- Toni Morrison: An Ethical Poetics by Yvette Christiansë
Reading Yvette Christiansë’s monograph is no easy task. Articulated in five chapters, the book opens with a long explanatory introduction and closes with an epilogue. The choice of an epilogue rather than a conclusion—as one might expect from a scholarly work—is indicative of Christiansë’s critical approach. The concluding part of a literary work—as the OED reminds us—the epilogue epitomizes the very nature of Toni Morrison: An Ethical Poetics. The book is a critical work about the art of writing, written in a style that is distant from scholarly technique and far more cognate with literary prose. Christiansë’s subtle formal choices playfully engage with Morrison’s oeuvre and its longstanding tradition of self-referential and self-aware writing. As Christiansë notes, “This book proceeds by reading Morrison’s fictions in terms of their ‘internal’ operations and moves to a consideration of their intertextual relations” (27). Engaging with both fiction and nonfiction and with the early and most recent works, Christiansë offers innovative critical readings of Morrison’s works. Rather than chronologically, this book engages with Morrison’s work thematically, resulting in a more organic, cohesive, and coherent approach. Early on, Christiansë spells out her intentions: “I am especially concerned to understand how Morrison transforms her thematics into an ethical poetics that increasingly tries to understand the relation of her writing to the production or reproduction of a canon and what being drawn into a canon also demands of her writing” (5–6).
The book’s main goal is a fascinating one; since Morrison’s oeuvre forcefully engages with the ethical, theorizing an ethical [End Page 553] poetics means rereading her work through an analysis that brings together form and content, ethics and aesthetics. Christiansë sets out her methodological approach by identifying three distinct but related levels of inquiry: the first “is that of figure and narrative. The second is that of metanarrative, which is also the level on which figures are intertextually linked to others. … [t]he third level is that of a poetic practice” (6). Morrison’s blatantly self-conscious writing is for Christiansë realized through the interrelations of these levels. However, sparse elements of guidance for the reader—in the introduction, and more so in the chapters—prevent a full grasp of the book’s foregrounding of an ethical poetics. Clear statements of intent, perhaps placed at the start of each chapter, as reminders to flag up the main lines of critical inquiry—without taking away from the book’s elegant and subtle form—could have helped lead readers.
The book widely engages with the question of language and eruditely draws from a vast array of critical traditions; postcolonial and postmodern theories are explored at length in the introduction with the aim to position the book and its critical stances within larger theoretical frameworks. From Marxian ideology and the Frankfurt School, to Ashcroft, Walcott, and Glissant, Christiansë skillfully outlines critical debates about language and its relations of “enclosure” within set systems (10). The book takes as its premise “Morrison’s own labor to find a language that resists history and its clichés, while making that history visible as the history of a language” (5). The Morrisonian concern with finding an adequate language to represent the African American experience—a language that is “race-specific or race-free” (10)—is Christiansë’s initial point of inquiry for reading Morrison’s works. The book’s aim is challenging and not unproblematic; as Christiansë reminds us, Morrison has extensively discussed the dilemma of language and writing referring to “the ‘racial house’ of thought, which lives only according to the ‘house rules’ of language. And she writes of ‘rebuilding’ the space that she occupies in this house so that it will not be a ‘windowless prison’ into which she has been forced” (8). The spatial metaphor of the house dominates Christiansë’s readings; starting from Morrison’s nonfictional essay “Home” (1998) to her most recent novel Home (2012), this book takes its readers on a journey through the Morrisonian...