"A Music Seeking Its Words": Double-Timing and Double Consciousness in Toni Morrison's Jazz
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“A Music Seeking Its Words”
Double-Timing and Double-Consciousness in Toni Morrison’s Jazz

“ . . . the music the world makes has no words . . .”

Jazz 1

W.E.B. Du Bois claimed that American blacks possess a double-consciousness, “two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body,” with neither necessarily triumphant. 2 Representing an African, an American, a male and a female, this African-American body becomes the site of endless, dialectic hierarchy. Blackness is associated with violent dichotomy, with what Charles Johnson in Middle Passage refers to as the transcendental American split between spirit and matter, and between observer and observed. As the unreliable Captain Falcon articulates the stakes, the self always contains a double at war with itself:

For a self to act, it must have somethin’ to act on. A non-self—some call this Nature—that resists, thwarts the will, and vetoes the actor. . . . Well, suppose that nonself is another self? . . . . Conflict is what it means to be conscious. Dualism is a bloody structure of the mind. Subject and object, perceiver and perceived, self and other—these ancient twins are built into the mind . . . . They are signs of a transcendental fault, a deep crack in consciousness itself. Mind was made for murder. Slavery, if you think this through . . . is the social correlate of a deeper, ontic wound. 3

Johnson’s book makes these crucial connections between white representations of an allegedly transcendental nature and the dualistic consciousness of slavery. For Johnson, the white conception of a unified nature fails because American society has always been fragmented racially. Where Middle Passage ostensibly focuses on the American Renaissance, and its transcendental faults, to depict contemporary America, Morrison’s latest novel more pervasively roots American modernism and post-modernism in the interplay of two American Renaissances. In Jazz, through an even more complexly unreliable narrator, Morrison reconfigures Johnson’s transcendental American fault, this crack in language and space, as a projected attribute of a Modernist black consciousness. With some reservations, Johnson argues that the [End Page 451] African mind, before its exposure to the West, only experienced a “Unity of Being”—one suspiciously reminiscent of an imagined but never achieved transcendental American sublime—and no split between self and world. When rendered dual, i.e. American, this mind is remade for murder. By contrast, Morrison initially accepts and uses the attributed double-consciousness of Western blacks to launch a critique back at the West; once that end is achieved, she removes the onus of double-consciousness from her characters and leaves it to be divided between her narrator and readers.

For the characteristically transcendental American mind, double-consciousness always entails a metaphoric bondage to some overriding other—one’s violent possession by an other self, a sentient Nature or City, or a phantom narrator. In Symbolism in American Literature, Charles Feidelson identifies these possessive Modernist traits as already emergent in American Renaissance literature; as he writes of the transcendental pantheist, “in order to become-god possessed, [they] deny a personal god. By the same token, in order to unite themselves with nature, they also deny personal identity.” 4 American transcendentalists and pantheists imagine a self possessed by the transcendent force of nature, and thus a fragmented and often amputated or literally divided self whose body and will are almost entirely possessed by external agency. Transcendentalism and Modernism are then two stages of an exigent American double-consciousness, both of which generate a series of ungoverned bodies, of arms and hands with wills of their own. Double-consciousness becomes a form of endemically American self-alienation and self-expression. In Morrison’s conception, blacks become nature-possessed, City possessed, narrator possessed, and music possessed, and seem to be denied personal identity and bodily integrity as a consequence.

In its broadest sense, double-consciousness demarcates the American psyche as a house divided. America is the nation that fragments itself from its mother country and thus becomes an orphan/amputee; it wages war upon its own house; and it is perpetually doubled and divided from itself. Black double-consciousness then updates, and for Morrison emerges coterminously with and is indissociable from, what Emerson and Melville perceived as a...