380. (Toni Morrison)

In an earlier post on Song of Solomon I tried to make sense of the presence of melodrama in the novel, the flares of intensity in the voices of characters, often without a full scaffold of narration to sustain them. Now, I believe I can do better justice to these moments and to how they matter. Melodrama, a drama accompanied by music, has connotations to fit it poorly to Greek tragedies, but it does fit more neatly the Renaissance revival of Greek Tragedy: Opera. And it also fits Morrison in so far as her novels, at least Song of Solomon and Beloved, are descendants of Greek tragedy. (They are also candidates for operatic adaptation, as I’m sure others have noticed).

It is coincidence—but in a root sense of having one thing set aside another, it is usually coincidence—that my person reasons, I have been reading Ancient Greek tragedies with new focus and resolve just as, for professional reasons, I started re-reading Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. Such co-incidents often occur, only becoming coincidences when they take on meaning. In this case, that is what happened. Nobody should say that Morrison’s novel is modeled on an Ancient Greek tragedy; not even Beloved sustains that claim. But reading Morrison against Greek tragedies has helped me to come into contact with what seems distinctly alive and essential in these novels.

I am certainly not saying that the novels recast any particular tragedy; I am not even saying, as it would be difficult to say, that the plot of Solomon is tragic.  It is not even that the novels pattern experience in the same way as Greek tragedies—though here Beloved has a better claim than Solomon. Instead, deeper than that, Morrison’s novels share with Greek tragedy a sense of, and for, what gives pattern to experience. As a characteristic instance, in the first line of Beloved, where we find the word “spiteful.” Morrison dislikes the comparison of Beloved and Medea, and I don’t want to press it for reasons of plot; for the feeling of spite that takes on proportions that are not captured by our usual sense of that word, but that remains, clearly, spite, are present in both. Medea, after all, seeks to spite Jason. Spite is a small, petty, capricious feeling, but in Euripides, where so much is indeterminate, it is profound and inseparable from a sense of injustice; spite is how injustice is felt, even as it runs into wrath and contempt. In Beloved and Medea alike, small feelings pattern experience as if they were large one. (Perhaps it is drawing unnecessary distinctions to say that this is not a resemblance in the novels pattern experience, but I want to push against any attempt at mirroring plot or mythic structure etc.)

What patterns experience in the novels and in Greek tragedy: nemesis, a past that speaks to the present as the fates, as the furies; and a present that inspires in the form of the gods. This last is probably the hardest point to argue, since the gods are in no obvious way present in Morrison’s novel. But whether Apollo or Dionysius, Aphrodite or Athena, the gods in Greek tragedy are a source of power, obscure and fickle, righteous and petty, willful and emotional; they are a presence in life that is not life, or they are a part of life that is not contained by human understanding, and that humans must acknowledge. Most of all, they are a presence that not all can hear, that do not speak consistently or clearly, but whose speech inspires action. Greek tragedy is centrally about human action: about its sources, its consequences, its goodness, its shape, and its self-understanding. But the presence of the gods is everywhere essential to how that action discovers and knows itself, is judged and receives judgment, and takes shape. And their presence, unlike the Christian gods, is active, temporally located, agonistic, difficult to discern, abrupt, indifferent, compassionate, and uneven in its presence, appearing for some rather than another; they demand ritual, and sacrifice, and the knowledge of both by those who perform them cannot be certain. This is to ignore the differences of Aeschylus and the furies and Euripides and the campy “ex machina,” but in both these elements are similarly expressed; they are both what patterns experience, even as Aeschylus and Euripides give different patterns to experience.

Morrison does not invoke or embody the gods; they are invisible presences in the novels, or rather they figure as something else, as a source of power, insight, motive, and justification that is not presented as divine, but that is nonetheless held to be inspired, sometimes Dionysian its wild excesses, sometimes Apollonian in its inhuman rectitude, but always both in excess and disruptive of the humanly rational assessment, or legal framework, or conventional interpretation, of a situation, and also presented as righteously justified. Nor is it the unconscious mind at work in these moments; it is instead action that arises out of contact with an element in reality that is not discerned or available to others. This is, I think, the root of the obscurity in Morrison that I once thought was inherited from Faulkner, and also the source of the notion that Morrison is in a tradition of magic realism. Both assumptions led me to frustration in making sense of what Morrison does, as the Greek interpretation does not. It also helps make sense of the ambivalence of Guitar, who is possessed by a chaos of feelings that cannot be neatly judged or justified, but that is, in his eyes, entirely vindicated. It is not enough to say he is paranoid, though an highly individual and menacing vision of the world has something to do with it; nor is it enough to say that he is conspiring out of historical marginalization and disempowerment, though they are central to his motive; nor is it even that he is vindicated or in touch with something divine or Other; it is instead that he believes he is, that he operates as if such things are possible, as if some order of justice—a law that is above law—exists and that he can adhere to it and know it. This is a conflict we find from the Oresteia to Medea:

“You can prove this, I guess. Scientifically?”


“Shouldn’t you be able to prove it before you act on something like that?”

“Did they prove anything scientifically about us before they killed us? No. They killed us first and then tried to get some scientific proof about why we should die.”

“Wait a minute, Guitar. If they are as bad, as unnatural, as you say, why do you want to be like them? Don’t you want to be better than they are?”

“I am better.”

“But now you’re doing what the worst of them do.” “Yes, but I am reasonable.”

“Reasonable? How?”

“I am not, one, having fun; two, trying to gain power or public attention or money or land; three, angry at anybody.”

“You’re not angry? You must be!”

“Not at all. I hate doing it. I’m afraid to do it. It’s hard to do it when you aren’t angry or drunk or doped up or don’t have a personal grudge against the person.”

“I can’t see how it helps. I can’t see how it helps anybody.”

“I told you. Numbers. Balance. Ratio. And the earth, the land.” “I’m not understanding you.”

“The earth is soggy with black people’s blood. And before us Indian blood. Nothing can cure them, and if it keeps on there won’t be any of us left and there won’t be any land for those who are left. So the numbers have to remain static.”

“But there are more of them than us.”

“Only in the West. But still the ratio can’t widen in their favor.”

“But you should want everybody to know that the society exists. Then maybe that would help stop it. What’s the secrecy for?”

“To keep from getting caught.”

“Can’t you even let other Negroes know about it? I mean to give us hope?” “No.”

“Why not?”

“Betrayal. The possibility of betrayal.”

“Well, let them know. Let white people know. Like the Mafia or the Klan; frighten them into behaving.”

“You’re talking foolishness. How can you let one group know and not the other? Besides, we are not like them. The Mafia is unnatural. So is the Klan. One kills for money, the other kills for fun. And they have huge profits and protection at their disposal. We don’t. But it’s not about other people knowing. We don’t even tell the victims. We just whisper to him, ‘Your Day has come.’ The beauty of what we do is its secrecy, its smallness. The fact that nobody needs the unnatural satisfaction of talking about it. Telling about it. We don’t discuss it among ourselves, the details. We just get an assignment. If the Negro was killed on a Wednesday, the Wednesday man takes it; if he was killed on Monday, the Monday man takes that one. And we just notify one another when it’s completed, not how or who. And if it ever gets to be too much, like it was for Robert Smith, we do that rather than crack and tell somebody. Like Porter. It was getting him down. They thought somebody would have to take over his day. He just needed a rest and he’s okay now.”

Milkman stared at his friend and then let the spasm he had been holding back run through him. “I can’t buy it, Guitar.”

This has the sound and feel of a Greek tragedy, of two characters arguing over how best to take revenge, over the validity of the message they receive. Of course it is preposterously un-Greek that Guitar’s organization codes messages, that there is a covert secret society of this nature at all; but, on the one hand, Morrison is not trying to redo the Greeks in another time and place, and, on the other hand, Delphi was staffed by human servants. If we appreciate Guitar and Milkman as opposing not conspiracy to reason or violence to peace or injustice to justice, but to two different senses of how something is speaking through history, how human action takes energy, direction, and justice, from beyond itself, then the final agon makes more sense. The question, or dilemma, is what to do when that “beyond” can appear in disguise, when it cannot be interpreted with any sureness, when human laws are admittedly essential, but only if the terror of the furies is worshipped by their side.

Guitar is ensnared by lies perhaps, but his name is a modern lyre that he yearns to play; Apollo is not his, but he seeks for him. Pilate and Hagar are the most recognizably vividly Greek of the characters, rising in fury and love, wine-making and performing ritual feasts, with Reba attuned to fortune as no one else is. Circe is the name of a character. Ruth’s love for Milkman is Oedipal, but also recalls Clytemnestra’s pleading for Orestes, and Macon is as much Aigisthos as he is Creon, obedient to a sense of law and duty short of divine inspiration; and Milkman, even though the novel is properly a bildungsroman, is also similar to the young Greek hero who must accept the burden and responsibility of his house and their history. That constellation of analogies should not suggest that Morrison consciously rewrote Greek heroes, but that we can cast their moments of intensity in arcs of life that are not alien to Greek tragedy.

Most of all, Morrison’s sense of the past, its terror-filled crimes, its dispossessions, its violence, is both distinctly American, but also something that suggests, in its intensity of hatred and suffering, something that cannot fit into history as it is practiced by historians. White America is not civilization in these novels; instead, Black America is her Hellas, albeit a Hellas that has its roots in enslavement and oppression, and that is now exercising its freedoms, sanctioned by the gods. Hellas is being discovered within Black America, finding its own seats of sacred life and household gods, making something new of the households. But it is also Hellas in so far as its history of suffering and the injustices it has endured are not, in these novels, accommodated in a narrative of Judeo-Christian hope and redemption; they are not owing to any worship of false idols, and they are not situated in any presumed divine plan, directed towards a final good. The suffering owes to human cruelty, to human injustice; and if there is an aura of mystery about it, is the aura of the furies, where the furies are themselves the projection of something intensely human, just as the fates are a projection of a helplessness before history that can bring dread and grief as well as hope.

 he gods are invisible presences in the novels in so far as in them human history, human action, and human inspiration are made, at times, to seem other than, even opposed to, the humans that are their source. I am coming close to one way of reading Greek tragedy that suggests that the gods there are just projections of facets of human life, but I want instead to suggest that Morrison and Greek tragedy alike hold things in a more perfect balance: if the gods are emanations of humanity, they are nonetheless marked by an irreconcilable difference; if the gods stand apart from humanity as a different order of being, they are defined by their capacity to make humans relate to one another in ways that cannot be reconciled to the normal human order.

Some might accept the Greekness of Song of Solomon but make the point that its plot is Odyssean rather than Tragic. And yes, it is a return to an origin, filled with nostalgia, and with a character named Circe, and another who is without a belly-button, or “omphalos.” But the novel is what it is because of its voices, and because of its scenes, and these are instead moments of agon, prophecy, lament, revelation, deliberation, and detection or inquiry—all of which are the stuff of Greek Tragedy. So when, to take a small example, we find:

“Well, now. That’s something you will have—a broken heart.” Railroad Tommy’s eyes softened, but the merriment in them died suddenly. “And folly. A whole lot of folly. You can count on it”

Or when we have:

“His son’s question had shifted the scenery. He was seeing himself at twelve, standing in Milkman’s shoes and feeling what he himself had felt for his own father. The numbness that had settled on him when he saw the man he loved and admired fall off the fence; something wile ran through him when he watched the body twitching in the dirt. His father had sat for five nights on a split-rail fence cradling a shotgun and in the end died protecting his property. Was that what this boy felt for him? Maybe it was time to tell him things”


“The light was good and all of a sudden I saw a rump between the branches. I dropped it with the first shot and finished it with the next. Now, I want to tell you I was feeling good. I saw myself showing my uncles what I’d caught. But when I got up to it—and I was going real slow because I thought I might have to shoot it again—I saw it was a doe. Not a young one; she was old, but she was still a doe. I felt…bad. You know what I mean? I killed a doe. A doe, man”

Milkman was gazing at Guitar with the wide steady eyes of a man trying to look sober.


“And it’s all about something that happened a long time ago? Before you were born?”

“Listen, baby, people do funny things. Specially us. The cards are stacked against us and just trying to stay in the game, stay alive and in the game, makes us do funny things. Things we can’t help. Things that make us hurt one another. We don’t even know why. But look here, don’t carry it inside and don’t give it to nobody else.”


Pilate split her twig into the palm of her hand. Her face went still. Without those moving lips her face was like a mask. It seemed to Milkman that somebody had just clicked off a light. He looked at the faces of the women. Reba’s had crumpled. Tears were streaming down her cheeks. Pilate’s face was still as death, but alert as though waiting for some signal. Hagar’s profile was hidden by her hair. She leaned forward, her elbows on her thights, rubbing fingers that looked bloodstained in the lessening light. Her nails were very very long.

The quiet held. Even Guitar didn’t dare break it.

Then Pilate spoke. “Reba. She don’t mean food.”

Realization swept slowly across Reba’s face, but she didn’t answer. Pilate began to hum as she returned to plucking the berries. After a moment, Reba joined her, and they hummed together in perfect harmony until Pilate took the lead:

O Sugarman don’t leave me here

Cotton balls to choke me

O sugarman don’t leave me here

Buckra’s arms to yoke me.

When the two women got to the chorus, Hagar raised her head and sang too.

Sugarman done fly away

Sugarman done gone

Sugarman cut across the sky

Sugarman gone home

Milkman could hardly breathe. Hagar’s voice scooped what little pieces of heart he had left to call his own. When he thought he was going to faint from the weight of what he was feeling, he risked a glance at his friend and saw the setting sun gilding Guitar’s eyes, putting into shadow a slow smile of recognition.

Then, and especially in this last, we are in the world of Greek tragedy.


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