life that made it possible to stretch it to its limits. Now Nel was one of them. One of the spiders whose only thought was the next rung of the web, who dangled in dark dry places suspended by their own spittle, more terrified of the free fall than the snake’s breath below. […] But the free fall, […] that required—demanded—invention: a thing to do with the wings, a way of holding the legs and most of all a full surrender to the downward flight if they wished to taste their tongues or stay alive. (108-9)
13Far from a curse, the fall thus appears as the condition for staying alive. This likening of Sula’s experimental way of living to a free fall is most apparent in the passages describing her feelings during lovemaking.
During the lovemaking she found and needed to find the cutting edge. When she left off co-operating with her body and began to assert herself in the act, particles of strength gathered in her […] forming a tight cluster […]. But the cluster did break, fall apart, and in her panic to hold it together she leaped from the edge into soullessness and went down howling, howling in a stinging awareness of the endings of things. […] There, in the centre of that silence was not eternity but the death of time and a loneliness so profound the word itself had no meaning. For loneliness assumed the absence of other people, and the solitude she found in that desperate terrain had never admitted the possibility of other people. (111)
14A rewriting of sex as the traditionally postlapsarian experience, the description totally eschews classic moral imagery to delve deeper into the experience of ontological solitude, unveiling the symbolic meaning of the Fall. The “tipping point,” when the deconstruction of the myth as social ideology gives way before its ontological significance as lived experience, is reached. Accordingly, Sula Peace is not cast into the flaming pit but dies a peaceful—if lonely—death, in keeping with her name. Completing this ideological revision of the Fall, Nel “Wright,” whose dutiful life as mother and wife is consistently opposed to Sula’s a-moral celibacy, is finally made to confront her own evil, “the good feeling she had had” (151) when she watched Chicken Little drown through Sula’s accidental fault. The novel thus ends on no easy Manichaeism with Nel’s nostalgic cry in remembrance of her dead childhood friend dealing the final blow to a crumbling sense of moral hierarchy:
“We was girls together,” she said as though explaining something. “O Lord, Sula,” she cried, “girl, girl, girlgirlgirl.”
It was a fine cry—loud and long—but it had no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow. (154)
15Sula thusconcludes on a powerful redemptive vision based on the transcendence of moral categorization. Heralding Consolata’s major spiritual teaching in Paradise—”Eve is Mary’s mother. Mary is the daughter of Eve’—, this ontological quest appears to inform the structure of the next novel, Song of Solomon, which continues Sula’s exploration of the Fall as the human experience of essential alienation. Actually, set in between two falls-cum-flights that respectively open and close the novel, the story of the male protagonist’s identity quest appears to rest on the examination of the dichotomy between life and death.
16Defined by his oxymoronic name, Milkman Dead is born on the day of Life Insurance agent Robert Smith’s death to a family of suppressed desires and stifled emotions, embodying their last name through the daily routine of a loveless life. Having discovered, at four, “that only birds and airplanes could fly” and consequently “lost all interest in himself” (Song of Solomon 9), the little boy still grows from lame duckling (one of his legs being shorter than the other) to eagle as he gradually uncovers the secret of the original feud that caused his family to split into the household of deathly rule (his father’s) and that of unregulated life (his aunt’s). A rewriting of the Cain and Abel story, the brother and sister’s discord appears to have been caused by their opposite reactions to the white social gospel of material success and ownership, with Milkman’s father as its disciple at odds with his eccentric, rebellious bootlegger of a sister, Pilate.
17An androgynous figure as a woman who bears the name of the male figure responsible for the death of God’s Son and famed for her lack of a navel—the physical consequence of her self-birth after she came out of her mother’s dead body—, Pilate is implicitly raised to the symbolic level of a God-like rebel. What she rebels against is the white materialistic credo, which her brother Macon fully surrenders to in his quest for social recognition. In turn, Pilate’s marginal stance amounts to treason in her brother’s eyes, who attempts to warn his son away from her as the very embodiment of evil:
“That woman’s no good. She’s a snake, and can charm you like a snake, but still a snake. […] Ever hear the story about the snake? The man who saw a little baby snake on the ground? […] He fed it and took care of it till it was big and strong. […] Then one day, the snake turned on him and bit him. […] And while he was laying there dying, he turned to the snake and asked him, “What’d you do that for?” […] The snake said, […] “But you knew I was a snake, didn’t you?” Now I mean for you to stay […] as far away from Pilate as you can.” (54-5)
- 8 For an in-depth analysis of the novel as a conversion narrative, see David Z. Wehner, “To Live Thi (...)
18Disobeying the God-like authority of his father’s injunction will be Milkman’s first act of self-assertion. Like Sula’s, his will prove to be a fortunate fall paradoxically yielding the secret of life, without creating the ontological vacuum that marks Sula’s experience: as he makes Pilate his spiritual guide on his identity quest, in keeping with the other dimension of her name (“Pilate/pilot” 19), Milkman experiences a personal conversion8 away from his father’s materialistic credo to the progressive realization of the true spiritual worth of his supposedly evil relative. “[Pilate] sighed. “Watch Reba for me.” And then, “I wish I’d a knowed more people. I would of loved “em all. If I’d knowed more, I would a loved more.”’(336)
19A true expression of Charity, Pilate’s dying wish is a symbolic key to the numerous flight metaphors permeating the novel, as her nephew realizes her profound spirituality together with the meaning of his own wish to fly: “Now [Milkman] knew why he loved her so. Without ever leaving the ground, she could fly” (336). Opening up to the redeeming power of love, he is ready to surrender to death “in the killing arms of his brother,” Guitar—a childhood friend antagonized by his own greed and class prejudice—in a Christ-like gesture that makes his final fall a symbolic resurrection:
[Milkman] could just make out Guitar’s head and shoulders in the dark. “You want my life? […] You need it? Here.” […] He leaped. As fleet and bright as a lodestar he wheeled toward Guitar and it did not matter which of them would give up his ghost in the killing arms of his brother. For now he knew what Shalimar knew : If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it. (337)
20Running counter to the postmodern radicalization of modernist epistemological uncertainty already pointed out, Morrison’s revision of the Fallthusleads in the direction of ontological knowledge, effecting her conscious aimtowrite fiction that “enlightens; […] opens the door and points the way” (Wehner 78). Based on the deconstruction of the usual reading of the Fall, hers is what Ann-Janine Morey would term “feminist postmodernism”:
It might be helpful to think of postmodernism in at least two forms, an oxymoronic “traditional postmodernism” and an ambiguously situated “feminist postmodernism.” The former postmodernism is “traditional” despite its experimentation with form-meaning structures, because the masculinist postmodernism I’ve been surveying retains its lock upon traditional gender constructions. […] In short, while traditional postmodernism postures about challenging conventional language and ontological structures, feminist postmodernism and women’s writing actually does so. (Morey 258-61)
21One could easily argue that, without posturing about challenging conventional patriarchal bourgeois values and canonical theology, Song of Solomon actually does so. Besides, this “problematizing [of] all notions of absolute authority,” which, Morey argues, “women’s writing, along with African American and Native American writing, has been particularly effective in” (260), could also serve as an apt introduction to Morrison’s next novel, Tar Baby. Staging the fall of the white master’s house, it is also adept at countering essentializing gender definitions.
22Once again, the myth of the Fall is taken up in the initial setting: focusing on Son and Jadine’s love affair, the story is set in the secluded edenic environment of Isles des Chevaliers, in the house of Jadine’s white protector, Valerian. A rewriting of the Adam and Eve story, Jadine and Son’s meeting redistributes gender roles, with Son, a convict who jumped ship, becoming the “evil” tempter, whose intrusion will bring down Valerian’s empire by shifting the hegemonic racial balance carefully constructed between the white owners and black servants and causing the exposure of the true sinner—Valerian’s wife, who used to mistreat her infant boy. Facilitated by Valerian’s demise, Jadine and Son’s love story is still no romantic happy ending after the fall of the white master, as their escape from Valerian’s false paradise brings out all the more acutely the divide between their antithetic conceptions of black identity:
This rescue was not going well. She thought she was rescuing him from the night women who wanted him for themselves, wanted him feeling superior in a cradle, deferring to him. Wanted her to settle for wifely competence when she could be almighty, to settle for fertility rather than originality, nurturing instead of building. He thought he was rescuing her from Valerian, meaning them, the aliens, the people who in a mere three hundred years had killed a world millions of years old. […] Each was pulling the other away from the maw of hell–its very ridge top. Each knew the world as it was meant or ought to be. One had a past, the other a future and each bore the culture to save the race in his hands. (Tar Baby 271-2)
23As the title suggests, the “tar baby” is the topic of the novel, though not so readily identifiable. Both Son and Jadine eventually act as mutual tempters, striving to seduce the other away from his/her chosen social environment, all in the name of preconceived notions of racial identity. A testimony to the inevitable dead end, the novel concludes with Son and Jadine’s separation, as the one hops on a plane to Paris and the other opts for the legendary world of the blind horsemen on Isles des Chevaliers.
24The destruction of the white Eden has not prevented the lovers from falling into the world of division. The postmodern womanist questioning of absolute (white/male) authority entails responsibility: that of rethinking black male and female subjecthood along lines that will not duplicate former essentializing definitions. Consistently pointed out as the actual ontological meaning of the Fall for black people, the alienating experience of disconnection caused by racism and sexism—expressed in Sula’s feeling of utter solitude, Milkman’s initial despondency at not being able to fly, Pecola’s schizophrenia and finally shared by Son and Jadine—has to be transcended for a new figuration of self to emerge. This is what the following trilogy addresses and manages to achieve.
25Turning away from a focus on the revision of the ideological mechanism supporting racist and sexist stereotyping and exclusion, Morrison’s three subsequent novels, intended as a trilogy, Beloved (1987), Jazz (1992) and Paradise (1997), explore ways in which a redeemed sense of self may be achieved in actual African American historical circumstances. In order to do so, we would like to argue that what each novel is after is the carving out of a mystical sense of self, to be understood as an experience of connectedness (to self, other and world) as a response to the African American history of alienation. This, as we shall see, is dependent on a reconfiguration of black people’s historical experiences of self, time and place.
26In Words with Power, the second volume in his study of the Bible and literature, Northrop Frye contends that the traditional biblical vision of the cosmos as divided into four hierarchical levels with heaven at the top and hell at the bottom, which had structured western literary imagination since Homer’s time, has been replaced by a “structural model of intensified consciousness,” its secularized version in western literature since the nineteenth century, as represented in the chart below:
Even if there are no paradises, lost or hidden, no angels, no divine presence, and no hell, there is still the range of human mentality, which could be immensely more powerful and efficient than it normally is, or fall far below even its average performance now. We can understand this best, perhaps, by thinking of each level of this imaginative cosmos as a way of experiencing the primary categories of consciousness, time and space. (175)
28In other words, reflecting the West’s gradual process of secularization and consequent growing interest in man’s mental universe rather than God’s symbolic realm, western literature has exchanged biblical cosmology for the representation of a variety of states of consciousness going all the way from an experience of total alienation (the former hell) to an experience of temporal and spatial immediacy (the equivalent of the former Heaven).
29Interestingly, when one turns to Morrison’s trilogy, those very words at the top of Frye’s chart (“now”—as real present, “here”—as real presence) appear to conclude the second and third novel respectively, as revelations granted to the characters after many trials and tribulations, once “me” has been the final epiphany in Beloved. In other words, Morrison’s trilogy seems to be aiming at the higher level of consciousness in Frye’s chart, corresponding to the biblical Heaven. This is what oriental traditions might call “self realization” and Christianity “The Father’s Kingdom,” where “the words “eternal” and “infinite” would mean the reality of now and here” (Frye 178). In the language of Jungian psychology, one might say that, as from Beloved, Morrison’s characters appear decisively engaged in a process of “conscious assimilation of the contents of the unconscious, including its dark ‘shadow’ side, toward a goal of ‘wholeness’” (Smith 540). Quoting Jung, critic Richard Smith defines the resulting self as “that indescribable whole consisting of the sum of conscious and unconscious processes, the antithesis of the subjective ego-psyche.”
Self-knowledge is achieved through the conscious assimilation of the contents of the unconscious, including its dark “shadow” side, toward a goal of “wholeness.” Jung [...] was deeply interested in the gnostic insistence on evil as an active principle as opposed to the incomplete Christian view of evil as privatio boni, the absence of good. […] In his book Aion, Jung performs a telling psychoanalytic turn on this myth. “The ignorant demiurge who imagined he was the highest divinity illustrates the perplexity of the ego when it can no longer hide from itself the knowledge it has been dethroned by a supraordinate authority […] that indescribable whole consisting of the sum of conscious and unconscious processes, the antithesis of the subjective ego-psyche, what I have called the self.” (Ibid.)
30Morrison’s fiction seems focused on such a cathartic birth of self in the trilogy, which explores various aspects of the inner journey to self-knowledge through motherly, romantic and spiritual love respectively. There is thus a perceived change in the global concern of the narration away from the disabling function of the myth of the Fall in the preceding novels to the enabling power of the Christian teaching of love in the trilogy.
31In one of her interviews, Morrison states :
Christianity says something particularly interesting to black people, and I think it’s part of why they were so available to it. It was the love things that were psychically very important. Nobody could have endured that life in constant rage […] But with the love thing—love your enemies, turn the other cheek—they could sublimate the other things, they transcended them. (Ruas 116)
32In each of the three novels, this Christian teaching is explored via a specific testing experience, where the main characters are faced with their own dark “shadow side”: their capacity to kill in the name of love. In Beloved, the first novel in the trilogy, the focus is on motherhood in times of slavery. With Sethe, the maternal figure in Beloved, the theme becomes a way of exploring the limits between self and other and acquiring the sense of self made impossible by the alienating experience of slavery.
- 9 Divested of its traditionally negative moral connotations as the former Puritan “sin,” transgressi (...)
33A necessary step in this birth of the self, transgression9 holds a central part. As Sethe’s murdered daughter returned from the dead and the embodiment of her repressed memory of slavery, Beloved traps her mother in a fusional relationship based on Sethe’s unredeemable sense of guilt with respect to her infanticide. Sethe’s threatened extinction, as her absorption by Beloved takes the physical form of her own body becoming increasingly thinner while Beloved’s swells, is the last in a series of transgressions initiated by slavery as the first encroachment upon another person’s territory, whether it be his land or his body, in turn causing Sethe’s infanticide and the return of the murdered child eighteen years later. The mother’s literal absorption by her child is thus the last link in this chain of transgressions, reflecting back on the unnatural character of the original transgression of slavery. The “Particular Institution” and its peculiar law system, where the ruling authority is that of the slave owner as self-instituted, all powerful master, makes the fall out of the demiurge’s usurped Eden (the Garners” family-like plantation masquerades as a “sweet home”) not only fortunate but necessary. Sethe’s physical escape from Garner’s plantation is thus the first “fall” of this type; her infanticide is the second, responding to the outrage of slavery by the equal hubris of Sethe’s taking her baby girl’s life into her own hands.
- 10 For a study of the necessary connection and separateness between self and other in self-developmen (...)
34Thus, redemption in Beloved has everything to do with the restoration of ontological order, through respect of the boundaries between selves and territories.10 The fence of Sethe’s house, which was literally broken down by the slave catchers who were after the young fugitive and her children, is symbolically restored through the respectful attitude of the community standing outside the limits of Sethe’s property to break Beloved’s spell on Sethe through the redemptive power of their song:
When the women assembled outside 124, Sethe was breaking a lump of ice into chinks. […] When the music entered the window […] it was as though the Clearing had come to her with all its heat and simmering leaves, where the voices of women searched for the right combination, the key, the code, the sound that broke the back of words. Building voice upon voice until they found it, and when they did it was a wave of sound wide enough to sound deep water and knock the pods off chestnut trees. It broke over Sethe and she trembled like the baptized in its wash. (Beloved 261)
35Drawing the natural limit between the worlds of the living and the dead, the community replaces the slave catchers” transgressive authority with the Word’s original creative power of division in Genesis:
And God said, Let there be light : and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good : and God divided the light from darkness.
And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. (Genesis 1:3-5)
- 11 To an innocent freedom, the limit would no longer be felt as interdiction; but we no longer know w (...)
36In Morrison’s novel, the community’s Word-like song severs the bond between mother and daughter, past and present,and puts an end to the logic of transgression initiated by slavery. To put it in Ricœur’s words, the natural limit re-created is that of “an innocent freedom” where the limit, “no longer felt as interdiction,” signals a return to a “primeval authority, coinciding with the birth of finite freedom.’11 In turn, the restoration of ontological order makes it possible for the male protagonist in the novel, Paul D, to come back and offer to “put his story next to [Sethe’s]”:
Paul D sits down in the rocking chair and examines the quilt patched in carnival colors. His hands are limp between his knees. There are too many things to feel about this woman. His head hurts. Suddenly he remembers Sixo trying to describe what he felt about the Thirty-Mile Woman. “She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order. It’s good, you know, when you got a woman who is a friend of your mind.” […]
He wants to put his story next to hers.
“Sethe,” he says, “me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow.’
He leans over and takes her hand. With the other he touches her face. “You your best thing, Sethe. You are.” His holding fingers are holding hers.
“Me? Me?” (Beloved 272-3, my italics)
37The shameful and traumatizing past having been dealt with and sent back to its proper place, Sethe and Paul D are finally free to love each other, as male and female subjects liberated from the binding power and defining authority of the slave master as self-instituted God. In Irigaray’s words, “each lover, female or male, may contribute to the other’s rebirth as both human and divine incarnation. […] In love, women and men give identity back to each other as well as the potential of life and creation that identity difference makes possible” (Irigaray 87).
38Directly starting from this new ontological sense of self, grounded in the realization of division as the basis of life, Jazz starts with an epigraph extracted from The Nag Hammadi: “I am the name of the sound and the sound of the name. I am the sign of the letter and the designation of the division’. (“Thunder, Perfect Mind”)
39A sign of Morrison’s transferred allegiance from the authority of the Bible to that of the gnostic text, the epigraph evidences a new relationship to self, as expressed by the enunciator of the gnostic extract, a grammatical pronoun that impersonally embodies the signifier/signified split (name of the sound/sound of the name, sign of the letter/designation of the division). In the context of Morrison’s fiction, engaged in a dialogical relationship with the American master/slave, creator/creature ideology, this means removing her enunciation from the alienating structure of Puritan dichotomic thought without erasing the creative force of duality. Such a redeemed experience of division also informs the narrative.
40Actually, in the novel, conflictual division is everywhere, whether it be in Violet and Joe’s childless couple, whose estrangement from each other leads to Joe’s affair with young Dorcas, or within Violet’s psyche, as illustrated by her double name Violet/Violent, or else in the central event of Joe’s shooting of Dorcas after she left him. The murder, which is the starting point in the novel, will still paradoxically provide a way out of this conflictual duality, as Dorcas’s death takes the couple on an inner pilgrimage where they are made to confront their past lives in the rural Old South, before the African-American great migration towards northern cities in the first decades of the 20th century. The living embodiments of this displacement to the “Big Apple”, Joe and Violet learn to reappropriate their rural pasts in their cathartic quests for origins. Their final reconciliation is facilitated by their intense relationship to Dorcas’s best friend, symbolically named Felice (happiness), who discloses Dorcas’s last words as she was about to die: “Couldn’t keep her eyes open. Then she opened them wide and said real loud : “There’s only one apple”[…] Just one. Tell Joe.”” (Jazz 213)
41Significantly situated in the chapter where Violet pronounces the end of her inner division after she killed the stranger in her, “killed her. Then I killed the me that killed her.” “Who’s left?” “Me’” (209), Dorcas’s enigmatic last words sound like the answer to the riddle of life: linking the symbol of sin to the suggestion of unity (“just one”), they seem to hold the promise of another vision of humanity no longer bound to life through an original dividing and divisive curse of exclusion. Accordingly, Joe and Violet’s final reunion is mediated by the loving voice of the anonymous gossiper’s first person narrator in a poetic passage where their individual experience opens up onto a larger vision of marital love and felicity:
It’s nice when grown people whisper to each other under the covers. Their ecstasy is more leaf-sigh than bray and the body is the vehicle, not the point. They reach, grown people, for something beyond, way beyond and way, way down underneath tissue. […] They are inward toward the other, bound and joined by carnival dolls and the steamers that sailed from ports they never saw. That is what is beneath their undercover whispers. […] I envy them their public love. To be able to say out loud what they have no need to say at all: That I have loved only you, surrendered my whole self reckless to you and nobody else. […] If I were able I’d say it. Say make me, remake me. You are free to do it and I am free to let you because look, look. Look where your hands are. Now. (229)
- 12 See Morrison’s Nobel lecture.
42Such a “now” is that of a full presence to both self and other, that of a conscience fully liberated from its past, having confronted it. After the self-discovery permitted by the expulsion of the vampiric “other” in Beloved, Jazz concludes with a present time liberated from the clutches of the past, making way for the discovery of the third ontological dimension of human experience: “here” as the place of the self’s fulfilment—”a view of heaven as life; not heaven as post-life.’12
43Symbolically called Paradise, Morrison’s seventh novel eventually constructs such a place, after beginning with a war-like setting, as it starts out with the violent murder of a group of women, whose house is suddenly broken into by several men. The rest of the novel accounts for this initial violence by describing the growing hostility of a small all-black town called Ruby for this group of marginal women living all by themselves in a nearby place named the Convent. Anything but nuns, this eccentric group of women still progressively manages to experience spiritual liberation under the guidance of their host, Consolata, who undergoes a major inner conversion as a consequence of her own total loss of love. Following her one lover’s rejection and adoptive mother’s death, she emerges from her “dark night of the soul” with one belief:
“[The spirit] is true, like bones. It is good, like bones. One sweet, one bitter. [...] Hear me, listen. Never break them in two. Never put the one over the other. Eve is Mary’s mother. Mary is the daughter of Eve.” (Paradise 263)
- 13 “Connie makes clear […] her conviction that flesh and spirit must exist in harmony, not in the hie (...)
44Recalling Sojourner Truth’s claim that if woman upset the world, she should be left a chance to “set it right side up again,” Consolata’s teaching, after years of education by a catholic nun, reads as a very personal and vocal revision of the traditional theological reading of the Fall as symbolic of the moral superiority of spirit over flesh. Still, while Shirley A. Stave justifiably insists that Consolata’s credo shows the novel to be fundamentally challenging Christianity,13 an equally strong case can be made to support the reading of Consolata’s Gospel as a womanist version of Christian mysticism.
45When it comes to Consolata’s characterization as a “mystic,” Stave herself gives the main hint, when she refers to Consolata’s “dark night of the soul” prior to her becoming a spiritual guide for her guests, thus directly echoing the title of Saint John of the Cross’s famous poem and treatise on the purgation of the soul on its way to union with God.
Once Connie does grant the Mother Superior’s wish for death, she undergoes a long mourning, a dark night of the soul, during which she withdraws from life, remaining in a drunken stupor in the basement of the Convent. […] Carol Christ claims, “For the mystic, the dark night of the soul is a period of purgation in which all ties with the conventional world are broken in anticipation of revelation and union with a higher source of being and value.” (Stave 221)
46In fact, the progression of Connie’s spiritual journey could be compared to the two major steps in the soul’s purgation, described by Saint John as “the Night of the Senses” and “the Night of the Spirit,” since she is successively forced to renounce sensual pleasures and spiritual comfort, the first after her one lover abandons her, the second when her adoptive mother dies. In both cases too, her intense period of suffering ends with a manifestation of Grace. In the first instance, it takes the traditional shape of sudden, blinding light: “A sunshot seared her right eye, announcing the beginning of her bat vision, and she began to see best in the dark. Consolata had been spoken to.” (Paradise 241)
47In the second one, it manifests as an apparition, when a male stranger abruptly turns up:
“Come on, girl. You know me.” He leaned forward […].
“No,” she said. “Can’t say I do.’
“Well, not important. I’m traveling here.” There were ten yards between them, but his words licked her cheek. […] She felt light, weightless, as though she could move, if she wanted to, without standing up. […]
Suddenly he was next to her without having moved. (252)
48Respectively reminiscent of Saint Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus and the figure of the weary traveler usually called upon to illustrate steadfastness in friendship and persistence in prayer—which reads as a direct answer to Consolata’s immediately preceding farewell to her catholic faith after Mary Magna’s death—, the two episodes are instrumental in Consolata’s spiritual progress. Her vocation thereafter expresses itself in an intensely personal reformulation of the feminine paradigm in Christian theology, which might arguably be linked to the spiritual-cum-sensual pragmatism so well encapsulated in the vocable “womanist,” with a tinge of the traditionally erotic character specific of all mystics” descriptions of the ecstasy of union with the divine.
49This is where Stave’s analysis as regards the uniquely eastern character of Consolata’s enlightenment (on account of the final reference to the bullet hole on her forehead as a third eye) might need qualification: for, if there is no denying the novel’s “nods in the direction of decidedly un-Christian theologies” (Stave 216), Consolata’s “true spirituality” expresses itself in decidedly—though admittedly revised—Christian terminology. This is to say that, rather than seeing the novel as a down and out rejection of Christianity, it might be read as an effort to recover Christian mystic roots, Christianity’s true spiritual vocation, buried underneath centuries of theological vociferation. And vociferation is precisely what the inhabitants of the nearby small black town of Ruby—”a representation of the Symbolic Order” (ibid. 219)—seem most taken up with, until they are drawn to the Convent and its silence, like Reverend Richard Misner at the end of the story, and “sense it”:
It was when [Richard] returned […] that [he and Anna] saw it. Or sensed it, rather, for there was nothing to see. A door, she said later. “No, a window,” he said laughing.[…]
And they laughed some more as they drove along, trading pleasant insults about who was a pessimist, who an optimist. Who saw a closed door; who saw a raised window. Anything to avoid reliving the shiver or saying out loud what they were wondering. Whether through a door needing to be opened or a beckoning window already raised, what would happen if you entered? What would be on the other side? What on earth would it be? What on earth? (Paradise 305)
50The answer to Richard and Anna’s silent query as to “what would be on the other side?” seems to lie in the next question: “What on earth?” As evidenced in the final pages of the novel, where the murdered women seem to freely interact with those they used to be close to, while Consolata is finally seen in the company of Piedade in a very earthly paradise strewn with sea trash, paradise is “down here,” as home, the place of solace, shared company and “the ease of coming back to love begun,” (318); or, in Frye’s terms, the place of real presence.
- 14 “The text suggests ways in which this same religion, refigured as heterodox through African-Americ (...)
51If one takes up Mitchell’s distinction between religion as ritualized doctrine and spirituality as “an authentic relationship to one’s own life, calling one to be wholly present in and accountable for this life” (Mitchell 175), Morrison’s fiction may thus be perceived as revising the one, in the shape of the alienating Puritan dogma of the Fall, in order to approach the latter. Or more accurately, extending Mitchell’s remark about Beloved, Morrison’s fiction could be seen as a heterodox figuration of Christianity that becomes a source of liberation for the black community.14 In this context, the trilogy might be understood to develop a kind of secular mysticism as an alternate spiritual representation of the human self to the traditional Puritan (mis)representation of the male vs female fallen being. “Eliminating the distance between (religious) theory and (spiritual) practice’(174), Morrison’s fiction shows “the ways in which African-Americans claim Christianity, suggesting new possibilities for doctrinal interpretation” (177).
- 15 Killinger is actually quoting another critic’s analysis of Roethke’s verse as “immanentizing” what (...)
52In this context, though lying outside the scope of this study, Morrison’s latest novels, Love (2003) and A Mercy (2008), call for a few concluding remarks. A logical step after the new Gospel of Self that the trilogy could arguably be read as, Love and A Mercy appear to aim at “immanentizing” the Christian virtues indicated in their titles. The word is taken from Killinger’s study of transcendence in modern literature15 and suggests just the kind of movement from abstract transcendence to experienced spirituality that we see animating Morrison’s fiction.
53In Love and A Mercy, the stories respectively read as practical illustrations of redemption and salvation in mundane contexts. Like Paradise, which starts with war and ends “down here in Paradise,” Love owes its apparently ironic title to the actual resolution of a lifelong feud between childhood friends, a revision of Nel and Sula’s belated reunion. A Mercy, for its part, ends on what its title heralds: “not a miracle. Bestowed by God. It was a mercy. Offered by a human” (A Mercy 164-5).
54In both cases, the aim is thus not so much to subvert an obsolete theology as to explore its potential actualization, once again on the basis of a recognizably postmodern feminist defiance of established structures of authority: embodied by the male figures around which the whole fictive world seems to revolve in both novels, the patriarchal order instituted by the New World Puritans is simultaneously reflected and questioned by the unorthodox character of these male characters as figures of authority—a self-made black man and free black smithy, respectively poisoned and assaulted by a woman, and a merciful Anglo-Dutch trader killed by illness before completing his lifetime dream. Besides, the narrative strategy also plays a major part. Undermining the authority of the omniscient narrator, a constant feature since Jazz, Morrison resorts to the multiple point of view technique with anonymous—though identifiable—first person female framing narrative voice(s) that do not so much ultimately destabilize and defy interpretation as contribute to the weaving of a coherent (though not confining) narrative whole, where lack of love is consistently healed: while Love closes with L’s silent observation regarding ongoing relationships of friendship and love beyond the grave, A Mercy is framed by the daughter/mother’s call and response, where the little girl’s bewilderment at being traded by her mother, expressed in the first pages, is answered by the mother’s final cry of love:
I said you. Take you, my daughter. Because I saw the tall man see you as a human child, not pieces of eight. […]
Oh Florens. My love. Hear a tua mẵe. (Ibid. 165)
55Interestingly in our seemingly profoundly secular, postmodern academic age, Frye points out the proximity between his analysis of the linguistic mechanisms of Revelation and contemporary critical theory:
Critical theory today converges on what were originally Biblical questions, and the Bible is still the clearest example to use in explaining them. For critical theory there seems to be a point where a change of elements from “words” to “Word” takes place. This Word is not the Bible or the person of Christ for, say, Mallarmé or Lacan, nor does it have to be those things for anyone. But apparently it does have to be there. (Frye 132)
56This change from words to Word in Morrison’s fiction and the consequent deconstruction of the theological basis of sexist and racist stereotypes is what this study has tried to examine. We have tried to show that it is both a constant feature of Morrison’s writing and a slightly evolving one, for she seems to increasingly appropriate the Gospel as “a model for spiritual liberation which has continuing implications for understanding African-American history and the impact of this history on contemporary black life” (Mitchell 174). Far exceeding her object of study, however, Morrison gives full expression to the “healthy new individualism” that Killinger saw presaged in “the increasingly secularized […] or “confused” writers of the twentieth century” (Killinger 4). Killinger’s tribute to what he calls “religious imagination” in the twentieth century could be paid to Morrison’s work:
There is no way of estimating what [religious imagination] has done and is doing to revitalize the metaphor of incarnation even in theological circles. We are plunging deeper toward the point of the vortex where flesh and spirit are fused, and carrying more with us in the path, than ever before in public history. (6)