A Love Supreme: Jazzthetic Strategies in Toni Morrison's Beloved

By Eckstein, Lars | African American Review, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

A Love Supreme: Jazzthetic Strategies in Toni Morrison's Beloved


Eckstein, Lars, African American Review


Black Americans were sustained and healed and nurtured by the translation of their experience into art, above all in the music. That was functional.... My parallel is always the music, because all of the strategies of the art are there.... The power of the word is not music, but in terms of aesthetics, the music is the mirror that gives me the necessary clarity.--Toni Morrison (qtd. in Gilroy 181)

**********

Music is everywhere and all around in Toni Morrison's novel Beloved. (1) In fact, it is so full of music that it seems odd that despite a flood of critical attention, Morrison's intricate tale of the fugitive slave Sethe who killed one of her children to prevent her from being carried back into slavery has seldom been discussed with regard to its musical scope. (2) The novel's most intense "musical" moment certainly occurs towards the end of the tale, when 30 community women succeed in driving out the mysterious and haunting child-woman Beloved from Sethe's home at Bluestone Road 124:

   In the beginning there were no words. In the beginning there was
   the sound, and they all knew what that sound sounded like.... [T]he
   voices of women searched for the right combination, the key, the
   code, the sound that broke the back of words. Building voice upon
   voice upon voice until they found it, and when they did it was a
   wave of sound wide enough to sound deep water and knock the pods
   off chestnut trees. It broke over Sethe and she trembled like the
   baptized in its wash. (259-61) (3)

This passage points to the significance of music, not only in the context of Beloved, but also with regard to the predicament of the black diaspora at large. The assertion "In the beginning there were no words. In the beginning there was the sound, and they all knew what that sound sounded like," in an ironic subversion of John 1.1, declares the continuity of musical expression in the African American world. The passage refers less to metaphysical implications than to historical conditions, simply putting forth that the--English--word is much younger than the sound patterns of music that originated in African culture. As forms of expression handed down by generations and firmly rooted in the black community, these sounds offer an expressive potential that enables individuals to appropriate the English language and transform it according to their needs: It is the "sound that [breaks] the back of words," and it is in the sound specifically that the self-assured use of language giving voice to formerly unspeakable occurrences becomes possible. And there is a redemptive potential: Sethe and Denver are eventually redeemed of Beloved--who embodies a part of Sethe's unresolved and repressive past--by the sheer force of sound relying on the polyphony of a collective layering of "voice upon voice upon voice."

For Morrison, African American writing fundamentally relies on the sounds and rhythms of black music--as a source of narrative content, but particularly also as an aesthetic "mirror." She notes:

   If my work is faithfully to reflect the
   aesthetic tradition of Afro-American
   culture, it must make conscious use of
   the characteristics of its art forms and
   translate them into print: antiphony,
   the group nature of art, its functionality,
   its improvisational nature, its relationship
   to audience performance, the
   critical voice which upholds tradition
   and communal values and which also
   provides occasion for an individual to
   transcend and/or defy group restrictions.
   (1984, 388-89)

Morrison's narrative approach can be called a "jazzthetic" one. With regard to Beloved in particular, her musical scope has received little critical attention. While Morrison's subsequent novel Jazz has been acknowledged and praised for its use of musical technique, Beloved has rarely been read under similar premises. This critical inattention is surprising since Beloved-in which Morrison avoids all kinds of immediate references to written material-bears rather clearly marked references to musical material and styles. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

A Love Supreme: Jazzthetic Strategies in Toni Morrison's Beloved
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.