Toni Morrison and Classical Tradition

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<ul><li><p> 2007 The AuthorJournal Compilation 2007 Blackwell Publishing Ltd</p><p>Literature Compass 4/6 (2007): 15141537, 10.1111/j.1741-4113.2007.00496.x</p><p>Toni Morrison and Classical Tradition</p><p>Tessa Roynon*Rothermere American Institute, University of Oxford</p><p>AbstractThis article summarizes a significant new approach to the work of the African-American novelist Toni Morrison: analysis of her widespread engagement withclassical tradition. After discussing the prior critical perspectives on this subject,and highlighting the importance of the classics in Morrisons intellectualformation, it demonstrates that the authors ambivalent classicism is central tothe rewriting of American history that her oeuvre enacts. I go on to show thather insistence on the interactions between African and Graeco-Roman culturescontributes to her reinvention of classical tradition as a radical force, and I endby illuminating the implications for literary and American Studies that therecognition of her classicism must possess.</p><p>Introduction</p><p>From October 2006 until January 2007 Toni Morrison was Guest Curatorat the Muse du Louvre in Paris. Her tenure there comprised projectscentred on the theme of The Foreigners Home, among the mostinteresting of which was her construction of several itineraries through thecollections of Antiquities which illuminated the experience of othernessin ancient civilizations. Like her recently published revisions of AesopsFables, Morrisons interest in foreigners in the land of Egypt or imagesof woman in Ancient Greece is indicative of a preoccupation with theclassical world and its legacies that has been a consistent (but oftenoverlooked) feature of her intellectual life and literary output since heryouth. This article, adopting a thematic rather than a chronologicalapproach to all eight of the novels that Morrison has published to date,argues that her engagement with classical tradition is fundamental to herradical critique of American culture.1</p><p>The research which this article summarizes sets out not simply toilluminate the extent of Morrisons classical allusiveness, but to suggestwhy his author one clearly committed to the politics of her identity asan African-American woman should make recourse to a heritage thatis conventionally seen as European, white and canonical. Why arethere Moirai in The Bluest Eye (1970), a Circe in Song of Solomon (1977),and a Seneca, Pallas, Apollo, Juvenal and an August Cato in Paradise</p></li><li><p> 2007 The Author Literature Compass 4/6 (2007): 15141537, 10.1111/j.1741-4113.2007.00496.xJournal Compilation 2007 Blackwell Publishing Ltd</p><p>Toni Morrison and Classical Tradition 1515</p><p>(1998)? Why are there echoes of Dionysiac ritual and classical scapegoatingpractice in Sula (1974)? Why does the description of the settling of Isledes Chevaliers in Tar Baby (1981) reverse the creation myth with whichOvid begins the Metamorphoses; why do Aeschyluss Oresteia, SophoclessOedipus the King and Euripidess Medea all resonate in Beloved (1987)? Whydoes Violet come from a mean little place called Rome in Jazz (1992,138), and why is Romen called Romen in Love (2003)? My contentionis that Morrisons classicism comprises a dialogue both with the nationsGraeco-Roman inheritance and with classically informed literaryforebears as various as Phillis Wheatley, William Faulkner and RalphEllison. Her engagement with the ancient world, furthermore, ischaracterized by a strategic ambivalence that is to say that she is awareof both the classical traditions hallowed position within hegemonicculture and of the traditions simultaneous subversive potential. I arguethat is this very ambivalence that enables not just her deconstruction ofAmericas past and present but also her articulation of its possible future.</p><p>An initial overview of prior critical analysis contextualizes my claimsfor the significance of Morrisons engagement with the cultures of Greeceand Rome. I go on to outline the authors formal training in Classics aswell as her own careful but often-conflicted articulations, in keyinterviews and essays, of her position in relation to classical tradition. Thesubsequent central and longest section of this article highlights the ways inwhich the novels deployment of the ancient world and of the pragmaticclassicism of the national dominant culture effects a rewriting of Americanhistory and a challenge to conservative conceptions of Americanness. Ithen explore Morrisons insistence on the interconnectedness of Africanand classical cultures, arguing that the novelists recontamination ofclassical tradition participates in past and current scholarly debates on theEnlightenments construction of its classical inheritance as a pure and purifyingforce. And a demand for a re-evaluation of Morrisons relationship withvarious classically informed literary ancestors forms the last part of thisassessment of the novelist and of her contribution to the new AmericanStudies.</p><p>The Critics on Morrisons Classicism; Morrison on the Classics</p><p>To the best of my knowledge, my project is the first full-length, oeuvre-widestudy of the function of classical tradition in Morrisons work. Priorscholarship comprises individual essays examining Graeco-Romanallusiveness in single novels, and has for the most part focused on refer-ences to the Demeter/Kore myth in The Bluest Eye, on the deploymentof Oedipal and Odyssean paradigms in Song of Solomon, and on theengagement with Greek tragedy in Beloved.2 Articles by Madonne Miner(on The Bluest Eye), Kimberly Benston (on Song of Solomon), EleanorTraylor (on Tar Baby) and Shelley Haley (on Beloved ) are particularly</p></li><li><p>1516 Toni Morrison and Classical Tradition</p><p> 2007 The Author Literature Compass 4/6 (2007): 15141537, 10.1111/j.1741-4113.2007.00496.xJournal Compilation 2007 Blackwell Publishing Ltd</p><p>illuminating. And a welcome new addition to this field is Patrice Rankineschapter on Solomon in his recent book on Ellison and black classicism,Ulysses in Black (2006).</p><p>A common feature of criticism exploring the Graeco-Roman allusivenessin Morrisons work is its authors understandable expression of anxietyabout what they are doing. Hirsch, for example, begins the Prelude toher Mother/Daughter Plot (2000) by asserting that the classical paradigmsshe discusses belong firmly to the tradition of Western patriarchy andthat it is surprising that classic Western structures still serve as frames ofreference in the novels of Morrison and Alice Walker (29). And ShelleyHaley begins her 1995 essay on Beloved and Medea by declaring herunease (178). It is of course essential that critics take account ofMorrisons complaint to Nellie McKay, in 1983, that responses to herwork had often failed to evolve out of [her] culture, [her] world, andthat other kinds of structures had been imposed on her writing(Taylor-Guthrie 151). But as the following summary of Morrisons ownarticulated perspectives on the classical tradition demonstrate, her attitudesto it are as ever-changing and conflicted as her interest in it is consistent.Critical approaches that are sensitive to the ambivalence of both herfictional and non-fictional classical engagement surely illuminate ratherthan distort what is a central feature of her work. For it is her embraceof contradiction and her double-edged engagement with Americasclassical heritage that reveal classical paradigms to be neither as firmlynor as exclusively entrenched in the tradition of Western patriarchy asWestern patriarchy would like them to be.</p><p>Morrison studied four years of Latin at Lorain High School, and was aClassics minor (while an English major) at Howard University from1951 to 53. Her opinion of the education she received at Howard isitself characterized by ambivalence: in a 1985 interview she reflected thatshe was terrifically fascinated by the Western curriculum that sheencountered there, but at the same time recalled the alarm she provokedin the English department by asking to do a paper on Black Charactersin Shakespeare (Taylor-Guthrie 1745). While the university Bulletinfor the years 195153 reveals that the type of class available to her wasthat of the uncontroversial survey, she may well have been influenced bythe indomitable Frank Snowden Jr., who was head of department at thattime, who had been an instructor at Howard since 1940, and who wasEmeritus Professor there until his recent death.3 Snowden was himself apolitically enigmatic figure, that in recent years he was an outspokencritic of Afrocentric scholarship, and yet as early as 1946 he published anarticle on The Negro in Ancient Greece. The title of his first book,Blacks in Antiquity (1970) indicates the intellectual preoccupation of hiscareer and establishes a comparative context between the USA and theancient world that he may also have discussed in his teaching in the 1950s.Morrisons oeuvre-wide interest in racially conscious analogies between</p></li><li><p> 2007 The Author Literature Compass 4/6 (2007): 15141537, 10.1111/j.1741-4113.2007.00496.xJournal Compilation 2007 Blackwell Publishing Ltd</p><p>Toni Morrison and Classical Tradition 1517</p><p>America and the classical world may well originate in early exposure tosuch thought.4</p><p>Given Morrisons widespread engagement with Greek tragedy both inher novels and in her non-fictional discussions it seems likely that she tookProfessor Snowdens class, Greek Drama in English. The conventionalAristotelianism underpinning that syllabus may well have given rise to theunambiguously Aristotelian terms in which her M.A. thesis of 1955identifies Greek tragic elements in William Faulkners work, as well as thesense of the tragic that informs her own novels.5 In a 1981 interview shedefined the tragic mode in which she wrote as involving some catharsisand revelation and observed maybe its a consequence of my being aClassics minor; in 1985 she said of the endings of her novels that someknowledge is there the Greek knowledge what is the epiphany inGreek tragedy (Taylor-Guthrie 125, 177). Exemplifying these observationsare the mock-heroic depiction of Milkmans series of epiphanies in Songof Solomon or the recurring imagery of blindness and insight with whichMorrison describes the Founding Fathers downfall and redemption inParadise. In both representations, Aristotles concept of recognition ordiscovery are key.</p><p>In 1976 Morrison said of The Bluest Eyes Cholly that he lives a verytragic life. . . . He is the thing I keep calling a free man, not free in thelegal sense but free in his head (Taylor-Guthrie 20). All of her protagonistsare clearly informed by the conception of the tragic hero (traditionallyattributed to Aristotle) as one who has choice, as one who must decidebetween what Arthur Miller calls alternatives of a magnitude to havematerially changed the course of his life (Tragedy 165).6 Morrisondeploys the paradigm of the tragic hero both to assert the freedom of Sula,of Sethe, of Joe Trace, of Heed and, through showing that being freemeans being free to fall, to question uncritical dominant culturalcelebrations of liberty. Her consistent interest in the paradigm of thetragic chorus, meanwhile, similarly enables her to critique mainstreamAmerican ideology. In 1985 she observed that there is something aboutthe Greek chorus . . . that reminds [her] of what goes on in Black churchesand in jazz (Taylor-Guthrie 176).7 And in her key essay of 1989,Unspeakable Things Unspoken, she comments on the function of songand chorus, the heroic struggle between the claims of community andindividual hubris as indicative of the affinity between Greek tragedy,Afro-American communal structures and African cultural formations (2).Her use of Greek choric tradition and her manipulation of its similaritieswith patterns of call and response enable her to examine the relationshipbetween the group and the individual in the Nietzschean formation ofthe crowd that follow Shadrack in Sula, in Milkmans relationship withvarious communities in Song of Solomon, and Sethes and Denvers isolationfrom and reabsorption into society in Beloved.8 Morrisons emphasis onthe importance of the chorus or community, which comprises a departure</p></li><li><p>1518 Toni Morrison and Classical Tradition</p><p> 2007 The Author Literature Compass 4/6 (2007): 15141537, 10.1111/j.1741-4113.2007.00496.xJournal Compilation 2007 Blackwell Publishing Ltd</p><p>from Aristotelian privileging of individual agency, is central to her critiqueof American individualism.</p><p>While in Unspeakable Things Unspoken the author attests to feelingintellectually at home in Greek tragedy (23), within the same essay shewarns against critics making connections between black and dominantcultural traditions that subsume the former into the hierarchies of thelatter. Finding or imposing Western influences in/on Afro-Americanliterature has value, but when its sole purpose is to place value only wherethat influence is located it is pernicious (10), she writes, and continues,These . . . approaches can lead to an incipient orphanization of the workin order to issue its adoption papers (10). But the same essay also containsan implicit suggestion as to how to connect Graeco-Roman and Africantraditions without enacting orphanization, and it is this process thatMorrisons classicism itself comprises. As part of her discussion aboutcanon formation, the author mentions the theory that the true (African)origins of Ancient Greek culture have been strategically erased. Cham-pioning Martin Bernals Black Athena (1987) as a stunning investigationof the field, she summarizes his argument. Seventy years to eliminateEgypt as the cradle of civilization . . . and replace it with Greece, shelaments (6).9 My work demonstrates that much of her own fictionalclassical allusiveness asserts the interconnectedness of African andGraeco-Roman cultures that the dominant culture has obscured. Inengaging Greece and Rome the author is not borrowing from or eveninsisting on her right to share in a pure, white legacy. Instead, likePauline Hopkins a century earlier, or like Derek Walcott or Wole Soyinkain more recent times, she is reappropriating a tradition which emergedfrom interactions and affinities between Europe and Africa, and thus wasnever either pure or white.</p><p>The author encapsulates the potent ambiguity of her outlook in her2005 Foreword to Song of Solomon, where she writes that the novelcomprises a journey, with the accomplishment of flight. . . . Old-schoolheroic, but with other meanings (x). It is through the other meaningsafforded by her multiple perspectives as an African-American woman thatshe transforms both classical tradition and dominant American culture.And she thus fulfils in several ways at once her own imperative that thepast has to be revised (Taylor-Guthrie 264).</p><p>The Rewriting of Classic American History</p><p>In Love, a portrait of Bill Cosey dominates the house in Monarch Streetas his posthumous presence dominates the surviving characters. Heedsapotheosis of her husband a character who functions in many ways asan allegory of America itself can be read as a microcosm of t...</p></li></ul>