Since her first novel, 1970’s The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison has dazzled readers with her commanding language—colloquial, magical, magisterial, even fanciful at times, but held firm to the earth by a commitment to history and an unsparing exploration of racism, sexual abuse, and violence. Reading Morrison can be an exhilarating experience, and a harrowing one. We never know where she is going to take us. But the journey for Morrison has never been one of escapism or art for art’s sake. In a 1981 interview, she once said, “the books I wanted to write could not be only, even merely, literary or I would defeat my purposes, defeat my audience.” As she put it then, “my work bears witness and suggests who the outlaws were, who survived under what circumstances and why.”
She has sustained such a weighty mission not only with a love of language, but also with a critical understanding of its power—to seduce, to manipulate, confound, wound, twist, and kill. Which brings us to the recorded speech above, delivered in 1993 at her acceptance of the Nobel Prize for Literature. After briefly thanking the Swedish Academy and her audience, she begins, “Fiction has never been entertainment for me.” Winding her speech around a parable of “an old woman, blind but wise,” Morrison illustrates the ways in which “oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge.”
Another kind of language takes flight, “surges toward knowledge, not its destruction.” In the folktale at the center of her speech, language is a bird, and the blind seer to whom it is presented gives us a choice: “I don’t know whether the bird you are holding is dead or alive, but what I do know is that it is in your hands. It is in your hands.”
Language, she suggests, is in fact our only human power, and our responsibility. The consequences of its misuse we know all too well, and Morrison does not hesitate to name them. But she ends with a challenge for her audience, and for all of us, to take our own meager literary resources and put them to use in healing the damage done. You should listen to, and read, her entire speech, with its maze-like turns and folds. Near its end, the discursiveness flowers into exhortation, and—though she has said she dislikes having her work described thus—poetry. “Make up a story,” she says, “Narrative is radical, creating us at the very moment it is being created.”
We will not blame you if your reach exceeds your grasp; if love so ignites your words they go down in flames and nothing is left but their scald. Or if, with the reticence of a surgeon’s hands, your words suture only the places where blood might flow. We know you can never do it properly — once and for all. Passion is never enough; neither is skill. But try. For our sake and yours forget your name in the street; tell us what the world has been to you in the dark places and the light. Don’t tell us what to believe, what to fear. Show us belief’s wide skirt and the stitch that unravels fear’s caul. You, old woman, blessed with blindness, can speak the language that tells us what only language can: how to see without pictures. Language alone protects us from the scariness of things with no names. Language alone is meditation
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