Toni Morrison on the Power of Art and the Writer’s Singular Service to Humanity
By Maria Popova
“Art is not a plaything, but a necessity, and its essence, form, is not a decorative adjustment, but a cup into which life can be poured and lifted to the lips and be tasted,” Rebecca West — one of humanity’s most insightful and underappreciated writers — observed as she contemplated storytelling and survival in her 1941 masterwork Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.
Two generations later, on the other side of WWII and the Cold War and the atomic bomb and myriad other failures of humanity, another seer of uncommon lucidity took up these questions in her formidable body of work, which made her the first black woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Toni Morrison (February 18, 1931–August 5, 2019) examines the function of art and literature as humanizing forces of survival throughout The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations (public library) — the nonfiction collection that gave us her wisdom on wisdom in the age of information.
Half a century after James Baldwin asserted that “a society must assume that it is stable, but the artist must know, and he must let us know, that there is nothing stable under heaven,” Morrison writes in her PEN/Borders Literary Service Award acceptance speech, which opens the volume:
Writers — journalists, essayists, bloggers, poets, playwrights — can disturb the social oppression that functions like a coma on the population, a coma despots call peace, and they stanch the blood flow of war that hawks and profiteers thrill to.
Certain kinds of trauma visited on peoples are 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.
In another piece, drawn from her 1990 Massey Lectures at Harvard, Morrison echoes Ursula K. Le Guin’s astute observation that “storytelling is a tool for knowing who we are and what we want,” and probes deeper into the singular gift and responsibility of the writer:
Writers are among the most sensitive, most intellectually anarchic, most representative, most probing of artists. The writer’s ability to imagine what is not the self, to familiarize the strange, and to mystify the familiar — all this is the test of her or his power. The languages she or he uses (imagistic, structural, narrative) and the social and historical context in which these languages signify are indirect and direct revelations of that power and its limitations.
A quarter century later, in an award acceptance speech delivered at Vanderbilt University in the spring of 2013, also included in the book, Morrison considers her core credo as a writer and the central function of art in human life:
I am a writer and my faith in the world of art is intense but not irrational or naïve. Art invites us to take the journey beyond price, beyond costs into bearing witness to the world as it is and as it should be. Art invites us to know beauty and to solicit it from even the most tragic of circumstances. Art reminds us that we belong here. And if we serve, we last. My faith in art rivals my admiration for any other discourse. Its conversation with the public and among its various genres is critical to the understanding of what it means to care deeply and to be human completely. I believe.
Complement with Iris Murdoch on art as a vehicle of truth and Albert Camus on the artist’s role as a force of resistance, then revisit Morrison on the artist’s task in troubled times and her magnificent Nobel Prize acceptance speech on the power and responsibility of language.
Published May 16, 2019