Printer Friendly

Toni Morrison's Jazz and the City.

Out of the three volumes of Toni Morrison's trilogy starting with Beloved (1987) and ending with Paradise (1997), Jazz (1992) may very well be the most vocal. The narrative's deliberately ungendered, unspecific voice and its avatars take center stage against a Harlem backdrop. But what it consistently calls "the City" with a capital C only indirectly functions as historical background. It seems to be doing much more than encoding Afro-American place. The metropolis in 1926 is a vast receptacle of actual, historical, vocal, and memorial traces. "Black Manhattan," as James Weldon Johnson used to call it, shapes up as a space of resistance in which all sorts of cultural practices resurface under oppressive conditions.

Yet the sense of place in Jazz, as Eudora Welty defines it in her essay "The Eye of the Story," [1] is a fledgling, tentative one which only timidly heralds Paradise's discrimination-safe haven. As a new composite, the City is conditioned by the Great Migration from the rural South which started in the 1870s and climaxed between 1910 and 1930. Whatever traces of this former history survive in the text remain fragmentary or else unarticulated. They sometimes even lead to literal dead ends. Derived from James Van Der Zee's eerie collection of photographs The Harlem Book of the Dead, the narrative itself unfolds as a Book of the Dead, a site of traumas forever replayed, revisited by the characters of a new type of black diaspora. Just like the Middle Passage of slaves across the Atlantic, the City of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s is some sort of "zero moment" in black history. The "disremembered and unaccounted for" (Beloved 275) stories of times past can only reemerge as loose fragments patched up by an uncertain if forceful narrator. And the context the narrator provides for these migrants' dreams also precludes any smooth representation of "the glittering city" (Jazz 35) and its "race music" (79). The voice registers--and yet fails to register--the oscillation between narrative construction and invention, or pauses. And as it admits to its own unreliability, it also allows its originally single-voiced authority to be questioned and eventually superseded by multi-vocality. In between narration and silence, its frantic vibrations echo the fierce energy of the turn-of-the-century Underwood Archives photographs in which entire blocks and buildings under construction stand halfway up, transfixed in some indefinite in-betweenness. In 1926 "the City" was already much more than just a black neighborhood within Manhattan; it was not even a city within the city, but the capital of black America. And the sense of place was essentially defined by what it could no longer be, and by what it wasn't quite yet. As the narr ator says, a "city like this one makes me dream tall and feel in on things. Hep. It's the bright steel rocking above the shade below that does it" (7). Some of these dreams however are endlessly deferred in Jazz, quite literally displaced so that they mirror the book's discontinuous narrative sequences.

A Discourse of Displacement

Morrison's sixth novel plays with what could be called an aesthetic of displacement. In the black diasporic tradition, displaced individuals embark on a journey of literal reconfiguring and remembering in New York's fluid framework. The overpowering City frames the story and influences the lives of its inhabitants in much the same way that James Van Der Zee's black-and-white photographs and comments "frame" the dead people he photographed in Harlem funeral parlors in the 1920s. One of his plates shows a dead girl shot by her lover. Toni Morrison chose to call her Dorcas.

She was the one I think was shot by

her sweetheart at a party with a noise-

less gun. She complained of being sick

at the party and friends... [took] her

in the room and laid her down. After

they undressed her and loosened her

clothes, they saw the blood on her

dress. They asked her about it and she

said, "I'll tell you tomorrow, yes, I'll

tell you tomorrow." She was just try-

ing to give him a chance to get away.

For the picture. I placed the flowers on

her chest. (Van Der Zee 84)

The dying girl's attempt to preserve her secret [2] oddly parallels the narrator's retaining power. The story this chilling picture of a murdered woman never tells is what the narrative voice in Jazz purports to tell: The conflation of the visual and the written media is literally "stunning," as Morrison says in her foreword to the Afro-American photographer's work. At the crossroads among Southern history, oral tradition, and the new tracts/tracks of the City, the voice, however, never says it all. It merely refers to the revelation discourse quoted in the epigraph and taken from the ancient Nag Hammadi poetic texts:

I am the name of the sound

and the sound of the name.

I am the sign of the letter

and the designation of the division.

"Thunder, Perfect Mind,"

The Nag Hammadi. [3]

Narratively as well as geographically speaking, what lies ahead is still uncharted territory. Only snatches of revelation resurface in an indirect discussion of the function of narrative as secular revelation. The voice feeds on the painful stories of the characters. It also reflects on its own relation to telling and displacing, thus calling into question the import of its own revelations. Because of the recurrent pattern of blurred distinctions between actual storytelling and mere "meddling ... finger-shaping" (Jazz 220), displacement is also to be understood in its sense of narrative bending. At times the voice features two parallel versions of the same story: In section six, for instance, the voice does exactly what it reproaches Golden Gray with, when Joe Trace's mother-in-law's protege "shap[es] a story for himself to tell somebody" (154). Its first vision of the mulatto's encounter with the wild black girl who may well be Joe's long lost mother, "I see him in a two-seat phaeton" (143), is thus displac ed and undermined by a second account of the same scene: "I like to think of him that way. Sitting straight in the carriage" (150). As critic Philip Page comments,

This "double-take" re-reports the scene

with slightly different details from the

first version; the fireplace, for example,

is now "clean, set for a new fire" (152)

whereas in the first telling it "has a

heap of ash" (147). The discrepancies,

and the mere fact of the juxtaposition

of two competing accounts by the

same narrator, call into question the

status of each account and of the narra-

tor's accounting in general. (172)

What Morrison calls "the voice of the talking book ... as though the book were talking, writing itself, in a sense" (Carabi 42) actualizes the very notion of displacement. Narrative constructions and reconstructions reflect the characters' legacy of personal dispossession and cultural dislocation. The narrative records and re-presents both the real and false hopes offered by the City. And as it first celebrates the advent of a new era, it directly comments on the meaning of relocation for "a million others" (Jazz 32). The voice's version and invocations of the reader rather ironically contrast with Alain Locke's brilliant evocations of the Harlem Renaissance in his 1925 anthology The New Negro:

I'm strong. Alone, yes, but topnotch and indestructible--like the City in 1926 when all the wars are over and there will never be another one. ... At last, at last, everything's ahead. ... Here comes the new. Look out. There goes the sad stuff. The bad stuff. The things-nobody-could-help-stuff. ... History is over, you all, and everything's ahead last. ... Word was that underneath the good times and the easy money something evil ran the streets and nothing was safe--not even the dead. (Jazz 7-9)

This play on the oral and written language mirrors the structure of the blues and the instrumental variations of jazz. The narrator seems to thrive on pain and on the lyrical laments of all the voices telling tales of woe in the narrative, and its very form captures the unpredictability and riffs of jazz. The city blues tell the stories buried voices could or would not. Even Alice Manfred, Dorcas's aunt,

swore she heard a complicated anger in it; something hostile that disguised itself as flourish and roaring seduction. ... It faked happiness, faked welcome, but it did not make her feel generous, this juke joint, barrel hooch, tonk house music. It made her hold her hand in the pocket of her apron to keep from smashing it through the glass pane to snatch the world in her fist and squeeze the life out of it for doing what it did and did and did to her and everybody else she knew or knew about. (59)

Music seems to function as a substitute voice here. It provides the historical background the narrative voice incompletely supplies. At the heart of the text--and of the City--it restores continuity, exposing the anger of "the quiet children of the ones who had escaped from Springfield Ohio, Springfield Indiana, New Orleans Louisiana, after raving whites had foamed all over the lanes and yards of home" (33). It reconstitutes the complex journey of black migrants fleeing Southern oppression against the peculiar backdrop of the Northern city, which in turn distills its own violence. But it can also turn into the place of all possibilities if, as the voice specifies, "you ... heed the design--the way it's laid out for you, considerate, mindful of where you want to go and what you might need tomorrow" (9), for "really there is no contradiction--rather it's a condition: the range of what an artful City can do" (118). The City therefore becomes an acting site of reconstruction, of potential and actual articulation of some traumatic traces of the past. [4] And as the controlling entity behind the distracted and inscrutable voice, it sends the reader on a frantic, often sterile search for the missing fragments in the characters' lives, eventually providing a discourse of replacement:

Round and round about the town. That's the way the City spins you. Makes you do what it wants, go where the laid-out roads say to. All the while letting you think you're free. ... You can't get off the track a City lays for you. Whatever happens, whether you get rich or stay poor, ruin your health or live to old age, you always end up back where you started: hungry for the one thing everybody loses--young loving. (120)

Just as the characters' displacements seem to be confined to certain set patterns, discourse features itself as circular. The voice's improvisational strategies merely bridge figurative correspondences between musical genres and promises of dispersions. As the narrator says in section one: "That's how that scandalizing threesome on Lenox Avenue began. What turned out to be different was who shot whom" (6).

The narrative voice eventually admits to "invent[ing] stories" (220) about the characters. And yet at the heart of this chronicle of an evil foretold is the very notion of participation. The voice triggers the call-and-response pattern which structures the entire narrative. Jazz may not be strictly speaking a sermon in which a congregation answers and carries the preacher's voice, but it conjures up more complex voices than just the risk-taking narrator's, with its false predictions and constant misreadings. Other characters relay the failing narrative voice when it confesses to its own fallibility. [5] Toward the end, Joe Trace, Dorcas, and her friend Felice step in, quite literally re-placing the voice. Temporarily misplaced because of its tendentious reading of some narrative fragments, it is then redistributed onto new speakers. And the borderlines between and among their different angles of vision are blurred. One voice eventually dissolves into another, the narrator's into that of Golden Gray, the mulat to character, for instance: "... he saw he was crying. Only now, he thought, now that I know I have a father, do I feel his absence. ... I am going to freshen the pain, point it, so we both know what it is for" (158).

Wandering off, disappearing even, the voice pays no longer pays heed to the City's particular design. Its narrative meanders enact an ultimate type of displacement. It becomes the louder voice of the City. Alternately losing track and picking up the trail again, it gets hard to place, if not to replace:

It was loving the City that distracted me and gave me ideas. Made me think I could speak its loud voice and make that sound sound human. I missed the people altogether. (220)

At this particular cultural and historical moment, only certain voices can be captured--mostly indistinct voices fusing with the great voice of City. The text becomes then a musical score, an open (to change), instrumental space in the literal sense of the term:

... Alice Manfred stood for three hours on Fifth Avenue marveling at the cold black faces and listening to drums saying what the graceful women and the marching men could not. What was possible to say was already in print on a banner. ... But what was meant came from the drums. It was July in 1917 and the beautiful faces were cold and quiet; moving slowly into the space the drums were building for them. ... Now, down Fifth Avenue from curb to curb came a tide of cold black faces, speechless and unblinking because what they meant to say but did not trust themselves to say the drums said for them. ... (53-54)

The cityscape is suddenly redesigned and redefined by this unexpected wave of Blacks flooding part of downtown Manhattan and protesting against white violence during the deadly East St. Louis riots of 1917. Taboo-breaking and boundary-crossing become indissociable. The New York silent marchers cross over to "where whitemen leaned out of motorcars with folded dollar bills peeping from their pa. ... It was where she [Alice], a woman of fifty and independent means, had no surname." They eventually infringe upon the uncharted and unsafe territory "south of 110th Street" (54).

Figuring In/Out

The City then is, in turn, friend and foe. Paying attention to its design does not exclusively mean understanding and going by its ways and means. It is also to be fought, as a new potential site of terror and wreckage, for "crackers in the South mad cause negroes were leaving; crackers in the North mad cause they were coming" (128). In the City, one can alternately be led astray by the "get-on-down music" and rounded, gathered up by the re-connecting sound of the drums which "spanned the distance" (58). How one fares in the City depends greatly on interpreting the sporadic answers one can wrestle from it. The necessary displacement/repositioning it imposes upon everyone entering its limits relies as much on the inflections of the communal voice as on the individual's capability to find his or her own voice. In some way, the entire narrative is to be declined--in its grammatical sense--as a Migration Series. Jacob Lawrence's set of paintings of black migrants from the rural South seems to provide the pictoria l basis for the story technique, just as Ralph Ellison's comment on jazz reflects its ambivalence. There is, writes Ellison,

a cruel contradiction implicit in the art form itself. For true jazz is an art of individual assertion within and against the group. Each true jazz moment ... represents (like the successive canvasses of a painter) a definition of his identity: as individual, as member of the collectivity and as link in the chain of tradition. (qtd. in Gates, Signifying epigraph)

What the voice leaves out--deliberately or not--resurfaces in the gaps, blanks, and fragmentary accounts of the book's narrative and topographical strata. Articulating the various psychological and cultural losses of characters, "sharply in focus and clicking" (226), requires a careful recomposition of these stories. It also means keeping the reader literally on the edge: From whatever angle s/he may look at them, the reference to montage technique seems to be useful.

Jump-cutting is a cinematic term, but it also applies here to the voice's improvisations, which "close the distance" (58), like the drums on Fifth Avenue. Binding, then, whether emotional, geographical, or aesthetic, seems to be what the displaced voice strives for. The text and the repossessed black space Harlem came to be at the turn of the twentieth century literalize the notion of reconnection. During the Harlem Renaissance, the City functions as the privileged site of a positive construction of blackness, countering, as Morrison says, the white "construction of blackness and enslavement [in which] could be found not only the not-free but also, with the dramatic polarity created by skin color, the projection of the not-me" (Playing 38).

After black entrepreneur Philip A. Payton talked white property owners into letting him rent out some of their real estate to families from the black bourgeoisie in 1904, Harlem quickly became what Osofsky calls "Negro New York," and what Van Vechten referred to as "Nigger Heaven" in his 1926 novel of Harlem life. The voice in Jazz repeatedly reports the social, political, and economic terrorism which precipitated the great exodus of freedmen to the cities of the North. By offering a glimpse of Joe Trace's gradual Northern migration, the narration also documents his slow access to some budding sense of identity. When Vienna, his Southern birthplace, is burned to the ground, Joe stays around until he's eventually run off the land he's just bought:

Red fire doing fast what white sheets took too long to finish: canceling every deed; vacating each and every field; emptying us out of our places so fast we went running from one part of the country to another--or nowhere.... They ran us off with two slips of paper I never saw nor signed. (126)

Joe's fledgling sense of self is irretrievably linked to his own conception of place. Before figuring out where he belongs, he first becomes part of the "nine hundred Negroes, encouraged by guns and hemp, [who] left Vienna, rode out of town on wagons or walked on their feet to who knew [or cared] where" (174). The implicit reference to the Jewish exile summons up the correlative vision of New York City as the Promised Land. [6]

So at the same time that the white world looked curiously at Marcus Garvey's racial pride, Harlem was becoming both a land of promises and the final Frontier. By the end of the 1920s, the Great Depression brought to an abrupt end its artistic and intellectual vitality. People like A'Lelia Walker, the "joy-goddess of Harlem" who invited all kinds of prominent artists to her parties, and blues singer Bessie Smith, with her "Harlem Frolic" company, vanished from the scene. Whatever distance between the dreamers and their dreams the "discovery" and fashioning of Harlem had abolished, the place was being reinstated with the emergence of one of the worst American slums. As Osofsky says:

At least two basic reasons explain the relative failure of social reform in Harlem in the 1920's.... Continual Negro migration acted, and continues to act, as a disruptive force and served to prevent the development of a more stable, secure and promising pattern of community life. The constant renewal of Negro population through migration made Harlem, in the words of a prominent social worker, a "perpetual frontier." ... Tuberculosis ... was largely an urban disease that spread fastest under congested conditions.... American society was unwilling to make a full commitment to a program of racial justice that the situation called for. This, and the planlessness that historically typified American urban growth, especially in New York City, permitted Harlem to become the horrible slum it remains today. (153-55)

It became a slum in which, as Alain Locke notes in his "La Guardia and Harlem" manuscript, "the rosy enthusiasms and hopes of 1925 ... were cruelly deceptive mirages" (qtd. in Osofsky 187).

In Jazz, precisely, 1925-1926 are crucial years. Joe Trace by then "had it made. In 1925 we all had it made. Then Violet started sleeping with a doll in her arms. Too late. I understood in a way. In a way ... I changed once too often" (129). The historical trend of radical transformation in the black settlement conflates with the private story. Joe's desperate search for a consistent identity leads him through the stages of a painful process of shedding skin, like the snake the voice keeps alluding to. [7] Animal and organic imageries merge, and the migrant hunter he never ceased to be fulfills his ultimate mission in the heart of the City. As he tracks down his unfaithful beloved, Trace realizes that in this world the best thing, the only thing is to find the trail and stick to it. ... Something else takes over when the track begins to talk to you, give out its signs so strong you hardly have to look.... if the trail speaks, no matter what's in the way, you can find yourself in a crowded room aiming a bulle t at her heart, never mind it's the heart you can't live without.... I was rambling, just rambling all through the City. (130)

In Morrison's novels, traces are covered up and scattered. They function as signs of dispersion, of the virtual dis-location of both tracker and prey, paradoxically patterned on some phantom whole which ceased to exist long ago. In the central Golden Gray section of the book, when the voice makes up a story about the mulatto's first encounter with his black father, the figuratively missing arm is described as a "phantom": "I don't need the arm.... It's a phantom I have to behold and be held by, in whatever crevices it lies, under whatever branch" (158). The pun on Trace, Joe's last name, underlines the unpredictable pattern of a hunt which is much more than a solitary tracing through Southern or asphalt jungles. The strategy of the "country boy, country man" (129) seems to lay the foundation of an aesthetic of traces. The sense of loss, the "inside nothing" (37) he acknowledges while looking for his absent mother in the woods of Virginia, resurfaces dangerously in New York, rising to new aesthetic expression s. Paradoxically, on City ground, the self is at once more sheltered and more exposed. For Joe, as for the others when their "soles hit the pavement--there was no turning around.... There, in a city, they are not so much new as themselves: their stronger, riskier selves." But on this urban hunting ground they soon forget "what loving other people was like" and treat "language like the same intricate, malleable toy designed for their play" (32-33).

The cityscape seems to be no substitute for what the voice calls "the hurt" (54). Traces of loss resurface and inscribe themselves in the characters' lives and bodies. The organic traces left by history on someone's skin and the stories enslaved and broken bodies tell form a major topos in Morrison's novels. Beloved's heroine Sethe has had a tree of flesh on her back ever since she was whipped by the slavemaster. [8] Once she's crossed the Ohio River to the relatively safe grounds of the free state, the tree magically turns into a Tree of Life. In Jazz, the half-moons on Dorcas's cheeks and forehead indirectly testify to the torture she endured as a child, when she witnessed her father and mother stomped and burned to death during the East St. Louis riots. These little scrawls on her flesh trace a symbolic track only Joe can follow: "I bought the stuff she told me to, but glad none of it ever worked. Take my little hoof marks away? Leave me with no tracks at all?" (130). Joe's internal and emotional space is thus projected first onto his beloved and eventually onto the streets of Harlem. The track is both organic and geographical, and the fragmented textual strategy reflects the processing of his own ravenous desire.

Hunting for Dorcas in the heart of the City, Joe merely tries to complete what Ralph Ellison calls a "desperate search for an identity." [9] And as the cycle of his forced relocations comes to an end, he's only left with elusive signs to decipher. Joe can barely articulate the actual and metaphorical figures in black--to borrow a title from Gates-- he sees on Dorcas's face. As the narrative voice remarks at the very end, something is lacking, and he cannot figure in the missing fragments:

I started out believing that life was made so that the world would have some way to think about itself, but that it had gone awry with humans because flesh, pinioned by misery, hangs on to it with pleasure.... I don't believe that any more. Something is missing there. Something rogue. Something else you have to figure in before you can figure it out. (227-28)

What the voice cannot pin down seems to be the very sense of absence, the unbearable feeling of loss which structures the narrative and its characters. Twice, Joe is defined as "Trace, what [my parents] went off without." As his adopted mother explains, "O honey, they disappeared without a trace. The way I heard it I understood her to mean the 'trace' they disappeared without was me" (124). The reenactment of this first abandonment during the Dorcas episode threatens the entire frame of Joe's topology of the familiar. New York turns into an alien and alienating metropolis with a multiplicity of ethnic, social, and age stratifications. The original uniqueness and unity of the City seem to have disappeared. Place, in the sense Welty defines it, turns into some nondescript space which needs to be conquered and claimed all over again. Harlem is no longer "the City that danced with [him], proving already how much it loved" him (32). It has become the locus of contending desires reigning supreme in a dangerous osci llation between hunting down and "never hurt[ing] the young" (181):

Joe is wondering about all this on an icy day in January. He is a long way from Virginia, and even longer from Eden ... when he sets out, armed, to find Dorcas. He isn't thinking of harming her, or, as Hunter had cautioned, killing something tender. She is female. And she is not prey.... He is hunting for her though.... He stalks through the City and it does not object or interfere.... The City looks as uninhabited as a small town. (180)

For a Glimpse of Paradise

In Morrison's novels it seems that space can only be validated if properly named. The City dweller's survival and actual definition depend on acquiring a sense of limits. The new Canaan is only potentially achievable:

Hospitality is gold in this City; you have to be clever to figure out how to be welcoming and defensive at the same time. When to love something and when to quit. If you don't know how, you can end up out of control or controlled by some outside thing like that hard case last winter. (9)

This delicate balance between the inside and outside is exactly what Joe Trace seems to have lost. Losing Dorcas, who used to fill "the inside nothing" (37) he had traveled with since childhood, he is projected onto a space he can hardly identify anymore. In some sort of inverted and perverted topography, he loses touch with the City which had so far both defined and confined him. When looking for his beloved, his stalking through Harlem is described as a literal walk on the wild side--what Morrison calls at the end of Tar Baby "the far side" (307). His expanding inner emptiness imprints itself on City territory. As he literally and figuratively turns wild on urban ground, Joe indiscriminately crosses geographical, physical, and mental boundaries. Probably intentional, the pun on wild/Wild, his invisible mother's name, emphasizes the constant metaphoric reading of space in Jazz. The traces of loss from which Joe has suffered all his life originated in Wild's "chief unmothering" (167), but they are also reveal ed, and physically enacted, by Joe himself. In a strikingly circular, self-referential way, he is the trace he's looking for all over the City. Or rather, the city, for it suddenly becomes a small, silent town, reversing the usual process by which the town gives way to the City. Dorcas then functions as pre-text, a first textual/sexual trace which eventually leads him to his fuller, more adult self, turning him again "inward toward the other" (228).

The City eventually serves as a backdrop to the development of Trace's new self, "caught midway between was and must be" (226). But it can only provide a painstakingly conquered and necessarily redefined freedom. For whenever characters roam free, the voice has somehow broken down, and the rooting of fiction in a specific topography starts dissolving. For a while, place stops functioning as both "a definer and a confiner of what [the voice is] doing," to borrow one of Welty's phrases (Prenshaw 87). Harlem's topographic network starts disintegrating as the voice echoes Joe's confusion and temporary dissociation from a City to which he had originally surrendered himself. The first relatively safe enclosures--or, at least, clear dividing lines--are suddenly erased from the text, which opens up onto some parallel, defamiliarized space. It seems all of a sudden that it cannot be represented any more, for it utterly lacks continuity. Hence the voice has to perform textual stunts. In between sections six and seven, for instance, it enforces upon the text an artificial yoking of two different characters, time frames, and locations. It literally spans the distance: "But where is she?" (184), asks the narrator about Wild at the end of section six, while the next opens with the somewhat puzzling response, "There she is" (187), referring exclusively to Dorcas.

The voice's attempts to structure the narrative puzzle appear deliberately to reproduce jazz's call-and-response pattern, and what Ralph Ellison called "the unstated meanings of the blues idiom" (Shadow 207). Figuring in the major fragments implies, then, figuring out the voice's shifts, just as a musical improvisation might shift to a different basic chord. It entails reuniting the traces of loss shaping the selves of the various characters, as well as the pieces of the voice's complaint.

In Jazz, what is left unarticulated, unresolved is often materialized by blank spaces, "crevices" (227) in between the different sections. These signs/sighs of "in-betweenness" might be said to illustrate both the malleable form of the literary narrative structure and the fluid, free-flowing space of jazz improvisations. They are no mere "empty" sets, however. As tuning-in moments and turning points, they are potentially fraught with the richest interplay between music and storytelling, or more specifically, what lies beyond. As critic Paula Gallant Eckard says, "Jazz as narrator constructs the text" (18). And pain seems to be the major topic of these spaces of improvisation. In Beloved, they metaphorically fill in the gaps left by the text's concealed stories. As Baby Suggs comments," 'Not a house in the country ain't packed to its rafters with some dead Negro's grief'" (Beloved 5). In Jazz, they substitute for the hidden trail, [10] for the tale Dorcas never told before dying, or for the empty spot left by her frame on Joe and Violet's mantelpiece, because "the space where the photo had been was real" (Jazz 197). Because these spaces remain technically open and punctuate each and every section in the book, they operate as non-vocal, strictly formal framing devices and commentaries on the various narrative threads. And as they weave in the different pieces of this circular, enmeshing musical and narrative structure, they provide unexpected variations on "just circles and circles of sorrow," as Morrison says in Sula. [11] In this sense, they are very much akin to the blues' disillusioned comment on life and what Ralph Ellison famously called its

impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one's aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism. As a form, the blues is an autobiographical chronicle of personal catastrophe expressed lyrically. (Shadow 78-79)

The voice sometimes gets lyrical in Jazz, but it mostly literally and violently breaks loose. Just like the "wave of black people running from want and violence" (Jazz 33), it ebbs and flows. In between peremptory assertions and crippling moments of doubt, it sometimes pauses to ponder on new narrative forays: What if the black and blue characters in Jazz did not "always end up back where [they] started" (120)? Before wondering if the storytelling process hasn't gone wrong, the voice actually comes up with alternative scenarios which always remain in a state of indeterminacy. The City can in turn frame and release its inhabitants. It functions both as some open and closed ground. While overtly critical of Joe for pursuing the younger Dorcas, the narrator nevertheless evokes the possibility of some parallel narrative trail:

Makes me wonder about Joe. ... Rat. No wonder it ended the way it did. But it didn't have to, and if he had stopped trailing that little fast thing all over town long enough to tell Stuck or Gistan or some neighbor who might be interested, who knows how it would go?

It's not a thing to tell to another man. ... All I know is I saw her buying candy and the whole thing was sweet. ... I needed to be there, where it was all mixed up together just right, and where that was, was Dorcas. (121-22)

The sudden shift from the narrator's near aporia to some other voice quickly identified as Joe's is a good example of the art of tracing (narrative) prey. Here, following the track also means providing a coherent reading of the traces of desire, coming up with some explanation, however fragmentary, for its mechanism. Reading the text is a form of reading the City, whose "breath ... races through [Joe] like laughing gas brightening his eyes, his talk and his expectations" (34). The indeterminate, the discontinuous turn into indices of some (potentially) exhilarating space of personal freedom, a space of literary and urban promise. Slipping through textual cracks, Joe eventually comes in contact with some idealized figure of the beloved in the urban vortex.

Summoning up the dead girl figure seems to function as a trope in Morrison's fiction. It operates as a structuring motif threading together the three novels in the trilogy, as it allows for harmonic progression between calls and responses, or calls and silences, in the text. It weaves in fragments of Paradise, while connecting with the previous figure of the beloved:

I call her Beloved so that I can filter all these confrontations and questions that she has in that situation ... and then to extend her life ... her search, her quest, all the way through as long as I care to go, into the twenties where it switches to this other girl. Therefore, I have a New York uptown-Harlem milieu in which to put this love story, but Beloved will be there also. (Morrison, speaking with Naylor 208)

"Uptown" in the 1920s embodies the sense of wonder the Frontier used to embody, the lure of a city which will not necessarily be a complex trap. For in the early days of the Jazz Age, ethnic stratification did not function yet as a sign of entrapment into public and private hells. In the Traces' City, space is reconfigured. It is willed into a fairy tale kingdom, some version of Eden complete with the characters to be featured in it. Suddenly, urban destiny is no longer a collective phenomenon. Joe comes up with his own design: If the blues functions as a site of group memory, reclaiming the cityscape as his own allows him to come up with an alternative representation of reality. Space is transfigured:

[We] moved uptown. ... Bad times had hit then, and landlords white and black fought over colored people for the high rents that was okay by us because we got to live in five rooms even if some of us rented out two. The buildings were like castles in pictures and we who had cleaned up everybody's mess since the beginning knew better than anybody how to keep them nice. (127)

Joe's discourse becomes performative and plants in the middle of this new symbolic map his own private Garden of Eden:

I told you again that you were the reason Adam ate the apple and its core. That when he left Eden, he left a rich man. Not only did he have Eve, but he had the taste of the first apple in the world in his mouth for the rest of his life. The very first to know what it was like. To bite it, bite it down. Hear the crunch and let the red peeling break his heart. (133)

The verb to break foregrounds the destruction inherent in such a process of reification of the beloved Trace's smothering love and harkens back to Hagar's "anaconda love" for Milkman in Song of Solomon (137).

Like the ambivalent lexicon of wells functioning in Jazz as either death holes, where Violet's mother kills herself, or open places, the imagery of crevices is highly disruptive. City and narrative are filled with "sidewalk cracks" which trick readers and characters into tripping "over the cracks" (Jazz 196). Harlem's fundamentally constructive/destructive ambiguity seems to be built into a text which alternately reflects the open space of romantic possibility and, at the same time, re-presents, literally embodies the reality of physical defeat and death. After all, there's a dent left in the eighteen-year-old's "creamy little face [Violet] tried to cut open even though nothing would have come out but straw" (5). The cleft metaphor not only structures the narrative, but it also calls attention to the necessary presence of some breaching, allowing the positive process of identity formation to continue. As Philip Page comments, Joe's illusion "that he has a unitary self, that he can create and recreate that se lf, and that he can do so by possessing others" (162) is eventually dispelled only to emphasize the contours of the dream. The only thing left of this fleeting vision of heaven is the shade which "pushed away into certain streets, restricted from others, making it possible for the inhabitants to sigh and sleep in relief,...stretches--just there--at the edge of the dream" (Jazz 227).

In the urban world, the status of the self is constantly called into question. It is necessarily redefined so that a viable identity can be retained. [12] And this new cartography of the self seems to be linked inextricably to the modern megalopolis's processes of entropy. Having tested the confines of the City, [13] the characters meet their own limits: They try, and fail, literally to rearrange some figures/traces in a familiar space.

In the Afro-American tradition, the narrator "Signifies on" the notion of traces: He reuses it while revising it with a signal difference. As Joe's version of a dream City disappears, he nevertheless discovers some other topology of the familiar, some renewed intimacy with Violet which "enclosed them each and every night and muffled their whispering, old-time love" (228). The reference to some comforting enclosure calls for yet other frames, whether it be Van Der Zee's full-length photo arranged as a tribute to the beloved with wreaths of flowers and superimposed religious icon inserts, or the ultimate physical limit of the talking book conjuring the reader, devolving on him the power to effect change, and doing what the City is also there to do, "back[ing] and fram[ingl you no matter what you do" (8-9): "Say 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). But there is no sense of closure in this injunction to hold the book, to rere ad it lovingly all over again. it is a mere invitation to endless, pleasurable repetition. This is a story "to pass on," [14] actually tuned for a performance only "attentive listeners can hear" (226). For after all, as Violet tells Felice, Dorcas's mirror image, at the end, "What's the world for if you can't make it up the way you want it?" (208). What can "an artful City" do, if not sing the bluesman's "heartbreaking vocal" (118), telling everyone's story?

Anne-Marie Paquet-Deyris, after spending some years teaching in the United States, currently teaches American and African American literature at the Sorbonne University in Paris. Her book Toni Morrison: Figures do Femmes was published in 1996 at Paris-Sorbonne University Press.


(1.) Welty provides the following definition for place: "Place in fiction is the named, identified, concrete, exact and exacting, and therefore credible, gathering spot of all that has been felt, is about to be experienced, in the novel's progress" (122).

(2.) Owen Dodson's poem, the picture's companion piece, reiterates the idea: "They lean over me and say: /"Who deathed you who,/who, who, who, who." .../I whisper: "Tell you presently .../Shortly ... this evening .../Tomorrow." / Tomorrow is here / And you are there safe./I'm in here, Tootsie. (Van Der Zee 52).

(3.) For a commentary on the nature of these twelve books in Coptic script discovered In Egypt in the twentieth century, see MacRae, who writes in his introduction to "The Thunder, Perfect Mind" that it is "a revelation discourse delivered by a female revealer in the first person (containing) various exhortations to hear and reflect, and reproaches for failing to do so" (271).

(4.) At the beginning of the twentieth century, the phrase Black Manhattan seems to have fed dreams the way the New World and what Morrison calls "that well-fondled phrase, 'the American Dream'" used to. It offered its migrants what America offered its immigrants: "a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity not only to be born again but to be bom again in new clothes, as it were. The new setting would provide new raiments of the self" (Morrison, Playing 34).

(5.) The voice especially rails at its own fallibility when it admits to having misrepresented Golden Gray's character: "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 ... I have been careless and stupid and it infuriates me to discover (again) how unreliable I am" (160).

(6.) Recording this brutal change from farm to city life, Gilbert Osofsky makes the following comment on the new mecca: "The seaboard states of the Upper South ... continued to be the main sources of New York's migrant Negro population, but people from Georgia and Florida and other Deep South states formerly under-represented also came in greater numbers: 'Harlem became the symbol of liberty and the Promised Land to Negroes everywhere,' the Reverend Dr. Powell wrote. 'There was hardly a member of Abyssinian Church who could not count on one or more relatives among the new arrivals'" (128-29).

(7.) When, at the end of section 5, the new unidentified narrating voice is eventually ascribed to Joe, it makes the same references to the Garden of Eden as did the "official" voice earlier on: "Convince me I never knew the sweet side of anything until I tasted [Dorcas's] honey. They say snakes go blind for a while before they shed skin for the least time" (129). "Joe, Joe, take me, say you'll take me... Well, he says, well, no point in picking the apple if you don't want to see how it taste. How does it taste, Joe? she asks. And he opens his eyes" (40).

(8.) For a more thorough analysis, see my essay "Tree of Flesh, Tree of Life."

(9.) See what Ellison says about Harlem in his chapter "Harlem is Nowhere": "For this is a world in which the major energy of the imagination goes not into creating works of art, but to overcome the frustrations of social discrimination. Not quite citizens and yet Americans, full of the tensions of modern man but regarded as primitives, Negro Americans are in desperate search for an identity" (Shadow 297).

(10.) The voice consistently and paradoxically describes Wild by her absence, the secretive journeys she takes through the forests of Virginia, leaving behind evanescent tracks which may or may not be there. Everything about her seems to be in the conditional, to belong only to the sphere of possibility, depending entirely on one character's (fallible) point of view:"...the trail of her all three of them sometimes saw and followed led straight to her hide" (175); "The light was so small he could barely see his legs. But he saw tracks enough to know she was there" (177).

(11.) Nel's final cry is precisely that, some hardly verbalized expression of intense pain on her best friend's grave: "'O Lord, Sula,' she cried, 'girl, girl, girlgirlgirl.' It was a fine cry--loud and long--but it had no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow" (174).

(12.) In Song of Solomon, Morrison picks a rural setting to focus on this reconfiguration process. When Milkman is invited to a racoon hunt, "he began to wonder what he was doing sitting in the middle of the woods in Blue Ridge country. He had come here to find traces of Pilate's journey, to find relatives she might have visited, to find anything he could that would either lead him to the gold or convince him that it no longer existed.... Under the moon, on the ground, alone.., his self--the cocoon that was 'personality'--gave way.... So the thoughts came, unobstructed by other people, by things, even by the sight of himself" (279-80).

(13.) This notion of (denied) limitation is central in the representation of the city. Fitzgerald also had to admit that "His Lost City... was not the endless succession of canyons that he had supposed but that it had limits--from the tallest structure he saw for the first time that it faded out into the country on all sides, into an expanse of green and blue that alone was limitless. And with the awful realization that New York was a city after all and not a universe, the whole shining edifice that he had reared in his imagination came crashing to the ground" (30).

(14.) Absence of closure seems to be a trademark of Morrison's fiction. At the end of Beloved, she plays on the different meanings/tenses of the verb to pass: "It was not a story to pass on.... This is not a story to pass on" (275).

Works Cited

Carabi, Angela. "Interview with Toni Morrison." Belles Letters 10.2 (1995): 40-43.

Caws, Mary Ann. City Images: Perspectives from Literature, Philosophy, and Film. New York: Gordon and Breach, 1991.

Eckard Paula Gallant. "The Interplay of Music, Language and Narrative in Toni Morrison's Jazz." CLA Journal 38.1 (1994): 11-19.

Ellison, Ralph. Shadow and Act. New York: Random, 1964.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Crack-Up. 1945. Hammondsworth: Penguin, 1979.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the "Racial" Self. New York: Oxford UP, 1989.

_____. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford Up, 1989.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., and K. A. Appiah, eds. Toni Morrison: Critical Perspectives Past and Present. New York: Amistad P, 1993.

Grewal, Gurleen. Circles of Sorrow, Lines of Struggle: The Novels of Toni Morrison, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1998.

Johnson, James Weldon. Black Manhattan. 1930. Salem: Ayer, 1988.

Lehan, Richard. The City in Literature: An intellectual and Cultural History. Berkeley: U of California P, 1998.

MacRae, George. Introduction to "The Thunder, Perfect Mind". New York: Nag Hammadi Library in English, 1977.

Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Knopf, 1987.

--. Jazz. 1992. London: Picador, 1993.

--. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. New York: Vintage, 1993.

--. Sang of Solomon. New York: NAL, 1977.

--. Sula. 1973. New York: NAL, 1982.

--. Tar Baby. 1981. London: Triad, 1983.

Osofsky, Gilbert. Harlem: The Making of a Ghetto: Negro New York, 1890-1930. New York: Harper, 1971.

Page, Philip. Dangerous Freedom: Fusion and Fragmentation in Toni Morrison's Novels. Jackson:

UP of Mississippi, 1995.

Paquet, Anne-Marie. Toni Morrison: Figures do Femmes. Paris: Presses de Paris IV-Sorbonne, 1998.

--. "Tree of Flesh, Tree of Life." Beloved, She's Mine. CETANLA/CIRNA. Paris: Presses de la Sorbonne Nouvelle, 1993. 115-25.

Prenshaw, Peggy, ed. Conversations with Eudora Welty. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1984. Taylor-Guthrie, Danille, ed. Conversations with Toni Morrison. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1994. Van Der Zee, James. The Harlem Book of the Dead. Dobbs Ferry: Morgan & Morgan, 1978. Welty, Eudora. The Eye of the Story: Selected Essays and Reviews. London: Virago, 1987.
COPYRIGHT 2001 African American Review
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2001, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Paquet-Deyris, Anne-Marie
Publication:African American Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2001
Previous Article:Toni Morrison and the Burden of the Passing Narrative.
Next Article:The One All-Black Town Worth the Pain: (African) American Exceptionalism, Historical Narration, and the Critique of Nationhood in Toni Morrison's...

Related Articles
The fourth face: the image of God in Toni Morrison's 'The Bluest Eye.'
Representation, race, and the "language" of the ineffable in Toni Morrison's narrative.
The Story Must Go On and On: The Fantastic, Narration, and Intertextuality in Toni Morrison's Beloved and Jazz.
Revolutionary Suicide in Toni Morrison's Fiction.
Toni Morrison and the Burden of the Passing Narrative.
Furrowing all the Brows: Interpretation and the transcendent in Toni Morrison's Paradise.
"Passing on" death: stealing life in Toni Morrison's Paradise.
A love supreme: jazzthetic strategies in Toni Morrison's Beloved.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2020 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters