Toni Morrison

The Source of Self-Regard

“A writer's life and work are not a gift to mankind; they are its necessity.”

Evidenced by the names Charles Darwin wrote in his notebooks when confronted with the birds and beasts of the South America; by Richard Feynman’s memory of his father telling him naming deepened knowledge; and the sweeping rhythm with which Ta-Nehisi Coates shouted his “name was a nation”; our process of naming creates calm significance.

Language is a means of understanding and reconciling ourselves with that which is simply, not us.1

Toni Morrison (February 18, 1931 – August 5, 2019) harmonizes with this chorus when she prescribes naming as a tonic to chaos.

I have been told that there are two human responses to the perception of chaos: naming and violence. When the chaos is simply the unknown, the naming can be accomplished effortlessly-a new species, star, formula, equation, prognosis. There is also mapping charting, or devising proper nouns for unnamed or stripped-of-names geography, landscape, or population. When chaos resists, either by reforming itself or by rebelling against imposed order, violence is understood to be the most frequent response and the most rational when confronting the unknown, the catastrophic, the wild, wanton, or incorrigible.

If naming is a means by which we throw our mantel of knowledge over the unknowable, what is violence?

There is an explosive moment in Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men when the heat of the New York summer and a wave of nauseating bigotry converge as an incendiary to ignite the small room that is the entire field of the film.

making movies
Lee J. Cobb’s hot anger explodes against Henry Fonda’s cool rationality. “12 Angry Men was about one thing: listening.” said Lumet.
12 Angry Men is a film of twelve jurors deciding the fate of a non-white defendant accused of murdering his father. (Patricide is a chaotic incident if there ever was one, all of the jurors male, presumably some fathers.)

All but one juror proposes swift retribution through a guilty verdict. The hold-out, played by Henry Fonda, proposes they take the time to discuss the matter. That the matter matters.2

12 Angry Men was about one thing: listening.” wrote Lumet in Making Movies his clear, resonate, guide to one of our most beloved art forms. To the chaos of the situation and the growing chaos of the room itself (both internal and external forms of chaos), Fonda consistently promotes a rational dialogue predicated on listening to one another.

One might say he promotes stillness. It is a purity of being echoed by Pema Chödrön’s landmark book on embracing pain and chaos, embraced by Joy Harjo as an antidote to panic and resolutely proffered by Morrison.

There is, however, a third response to chaos, which I have not heard about, which is stillness. Such stillness can be passivity and dumbfoundedness; it can be paralytic fear. But it can also be art. Those writers plying their craft near to or far from the throne of raw power, of military power, of empire building and countinghouses, writers who construct meaning in the face of chaos must be nurtured, protected. And it is right that such protection be initiated by other writers. And it is imperative not only to save the besieged writers but to save ourselves. The thought that leads me to contemplate with dread the erasure of other voices, of unwritten novels, poems whispered or swallowed for fear of being overheard by the wrong people, outlawed languages flourishing underground, essayists’ questions challenging authority never being posed.

freedom energy of discipline
“The Lace-Maker,” Caspar Netsher, 1662. A study of domestic diligence. A soft light falls on her back, a resting broom and simple dress. Learn more. The Wallace Collection.
Art as the flower of non-movement, stillness as loam for art, is it possible?

I’ve spoken to many artist friends who have described their work as meditative (thank you, Genevieve). The flow of the brush and movement therein of their arms, hands, even feet. Symbiotic stillness moving through time lit by something within.

Kafka graffiti, Prague in 2013. Featured in Kafka's "Investigations of a Dog" in the Examined Life Library.
Kafka graffiti in Prague, Czech Republic. Kafka’s Investigations of a Dog asks profound questions of social alienation – specifically, how can knowledge connect or separate us? Photograph by Peter Fosberg.
But art, as Morrison reminds us with the pressing urgency that the subject demands, is not only in the making but in its appreciation and protection.

Certain kinds of trauma visited on people are in so deep, so cruel, that unlike money, unlike vengeance, even unlike justice, or rights, or the goodwill of others, only writers can translate such trauma and turn sorrow into meaning, sharpening the moral imagination.

A writer’s life and work are not a gift to mankind; they are its necessity.

Self-Portrait of David Wojnarowicz
Self-Portrait of David Wojnarowicz, 1983-1984. Acrylic and collaged paper on gelatin silver print. “I see myself seeing death” wrote the artist in his memoirs Close to the Knives. Courtesy of Whitney Gallery of Art.

“Stillness is what lies in awe,” wrote Morrison, “In meditation; stillness also lies in passivity and dumbfoundedness.”

Compliment Morrison’s emphatic plea for art as human necessity in The Source of Self-Regard with her illustrious collection of thought on how our fears create the capacity to “other;” James Baldwin’s quest for consciousness required to reduce unspeakable social tension; and Ursula Le Guin on naming as a means of communion.

Illustration of Toni Morrison. © The Examined Life