Selected By Cyril Wong
This month's Acid Tongue comes from James Campbell's review of Toni Morrison's Love in the Times Literary Supplement (Nov 23, 2003). It is an inevitable indictment of Toni Morrison’s literary agenda many would not be ready to accept, considering how many fans she has, including the ones that bestowed upon her the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993. But it is well known that a Nobel Prize is often given more for political reasons than for sheer artistic merit.
To begin, James Campbell quotes a section from Morrison’s second novel, Sula (1973) about how there is nothing “filthier” than for the eponymous character to sleep with white men. Campbell continues:
The cross-racial bond is all but impossible, certainly undesirable, in Morrison's fiction; evil hangs about such unions because evil hangs about whites, or "whitepeople", as they are sometimes styled. The most vigorous expression of this feeling appears in Tar Baby (1981), which features a copper-complexioned model, Jadine, who has become the protegee of a degenerate, wealthy white couple on a Caribbean island. Light-skinned black characters in Morrison's novels are objects of loathing: the distinguishing mark of Maureen Peal in The Bluest Eye (1970), for example, is her "long brown hair, braided into two lynch ropes"; a girl in Jazz (1992) is cursed by a "creamy little face" which, if cut open, would show "nothing... but straw".
The above forms the first part of Campbell’s review that has not yet launched into a straight-on attack on Morrison. It is still restrained and mainly descriptive at this point about prominent aspects of Morrison’s themes. The central criticism hinted at here is that Morrison reverses white racism by making her black characters evince the same kind of hostility and prejudice toward their racial Other. Campbell quotes a speech by Son, the protagonist in Tar Baby:
"White folks and black folks should not sit down and eat together... They should work together sometimes, but they should not eat together or live together or sleep together. Do any of these personal things in life”
Campbell writes further on:
The integrationist appeal of Baldwin or Richard Wright, not to mention Martin Luther King, scarcely gets a look-in. When the whites of white eyes glint at the edges of Morrison's stories, they are quickly extinguished not by violence but by a force identical to that which has for so long excluded blacks: culture... Morrison remains determinedly monoculturalist, concerned to give written form to the taste and texture of Afric an-American life, in a span reaching roughly from the last days of slavery to a nation reshaped by the civil rights movement.
Now comes the more direct criticism:
The project is the outcome of a considered choice, but there may also be a failure of imagination to take into account.
After accusing Morrison of “a failure of imagination”, Campbell has more proof to stand by his criticism:
In The Bluest Eye, Morrison's first novel, the narrator relates an incident which is every bit as striking as the condemnation of the racially promiscuous Sula. A little girl, Pecola, enters a shop run by a Mr Yacobowski. As she gets out her pennies and points at some sweets, "the grey head of Mr Yacobowski looms up over the counter":
"He does not see her, because for him there is nothing to see. How can a fifty-two-year-old white immigrant storekeeper with the taste of potatoes and beer in his mouth . . . see a little black girl? Nothing in his life even suggested that the feat was possible, not to say desirable or necessary."
As posed here, the question is rhetorical — no way he could see her. But to some people, and surely not only "whitepeople", it should be possible to answer it differently. Mr Yacobowski must at some stage in his pre-American, pre-"wholly racialized" life have encountered the elementary tenet that there is one race and we are all part of it, and, who knows, he might have found something "desirable or necessary" in the suggestion. He might see Pecola just because he is a man with feelings and she is a child. But no; no way.
Campbell has picked up all his bricks by now and throws them one by one (italics are mine):
The editorializing tendency ("How can a fifty-two-year-old white immigrant . . .") is much in evidence in Morrison's fiction, one factor in her prevailing moral one-upmanship. Her female narrators are weary experts in the arts of head-shaking and sarcasm of the "good luck and let me know" variety. Her dialogue at times seems cut to fit soap opera. Stanley Crouch, the awkward squad of contemporary African-American letters, has remarked that Morrison's characters "rarely... exist for any purpose other than to deliver a message", which contributes to the air of implausibility hanging over so many dramatic encounters in the novels. Morrison has a job putting two people in a room and making them talk like folks. How can characters breathe when the effort to correct the balance of history is using up all the oxygen?
The last line above is a killer. Further on, Campbell casts a cursory, almost patronising glimpse upon what Love is about:
With its jigsaw structure and claustrophobic atmosphere, her new novel Love... would go something like this: In the years before and after the Second World War, Bill Cosey was the owner of a fashionable "Hotel and Resort", the "best vacation spot for coloured folks on the East Coast"; his wife bore him a son; she died, and the son followed, leaving behind a young wife and a daughter, Christine; Cosey had long been entangled with a mystery woman but for his second wife he chose Heed — aged eleven — the best friend of little Christine; the two women are now grown up and living in hate-fuelled isolation in what remains of the Cosey property, each claiming it as her own; into their lives, trailing echoes of Joe Christmas from Light in August, comes Junior, a girl who has known nothing but trouble; Heed wants her to forge a will, but her mind is on the teenage grandson of a couple of local worthies, whom she coaches into a rampant stud; out of the chaos Junior creates come redemption and healing.
But Campbell has more barbs to follow:
Of course, the tale is not told like that... Love reads like notes for a novel — "Christine accepted his invitation to dinner. By dessert they had plans... As couplehood goes, it had its moments. As marriage goes, it was ridiculous" — at other times like notes for a by now predictable lecture: "It comforts everybody to think of all Negroes as dirt poor, and to regard those who were not, who earned good money and kept it, as some kind of shameful miracle"... Men here mostly occupy themselves rearing and humping, looking handsome in hats, and abusing small girls.
Morrison is good at delineating youthful female desire, though that too has been repeated in one novel after another, but grown-up heterosexual partnership is rare and fleeting in her books. The brief interlude in Tar Baby, in which Jadine and Son take refuge in a Manhattan Hilton, before a difference in skin tone forces them apart, is about as close to a successful match that any Morrison characters are likely to come. What love affair could survive prose like this?
Morrison’s indictment of white people in her work, her propensity to makes characters give speeches instead of having them engage in realistic conversation... all of these points of criticism are re-emphasised in the last section of the review:
The reader of a disassembled story reasonably expects to come across something solid, around which it coheres. What is there in Love? Homilies galore, of both the pragmatic and metaphorical kind… Lots of unbridled lust, and the usual association of "floods, white people, tuberculosis, famine and ignorance". Near the end of Love, with that air of smug self-regard often heard in Morrison's narrators, L tells us that "most people have never felt a passion" as strong as that between Heed and Christine, but "if your name is the subject of First Corinthians, chapter 13, it's natural to make it your business". Her business, like her name, we are invited to deduce, is "Love", though there has been little of it in evidence in the tale of sex and greed that's gone before.
And on a final, almost dismissive note, this is the way Campbell ends his review:
Readers of the King James version of the Bible will recall the subject of 1 Corinthians, 13, as charity ("Charity suffereth long, and is kind"), but, as Sula will tell you, there is not a lot of that here either.
Little love lost? Drip acid in the Forum!
'The Acid Tongue' is a column that celebrates acerbic reviewing. Mail us if you know of any examples.
QLRS Vol. 3 No. 3 Apr 2004