Sunday, 30 November 2014

This is Not a Book Review: Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye

Toni Morrison
The Bluest Eye

People often ask 'what is the difference in women's writing?'. The same question can be asked about any kind of subaltern literature. In fact it arises only in that case. This is because there is a norm which is white/upper caste and male. When other voices rise the question does too. 'What is the difference? It is the same story!'

To begin with, these are all voices from the fringes and important for that fact alone. A people who have been pushed to the sides are being given representation and their stories are being told and documented. In the act of doing so patterns and motifs are deduced. In early women's writing it was common that the authors took a pen name which sounded like that of a male's. (Eg. George Eliot). Be it a mad woman in the attic (Jane Eyre) or a book dedicated entirely to a character in another woman author's work, like in Wide Saragasso Sea, or even the choice of words, the very vocabulary employed for expression, shots and its angles in case of cinema, the significance of the language of the suppressed is indisputable.

I am particularly fascinated by the way female sexuality is depicted in art by women authors. Even in my modest journey through books i have noticed at least two trends. One is that of cunnilingus being given more importance or being described at all unlike in male works as opposed to descriptions of penetration, thereby placing the clitoris as a point if not the centre of pleasure than the vagina. The second is that of descriptions of unsatisfactory sex, where at the time of lovemaking the male seems to attain an orgasm and the female doesn't. 

Starting with Toni Morrison's Bluest Eye which i recently re-read, i will be trying to substantiate these and more trends as and when they make its presence known. Toni Morrison's is black women's writing and therefore also documents how a text can be a medium to protest against racism and sexism at the same time.

Female sexuality

The first time Mrs Breedlove's and Cholly's sexual life is described it is through the thoughts of Pecola. This is a brilliant tool that the author has deployed to achieve the goal of making it sound as genuine as possible. Children are known for describing unpleasant truths.

'Into her eyes came the picture of Cholly and Mrs. Breedlove in bed. he making sounds as though he were in pain, as though something had him by the throat and wouldn't let go. Terrible as his noises were, they were not nearly as bad as the no noise at all from her mother. It was as though she was not even there. May be that was love. Choking sounds and silence'
[Italics by self]

It is with Geraldine who represents someone from the community who abandons blackness that the second description occurs. She can be described as somewhat frigid.

'While he moves inside her, she will wonder why they didn't put the necessary but private parts of the body in some more convenient place-like the armpit, for example, or the palm of the hand. Someplace one could get to easily, and quickly, without undressing. She stiffens when she feels one of her paper curlers coming undone from the activity of love; imprints in her mind which one it is that is coming loose so she can quickly secure it once he is through. She hopes he will not sweat-the damp may get into her hair; and that she will remain dry between her legs-she hates the glucking sound they make when she is moist. When she senses some spasm about to grip him, she will make rapid movements with her hips, press her fingernails into his back, suck in her breath, and pretend she is having an orgasm. She might wonder again, for the six hundredth time, what it would be like to have that feeling while her husband's penis is inside her. The closest thing to it was the time she was walking down the street and her napkin slipped free of her sanitary belt. It moved gently between her legs as she walked. Gently, ever so gently. And then a slight and distinctly delicious sensation collected in her crotch. As the delight grew, she had to stop in the street, hold her thighs together to contain it. That must be what it is like, she thinks, but it never happens while he is inside her. When he withdraws, she pulls her nightgown down, slips out of the bed and into the bathroom with relief'
Here we see that the absence of a vaginal orgasm is described explicitly at the same time describing the pleasure she had got from clitoris. There is not a possibility that the sanitary pad had penetrated her, besides carefully chosen words like gentle with 'gently, ever so gently' makes it clear that it was anything but penetration.

Later Mrs Breedlove speaks for herself. She describes in detail her experience in bed. A woman speaking about her own sexuality. This is during the earlier days of their marriage and we come to know that she holds on to this feeling even after it is destroyed. Again, this description is in absolute contrast with Geraldine's experience thus along with a female voice it becomes a female voice which differs from another such. Female sexuality is as diverse as women. Women are diverse because people are diverse. Yes, women are people. The point is clear, sex is different to different people, it is not like in porn where all women attain an orgasm the same way or most descriptions from a female point of view written by men treat sex as if it's a collective feeling. It is possible to have a collective feeling about anything, even about sex. But it would be preposterous if it evolved out of male narratives and fantasies and is regarded as true.
Mrs Breedlove attains an orgasm (vaginal) and likes having sex with Cholly.

...Then he lift his head, turn over, and put his hand on my waist. If I don't move, he'll move his hand over to pull and knead my stomach. Soft and slow-like. I still don't move, because I don't want him to stop. I want to pretend sleep and have him keep on rubbing my stomach. Then he will lean his head down and bite my tit. Then I don't want him to rub my stomach anymore. I want him to put his hand between my legs. I want him to open them for me. He does, and I be soft and wet where his fingers are strong and hard. I be softer than I ever been before. All my strength in his hand. My brain curls up like wilted leaves. A funny, empty feeling is in my hands. I want to grab holt of something, so I hold his head. His mouth is under my chin. Then I don't want his hand between my legs no more, because I think I am softening away. I stretch my legs open, and he is on top of me. In me. In me. I wrap my feet around his back so he can't get away. His face is next to mine. The bed springs sounds like them crickets used to back home. He puts his fingers in mine, and we stretches our arms outwide like Jesus on the cross. I hold on tight. My fingers and my feet hold on tight, because everything else is going, going. I know he wants me to come first. But I can't. Not until he does. Not until I feel him loving me. Just me. Sinking into me. Not until I know that my flesh is all that be on his mind. That he couldn't stop if he had to. That he would die rather than take his thing out of me. Of me. Not until he has let go of all he has, and give it to me. To me. To me. When he does, I feel a power. I be strong, I be pretty, I be young. And then I wait. He shivers and tosses his head. Now I be strong enough, pretty enough, and young enough to let him make me come. I take my fingers out of his and put my hands on his behind. My legs drop onto the bed. i don't make no noise, because the chil'ren might hear. I begin to feel those little bits of color floating up into me-deep in me. that streak of green from the june-bug light, the purple from the berries trickling along my thighs, Mama's lemonade yellow runs sweet in me. Then I feel like I'm laughing between my legs, and the laughing gets all mixed up with the colours, and I', afraid I'll come, and afraid I won't. But I know I will. And I do. And it be rainbow all inside. And it lasts and lasts and lasts. I want to thank him, but don't know how, so I pat him like you do a baby. He asks me if I'm all right. I say yes. He gets off me and lies down to sleep. I want to say something, but I don't. i don't want to take my mind offen the rainbow. I should get up and go to the toilet, but I don't. Besides, Cholly is asleep with his legs throwed over me. i can't move and don't want to.
Later she says, referring to the experience above,

'"But it ain't like that anymore. Most times he's thrashing away inside me before I'm woke, and through when I am...'

 White Beauty
'Thrown, in this way, into the binding conviction that only a miracle could relieve her, [eyes turning blue] she would never know her beauty. She would see only what there was to see: the eyes of other people.'
'To eat the candy is somehow to eat the eyes, eat Mary Jane. Love Mary Jane. Be Mary Jane.'
Thus thinks Pecola. The book owes its title to this obsession of Pecola and ends with her believing she has indeed got the bluest eye. 
Obsession with 'whiteness' is all pervasive. This is what prompts people like Geraldine to disown their blackness and try to make themselves as white as possible. White beauty does not pertain to the physical appearance of a person alone. You start wishing for whiteness in every aspect of living.

'She had explained to him the difference between coloured people and niggers. They were easily identifiable. Coloured people were neat and quiet; niggers were dirty and loud. He belonged to the former group; he wore white shirts and blue trousers; his hair was cut as close to his scalp as possible to avoid any suggestion of wool, the part was etched into his hair by the barber. In winter his mother put Jergens Lotion on his face to keep the skin from becoming ashen. Even though he was light-skinned, it was possible to ash. The line between coloured and nigger was not always clear; subtle and telltale signs threatened to erode it, and watch had to be constant.'
With Mrs Breedlove Morrison also explains how popular culture and the predominantly white world around them cultivate hatred for their own identity and people. The birth of the concept of white beauty in people is described in vivid details. When her marriage was failing Mrs Breedlove turns to movies for comfort. There, Morrison says,

'...Along with the idea of romantic love, she was introduced to another-physical beauty. Probably the most destructive ideas in the history of human thought. Both originated in envy, thrived in insecurity, and ended in disillusion. In equating physical beauty with virtue she stripped her mind, bound it, and collected self contempt by the heap....
'...She was never able, after her education in the movies, to look at a face and not assign it some category in the scale of absolute beauty, and the scale was one she absorbed in full from the silver screen.'
Self loathing and contempt for her own kind began thus in Mrs Breedlove's words. [Talking about the movies]

'White men taking such good care of they women, and they all dressed up in big clean houses with the bathtubs right in the same room with the toilet. Them pictures gave me a lot of pleasure, but it made coming home hard, and looking at Cholly (her husband) hard'
The disillusionment which arises out of this only sublimates to further hatred for the way she and her people are. Black. This is what happens when she tries to do her hair just like Jean Harlow and loses a tooth right after. That incident makes her realise how futile the entire effort is and she says

'Everything went then. Look like I just didn't care no more after that, I let my hair go back, plaited it up, and settled down to just being ugly.'
There is further description of this hatred towards one's own kind in case of Cholly after he is caught having sex with his friend, Darlene. He blames her for the humiliation both of them had to face.

'...he cultivated his hatred for Darlene, Never did he once consider directing his hatred toward the hunters. Such an emotion would have destroyed him. They were big, white, armed men. He was small, black, helpless...hating them would have consumed him, burned him up like a piece of soft coal, leaving only flakes of ash and a question mark of smoke.' 


On usual gossip sessions, she writes,

'Their conversation is like a gently wicked dance: sound meets sound, curtsies, shimmies, and retires. Another sound enters but is upstaged by still another: the two circle each other and stop. Sometimes their words move in lofty spirals; other times they take strident leaps, and all of it is punctuated with warm-pulsed laughter—like the throb of a heart made of jelly. The edge, the curl, the thrust of their emotions is always clear to Frieda and me. We do not, cannot, know the meanings of all their words, for we are nine and ten years old. So we watch their faces, their hands, their feet, and listen for truth in timbre.'
Later about the three prostitutes, China, Poland and Miss Mary who live above Pecola's house,

'All three of them laughed...From deep inside, her laughter came like the sound of many rivers, freely, deeply, muddily, heading for the room of an open sea.'

Their ways of housekeeping and reasons behind it. She explains how and why property becomes important in the lives of blacks for the fear of being thrown 'outdoors'. Outdoors was death or worse than that. A slow death. 

'Knowing that there was such a thing as outdoors bred in us a hunger for property, for ownership. The firm possession of a yard, a porch, a grape arbor. Propertied black people spent all their energies, all their love, on their nests. Like frenzied, desperate birds, they overdecorated everything, fussed and fidgeted over their hard-won hoes; canned, jellied, and preserved all summer to fill the cupboards and shelves; they painted, picked, and poked at every corner of their houses. And these houses loomed like hothouse sunflowers among the rows and weeds that were the rented houses. Renting blacks cast furtive glances at these owned yards and porches, and made firmer commitments to buy themselves "some nice little old place." In the meantime, they saved, and scratched, and piled away what they could in the rented hovels, looking forward to the day of property'

I would like to add that this is similar to the Indian middle class. Property is perhaps the biggest dream they start off with. The difference is that it is not driven by a fear of having to die. People are attached to land because it is primarily an agrarian society. This love for land permeates across occupations like a precious heirloom passed on from the great great grandparents, who in case of 'upper' caste people, would be land owners. However, in india, caste is as important as class. Dalits have to have land because it is time the ownership is reclaimed. Those who tilled the land have to own it. Over generations, this fight that was explicit becomes discreet. A flat which does not rent its rooms to beef eaters or muslims is a space to be conquered and gives impetus to land to be owned. At the same time the Adivasis are fighting for the land which is rightfully theirs. Property is not just a need, it is a way to assert one's existence. To rob a people of land is to rob them of their proof on earth in some parts. It becomes as if they never lived. 

When a racist shopkeeper insults Pecola the author makes it clear to the readers that he was behaving like anybody would to a little black girl in those times. The feeling is explained with 

'She looks up at him and sees... .The total absence of human recognition-the glazed separateness'

Here the author is documenting what a race had gone through, giving voice to the thoughts in their head. She continues about Pecola's thoughts

'Anger stirs and wakes in her; it opens its mouth, and like a hot-mouthed puppy, laps up the dredges of her shame.'

'Anger is better. There is a sense of being in anger. A reality and presence. An awareness of worth. It is a lovely surging.'
There has always been an argument that anger is unproductive. Attempts to dismiss voices as just angry, without purpose. The purpose in black/dalit anger is aptly described by Morrison. Like she says it is 'an awareness of worth'. It is what makes people in the fringes believe they are alive.

While talking about Maureen Peal the author points out how people behaved differently with her because she wasn't like the 'other' black kids. She was rich and it showed. By describing the difference in behaviour we also get to know how black children were usually treated.

Black boys didn't trip her in the halls; white boys didn't stone her, white girls didn't suck their teeth when she was assigned to be their work partners...
This is an apt example of how all voices need to be heard. We come to know that black boys were mean towards black girls. We come to know that white boys stoned black girls and boys.

Further describing the insult Pecola was facing from her black classmates she tells us the reason why blacks themselves were racist.
'It was their contempt for their own blackness that gave the first insult [calling Pecola 'black e mo'] their teeth.'
Mrs Breedlove's delivery of Pecola in a hospital is where atrocious discrimination is described. The character speaks thus

'When he [a doctor] got to me he said now these here women you don't have any trouble with. They deliver right away and with no pain. Just like horses...They never said nothing to me. Only one looked at me. Looked at my face, i mean. I looked right back at him. He dropped his eyes and turned red. He knowed, I reckon, that maybe I weren't no horse foaling. But them other. They didn't know. They went on. I seed them talking to them white women: 'How you feel? Gonna have twins?' Just shucking them, of course, but nice talk. Nice friendly talk. I got edgy, and when them pains got harder, I was glad. Glad to have something else to think about, I moaned something awful. The pains wasn't as bad as I let on, but I had to let them people know having a baby was more than a bowel movement. i hurt just like them white women. Just 'cause I wasn't hooping and hollering before didn't mean I wasn't feeling pain. What'd they think? That just 'cause I knowed how to have a baby with no fuss that my behind wasn't pulling and aching like theirs?'
 About the past which is as important as the present, Cholly's friend, Blue reminds us.

'...Blue used to tell him old-timey stories about how it was when the Emancipation Proclamation came. How the black people hollered, cried, and sang...They talked...,about how he talked his way out of getting lynched once, and how others hadn't.'
Again, voice of black women is heard when Morrison speaks about Aunt Jimmy and her friends.

'Everybody in the world was in a position to give them orders. White women said, "Do this." White children said, "Give me that." White men said, "Do this." Black men said, "Lay down." The only people they need not take orders from were black children and each other. But they took all of that and re-created it in their own image. They ran houses of white people, and knew it. When white men beat their men, they cleaned up the blood and went home to receive abuse from the victim. They beat their children with one hand and stole for them with the other. the hands that felled trees also cut umbilical cords; the hands that wrung the necks of chickens and butchered hogs also nudged African violets into bloom; the arms that loaded sheaves, bales, and sacks rocked babies into sleep. They patted biscuits into flaky ovals of innocence-and shrouded the dead. They plowed all day and came home to nestle like plums under the limbs of their men. the legs that straddled a mule's back were the same ones that straddled their men's hips. And the difference was all the difference there was.' 


We can see how the colour white becomes a symbol of the unattainable. The book itself speaks of the yearning that sprouts and branches out in the minds of the 'othered' for the ideal, which in this case is white. This later transforms into hatred and violence to their own kind. Post colonialist studies also examine this transferred hatred from the coloniser to the colonised. I remember instances of this in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Purple Hibiscus. Will update with excerpts during re-reading.

'We stepped into the kitchen, a large spacious room. Mrs. Breedlove's skin glowed like taffeta in the reflection of white porcelain, white woodwork, polished cabinets, and brilliant copperware.' 

Later she disappears behind a 'white swinging door'

The colour black is also assigned some properties. Pecola finds comfort in the black cat when Junior harasses her.

'The cat rubbed up against her knee. He was black all over, deep silky black, and his eyes, pointing down towards his nose were bluish green. the light made them shine like blue ice. Pecola rubbed the cat's head; he whined, his tongue flicking with pleasure. The blue eyes in the black face held her.'
Later when she yells at the children for having spilt blueberries on the floor it is described thus

'...her words were hotter and darker than the smoking berries and we backed away in dread.'
At the same time when she tries to calm the white child who calls her 'Polly', because she is petrified by the black intruders who are only her own child and her friends, Morrison describes the words in this manner
'"Hush don't worry none," she whispered, and the honey in her words complemented the sundown spilling on the lake.' 
Thus dark/black is used against blacks by blacks, and white, shiney, honey coloured is what is to emulated. The yearning is to be white and turn away from black in some.  
'With a confidence born of a conviction of superiority, they performed well at schools.'
She writes about Soaphead Church, a 'A cinnamon-eyed West Indian with lightly browned skin' right after she explains the reason for the conviction of superiority thus
'They transferred this Anglophilia to their six children and sixteen grandchildren. Except for an occasional and unaccountable insurgent who chose a restive black, they married "up." lightening the family complexion and thinning out the family features.'
 In Morrison's own words 'My choices of language (speakerly, aural, colloquial), my reliance for full comprehension on codes embedded in black culture, my effort to effect immediate co-conspiracy and intimacy )without any distancing, explanatory fabric), as well as my attempt to shape a silence while breaking it are attempts to transfigure the complexity and wealth of Black-American culture into a language worthy of the culture.'

Some notes for possible intertextuality which will not make any sense now.
Page 93
We stared up and automatically reached for the others' hand.
(God of Small Things)
Page 143
While straining in this way, focusing every erg of energy on his eyes, his bowels suddenly opened up, and before he could realise what he knew, liquid stools were running down his legs. At the mouth of the alley where his father was, on an orange crate in the sun, on a street full of grown men and women, he had soiled himself like a baby.
Page 160 
Soaphead Church also writes to 'God'.

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