Singing the blues/reclaiming jazz: Toni Morrison and cultural mourning.

by Roberta Rubenstein

"Cultural mourning" connotes the response of African Americans not only to the lost lives and lost possibilities produced by slavery but also to the loss of cultural productions through appropriation by white culture. In her 1992 novel, Jazz, Morrison re-claims black music both by reconceptualizing the Jazz Age and by employing the literary equivalents of its musical forms.

If one of the most notable things about the early decades of the 20th century was the overlapping of various modes of artistic development in response to an interval of dynamic social and cultural changes, one of the most regrettable features of histories of the period has been the tendency to maintain a segregated perspective, restricting the contributions of artists of the Harlem Renaissance to the "Colored Only" side of a long-perpetuated division in cultural and aesthetic analysis. For example, in Modern and Modernism: The Sovereignty of the Artist 1885-1925 (1985), Frederick R. Karl traces the common aesthetic roots of modernist literature, painting, and music without mentioning a single African-American artist in any of those mediums. More recently, revisionist scholars of the immensely fertile period that encompassed both the Jazz Age and the Harlem Renaissance have corrected such narrow views, not only underscoring the conjoined contribution of musicians, writers, and painters of the period but acknowledging the vital cross-fertilization that occurred among artists of different races and mediums. Thus, focusing on the artistic vitality of New York City during the second decade of this century, Ann Douglas emphasizes the "free and creative borrowings across race, class, and gender lines" (295).

Despite such cross-fertilization, however--or perhaps because of it--not only jazz music but, more broadly, the Jazz Age to which it gave its unique aesthetic stamp was rapidly appropriated by white culture. As Douglas adds, "to appropriate something is to abstract it by taking it out of its matrix, its indigenous original context, in order to resituate it in a plan of one's own making, a place alien to its natural habitat and design" (295). Such a resituation was indeed explicitly advanced by Gilbert Seldes, an influential white cultural critic during the Harlem Renaissance, who in 1923 bluntly declared that "before jazz can amount to much as an art form it must be appropriated by white musicians with conventional training" (paraphrased in North 154).

Among those who have rightly objected to such aesthetic appropriations--to say nothing of the overt racism of Seldes's remark--Toni Morrison has commented, "I'm not sure that the... [Harlem Renaissance] was really ours. I think in some ways it was but in some ways it was somebody else's interest in it that made it exist" (Davis 233). In particular, she has protested such appropriations in the domain of music:

Black music's always called something--spiritual, gospel, jazz,

boogie-woogie, bop, bebop, rap--but it's never called music, for example,

20th-century music, modern music.... White critics, in general, claim it as

American, which it is, but it's almost as though it was made with their

culture, and so black people have no part in it, except marginally, to

provide the music. To talk about it is to appropriate it.... The white

musicians in the States were feeding off of [jazz in the twenties],

claiming it as their own, but the original musicians were unable to

get aesthetic and critical acclaim there. (Carabi 41)

In contrast to jazz, blues music has retained much more clearly its identification with African-American sources of origin and development, perhaps because, as Paul Oliver explains, "Implicit in the term `blues' was the whole tragedy of black servitude since Black Anthony Johnson, the first of the `twenty and odd Negers' to set foot on American soil, landed from a Dutch `man of warre' at Jamestown in 1619." The blues emerged out of the tragic circumstances of African-American history, expressing the "themes of suffering and misery that had arisen from poverty and destitution, from disease and disaster, violence and brutality, from bad living conditions and aimless migration" (284, 289).

In this essay I wish to argue that Toni Morrison has done much more than merely protest white appropriation of African-American music. Focusing on her novel entitled Jazz, I hope to demonstrate the ways in which she engages in a kind of "cultural mourning" that ultimately serves both as an expression of grief for lost lives and possibilities and as a form of re-appropriation of lost (appropriated) cultural creations. After considering briefly Morrison's concern throughout her fiction with notions of love and loss within the context of psychoanalytic theories regarding the grieving process, I will explore specifically the ways in which she thematically "sings the blues" of black experience through the use of literary techniques that inventively borrow from blues patterns and the structure of jazz performance. In this way, I will argue, Morrison reclaims a distinctly and uniquely African-American tradition and at the same time calls for a revisioning of the cultural history of the Jazz Age.

Jazz (1992) is the middle novel of a series of three, of which the first is Beloved (1987); the third is the recently published Paradise (1998). As Morrison has articulated the connection among the narratives, "the thread that's running through the work I'm doing now is this question--who is the Beloved?" (Darling 254). Her interest in the identity of the "beloved," however--and of the complex nature of love itself--dates from the beginning of her writing career. In a 1977 interview titled "'The Seams Can't Show," she observed, "Actually, I think, all the time that I write, I'm writing about love or its absence. Although I don't start out that way. ... Each one of us is in some way at some moment a victim and in no position to do a thing about it. Some child is always left unpicked up at some moment. In a world like that, how does one remain whole...?" (Bakerman 40).

More recently, Morrison has elaborated on the relationship between this central literary preoccupation and a central theme of the blues: "my notion of love--romantic love--probably is very closely related to blues. There's always somebody leaving somebody, and there's never any vengeance, any bitterness. There's just an observation of it, and it's almost as though the singer says, `I am so miserable because you don't love me,' but it's not unthinkable" (Koenen 71). That feeling is directly articulated in Jazz through the song of a man sitting on a fruit crate, whose wooden leg serves as an allusion to the famous blues singer, Peg Leg:

Blues man. Black and bluesman. Blacktherefore blue man.

Everybody knows your name.

Where-did-she-go-and-why man. So-lonesome-I-could-die man.

Everybody knows your name. (119)

Like the penetrating expression of such blues complaints, and like their recapitulation in the instrumental variations of a jazz improvisation, Morrison's lament on the "absence of love" has both broadened and deepened in its expression during the course of her fiction, coming to represent the experience of loss felt not only by individuals who have been separated from parents, spouses, lovers, or children, but by an entire group whose members have been scarred, directly or indirectly, by a legacy of cultural dislocation, personal dispossession, and emotional (if not actual) dismemberment. As the character Baby Suggs expresses it in Beloved, "Not a house in the country ain't packed to its rafters with some dead Negro's grief" (5). What Morrison calls the "absence of love" I would term loss, because individuals experience it not merely as absence--something missing--but as a lack that continues to occupy a palpable emotional space: the presence of absence.

In his studies of the effects of bereavement, loss, and grief, psychoanalyst John Bowlby theorized that the loss of a parent during early childhood "gives rise not only to separation anxiety and grief but to processes of mourning in which aggression, the function of which is to achieve reunion, plays a major part" (37). "Mourning" signifies the emotional and psychological process "whereby the bereaved gradually undoes the psychological bonds that bound him to the deceased" (Raphael 33), usually experienced by an individual in response to the loss through death or separation from a person to whom he or she is deeply emotionally attached. Its typical emotional characteristics are a combination of anger and sorrow, though other responses, including despair, depression, and denial, may also contribute.

With regard to the collective dimension of mourning that I explore here, Peter Marris, in his investigation of the losses that result when groups of individuals are obliged to relocate, observes,

if we believe that the meaning of life can only be defined in the

particular experience of each individual, we cannot at the same time treat

that experience as indifferent--uprooting people from their homes, disrupting

their relationships with impatiently facile exhortations to adaptability.

Such change implies loss, and these losses must be grieved for, unless

life is meaningless anyway. Thus the management of change depends upon our

ability to articulate the process of grieving. (91)

Marsha H. Levy-Warren, drawing on Freud's theory of mourning and melancholia, stresses that "a move from one's culture of origin can be seen as similar to the loss of a loved person, which initiates a process of mourning" (305). By implication, the effect of such an experience can be only magnified if the cultural relocation is involuntary, collective, brutal, and experienced without recourse to mourning rituals and other structures that enable the process of grieving to resolve.

In Morrison's fiction, the sense of loss--the presence of absence--has evolved into representations of what I call cultural mourning in two distinct senses. I use the term culture to signify both a cultural identity--African American--and its aesthetic productions. Mourning names the process through which losses might be grieved and resolved: both the historical/aesthetic sense of loss as a result of white appropriation of cultural creations and the psychoanalytic sense of loss as the working-through of individual and collective grief resulting from massive cultural dislocation and its ramifications over time. In the latter sense of cultural mourning, for African Americans that grief originates in events that occurred generations earlier when their ancestors, forcibly transported to the United States as slaves, were subjected to involuntary separations, violations, and traumatic personal losses. Ineradicably woven into the fabric of African-American experience is the cultural memory of injury and loss--lost lives, lost possibilities, lost parents and children, lost parts of the body, lost selves. Naming and embodying that grief, Toni Morrison expresses the responsibility that she feels for "all of these people; these unburied, or at least unceremoniously buried, people made literate in art" (Naylor 209).

Jazz is set during the 1920s, an era of emerging cultural optimism for African Americans. As Morrison explains in an interview, during that period of vibrant social and aesthetic transformations in the decade after the First World War, "black culture, rather than American culture, began to alter the whole country and eventually the western world. It was an overwhelming development in terms of excitement and glamour, and the sense of individualizing ourselves swept the world" (Carabi 41). In her novel, a series of linked episodes reveal the emergence of that cultural moment through the portraits of half a dozen characters whose lives converge in the "City"--never named but understood as New York City's Harlem--in the years following the Great Migration and World War I. A central story within the several overlapping ones is a romantic love triangle involving a middle-aged married couple, Violet and Joe Trace, and Dorcas Manfred, an eighteen-year-old girl with whom Joe has a brief love affair. Their liaison, as the narrator informs us at the outset, is "one of those deepdown, spooky loves that made [Joe] so sad and happy he shot her just to keep the feeling going" (3). Though most of the action in Jazz takes place in the "City," several flashbacks are set in rural Virginia, including the self-contained story of a mulatto named Golden Gray, whose life only tangentially intersects with Joe Trace's.

The narrator of Jazz is, uniquely, "without sex, gender, or age," a presence Morrison designates as the "voice" in order to highlight its function not as a person (of either gender) but as "the voice of a talking book .... I deliberately restricted myself [to] using an T that was only connected to the artifact of the book as an active participant in the invention of the story of the book, as though the book were talking, writing itself, in a sense" (Carabi 42). Initially, that voice exults as it records the emergence of a new order: "Here comes the new. Look out. There goes the sad stuff. The bad stuff. ... History is over, you all, and everything's ahead at last" (Jazz 7). The voice fervently celebrates the era of the "New Negro" along with the emergence of opportunity, cultural pride, and vibrant new musical idioms. Yet beneath these exuberant expressions a contrary one insinuates itself--a blues theme of "complicated anger" (59) interwoven with strands of danger, sorrow, and loss. As the narrating voice describes the clarinets that wail, the drums that pulse--sometimes ebulliently, sometimes sorrowfully--beneath the surface of the characters' lives, Morrison also plays on the contradictions that are inherent in "blues" music itself by expressing a countervailing theme. As the voice concedes early in the novel, "Word was that underneath the good times and the easy money something evil ran the streets and nothing was safe--not even the dead" (9).

Virtually all music critics concur that it was from the blues that jazz music developed, and that essentially jazz elaborates on the characteristic elements of the older form, including the basic twelve-bar structure with flatted third, fifth, and seventh notes, and the call-and-response pattern. As Mary Ellison describes the essential relationship between the two forms, "Jazz and blues have always been different genres of the same music[,] with jazz emphasizing the instrumental and blues the vocal content. Jazz has consistently been dependent on the blues, from its inception to its most recent developments" (19). Moreover, as Albert Murray has pointed out, even within blues music there is often a contradiction between the vocal expression--which may and often does verbalize melancholy--and the instrumental expression: "more often than not even as the words of the lyrics recount a tale of woe, the instrumentation may mock, shout defiance, or voice resolution and determination" (69). In Jazz, Morrison captures these complex relationships between, and within, the different musics: the narrating voice conveys the literary counterpart of the blues lament, while the narrative structure transmits the literary equivalent of the variations and riffs of jazz.

In contrast to the expressed early optimism about city life as an invitation to opportunity and freedom, the narrating voice admits late in Jazz that the City is--like the voice itself--inscrutable, unreliable; beneath the surface are other (unarticulated) stories that may contradict the ones we've been told. Additionally, as eventually becomes clear, the narrating voice is itself distracted, as much as are the people it observes/fabricates, by the enticements of urban life at the dawn of a new age:

Round and round about the town. That's the way the City spins you. Makes

you do what it wants, go where the laid-out roads say to. All the while

letting you think you're free.... You can't get off the track a City lays

for you. Whatever happens, whether you get rich or stay poor, ruin your

health or live to old age, you always end up back where you started: hungry

for the one thing everybody loses--young loving. (120)

The voice's inventions thus also circle back, like the City's enmeshing circular tracks, to Morrison's central blues theme of "love or its absence."

The theme of loss in Jazz is expressed not only by reference to the blues lament, with its emphasis on lost love, but also formally. Though Craig Hansen Werner and other scholars of literary modernism have noted affinities between Morrison's techniques and the formal experimentation of Woolf and Faulkner--both of whom were the focus of Morrison's M.A. thesis at Cornell--I would argue that these echoes function mainly as Morrison's rather ironic reminder of the connection between modernism and the Jazz Age, for, ultimately, her narrative inventiveness seems to owe less to her literary predecessors than to the improvisational strategies of jazz itself. Some years before she wrote Jazz, Morrison described her affinity for the structural openness of this musical form, explaining that

Jazz always keeps you on the edge. There is no final chord. There may be

a long chord, but no final chord. And it agitates you.... There is always

something else that you want from the music. I want my books to be like

that--because I want that feeling of something held in reserve and the

sense that there is more--that you can't have it all right now. (McKay 411)

Recently, Morrison has also made explicit the analogies she endeavored to create between jazz as a musical form and the narrative structure and voice of Jazz. Considering how to tell the story, she created a narrator who did not know exactly where the story was going:

It reminded me of a jazz performance in which the musicians are on

stage. And they know what they are doing, they rehearse, but the

performance is open to change, and the other musicians have to respond

quickly to that change. Somebody takes off from a basic pattern, then

the others have to accommodate themselves. That's the excitement, the

razor's edge of a live performance of jazz.... I was trying to align

myself with more interesting and intricate aspects of my notion of jazz

as a demanding, improvisatory art form.... (Carabi 41-42)

Considering such correspondences between musical and narrative techniques in Jazz, Eusebio Rodrigues contends that Morrison employs punctuation, repetition, rhythm, and other linguistic elements in distinctive ways to mimic jazz and to transform the text into "a musical score," whereby "the reader has to actively participate in the process of musicalizing the text before it will yield up all its meanings" (738, 737). Paula Gallant Eckard further proposes that in effect, jazz is "the mysterious narrator of the novel.... Jazz as narrator constructs the text" (11-18).

The mimetic relationship between the improvisatory nature of jazz and the fluid structure of literary narrative also operates in the other direction, according to ethnomusicologist Paul Berliner, who proposes that jazz improvisations might be likened to storytelling:

In part, the metaphor of storytelling suggests the dramatic molding of

creations to include movement through successive events "transcending"

particular repetitive, formal aspects of the composition and featuring

distinct types of musical material.... Paul Wertico advises his students

that in initiating a solo they should think in terms of developing

specific "characters and a plot.... You introduce these little different

[musical] things that can be brought back out later on; and the way you

put them together makes a little story. That can be [on the scale of]

a sentence or a paragraph.... The real great cats can write novels."

(202, ellipses and brackets in original)

One of many ways in which Morrison inventively translates jazz and blues techniques into their narrative equivalents pertains to the way that the structure of Jazz depends on a call-and-response pattern. Each of the ten sections of Morrison's novel concludes with an idea or phrase to which the opening words of the next section respond; additionally, like jazz improvisations on a blues theme, each "response" opens into a new (narrative) direction. The first section of the novel, for example, ends with the words (spoken by one of Violet Trace's parrots), "I love you" (24); the section that follows opens with the response, "Or used to" (27), and shifts--as a musical improvisation might shift to a different basic chord--to reflections on Violet's loneliness; she has released her lovebirds in response to Joe's new interest in the young girl Dorcas, who also reminds Violet of her own childlessness. Similarly, the link between the last two sections of the novel depends on call-and-response for the shifting meaning of a particular phrase: Dorcas's friend Felice, comparing her grandmother's preparation of catfish with Violet Trace's--the latter's version too heavy on the hot pepper--explains that she drank plenty of water rather than refuse the fish (and hurt Violet's feelings) because it "eased the pain" (216); the narrative's final section opens with the response, "Pain. I seem to have an affection, a kind of sweettooth for it" (219).

Pain is, indeed, both the central preoccupation of Morrison's novel and the essential subject of the blues. Thus, through the narrative's blues lament--the longing for "the heart you can't live without" (130), as Joe Trace puts it--the cultural mourning that the novel embodies through the characters' lives and stories also functions as Morrison's literary "voicing" of the African-American musical tradition of the blues. Jazz can thus also be said to dramatize both thematically and structurally Ralph Ellison's famous observation that the blues originated in "an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one's aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism. As a form, the blues is an autobiographical chronicle of personal catastrophe expressed lyrically" (78-79). Reflecting this dynamic, while the voice of Jazz lyrically constructs the characters' efforts to recover love and the beloved, the subtext in effect expresses not only the contradiction within the blues but also the equivalent of instrumental jazz variations on the theme, exposing the "personal catastrophe" of the beloved's radical, irrevocable absence.

Thus, in this novel Morrison represents, in yet another key, the subjective inner world in which the conception of the "beloved" originates, expressing the psychoanalytic dimension of cultural mourning that I identified earlier in this essay. The "absence of love" or the sense of the presence of loss that permeates each of Morrison's seven novels to date often stems from a child's experience of involuntary separation from or actual psychological abandonment by one or both parents. Implicitly, such abandonments recapitulate the literal and emotional displacements of slavery, beginning with the genocide of African people who were ripped from their families and cultures and placed on slave ships bound for the West, but who did not survive the Middle Passage. Those who did survive were destined to live out the losses upon which slavery was predicated--the specific deprivations, degradations, and abuses of body, mind, and being that are so disturbingly rendered in Morrison's Beloved.

Using a telling metaphor, Douglas has observed that African Americans, "whose ancestors were kidnapped from their native land and sold into slavery in an alien country, were, in fact, America's only truly orphan group" (83). Representing the traces of this experience of loss at both individual and communal levels, Morrison's novels before and including Jazz are populated by a number of lost or orphaned children. Some of these are literally orphans: Cholly Breedlove (The Bluest Eye) who was abandoned at birth by his mother in a dumpheap and whose father never knew of his existence; Pilate Dead (Song of Solomon) who was born an orphan at the moment of her mother's death; Sethe (Beloved), who was separated by slavery from her mother and never knew her father. Others are emotional orphans, like Pecola Breedlove (The Bluest Eye) and Sula Peace (Sula), who experience themselves as radically estranged from their parents. Another group includes cultural orphans, like Jadine Childs (Tar Baby), who, besides being literally parentless, wobbles ambivalently between black and white worlds.

Both literal and metaphoric orphans figure prominently in Jazz, beginning with the major figures in the love triangle/tragedy announced on the first page. Joe and Violet Trace and Dorcas Manfred are each the offspring of dead, missing, or emotionally unavailable parents. Dorcas, Joe Trace's eighteen-year-old lover, was orphaned in childhood. Her parents were innocent victims of the violent race riots that consumed East St. Louis in 1917, leaving more than two hundred African Americans dead--her father was stomped to death and her mother died when their house was torched. Dorcas's friend Felice is, if not an actual orphan, arguably an emotional one. Raised by her grandmother while her parents worked on the railroad line in other cities, Felice knew her father and mother primarily through the brief visits that punctuated their much longer absences. As she phrases it, "I would see them once every three weeks for two and a half days, and all day Christmas and all day Easter.... Thirty-four days a year" (198).

More literally than Felice and like her younger rival, Dorcas, Violet Trace was orphaned during adolescence. Her "phantom father" (100) deserted his family to seek his fortune, leaving his wife, Rose Dear, to raise their five young daughters. When Rose Dear was brutally dispossessed from her sharecropper's hut, she moved her family to an abandoned shack. Before long, however, she found her hardscrabble life unendurable and, broken in spirit, drowned herself in the well when Violet was twelve, leaving her daughters in the care of their grandmother, True Belle. Violet was convinced by her mother's suffering and despair that she never wanted children of her own. Several miscarriages and many years later, the inner emptiness produced by that decision haunts her in the form of a "mother-hunger" so intense that she sleeps with dolls and even takes a baby from a carriage. She imagines her husband's lover Dorcas as "a girl young enough to be that [lost] daughter" of her failed pregnancies and, torn between regarding her as "the woman who took the man, or the daughter who fled her womb" (108-09), at Dorcas's funeral she finally acts out her anguish by mutilating the dead girl's face. The narrator, regarding Violet's subsequent effort to learn as much as she can about Dorcas, acerbicly comments, "Maybe she thought she could solve the mystery of love that way. Good luck and let me know" (5). Later, the voice speculates that Violet's violent action can be understood as "a crooked kind of mourning for a rival young enough to be a daughter" (111).

At least Violet Trace and Dorcas Manfred had actual parents during childhood; Violet's husband, Joe Trace, never did. Abandoned by his mother at birth and raised by another family, he gave himself a surname that retains the story of the parents who "disappeared without a trace" (124); he reaches the age of fifty still trying to fill the "inside nothing" (37) where the minimal "trace" of primary attachments has expanded to form a space of enormous longing. Although he never locates the woman who had "orphaned her baby rather than nurse him or coddle him or stay in the house with him" (178), in the Virginia woods where he grew up he discovers the den-like home of the woman referred to only as "Wild." The description of his arrival in Wild's primitive den is especially evocative of the mythical return to the womb followed by rebirth: "He had come through a few body-lengths of darkness and was looking out the south side of the rock face. A natural burrow . ... Unable to turn around inside, he pulled himself all the way out to reenter head first . ... Then he saw the crevice. He went into it on his behind until a floor stopped his slide. It was like falling into the sun" (183).

If Joe Trace is in any way reborn, however, it is in an ironic sense, precipitating an even deeper need; the trail that leads him to his mother's primitive burrow becomes emotionally entangled with the trail that leads to his young lover. The "little half moons [that] clustered under [Dorcas's] cheek bones, like faint hoofmarks" (130) signal her "wild" animal link to Joe's mother, Wild. Dorcas temporarily occupies the empty "inside nothing" space in Joe's heart, becoming the "beloved" in a way that temporarily assuages the unappeased hunger he feels for the mother who abandoned him at birth. Telling Dorcas details of his earlier life that he has never before shared with another person, he explains that she is the central figure in his vision of Paradise:

the reason Adam ate the apple and its core. That when he left Eden, he

left a rich man. Not only did he have Eve, but he had the taste of the

first apple in the world in his mouth for the rest of his life. The very

first to know what it was like. To bite it, bite it down. Hear the crunch

and let the red peeling break his heart. You looked at me then like you

knew me, and I thought it really was Eden ... (133)

The suggestive meanings of Paradise obviously continue to interest Morrison, as demonstrated by the novel that immediately follows Jazz, entitled Paradise. The wish/longing for a vanished Eden or Paradise is a nostalgic fantasy that encodes our human knowledge of the inevitable original loss at the individual level: separation from infantile bliss. For actual orphans like Joe Trace, there never could have been a true interlude of infantile bliss experienced as unconditional love; nonetheless, the longing to "recover" something that never existed in the first place endures as an emotionally powerful imperative. Understood psychoanalytically, the figure of the mother "remembered" from infancy is a not a true memory but a fantasy of her, an imago--"a kind of stereotyped mental picture that forms in the unconscious, reflecting not only real experiences" but also other early experiences that occur before a child's emotional differentiation from its mother and that are thus psychologically attributed to her (Chasseguet-Smirgel 115). Moreover, as Mario Jacoby observes, despite the fact that "the harmonious world which is now regarded as lost ... never really existed," the image of Paradise "as an inner image or expectation ... lives on within us, creating a nostalgia the intensity of which is in inverse proportion to the amount of external fulfillment encountered in the earliest phase of life" (5, 8).

In Jazz, Joe Trace's fantasy of his irrecoverably lost mother fuels a need so insistent that, even into middle age, it demands an outlet for its expression. Soon after Joe discovers Wild's dwelling among the rocks, he calls, "But where is she?" (184). Following a significant narrative pause (produced by the white space of a chapter break), the response--"There she is" (187)--reveals Morrison's consummate narrative sleight of hand as well as her psychological compass: the ambiguous pronoun no longer refers to Joe Trace's mother but to his young lover, Dorcas.

The call-and-response slippage between the two female pronoun referents is significant both structurally and psychologically. Structurally, in addition to the blues pattern, the shift suggests a jazz technique. If one regards the white spaces of the chapter breaks in the novel as the narrative equivalents of rests, then what Paul Berliner says about these "musical spaces" may also be applied to Morrison's novel: "suspended over the passing beats, a rest ... invites listeners to reflect upon the soloist's most recent figure [here understood as a musical motif], challenging them to anticipate the entrance of subsequent figures. ... [S]ubstantial rests that shift the figure's placement within a measure can also cause the figure to become transfigured in unexpected ways" (157-88, emphasis mine).

Psychologically, the blank spaces or rests might be said to signify the presence of absence: the space once occupied by the lost love-object--originally the mother whose emotional presence or absence profoundly marks subsequent "figures" in intimate relationships. That figure itself becomes imaginatively "transfigured" as Morrison continues to plumb more deeply--in both psychological and cultural terms--what might be called the beloved imago: that figure who signifies the image of idealized love, retained despite--or, more accurately, because of--its absence through loss or death. Indeed, what she refers to as the "dead girl" in Beloved evolves, like an unfolding harmonic progression, into another "dead girl" in Jazz. As Morrison herself has explained,

I call her Beloved so that I can filter all these confrontations and

questions that she has in that situation [the circumstances of her death

and reappearance in Beloved] ... and then to extend her life ... her search,

her quest, all the way through as long as I care to go, into the twenties

where it switches to this other girl [Dorcas, in Jazz]. Therefore, I have

a New York uptown-Harlem milieu in which to put this love story, but

Beloved will be there also. (Naylor 208)

Interestingly, Morrison only later realized the full implications of the recurring presence and image of the "dead girl" in her fiction, noticing that "bit by bit I had been rescuing her from the grave of time and inattention. Her fingernails maybe in the first book; face and legs, perhaps, the second time. Little by little bringing her back into living life.... She is here now, alive. I have seen, named and claimed her--and oh what company she keeps" (Naylor 217). That haunting, evolving "dead girl" represents the psychic core of loss and mourning that Morrison, over the course of her fiction, has been figuratively re-constructing. In gathering together those parts of the body, in reclaiming those parts of the self, she narratively attempts to reverse, by "re-membering" the literal and figurative dismemberments of the slave experience and its after-effects.

To the extent that a child's earliest primary attachment has been disrupted or severed, he or she (as well as the adult whose psychological reality has been shaped by those critical childhood experiences) yearns for a substitute who might replace the absent beloved, who might fill the empty emotional space that persists in the form of unresolved mourning. Bowlby describes a complication of mourning in which the person who has experienced a loss "mislocates" the absent figure in some other figure in his or her life, regarding that person as "in certain respects a substitute for someone lost," but for whom ultimately no substitute can suffice (161). Thus, Morrison's Joe Trace, "a long way from ... Eden" (180) in every sense, and driven by the feeling that he associates with his unsuccessful search for his mother, follows the trail from "where is she?" to "There she is"--that is, from his absent mother in the woods to his absenting-herself young lover in the City. As he soliloquizes,

In this world the best thing, the only thing, is to find the trail and

stick to it. I tracked my mother in Virginia and it led me right to her,

and I tracked Dorcas from borough to borough.... [I]f the trail speaks, no

matter what's in the way, you can find yourself in a crowded room aiming a

bullet at her heart, never mind it's the heart you can't live without. (130)

Locating Dorcas at a jazz party in the City, Joe is angered when he realizes that she prefers a younger man named Acton (suggesting "action" or "actin'"). She tells Joe--in words that threaten the vulnerable space of his "inside nothing"--"I don't want you inside me. I don't want you beside me" (189). As if to punish the original Beloved whose unendurable abandonment is about to be repeated, Joe shoots her emotional surrogate, Dorcas, who bleeds to death from the wound. Later, when Dorcas's friend Felice asks Joe, "Why'd you shoot at her if you loved her?" Joe replies, with a candor that makes explicit the deficiency that has stunted his emotional life, "Scared. Didn't know how to love anybody" (213).

Another orphan's story in Jazz, one that resonates like a blues lament with Joe Trace's story and amplifies its emotional meaning, is the narratively self-contained story of Golden Gray. The most enigmatic character of the narrative, Golden Gray is a young man of an earlier time who also seeks an unknown and radically absent parent. The son of a "phantom father" who never knew of his paternity and a white woman who never acknowledged her motherhood, he is also, figuratively, the child of a black slave woman who was obliged to relinquish her own children in order to become a surrogate mother for the mulatto boy with beautiful golden skin and hair.

When Golden Gray reaches the age of eighteen, he learns the identity of his father from the woman who "lied to him about practically everything including the question of whether she was his owner, his mother or a kindly neighbor" (143). Tracking his father in the same Virginia woods in which, many years later, Joe Trace attempts to track his mother, Golden Gray finds the cabin of the woodsman Henry Lestory/LesTroy. Awaiting the arrival of the man reputed to be his father, he describes his feelings regarding his missing parent as an amputee might describe his experience of a phantom limb, in language that most explicitly articulates the "inside nothing" produced by a child's experience of abandonment or radical estrangement from a parent:

Only now ... that I know I have a father, do I feel his absence: the

place where he should have been and was not. Before, I thought everybody

was one-armed, like me. Now I feel the surgery....

I don't need the arm. But I do need to know what it could have been

like to have had it. It's a phantom I have to behold and be held by.... I

will locate it so the severed part can remember the snatch, the slice of

its disfigurement. (158-59)

Here, Morrison recapitulates the imagery of dismemberment that occurs throughout her fiction as a trope for the profound damages inflicted on African Americans by the emotional dismemberments of slavery and its aftermath. Remembering--"re-membering" (Morrison's own play on the word)--is a crucial compensatory process that might begin to ameliorate the pain of literal and figurative, individual and communal, severances that cumulatively persist as cultural mourning.

Significantly, Golden Gray's articulation of the "presence of absence" occurs just before another birth; the pregnant woman known only as Wild, whom Golden Gray has found injured on the road and taken to his putative father's cabin, gives birth to a son. Just as Golden Gray's father rejects his son, so does this mother reject her infant. Their complementary refusals bind the several stories of abandoned children and lost parents that compose the narrative of Jazz, while also hinting at an explanation for the absent mother later sought by Joe Trace. Morrison, pointing out that "the dates are the same" for the disappearance of Sethe's daughter at the end of Beloved and the birth of Joe Trace in Jazz, has explained that "Wild is a kind of Beloved":

You see a pregnant black woman naked at the end of Beloved. It's at the

same time ... back in the Golden Gray section of Jazz, there is a crazy

woman out in the woods. The woman they call Wild (because she's sort of

out of it from the hit on the head) could be Sethe's daughter, Beloved.

When you see Beloved towards the end [of Beloved], you don't know; she's

either a ghost who has been exorcised or she's a real person [who is]

pregnant by Paul D, who runs away, ending up in Virginia, which is right

next to Ohio. (Carabi 43)

Morrison's provocative suggestion that Wild may be both Joe Trace's mother and "a kind of Beloved" underscores the encompassing psychological truth embodied in that figure; it/she represents not only the lost/dead daughter named by the bereaved slave mother who took her child's life in order to "save" it but, more broadly, the beloved imago--the vanished love-object, the missing or lost half of the original parent-child bond--that persists psychologically as an idealized, haunting, disembodied/embodied presence. Although by the end of Jazz Joe Trace refuses full responsibility for Dorcas's death and although Violet accepts his attempts at reconciliation, the "trace" of loss remains ineradicable.

Thus, naming and giving still another form to the lost Beloved as the symbolic figure--and transfiguration--of cultural mourning, Morrison illuminates the links and resonances between emotional/psychological and aesthetic/cultural losses. Her complex strategy bridges figurative correspondences between musical and narrative forms: from the blues, she adapts the call-and-response pattern and the lyrical lament for "the heart you can't live without"; from jazz, she adapts notions of improvisation and unpredictability. Thus herself "appropriating" musical techniques for literary purposes, she has devised a narrative design that captures both the voices we hear through it and the distinctive cultural moment in which it is set. Simultaneously re-envisioning the historical period and re-appropriating its musical creations, Jazz sings the blues and reclaims jazz, celebrating the central contribution of these musical forms to a vital era of African-American--and white--cultural history. Moreover, Morrison's "call" demands her readers' response: to acknowledge the profound psychological and cultural losses on which those aesthetic expressions are predicated.


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ROBERTA RUBENSTEIN is Professor of Literature at American University, where she was named Scholar/Teacher of the Year in 1994. Her publications include The Novelistic Vision of Doris Lessing: Breaking the Forms of Consciousness (1979) and Boundaries of the Self: Gender, Culture, Fiction (1987) as well as more than thirty essays on modern and contemporary women writers.


Publication Information: Article Title: Singing the Blues/reclaiming Jazz: Toni Morrison and Cultural Mourning. Contributors: Roberta Rubenstein - author. Journal Title: Mosaic. Volume: 31. Issue: 2. Publication Year: 1998. Page Number: 147+. COPYRIGHT 1998 University of Manitoba, Mosaic