Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Toni Morrison's "Song of Solomon"

I was some way into the novel before I realized that it is, basically, a Bildungsroman. It charts the growth into maturity of Macon Dead, Jr., nicknamed Milkman. Born into middle-class affluence, and suffering from its ennui, Milkman is torn between a dominating landlord father and a loveless, hopeless mother. He wishes to escape from home, from the heavy hand of the past, but he does not know what he wishes to escape to. In search of the gold his Aunt Pilates had supposedly taken from a white man she and her brother killed, Milkman journeys to the South (Virginia) where he experiences black communal life--connected to Nature, free of the North's materialistic individualism--and so recovers his lost family history.

If this sounds like romanticizing the black South, it is. Sure, Morrison depicts the South as proud and violent (Milkman gets into a fight in the store), as racist and greedy (Macon Dead Sr.'s father was shot dead by the whites who wanted his farm). But the Southern blacks, in this novel, are essentially kind and hospitable. They do not take vengeance for injustices like the seven Northern blacks who call themselves the Days, and kill a white person for every black person killed by a white, in order to preserve the racial ratio. No, they do not live for the Days, but  keep the race memories for forgetful Northern blacks.

What is this family history kept for Milkman? That his great grandfather Solomon was a big man in that part of the country, who had many many children (like Father Abraham), but decided to fly off (literally) and leave his wife and children. This is not history, but allegory, of a magical kind. The trope of the flying man opens the novel and recurs throughout. Allegory simplifies history and character in the hope of achieving archetypes. I am not sure that is achieved here. Guitar plays the Cain to Macon Jr.'s Abel, but that archetypal relationship is constantly troubled by a lack of convincing reason for the attempted murder. Too much plot credibility is sacrificed at the altar of symbolism.

Not only does allegory oversimplify history (some would want to praise it as "mythologizing"), it also does not completely cohere in Morrison's hands. Solomon's flight is supposed to be transcendental, in contrast with others who fly and fall to their death. However, Morrison editorializes in an aside that, unlike men, women could fly while staying on the ground. But if women are superior to men in this manner, where does that leave poor Solomon? In mid-air, I guess.

The editorial comment seems to promote feminism, but I find the depiction of women, and their relationships with men, in this novel troubling. Women like Ruth Foster (Macon Jr.'s mother) and Hagar (his lover) give up everything, including their selves, for romantic love, the first with her father, the second with her cousin. If the women are not crazy for love, they are just crazy, like the bootlegger and witch Pilates (she who does not have a navel), her slow-witted daughter Reba, and Circe who took care of Macon Sr. and Pilates when they fled from the whites who killed their father. The crazies, living by themselves at the margins of society, are cut off from the community Morrison valorizes elsewhere.

The stories of all these women, lovers or otherwise, are subordinated to the stories of men. Milkman's sisters Magdalena called Lena and First Corinthians take center-stage for a while, but they always give way to Milkman. It is his redemption (easy enough, since all he has to do is to bury the woman he "killed" by rejecting her heartlessly), his assumption of patriarchal authority (he tells Pilates what is actually in her bag, and so serves as the envoy of her father's ghost) and his fraternal struggle with his best friend Guitar that the novel ends with. Love for the Patriarch is ultimately symbolized by the discovery that the bones Pilates carries and keeps with her do not belong to the murdered white man, but to her father. Where does that leave Morrison's feminism?

The moment the novel revealed that the father's body, washed up from its shallow grave, was threw into the same cave where Macon Sr. and Pilates murdered the white man, I guessed the secret of the bones. I doubt I am unusual in doing this. The problem lies in the storytelling. It is just not deft enough. Too labored also is the recovery of the family history, bit by bit, from different people. The novel begins ploddingly, with a long set piece about the birth of Milkman, quickens with interest in the chapters about Pilates's strange household and Corinthian's awkward love affair, and then drags out the meanderings of Milkman in the South. The women in the novel are more intriguing than the men but they don't have enough air time. This is, after all, not the Song of Sheba.


rickeylaurentiis said...


I respect you for even coming out to criticize any work from "the Greats." For Morrison is, inevitably (and I say that with pleasure; I am a Morrison devotee), one. I'm not going to spend much time countering your points: they are yours and you have the right. But I must say that, for you saying you found the women and their depictions in this book troubling, I find your depictions of those character troubling.

How can Pilate simply be described as "crazy" or a "witch"? Or Reba, what did you say, "dim-witted"? I dare say your idea of feminism may be, itself, a bit limiting, if not confined. It may be missing a quite necessary "Black" before it.

What Morrison achieves is great for it is a Black American mythology (perhaps the only we can claim; Black Americans have no legitimate traces to any land but this one) and, as such, the story is more about the connections/community that individuals. (That is why Pilates hangs desperately to the bones; why she later screams Mercy! at the death of her flesh.)

I implore you then to "give it another chance," reading between the characters, between the relations.

Rickey Laurentiis

Jee Leong Koh said...

Hi Ricky,

Thanks for giving your thoughts on this.

When I described Pilate as "a witch" and Reba as "slow-witted," I was describing the novel's depiction of these women as marginalized and magical. They may, and do, function as critiques of patriarchal society, but they can hardly provide an illustration of fully-developed womanhood, black, or white or whatever. The women in the novel are strong and complex in various ways but they ultimately serve as handmaids the development of Milkman. That, I see, is the limitation of the novel's feminism.