How Toni Morrison Hunts the White Whale

Dan Grossman on Toni Morrison’s The Origin of Others

Why aren’t literary critics on the nightly news? America has become a battleground over what makes a sympathetic character. Our president is a walking symbol to lost mythology. Our national debates are subterranean battles over narratives that ricochet from anxious individuals to angry groups and back again. It’s Literature 101: the self doesn’t just enjoy hearing stories, the self is a story, which is why threats to that story can feel like life or death. The American electorate, which snoozed and sparknoted its way through high school, now goes berserk over what it ignored in English class.

Luckily, there’s Toni Morrison. Anyone seeking a lens on the current discord should pick up her recent essay collection, The Origin of Others, which touches on the psychology of slavery and resurgent nationalism in an age of migration. Morrison is rightfully celebrated for novels such as Beloved and Song of Solomon, but it’s a shame that her nonfiction is not also required reading. Few readers know that Morrison has developed powerful theories about the origin, mechanism and impact of whiteness—or the fabrication of racial identity—in America. At a time when overt racism has spread from fevered corners of the Internet to the presidency, a study of Morrison’s insights is both overdue and urgent.

Morrison has always anchored her project in literary criticism, and yet few writers make that phrase seem as expansive as Morrison. In her preface to Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992)—a book that explores the “Africanist presence” in works by Cather, Hemingway and Faulkner—Morrison charts the vast scope of her enterprise:

I want to draw a map, so to speak, of a critical geography and use that map to open as much space for discovery, intellectual adventure, and close exploration as did the original charting of the New World—without the mandate for conquest. I intend to outline an attractive, fruitful, and provocative critical project, unencumbered by dreams of subversion or rallying gestures at the fortress walls.

It’s hard to imagine a more ambitious metaphor than the discovery of the New World, and it speaks to Morrison’s sense of boundlessness as she voyages into unknown waters of race and American literature. Yet right after portraying herself as a literary explorer, Morrison swears off “dreams of subversion or rallying gestures at the fortress walls.” The refusal of direct activism isn’t a sign that her work will be apolitical. How could it be when she seeks to uncover the “the thunderous, theatrical presence of black surrogacy” in the works of canonical white writers and to show “the impact of racism on those who perpetuate it”? Rather, she’s political but non-interventionist. Instead of issuing a moral judgment on artworks, a thumbs-up or thumbs-down as to whether it’s good or bad in terms of contemporary morality, Morrison carefully teases out the moments when authors reveal a buried truth about themselves or their society. Whereas our knee-jerk response is to turn away from problematic works, Morrison the cartographer keeps her hand on the ship’s wheel and says, Shhh, watch what we’re about to find. The results are extraordinary.

The most enriching discovery of Morrison’s project comes from Moby-Dick, Herman Melville’s 1851 epic about Captain Ahab’s deranged hunt for a white whale. In an unanthologized lecture called “Unspeakable Things Unspoken” (1988), Morrison notes that for decades Melville’s exclusively white critics lavished attention on the philosophical, religious and economic symbolism of the white whale, all while neglecting its adjective. True, Melville never discusses “white people,” but he’s certainly obsessed with the color. In a chapter called “The Whiteness of the Whale,” Melville indexes all the symbolic uses of whiteness throughout history, from the joyful white stone of the Romans to the sacrificial White Dog of the Iroquois, and concludes that “no man can deny that in its profoundest idealized significance [whiteness] calls up a peculiar apparition to the soul.” Later he describes it as “a colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink.” For Melville, the terror of whiteness springs from absence, springs out of the specter of nonbelief and nothingness. This whiteness first and foremost represents an abyss of meaning that stares back into every person, but it’s not unreasonable to think it also applies to race, a subject very much on the nation’s mind in 1851. Melville’s father-in-law decided in the court case that made the Fugitive Slave Law and, as Morrison notes, Melville had already written books criticizing missionary ventures. Ahab can’t be a totem of capitalism, since he redirects the ship’s financial motive in order to pursue his “supernatural revenge” against the white whale. So we’re left with the adjective. As Morrison writes:

We can consider the possibility that Melville’s ‘truth’ was his recognition of the moment in America when whiteness became ideology. . . . Ahab, then, is navigating between an idea of civilization that he renounces and an idea of savagery he must annihilate, because the two cannot coexist. . . . [I]t is white racial ideology that is savage and if, indeed, a white, nineteenth-century, American male took on, not abolition, not the amelioration of racist institutions or their laws, but the very concept of whiteness as an inhuman idea, he would be very alone, very desperate, and very doomed. Madness would be the only appropriate description of such audacity.

Critics sometimes view Ahab as a personification of the devil, but Morrison casts him in a more ambiguous light: as the hunter, and the victim, of white supremacy. He wakes up to the savagery of white racial ideology, but the savagery is in him, literally, since his leg, chomped off by Moby Dick on a previous voyage, is a prosthesis of whalebone; and figuratively, since “what Ahab has lost to [the white racial ideology] is personal dismemberment and family and society and his own place as a human in the world.” The result is the self turned against the self, a cycle of maniacal loneliness in which Ahab contains what he must destroy.

If Morrison’s take is an anachronistic misreading, then it’s a breathtakingly inspired misreading, one that keeps me up at night. And it receives corroboration from an unlikely source: D.H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature, published in 1923. In his spastic commentary on Moby-Dick, the British modernist writes (or screams) about the sinking of Ahab’s ship:

Doom! Doom! Doom! Something seems to whisper it in the very dark trees of America. Doom!
Doom of what?
Doom of our white day. We are doomed, doomed. And the doom is in America. The doom of our white day.

What really backs up Morrison’s argument is not just what Lawrence says about “the doom of our white day” but how he says it. He sounds like a Captain Ahab of literary criticism. It’s as if thinking about “the doom of our white day” and taking hold of Ahab’s metaphoric vessel causes his planks to burst and his sentences to shipwreck into churning fragments. In this passage Lawrence is both the hunter and the hunted (“our white day”), and Ahab’s suicidal mania finds its reflection in his unhinged prose. Unsurprisingly, Lawrence’s prophetic doom did not become the standard interpretation of Moby-Dick.

Lawrence finishes the essay as follows. Remember that he’s writing ninety-six years ago:

To use the words of Jesus, IT IS FINISHED.
Consummatum est! But Moby-Dick was first published in 1851. If the Great White Whale
sank the ship of the Great White Soul in 1851, what’s been happening ever since?
Post-mortem effects, presumably.


Presumably. Now that America has elected its first White Whale president, Morrison’s analysis seems even more prophetic. Her view that “the trauma of racism is, for the racist and the victim, the severe fragmentation of the self and has always seemed to me a cause (not a symptom) of psychosis” has been amply demonstrated by the ever-mounting rage and ever-diminished sanity of the far-right. Again and again in The Origin of Others Morrison is struck, appalled, left dumbfounded by the psychology of racists. Examining the “gothic” world of slave-owners, she writes, “How hard they work to define the slave as inhuman, savage, when in fact the definition of the inhuman describes overwhelmingly the punisher. . . . The necessity of rendering the slave a foreign species appears to be a desperate attempt to confirm one’s own self as normal.” For Morrison, there are no strangers in life, only “versions of ourselves,” and thus the desperate entanglement of rage, self-loathing and brutality—with hate serving as a preemptive strike against self-hate. We’ve stepped into a psychological underworld that looks nothing like Gone with the Wind and a lot like the tortured mind-caves in Dostoevsky. Morrison’s analysis of irrational white hatred in America reminds me of what Fyodor in The Brothers Karamazov says about a neighbor: “He never did anything to me it’s true, but I once played a most shameless nasty trick on him, and the moment I did it, I immediately hated him for it.”

There’s an even sharper lesson here. To fight the whiteness of the whale requires Ahab to fight, and thus fragment, his own self. Of course most white people today are unlikely to command a nineteenth-century whaling vessel or feel as inexorably savage as Ahab, but something lingers, and that something is the whiteness of the whale—its emptiness, its legacy of brutality and the madness of looking into it. America’s racial system was designed for white people to look out at the world, at the “others,” but never back in. Back in holds a toxic zero, an identity that one cannot proudly claim without cruelty and, if contemporary politics are any indication, derangement. It’s “the colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink.”

How does one emerge from the maddening knot of self, ideology, and world? In a different though connected way, The Origin of Others charts a path out—or through. Morrison shows that projection, anger and, entanglement are not exclusive to any one group, and that understanding these impulses at their deepest level is the first step to defusing them. These are universal impulses with varied contexts and historical dynamics. In the essay “Being or Becoming a Stranger,” Morrison tells the story of a black fisherwoman who appeared on her neighbor’s seawall, wearing men’s clothes and holding a homemade fishing pole. Morrison chats with the witty fisherwoman for fifteen minutes and imagines inviting her over for coffee and embarking on a delightful friendship. Later she asks her neighbor about the fisherwoman and discovers that no one has ever heard of her. The fisherwoman never returns. Morrison feels by turns confused and annoyed, amused and bitter.

I try to understand the intensity of my chagrin, and why I am missing a woman I spoke to for fifteen minutes. I get nowhere except for the stingy explanation that she had come into my space. . . . and had implied promises of female camaraderie, of opportunities for me to be generous. . . . Now she is gone, taking with her my good opinion of myself, which, of course, is unforgivable.

What’s most striking is how closely Morrison follows the psychological stages of her reaction, how sharply she gazes at her own needs and justifications. “My instant embrace of the outrageously dressed fisherwoman was due in part to an image on which my representation of her was based. I immediately sentimentalized and appropriated her. Fantasized her as my personal shaman. I owned her or wanted to (and I suspect she glimpsed it).” “Owned” is a provocative word given its historical echoes, but it’s of a piece with Morrison’s thinking. Morrison always brings it back to the self, to its vacuums, its thirsts for meaning, and the bone-deep insecurities that drive it to possess others. “It took me some time to understand my unreasonable claims on that fisherwoman,” Morrison writes. “To understand that I was longing for and missing some aspect of myself.”

If you’re looking for anything this searching and revelatory from contemporary white writers on race, you’d come up short. In a recent interview with The Telegraph about winning the Man Booker Prize for his novel Lincoln at the Bardo, George Saunders said, “Slavery was a great karmic debt that hasn’t been paid back and it won’t be paid back until white people pull their heads out of their asses.” I know this was only an interview, but I can’t help linger over Saunders’ tone here. After the elegant phrase “karmic debt,” Saunders turns into a high school baseball coach and urges his team to get its act together. Karma is a religious word that in Hinduism refers to retributive justice based on following the moral order. So Saunders not only jumps from eloquence to colloquialism but from a problem with spiritual dimensions to an answer that’s coarsely secular. But what could he say? What terms do we possess even to describe solving the enormity of a “karmic debt”? The problem breaks our language. “I almost despair,” Melville writes in his 200,000-word book, “of putting it in a comprehensive form. It was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me.”

In truth, you can’t talk about the future of whiteness in America without looking at the abyss. More than uttering platitudes about how “love trumps hate,” you must dig into what is most unspeakable for all humans: loneliness and insecurity, death-terror and loss of meaning. Only from that core—and only by accepting full moral responsibility for yourself and your world—is there a chance of becoming one of the rare authors who, as Morrison writes, “have searched for and mined a shareable language for the words to say it.”

What happens when the script breaks apart? What happens when the forms you’ve relied on and the stories you’ve told no longer hold sway? What should you do? Well, you head to open ocean. You log off, and return to first principles. You preach compassion, and keep your gaze on the suffering around you. You create a theology of highest things without the wickedness of what came before. You excavate your greatest fears. You take an ax to your frozen sea. You read Melville. You read Morrison.

Dan Grossman lives and teaches in New York City. His essays, travel pieces, and short stories have been published or are forthcoming in Tablet, The Millions, and Jewish Currents.