If she wrote just a little better, we might call Toni Morrison the Pearl S. Buck of contemporary letters. Like Buck before her, Morrison has made a magnificent literary career out of left-wing sermonizing and sentimentality. Pearl Buck wrote mistily of downtrodden peasants, especially those subsisting in China. Morrison is a bit different. Being (a) black, (b) female, and (c) a paid-up late-twentieth-century subscriber to academic political correctness, she plays the race-’n’-gender card wherever it can be played— which, in the world according to Morrison, is well-nigh everywhere. Heaving leftward paid off mightily for both writers. Morrison, again like Buck before her, has been showered with all manner of literary honors and awards. She scooped up the Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for her novel Beloved and—just this fall —she found herself the recipient, as had Buck in the late 1930s, of that nonpareil of laurel crowns, the Nobel Prize in Literature.
The Nobel Prize? Toni Morrison and the Nobel Prize in Literature? It is, to be sure, a vertiginous thought. Frankly, though, with the example of Pearl Buck (and several other Nobelists) before us, we were disappointed but not surprised. We knew it could only be a matter of time before someone of Morrison’s indisputable qualifications came to the attention of the Swedish Academy—someone, that is to say, who is (a) black, (b) female, and (c) a paid-up late-twentieth-century subscriber to academic political correctness. The New York Times, reporting recently on Morrison’s acceptance speech in Stockholm, summed up the operative priorities when it noted that the new laureate was “the 90th person, the eighth woman, and the first black woman who won the prize.”
As is increasingly often the case these days with the cultural reporting in the Times, the article on Morrison’s triumph in Stockholm ought to have been accompanied by a large air-sickness bag. The emetic quality of the piece was due partly to the general smarminess of the article itself, partly to the passages quoted from Morrison’s speech. Morrison —dressed, we were told, in a “black gown with sequins that reflected light from 13 chandeliers”—delivered what a spokesman for the Swedish Academy called a “prose poem” and the reporter for the Times called a “lovingly wrought paean to language and to the sublime vocation of ‘word work.’” Sample 1 of the prose poem: “We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.” Perhaps, ungrammatical though they are, these sentences are quoted out of context and so are unrepresentative. No such luck. Here is Sample 2 of the lovingly wrought paean, from the bit about some young people who entreat an old blind woman to tell them a story and, when she remains silent, begin the story for her:
Tell us about ships turned away from shorelines at Easter, placenta in a field. Tell us about a wagonload of slaves, how they sang so softly their breath was indistinguishable from the falling snow. How they knew from the hunch of the nearest shoulder that the next stop would be their last. How with hands prayered in their sex, they thought of heat, then suns… .
It might have been a good thing if they had also thought of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein—especially of his warnings about how the “idling of language” leads to nonsense.
Of course, it is not only the poor quality of Morrison’s writing that brought her to the satisfied attention of the Swedish Academy. There is also the matter of her politics. In awarding her the Nobel Prize in Literature, the Swedish Academy preened that Morrison “delves into the language itself, a language she wants to liberate from the fetters of race.” If you can believe that, we have a large bridge, complete with a parcel of swampland in Florida, that we would be happy to sell you.
The truth is that all Morrison’s work—her novels, her essays, her lectures—is saturated with divisive racial animus. This point was made by Heather Mac Donald in an incisive article in The Wall Street Journal (October 14, 1993) just after Morrison’s Nobel coup was announced. Far from seeking to liberate language from race, Mac Donald notes, Morrison “insists obsessively on racial differences. She polarizes language itself into ‘white discourse’ and silenced black speech.” Thus it is that Morrison’s novels consistently depict blacks corrupted, brutalized, and oppressed by “whitepeople” (Morrison’s spelling), while her critical writings are hermetic meditations on the unrecognized and consequently uncelebrated “Africanist presence” that has allegedly “shaped the body politic, the Constitution, and the entire history” of the United States. It has, indeed, shaped the whole of American culture, including, e.g., the novels of Ernest Hemingway and Henry James.
If your search through such works fails to discern much of an “Africanist presence,” don’t be alarmed: Morrison handles that little problem by explaining (in her revealingly titled book Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination) that the Africanist presence can make itself known through “omissions,” “contradictions,” etc. In other words, the less it’s there, the more it is there. “Even, and especially, when American texts are not ‘about’ Africanist presences or characters or narrative or idiom,” Morrison explains, “the shadow hovers in implication, in sign, in line of demarcation.” Talk about having your cake and eating it, too!
You might have thought that the civil-rights movement and the general liberalization of American society had made important gains for blacks in this country: wrong again. “Racism,” Morrison assures us in Playing in the Dark, “is as healthy today as it was during the Enlightenment.” Likewise, in Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and the Construction of Social Reality—a collection edited and with an introduction by Morrison—we learn that both Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas are victims of a universal white conspiracy to subjugate blacks, and especially black women, by perpetuating racist stereotypes about “the limits and excesses of black bodies.”
Heather Mac Donald concludes her article by noting that Toni Morrison
is working busily to dismantle the ideal of color-blindness. In its place she has erected an insistent awareness of race … as the defining feature of the self. That this narrowing of the human spirit should be the goal of so many contemporary academics and writers is one of the more mystifying features of our time. That one of its exponents should be awarded a Nobel Prize bodes poorly for racial harmony.
We might add that it also bodes poorly for the recognition of literary excellence.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 12 Number 5, on page 1
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