Toni Morrison

Word-work is sublime

I found the perfect counterpoint for George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language.” Toni Morrison’s 1993 Nobel Lecture. It went over well in class, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in a more open, and yet just as powerful essay on language. It’s really great stuff. Here are a couple of snips:

The systematic looting of language can be recognized by the tendency of its users to forgo its nuanced, complex, mid-wifery properties for menace and subjugation. Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge. Whether it is obscuring state language or the faux-language of mindless media; whether it is the proud but calcified language of the academy or the commodity driven language of science; whether it is the malign language of law-without-ethics, or language designed for the estrangement of minorities, hiding its racist plunder in its literary cheek–it must be rejected, altered and exposed. It is the language that drinks blood, laps vulnerabilities, tucks its fascist boots under crinolines of respectability and patriotism as it moves relentlessly toward the bottom line and the bottomed-out mind. Sexist language, racist language, theistic language–all are typical of the policing languages of mastery, and cannot, do not permit new knowledge or encourage the mutual exchange of ideas.

. . .

Word-work is sublime, she thinks, because it is generative; it makes meaning that secures our difference, our human difference–the way in which we are like no other life.

We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.

I really enjoyed teaching this one today. I suppose I should add a postscript to my morning entry. I’m okay, folks. Sometimes, I just have to freeze little atomistic moments of terror in my own way. It was a bad way to start the day, but it turned out okay in the end. As Lou Reed wrote once upon a time, “there’s always work… the most important thing is work…”