William EvansComment

Toni Morrison

William EvansComment
From Enoch Pratt Library January 29, 1998 © copyright John Mathew Smith 2001

From Enoch Pratt Library January 29, 1998 © copyright John Mathew Smith 2001

Evil has a blockbuster audience; goodness lurks backstage.” [1]

While reading the 2012 lecture by Toni Morrison, I was struck by the thought that I could never write with her kind of authority. She delivered the lecture at Harvard at age 81 when most of us justifiably would be settling into old age. It wouldn’t occur for me to claim to speak so forthrightly; it wouldn’t feel authentic. Not a matter of style or skill, but simple authority, though given the body of work she produced, one can hardly dispute her right. And of course, her native intelligence.

What is disturbing is the thought that I’ve avoided head-on confrontations in my own fiction, shades of gray keep cropping up in a way that’s not true of the poetry. And that leads me to question whether that slant could run through my life beyond what I write.

Far more comfortably, I can write observations on what I’ve seen in a life, and I do try paying attention. And strive to make sense of what I’ve seen. But Morrison writes in this lecture with a somber, rolling conviction about her subject, perhaps due to her age, certainly due to where she’s risen to–from a child of a subjugated ancestry to a place in the modern pantheon of writers.

Her lecture’s subject was the big one: morality (she’s not afraid to call it old fashioned goodness) verses evil.

Morrison begins by writing about the murder of young Amish girls in 2006, [2] and makes the point that the inexplicable horror of the act itself in published descriptions was equaled by the fact of the local Amish community’s swift forgiveness, as she puts it, “They quietly buried the dead, attended the killer’s funeral, then tore down the old schoolhouse and built a new one.” She defines the Amish community’s actions as true goodness. “Keeping those Amish in mind, I wondered why the narrative of that event, in the press and visual media, quickly ignored the killer and the slaughtered children and began to focus almost exclusively on the shock of forgiveness.” She doesn’t draw a conclusion–but points it out as noteworthy.

She examines the roots of altruism as a substitute for the broader term. Of the possible reasons she gives, the one that fit my perception of animal behavior identifies altruism as an instinctual response to tragedy, repeating what Sebastian Junger write in Tribe. Junger’s book is a short, potent read.

Some say goodness (altruism) comes from God, and if so, God is important. I can respect that, but I’m more in Junger’s camp: we survive as a species, not as individuals, thus we admire the individuals who sacrifice themselves in the effort. We praise important individuals as exemplars–as I am doing here.

Morrison writes that, unlike 19th Century novels, our own times’ writing pursues, even revels in evil’s greater power, with a fascination of its demonic intelligence, and simultaneously the less dominant outcome of goodness. The violence witnessed in the 20th Century plays a full role, no doubt, in flavoring the period’s literature. But where in Dickens’ novels, (where in the Dickens?) is the struggle against evil is ascendant? In Philip Roth’s (to pick a modern writer at random) there’s loss with not a happy ending, not even the hope of one. Even Tolkien–celebrating what has to be the greatest defeat of a devil, tells us it’s also the end of that world for Frodo; he’s suffered too much by the evil.

Perhaps the modern audience has outgrown optimism. We’ve become either too sophisticated, or too jaded.

Weaving these bits of morality into my own fiction I find awkward. Yes, I want my protagonists to be likable, even virtuous, but making them think deep thoughts about, say good and evil, feels heavy handed, like I’m using them for puppets. So I bury the idea, then spend untold editing hours trying to dig it out again.

Though my family never lived the lives of slaves, nor thought about it much growing up, I did come away from childhood with an abhorrence of domination one over another. Rape and slavery are the same evil: subjugation and cruelty, denial of a creature’s right to a life free of oppression. She and I stand on the same ground about these things.

My father worked briefly in the coal mines and nearly died in a methane explosion. He did die twenty years later from emphysema. His brother, William died from a gangrened leg stemming from a mine collapse. I’m named after William, my father’s brother. Life for the many coming before us was often brutal, and I have sympathy for all those who’ve suffered. But my family never knew slavery.

I thought I was daring–in reaching toward a life in architecture–that my family was daring given the simple poverty we’d come from. But I knew instinctively not to reach higher, to more than fantasize about the life of a writer. Too far a stretch for one who liked keeping a roof over my head. Toni Morrison didn’t let that deter her, though I imagine she struggled. She held a number of academic positions, suggesting more than having a famous name–just perhaps a need to earn a steady income?

I don’t regret pursuing the best architecture I could design nor the years laboring at it. I do wish I’d not started this late to become a full time writer, mainly because it takes so damn long to become a good one.
Stemming from editing Kill Devil Come the Storm, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about good and evil in my own fiction. I’ve come to realize there’s a great deal about the subject in this novel; some parts are very in-your-face, black and white, and others more subtly drawn–back to that initial observation about judgmental writing–not in a negative context but the word’s original meaning. I was recently challenged to produce a single sentence description of the book’s theme: Contingency, not fate, constitutes most of a life; Justice will prevail, though in blood, and the protagonists pays with a piece of his soul.

Close to the end of her lecture, Morrison reclaims goodness: “Allowing goodness its own speech does not annihilate evil, but it does allow me to signify my own understanding of goodness: the acquisition of self-knowledge. A satisfactory or good ending for me is when the protagonist learns something vital and morally insightful that she or he did not know at the beginning.”

Toni Morrison died August 5 of this year at the age of eighty-eight. Rest in peace now, lady; you did good work.

[1] From Toni Morrison’s 2012 lecture, published as a postmortem essay in the NY Times Book Review, Sept 2019 

[2] Oct 3 2006 NY Times article

[3] Involving the exercise of judgement; inclined to make moral judgements.  From the Oxford English Dictionary.