Early reviewers of Morrison's latest novel, "Love",1 somewhat baffled comment on her narrative style,2 or try - like Elaine Showalter - to take refuge with well established terms of narratology.3 They all, of couse, note the obvious. The novel sets out with a long section in italics where an unnamed narrator characterizes herself as reticent, reserved and almost speechless. Refusing to talk she only hums while watching what is going on in our modern days. For a narrator this looks like a rather strange narrative strategy. Only later the reader finds out, that the narrative voice belongs to L, a cook, who watches and comments what is going on in the Cosey household. But there also are passages, where figurative narration with changing third-person internal focalizers seems to prevail, or even, where we see instances of an authorial narrative situation. So, it becomes increasingly difficult to decide who really is telling the unfolding story. Morrison, obviously, runs the whole gamut of narrative devices. Still, Rhiannon Ross, refusing to take a closer look bluntly declares: "A ghostly woman nicknamed 'L' narrates."4
As the locus of otherness, ethics seems to lack integrity 'in itself', and perhaps ought to be considered a matrix, a hub from which different discourses, concepts, terms, energies, fan out, and at which they meet, crossing out of themselves to encounter the other, all the others. Ethics is where thought itself experiences an obligation to form a relation with its other – not only other thoughts, but other-than-thought. Ethics is the ought in thought. And if the battles of literary theory are won on the playing field of ethics, this is because literary theory [...] has always accepted the responsibility of otherness, just as literature bears the burden of managing the encounter between language and the world.8
Therefore, the well established terms of narratology, story and discourse,9 have to be reconsidered to take into account Morrison's epistemological ideas on art and postmodern poetological convictions. The shifting of the narratological perspective and narrative focus point to an attempt to make readers aware that, firstly, the narrated story is one of a limited perspective and, secondly, that the meaning of the narratological discourse is open to the reader's individual interpretation of it. Morrison's narrative artistry thus confronts the reader with the story-content forcing him to make an ethical value judgment on the basis of his reading skills, but also, more important, on his individual experience of life.
The modern moral and ethical predicament is thus perfectly translated into art, made valid, and voices the human concern for others:
Perhaps the most urgent and powerful cluster of demands that we recognize as moral concern the respect for the life, integrity, and well-being, even flourishing, of others… our moral reactions in this domain have two facets, as it were. On one side, they are almost like instincts, comparable to our love of sweet things, or our aversion to nauseous substances, or our fear of falling; on the other, they seem to involve claims, implicit or explicit, about the nature and status of human beings. From this second side, a moral reaction is an assent to, an affirmation of, a given ontology of the human.10
This individualistic condition of existence in modern secular society, is accentuated by asking the reader to make sense of what is narrated. This is made obvious by a passage of figurative narration with a definite but unreliable third-person focalizer who nevertheless easily can be substituted by a reader's own view on and experience of life:
So even when the moon was full and blazing, for Sandler it was a bounty hunter's far-off torch, not the blanket of beaten gold it once spread over him and the ramshackle house of his childhood, exposing the trick of the world, which is to make us think it is ours. He wanted his own moon again releasing a wide gold finger to travel the waves and pointing directly at him. No matter where he stood on the beach, it knew exactly; as unwavering and personal as a mother's touch, the gold finger found him, knew him. And although he understood that it came from a cold stone incapable even of indifference, he also knew it was pointing to him alone and nobody else. (43-44)11
Sandler is one of the flat characters in the novel, only rarely does he occupy front stage, but he obviously sees the world as being his, the rays of the moon point "directly at him" even as they do not really single him out. His visual perception tricks him into believing that everything is meant for him. The world is his, he thinks, to live in, but in 'reality' there is nothing but his consciousness stimulated by his peculiar mode of vision. The deceptively romantic image of the moonlit sea, citing archaic ideals of the unity of individual man and nature, is nothing but trickery "which is to make us think it (the world) is ours." The authorial voice here shifts grounds, calls upon the reader's ordinary experience, and shows us that the seemingly subjective individual human perception really is nothing but a general world view which opens up space for us to act in and where to communicate with each other. And that exactly is the point. Simple minded people, thinking that there is a real world which is ours to take go astray. They do understand nothing. To us the world is nothing but a fleeting image, too elusive to be pinpointed, it is a sound fading away, and our language is not capable to carry any meaning other than that which we construe ourselves. On the level of discourse, then, this is what it is all about.
Standing by, unable to do anything but watch, is a trial, but I don't say a word. My nature is a quiet one, anyway. As a child I was considered respectful; as a young women I was called discreet. Later on I was thought to have the wisdom maturity brings. Nowadays silence is looked on as odd and most of my race has forgotten the beauty of meaning much by saying little. Now tongues work by themselves with no help from the mind. Still, I used to be able to have normal conversations, [...]. Not anymore, [...]. Now? No. Barefaced being the order of the day, I hum. The words dance in my head to the music in my mouth. (3-4)
The whole section, and also many passages throughout the novel are printed in italics,12 seemingly indicating that there is a controlling narrative voice. It appears to be a voice incapable of words, it is true, but nevertheless one knowing and communicating what really is going on. This is why Ross, evading difficulties, or Showalter, taking refuge in Greek tragedy traditions, identify "L" as the novel's central narrative intelligence. That would put "L" the cook into a narratological dominant position. However, as Sandler's view of the world, which is linguistically transferred to the reader and somehow is becoming our own perspective, proves, there is not such a thing as a central intelligence, either in narration or otherwise. This is confirmed by Christine's coming home and deconstructing time in addition to space:
She remembered the bus ride back, punctured by drifts of sleep flavored with sea salt. With one explosive exception (during which fury blinded her), it was her first glimpse of Silk in twenty-eight years. Neat houses stood on streets named for heroes and trees destroyed to build them. Maceo's was still on Gladiator across from Lamb of God, holding its own against a new hamburger place on Prince Arthur called Patty's. Then home: a familiar place that, when you left, kept changing behind your back The creamy oil painting you carried in your head turned into house paint. Vibrant, magical neighbors became misty outlines of themselves. The house nailed down in your dreams and nightmares comes undone, not sparkling but shabby, yet even more desirable because what had happened to it had happened to you. The house had not shrunk; you had. The windows were not askew – you were. Which is to say it was more yours than ever. (98-99)
Again, subtly and hardly noticeable, the narrative focus shifts from the authorial 'she' to the reader including 'you' to accentuate the emotional effect of an experience which is ordinary in its being general but special in its being believed to be individual. Cosey's house and hotel, the basis of his wealth and one of the reasons for the surviving women's fights, have changed over time and deteriorated, in the text only serve to signify the change in the beholder, which ultimately may be us, the reader, according to our life- and reading- experiences. So what can you say? There is nothing you can rely on, there is no way to grasp reality, all you can do is – maybe - hum, giving sound, which evaporates in the wind. Maybe this is a way to acknowledge a world you do not know, a world you do not understand and where everything you do is valid only as it is aimed at preserving and enhancing a community of humans who are lost as you are.
Black music, alone of the black arts, has developed free of the imperative, the compulsion, to make an explicit political statement. Black musicians, of course had no choice: music groups masses of nonrepresentational material into significant form; it is the audible embodiment of form. All this, however, requires a specific mastery of technique, which cannot be separated from 'poetic insight.' There could be no 'knowing the lines' in the creation of black music, especially since the Afro-American listening audience had such a refined and critical aesthetic sense. Thus, Afro-America has a tradition of masters, from Bessie Smith through John Coltrane, unequaled perhaps in all of modern music.15
In contrast, in literature the communicative potential of language poses a distinctive problem. A literary text operates on several semiological levels at the same time. The most obvious, of course, are the referential function, pointing towards common experience and perception of 'reality', the pragmatic function, concentrating on the reader and on the dimension of social and cultural action, and the aesthetic self-referential function, introducing the question of form and of the way a text is organized, of how words are placed within the structure, and of what special effects result. In Literature all these functions, of course, are simultaneously present, but the aesthetic function is special in that the self-referential dominates.16
Those were the days when Cosey's Hotel and Resort was the best and best-known vacation spot for colored folk on the East Coast. Everybody came: Lil Green, Fatha Hines, T-Bone Walker, Jimmy Lunceford, the Drops of Joy, 19 and guests from as far away as Michigan and New York couldn't wait to get down here. Sooker Bay swirled with the first lieutenants and brand-new mothers; with young schoolteachers, landlords, doctors, businessmen. All over the place children rode their fathers' leg shanks and buried uncles up to their necks in sand. Men and women played croquet and got up baseball teams whose goal was to knock a homer into the waves. Grandmothers watched over red thermos jugs with white handles and hampers full of crabmeat salad, ham, chicken, yeast rolls, and loaves of lemon flavored cake, oh my. Then, all of a sudden, in 1958, bold as a posse, the Police-heads showed up in bright morning. A clarinet player and his bride drowned before breakfast. The inner tube they were floating on washed ashore dragging wads of scale-cluttered beard hair. Whether the bride had played around during the honeymoon was considered and whispered about, but the facts were muddy. She sure had every opportunity. Cosey's Resort had more handsome single men per square foot than anyplace outside Atlanta or even Chicago. They came partly for the music but mostly to dance by the sea with pretty women. (6-7)
Considering the referential and pragmatic functions of the text, Cosey's place was exceptional in that it seemed to indicate that for colored people even outside the deep South (Atlanta) or the northern metropolitan city (Chicago), where after reconstruction former plantation slaves have moved, a communal and cultural life was possible. The pastimes of middle class white society were being imitated, famous cultural achievers celebrated, general temptations were given in to, gossip flourished, and a general atmosphere of human frailty prevailed. But no more.
Parents can be lax or strict, timid or confident, it doesn't matter. Whether they are handing out goodies and, scared by tears, say yes to any whim, or wether they spend their days making sure the child is correct and corrected – whatever kind they are, their place is secondary to a child's first chosen love. If such children find each other before they know their own sex, or which one of them is starving, which well fed; before they know color from no color, kin from stranger, then they have found a mix of surrender and mutiny they can never live without. Heed and Christine found such a one. (231)
'L', identifying her name as "the subject of First Corinthians, chapter 13",17 speaking from beyond life, transcends history, race distinctions, differences of class, and sex, and becomes the timeless embodiment of the human capacity for selflessness and love. The King James bible translates First Corinthians, Chapter 13, in this way:
1.Though I speak with tongues of men and angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. 4. Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, 5. Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; 6. Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth. 11. When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. 12. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. 13. And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.18
The word charity most certainly denotes love, and is frequently translated as love, always so in the Revised Version. Yet, this kind of charity/love is godly also, it escapes or is beyond words. And this is why L, in the last paragraph of the novel, meeting the also dead Celestial, a former prostitute who, when alive, had a thin and hardly visible scar running all the way down her face, again takes refuge to humming, to music, to the power of pure sound:
Her scar has disappeared. I sit near her once in a while out at the cemetery. We are the only two who visit him. She is offended by the words on his tombstone and, legs crossed, perches on its top so the folds of her red dress hide the insult: "Ideal Husband. Perfect Father." Other than that, she seems content. I like it when she sings to him. One of those down-home, raunchy songs that used to corrupt everybody on the dance floor. "Come on back, baby. Now I understand. Come back, baby. Take me by the hand." Either she doesn't know about me or has forgiven me for my solution, because she doesn't mind at all if I sit a little ways off, listening. But once in a while her voice is so full of longing for him, I can't help it. I want something back. Something just for me. So I join in. And hum. (234)
The italics, indicative of her authorial position throughout the narrative, suddenly undermine the validity of her stories, everything told begins to waver in its meaning and looses its importance within a tale, whose logic appears more and more unreliable. And that is why even the ghostly "L" still is preoccupied with deciphering the phenomenon of man and Bill Cosey is nothing but the example under scrutiny.
Morrison, Toni, Love. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003.
Morrison, Toni, Playing in the Dark. London: Harvard University Press, 1992.
The English Bible, King James Version.
Chatman, Seymour, Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1986.
Gates, Louis Henry, Figures in Black. Words, Signs, and the 'Racial' Self. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Genette, Gérard, Narrative Discourse, trans. Jane E. Lewin. Oxford: Blackwell, 1988.
Goldman, Norman, Bookpleasures, October 28, 2003.
Harpham, Geoffrey Galt, "Ethics", Eds. Lentricchia, Frank and Thomas McLaughlin, Critical Terms for Literary Study. Chicago, London: University of Chicago Press, 1995.
Heelas, Paul, "On Things not being Worse, and the Ethic of Humanity," Eds. Heelas, Paul, Scott Lash, Paul Morris, Detradionalization (London: Blackwell, 1996), 200-22.
Ickstadt, Heinz, Der amerikanische Roman im 20. Jahrhundert. Transformation des Mimetischen. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1998.
Kley, Antje, Ethik medialer Repräsentation im britischen und US-amerikanischen Roman, 1741-2000. Kiel, Habilitation-manuscript, 2006.
Luckmann, Thomas, "The Privatization of Religion and Morality," Heelas, Lash, Morris, 72-86.
Ross, Rhiannon, "In the name of Love," EKConline, books, July 9, 2004.
Showalter, Elaine, The Guardian, Saturday, November 29, 2003.
Taylor, Charles, Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989.
1 Morrison, Toni, Love. New York: Knopf, 2003. Quotations (given in brackets) follow: Love. London: Vintage, 2004.
2 Cp., for example, Goldman, Norman, Bookpleasures, October 28, 2003:"Reading [...] Toni Morrison's most recent novel, LOVE, was like trying to put together a giant jigsaw puzzle. You never know where you are going to find the next piece, and when you do find it, how will it fit in."
3 "Among them (serveral women whose stories are influenced by Bill Cosey) is his former cook, L..., who provides a choral commentary on the story [...]." Elaine Showalter, The Guardian, Saturday November 29, 2003.
4 Rhiannon Ross, "In the name of love," EKConline, books, July 9, 2004.
5 Paul Heelas, "On Things not being Worse, and the Ethic of Humanity," Eds. Heelas, Paul, Scott Lash, Paul Morris, Detraditionalization (London: Blackwell, 1996), 211.
6 Thomas Luckmann, "The Privatization of Religion and Morality," Eds. Heelas, Lash, Morris, 72-86; 78.
7 I owe the following argument to an as yet unpublished "Habilitation" submitted to the university of Kiel: Antje Kley, Ethik medialer Repräsentation im britischen und US-amerikanischen Roman, 1741-2000, ms. Kiel, 2006, 42-50.
8 Geoffrey Galt Harpham, "Ethics," Eds. Lentricchia, Frank and Thomas McLaughlin, Critical Terms for Literary Study (Chicago/London: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 387-405; 395; 404.
9 Cp. Gérard Genette, Narrative Discourse, trans. Jane E. Lewin (Oxford: Blackwell, 1988); Seymour Chatman, Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film (Ithaca and London: Cornell UP, 1986); ----, "Characters and Narrators: Filter, Center, Slant, and Interest-Focus," Poetics Today 7.2 (1990), 189-204.
10 Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989), 5.
11 my emphasis
12 Cp. 3-12; 70-77; 117-125; 159-167; 230-234.
13 Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark (London: Harvard University Press, 1992), V-Xiii.
14 Ibid., ix.
15 Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Figures in Black. Words, Signs, and the "Racial" Self (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 31.
16 Cp. Heinz Ickstadt, Der amerikanische Roman im 20. Jahrhundert. Transformationen des Mimetischen (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1998), 11.
17 Lil Green was a famous club-singer, she died in 1954; Father Hines, in the 1920's was one of the outstanding Jazz-pianists, T-Bone Walker played the blues-guitar, Jimmy Lunceford the saxophone, and Drops of Joy were a jazz-band playing under the guitarist Jimmy Liggins. They all had in common that they, in the twenties and thirties, represented the cultural and artistic ascendancy of African-Americans on to front stage of American civilization. Their special achievement was readily recognized and less challenged than the literary one of the authors of the Harlem renaissance.
18 The English Bible, King James Version