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Listening to Toni Morrison as well as Prozac

How I started to read fiction again for pleasure

It has often been said that reading Joyce’s Ulysses can snap a prospective novelist out of writer’s block.

But I have not heard a similar piece of advice for those who battle what one might call reader’s block.

As I have written in the past, we, homo sapiens, have only been reading and writing for about 5,000 years, which means that deciphering pictographs is relatively new to our species, compared to other human activities, such as speaking.

Of course, accomplished readers do not simply scan runes and interpret them.  We hear the music in the works of the greatest writers, the language artists.

We appreciate the aesthetic, cognitive and imaginative pleasures that come from deep reading.

That does not mean that these pleasures are other than difficult for most people. 

And then there are those of us, who suffer from severe depression, which can deprive us of the desire to do much of anything, let alone read or read well, an act that requires exquisite levels of concentration. 

Given all that, what do you do if you are deeply depressed?  How do you read under such circumstances?

In my case, I happened to stumble upon Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon at the Santa Monica Public Library not long after I moved to Los Angeles in 1994.

This was not the first time that a writer would have a significant impact on me.  No character has ever understood me with the depth that Hamlet does.  As Harold Bloom has pointed out, Shakespeare reads us more than we read him.

And few books have given me such serendipitous joy as Jerome Charyn’s Metropolis, a book about New York that I discovered one lonely day at a bookstore in New Haven.

Still, no novel has ever inspired me quite the way that Song of Solomon did when I read it in 1994.

I was aware of Morrison, who passed away earlier this week.  She had won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993, the year before I moved to Los Angeles.

And I was aware of Song of Solomon, one of her most noteworthy novels, whose title intrigued me.

I was quite fortunate that the version of the book I spotted at the Santa Monica Library in 1994 was a large print format for people, who have problems with vision.

That the print had a font size perhaps twice as large as usual made it more friendly and welcoming, not so much at a cognitive level as at a spiritual one.

I had long grappled with major depression, which, to be sure, involves a chemical imbalance; but major depression also involves a torment of the soul, an existential angst.  It can be so debilitating, as we all know, that it can lead to suicidal ideation.

I would in fact become suicidal in 1997 and 1999, a few years after I moved to Los Angeles, when I had my two psychotic breaks.

But in late 1994, I was new to L.A.; and, even though I was deeply depressed, I was at least somewhat excited to be embarking on a new adventure in my life.

So, what happened when I turned to the opening pages of Song of Solomon

I read a scene, at times hilarious as well as poignant, in which a man stands on the edge of a roof, while a crowd gathers on the street.

If memory serves, some people urge him to jump.  Others try to save him.  Still others can’t comprehend what is happening.

It was a brilliant set piece by Morrison, which took me into a world of barbershops and secret meetings; hate crimes (the 1950s murder of Emmett Till clearly served as a backdrop to the early chapters of the book) and vigilante justice; sexual desires that I had rarely read about, such as incest and breast-feeding; childhood friendships that could lead not just to betrayal but to murder; ghosts and witches; haunted houses and hybrid forms; and, of course, the famously lyrical writing style of the author.

As others have pointed out, many of the characters in Morrison’s prose seem traumatized, even spooked by the past. This was a point to which I must have related, perhaps subconsciously, when I read Song of Solomon.

The book enchanted me, in spite of or perhaps because of my depression, because of the trauma that I had experienced at the hands of my kindergarten teacher, a sadist in the Trumpian mold. 

As I wrote last year, my kindergarten teacher was a hatemonger and an anti-Semite, who wreaked havoc with my growing brain when she sent me repeatedly to the “dunce corner,” because I missed school for the Jewish High Holidays.

Toni Morrison was, of course, African-American, not Jewish, and a woman, not a man, but she was such an astonishingly intelligent writer, who had such deep insight into men, that I identified almost completely with her main character, Milkman.

He too was a traumatized soul, but, unlike some of the other characters in the book, Milkman perseveres.  He does not give up.  He keeps on fighting to find out the truth about his past, the truth about his people, the truth of the generations.

Morrison wrote the book partly from an omniscient point of view.  But there was no doubt that her protagonist was Milkman; and I was awed that Morrison could probe so deeply into the head and soul of a character of the opposite sex, always a challenge for a writer.

Most of all, I was captivated by the mythic dimension to her writing.  I loved the ghosts and witches, the characters who might or might not be hundreds of years old, whose bodies or body parts continued to grow into adulthood, and who were alleged to have the ability to fly all the way back to Africa.

Morrison once pointed out in an interview that she had heard stories when she was growing up about how black men could fly. 

It is a motif that recurs throughout Song of Solomon.

As the book proceeds, and Milkman goes on a quest for his roots, back to the South, back to the town where everyone seems to bear the same last name, it takes him even farther back, perhaps to a time when men named Shalimar could indeed fly.

Just as the book begins with an attempt at flight, it ends with another, during a final encounter between Milkman and a boyhood friend.

Will they fight to the death?  Will one of them commit suicide?  Can they fly?

I will say no more about the book, but, of the author, I will say that Toni Morrison could fly better than just about any writer around.

Her writing truly soared to the sublime, as she transmuted a vernacular style into the highest literary music.

She also got through to a deeply depressed man at a time when I was struggling not only to read, but to appreciate the years of humility and love, as well as hard work, that are required if one is to live a life of meaning or to be a writer.

To state the obvious, we can all benefit from reading the works of great writers, not least because studies have shown that reading literary fiction helps us develop empathy.

Tragically, we are living in an era when the chief executive of our nation does not read beyond a few bullet-points (and possibly only those that mention his name). 

It may be no surprise that this obscenely ignorant man feels no compunction about traumatizing little boys and girls, yanking them from their parents, detaining them in cages, and obsessing about the size of his crowds, TV ratings or some other metric, even in the wake of a slew of mass murders.

While Toni Morrison nurtured and elevated us with the beauty of her prose, Donald Trump savages us almost every day with his hatred and baroque solipsism. 

Despite his noise and the hell that Trump has inflicted on the most vulnerable in our society, we should try to keep in mind the blessings that can come from reading literature, like the novels of Morrison.

To invoke Harold Bloom once more, the eminent literary critic, our foremost reader, has always contended that the most sublime writers have an otherness, a strangeness, an originality to their voices and imaginative worlds.

These are the very idiosyncratic qualities that Trump rages against, when he castigates and otherizes African-Americans and Latinos, Muslims and immigrants, or when he drew a moral equivalence between neo-Nazis, who proclaimed that “Jews will not replace us,” and those who protested against the white supremacists.

Trump clearly hates the other, but it is this very otherness, this very strangeness, that enriches our country and can enlighten those of us who read literature.

It goes without saying that Toni Morrison, an artist of the written and spoken word, epitomized such otherness, such strangeness, with her unique voice and style.

She will always remind me of the magic of fiction; of the pleasures, however difficult, of entering the realm of a language artist; and of the importance of delayed gratification if we are to accrue the character and wisdom we need to thrive in this lifetime or any other.

These are lessons that the current occupant of the Oval Office has never learned.

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