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The Aesthetics of Toni Morrison

The Aesthetics of Toni Morrison: Speaking the Unspeakable

Edited by Marc C. Conner
Yvonne Atkinson
Marc C. Conner
Susan Corey
Maria DiBattista
Barbara Johnson
Cheryl Lester
Katherine Stern
Michael Wood
Copyright Date: 2000
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  • Book Info
    The Aesthetics of Toni Morrison
    Book Description:

    A traditional yet fresh approach to grasping the power of Morrison's writing

    With essays by Yvonne Atkinson, Marc C. Conner, Susan Corey, Maria DiBattista, Barbara Johnson, Cheryl Lester, Katherine Stern, and Michael Wood

    Nobel laureate Toni Morrison's novels have almost exclusively been examined as sagas illuminating history, race, culture, and gender politics. This gathering of eight essays by top scholars probes Morrison's novels and her growing body of nonfiction and critical work for the complex and potent aesthetic elements that have made her a major American novelist of the twentieth century.

    Through traditional aesthetic concepts such as the sublime, the beautiful, and the grotesque, through issues of form, narrative, and language, and through questions of affect and reader response, the nine essays in this volume bring into relief the dynamic and often overlooked range within Morrison's writing. Employing aesthetic ideas that range from the ancient Greeks to contemporary research in the black English oral tradition,The Aesthetics of Toni Morrisonshows the potency of these ideas for interpreting Morrison's writing. This is a force Morrison herself has often suggested in her claims that Greek tragedy bears a striking similarity to "Afro-American communal structures."

    At the same time each essay attends to the ways in which Morrison also challenges traditional aesthetic concepts, establishing the African American and female voices that are essential to her sensibility. The result is a series of readings that simultaneously expands our understanding of Morrison's work and also provokes new thinking about an aesthetic tradition that is nearly 2,500 years old.

    These essays offer a rich complement to the dominant approaches in Morrison scholarship by revealing aspects of her work that purely ideological approaches have obscured or about which they have remained oddly silent. Each essay focuses particularly on the relations between the aesthetic and the ethical in Morrison's writing and between the artistic production and its role in the world at large. These relations show the rich political implications that aesthetic analysis engenders.

    By treating both Morrison's fiction and her nonfiction, the essays reveal a mind and imagination that have long been intimately engaged with the questions and traditions of the aesthetic domain. The result is a provocative and original contribution to Morrison scholarship, and to scholarship in American letters generally.

    Marc C. Conner is an assistant professor of English at Washington and Lee University. He has published articles inStudies in American FictionandCritique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction.

    eISBN: 978-1-62103-083-6
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Introduction: Aesthetics and the African American Novel
    (pp. ix-2)
    Marc C. Conner

    In “The World and the Jug,” Ralph Ellison’s powerful meditation upon the roles of aesthetics and politics in the African-American novel, Ellison makes a key distinction: “The novel,” he urges, “isalwaysa public gesture, though not necessarily a political one.” Few American authors have been more aware than Ellison of the unyielding connections between the work of art and life as it is lived, that is, between the aesthetic and the political realms. Indeed, Ellison insists that the African-American writer must engage “the original American ideals of social and political justice.” Yet Ellison’s distinction suggests that the novel, while...

  5. ʺAestheticʺ and ʺRapportʺ in Toni Morrisonʹs Sula
    (pp. 3-11)
    Barbara Johnson

    Toni Morrison’s novels have often been read as presenting something beloved, lost, and familiar to an African-American reader. Renita Weems, for instance, writes: “Toni Morrison is one of the few authors I enjoy rereading. Having lived in the North for the last six years (against my better senses), when I read Morrison’s novels I am reminded of home: the South. Although her first three books take place in the Midwest and the fourth primarily in the Caribbean—places I have never seen—there is something still very familiar, very nostalgic about the people I meet on her pages. There is...

  6. Language That Bears Witness: The Black English Oral Tradition in the Works of Toni Morrison
    (pp. 12-30)
    Yvonne Atkinson

    Toni Morrison has said, “I tend not to explain things very much, but I long for a critic who will know what I mean when I say ‘Church’ or ‘community,’ or when I say ‘ancestor’ or ‘chorus.’ Because my books come out of those things and represent how they function in the [B]lack cosmology” (McKay, “Interview” 151). As this comment confirms, the oral tradition of Black English is the foundation of Morrison’s work.

    Language is more than a form of communication: it reveals the concepts that shape the significance and legacy beyond the word itself. Language defines a culture’s style...

  7. Toward the Limits of Mystery: The Grotesque in Toni Morrison’s Beloved
    (pp. 31-48)
    Susan Corey

    Since its publication in 1987, Toni Morrison’sBelovedhas challenged and engaged readers with its moving portrayal of Sethe, an ex-slave woman, in her struggle to construct a new identity out of the horrors of her past life. Multiple plot lines, shifting points of view, and complicated chronology all contribute to the haunting effect of this novel. A crucial source of its complexity and power lies in Morrison’s use of the grotesque, a multi-faceted aesthetic phenomenon that enables the artist to disrupt the familiar world of reality in order to introduce a different, more mysterious reality. This aesthetic form is...

  8. From the Sublime to the Beautiful: The Aesthetic Progression of Toni Morrison
    (pp. 49-76)
    Marc C. Conner

    The great truism of Morrison scholarship is that her primary theme is “community.”¹ Certainly each novel rigorously engages such issues as what constitutes a community, what function a community serves, what threatens a community, what helps it survive. As Morrison herself has said, “If anything I do, in the way of writing novels (or whatever I write), isn’t about the village or the community or about you, then it is not about anything” (Leonard 706). The relationship between the individual and the community is indeed the central concern of Morrison’s rich narratives; yet the complexity of this relationship has in...

  9. Toni Morrisonʹs Beauty Formula
    (pp. 77-91)
    Katherine Stern

    “The concept of physical beauty as avirtue,” Toni Morrison wrote in 1974, “is one of the dumbest, most pernicious and destructive ideas of the Western world, and we should have nothing to do with it” (“Behind the Making” 89). Morrison was responding to the slogan “Black is Beautiful” which she took to be “a white idea turned inside out” that still reduced the worth of a people to their bodily appearance. “Concentrating on whether we are beautiful,” she wrote, “is a way of measuring worth that is wholly trivial and wholly white and preoccupation with it is an irrevocable...

  10. Contentions in the House of Chloe: Morrison’s Tar Baby
    (pp. 92-112)
    Maria DiBattista

    Is “Once upon a time” the oldest narrative entry into the world? So conjectures Toni Morrison in support of her belief, vigorously defended in her Nobel Laureate Address, that narrative is “one of the principal ways in which we absorb knowledge” (7). Whatever else can be inferred from such a statement, it is clearlynotthe remark of a born realist. Whoever resorts, as Morrison does in her Nobel address, to fairy tale or fable to convey her attitude toward her craft belongs to the tribe of storytellers whose imagination may feel cramped by the form of the classic realist...

  11. Sensations of Loss
    (pp. 113-124)
    Michael Wood

    One of the most striking features of Toni Morrison’s fiction is the brilliance of its apparently casual, often bleak insights; what it knows without seeming to know at all. “The neighbors seemed pleased when the babies smothered…. They did all the right things, of course: brought food, telephoned their sorrow, got up a collection; but the shine of excitement in their eyes was clear” (Paradise21). The reporter who interviews the mother of the smothered babies is sympathetic, her eyes are “soft”; “but the shine was like that of the neighbors” (22).

    Sometimes, especially in the earlier novels, these insights...

  12. Meditations on a Bird in the Hand: Ethics and Aesthetics in a Parable by Toni Morrison
    (pp. 125-138)
    Cheryl Lester

    My reflections on aesthetic ideology in Toni Morrison’s Nobel Prize Lecture appear in what follows as a form of call-and-response, staying very much in the neighborhood and spirit and order of the Lecture. They engage and resonate with the aesthetic principles foregrounded in the Lecture rather than being organized around them. Therefore, it may help to offer an overview of these principles before turning to my reflections on the Lecture itself. First and foremost is Morrison’s insistence that language and its productions are acts rather than products or artifacts. Using language is thus equivalent to performing particular, situated actions, aimed...

  13. Works Cited
    (pp. 139-148)
  14. Contributors
    (pp. 149-150)
  15. Index
    (pp. 151-153)