|TITLE:||The Black Voice and the Language of the Text: Toni Morrison's Sula|
|SOURCE:||College Literature v23 p88-103 O '96|
magazine publisher is the copyright holder of this article and it is
reproduced with permission. Further reproduction of this article in
violation of the copyright is prohibited.
One of the most significant developments in the African-American tradition has been the formation of a class of intellectuals (scholars, critics, writers), a formation shot through and through with conflict both within and without. The conflict, on one hand, is between African-American and American culture, and on the other, between this class of intellectuals and the "people," the "masses." The conflict, in both its productive and traumatic force, may, in fact, be seen as propelling the trajectory of the African-American intellectual and expressive enterprise. Even the terms used to understand this phenomenon offer ample evidence of the centrality of conflict in the works of African-American writers: double consciousness, dialogics of difference/dialectics of identity, simultaneity of oppression/discourse, immersion and ascent, roots and routes, anchorage and voyage, etc.
The centrality of this concern in cultural analysis cannot be elided when we shift our focus to literary studies. While this conflict is operative in practically all African-American writing, the focus here is on the tradition of black women's fiction, specifically as it appears in Toni Morrison's Sula. In terms of narrative strategy, black women writers have negotiated this conflict by manipulating what we have traditionally called point of view and, by extension, voice. This mobilization of voice enacts the conflict between cultures. At another level, however, African-American women's fiction has produced, from within, profound philosophical reflections on language itself.
Perhaps one of the most significant, and early, contributions to the study of voice in African-American fiction is John Wideman's "Defining the Black Voice in Fiction." He calls our attention to "the colonial interface of two language cultures--one written, literary and the other oral, traditional" (81). The former is invested with a legitimating authority in the form of a "literary frame" which functions as a legitimating device: "the literary frame was a mediator, a legitimizer" (81). Furthermore, "The frame implies a linguistic hierarchy, the dominance of one language variety over all others" (81).
As a result of "the colonial interface," narrative strategy in black fiction involves a negotiation with the literary frame and its linguistic hierarchy. Different writers have, of course, intervened in this hierarchy in different ways, and, as Wideman suggests, the specific modes of this intervention, in fact, provide a continuum along which African-American literature may be charted (79-80). As Henry Louis Gates has demonstrated most vigorously, Zora Neale Hurston's "oxymoronic oral hieroglyphic" (215) constitutes her specific mode of intervention. Gayl Jones intervenes in such a way that, as Wideman asserts, "the frame has disappeared" (81).
Although Wideman later concedes that "black speech cannot escape entirely the frame of American literary language" (82), the significant point is that we can observe a continuum in black women's fiction in which orality ruptures the fabric of the literary text, oral syntax implodes the literary voice. And although we might also concede that strictly speaking, if somewhat fastidiously, "oral literature" is a "strictly preposterous term" (Ong 11), black women's fiction not only contains a substratum of oral residue, but actively communicates an oral/aural and tactile experience; that is, it manipulates and redistributes the sensory configuration of the literary experience. One of the ways it does so is through its concern with voice.
The concern with voice is intimately connected in black women's fiction with the nature of language, specifically with the written word itself. Limiting ourselves to an analysis of these concerns in Sula, we might articulate, albeit rather schematically, two rival claims of language. The first which privileges the signifier and is perhaps best represented by Michel Foucault's method has been immensely productive in literary and cultural studies, and for specific historical reasons which we need not consider here, in minority studies generally. Foucault does not, of course, remain intractable at the level of the signifier, but in the momentum of his method, particularly in certain aspects of his archaeology, traces of which are unmistakably carried over into his genealogy, one notes the loss of agency, the sense of being inexorably determined by a set of discursive regularities. At one point of his critique of Foucault, Habermas probes into these regularities, or into their regulation, and forces us to acknowledge "'the strange notion of regularities which regulate themselves'" (268). While Foucault's work has unquestionably been productive, the general methodological ascendancy of discourse analysis has fostered what one critic refers to as an "exorbitation of language" (Ahmad 6); and some African-American scholars have reacted against the textual orientation of African-American literary studies.(FN1)
As an alternative to this textualization, different groups, have articulated different emphases, all of which aim to free literary studies from a somewhat rigid textuality. At the level of literature, the study of the relationship of the literary text to culture in general is a productive one even if, at times, the insistence on the non-textual in literary study seems to move in the direction of attempting to liberate literature from letters. At the level of language, representation may mark the epistemological limits of access, and yet representation itself seems constantly to be disfigured by unrepresentability. Even if one acknowledges that there is, at a certain level, no getting away from representation, marks of the non-representational continue to leave their traces in the text. At the same time, even if one acknowledges that there is, at a certain level, no getting away from metaphysics, tentative excursions into metaphysics run the risk of being recuperated into essentialisms; and the charge of essentialism, which in some quarters has reached a ridiculously petulant pitch, remains nevertheless, a serious one.
In Sula Toni Morrison doggedly pursues these possibilities of language. She has, in her non-fiction, made her intentions clear. She asserts that "in Afro-American literature itself the question of difference, of essence, is critical" ("Unspeakable" 11). She then asks, "What makes a book 'Black'? The most valuable point of entry into the question of cultural (or racial) distinction, the one most fraught, is its language--its unpoliced, seditious, confrontational, manipulative, inventive, disruptive, masked and unmasking language. Such a penetration will entail the most careful study, one in which the impact of Afro-American presence on modernity becomes clear and is no longer a well-kept secret" ("Unspeakable" 11).
Her observation about the black impact on modernity is profound, and this has been and continues to be read and demonstrated in various ways. For the purposes of this paper, however, it is her overwhelming emphasis on language that is important. Her response to the question "what makes a book black?" is tautological: what makes a book black is its black language. We may also provisionally note that her insistence that the black "difference," the black "distinction," is its "essence," its "presence" constitutes a move toward a metaphysics of race. Having observed these general directions of her comments, however, one also needs to observe that the black language of the black text, as cultural/racial index, is "the one most fraught," and the "entry," the "penetration," into this language "will entail the most careful study."
Characteristically, Morrison proceeds by exclusion and by analogy, by describing those traits that do not define black literature, or rather, by rejecting these definitions imposed by others, and by drawing an analogy with music. In an earlier interview, attempting to define "what makes a book 'black,'" she says, for example, "The only analogy I have for it is in music," and a little later, "I don't have the vocabulary to explain it better" (McKay 427). It has perhaps become all too easy to read in some of Morrison's comments a dangerous essentialism and a retrograde politics. Yet, these same comments may point toward that oral syntax that implodes the literary voice, and more generally, toward that element of the non-representational, of excess, of grotesquerie that finds its embodiment in Sula. In the same interview cited above, Morrison makes a pertinent remark: "There was an articulate literature before there was print. There were griots. They memorized it. People heard it. It is important that there is sound in my books--that you can hear it, that I can hear it" (427).
The question of a defining, distinctive voice also crystallizes into a specifically technical problem of narrative strategy, that of point of view. And Morrison is heir to this concern in the tradition of black fiction. She seems, for example, altogether dissatisfied with her handling of point of view in her first novel, The Bluest Eye. She says she fails "to secure throughout the work the feminine subtext" and "The shambles this struggle became is most evident in the section on Pauline Breedlove where I resorted to two voices, hers and the urging narrator's, both of which are extremely unsatisfactory to me" ("Unspeakable" 23). On Sula, Morrison is particularly terse about the opening: she says she is "embarrassed" by it and "despises" it (23-27). She calls it the "valley man's guidance," his "door" into "the territory."
The construction of this "valley man's" door, this discursive, authenticating,(FN2) introductory, "literary frame" involves the opposition between "the nightshade and blackberry patches," the "two words of darkness in 'nightshade,'" indicating "Sula's double-dose of chosen blackness and biological blackness" (26). Further, Sula is "quintessentially black, metaphysically black, if you will, which is not melanin and certainly not unquestioning fidelity to the tribe" (25). In the next sequence of terms, Morrison moves from "metaphysically black" to "dangerously female": "She is new world black and new world woman extracting choice from choicelessness, responding inventively to found things. Improvisational. Daring, disruptive, imaginative, modern, out-of-the-house, outlawed, unpolicing, uncontained and uncontainable. And dangerously female" (25). Sula represents "the complex, contradictory, evasive, independent, liquid modernity" which "ushers in the Jazz Age" (26).
It is perhaps already clear that if we juxtapose what Morrison has to say about language and about Sula, or about the blackness of black language and Sula's blackness and femaleness, we find a compelling coincidence. We find direct repetition and echoes in "disruptive," "unpoliced/unpolicing," "inventive/improvisational/imaginative" and "seditious/outlawed"; the syntactically repeated closing of each sequence, "masked and unmasking" and "uncontained and uncontainable." In her descriptions of language and of Sula (i.e., in her remarks on representation and subjectivity) Morrison returns to the concept of modernity, a concept heavily sedimented with a subtext of blackness and femaleness. And, finally, she ends in both cases with the "only analogy" with music, and specifically, with "the Jazz Age."
Morrison, then, is clearly preoccupied not only with the technical considerations of point of view but also with the question of representation itself. It is as if she would have Sula become the figure of music in the text. When Morrison attempts to define the blackness of black language, she has, as we have observed, no vocabulary for it but relies on an analogy with music. So, too, when she attempts to describe Sula's blackness and femaleness. Sula, then, becomes the figure of language itself. More specifically, however, she seems to function as the figure of the semiotic in the text. She is the semiotic constituent of the symbolic, or the symbolically represented semiotic. In this sense, the collaborative effort between the narrator and Sula produces the voice of the text. This helps to explain the extreme ambivalence with which Sula is represented, the constant slippages and shifts between voices, and most importantly here, the duet enacted in the scene of Sula's "mounting to orgasm" between narrator and character, a duet, a collaboration between the unconstituted and yet inalienably constitutive semiotic and the symbolic.
Without reference to these concerns, it is not possible to understand certain key passages in Sula, or specifically four passages that we might arrange in a sequence. For convenience of reference, we will designate these as Sula's response to the "pathos of the black male," the "cosmic grotesque," the by now often quoted "orgasmic 'howl,'" and the "mounting to orgasm" as Sula makes love to Ajax. Critical references to these passages are generally inadequate. Some are interesting but limited; others are couched in superlatives but offer little commentary. The last passage, for example, is called "the novel's most spectacular passage (Homans 193) and is cited for its "stunning language of poetic metaphor" (Henderson 33)--but little else.
These passages, moreover, have not been understood in their interconnectedness, in the way they function as a specific configuration of moments which describe a specific movement in the text. These four passages function in pairs. The first two are presented in direct discourse, spoken by Sula, to Jude and Nel respectively. They are Sula's response to a black male and a black female text constructed by her two interlocutors. We might also note that while the first may convincingly be read as Sula's speech, the second is difficult to read as such. This progressive invasion of the narrator's voice into the character's speech continues in the third passage where direct quotations are abandoned and the narrator frankly describes the "orgasmic 'howl.'" The final passage, with the typographical assistance of interspersed italicized lines, enacts a collaboration of voices, a duet--a strategy that Morrison has used in her first novel and returns to at the end of Beloved.
These passages can be clarified by some of Bakhtin's ideas about the grotesque.(FN3) Above all, and in spite of his almost unrestrained eulogization of the folk, the consistency with which he grounds his analysis in the folk offers a useful, if obvious, parallel to African-American literary theory. In fact, he asserts that the folk sense of the grotesque is not entirely recuperable in the literary text. It is born only at the "confines of languages" because "it is impossible to overcome through abstract thought alone, within the system of a unique language, that deep dogmatism hidden in all forms of this system" (472).
The intractable quality of the grotesque (which, of course, Bakhtin nevertheless tracks for some five hundred pages) leads Bakhtin into another pertinent area of our discussion, that of orality. He emphasizes the market-place form of Rabelais' language. In a remarkable resemblance to what Morrison says about her own writing, Bakhtin designates the Rabelaisian grotesque image as "a vivid and dynamic 'loud' image" a "'loud' talking image" (191). He associates the literary text, aside from some exceptional moments when the grotesque can emerge on the "confines of languages," with an atrophied sensuous perception of the world. This explains his assertion that "the nose and mouth play the most important part in the grotesque image of the body" and "The eyes have no part in these comic images" (316), an assertion that we will return to.
Two specific characteristics of the Bakhtinian grotesque need to be noted: its historical continuity and its embodiment in the material, though not the individual, body.(FN4) The grotesque embodies a specific conception of time, which is historical and materialist, which defines a horizontal continuity of the "ancestral body" (367) that defeats the gloomy eschatological time of a vertically constructed medieval hierarchy (363). Further, this regenerative aspect of the grotesque attaches primarily to the "bodily lower stratum," but the grotesque body is also not one which is carefully demarcated and separate. It is one that stresses continuity and those parts that can be anatomically projected and penetrated: "All these convexities and orifices have a common characteristic; it is within them that the confines between bodies and between the body and the world are overcome" (317).
If the content of the grotesque image is one of continuity and materiality, its method relies on subversion and enumeration, anatomical or otherwise. Its movement is subversive and transgressive: "Down, inside out, vice versa, upside down, such is the direction of all these movements. All of them thrust down, turn over, push headfirst, transfer top to bottom, and bottom to top, both in the literal sense of space, and in the metaphorical meaning of the image" (370). And the enumerations, relying on excess and hyperbolization, and close to an oral folk world, "still have something of the nature of proper nouns" (457) which "are as yet insufficiently neutral and generalized" (458). They are "nearer to appellations" "as yet not disciplined by the literary context and its strict lexical differentiation and selection" (462). The language of the marketplace in Rabelais is "grammatically and semantically isolated from context and is regarded as a complete unit, something like a proverb" (16).
The passage we have designated the "pathos of the black male," is schematic to the point of caricature:
White men love you. They spend so much time worrying about your penis they forget their own. The only thing they want to do is cut off a nigger's privates. And if that ain't love and respect I don't know what is. And white women? They chase you all to every corner of the earth, feel for you under every bed. I knew a white woman wouldn't leave the house after 6 o'clock for fear one of you would snatch her. Now ain't that love? They think rape soon's they see you, and if they don't get the rape they looking for, they scream it anyway just so the search won't be in vain. Colored women worry themselves into bad health just trying to hang on to your cuffs. Even little children--white and black, boys and girls--spend all their childhood eating their hearts out 'cause they think you don't love them. And if that ain't enough, you love yourselves. (103-04)
The passage is constructed of five units: white male, white female, black female, children, and black male. The first two images, explicitly sexual and violent, are double-faced, ambivalent. They are historical images and stereotypes recalled and submitted to a subversive gaze, turned inside out, inverted, and rendered grotesque. The first is of a lynching, of castration. The prevailing justifications behind this were attached to the sub-human, racially transgressive black phallus. The gaze of the grotesque, however, makes clear that the source of this threat lies not so much in black desire as in white fear and impotence--"so much time worrying about your penis they forget their own." The juxtaposition of the two images, passivity and dominance, evokes an unmistakable, if obsessive, homoeroticism. It is the collision of "forget their own" and "nigger's privates" within the image itself that is the condition for the emergence of Sula's grotesque: "And if that ain't love and respect."
The second image is closely related to the first. It is that of the "rape of the white woman," that vehicle of cultural purity sullied by the uncontrolled libidinal transgression of black desire. But this, too, is subverted by "the rape they looking for," in fact, "search[ing]" for. Thus the image of a racially transgressive black male sexuality collides with the white female fantasy of the exotic and prodigious superpotent black phallus. The next two images, in comparison, are truncated --one sentence each, compared to the four and five in the first and second--but they too evoke historical and social conditions meant, by Sula, to demonstrate that the black male is "the envy of the world." These images blend the historical figures of the roving black male, the abandoned black female, and the personage of the benevolent "Uncle Tom."
What is significant about these images is not only that they are drawn from a fund of historical experience, but that they have been historicized. That is, they are drawn from a specific historical and sociological body of knowledge, constructed and disseminated by the social sciences. Further, they function with "something of the nature of proper nouns;" they exert a sheer appellative force. Each image here is a "compete unit," and the serialization of such units exerts a formal pressure on content. The unit is wrenched from a disciplined and disciplinary context, is "semantically isolated," and inverted to yield a grotesque image.
The second passage, we will remind ourselves, is presented in direct quotations, spoken, or even better, delivered spectacularly by Sula, on her deathbed, presumably moments before her death:
After all the old women have lain with the teen-agers; when all the young girls have slept with their old drunken uncles; after all the black men fuck al the white ones; when all the white women kiss all the black ones; when all the guards have raped all the jail-birds and after all the whores make love to their grannies; after all the faggots get their mothers' trim; when Lindbergh sleeps with Bessie Smith and Norma Shearer makes it with Stepin Fetchit; after all the dogs have fucked all the cats and every weathervane on every barn flies off the roof to mount the hogs...then there'll be a little love left over for me. (145-46)
It is constructed of eight units, punctuated by semi colons, in one sentence. All the units begin with the subordinating "after" or "when," some packing two clauses separated by a coordinating "and," and the series leads up to the culminating "then." The subordinators thus do not introduce hierarchy into the syntax; in fact, the subordinators coordinate, linking the units in the paratactic style of oral speech.
The first two units are organized by the opposition between youth and age, the second two by that between black and white. Further, the morphology of the paired units is chiasmic, in the first, "old-teen-young-old," in the second, "black-white-white-black." The principle is that of inversion, of "inside out," which does not aggravate the oppositions but rather posits a continuity between polarities. This series of eight units does not, however, proceed in a coherently linear syntax. The first structuring principle, youth and age, for example, is already contaminated by the incestuous "girls" and "uncles." Rather, the organizing dynamic of the series is a spiralling into the anarchic grotesque. In the next two units, we have a bizarre coupling of crime and punishment, of criminals and the custodians of culture, or of law and lawlessness. These two units also transgress sexual boundaries in their movement toward homosexuality and incest. The seventh unit, maintaining a white-black polarity, makes clear the sheer appellative force of all the units by its simple enumeration of proper nouns. But it is the last unit that is most spectacular in its embodiment of the grotesque. The weathervane that "flies off the roof to mount the hogs" is unleashed from all referential burden and strains toward an ontologically other embodied in the grotesque.
In these two passages, images function as linguistic units, or perhaps as semiotic units. While they are not entirely detached from the plot, their attachment is tangential. They are "isolated from context" and function as "complete units" in themselves. They may even, in a sense, be considered as impediments to the plot. They appear in a rupture of the text, in a semiotic convulsion that asserts the primacy of the prediscursive. They are, in Bakhtin's words, "as yet not disciplined by the literary context." And while the assertion of orality in a literary text must seem like a gross violation of "strict lexical differentiation and selection," one must note that it is precisely through these linguistic units, and their detachment from the literary context, that the images and their syntax assert the sensory matrix of an oral world.
Both passages celebrate the sheer material abundance of the body and of language, one embedded in the other, one which both threatens and impels the other. Keeping in mind Bakhtin's twin emphases on the materiality of the body and the word, we can observe a tension between narrator and character, particularly in the second passage, the "cosmic grotesque." It is as if the semiotic, in rebellion, would conduct a continual raid on the symbolic function, would turn it back into itself and rupture the symbolic structuring. Embedded in the symbolic structure, the figure of the semiotic disfigures the symbolic. This is language continually invoking its other, or more specifically here, invoking the grotesque body of the community. The series of images presents a chain of signifiers, always straining toward freedom from a semantic grid, always pointing toward another chain of signifiers, an impossible chain of coupling bodies. The series, seeming to arrive at a referential point of attachment, eludes that point through a loophole in a process of continual deferral, always invoking the continuous body of the communal grotesque.
This image of the grotesque body of the community is clarified in our third passage, a passage which has received some significant critical commentary(FN5) but needs to be situated in relation to the sequence of passages that is the focus here. When Sula
began to assert herself in the [sexual] act, particles gathered in her like steel shavings drawn to a spacious magnetic center, forming a tight cluster that nothing, it seemed, could break.... But the cluster did break, fall apart, and in her panic to hold it together she leaped from the edge into soundlessness and went down howling, howling into a stinging awareness of the endings of things: an eye of sorrow in the midst of all the hurricane rage of joy. (123)
This passage occurs in a sequence of approximately eight dense paragraphs after Sula's break with Nel, and after the communal condemnation of Sula. In other words, it is a moment of meditative isolation. In this sequence of paragraphs, two images dominate, that in which Sula "went down howling" and that of her "free fall" into the "snake's breath," a "full surrender to the downward flight" (120). Further, the "breath of the snake" represents the members of the community, and unlike Sula, Nel is driven back by "the flick of their tongues." The "snake's breath," however, cannot be read as representing individual members of the community. Sula is, after all, the town pariah. If she gives herself to the community, she certainly does not do so according to any moral design.
At this point, it is useful to remind ourselves that Bakhtin is extremely careful, even to the point of what at times one senses is an anxiety-ridden redundancy, to underline throughout his study that the grotesque body is not the individual, biological body; it is not the "subjective grotesque," but the "ancestral body," "precisely the historic, progressing body of mankind" (367). Sula, then, gives herself to the "free fall" into the "breath of the snake," that is, into the "gaping mouth" of the historic, progressing, grotesque body of the community, a mouth which, according to Bakhtin, is "the most important of all human features for the grotesque": "It dominates all else. The grotesque face is actually reduced to the gaping mouth" (317). It may also be worth noting here that even though Bakhtin cannot entirely endorse Victor Hugo's interpretation of the grotesque, he is quite taken by Hugo's image of the grotesque, "of a serpent inside man; 'these are his bowels'" (126). And Sula is, of course, in one reading (significantly, Jude's), marked by "a copperhead over her eye" (103).
That Sula does not "belong" to the community is quite clear. She cherishes her "postcoital privateness," she goes "down howling" into "soundlessness" and "the death of time and a loneliness so profound the word itself had no meaning" (123). The community that Morrison represents here, however, is complex and ambivalent.(FN6) It is both nourishing and devouring. And while the relationship between Sula and the community is marked by mutual antagonism, she is not separate from it. In fact, she is integral to it.(FN7) Far from seeking nourishment from the members of the community, Sula gives herself to a collective, ritual, devouring.
In other words, the community is projected here in the terms of the grotesque. Disregarding a vertically constructed hierarchy, Sula "falls" or goes "down howling" into the grotesque space of a horizontally constructed a continuity which is not that of an abstract eternal but a historical, materialist, bodily continuity. This is also the logic of the grotesque which underlies the construction of the passage we have referred to as the "orgasmic grotesque." The linguistic units, in their paratactic syntax, uprooted from their literary context, exerting their sheer appellative force, represent this continuity. Similarly, Sula, devoured in the gaping mouth of the serpent, inhabiting an interiority, is simultaneously penetrated and inhabited by the serpent. The "breath of the snake" and the "copperhead over her eye" are integrated in the logic and syntax of the grotesque.
The last passage we will examine here has received both the least critical attention and the most uncritical appreciation. We have noted, in Bakhtinian terms, the function on one hand of appellations and proper nouns, of appellative force and pronominalizations, and on the other, of the lower bodily stratum in the three passages above. This method has underscored themateriality of the word and of the body, and these two come together in this last passage, as Sula, penetrating her lover's body, would tear into the sign, would turn it inside out in a grotesque act that is both violent and regenerative. It is an act of mutilation, dismemberment, and death, but it is also one of remembrance and regeneration.
Sula would "return to the state anterior to discourse" (Foucault 48), a state that is anterior to symbolic capacity. She would "reach out to and touch" this anteriority "with an ungloved hand" (121). What Foucault discourages in his analysis of discourse is precisely what Sula wishes to do, "to pierce through its density [of discourse] in order to reach what remains silently anterior to it" (Foucault 47).
The passage, a lyrical representation of "the drift of her flesh toward the high silence of orgasm," follows in its entirety:
If I take a chamois and rub real hard on the bone, right on the ledge of your cheek bone, some of the black will disappear. It will flake away into the chamois and underneath there will be gold leaf. I can see it shining through the black. I know it is there...
How high she was over his wand-lean body, how slippery was his sliding sliding smile.
And if I take a nailfile or even Eva's old paring knife--that will do--and scrape away at the gold, it will fall away at the gold, it will fall away and there will be alabaster. The alabaster is what gives your face its planes, its curves. That is why your mouth smiling does not reach your eyes. Alabaster is giving it a gravity that resists a total smile.
The height and the swaying dizzied her, so she bent down and let her breasts graze his chest.
Then I can take a chisel and small tap hammer and tap away at the alabaster. It will crack then like ice under the pick, and through the breaks I will see the loam, fertile, free of pebbles and twigs. For it is the loam that is giving you that smell.
She slipped her hands under his armpits, for it seemed as though she would not be able to dam the spread of weakness she felt under her skin without holding on to something.
I will put my hand deep into your soil, lift it, sift it with my fingers, feel its warm surface and dewy chill below.
She put her head under his chin with no hope in the world of keeping anything at all at bay.
I will water your soil, keep it rich and moist. But how much? How much water to keep the loam moist? And how much loam will I need to keep my water still? And when do the two make mud?
He swallowed her mouth just as her thighs had swallowed his genitals, and the house was very, very quiet (130-131).
The passage, as we have observed, enacts a duet between narrator and character. The italicization, while keeping the voices separate, paradoxically marks their complicity. It alternates between Sula's "voice," using first and second person, with Sula "speaking" to her lover, Ajax, while reaching orgasm, and the narrator's voice using third person. The instruments she uses to reach into Ajax's anterior self, that is, a self anterior to representation, progress from a chamois to a nail file/paring knife to a chisel and tap hammer or, by metaphorical extension, an ice pick. What she uncovers, or discovers, similarly progresses from black (skin) to gold leaf to alabaster to loam. When Sula "rub[s] real hard," "scrape[s] away," and "tap[s] away," Ajax's skin "disappear[s]" or "flake[s] away," his gold "fall[s] away," and his alabaster "crack[s]" or "breaks." In terms of sensory perception, Sula progresses from "planes" and "curves" to "smell" to "feel," that is, from visual to olfactory to tactile perception. We may represent these progressions schematically:
Chamois --> Nail file/Paring knife --> Chisel/Tap hammer
Rub --> Scrape --> Tap
Black (skin) --> Gold leaf --> Alabaster Loam
Flakes --> Falls --> Cracks
moment of high literacy is marked by the sovereignty of the eye. After
all the reservations and qualifications have been taken into account,
the experience of literacy unequivocally privileges the sense of sight,
and yet the passage, quite equivocally, moves away from sight to
tactility, or from the isolation of sight to an altered sensory matrix.
And while this movement need be neither nostalgic nor apocalyptic, as
it often seems to be in Marshall McLuhan, for example, the trajectory
of the sensory apparatus is toward the increasingly tabooed senses, a
progression/retrogression that culminates in the "gaping mouth": "He
swallowed her mouth just as her thighs had swallowed his genitals."
Thus the body turns a cartwheel, the apparatus of speech and the
abdomen,(FN8) the mouth and the genitals, are rotated in a grotesque
affirmation of language and the body. This entire movement, this
collaboration of voices, moves toward the aphasic, the "high silence of
orgasm," toward "soundlessness": "and the house was very, very quiet."
In addition to the weaving of voices, the altered sensory matrix, the rotated bodily hierarchy, the passage also establishes an ambivalence about life and death, a reciprocity between desire and death. It vigorously brings together the embodiment of death, Shadrack, and the perfect lover, Ajax. The narrator's voice observes, "How high she was over his wand-lean body, how slippery was his sliding sliding smile." Ajax's "slipping, falling smile" (129), his "sliding sliding smile," resembles the "flake away," the "fall away," of the different layers of his being. Further, his smile and his "velvet helmet of hair" (129) are described in the terms of Shadrack's experience on the battlefield. Shadrack watches as "the soldier's head disappeared under the inverted soup bowl of his helmet," and the body of the "headless soldier" ran on "ignoring altogether the drip and slide of brain tissue down its back" (8). A description of sexual fulfillment is rendered in terms of death.
The metaphor of uncovering not only brings together the battlefield and the site of sexual fulfillment, but it also affirms the affinity between Shadrack and Sula in what Sula supposes is their complicity in Chicken Little's death. Shadrack had once offered Sula a word of "comfort": "he had said 'always,' so she would not be afraid of the change--the falling away of skin, the drip and slide of blood, and the exposure of bone underneath" (157). When Sula lyrically strips away the different layers of Ajax's being, she is engaged in a potentially deadly act. These different layers "fall away" in a way resembling the headless soldier's "falling away of skin."
Death, in this passage, is a real death, not to be trivialized, but it is not a final death. It is a creative death, a "pregnant death." This is reinforced by Sula's death, immediately preceding which, the text tells us that "she might draw her legs up to her chest, close her eyes, put her thumb in her mouth and float...down until she met a rain scent and would know the water was near, and she would curl into its heavy softness and it would...wash her tired flesh always" (149). The foetal position indicates Sula's return to infancy, to the watery womb of a prediscursive plenitude, which, as the words "curl into its heavy softness" suggest, is the plenitude of the amniotic fluid. In the passage itself, the oblique reference to Egyptian creation myths and the references to soil, loam, and mud, on the one hand, and to water on the other, that is, Earth and Water, male and female principles, suggest creation and procreation.
In this passage, several boundaries are placed under erasure, boundaries between voices, between sensory and bodily hierarchies, between life and death. The body becomes a cipher in a matrix of signifiers, a surface that Sula would penetrate, a site where "the confines between bodies" are placed under erasure. The bodily lower stratum and the gaping mouth, the genitals and the mouth, are rotated and aligned in the topography of the grotesque body. The mouth and the womb are reciprocally and simultaneously devouring and nourishing. The boundaries between bodies begin to disintegrate as skin "falls away," as flesh is "torn" from the face (136), and interiority and exteriority are no longer strictly demarcated but defined in a continuity.
The figuration of death and desire in the passage denies and rejects the somber finality of death. The novel, in general, is saturated with death, and Sula herself is often participant or observer in these deaths. The text, however, seems to sustain its representation of Sula as a figure of the constitutive element of language, an element that is "uncontained and uncontainable." In this sense, in terms of its language, the text offers what is perhaps its most playful and "disruptive" moment in Sula's death. At this point, the novel gives the slip to the grim reaper, its language offers what Bakhtin calls the "gay loophole" (454): "Sula felt her face smiling. 'Well, I'll be damned,' she thought, 'it didn't even hurt. Wait'll I tell Nel'" (149). Far from a metaphysically conceived finality, or a moralistically stipulated justification, Sula's words represent an affirmation of life, irreverent, "outlawed," intractable.
Morrison's concern with orality and literacy, with interiority and exteriority, and with voice and language is certainly not anomalous, and we may turn to the work of several black women for the relevant intertextual relations. The most compelling in its uncompromising preoccupation with these concerns, however, is Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God. As a remarkable instance of intertextuality, one passage in particular deserves attention for its relation to the passage examined above:
She had found a jewel down inside herself and she wanted to walk where people see her and gleam it around. But she had been set in the marketplace to sell. Been set for still bait. When God had made The Man, he made him out of stuff that sung all the time and glittered all over. Then after that some angels got jealous and chopped him into millions of pieces, but still he glittered and hummed. So they beat him down to nothing but sparks but each little spark had a shine and a song. So they covered each one over with mud. And the lonesomeness in the sparks make them hunt for one another, but the mud is deaf and dumb. Like all the other tumbling mud-balls, Janie had tried to show her shine. (138-39)
The similarities between this passage and that from Sula are perhaps not immediately apparent. One may initially, however, associate the "jewel," the "glitter," the "spark" and "shine," on one hand, with the "sparkle or splutter" that is rubbed down to a "dull glow" in Nel (83), and on the other, with the "gold leaf" Sula can see "shining through the black." The word "mud" may also remind one of Sula's last question, "And when do the two make Mud?" Missy Dehn Kubitschek, in Claiming the Heritage, observes that "This irreverent, edited, and conflated variation of Paradise Lost and several Egyptian myths emphasizes both the mud and the shine" (57). Janie can be free, can become "an active agent," only by accepting both the shine, and the mud, only by accepting her "existential responsibility" (56). The intertextual connection between the passages is perhaps most striking in their references to the Egyptian creation myths. We may represent this passage diagrammatically:
Mud <-- Sparks <-- millions of pieces" <-- Stuff/jewel
<-- a shine and <-- "still glittered and <-- that "sung
a song" hummed" and glittered"
Covered Beat Chopped
process here is one which progressively diminishes the original jewel.
The jewel that sung and glittered is chopped into millions of pieces
which still glittered and hummed. These pieces are beaten into sparks,
but they still have a shine and a song. These sparks are then covered
with mud, but in their "lonesomeness," they still "hunt for one
The process described in Sula is precisely the reverse of that in Their Eyes. If, in Sula, we witness an interiorization, here we observe an exteriorization. In Sula we move toward an uncovering or discovering; in Their Eyes we witness a covering. Even if the direction of the movement in both passages is different, toward an interiority and toward an exteriority, both passages deploy a method to engage the central condition of absence. The condition is one of having been plucked from a plenitude, of dislocation and diminishment, and the method deployed is one of resistance. Janie and Sula, then, are both nourished by the memory of a prediscursive universe, one that precedes the symbolic order. They both wish to recreate this universe.
In the latter, however, the "mud" is "deaf and dumb," and the human element is reduced to "sparks," which, to be sure, because of their "lonesomeness," "hunt for one another." Thus the method deployed against diminishment is relational, but it is a relation at the level of essence. In the former, in contrast, the "mud" is elemental and bodily. It is creatively constituted in a careful combination of water and soil/loam. In other words, the human element is defined in terms of existence, of the materiality and (pro)creative possibilities of the cosmic body of the grotesque.
All four passages from Sula that we have examined here may be exorbitant in their celebration of the signifier; they may seem to strain toward unrepresentability, to be unleashed from referentiality. But in every instance this momentum is harnessed and reined in by an insistence on the materiality of the word, the word rigorously, even strenuously, embodied. This dialectic between the abstract and the concrete, the idealist and the materialist, provides a crucial impetus for the language of the text. The word finds a local habitation in the body at the same time as the body, or, the trajectory of desire, penetrates and inhabits the word. And while the body is the historic, progressing, grotesque body of the black community, the word, here, is the oral word of black speech. This is the orality that ruptures the language of the black text.
This is also the orality that laters the sensory configuration of the literate and literary experience. The orality of black speech, by invading the language of the black text, continually resists a sterile and aestheticized textuality which, ironically enough, itself risks being recuperated into a sort of technicist essentialism--in what we have noted as a privileging of the signifier. In resisting this sort of textualization, however, the text simultaneously risks being recuperated into other types of essentialisms. This conflict between orality and textuality accounts for the uneasiness we may feel in trying to situate novels like Sula in contemporary critical discussions about language. This is also Toni Morrison's mode of intervention in the "linguistic hierarchy" of the "literary frame;" but more generally, African-American literature, in defining the black voice in fiction, responds to, resists, and modifies the hierarchy of the literary frame.
Basu is assistant professor of English at the Illinois Institute of Technology and the author of an article on Gayl Jones' Eva's Man in Callaloo 19.1.
1 See, for example, Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1993).
2 For a study of authenticating devices in African-American literature, see Robert Stepto, From Behind the Veil: A Study of Afro-American Narrative (Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1979).
3 Even if Sula is not really Rabelaisian, certain aspects of his analysis are useful for an understanding of these passages.
4 Two images, among others, deserve attention: that of pregnant hags and that of a stutterer. Of the first, Bakhtin comments that "It is pregnant death, a death that gives birth" (25), a comment that he repeats tirelessly throughout the book.
The second, bringing together the bodily lower stratum and the word, insisting on the materiality of the word, is that of a stutterer who cannot pronounce a word till Harlequin "rushes head forward and hits the man in the abdomen" and "The difficult word is 'born'" (304). Bakhtin commets that "the stutterer enacts a scene of childbirth" (308), and "the entire mechanism of the word is transferred from the apparatus of speech to the abdomen" (309).
5 Although Mae Henderson persuasively argues that the howl represents the irruption of the presymbolic into the symbolic, the "breaks" in the dominant discourse (33), Margaret Homans reminds us repeatedly that these representations achieve their status, ironically, by "representing their skepticism about representation" and by "The ambiguity entailed in the representation of unrepresentability" (205).
6 For the general responses of black women novelists to the nationalist aesthetic and their particular responses to the nationalist representation of community, see Madhu Dubey, Black Women Novelists and the Nationalist Aesthetic (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1994).
7 Mae Henderson, for example, comments that "the community closes ranks against [Sula] who transgresses the boundaries prescribed for women" in "Speaking in Tongues: Dialogics, Dialectics, and the Black Woman Writer's Literary Tradition," Changing Our Own Words, ed. Cheryl A. Wall (New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1992) 28.
8 See Mikhail Bakhtin Rabelais and His World, 309, 373.
Ahmad, Aijaz. In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures. London: Verso, 1992.
Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and His World. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1984.
Foucault, Michel. The Archaeology of Knowledge. New York: Pantheon, 1972.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford UP, 1988.
Habermas, Jurgen. The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity. Cambridge: MIT, 1992.
Henderson, Mae. "Speaking In Tongues: Dialogics, Dialectics, and the Black Woman Writer's Literary Tradition." Changing Our Own Words. Ed. Cheryl A. Wall. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1989.
Homans, Margaret. "'Her Own Very Howl': The Ambiguities of Representation in Recent Women's Fiction." Signs. 9.2 (1983): 186-205.
Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. Chicago: U of Illinois P, 1965.
Kubitschek, Missy Dehn. Claiming the Heritage: African-American Women Novelists and History. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1991.
McKay, Nellie. "An Interview With Toni Morrison." Contemporary Literature. 24. 4 (Winter 1983): 413-29.
Morrison, Toni. Sula. New York: Knopf, 1989.
Morrison, Toni. "Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature." Michigan Quarterly Review. (1989): 1-34.
Ong, Walter J. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London: Methuen, 1982.
Wideman, John. "Defining the Black Voice in Fiction." Black American Literature Forum. 11 (1977): 79-82.