Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Importance of Names

Song of SolomonSong of Solomon 
by Toni Morrison

"Milkman stood before his mirror and glanced, in the low light of the wall lamp, at his reflection. He was, as usual, unimpressed with what he saw. He had a fine enough face. Eyes women complimented him on, a firm jaw line, splendid teeth. Taken apart it looked all right. Even better than all right. But it lacked coherence, a coming together of the features into a total self. It was all very tentative, the way he looked, like a man peeping around a corner of someplace he is not supposed to be, trying to make up his mind whether to go forward or to turn back. The decision he made would be extremely important, but the way in which he made the decision would be careless, haphazard, and uninformed." (pp 69-70)

Song of Solomon is a brilliant synthesis of a mythic journey, family drama and story of origin. "When you know your name, you should hang on to it, for unless it is noted down and remembered, it will die when you die." And the scribbled no-name "Macon Dead," given to a newly freed black man by a drunken Union Army officer, has stained out a family's real name for three generations, and then we meet the third "Macon Dead," called "Milkman."

This is his story, that of Macon "Milkman" Dead, heir to the richest black family in a Midwestern town, as he makes a voyage of rediscovery, travelling southwards geographically and inwards spiritually. In some respects, Milkman's story is a classic Bildungsroman, a coming-of-age story about the moral and psychological development of the main character. However, Milkman is thirty-two when he finally comes of age, unlike traditional heroes and heroines of the Bildungsroman. In part, Milkman postpones his adulthood because he is comfortable as the pampered only son of an upper-middle-class family. But Milkman also resists the sense of connection and commitment to others that are required of adults. We see him thinking for himself -- questioning his place in the world:
"As the stars made themselves visible, Milkman tried to figure what was true and what part of what was true had anything to do with him." (p 75)

Through the enlightenment of this one man, his quest for identity, the novel recapitulates the history of slavery and liberation. The novel's epigraph reads, "The fathers may soar/ And the children may know their names." The importance of names and naming for Morrison's cast of characters, primarily Milkman's family, seems to exist in a name's ability to intimate or uncover hidden truths about personal identity. Morrison's use of the flight metaphor to bookend the story is brilliant as well. I found the story both entertaining and educational in the sense that I learned about a culture that was very different than my own. The differences were submerged beneath the similarities in relationships of family and friends that were like those of everyone everywhere.

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1 comment:

Brian Joseph said...

This sounds really good.

I like your point about the culture. One of the many great things about reading good books is the fact that we get to be exposed to other cultures and ideas.