Toni Morrison: An Ethical Poetics

By Yvette Christiansë | Go to book overview

4. Beginnings and Endings, Part One:
Old Languages/New Bodies

In the early pages of Jazz, Joe Trace utters these words: “you could say, ‘I was scared to death,’ but you could not retrieve the fear” (J 29). Any scene, no matter how intense, can be replayed, but insofar as it is replayed in narrative, his earlier experiences make him afraid that all memories will remain, for him, “drained of everything but the language to say it in.” He tells himself that this fear, of feeling’s dissipation or absence and the desire to recover or perpetuate it, is why he shot his young lover, Dorcas. It was “just to keep the feeling going” (J 3). It is a remarkable passage, distilling within itself the belatedness and the affectively reduced status of narrative vis-à-vis the event that it recounts, but also the longing toward emotional plenitude that compels such narrative. In a gesture typical of her maturing prose, Morrison stages for us the problem of the relation between event and discourse, and through it the question of how narrative and language, more generally, function in the always compromised and nonetheless necessary project of representation—whether historical or personal. Although the question of race remains central to that interrogation, it does not exhaust the problematic as Morrison conceives it.

In the play of simile, metaphor, and nomination, a play that becomes visible across several different texts, Morrison undertakes a more general exploration of how language compels action despite an ineradicable gap between actuality and its representation. In this gap, the demand for representation grows, and is filled by competing traditions, many of which aspire to cover over that gap and to claim totality. Indeed, this very process of claiming totality is what Laclau calls ideology, and Morrison’s most recent fiction, most notably A Mercy, is concerned with the establishment of ideological dominance or hegemony in a space that I shall call, following Mary Louise Pratt, the “contact zone.” I mean by this both a temporal

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