- Lovesick in the Time of Smallpox: Romancing the State of Nature in Toni Morrison’s A Mercy
[Florens] assuaged the tiny yet eternal yearning for the home Lina once knew where everyone had anything and no one had everything.Toni Morrison, A Mercy (2008)
Thus in the beginning all the World was America, and more so than that is now; for no such thing as Money was any where known. Find out something that hath the Use and Value of Money amongst his Neighbours, you shall see the same Man will begin presently to enlarge his Possessions.John Locke, Second Treatise of Civil Government (1690)
If in the beginning the whole world was America, Locke understood that in the late seventeenth century a great part of it still remained in the circumstances he defined as the state of nature.Herman Lebovics, “The Uses of America in Locke’s Second Treatise of Government” (1986)1
While many of Toni Morrison’s novels could be characterized as quest narratives, none—besides perhaps Song of Solomon (1977)—seems to follow the conventions of the archetypal quest narrative as closely as her ninth novel, A Mercy (2009), in which the main protagonist, Florens, goes on a treacherous journey filled with various obstacles and dangers while in search of something she is certain will ultimately prove salvific; encounters an unexpected yet helpful Samaritan along the way; and finally finds that much-sought-after thing. In this case, that something is actually [End Page 223] someone: the freed black medicine man/blacksmith who has the means to cure her mistress, Rebekka, of smallpox and Florens of her lovesickness.
Although the blacksmith is a person, I construe him as a thing for three reasons: The first reason is that Florens’s abandonment issues around her mother are partly responsible for producing his desirableness and her desire to possess him—that is, his thingness. Explaining Jacques Lacan’s notion of the psychological phenomenon das Ding, Peter Schwenger writes, “[D]as Ding is not merely a part of another as physical object; it is a Thing in one’s psyche that has come into being with an object’s loss. Das Ding, then, is both the lost object and the psychic dynamics formed around its absence.”2 Throughout the novel, it is clear that Florens sees the blacksmith as someone who can fill the void her mother left when she, at least from Florens’s callow point of view, gave her up so summarily and inexplicably to a stranger when she was only a little girl.3 The blacksmith is the “savior” she seeks for the good of her mistress’s health, but, more importantly, for the good of her own self-esteem and happiness.4 As a consequence, the second reason why I figure the blacksmith as less a person than a thing is that, for all of his importance to Florens, he is never granted the power of narration. We don’t get access to his own subjectivity, because of Florens’s obsession with him. The third reason is that, by conceiving the blacksmith as a thing quested after, he becomes situated in an array of things considered desirable and ostensibly possessable by an enslaved person (Florens, in this case).
Thus, in placing him within this set of an enslaved person’s desirables, I hope to understand what it means for an enslaved person to want a lover—of all things!—before (and, more importantly, more than) she wants freedom. In other words, if one might characterize the main thrust of the slave narrative (albeit reductively) as a quest, fundamentally, for freedom, then what might we imagine and summarize the enslaved person’s quest to be for before the advent, popularity, and political motive of the slave narrative? What does an enslaved person’s desire for something other than freedom tell us about human desire, the enslaved, freedom, and American slavery prior to its being made peculiar to black people? To adapt Frederick Douglass’s famous chiasmus about how he was made a slave and then became a man, in this essay you shall see how a budding slave was made into a...