The collection is divided in two. Part one is “The Foreigner’s Home” (subdivided into a “Black Matter(s)” section); part two is called “God’s Language.” The first considers how our culture views and treats the migrant, the dispossessed, the prisoner, the victim of racialized hatred and violence; the second deals with the language fiction writers choose to imagine the stories of other lives. There is, naturally, significant overlap between the two: the latter’s focus on language that addresses religious belief and springs from religious tradition is anticipated by the former’s concern about a bias against religious content in serious art. The questions Morrison asks herself in the “God’s Language” section (“Is it possible to write religion-inflected prose narrative that does not rest its case entirely or mainly on biblical language?”) are inextricably linked to her assertion of her own “fidelity to the milieu out of which I wrote and in which my ancestors actually lived.” The placement of the “Black Matter(s)” section in the center of the collection is entirely apt.
The title essay, “The Source of Self-Regard,” is a meditation on Beloved and its use of historical sources, exploring the process of moving from “data to information to knowledge to wisdom.” Morrison’s description of her progression—from researching theoretical and narrative studies of slavery, to transforming that material from historical fact to an act of moral imagination—will doubtless become a staple of the classroom. Originally delivered years ago at a Portland lecture series, it’s good to see it included here. It may well inspire generations of young writers to research widely but wisely, to consider all elements of storytelling as fully informed moral choices.
These essays are not light or witty pronouncements; they are not humorless but they are utterly serious and often productively provocative as they challenge a reader into examinations of literary conscience. Morrison’s style is, for the most part, stately, not so much ornate as complex, not so much stentorian as insistent, authoritative, often fierce. She has a vast set of literary references at hand, her ease discussing the history of American narrative matched by her intimate knowledge of European and African texts across time: in one six-page stretch exploring form, she elegantly connects Wharton and James to Faulkner, Ellison, and Baldwin; Umberto Eco to Peter Høeg to William Gass; Toni Cade Bambara to Salman Rushdie, Ben Okri, and Leslie Marmon Silko. I am delighted (though not surprised) to know that she considers Gerard Manley Hopkins and Jean Toomer important influences.
It is sometimes bracing to move through these essays and recognize an earlier passage. “It is possible to wonder if we have progressed psychologically, intellectually, emotionally no further than 1492, when Spain cleaned itself of Jews, to 2004, when Sudan blocks food and medicine and remains content to watch the slow starvation of its people,” Morrison states, in nearly identical formulations: first in 2004, addressing Amnesty International in Edinburgh, then in 2010, introducing Toby Lewis at the ArtTable Award ceremony in New York. Art and politics—to say nothing of the concept of moral stasis––are thus linked across centuries and across a decade. Nonetheless, the piling up of such repetitions can be frustrating; while anyone who lectures publicly will recognize the need to recycle definitions and ideas that have already been meticulously articulated, the doublings and triplings here will probably be of more interest to Morrison scholars than to most readers. For a volume of selected, not collected, essays, some pruning was in order.
That complaint is carping of the lowest order. This is a crucial collection for any Toni Morrison devotee, but also for any reader intrigued by how novelists use the other parts of their brains. Morrison is not simply a narrative spellbinder who believes that writing is “awe and reverence and mystery and magic,” though that would be enough for any writer’s lifetime. As it happens, she is also a thundering prophet for our time.
The Source of Self-Regard
Selected Essays, Speeches,
Knopf, $28.95, 368 pp.