Sometimes, you forget: there are people out there who do absolutely brilliant, incredible things. Even at achievement-filled Princeton—especially at achievement-filled Princeton—greatness, which is a level below the place I write about, can become benign and unimpressive. Talent becomes the norm and is hardly exceeded; it becomes rote.
But, sometimes, you encounter a person who has truly done something, shaken things up, who is inarguably a person, who has changed lives, who has irrevocably changed a large swath of the world, who makes you say holy crap! and shiver at their very presence. Toni Morrison is such a person. Or, rather, she is such a person.
When she walked cautiously across the stage in McCosh 50—her body is old now, and fragile—when she walked across the Tuesday before Spring Break and sat in a thick green chair in the middle, I could do nothing but stare at her head and think of the stories birthed from there! Song of Solomon, Beloved, The Bluest Eye. Think about that. Those are some books, read by millions of people, courage-teachers to millions of people, beautiful, beautiful novels. Beautiful and sad and fun and brave. Utterly singular in their existence. All from her brain.
The auditorium was already half-full a full forty-five minutes before the lecture’s scheduled kick-off, and many would-be early-comers gasped through the door frame and sulked toward the balcony. They were the lucky ones, though, as many people had to stand in the aisles or were turned away at the door. They got to see her walk in, swaddled in a threaded green shirt, her regal gray dreadlocks swag in a pink tie-dyed bandana. She is a beautiful person; you can tell she is beautiful, and she is so noble. She embraces Professors Cornel West and Michael Wood—both superstars in their own right, but here in awe—and sits.
A slight backtrack, but one that is illustrative of the moment: when Morrison, who taught for many years at Princeton, and who is now a Professor Emeritus, entered the hall—and she tried to do so subtly, surrounded by friends and aides—the whole crowd stood and applauded. A woman behind me even started crying. Morrison is a human who has changed lives.
And she sits. And she sits for most of the hour-and-a-half long program, and she speaks slowly and breathes often, as though exhausted by her nearly four-decade long effort. Exhausted, in the words of Professor Eduardo Cadava, who introduced Morrison, by her “understanding of the necessity to bear witness to what history has left silent” and her “articulation of their silence.” When she laughs—and she laughs often—she laughs well, but there is a trace of fatigue in her smile, always.
She sips from a water bottle between sentences. I can’t help but return to that thought: from those lips has emerged brilliance. From those lips has emerged a Nobel Prize for Literature acceptance speech.
From Morrison’s lips now emerges a story about the first time she tried to read a book. “It was difficult,” she says, “not as in hard to do, but in the sense of difficulty in finding the meaning behind words.” She struggled to accept the stories as such even then, and pressed and pressed for answers, for secrets. Those secrets, she said, “haunt” all stories—as the unspoken words whose existence authorial story-delimitation necessitates—and, like the historical specter of slavery that haunts this country and her work, the only route to revelation is reading.
Those secrets she called writing’s “invisible ink”—in (or just outside) the writing, but not apparent, not overt. The lecture she called “Invisible Ink: Reading the Writing and Writing the Reading,” and it dealt with the demands placed upon readers and writers by the inherent occlusion, erasure, and elision in writing. To read the written, she said, is to understand and engage textual limits—not in terms of a text’s capabilities, but with regard to what lies beyond them; to read the written is to read the written and the unwritten and to reconstitute the occluded as equally crucial to the narrative. To write the reading, then, is to understand the importance of the unwritten in writing the experience of reading the writing, and, Morrison said, especially, the way in which the unwritten—given its vastness—allows for diverse and evolving responses to the written.
She reminds the audience—as if they needed reminding—of the end of Song of Solomon, when Milkman Dead and his now-former best friend, Guitar, stand opposite one another on a cliff in Virginia, Guitar with a gun, threatening to kill Milkman. She reminds them of how Milkman then leapt into the air, “bright as a lodestar,” and the book’s close on that note: mid-air. Milkman’s fall—if, indeed, he does fall—is unwritten, remains to be written, or thought, by the reader. This, Morrison says, is the essential function of destabilizing the notion of the fixed text, for a text that is read with an eye toward its gaps will always respond to the reader and, thus, never be just so, just itself.
Beyond the theoretical implications of such an approach, it was quite impressive to hear Morrison speak so candidly about how she wanted her texts treated. Later, when reading an excerpt from an unpublished story, she asked the audience to whom a character was speaking; after a number of clever answers, she revealed that he was speaking to her. Perhaps her candid relationship to her own work was what stunned me in the first place: she demonstrated that their brilliance came from a human being, whose entire humanity is visible in the text, even in the cadence of the prose.
She retained her candor into the lengthy question and answer session that followed her lecture. On textual accessibility, she said, “I try to write for everyone, no jazz for its own sake.” And, when asked about her initial impetus to write, she acknowledged that, “there was a certain kind of book that I really wanted to read” that she couldn’t find, and so she wrote it: that book was The Bluest Eye. That book dealt with issues of black self-perception and image and sought to reverse a number of common notions of selfhood in the black community; like the “invisible ink,” it sought to “bring the margins to the center,” or the “center to where [she was].”
And it did. And she has, throughout her career. She has brought millions of readers to “read the writing” in their selves and histories, and in the history of this country. The center was literally where she was that night, and it was incredible to see her there, for from her redefined center has emerged some of the most “written” and some of the most “readable” literature in the past century, in American history, and in the history of humanity. And, because they are so written, and because Toni Morrison is such a writer, her novels force us to write and read ourselves through them. As much was apparent from the crowd—the smiles, the clapping, the crying.