On April 7th, Toni Morrison spoke to a packed house – so packed that many faculty were stranded outside, forced to watch her speak on the monitors. Her reception was understandable. At 83, Morrison is one of the last twentieth-century literary heavyweights, a Nobel laureate and the author of Beloved, a book so universally lauded that, as Scott Bradfield puts it, even a mention of its name is accompanied by “a little sigh, a half-sensible expiration.” Toni Morrison is one of the few living authors who can visit a class taught on her life’s work.
Thankfully, the idol-worship has not gone to her head. She is a no-nonsense orator, conducting herself with measured self-assurance. The first part of her talk was a reading of what seems to be a previously unpublished essay, entitled “Invisible Ink,” addressing Morrison’s understanding of the relationship between reader and text. In twentieth-century literary criticism there was a split in the consideration of the right way to approach a text. On the one hand, you had those who sought authorial intent and backed the idea of a stable text with a “right” reading (“Animal Farm” is “supposed” to be read as an allegory for communism”). Then there were those who decried the intentional fallacy (the consideration of authorial intent) and advocated a plurality of readings: the text was for them a child let loose by its authorial mother, to be inscribed upon in myriad ways by a multitude of readers. Morrison attempts to bridge these two understandings with her idea of invisible ink. Put simply, invisible ink is the subtext waiting to be unlocked by the “right” reader. An example Morrison gave illustrates the point well: Faulkner is known for leaving narrative blind spots, points where information is deliberately withheld to put the reader on even footing with the characters. The “right” reader will take this as an invitation to engage even more fully with the text, to complete it in a sense, by allowing the information he gains later on to fill out the “omitted” portions of the novel; author and reader work together to write a complete text. Her method of criticism invites a multiplicity of readings, but suggests that some books will only resonate correctly with the “right” reader (as in “you’ll understand this when you’re older”). As with any other theoretical lens, this viewpoint isn’t applicable in all cases. In a sense it favors twentieth-century literature, as, beginning with the modernists, authors became increasingly interested in demanding more from their readers. Certainly “Don Quixote” does not need a “right” reader to unlock its invisible ink, if there is any. Ultimately, while “Invisible Ink” is a nice way of bridging two critical extremes, its terms feels a little euphemistic. Not that Morrison need worry. She has legions of “right” readers.
The second part of her talk was a reading from a work in progress. The passage was, as Morrison’s later work has increasingly become, concerned with voice. It read as a monologue by a “high yellow” – light-skinned African American – woman, relaying the difficult emotions she experienced when she gave birth to a “midnight-black” child. The candid nature of her dialogue, the sometimes uncomfortable personal truths the character gives voice to, are commonplace in the peculiar type of “moral” fiction Morrison seeks to write. Earlier in the day, when Morrison held a Q&A session for Professor Weinstein’s “Faulkner and Morrison” class, she spoke about her desire as an African American, sensitive as she is to the burdens of this nation’s past, to avoid writing “the melodrama of good being abused.” Thus, the violence and antipathy we find in a Morrison novel is her attempt to present “experiential truths” intended not to be ethically evaluated but experienced affectively.
At the Q&A students and faculty posed questions, and Morrison’s answers were gratifyingly honest. Even a fairly generic question (“What do you normally write on?”) prompted a thought-provoking answer. Morrison writes exclusively with a number 2 pencil on legal pad; not in itself interesting, but her rationale made one stop and think. An irreverent gripe about the lack of resistance a modern keyboard provides turned into a critique of the deceptive formality of a word processor. Morrison told of how she always required her creative writing students turn in handwritten work lest the neatness of the typed formatting trick them into thinking their writing was better than it actually was. The pragmatism of Morrison’s argument was refreshing: neither a retreat into ludditism or a simple writer’s quirk, her decision to stick to writing with a pencil stemmed from a desire to remove all obstacles that would prevent the critical interrogation of her own work.
One student asked what he was supposed to take away from this moral universe, what insight there was to be gleaned from her ethical ambiguity. Morrison’s response – that the point was not getting, but experiencing, even if it is unpleasant to do so – was refreshing insofar as it shied away from the idea of reading as “escape.” If anything, Morrison’s work is about confrontation. “Forget about happiness,” she told the room full of students. Perhaps hyperbolic, but something we should all hear once in a while. One was reminded of a quote by Austrian Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein: “I don’t know why we are here, but I’m pretty sure that it is not in order to enjoy ourselves.”