The Yonic and the Phallic

Thanks to the texts I’m reading this semester—specifically Pynchon and Yeats—I’ve had to pay more attention to phallic imagery than ever before. I started to pick up on some of this imagery in Toni Morrison’s Jazz, but I also noticed another kind of imagery, one that I didn’t immediately have a word for. I began to wonder what the female equivalent was of “phallic.” I expressed this curiosity to Brianne and she beat me to the Google-search-bar, sending me a few different links to websites discussing this exact topic. It seems that the choices we’re given are either the word “yonic” or “yoni” which originates in Sanskrit, or the currently more common word “vulvic.”

My reason for looping back to Jazz comes from the discussion in class the other day about the sexual overtones running throughout Dante’s Paradiso. More specifically, this example from the end of Canto X, “with one part pulling thrusting in the other,/ chiming, ting-ting, music so sweet the soul,/ ready for love, swells with anticipation” (123). These overtones of sexuality are more than simply the fulfillment of English professor/student stereotypes; similar images are also scattered throughout Jazz and can offer insight to the conversation between Dante’s and Morrison’s trilogy.

Weapons are usually phallic (surprise). Guns, knives, rockets, swords, etc.—all phallic. This was initially why Jazz drew my attention to images that represented a woman’s genitalia instead of a man’s. The moment came when I read, “And then Rose dear jumped in the well and missed all the fun” (99). I read this and couldn’t help but think, “Why kill yourself by jumping into a well?” The more I thought about it the more I realized that Morrison had purposefully given Rose Dear a method of suicide that employed yonic imagery as opposed to phallic imagery. It also seems to be a hint that her first name is “Rose,” referencing an intricately folding flower that is itself a yonic image. But wait, before I move on from the well image it’s really important to note that the well is described as, “a place so narrow, so dark it was pure, breathing relief to see her stretched in a wooden box” (101). Notice that even though it was the place of Rose Dear’s Death, the well is described with a tone that seems to describe not a violent grave but a preferable sanctuary.

The other major yonic image in Jazz is the Cave-like living quarters of Joe’s Mother, the space is described as a “natural burrow,” and the only way that Joe can investigate it is by, “Crawling, squirming through.” The image recalls the description of Joe’s birth, “This baby was not easy. It clung to the walls of that foamy cave” (170.) In the final chapter the narrator describes the living quarters, “That home in the rock…Nothing to be proud of, to show anybody or to want to be in. But I do. I want to be in a place already made for me, both snug and wide open” (221). Similar to the well, the cave where Joe’s mother lives is described as a place of comfort.

Now, what’s this have to do with Dante? If you can remember back to when we read Canto XVIII of Inferno in class, there was this image associated with Dante’s “Lower Hell.” In the Center of the diagram is a dark hole called “The Well.” Now, recalling the etymology of the word “pudendum,” does it seem at all coincidental that the entire diagram of lower hell could be seen as yonic? Or how about this image; does it seem coincidental that in order to go through Hell you have to descend into an increasingly narrow tunnel-like darkness? And, once you’ve gone through Hell, you begin to ascend the obviously phallic “Mount Purgatory” in order to get closer and closer to the Divine?

I think these images offer a good example of how Morrison is both pulling from Dante’s work and pushing back on it simultaneously. While she incorporates sexual overtones and images in a similar way, she inverts Dante’s associations with the phallic and the yonic. In Morrison’s Jazz the phallic images cause death and destruction—the gun that kills Dorcas and the knife that cuts her corpse—while the yonic images offer sanctuary, safety, and comfort.

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