Toni Morrison’s death struck me like the loss of a close personal friend. I never met her—the closest I came was seeing the documentary about her, The Pieces I Am—and I haven’t read all her writing. But I just finished The Bluest Eye, her first novel, and it spoke to me as though I was an African American girl, tormented by her color. The displacement of a central human strength—the ability to love ourselves—is a tragedy without borders.
The Bluest Eye struck me with blunt force, as did Beloved, many years ago. Morrison’s raw courage in confronting and describing the effects of incest, racism, and the tragedy of women forced into its confines will be with me always. Courage is what I look for first in any form of writing. And in Morrison’s case, her beautiful language married raw experience to the language of high art. James Baldwin did it, decades ago, but I have not seen its like anywhere else.
The wide and detailed coverage given Morrison’s death is a kind of comfort. Even more comforting, an article by Yiyun Li in the August 9th international edition of The New York Times recalls her experience as a college student in China in the early 1990’s. She had no trouble finding translations of Hemingway, Roth, Fitzgerald, etc. at the National Library—but not a page by Morrison.
Finding Beloved took some doing, but the novel helped Li to question the way the U.S. Civil War had been taught at her school, as “a useful tool to attack America.” One propagandist story about the different fates of a black orphan in the U.S. starving to death and a white orphan in China rescued and cherished was titled, “Good is Communism; Bad is Capitalism” in the Young Pioneers’ News.
Li has found that her frank depiction in her writing of modern life in China exposes her to criticism: why can’t she write something that shows the glories of the system and makes Chinese feel proud? I am sure Morrison faced some of the same kind of thing from African Americans invested in uplift. It probably affected her not at all, for as she said in that documentary, “History has always proved that books are the first plain on which certain battles are fought.”
I thought of this crucial insight when we went as a tour group yesterday to visit the studio of a local painter. There was nothing in the studio of any real interest; his paintings seemed to be pale copies of the Impressionists. But because his widow has kept the flame alive, long after his death, tourists still come to peer at his domestic remains-jackets, shoes and so forth—as well as at his minor paintings.
In the same Swiss town, the four-square white house of Fredrich Nietzsche is open only for two hours a day. In this house he wrote a book that was often read in college courses on philosophy: Thus Spoke Zarathustra, where he exposed some of his central ideas: “the eternal recurrence of the same”; the death of God; and questions about the value and objectivity of truth.
Not comforting, on any level, but then the truth seldom is.