Encounter Across the Abyss: Examining the Ontology of the Self in Toni Morrison's 'The Origins of Others'

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

The Origin of Others

Toni Morrison

(Harvard University Press)

September 2017

Out of all of the obvious and undeniable similarities among human beings (the overriding sameness that informs the simple biological status of humans as a species) and out of the variegated minor differences among them, humans have largely latched on to skin color as the basis for grouping some people together and separating them from each other (at least conceptually but more often also ethically, socially, and culturally), a basis for assigning relative value and worth, a basis, in short, for determining Otherness.

As Toni Morrison points out in her new book, The Origin of Others, there's no logical reason why an awareness of, even an emphasis on, difference need be a source of discrimination rather than a celebration of one's difference in relation to strata of available human traits, characteristics, and skin tones. And yet, she writes, "Descriptions of cultural, racial, and physical differences that note 'Otherness' but remain free of categories of worth or rank are difficult to come by" (3).

Despite the title of the book, Morrison does precious little to examine the origins of this propensity to differentiate in manners that lead to brutality, negligence, and the reduction of the Other as a means to an end. Even if she suggests that harmony across noted difference is a logical possibility, she seems to feel that inequity and violence are a nearly inevitable correlate of the search for difference. To "Other" someone is to designate that person as inferior, less consequential, and even less than properly human. If the two basic responses to difference are the celebration of Otherness or the denigration of the Other then both are predicated upon a deeper structuring impulse: the pursuit of Othering is the attempt to define the self.

Rather than explore such origins, however, Morrison turns toward the consequences of Othering through an examination of various literatures—the term "literature" here covering a huge swath of writings from novels and poetry to the records kept by slaveholders, excerpts from medical journals, slave memoirs, and Jim Crow laws. Interspersed throughout these discussions are various anecdotes from Morrison's life and allusions to her literary output.

Toward the conclusion of Chapter 2, "Being or Becoming the Stranger", Morrison describes a rather strange encounter she once had. She witnessed a stranger, oddly attired, fishing in the river near the fence of her property line. The lady was on the neighbor's property and claimed that, while she lives in a neighboring village, the owner of the property allows her to fish there weekly. Morrison looks forward to future conversations with this stranger, imagines what it will be like to invite her into her home, to laugh with her, to develop a friendship. But then the woman fails to return. When Morrison asks her neighbor about the stranger, the neighbor expresses shock and insists she has given no one permission to fish off of her property. Morrison begins to ask after the stranger and no one seems to know of her. "Little by little," Morrison writes, "annoyance then bitterness takes the place of my bewilderment" (33-34).

Morrison becomes frustrated, even angry, with the woman because this stranger has disturbed her equanimity, has intruded without excuse and vanished without explanation. This leads Morrison to conclude that the religious insistence on extending love toward the stranger and Sartre's declaration that such platitudes are "the very mendacity of Hell" (35) are manifestations of the same dialectic of attraction and repulsion. The three modes, according to Morrison, for working out that dialectic are literature, the image, and experience. Although she claims that experience can bypass literature and the image, she also insists that "these two godlings," as she terms them, "feed and form experience" (36).

Now this may strike one as a rather self-serving move for an author. Notice the trajectory of influence here is from art to experience and not, as we might assume, from experience to artistic expression and reception. Morrison claims that her initial and unwarranted affection for the strange fisherwoman derived from an image of her own creation (the fantasy that this woman could serve as her "personal shaman") and thus language and image were marshalled as a means of control—despite their countervailing capacity to "block the dehumanization and estrangement of others" (37). But in either case, whether for good or ill, Morrison posits language and image as the precursor to and the foundation of experience; they determine experiences rather than be determined by them.

This is where I find Morrison's approach to Otherness troubling. According to Morrison, literature and image have such outsized powers to shape and channel experience that they not only "blur vision" when they are accepted but even when they are actively resisted. In her attempts to resist the compulsion of media presentations of Otherness in her dealings with the fisherwoman, she nonetheless committed a kind of ideological violence upon her personhood.

The crux of the matter, for Morrison, is that her longing for the fisherwoman to fit some idealized image of the shamanic, friendly stranger was really simply "a longing for and missing [of] some aspect" of herself (38). This leads to her most sweeping claim:

"There are only versions of ourselves, many of which we have not embraced, most of which we wish to protect ourselves from…[This] is also what makes us want to own, govern, and administrate the Other. To romance her, if we can, back into our own mirrors. In either instance (of alarm or false reverence), we deny her personhood, the specific individuality we insist upon for ourselves" (38-39).

Now this is a slippery passage. Does Morrison wish to say "we tend to think there are only versions of ourselves"? In other words, is this an attempt to delineate a default epistemological/ ethical response in our dealings with others? She doesn't seem to entertain the notion that this is something we generally do but might not, given the proper self-awareness. Rather, she presents it as though she were uncovering an ontological truth of the human condition. But what is this truth? Is it that we only see versions of ourselves because we can only understand the world as though it mirrored the Self and thus, that which we don't like about ourselves gets Othered as foreign and despicable? The latter is explicitly part of her claim, of course. Or is the truth that we are, in our essence, no different from any other human, and thus seeing the Other is really just seeing ourselves, so that, ontologically, all difference is predicated upon a misprision of the Self? Is it a question of perception or reality?

Things only become more complicated with that last sentence. In both our attempts to govern or romance the Other, we "deny her personhood", we claim that our precious Selfhood does not apply to the Other. The Other is not a Self, but rather an object. But what is the nature of that Selfhood that we cherish but deny the Other? Are we all one Self mirrored recursively throughout our engagement with the seeming Other? Or are we autonomous subjects with an inherent right to the integrity of our Personhood and thus, in the deepest sense, all radically Other, unknowable to each other except through those fugitive acts of setting at risk the Self in an attempt to leap (a leap of faith, a leap of love) toward the inscrutable and incommensurable Other?

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions. But clearly something is amiss in the logic of her assertions. Her laudable sympathy for the historical and current victims of Othering combined with her conviction that literature irremediably shapes experience, leaves no room for an authentic confrontation with Otherness, a non-coercive and honest experience of difference. The danger that lurks behind a resistance to the experience of Otherness is the threat of a reduction to the Same—the very definition of a coercive act of erasure. Erasing difference is as much an ideological (and often physical) form of violence as the enforcement of subjugation through Othering.

Morrison would doubtless reject this understanding of her prose. Perhaps she would claim that the very power of language in dealing with slippery categories is its own intrinsic slipperiness, the vague splendor of poetry. Such a justification would ring somewhat hollow, given the flat-footed simplicity of her readings of various novels and short stories throughout these essays. Nonetheless such a defense simply doesn't withstand scrutiny. The passage under consideration (and it is one of the better moments in the book) is indeed ambiguous but that is precisely the problem. Saying nothing while seeming to say everything does not encourage an openness of experience, it forecloses it altogether.

The problem of the Other is not something that can be overcome and left behind in some utopian vision of harmony, nor can it or should it be erased through an assumption that all of the world is a reflection of the Self. As long as there are Selves there will be Others. Difference is not incidental; it's the foundation of existence and experience. Self and Other stare out at each other, with trepidation and longing, an encounter across the abyss that serves as the ontological divide that both underwrites and spurs on the quest for knowledge and for understanding. History is strewn with the bodies of the victims of Othering but the recognition of difference need not lead to the pernicious exercise of power. Othering is an inevitable consequence of looking out unto a world that is not merely our own reflection (if it were then no actual experience could occur); violence is a choice too many people of the past and of today have made in response to the recognition of difference. It's not our only choice.

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