- Layered Rhythms:Virginia Woolf and Toni Morrison
Writing and reading are not all that distinct for a writer. Both exercises require being alert and ready for unaccountable beauty, for the intricateness or simple elegance of the writer's imagination, for the world that imagination evokes. Both require being mindful of the places where imagination sabotages itself, locks its own gates, pollutes its vision. Writing and reading mean being aware of the writer's notions of risk and safety, the serene achievement of, or sweaty fight for, meaning and response-ability.—Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark
I See Your Face, Toni Morrison, possibly the best novelist in America today, when people ask, "What does it mean that you wrote your M.A. thesis in the early fifties on suicide in the works of William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf?"1 Do such people want to inflict the "anxiety of influence" on you? Or perhaps is it that they want to be sure that your writing will be seen as a part of the Great Western [End Page 483] tradition? What is the purpose of securing a link between you and William Faulkner, as Harold Bloom did in his introduction to an edition of collected essays on your work? Or between you and Virginia Woolf, as the program of the Third Annual Conference on Virginia Woolf suggests?2 Why must you be studied in relation to such writers, icons of twentieth-century European and Anglo-American literature? Is it that as an African American woman writer, clearly a "genius," you must have a Western white literary father and mother? Not just any white father, but one such as Faulkner, who, as Ralph Ellison has put it in Shadow and Act, was one of the few Anglo-American writers to fight out "the moral problem [of Negroes in America] which was repressed after the nineteenth century" (43). Not just any white mother, but one such as Virginia Woolf, who is now clearly situated in the canon: as modernist, satisfying the twentieth-century Great Books requirement;3 as feminist, satisfying the needs of twentieth-century women scholars.4 You have commented on this tendency among critics. Your own words are a cautionary preface to our project:
My general disappointment in some of the criticism that my work has received has nothing to do with approval. It has something to do with the vocabulary used in order to describe these things. I don't like to find my books condemned or embraced as good, when that condemnation or that praise is based on criteria from other paradigms. I would much prefer that they were dismissed or embraced based on the success of their accomplishment within the culture out of which I write.
I am an African American woman critic who wrote about your work before you were celebrated and who has, despite critical trends, maintained my sense of your writing as an African American woman. Please allow me to invent a fiction as you do in your novels—in this case, a fiction about you and Virginia Woolf—for fictions can be beneficial, imaginative, even transforming. Because I know this is an invention and I worry about "notions of risk and safety," I will rely primarily on your words and Virginia's in the charting of my invention. I am inspired by your and Virginia's different, yet related projects—layered rhythms I call them.
I see you in the early fifties, a colored graduate student when colored meant black, pacing yourself through Cornell, squinting your eye at that famous suicide point on the campus where too many students took their lives. I see you, a colored girl who, a few years before, had changed her name from Chloe (a name in America associated with blacks) to Toni (an androgynous name), because even folks at Howard University had trouble pronouncing it. I find [End Page 484] that an instance of serendipity, for Virginia Woolf used the name Chloe in her fictional representation of Mary Carmichael's novel in A Room of One's Own—"Chloe liked Olivia," pointing to Shakespearean characters, even as she disrupted bourgeois heterosexuality (86).