Toni Morrison: An Ethical Poetics

By Yvette Christiansë | Go to book overview

5. Beginnings and Endings, Part Two: The Poetics of
Similitude and Disavowal at Utopia’s Gates

Morrison has described her project in A Mercy as wanting “to separate race from slavery to see what it was like, what it might have been like, to be a slave but without being raced; where your status was being enslaved but there was no application of racial inferiority,” when what is called America was “still fluid, ad hoc.”1 The novel also imagines emergent subjectivities in such an ad hoc state.

Two journeys take us into A Mercy: that of the young slave Florens and that of Jacob Vaark, her master. Although they traverse the same geography for part of their sojourns, they are on entirely different missions. One is narrated in the first person; one is told in the third person. We learn about Florens’s journey through her writing. We learn that she had been taught how to read and write by a priest from an early age, when she was still with her mother and baby brother on D’Ortega’s estate. By the mid 1600s, such an act was already frowned upon by slave owners, who were already reserving writing and reading as their privilege. Her writing takes place in secret, and it is inscribed on the only surface available to her. This surface is the walls of her dead master’s dream mansion, which is locked up and empty, shunned by Rebekka Vaark, who has forbidden any of her indentured servants or slaves to enter it. Florens’s writing is therefore an act of disobedience to her mistress’s command, which is, in the end, an extension of her master’s voice. She enters the house at night to write with whatever implement she can find, even if it is a stick, so that her writing is a form of scoring and engraving. Her act of disobedience is also an act that obeys her own need, an act of substitution in which she can express her desire, explain herself, and see herself reflected. It is an act of selfreflection, even though it is addressed to the blacksmith. It is an act of accounting for herself and for what has brought her to writing.

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