GET THE BODY INTO YOU:
ROMANTIC INCORPORATION IN TONI MORRISON’S WORKS
I can’t quite remember, but I thought there was a night when a man lay in my bed and spoke with his eyes closed, as he often did, and I watched his mouth, slow and measured. I thought he said he often dreamt of flying as a boy.
Which is interesting because that week we read Song of Solomon and my professor, Kevin Quashie, said Milkman’s flying makes him part of everything, unlimited and totalitarian. Peculiar word to use. I had thought it was surrender. But I guess that’d be falling.
Is it like the words the man was translating from German, in-cor-por-ate? About trying to eat the object of love. Get the body into you. Or rather, be enveloped by it. And which is it, and can it be both? I told him about the cheeks of the women I’ve loved, how I have wanted to slurp at them, and afterwards I wondered if I shouldn’t have shared such a thing.
For instance, I didn’t tell him about the dream I had that spring; how we stumbled down cobblestones and I bit at the flesh of her shoulder, how there was no blood.
At 22, I wrote a letter to my mother. I wondered how much we were part of one complete thing, as much as we struggle to separate. I wrote: The life (singular) that follows… this is the whole point, I’ve decided, that maybe it’s plural, it’s two, as much as we want it to be one. And also that as much as we want it to be two, it is always one. In other words, this letter is grappling with how two can be one and also how one can be two. I’m sorry because all the words are the same words but if you read them closely, you will see.
That letter was not a feign, but it did represent an omission. I knew it then too, because I never thought that blurry line––mother/child––was the only one like it, simply the one that comes most obviously. But I think we are always trying to figure this out––who is who, and where is the bound, and can we erase it––when it comes to the people we love.
By extrapolating to other kinds of relationships, then, my purpose in what follows is to try to be more expansive than I dared be before, and in doing so, be more truthful. When I say “other kinds of relationships,” I mean the people we are in love with. The italicized word, forever burdened to help us distinguish between this type of love and mother-love. But to be in something. Inside of and consumed by.
So basically, you should read this aloud. You should read it like I read it to her on the Tuesday night she lay with her hands on my collarbones and I could feel the heave of my chest so acutely since I was trying to catch my breath through such a long sentence.
The book had nothing to do with her eyes, which I used to call whale eyed, so wide and so blue and so close up to mine that they almost morphed into one. That night I remembered that this woman had eyelashes all over her, like on her eyelids and the space around her mouth. All the hair was the same shade of brown. And the contours of her body made no sense, some parts spindly, others like cream. I wanted to shove everything in my mouth.
Good and nice and nice and good and good and I love you and nice and good and good and I love you, all overlapping. We repeated these sorts of things on nights when the moon was out, when my eyes turned fuzzy and dry with the passing of the hours. And we didn’t repeat them in that order at all, but I’ve got to record something about these days, and if not this then what?
My hands, running over her face again? Do you think everyone feels like this? Sometimes she wore all white, sometimes my father’s beach shirt again. She liked to put her underwear over the tops of her pants and pull. Once, we were on a couch in the living room and Clem was singing at the top of her lungs, heartbroken, but then the boy chose her after all, so everything worked out––except we didn’t know that while she was singing so the singing was still kind of heartbreaking. After that we all jumped on the bed and then we lay piled together. My heart beat quickly. Their breaths near my neck. She drooled a little.
That was also the week our professor told us that in college he would lie in bed with his friends and sob, practicing for heartbreak.
Get the body into you. These feelings can be intensely physical, but the impulse also operates on a more abstract level, and I want to think about why I might want the object of my love to become part of myself. I use “object” knowingly and despairingly. To take a person and fit them inside ourselves, to carry them around and force them to rest softly, just above the belly.
Is this a selfish desire? I was a spoiled child, after all. Toni Morrison’s Guitar speaks to Hagar as if she still is one. “The stingiest, greediest people on earth and out of their stinginess grew their stingy little love that ate everything in sight.” (Song of Solomon, 306) To refer to this iteration of love as an unsatisfied appetite indicates just how physical Hagar’s desires are, but Guitar also denigrates those desires through his comparison. Others might have stopped me earlier in that sentence to correct my wording––Hagar’s not in love; she’s infatuated, she’s obsessed.
But to pass off what one interprets as love as solely obsession essentializes love and assumes it operates universally. Call it what Hagar feels it is, for who is Guitar to call Hagar’s inner life “little”? As much as Morrison works to figure love, and Black love in particular, by offering it in its myriad array of forms, Morrison also consistently refuses to essentialize it.
It’s not a stretch to say that Black scholars and writers disproportionately hold that onus when it comes to depicting Black life writ large, particularly to a white audience: an audience that Morrison has repeatedly insisted that, as much as white readers including myself may identify with or find solace in her characters, she has never written and will never write to or for.
Last spring I thought a lot about Cornel West’s strain of American pragmatism, wherein he attempts to deconstruct the ways that knowledge systems become oppressive. (Cornel West, “Race and Social Theory,” 261) West in particular has written that while moving towards a deep historical consciousness, one must reject any theories that falsely essentialize, dogmatize, or romanticize. In doing so, West commits to a continual acknowledgment of the multiplicity of truth, and the chance that truth contains gaps, not all of which must be filled.
I see this as advocating for a kind of opacity in itself; again, an understanding that a white reader cannot read a “total” Black experience through Morrison’s texts. Her novels––the bulk of her oeuvre––compose a body of knowledge and truth. That body holds some mirrors to West’s philosophical theory when it comes to Morrison’s absolute denial to essentialize, dogmatize, or romanticize the love of her characters and the love and lives of Black individuals off the page.
Returning to Guitar’s speech, then, (for that is what it is; Hagar does not speak) we may read it as encompassing some criticism of Guitar, rather than Hagar. More than a “selfish desire,” can the extreme pull that Hagar or any other character feels be an empathic one? Joining without belonging, without possession? The danger or power we might encounter if and when we let ourselves erase the limits between two people.
I am nearly twenty-four this fall and none of these feelings are new. My mother told me last month that some relationships are more about ourselves than the other person, and I thought it was funny that she said it quietly, trying to be kind, since we both knew she was speaking of me and an old lover, but the point is me, because I just said it was never even about that old lover. How Proustian of you, mama.
But I have long hated Proust’s version, that all love was ever about was plumbing the depths of one’s own interiority. What about with the others? I wanted to ask. How much could it ever be about two, becoming one? And don’t you understand that this is what I have wanted?
Let’s name this conviction romantic “incorporation.” An ugly word, perhaps, for an act I believe would be beautiful. But I find this conviction in many of Toni Morrison’s texts, which makes sense because Morrison paints worlds that any reader might recognize––real, possible, Black worlds––as much as they are imagined fiction, even dipping into the fantastic. And although I have made it clear that Morrison was not writing for me, that does not mean I don’t see myself in many of the characters she produces.
Those acts of recognition allow me to seek clues to my own experiences in her words, regardless of the fact that I have never found an explicitly romantic or sexual relationship between two women in Morrison’s works. Still, that recognition does not hinge upon comparing or contrasting––it is simply the stamp of good literature, how it plays with our senses, emotions, and memories.
There are no “ideal” relationships in Morrison’s books. Because these are real and possible worlds, the relationships that exist within them are necessarily flawed. We cannot point to one relationship, take notes, and transpose those qualities onto our own lives. As an alternative, Morrison offers us portraits of relationships that often look one way and then, on further examination, reveal themselves to be something entirely different. In those gaps, I find my meaning.
Take one passage in Sula I have carried with me lately, in which the title character makes love to Ajax. On the surface, the two seem on the brink of breaking the boundaries between them, together getting towards what I see as a higher state of being. Not so, on revisit.
The scene is interspersed with an internal conversation. Sula speaks to herself––the intermittent italics seem to suggest that she never says any of this to Ajax aloud––as though she is telling both of them a story but only in her mind. It begins:
If I take a chamois and rub real hard on the bone, right on the ledge of your cheek bone, some of the black will disappear. It will flake away into the chamois and underneath there will be gold leaf. I can see it shining through the black. I know it is there…
Sula is interested in rubbing away Ajax’s own body to get to his core, and she uses a piece of skin itself (the chamois) to see past and through his skin. She then meets the gold leaf, a gilding material, inherently thin and used to mask.
And if I take a nail file or even Eva’s old paring knife––that will do––and scrape away at the gold, it will fall away and there will be alabaster. The alabaster is what gives your face its planes, its curves.
As we move forward in Sula’s story, Morrison paints a sensual and softly violent image. The scene is something of a still life. The tools to scrape away Ajax’s body are feminine and initially, seemingly innocuous––a nail file, or a knife used to peel fruits and vegetables. Sula cuts away at Ajax, digging deeper, to get to the alabaster below: a soft, malleable stone, often used for carving. Ajax becomes a statue, subject to Sula’s own manipulation and vision. Her ability to carve his statue undergirds a terrifying authority, because that authority does not suggest that she is shaping him, changing him for the better, but rather, shaping her image of him. Building him up to be something he is not––not better or worse, simply wrong.
Mistook or misread, Ajax remains un-receiving. “There is no gift for the beloved. The lover alone possesses his gift of love. The loved one is shorn, neutralized, frozen in the glare of the lover’s inward eye.” (The Bluest Eye, 205) Their love becomes something much more sinister, reminding us that even when we deeply want to see our object clearly and completely, and thus internalize a person “correctly,” we are often unseeing of who others are.
Meanwhile, Ajax is “shorn”––staunched––as is the couple’s potential for exchange. Sula has crafted Ajax’s statue, but that statue is hollow, as she has pressured him into something he did not ask her for. The stability of their relationship, too, remains fairly shabby. Taken together, Morrison devises a conversation in which it looks as though Sula is trying to get closer and closer to her lover; in reality, the materials and language Morrison embeds within the passage function as clues to the fallout of their relationship a few pages later, when Ajax leaves Sula, something that comes as a shock only to her.
Then I can take a chisel and small tap hammer and tap away at the alabaster. It will crack then like ice under the pick, and through the breaks I will see the loam, fertile, free of pebbles and twigs. For it is the loam that is giving you that smell… I will put my hand deep into your soil, lift it, sift it with my fingers, feel its warm surface and dewy chill below.
Ignorant to the fact that Ajax no longer wants to be there with her, Sula continues her slow craft as the passage drags on. The image of ice breaking under a pick brings me, briefly, to Franz Kafka’s entreaty of literature to be an axe that breaks the frozen sea within us. Once broken, the two can then cry out together. Sula is not successful here, but what might happen when we can break that frozen sea? I imagine the result as sounding something like when Beloved and Denver and Sethe all cry out, amorphously yet as one:
“You are my face; you are me
I drank your blood
I brought your milk
I drank your blood
I brought your milk
You are my face; I am you” (Beloved, 255)
Morrison does not often slip into verse, and when she does, it suits our purposes to wonder why. In Audre Lorde’s “Poetry is Not A Luxury,” she famously writes that “the Black mother within each of us––the poet––whispers in our dreams: I feel, therefore I can be free. Poetry coins the language to express and charter this revolutionary demand.” (Sister Outsider, 38) Beloved’s capacity, first to feel and second to express and demand those feelings of others becomes a unifying act, joining all three women in reciprocal delight/devastation.
These poems are “half sentences, day-dreams,” like the conversations between Beloved and her sister. But they can then be transfigured into shared meaning––a meaning “more thrilling” than any primary “understanding could ever be.” (Beloved, 67) It is only here, in Beloved’s poetic register, that Sula herself could possibly locate the core she has been trying to inch towards in Ajax. She imagines this core as a loam: rich, easy to till, composed of ideal proportions of sand, silt, and clay. And once she thinks she reaches it, we glimpse a shadow of her goal’s realization––holding Ajax’s body and his heart, feeling his essence for herself, all over her hands. Not just the warm and the good, but also the chill and the bad.
I will water your soil, keep it rich and moist. But how much? How much water to keep the loam moist? And how much loam will I need to keep my water still? And when do the two make mud?
As the conversation finally comes to a close, it fully fractures. Sula is no longer the confident artist molding Ajax with her own hands and tools, but a doubtful woman holding tightly onto a relationship that she simultaneously seems to know is hopeless to cling to. Sula is determined to water this soil, to keep the relationship healthy and flourishing. At the start, she seems nearly obstinate: I will, she thinks. But then her deliberateness collapses, as it dawns on her that she doesn’t know how to do that––how much to give of herself, how much to take of him. We often ask of our lovers: tell me, am I enough? Am I too much?
“Don’t love her too much.
I am loving her too much.” (Beloved, 255)
I am loving her too much.” (Beloved, 255)
I remember Beloved, where we encounter the word “thick” to describe love, in Paul D.’s criticism of Sethe’s love. Like honey, cloying, close, hard to stand the smell. Or I remember The Bluest Eye: “love, thick and dark as syrup.” Something to smell, taste, “sweet, musty… everywhere in that house. It stuck… it coated.” (12) To Claudia, this variety of love is solely positive. It is a love of survival, that which cares for you when you are ill, resting on your forehead. To a child, no love is too close.
But grown lovers are not mothers doting on sick children. Sula is rightly concerned with her love becoming too thick. She seems frightened that she might be cloying, too. She knows there is an uncertain balance at play here, as with the loam itself, but she never does ask––am I enough? And if not, what is it that you want and need from me? And so Ajax never answers. He remains a statue in her perspective as much as ours.
A radical revision of this passage would allow Ajax to respond. What might he say? Might he say, as Beloved does, “I want you to touch me on the inside part… You have to touch me. On the inside part. And you have to call me my name.” (Beloved, 137) This excerpt between Beloved and Paul D. in the shed does not ostensibly suggest any intense connection between the two.
But Beloved nonetheless demands something of Paul D; the “I want” quickly becomes “you have to.” As skewed as some of the other power dynamics may first seem in this scene (Paul D. is decades older than Beloved), Beloved holds real power when she says, aloud, what she needs––again, “chartering a revolutionary demand.”
From a political perspective, Beloved’s demand is notable because it resists the socialization that Beloved has been brought into as a Black female subject in this era. Grandma Baby herself remarks that “slaves not supposed to have pleasurable feelings on their own; their bodies not supposed to be like that… they were not supposed to have pleasure deep down.” But Grandma Baby has taught her family that they should “always listen to [their bodies] and love [them].” (Beloved, 247) Beloved acts upon that lesson.
More, what Beloved needs is to be known and understood: on the inside part. Forget physical anatomy. Ajax could say the same. Further, Paul D. needs to call Beloved by her name. This is something Sula will fail to do: we discover just a few pages later that she never even knew Ajax’s full name.
Through the very end, as the structure of the italics remind us, Sula remains trapped within her own interiority even as we are privy to it. What happens in Sula’s head ignores what occurs between the italics, the sections that play out in front of her very eyes. We might read the sections that I, too, have ignored as components of a coinciding and interrupting conversation, one that never fully aligns and in which Sula never listens. Her eyes exclusively turn “inward,” failing to arrive at the give and take that she knows is necessary for a sustainable relationship. Thus this passage––with all its sweeping possibility––remains a missed connection.
And so it goes, more often than not––in Toni Morrison’s worlds as often as in our own, this incorporation I have longed for is often impossible.
Still, something tugs at me, recently. “Now I discover that in your company it is myself I know,” Toni Morrison says, early on in her eulogy for her friend James Baldwin. Not altogether detached from my mother’s quiet reminder is this assurance that even when we fail to know others completely we may nevertheless come to know ourselves that much better.
As Florens attacks the Blacksmith in the throes of the outrage and disbelief that come with the newfound and sinking knowledge that “I am nothing to you… that I have no consequence in your world,” only then does she fly. Part of everything. In this instant, Florens’ feathers finally lift; she “unfolds,” unraveling her own intricacies.
But Florens also tells herself, more than she tells the Blacksmith, “No. Not again. Not ever.” (A Mercy, 167)
She is wrong, I think. It may happen again. She should be prepared for that. But I also think with every bit nearer we find ourselves to our own “inside parts”––more nuanced and complex at each turn––the more capable we are of seeing others as they know themselves to be, too. Just as nuanced and complex and just as human.
No, Sula and Ajax will not exit their story with a total comprehension of one another and their capacity for incorporation, and yes that may mean they now understand themselves better, and that’s all fine and good, but the last and most essential piece is that they must also try again, because all this means that they may both be better equipped to come to know and feel others. Florens now perceives that the “claws of the feathered thing did break out because I cannot stop them wanting to tear you open the way you tear me.” (A Mercy, 187)
That undeviating wanting––to be torn open and to tears others open too––may bear us through. That is our limitlessness. And for that reason I remain attached to the drive towards incorporation as something worth wanting, worth trying for, however stubbornly, however impossibly.
I will never love like this again.
I will love better
but I will never love like this again.
This December I lay in bed as my watch made a whirring moon on the sunlit wall, her fingers resting on my throat again, and I was frightened. For I did not know what else I would have to show for all of this time. For the way we had one other and yet probably never would, and for the way we pretty much knew it all along.
I asked her to tell me the things that were right and she whispered: my body and your body
shoes on feet.
rings on fingers.
Is that good enough? Yes, that’s really good.
Neither of us had the heart to ask: you mean that’s it? Nights, too late, too much time gone behind us? And never the declaration, THE PROMISE of that Norwegian book we loved at eighteen and nineteen that I couldn’t make but printed out regardless and kept stowed in a cardboard box, like
I toss them away, I choose you, now, today!, forever, it has been you and I want it to be that way unforeseeably, I want to be yours, you mine, our lives, smash them together, so life, just one, I want to cry to you, and get angry at you for your neglect, and then make up, make love, wake up, on and on, wake up another morning, and another morning, and have it still be you, and then bike along these small wet streets with some sliver of awe that is this world and the sliver of awe that is you, and me, knowing and looking and seeing and hearing and having you, and all that too for you, me
you me you me you. You, you, you.