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

Article excerpt

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. …


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