Whiteness and the Literary Imagination

“Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination”(1992)  is a work of the Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison.

Preface: “The Words to Say It”

Key Terms: Language, Identity, History, Ideological State Apparatuses.

In the preface of “Playing in the Dark”, Morrison introduces some elements that could be defined her literary map, which is composed of language, identity and history. These 3 elements are organized on a metaphorical map, which constitutes, in my opinion, her work.

In doing this, the Afro-American writer presents, as reference, the autobiographical story of the French scholar Marie Cardinal. “I was persuaded by the title”: “The Words to Say it” (v) – a sentence borrowed from the French poet Boileau – is a novel in which the author tells about her madness, her therapy and healing.

            Why is Morrison considering Marie Cardinal’s work, for what purpose?

Introducing her autobiographical story, Morrison focuses on how complicated it is to speak a language “accessible to a stranger” (v).

The act of Writing can be conceived as a sum of Language and Identity. And it is through the language that the reader, or as Morrison says, “the stranger”, can discover: 1) someone/Identity; 2) something/the Thing: Cardinal (re-)discovers herself through the Thing, the Jazz.

Dark Matters begins with a quote from T. S. Eliot’s “Preludes IV” “I am moved by fancies that are curled / Around the images […] / The notion of some infinitely gentle / Infinitely suffering thing.” It seems obvious that there is a connection between “The Thing” and Eliot’s quote.

The Thing/the Jazz defined by Morrison as the “critical moment” or a “catalyst”, that pushes someone (in this case Marie Cardinal) to rediscover or accept something.

According to Morrison it is significant that Armstrong’s music possesses the power to reveal Cardinal’s subconscious. The personal and cultural history of the writer, are essential to model her work: historical influence cannot be avoided.

It is also through the act of writing, – and the effect of a specific use of the language, by which the stranger discovers an identity.

“I was interested […] in the black people ignite critical moments of discovery or change or emphasis in literature not written by them” (Morrison viii)

Morrison’s interests in using the language [to discover or rediscover identities and history] and “the effect of the literary imagination” (x), are also defined in her article “Memory, Creation and Writing:”

I want my fiction to urge the reader into active participation in the non- narrative, nonliterary experience of the text, which makes it difficult for the reader to confine himself to a cool and distant acceptance of data”. (387).

In analyzing Cardinal’s novel, Morrison addresses her interest “in the pervasive use of black images and people in expressive prose […] in the taken-for-granted assumptions that lie in their usage; and […] the source of these images and the effect they have on the literary imagination” (preface x).

  • How can we consider literary imagination whether the virtual readers “have been positioned as white”? (xii). As Morrison states, “how is literary whiteness” and “literary blackness” made, and what is the consequence of that construction?”
  • Could the central drama of Cardinal’s novel be the confrontation between the self and the other?
  • The uncanny recognition of oneself in the Jazz reminds us Hegel’s theory on self-consciousness. 

Hegel explains that the realization of self-consciousness is really a struggle for recognition between two individuals bound to one another as unequal in a relationship of dependence.

  • Could this relation be the same between the reader (“a strange”, as Morrison suggests) and the writer?

According to Morrison, writers are subject to “traditionally […] construct of blackness” (x), in the American literature, the literary characters and themes mirror life: blacks are marginalized in text.

to provide local color” or “to supply a needed moral gesture, humor, or bit of pathos” (15),

The writer admits how difficult it is to handle “ways to free up the language from its sometimes sinister, frequently lazy, almost always predictable employment of racially informed and determined chains” (xi)

  • How does language affect our view of a novel written by white or black writers?
  • What is the meaning of the language and so of the writing?

Main purpose of the chapter Dark Matter:

To put forth an argument for extending the study of American literature into what I hope will be a wider landscape.” (3)

Dark Matter is an investigative literary game, in which Morrison gives an outlook altering the conventional notions about American literature. She analyzes and deconstructs narrative strategies, black characters, and stereotypes in the novels of white American writers.

to draw a map, so to speak, of a critical geography and use that map to open as much space for discovery, intellectual adventure, and close exploration as did the original charting of the New World – without the   mandate for conquest“(3).

The American literature cannot avoid considering the impact of African Americans in its narrative. Indeed it needs to be recognized as a continuous history, which Morrison defines an “American Africanism presence” (6).

  • How has the literary imagination of European Americans been impacted by the coexistence of Africans and Europeans in the American Country?
  • Could the “invented Africa” (7) be associated to the same concept of the invention of the Other, as suggested by Edward Said in “Orientalism”?
  • Are National Identity and so the “canonical literature” a construction?

How knowledge is transformed from invasion and conquest to revelation and choice” (8)

The impact of racism on those who perpetuate it […] the impact of notions of racial hierarchy, racial exclusion, and racial vulnerability and availability on nonblacks who held, resisted, explored, or altered those notions”  (11)

In particular, Morrison investigates the roles that American writers have associated with African-American characters.

  • What purpose have these roles served, whether societal or artistic?
  • Can we state, according to Farley (119), that even in these cases, “bodies are spectacles of black inferiority”? (119)

According to Morrison, American literature, as well as the politic, and other “State apparatuses” as defined by Althusser, have lead to and established a dynamics of coexistence:

            “the major and championed characteristics of our national literature – individualism, masculinity, social  engagement versus historical isolation; acute and ambiguous moral problematics; the thematics of innocence      coupled with an obsession with figurations of death and hell – are not in fact responses to a dark, abiding,      signing Africanist presence”(5).

 Some Literary examples Morrison takes into account:

What Maisie Knew (Henry James); Three Lives (Gertrude Stein); Sapphira and the Slave Girl (Willa Cather). She examines different types of black unknown or unnamed characters, who are confined in the corner of the stories.

“National literatures, like writers, get along the best way they can, and with what they can […] the literature of the United States has taken as its concern the architecture of a new white man” (14-15)

Contradictory elements

On one side Morrison addresses how the American Literature and thus the writers are missing an important point of the history, that of the counterpart of African-American history.

The African American in the American literature is built upon a distorted representation – constituted by biases and mythology.

On the other side, Morrison defines the writers themselves as “lasting resort” (15), addressing that they are “among the most sensitive, the most intellectually anarchic, most representative, most probing of artists.” (15)

Work Cited

Althusser, Louis. On The Reproduction Of Capitalism: Ideology And Ideological State Apparatuses. London & New York: Verso, 2014.

Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark. Literary Imagination. Cambridge: Harvard U.P., 1992.





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