Morrison and the Other

“I am the speech that cannot be grasped.
I am the name of the sound
and the sound of the name.
I am the sign of the letter
and the designation of the division.”

Toni Morrison utilizes this excerpt from “The Thunder, Perfect Mind” from the Gnostic manuscripts in the Nag Hammadi Library as the epigraph of her novel Jazz. The entire poem is made up of paradoxical statements by a first person identifier, such as “[…] I am the first and the last” and “I am war and peace.” The poem is believed to be the voice of the divine, which would explains its all-encompassing assertions.

Our class juxtaposed a reading of this poem with a listening/viewing of Prince’s music. (An interesting parallel to here draw is that we are studying Morrison’s trilogy, alongside Dante’s three-part Divine Comedy, and the excerpt we watched from the 1984 film, Purple Rain, included three songs.) Prince’s set included, in this order, the songs “Purple Rain,” “I Would Die 4 U,” and “Baby I’m a Star.” I wonder whether or not this somehow parallels the order of Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. The coincidence is striking.

I was initially struck by Prince’s lyrics that mirrored the paradoxical statements of “The Thunder, Perfect Mind,” especially the opening of “I Would Die 4 U” which says, “I’m not a woman. I’m not a man.” In this case, the speaker is both man and woman, or neither. Something other. The speaker of the Gnostic poem also fluctuates between describing themself as masculine and feminine, pushing them into the category of Other.

Considering the domestic violence subject matter at the heart of Jazz, I am brought to contemplate the role and perception of women. Historically, Christianity has been troubled by women; citing the Fall of Adam and Eve (for which Eve is blamed), women had been labeled as Other. The Christian Bible states, to paraphrase loosely, that women should be obedient and subservient to men; their involvement in the church was minimal, excepting attendance. On an even more personal level, though, Christianity feared the female body and so promoted virtuosity (aka chastity and near invisibility) by means of covering up the body and remaining mostly exempt from the public sphere. As this will be my first time experiencing Jazz, I will be interested to see if this plays a role in the story and with the characters.

Dr. Beth also mentioned that Morrison’s interest in the Gnostic poem may lie in “the expansion of possibilities for women,” due to the interplay of masculine and feminine. This creates an interesting trail of thought when juxtaposed with Christianity, because God is most often referred to as Him. The pronouns are generally always male; he is the Father and Jesus Christ is the Son. While it is important to note that the society and culture in which Christianity is founded was patriarchal and thus, it is only rational that the Creator would also be male (since female was to be Other and male was to be superior or acceptable), this means that the foundation has already been laid. If Jazz continues to be in conversation with the Abrahamic faiths, I wonder if Morrison will subvert this male/female power dynamic, or if we will see it in recursion.

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