(Novel) Song of Solomon by: Toni Morrison
(Reaction) Identity, Origin and the Urge to Fly by: Antonio Conejos
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Morrison's Song of Solomon can be seen as a quest for origins. Moreover, one's origin can define one's place in the world. Thus, Hagar, who is without a belly button, is shunned by society. A belly button of course is a physical manifestation of one's origin, that one came from a mother, who was impregnated by your father. Hagar stands outside of this natural order. Hence her step back from society and society's step back from her.
Milkman is also haunted by the question of his origins. This quest to discover from whence he came from is the driving force of the novel's plot. As the novel progresses, Milkman will turn his back on a comfortable life in order to root out the mysteries of his origin. Thus origin not only defines one's life but can become the purpose of one's life as well.
Indeed, there are motifs throughout the novel which indicate that Milkman's trajectory, his flightpath if you will, was always to discover the story of his ancestors. His youthful obsession with flight is a foreshadowing of the Song of Solomon; his great grand father's means of escaping America to go back to his native land.
Milkman is the ideal character for this exploration of the past as while he is an amalgamation of his past he is also capable of attempting to break free from the past. Thus he is somewhat divorced from the concerns of the other black characters in the novel (ie. Guitar and his conspirators). Instead, Milkman lives a privileged life, like his grandfather on his mother's side did. Further, he is adept at making money, as his father is. Milkman is certainly a product of his forbears.
Yet when Milkman leaves his home and his family he demonstrates that he is also a character oriented towards the future. He leaves home to find enough money to be free of his family, his friends, his cloistered life. This impulse to be of both the past and the future was already present in Milkman's childhood:
Not knowing where he was going - just where he had been - troubled him. Indeed, his life is marked both by looking back and looking forward,
It was all very tentative the way he looked, like a man peeping around a corner... Trying to make up his mind whether to go forward or to turn back.
Ironically though Milkman's quest to ensure his future results in a headlong fall into the past. Instead of finding wealth enough to make it on his own, Milkman discovers on his journey the rich story of his family - a story so rich that he eschews his plans to become his own man and instead wants to return to his family so that he can tell them what it is to be a Dead, and to fly.
However hewing too close to one's origin can also lead to a blindness for the future, a stunting of growth. This is what happens to Milkman's mother, who cannot let go of her own father and in a way foists the past on to her only son - hence her breastfeeding of Milkman (the origin of his nickname) well past the boy's infancy. Even Hagar, the most lucid (ironically) of the characters, misinterprets the charge of her dead father. Hagar is literally carrying around old baggage, the bones of her father. And she only finds peace when she finally understands that he (her father) has been telling her all this time to bury them. (Hagar, like Milkman, further illustrates how the past leads to the future which leads to the past.)
In the end, Milkman does not fully break from the past. Indeed, he reenacts his great grandfather's escape by choosing to fly. Whether Milkman's flight is successful depends on whether one judge's his great grandfather's escape as successful or mere whimsical myth.
Prior to Song of Solomon I had already read Morrison's A Mercy. While the two novels are dissimilar in setting, the themes in both are somewhat similar and are similarly complex. Honestly after the second book I became tired of the author's style. There's only so much vagueness I can take before wishing for a simple, focused plot.
Yes, Morrison's novels are complex but the untangling of such complexity is more tedium than fun. Admittedly this viewpoint may reflect more upon me as a reader than Morrison as an author and I won't deny that. I say more power to any reader who has the skill and patience to read, and comprehend, this style of implausible events colored by family prejudices which may, or may not, cohere together.
Perhaps the only person truly qualified to give an exegesis of the Song of Solomon is Morrison herself. Yes, I know the author is dead, not in the literal sense (at least as of this writing) but in the formalist-literature-theory/critic sense. Still, Morrison already starts to analyze her own work in the novel's Foreword which is a fine example of a writer applying her own critical lens to her own work.
All that said I did enjoy aspects of the book. There is one awesome line in Song of Solomon, memorable for its subtle critic of the holier than thou fundamentalist, popularly know as the religious right.
Southerners think they own Him [Jesus], but that's just because the first time they laid eyes on Him, He was strung up on a tree. They can relate to that, see.