Toni Morrison’s much acclaimed debut novel, The Bluest Eye (1970), examines the devastating effects of white supremacist values and aesthetic ideals on an African American community living in Lorain, Ohio in 1941. Perhaps more importantly, the novel also explores alternative aesthetic modes that form the basis for new ways of imagining racial identity in the post-Civil Rights era. Specifically, while Morrison’s novel reflects a blues impulse in its tragic-comic affirmation of Claudia MacTeer’s childhood experiences, it utilizes jazz aesthetics, specifically the techniques of “riffing” and “quoting,” as the means to extend a pointed cultural critique of the ideology of whiteness.
By “blues impulse,” I am referring to the creative reconceptualization and ironic re-presentation of pain (the tragedy of loss, of injustice, of mere bad luck) that allows such pain to take on not only a new meaning, but also a new ontological value. As the novelist and essayist Ralph Ellison has observed, “the blues is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism” (129). The blues impulse, in other words, seeks to find transcendence not in the detachment and abstraction of an “objective” explanation of tragedy, but in the rich density of subjective understanding that results from one’s protracted engagement with and creative reconceptualization of pain. Consequently, it is not merely the individual’s own painful experience that is altered through the blues impulse; the individual’s interpretive frame is also transformed. As Houston A. Baker puts it, the blues impulse offers new “interpretations of the experiencing of experience” (7).
Morrison explicitly highlights this interpretive potential of the blues during an early scene in which the narrator fondly recalls listening to her mother sing while cleaning house. Claudia explains that the “greens and blues in [her] mother’s voice took all the grief out of the words and left [her] with a conviction that pain was not only endurable, it was sweet” (26). Throughout The Bluest Eye, the tragic-comic perspective of the blues impulse allows the narrator to cultivate both a space of intimacy in the recollecting of her own painful experiences in childhood and a broader affirmative perspective on racial identity that challenges dominant social norms and values. In another scene, for example, the adult narrator looks back on an episode of childhood illness, locating in the experience a complex array of emotions, contradictory perspectives and interpretations. Notably, the scene initially emphasizes the child’s perspective: Claudia’s discomfort in a drafty room (“Once I have generated a silhouette of warmth, I dare not move, for there is a cold place one-half inch in any direction” ); her absorbed fascination with the strangeness of her own bodily excretions (“the puke swaddles down the pillow onto the sheet—green, gray, with flecks of orange” ); and her emotional and intellectual confusion as she attempts to understand the source of her mother’s anger (“My mother’s voice drones on. She is not talking to me. She is talking to the puke, but she is calling it my name: Claudia. . . . My mother’s anger humiliates me; her words chafe my cheeks, and I am crying. I do not know that she is not angry at me, but at my sickness” ). For the child, Claudia, the experience is painful largely because of her lack of control and her limited understanding. She does not, cannot, as a child, comprehend the fear in her mother’s tone or the frustration behind her mother’s words. For Claudia’s family, like most families in her community, life amounts to an existential struggle, a “peripheral existence” (17). As the narrator explains, “Being a minority in both caste and class, we moved about . . . on the hem of life, struggling to consolidate our weaknesses, and hang on, or creep singly up into the major folds of the garment” (17). It is only retrospectively that the adult Claudia can “squeeze” from her childhood experience a tragic-comic lyricism:
But was it really like that? As painful as I remember? Only mildly. Or rather, it was a productive and fructifying pain. Love, thick and dark as Alaga syrup, eased up into that cracked window. I could smell it—taste it—sweet, musty, with an edge of wintergreen in its base—everywhere in that house. . . . And in the night, when my coughing was dry and tough, feet padded into the room, hands repinned the flannel, readjusted the quilt, and rested a moment on my forehead. So when I think of autumn, I think of somebody with hands who does not want me to die. (12)
In this exquisite passage, we witness the dilation of interpretative possibilities. Pain is not divorced from love, but, as “fructifying,” is its material condition of possibility. Morrison does not attempt to resolve or relieve the child’s earlier experience of anguish through sentimentalism; on the contrary, the extended use of depersonalizing synecdoche in the passage is meant to distill the experience of love as a physical act. In Claudia’s blues, the initial ambiguity of linguistic expression gives way to the ontological density of physical tenderness: the explicitly auditory and tactile images “feet” and “hands” are experienced by Claudia as presences, the self-evident truth of “somebody . . . who does not want me to die” (12).
The emotional complexity of the scene of Claudia’s childhood illness effectively challenges the anemic white ideal of family represented by the Dick and Jane reading primer that opens the novel. Moreover, I would argue that this scene, like many others in the novel, codifies the blues impulse as a strategy for the ontological affirmation of blackness, more generally. If, as Ellison argues, the blues impulse is principally characterized by the commitment to working through painful experiences in an effort to find transcendence in tragic-comic lyricism, then it also implies a concomitant belief that psychic and somatic sources of pain may be powerful indices of one’s being. Morrison seems to suggest this idea when she describes the old women who come to visit Cholly’s Aunt Jimmie, women who give voice to a “threnody of nostalgia about pain” (137).
They licked their lips and clucked their tongues in fond remembrance of pains they had endured—childbirth, rheumatism, croup, sprains, backaches, piles. All of the bruises they had collected from moving about the earth—harvesting, cleaning, hoisting, pitching, stooping, kneeling, picking—always with young ones under foot. (138)
For these women, the various pains they have endured persist in memory as vital markers of their presence in the world and irreducible evidence of their “Becoming” (138). Painful experiences thereby form the phenomenological fabric onto which the patterns of memory, history, and identity are woven. By emphasizing the blues impulse as an affirmation of the ontological value of pain—and the complexity of human experience more generally—Morrison aims to critique oppressive ideologies that limit the scope of human experience and expression in the name of spiritual transcendence or aesthetic beauty.
Throughout The Bluest Eye, the ideology of whiteness is associated with a disavowal of complex emotional experience, and specifically, the attempt to discipline the body and the mind into conformity with a set of unrealistic, arbitrary, and oppressive standards. The character Geraldine, for example, represents a pathological adherence to the white (supremacist) ideal. Geraldine and women like her are said to live their lives in a state of somatophobic hyper-vigilance against what they perceive to be signs of threatening bodily excess, or what the narrator calls “Funk” (83): “Wherever it erupts, this Funk, they wipe it away; where it crusts, they dissolve it; wherever it drips, flowers, or clings, they find it and fight it until it dies” (83). A generic description of unruly and abject corporeality that “erupts,” “clings,” “drips,” and “crusts” is applied, finally, to its concrete manifestation in the black female body (“they worry, worry, worry about the edges of their hair” ). When identified in the bodies of women like Geraldine, such generic instances of funkiness—“the dreadful funkiness of passion . . . of nature. . . [and] of the wide range of human emotions” (83)—become legible as the peculiar markers of race. The disturbing implication for Geraldine is the impoverishment of her inter-personal relationships (notably with her husband and son) and the cultivation of racial self-loathing. Geraldine’s fear of bodily excess and her concomitant desire for corporeal containment have both resulted from and have been translated into unstable codes for deciphering and maintaining racial identity in relative proximity to whiteness. In Geraldine’s anxious formulation, “Colored people were neat and quiet; niggers were dirty and loud” (87).
Earlier in the novel, we are presented with the initial stages of this “conversion” into the ideology of whiteness as the discipline of hyper-cleanliness. Specifically, Claudia recalls being forced, as a child, to bathe in a zinc tub in preparation for wearing a new dress: “no time to enjoy one’s nakedness, only time to make curtains of soapy water careen down between the legs. Then the scratchy towels and the dreadful and humiliating absence of dirt. The irritable, unimaginative cleanliness. Gone the ink marks from legs and face, all my creations and accumulations of the day gone, and replaced by goose pimples” (22). The symbolic implications of the scene are unmistakably linked to the loss of self-expression, the devaluing of corporeality (in all of its forms), and the consequent narrowing of the interpretive potential for the “experiencing of experience” (Baker 7), both for oneself and within one’s community. Throughout The Bluest Eye, the blues impulse may be viewed, broadly, as essential to what Craig Hansen Werner calls the “individual expression and the affirmative, and self-affirming, response to the community” (xxi). Furthermore, according to Werner, we may view the novel’s interrelated “jazz impulse” as an elaboration of the blues impulse, in that it “provides ways of exploring implications, of realizing the relational possibilities of the (blues) self, and of expanding the consciousness of self and community through a process of continual improvisation” (xxii). If The Bluest Eye imagines new, affirmative terms for conceptualizing blackness, terms which emphasize the dignity of embodied existence, emotional courage and complexity, and the lyrical expression of pain, it locates these terms of self-affirmation within a broader, improvisatory cultural critique.
The two principle jazz techniques utilized by Morrison in the composition of The Bluest Eye are “riffing” and “quoting.” Musically, the concept of a “riff” implies a short figure or phrase that, when repeated, provides both a foundation (in the form of a recognizable motif) and a vehicle for improvisatory innovation through the means of revision, inversion, and parody. Henry Louis Gates Jr. has argued that the concept of “riffing” is a “central component” of both jazz improvisation and “Signifyin(g),” the term he uses to designate the technique of parodic revision and “troping” characteristic of African American discourse (114). An allied concept, “quoting,” generally refers to the intentional incorporation of well-known and thereby easily recognizable melodic source material into an original jazz composition or improvisation. Like riffing, quoting is a technique that exploits repetition and revision; however, the latter may produce even more dramatic effects because it may evoke an expression of what Gates describes as ‘resemblance by dissemblance’ (113). While quoting generally implies the brief inclusion of an extrinsic melody within a jazz solo as a kind of “inside joke,” we can extend the concept here to refer to the revision of a popular standard within a jazz context. In his discussion of this phenomenon, Gates cites the well-known example of John Coltrane’s 1965 jazz rendition of the Rogers and Hammerstein classic, “My Favorite Things” (1959) performed by Julie Andrews. The Coltrane rendition does not replace the original version; rather, through parodic revision, it offers a new perspective on conventional Western themes and idioms. Similarly, in his study of the poetry of Amiri Baraka, William J. Harris argues that jazz aesthetics, like that represented by the music of Coltrane, can form the basis for radical cultural and political critique. According to Harris, Baraka believed that by “shatter[ing] and twist[ing] and finally eradicate[ing] Western structures,” jazz aesthetics had the potential to “structure a new black world” (14).
In the opening of The Bluest Eye, Morrison quotes the 1940s Dick and Jane reading primer and then “signifies” on the text by repeating the same passage two more times, first without punctuation or conventional capitalization, and then without any spacing between words. The original lines, “Here is the house. It is green and white. It has a red door. It is very pretty” is finally rendered, almost illegibly, as “Hereisthehouseitisgreenandwhiteithasareddooritisverypretty” (Morrison 4-5). Morrison’s revision of the original work both shatters the textual surface and puts into question the ideological perspective that it represents. Though the words of each version remain identical, the collapse of the grammatical structures induce parodic significations based upon the tension between form and content, signifier and signified. The staccato, declarative statements that initially provide a window into white suburban security and promote the ideal of the nuclear family, dissolve, like the breathless notes of a careening saxophone solo, into the frantic articulations of a maddening and unrealizable desire. Throughout the novel, Morrison employs similar techniques to critique some of the more insidious elements in white supremacist ideology, particularly those that promote whiteness as the ideal of beauty.
Morrison explores the pathological cultural fixation on whiteness and its detrimental effects on African American girls, in particular, by introducing the child star Shirley Temple as a central figure or riff whose symbolic implications are examined through multiple repetitions and inversions. The riff is deployed soon after the introduction of Pecola Breedlove, a girl whose family had been put “outdoors” by her father, Cholly. Looking back, the adult Claudia explains that while Pecola and her sister, Frieda, “gazed fondly at the silhouette of Shirley Temple’s dimpled face” (19) on a cup of milk and “had a loving conversation about how cu-ute Shirley Temple was” (19), she “hated Shirley” (19). A central riff “quoted” from popular culture, the image of Shirley Temple on a cup of milk represents both a consumable image of white desirability (symbolism later reiterated in the image of Mary Jane candies ) and a kind of doppelgänger that interferes with the narcissistic development of Claudia’s ego. Crucially, Claudia’s jealousy stems not from the fact that Shirley is “cu-ute,” but because the culture’s adoration for Shirley seems to coincide with or necessitate her own displacement and invisibility. The narrator explains: “[I] hated Shirley . . . [b]ecause she danced with Bojangles, who was my friend, my uncle, my daddy, and who ought to have been soft-shoeing and chuckling with me” (19). For the young Claudia, who views racial features as simply the markers of familial belonging, Shirley’s dance with Bojangles represents a vexing disturbance in expectations, namely the exclusion of herself from her own mirror image.
As the foundational riff which concretizes the violent psycho-social process at the heart of white supremacist ideology, then, “Shirley Temple” encompasses both (particular) image and (universal) concept. It is not simply that Claudia hates this particular child actress; rather, the narrator explains that the initial aggressive response to the experience of displacement leads to the cultivation of a “hatred for all the Shirley Temples of the world” (19). By elaborating on this riff, Morrison attempts to make visible the psychic “conversion” (23) process whereby this outward aggression is redirected and ultimately introjected within the ideological fantasy of white supremacy. If, from a psychological perspective, Shirley Temple may be viewed as Claudia’s threatening image-double, the plastic “blue-eyed Baby Doll” (20) doubles Shirley Temple as a fetishistic icon of whiteness, embodying what the cultural theorist Slavoj Žižek has referred to as the “sublime object” (18) of ideological fantasy. Claudia’s inability to find meaning in the doll beyond its inert surface characteristics—the “hard unyielding limbs,” “bone-cold head,” and “starched gauze or lace” (20) of its dress (a dress reminiscent of the one she, herself, is sometimes forced to wear)—reflects the fact that she has not yet been successfully interpellated into the network of ideological codes that privilege “whiteness” as a transcendental signifier. Although Claudia intellectually understands that “all the world had agreed” (21) on the desirability of the doll, she does not yet identify with and consequently cannot comprehend that desire. Her destruction of the dolls may be viewed, therefore, as an unsuccessful attempt to uncover the elusive “sublime object” that she believes gives the doll a hidden, intrinsic value. Inside the doll, however, Claudia discovers only more extrinsic features—the “mere metal roundness” (21) of the disk that produces the doll’s sound, “like the bleat of a dying lamb” (21).
Although the Shirley Temple/blue-eyed Baby Doll riff undergoes many subsequent parodic repetitions and inversions throughout the text, it is in the image of Pecola’s baby, the product of an incestuous rape by her father, that its form is finally shattered. Claudia imagines the baby’s “living, breathing silk of black skin” (190) in contrast with the “synthetic yellow bangs” and “marble-blue eyes” (190) of the plastic doll, thereby painfully evoking resemblance through dissemblance. More importantly, Claudia’s desire for the baby to live—despite the horrific circumstances of its conception—reflects what Werner describes as the “expanding the consciousness of self and community” promoted by the jazz impulse (xxii). Reflecting on her reaction to the tragedy, the adult Claudia recalls: “I felt a need for someone to want the black baby to live–just to counteract the universal love of white baby dolls, Shirley Temples, and Maureen Peals” (190); however, she also recognizes her own responsibility in Pecola’s tragedy, admitting “We honed our egos on her” (205). Ultimately, Morrison suggests that the significance of the aesthetic impulses of blues and jazz exceeds the affirmation of the individual’s own experience of pain in the face of oppression. The forms of selfhood that these impulses make possible offer, in addition, a powerful source of ethical awareness and concomitant sense of accountability within the community itself.
Ellison, Ralph. “Richard Wright’s Blues.” The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison. Edited by John F. Callahan, Modern Library, 1995, pp. 128-144.
Gates, Henry Louis. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African American Literary Criticism. 1988. Oxford UP, 2014.
Harris, William J. The Poetry and Poetics of Amiri Baraka: The Jazz Aesthetic. U of Missouri P, 1985.
Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. 1970. Vintage, 2007.
Werner, Craig Hansen. Playing the Changes: from Afro-Modernism to the Jazz Impulse. U of Illinois P, 1994.
Žižek, Slavoj. The Sublime Object of Ideology. Verso, 1989.