Morrison, in her Nobel Lecture, gives her own take on an old story about an old, blind but wise woman in relation to the use of language. Morrison’s passage that references the Gettysburg Address serves as a rich source of analysis and overview of what she argues throughout her lecture. The use of historical references and personification serve to argue Morrison’s view of how language should be used as well as the place language has in our lives.
Morrison’s use of historical references highlights her personalized view of the place language has in society. In quoting an excerpt from Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, Morrison points out that language is simply incapable of recreating experiences, and in this case, the “reality of 600,000 dead men in a cataclysmic race war” (Morrison 3). In the beginning of the passage, Morrison emphasizes that language cannot be used in place of experience, but that it rather graduates towards truth. This point that she makes is enforced by her use of the Gettysburg Address quote in that Morrison recognizes that Lincoln is paying respects to language’s incapability to substitute reality. Morrison further references events involved surrounding the Gettysburg address such as “slavery, genocide, war” (Morrison 3) and how language can never truly “’pin down’” (Morrison 3) and recreate the true horrors brought by these events.
Morrison also personifies language itself to show how language should be used and the place that language belongs in our lives. She describes language as something that “can never live up to life” (Morrison 3). Morrison separates language and life experiences into two different realms in the overall scope of reality. While stating that language can never recreate the horrors in slavery and war, she also gives language personality by suggesting it shouldn’t “yearn for the arrogance” (Morrison 3) to be able to replace experience. Along with the idea that language can have arrogance, Morrison creates a dynamic that suggests language is often misused and encourages that the power of language be restricted. Morrison’s use of personification of language adds to its personality, breaking away from the binary that she constructed in that language is either dead or alive in the metaphor of the bird. Instead, Morrison gives new meaning to what language can be and gives it a free-flowing personality rather than a passive tool wielded by its users.
In personifying language, Morrison goes against her previous depiction of language as the bird in the story, showing the flexibility of the interpretation of language since she simply chose to have the bird represent language. Morrison suggests language’s “felicity” (Morrison 3) is a signal that it is reaching “toward the ineffable,” (Morrison 3) much like a graph can get close, but never touch an asymptotic limit. Language has and will inevitably be used crudely and has never been capable of capturing the grand emotional torment and pain brought throughout our world’s adversities, nor will it ever.
Morrison’s Nobel Lecture highlights one of humanities’ greatest achievements: language. Such a tool that can be used to spawn great societies, but also act as a facilitator in the downfall of life as we know it, is something that every user needs to be held accountable for using. She warns us about horrible things she has seen language be used for, like the oppression of voices and the masking of the horrors of evils lurking among us. In mapping the things Morrison believes is wrong with our use of language, she argues ways in which language should instead be used for as well as the role it should play in our lives.
To justify her arguments, Morrison employs historical references and personification of language to argue her viewpoints. This passage serves as a bridge between the horrible uses of language that the wise woman has seen and the beginning of the visitors’ monologue on language. No longer are the stomach-turning references mentioned after this passage, no longer is language only something that is guaranteed to be used as a weapon, no longer is language an afterthought of genocide and slavery. The passage is a turning point in Morrison’s lecture just as the Civil War acted as one of the most crucial turning points of United States history. Morrison believes language is ever so powerful, made apparent in her lecture but is also something often taken for granted. As Morrison puts it, we have been gifted with something incredibly sublime that we need to equally take responsibility in how we use it.
- Morrison, Toni. “Nobel Lecture.” The Nobel Prize. The Nobel Prize, 9 Jan. 2019.
I wrote this paper using the format I was taught throughout high school, where I have a thesis statement followed by body paragraphs that support the thesis, using quotes from the text to support my arguments and to illustrate my points. Something that helped me prepare to write this paper as well as understand the text better as a whole was class discussion, where everyone threw out what they thought of each passage and gave the text more meaning than I could have ever extracted on my own. One of the challenges I faced was understanding the text in the first place and being able to simply choose a passage and analyze it. I might use more time to extend and clarify some of my points to better convey my arguments of the picture Morrison paints with the passage I chose.