Golden gray and the talking book: identity as a site of artful construction in Toni Morrison's Jazz.
Of the intersection of jazz music, history, and the erotic, Toni Morrison states:
At that time, when the ex-slaves were moving into the city, running away from something that was constricting and killing them and dispossessing them over and over and over again, they were in a very limiting environment. But when you listen to their music--the beginnings of jazz--you realized that they are talking about something else. They are talking about love, about loss. But there is such grandeur, such satisfaction in those lyrics.... the/re never happy--somebody's always leaving--but they're not whining. It's as though the whole tragedy of choosing somebody, risking love, risking emotion, risking sensuality, and then losing it all didn't matter, since it was their choice. Exercising choice in who you love was a major, major thing. And the music reinforced the idea of love as a space where one could negotiate freedom. For some black people jazz meant claiming their own bodies. You can imagine what that must have meant for people whose bodies had been owned, who had been slaves as children, or who remem bered their parents' being slaves. Blues and jazz represented ownership of one's own emotions. (Schappell and Brodsky 365)
Jazz is, quite literally, the textual negotiation of freedom through the grammar of the erotic. The erotic--sexual hunger, romantic love, dangerous desire, sensual pleasure--drives the narrative. Still, it is never about itself alone. Rather, its extravagance is propelled by the narcotic of freedom, the luxury of asserting the right to choose and shape one's destiny, and, as Morrison maintains, to own "one's own emotions." Jazz becomes the process through which its protagonists "own" their emotions. It is the ritual through which those experiences that inform these emotions are reclaimed and thus reincorporated into the psychic fiber of those lives.
This is nowhere more obvious than in Morrison's depiction of Joe and Violet Trace, the embattled couple at the heart of the novel. Through each spouse's individual narrative, Morrison recreates the cycles of jazz, relying on the musical idiom to trace the characters' descent into the haunting territory of their souls, into the spiritual hunger that drives physical compulsion and emotional distress. Thus Violet's account, her plunge into an aggressive and eccentric egotism upon learning of her husband's betrayal with a teenager, is noisy and frantic. Her words, seized from the third-person narrator, veer almost haphazardly into and out of the ongoing narrative. However, as a consequence of returning to her past, she is eventually reborn through the chaos symbolized by the jazz process. Joe's journey, configured as an immersion into the blues, the heart of jazz, manifests itself as a depression, solitary and torpid, a metaphorical cave within which he has interred himself. His words, orderly and falling into ti dy quotes, reveal his seeming discipline. Yet they hide the rage at their core. Having murdered his teenaged mistress, he must atone psychologically, working through his guilt, and accepting responsibility for his actions. He must also identify the conflicted maternal longing for the woman who initially rejected him--his cave-dwelling, feral mother, whom his tortured consciousness finally confuses with the equally rejecting Dorcas. The jazz idiom of Morrison's novel is thus central to the recovery of the past, both personal and historic, and a reenvisioning of the future. All are impacted by the erotic.
It would then seem that the Golden Gray segment rests outside of the boundaries of the jazz ethos. Strangely detached from the larger narrative, it is pointedly pre-jazz in era and sensibility, and deals less with the erotic as a manifestation of the bodily than as an abstract concept only vaguely impacting, and then in the negative, Golden himself. Yet the Golden segment, in a sense, becomes the embodiment of jazz. Both the narrative unraveling of an erotic mystery and a meditation on the mysteries of eros, it becomes the voice of the non-hermeneutic, a narrative enigma that entices then evades. Immersing the reader in its polyphony, it materializes as jazz itself. Yet, it is not simply jazz as a musical form or a poetic device; it is jazz personified as love. Its incorporation also allows the emergence of a sustained artistic vision that is as political a statement as an aesthetic one. Within this movement, the erotic is never simply a sexualized commodity to be voyeuristically relished. Rather, it is an a ctive process in which the reader is expected to be fully engaged. It literally becomes the textual negotiation of freedom, that process through which the past and future touch, merging as the non-hermeneutic, that space in which order collapses and the reinvention symbolized by the erotic is possible.
On its most basic level, the non-hermeneutic is that which escapes or disrupts interpretation. It is "pure surface phenomenon ... of unpredictable singularity" which "vanishes without ever 'freezing' into a state of stability" (Gumbrecht, "Epiphany" 533). More indicative of creative rather than analytical processes, the non-hermeneutic neither can nor should be understood "as phenomena belonging to the universe of mimesis, or a representation, as a signifier coupled to a signified, or, seen from the opposite perspective, as something to be interpreted, read, or deciphered" (520).
When adapted to the structure of the written text, the non-hermeneutic gaze would function within a deconstructivist paradigm. It suggests that which is never fully conceptualized, that which eludes even as it is in the process of being formulated. Within this project, I refer to the non-hermeneutic as those forms and spaces of indecipherability within Jazz that, for any number of reasons, resist interpretation. In fact, the novel's power rests in the uneasy tension that arises from the development of its "meanings" intersecting with the manner in which it is constructed as a form, apart from any specific interpretative significance. This tension gives rise to constantly shifting and uncertain readings which destabilize our assumptions about perspective and, by extension, what is considered "reality."
The erotic is that concept which connects meaning and form, infuses the body into the text, and becomes the most consistent site of the non-hermeneutic, as contradictory as that sounds. A paradoxical concept, the erotic is an especially appropriate manifestation of the non-hermeneutic within the text. Conventionally considered the carnal or amatory, in the written text it usually refers to the sexually titillating, from the sentimental to the pornographic. However, the erotic has as its root eros, a Greek noun meaning love or desire, whether for another person, a pursuit or discipline, or an idea. It is this binarism that lends the erotic its plasticity and which Audre Lorde evokes in her provocative essay "Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power."
In her essay, Lorde argues for the construction of the erotic as a site of female agency and resistance to oppression. "The erotic," she explains, "is a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings" (54). For Lorde, the love that eroticism represents is a deeply intuitive and sensual energy that transforms as it heals. It is that which emerges from the disorderly fusion of the bodily and the psychic. Thus the power of the erotic is its specifically unifying potential: within the self, with others, or between larger ideological movements. Or as Lorde explains:
The dichotomy between the spiritual and the political is ... false, resulting from an incomplete attention to our erotic knowledge. For the bridge which connects them is formed by the erotic--the sensual--those physical, emotional, and psychic expressions of what is deepest and strongest and richest within each of us, being shared: the passions of love in its deepest meanings. (56)
While the erotic remains that which is potentially unifying within and between all of us, its peculiar power emerges from its connection to the non-hermeneutic, its intangibility and elusiveness, "the impossibility of casting it into a well-circumscribed notion" (Gumbrecht e-mail).
In an interview, Toni Morrison states that "classical music satisfies and closes. Black music does not do that. Jazz always keeps you on the edge. There is no final chord. There may be a long chord, but no final chord. And it agitates you" (McKay 411). It is this agitation, this inexplicability and longing, this lack of completion, that both haunts jazz and informs it as a creative process; it also serves as a forceful mechanism through which to introduce the erotic into Morrison's novel.
What is possibly most characteristic of the jazz process is its mutability, its capacity to incorporate disparate cultural, stylistic, instrumental, and performative elements into its diverse repertoire while still remaining essentially itself. Marked by its syncretism and innovation, it takes the familiar and fixed and makes it novel, distinct. Influenced by African rhythmic complexity and European harmonic structure, arising from varied regional combinations of ragtime and the blues, it is often called America's "classical music." Despite its crossover appeal and classificational fluidity, jazz remains profoundly connected to the black musical tradition. I would suggest that two primary reasons for this, factors which bum at the core of the music and fuel its expressivity, are its abstractness and its antiphony.
Jazz is one of the most abstract of musical forms. Though it is rooted in the music of the black diaspora, I believe its closest correlation can be found in the African plastic arts themselves. Like the traditional context of this aesthetic, the linear communication of a narrative or the scrupulous representation of an actual form is less important than its ritual significance. The power of jazz--despite its multiplicity--is rooted less in its connection to specific events, discourses, and models than in its ability to create a mood and emotional context for its listeners; this, in effect, permits them not so much to arrive at a firm external objective, such as emotional climax or denouement, but rather to experience fully the multiplicity of the moment. The musical action becomes a vague emotional state that shifts with the slightest modification, in timbre, beat, catch. When applied to the text, the abstraction of this fleeting moment, which can never again be repeated in entirely the same manner, produces a host of possibilities, both structural and interpretive. Non-chronological, melodic, emotionally slippery, repetitious, sometimes irrational, and filled with contradictions, Jazz becomes as much a product of the reader's imagination as that of the novelist. Lacking strict interpretive boundaries, the novel is instead dependent on the vagaries of constantly shifting (often unidentified) points of view, discourses, and narrative strategies, loaded as they are with individual experiences and obsessions. What results is that the written text, though excluded from the arena of the musical due to its very silence, mimics the most fundamental element of jazz: its abstraction. While jazz is an art of abstraction, the text, in functioning as its own abstraction, most intriguingly reproduces the jazz moment, not through sound but in its recreation of its silent, seemingly haphazard patterns.
Or, as Elizabeth Deeds Elizabeth explains, the verisimilitude upon which English narrative realism depends is an "abstraction... a highly artificial and highly achieved effect." It is accomplished through the use of intersecting temporal devices that function much as the spatial mechanisms do that permitted the evolution of realism in the fine arts, particularly the use of a "single-point perspective that ... could produce a common horizon for all potential perspectives" (566). In literature these tactics include the depiction of time as an historicized continuum that eliminates contradiction or "disturbing fractures"; building the narrative around the specificity of concrete descriptions; and the presentation of an omniscient narrator that even when personalized "remains disembodied and indistinguishable from the narrative process itself" (568), blurring distinctions among reader, writer, and character. Most significantly for Ermath:
... the realistic convention gives us a power of generalization that will enable us to subsume or eradicate whatever is inexplicable or mysterious. In a convention that extends to infinity the rationalized powers of human attention, no atrocity need remain unexplained, no mystery unsolved, no mistake unrectified. (568)
Ironically, what appears so lifelike in the structure of conventional novels is their power to provide a moral and intellectual certainty removed from the actual ambiguity of lived experience.
On a second level, however, Morrison's novel reproduces the antiphony, the call-and-response arrangement, of the jazz aesthetic. It is here that the erotic functions most powerfully in the text. While the novel's plot would seem to emerge from a series of actions, most specifically marital infidelity and the emotional anguish which results, this is not where the novel itself begins. In fact, while this would appear the kernel from which all else germinates, it is not. Instead, Morrison weaves a much more complex rendering of the various stories, psyches, and "truths" which interact to produce any given experience. Here, the erotic results less from a particular carnal web than emotional longings, buried histories, and the emptiness of the disembodied past, suppressed, but haunting the present. The music becomes the medium through which eros embodies itself. As in the jazz moment, voices demand recognition, inserting themselves, vibrating with the intensity of emotional fullness; the individual plays against t he collective, which forms the larger work, the greater truth. The virtuosity of the improvisational moment competes with the structure--disciplined, focused, almost mathematically precise--of the larger composition. What ensues is not only a meditation on individual lives but of the larger history of Africans in the Americas. As these stories abut one another, metaphorically touching the reader's own, they become altered, subsequently transforming in tone, texture, reality. Brought in such close contact with these floating tales, the reader is forced to question the nature of reality, its stability and meaning.
Music functions on several levels. Musicality becomes a manner of destabilizing the rubric of "realism" through which Westerners have constructed the fictional narrative. That process which intellectually permits us to perceive from a supposedly three-dimensional yet neutral vantage point, realism, ironically, also distances the reader from the immediacy of the text and the lived experience it represents. In a manner, the incorporation of rhythm is the most immediate form of sensation outside of the representation of spoken language that could occur in a book. This is because, as readers, we are able to integrate the pulsations of rhythm into the linguistic structure itself. And by engaging rhythmic patterns, which are deeply bound to human emotions, Morrison attempts to arrive at a fuller engagement with the bodily. As Audre Lorde stresses in her exploration of the erotic, however, this is not accomplished through the separation of the physical and psychic but by more deeply and elaborately merging the two.
On a related but distinct level, the collaboration that reading represents--the symbolic encounter between writer and reader, particularly when mediated by the many layers of meaning embodied within the text--ideally permits the recognition of new perspectives that depart from the strict categories and values we use to define our versions of reality. This naming--or renaming--is particularly significant in light of the traditional marginalization of black culture, experience, and perspectives within the Western world. The use of music, an especially significant cultural process, as the primary creative idiom, further intensifies this act of re-membering. Music is its own language, a cultural construction whose meaning shifts constantly depending on the context in which it is being used, the era and culture in which it is interpreted, and its medium of communication.
In utilizing this process, Morrison becomes the symbolic griot that she refers to when she states that "black people have a story, and that story has to be heard. 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" (McKay 408). It is interesting that Morrison incorporates the figure of the griot in her analogy of literary traditions of the African diaspora. While by no means unproblematic, (1) the griot nevertheless inhabits a position of importance and authority. The clan's historian, he or she becomes the repository of that information upon which the greater social structure is founded. Singer, musician, chronicler, the griot holds the key to culture, that which confirms one's existence in the face of the immensity and unpredictability of the universe. By conjuring the role of the griot, Morrison connects the New World African tradition to a larger and olde r one. Yet like the antiphony which forms the basis of that tradition, this dynamic is fundamentally dependent on its connection to its audience, to that which the reader actively invests in the narrative process. Analyzing musical traditions, Paul Gilroy locates this dynamic as a site of reinscription, of reconfiguring the structure of interpersonal interactions:
... the practice of antiphony...symbolises and anticipates (but does not guarantee) new, non-dominating social relationships. Lines between the self and other are blurred and special forms of pleasure are created as a result of the meetings and conversations that are established between one fractured, incomplete, and unfinished racial self and others. Antiphony is the structure that hosts those essential encounters. (Black 79)
Antiphony, quite understandably, has its limits. The text is static, and each reader is different, his or her interpretation as bound to personality as to what cultural capital is brought to the text. Yet, what is so powerful about the deployment of antiphony within the boundaries of the novel is that it does not have to instruct readers in a one-way transmittal of information. Rather, the reader, as a symbolic participant in this process, is able to come to his or her own conclusions based on this fluid, abstract dynamic. And those spaces filled with this tension and richness, with sound and its inevitable silences, are those that Morrison then uses to further investigate the uses of the erotic in the creation of subjectivity. Rather than a simple analysis, however, it becomes a deeply felt process that is as filled with ambiguity and contradiction as is life itself.
Jazz examines the myriad ways in which love becomes transfigured within interpersonal relationships, effecting concrete change both inside of and between individuals; through the Voilet-Joe-Dorcas trio and its reconfigurations, love is posited as an abstract yet powerful force that can permit either chaos or transcendence. It recreates, from the lives of its various characters, the movements of jazz as performance; the reader, as auditor, is witness to the virtuosi display, removed yet bound by the very process of reading. However, while the novel recreates the rhythm and configurations of jazz performance through the dynamic of the trio, it also invites the reader to participate in jazz as a creative process, an ongoing, ever-evolving endeavor. Through the presence of the narrator as self-conscious artist-what Morrison captures in the metaphor of the talking book-the abstract and intangible process that is creativity becomes an active manifestation of love. (2) It is in the appropriation of this dynamic, sli ppery and contradictory, that the reader has most direct access to literary production as an act of erotic intensity. While readers participate throughout the novel, the self-conscious fabrication of the Golden Gray segment offers a portal into the eros of the non-hermeneutic. Through the interstitial figure of Golden Gray, the reader can participate in love as an ephemeral yet circumscribed process. Simultaneously, Golden Gray, a character who is actively and mindfully being produced, becomes the reader's conduit into the ambivalence and contradictions of creative production, whether of artistry or identity itself.
Golden Gray is a study in ambivalence, both his own and the narrator's. Raised as the adopted son of Vera Louise Gray, the scion of a wealthy, slave-owning family that has, under duress, relocated to Baltimore, he is a product of his environment, a spoiled, egotistical aristocrat who assumes he is white. He only learns the truth as a young adult: Vera Louise, who "lied to him about practically everything including the question of whether she was his owner, his mother or a kindly neighbor" (143), is his biological mother; his father "was a black-skinned nigger," or as Golden Gray ponders peevishly, "a man of no consequence, except a tiny reputation as a tracker... Henry Lestory or LesTroy or something like that, but who cares what the nigger's name is" (148). Upon learning the truth, he erupts in a rage: "It had rocked him when he heard who and what his father was. Made him loose, lost. He had first fingered then torn some of his mother's clothes and sat in the grass looking at the things scattered on the lawn as well as in his mind" (159). Vera Louise locks herself in her room, refusing to answer his questions. It is True Belle, Violet's grandmother, who guides him through the conflict, both comforting him and directing his actions. She instructs him to go in search of his father: "I'll tell you how to find him, or what's left of him. It don't matter if you do find him or not; it's the going that counts." Yet for Golden, from the inception, the journey becomes a manner of avenging his mother's--and his own--lost honor: "Who will take my part? Soap away the shame? Suds it till it falls away muck at my feet to be stepped out of? Will he?" (159). Jazz retraces his voyage, motivated by patricidal fantasies, in search of his father; it becomes his journey into blackness, an extended meditation on his capacity to value the many aspects of his complex identity--particularly his African heritage--and from there reorient his perspective according to a new paradigm.
This process is catalyzed by Golden's serio-comic encounter with Wild, a mute yet potent and vivid presence, the textual embodiment of the non-hermeneutic. While he journeys to Virginia, to "insult not his father but his race" (143), Golden startles a pregnant black woman, who, in the process of turning and running, hits her head and collapses. Unconscious, helpless, and naked, she becomes Golden's burden. Though he first leaves, convincing himself that she is either dead or a vision, he grudgingly turns back on his horse-drawn carriage and assists her. For Golden, the woman, later called Wild, is the manifestation of his worst racial fears and assumptions. When he initially looks at her inert form, he "leans down, holding his breath against infection or odor or something. Something that might touch or penetrate him" (144). Later, after rescuing her from the ground in a gesture at once resentful, self-serving, and dutiful, he "urges the horse on,... gentle for fear the ruts and muddy road will cause her to fa ll forward and brush him in some way" (145). Although Wild, filthy and dependent, represents dispossession at its most extreme, she is as unappealing for her blackness as for her unkempt state. For Golden, blacks are ever-present yet invisible: They exist to fulfill his needs; otherwise, they do not enter his consciousness, except as an insult. Blacks have been his servants at his boarding school; a "bootblack who tap-danced for a penny"; True Belle, his mother's former slave, who is also his "first and major love" (150). Once Golden Gray understands the reasons for the averted glances of those servants and True Belle's smile, which "was more amusement than pleasure," he experiences a fresh explosion of indignation:
... and now he knew what she was smiling about, the nigger. But so was he. He had always thought there was only one kind--True Belle's kind. Black and nothing. Like Henry Les Troy. Like the filthy woman snoring .... But there was another kind-like himself. (149)
It is only in establishing gradations of blackness that he is able to salve his ego, to portray himself as other than black, although now excluded from whiteness itself. Despite True Belle's devotion to him and his own affection for her, Golden Gray has created convenient categories that permit him to denigrate her with impunity. She is black, therefore she is his inferior. Furthermore, he can envision her only in relation to himself; thus, to him, her life as other than his servant is inconceivable. His journey becomes a challenge to this deeply ingrained racial bias and class privilege.
This challenge hinges on his encounter with his father, a superior woodsman simply called Hunter's Hunter, later Joe's mentor, whom he meets only after having unknowingly invaded Hunter's empty cabin, depositing the woman on a cot, helping himself to the proprietor's alcohol, and brooding about his unwelcome identity. He reveals himself haughty, ill-mannered, and self-absorbed. Attempting to shock Hunter with the news of his paternity, he answers the older man's wry inquiry as to whether they know each other with: "No. Daddy. We don't" (150). For Golden, the world revolves around his own concerns; everything else is tangential, if at all worthy of his notice. Even as a suddenly conscious Wild gives birth to a baby barely clinging to life, who she refuses to feed or hold, he sulks over his own loss. Golden has not been initiated into the idiosyncratic yet ruthless demands and restrictions of race, because he has not been obliged to think of himself as a racialized being. Instead, he indignantly expects Hunter to feel guilt, shame, or emotional longing over Vera Louise, of whose pregnancy he had not been made aware.
Ironically, Golden is unable to empathize with the needs of the unclaimed newborn, so poignant a reflection of himself. Rather, he sneers, "How touching" (172), to Hunter's concerned words. He wants a father, yet does not want to have to accept the demands of being a son, and certainly not the son of a black father. Yet as Hunter informs him: "Be what you want-white or black. Choose. But if you choose black, you got to act black, meaning draw your manhood up-quick like, and don't bring me no whiteboy sass" (173). While a superficially essentialist definition of blackness, for Hunter, it also points to the lack of luxury fundamental to being black. It is moreover his annoyed response to Golden's assertion that "I don't want to be a free nigger; I want to be a free man." While manhood would appear a suitably lofty goal, it also underscores Golden's implicit rejection of a black identity, its restrictions and taint. His reaction to Hunter's admonition is that he "was sober now and his sober thought was to blow t he man's head off. Tomorrow." He becomes the penultimate Southern gentleman, defending his honor against a usurper. Before the text reverts to the primary narrative of the jazz cycle, it teases with a call--"It must have been the girl who changed his mind" -- then begins the next paragraph, the new segment based on Joe's own doomed quests, with the response--"Girls can do that" (173). Golden Gray disappears from the narrative as swiftly and unexpectedly as he entered it, his fate a mystery beyond the narrative's scope. There is a suggestion that the cave haunted by Wild's presence could actually be his own, furnished as it is with some of his objects. There, he avoids the pull of either blackness or whiteness, "unable to go forward or back" (162), a pretwentieth-century Invisible Man. Yet it also seems probable that he rejects Hunter's challenge. Repudiating his blackness and able to pass as white, he disappears into the expansive promise that is the post-bellum United States, with its crowded cities and endl ess frontier. A third possibility is that he either remains in the cave with Wild or has run off with her, whereabouts unknown. However, Golden's actual choice is less important than the exercise his narrative becomes in artistry as a movement into love with its potential for both transcendence and disappointment.
While the Golden Gray segment functions as a self-contained episode distinct from the larger plot, it is also a continuation of an earlier narrative thread; it serves as both the internal rumination of the artist at work and that same artist's ongoing dialogue with the reader. As the narrator reminds even as the text progresses:
Risky, I'd say, trying to figure out anybody's state of mind. But worth the trouble if you're like me-conscious, inventive and well-informed. Joe acts like he knew all about what the old folks did to keep on going, but he couldn't have known much .... Neither do I, although it's not hard to imagine what it must have been like. (137)
It is this imagining, both an intensely private pastime and a brassy display of improvisational aptitude, that the reader becomes both witness to and participant in. However, while it begins as the assumptions of an inventive but overly confident virtuoso, it becomes a lesson in both the spectacle and the empathy not only allowed but demanded by artistic production.
From the very beginning, the narrator reveals nagging doubts about Golden Gray:
I've thought about him a lot, wondered whether he was what True Belle loved and Violet too. Or the vain and hincty pinchnose worrying about his coat and the ivory buttons on his waistcoat. (143)
Golden Gray's vanity manifests itself as a preoccupation with the self and its appearance to others, whether in terms of behavior, hard and manly; hair ("Pretty hair can't be too long" (143)); or clothing ("This is what makes me worry about him. How he thinks first of his clothes, and not the woman. How he checks the fastenings, but not her breath. It's hard to get past that" (151)). Yet even as skepticism is disclosed, a hesitancy to thoroughly condemn is confessed: "... but then he scrapes the mud from his Baltimore soles before he enters a cabin with a dirt floor and I don't hate him much anymore" (151).
Golden Gray is not only the cause of the narrator's ambivalence but its materialization. He is disliked and resented, a source of frustration who embodies a distinctive viewpoint, a specific world view that the narrator finds reprehensible. Yet, even as the narrator condemns him, his very presence provides a challenge because of its unpredictability and complexity. Even as he is being inscribed within the text from a particular perspective, which becomes the official version, his ever-evolving actions confound and foil the narrator's attempt to contain him. Though a creation, like the other characters, he too seizes the word and proceeds to subvert the narrator's initial intention. In short, his life becomes his own, and his truths far richer and more perplexing than anyone, including his creator, could ever assume. As a result, not only does his personality become more complicated and his emotional core more enigmatic, but his actions provide valuable insights that were previously overlooked:
Why doesn't he wipe her face, I wonder. She is more savage perhaps this way. More graphically rescued. ... Aw, but he is young, young and he is hurting, so I forgive him his self-deception and his grand, fake gestures. and when I watch him sipping too quickly the cane liquor he has found, worrying about his coat and not tending to the girl, I don't hate him at all. (155)
Or, as the narrator admits still later, indicating that Golden's limitations were as much a result of the narrator's shortcomings as his own:
What was I thinking of? How could I have imagined him so poorly? Not noticed the hurt that was not linked to the color of his skin, or the blood that beat beneath it. But to some other thing that longed for authenticity, for the right to be in this place, effortlessly without needing laughless grin, a talking posture. I have been careless and stupid and it infuriates me to discover (again) how unreliable I am. (160)
For the narrator this both begins and ends in race as a primary arbiter of identity, its potential as such, and its very real restrictions. Although a fundamentally racialized being, informed by the racist symbolic and operational systems with which he lives, whether he realizes it or not, Golden possess an identity that is much more extensive than this alone. Jazz becomes the process through which the narrator, not necessarily Golden himself, comes to understand the complexity and inconsistencies of identity. Identity is the ultimate structure of improvisation: erratic, ambiguous, artful. It is scrappy, shifting according to necessity, opportunity, and desire. It is as much a product of the self as of the self's interaction with its environment, the result of both self-creation and others' convictions.
Like Dorcas, Joe's murdered mistress, Golden Gray is an erratic mixture of emotions, attitudes, and labels that are then construed as identity: self-loathing mulatto; entitled white gentleman; self-righteous hypocrite; unformed adult, egocentric and immature; frightened orphan, unclaimed and misunderstood, in search of a home. While growth begins, for the narrator, with the assurance offered by the comfort and strength to be found in blackness, it becomes this and more, a mystery that will ultimately allow the soul sustenance and transcendence:
Now I have to think this through, carefully, even though I may be doomed to another misunderstanding. I have to do it and not break down. Not hating him is not enough; liking, loving him is not useful. I have to alter things. I have to be a shadow who wishes him well, like the smiles of the dead left over from their lives. I want to dream a nice dream for him, and another of him. Lie down next to him, a wrinkle in the sheet, and contemplate his pain and by doing so ease it, diminish it. I want to be the language that wishes him well, speaks his name, wakes him when his eyes need to be open. I want him to stand... his mind soaked and sodden with sorrow, or dry and brittle with... hopelessness.... There then, with nothing available..., a collection of leftover smiles stirs, some brief benevolent love rises from the darkness and there is nothing for him to see or hear, and there is no reason to stay but he does. For the safety at first, then for the company. Then for himself--with a... confident, enabling, seren e power....(161)
While this sustenance would appear to be based on racial sensitivity and a self-love that surpasses racial superiority, it cannot be accepted as such. For, if it is a wish based on the vagaries of race, there is the potential it will be rejected. More specifically, however, the words themselves will always remain a mystery just beyond the reader's ability to fathom, a private wish bequeathed by an artist to the creation, who ceases to be a personal possession once he, she, or it enters the public sphere, whether the world of the page, stage, or canvas. Here, for instance, there are echoes of the James Van Der Zee mortuary photos from which Morrison, who wrote the forward to The Harlem Book of the Dead, received her idea that produced Jazz. Nevertheless, while asserting individual agency within the context of the narrative, the character becomes as much a creation of various readers as of the actual creator. Characters function within the domain of the non-hermeneutic; the fate of each must, in part, be determined by the readers themselves, a form of improvisation that creates different results in each particular case. Although the indiscriminate affirmation of love and empty displays of affection may not permit growth to either the character or reader, the love that is empathy, that is the emotional transfer embodied within artistry itself, is far from futile, becoming, as the narrator's imagery suggests, an almost erotic exchange of feeling and sensation. To feel deeply for another, and to alter one's perspective and behavior in response is, adding a twist to Violet 's words, potentially to remake the world. Or, as Linell Cady posits:
Love is a mode of relating that seeks to establish bonds between the self and the other, creating a unity out of formerly detached individuals. It is a process of integration where the isolation of individuals is overcome through the forging of connections between persons. These connections constitute the emergence of a wider life including yet transcending the separate individuals. (141)
Golden Gray appears unequipped to establish and nurture these bonds. Immature, sexually repressed, and traumatized by the knowledge of his ancestry, he seems to reject his blackness, as embodied in Wild, who is an object of attraction and repulsion:
...there is nothing to prevent Golden Gray from believing that an exposed woman will explode in his arms, or worse, that he will, in hers.... The deer eyes are closed, and thank God will not open easily, for they are sealed with blood.... Darker than the blood though are her lips, thick enough to laugh at and to break his heart. (154-55)
Golden is unable to see either Wild or any of the blacks with whom he interacts as individuals worthy of his respect; they become objects of dread or contempt, a tension that emanates from racial insecurity that hardens into erotic discomfort, a fear of sexual or physical contamination.
However, the narrator, as artist to reader, is operating from a very different perspective. Through the alchemy of the creative process, the narrator nurtures the erotic. While the steps themselves recede, a problematic riddle, the source of this riddle's abundance seems to be the love that binds artist and audience. Or as the talking book whispers to its reader: "Make me, remake me. You are free to do it and I am free to let you because look, look. Look where your hands are. Now" (229). A movement that depends on the erosion of isolation, literary creation, the interaction of artist and characters, reader and writer, is, like jazz, sensual, complex, and unpredictable, permitting the transcendence of the self through the mystery that is love.
In Jazz, the non-hermeneutic is strategically deployed throughout the novel, whether in the identity of the elusive narrator, abruptly terminated narrative strands, or ambiguous and even purposefully deceptive language. Its use destabilizes the text, making it impossible to accept a single rendering of either its form or content. In the same manner that jazz music denies its listeners the perception of musical totality, the narrative refuses to conform to standard textual expectation, rejecting a strict sense of aesthetic order, interpretive certainty, or linear progression. For the reader, this can engender a strong sense of disconnection, leading to an angry or bewildered condemnation, as reflected in the words of the novelist Charles Johnson: "Jazz. ... I don't know what to say about it. There are no characters, there's no story, there's no plot, and even the poetry which Morrison is so good at is not there. It just isn't there. I'm not sure why she released that book at all" (167). However, while its mani pulation of the jazz idiom can be a source of confusion or alienation, the novel's seeming disorder is what connects it to both jazz and the erotic, permitting it to approximate the physical dynamic in which its production occurs. The novel refuses to be a narrowly intellectual endeavor. Rather, it constantly returns to the physicality of its characters, individuals who are experiencing their bodies in often startling, compelling, oppressive, and taboo ways. The reader, by extension, should be allowed to do so as well. He or she has to have access to the sense of bodily wonder that fuels the passions that both inspire and diminish the novel's characters. What must thus change is less the text itself than the reader's perspective, his or her perception of what it means to encounter, to read and interact with, that text as jazz. Like love, this process is slippery, fleeting, and subjective. Yet, like love, it possesses within its very structure, the possibility for transcendence, for unity within a being and fe eling larger than the self. For Golden, choosing his identity, this love may not be enough to reconnect him to his ancestral heritage, as embodied in his interaction with Wild and Hunter. Yet the very structure of Jazz recreates the antiphony that propels the original tale. Morrison's novel is a literary counter-statement to an earlier visual statement by James Van Der Zee, the Harlem Renaissance era photographer. In his image, Van Der Zee captured a young woman, dead from a gunshot wound, now lying in her coffin. She had refused to identify her assailant, thought to have been her lover, and thus allowed his escape. Van Der Zee could not remember her name. In Morrison's novel, the woman becomes Dorcas. And rather than a silenced cipher, she ultimately returns from the dead to tell her own story. However, it is not Dorcas alone who speaks. It is a community of people, marginalized by custom and lost to the passage of time. In his photographs, Van Der Zee honored the lives of both the celebrated and the anonymo us, portraying all with the dignity and artistry allowed by his vision, which mixed nineteenth-century sentimentality with the energy of twentieth-century black migration and urban reinvention. Morrison explores the individual lives dimmed by those of the luminaries. Her vehicle for doing so is the music that loaned the era its name. Jazz, with its passion, speed, and cultural vitality, captured the pulse of the African-American masses. And Morrison's novel reincorporates the music into Van Der Zee's visual testaments. Her text proceeds where the uplift of the Harlem Renaissance necessarily left off. In this sense, the novel also provides the response to the call of an earlier generation of artists whose iconoclasm, published as the short-lived journal Fire!!, as well as other literary endeavors, was met with firm resistance, ignored, and rejected. As Langston Hughes would explain,
None of the older Negro intellectuals would have anything to do with Fire. Dr. Du Bois in the Crisis roasted it. The Negro press called it all sorts of bad names, largely because of a green and purple story by Bruce Nugent, in the Oscar Wilde tradition. . . . Rean Graves, the critic for the Baltimore Afro-American, began his review by saying: "I have just tossed the first issue of Fire into the fire." (Big Sea 237)
Jazz portrays the Harlem presented by Langston Hughes, Wallace Thurman, Zora Neale Hurston, and Bruce Nugent, among others, who in their ill-fated publication attempted to treat the underbelly of the Renaissance and the complexity of AfricanAmerican culture through the exploration of taboos, whether sexual ambivalence, homoeroticism, and prostitution, or class and color conflicts. Morrison's latter-day creation accepts the challenge proffered by this earlier generation. By placing the erotic at the core of her own novel, then destabilizing it and giving it broader definitions, Morrison is able to unleash the longings, dreams, and emotions that form an undercurrent in Van Der Zee's pristine images; course through the works, at times raw and overly ambitious, of the Renaissance avant-garde; and become a potent current, immoderate and complete, within the jazz idiom itself. She borrows this momentum for her own tale, attempting to use its fluidity to explore the price of freedom for the recently emancipated, who are running from oppression yet are haunted by the past. It is this past, discarded but ever-present, that becomes the ghost, the beloved, of Jazz. The narrator conjures it; the text itself functions as the mechanism through which it is exorcised.
The past, whether embodied in Wild or Golden Gray, or Violet, Joe, and Dorcas, merges and erupts in the conflicting tonalities of the musical idiom. Striving for the catharsis and resolution made possible by musical release, the text metamorphoses into the jazz moment. It begins and ends with the flesh, a site both sacred and profane, ultimately becoming the potential movement into self-ownership, that which was so long denied. As mediated by the narrator, love, multifaceted and contrary, has the potential to propel the individual, whether character or reader, beyond the limits of the self into a space of freedom, a site of choice and possible empowerment. Yet whether or not this occurs is, in part, a function of the non-hermeneutic. Due to textual antiphony, the choice ultimately rests with the individual reader. Van Der Zee's visual sensibility connected the Victorian era with the twentieth century, permitting rural migrants to reenvision themselves according to the promise of the urban North and the seduct ion of the modem. So Morrison connects Van Der Zee's modernism to her own postmodern landscape. Becoming symbolic complements, both artists leave the final decision to the reader. As Wild, laughing her strange, eerie laugh, weaves her way through the text, connecting it to Beloved and the tragedy of Margaret Garner, the slave whose life-story and revolt informed Morrison's prior novel, the erotic, impossible to contain within a singular definition, propels the narrative, reconnecting it to the artistry of Van Der Zee and a lost generation of writers, to the longings of the dead and their music, jazz, which lives on, vibrant and reconstituted, in the lives of their descendants.
(1.) Sometimes lower-cast and marginalized within the larger society, the griot is often perceived as a sycophant and entertainer who can be guilty of embellishing a family or clan's history and status for personal gain.
(2.) In an interview with Angels Carabi for Belles Lettres, Toni Morrison discusses this process in great detail: "The thing is, I could not think of the voice of a person.... The voice is the voice of a talking book. So when the voice says, 'I know what it's like to be left standing when someone promises,' it talks to the reader. It sounds like a very erotic, sensual love song of a person who loves you. This is a love song of a book talking to the reader.... It was interesting to me how the whole act of reading, holding, surrendering to the book, is part of that beautiful intimacy of reading. When it's tactile, your emotions are deeply involved.... I deliberately restricted myself using an 'I' that was only connected to the artifact of the book as an active participant in the invention of the story of the book, as though the book were talking, writing itself, in a sense" (43).
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Caroline Brown is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. This is one of a series of her articles exploring music and the non-hermeneutic in black women's novels.
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2002|
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