Sexism & racism in society apart, Toni Morrison’s new book is also an exploration of psychological causes that push women to the margins
Six years after Martha Gellhorn had been separated from Ernest Hemingway, she chanced upon her ex-husband’s latest novel, Across the River and into the Trees. A considerable time had elapsed since they had met last, yet Martha, among the world’s most eminent war correspondents of the last century, was deeply hurt to find a rather cruel and uncharitable caricature of her in the novel. “I weep for the eight years I spent, almost eight (light dawned a little earlier) worshipping his image with him, and I weep for whatever else I was cheated of due to that time-serving, and I weep for whatever that is permanently lost because I shall never, really, trust a man again,” she wrote to a friend.
The above incident surfaced in my memory while reading Toni Morrison’s recent book, Mouth Full of Blood, a selection of essays and speeches. As much as this book is about sexism and racism prevailing both in society and the world of letters, it’s also an exploration of the psychological causes that push women to the margins.
Morrison holds men accountable, but she has a word for women too when she says that it is “our (women’s) conscious and unconscious complicity with the forces that have kept sexism the oldest class oppression in the world”. She terms it a “casual or deliberate treason” that is “like a bone lodged in the throat of every woman who tries to articulate the present condition of women”.
One is also reminded of Malika Amar Sheikh, the wife of Dalit Panther founder and poet Namdeo Dhasal, who had underlined the similar complicity in her poignant autobiography I Want To Destroy Myself. Malika, herself a poet of some repute, described all the atrocities she had suffered at the hands of her famous husband and then added that she always nourished his male ego.
The question now gets complicated. The psychology of a woman has been mutated to the extent that she carries the seeds of self-destruction, and self-inflicted humiliation in her. Morrison’s concern now becomes pertinent: “How can a dignified, responsible women’s liberation revive itself and proceed without shaming itself into women’s lamentation?”
Several chapters of Morrison’s book unravel racism, a sentiment that is so pervading that it seeps even into the works of the most sensitive and self-conscious writers. Not many writers who speak from a privileged position are able to recognise the faultlines of their language, the instances their alleged superiority comes to guide their writing.
In an attempt to underline ingrained complexes in writers, Morrison dissects an episode in Isak Dinesen’s autobiography Out of Africa. The moving passage describes Dinesen’s farewell as she is leaving Kenya after spending nearly two decades in the country. Local women have surrounded their patron-employer Dinesen. One such woman, who Dinesen cannot recognise, breaks down, tears streaming over her face. Dinesen compares her with a giraffe, her unimpeded tears with a urinating cow.
Morrison dissects this episode with great incisiveness. “The description of Dinesen’s African woman is instructive. The sticks on her head make Dinesen think of a ‘prehistoric animal’…The woman is like a giraffe in a herd, speechless, unknowable,” Morrison writes, “her tears are like a cow voiding its urine in public”.
“In these passages, beautiful ‘aesthetic’ language serves to undermine the terms: the native, the foreigner, home, homelessness in a wash of preemptive images that legitimate and obscure their racist assumptions while providing protective cover from a possibly more damaging insight,” Morrison records. Note, this is Dinesen who cannot be easily accused of prejudice towards Africans. Her prose is often dripping with compassion. She was not Joseph Conrad who was termed a “thoroughgoing racist” by Chinua Achebe. These essays of Morrison are essentially of a story-teller. She writes about her favourite authors, her novels, and links between racism and fascism. But she weaves her argument by narrating anecdotes and tales, constantly underlining the role and power of language to liberate women.
My favourite anecdote is the one Morrison had narrated in her Nobel’s acceptance speech. It’s about an old and wise, blind and black woman, a daughter of slaves in America. She lives alone in a small house outside of town. She is highly revered by her people for her wisdom and prophecies. One day some young men, apparently white, visit her with a sole agenda to destroy her reputation. Their strategy is simple—to exploit her sole disability, blindness.
One of them asks her a question—“I have a bird in my hand. Is it living or dead?” She obviously cannot answer the question. The blind woman cannot even see these men, let alone the bird. After a long silence, when the men begin nearly laughing at her, she replies: “It is in your hands.”
The responsibility is now upon the visitors. With her reply, the old woman “shifts attention away from assertions of power to the instrument through which that power is exercised”. Extending the metaphor to the realm of literature, Morrison takes the bird to be language and the old woman a writer. Language is in peril because those who hold positions of authority use it for their nefarious designs.
In their classic study The Madwoman in the Attic, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar had asked: Is the pen a “metaphorical penis”? The duo went on to establish that many generations of writers in the West have treated the art of writing as a tool for perpetuating patriarchal authority that had little space for women. Gilbert and Gubar then followed up with more questions: “Where does such an implicitly or explicitly patriarchal theory of literature leave literary women? If the pen is a metaphorical penis, with what organ can females generate texts?”
Morrison also confronts the question and advocates the need to invent a new language. “Sexist language, racist language, theistic language—all are typical of the policing languages of mastery and cannot, do not permit new knowledge or encourage the mutual exchange of ideas,” she writes.
Mouth Full of Blood is a work of passion and wisdom. A necessary reading not just for women or creative writers, but anybody who wishes to restore the sanctity of languages, the great reservoir that shapes and defines the human civilisation.
A fiction writer and journalist, Ashutosh Bhardwaj is currently a fellow at Indian Institute of Advanced Study,Shimla