This paper presents wildness as an agent that can free African-American characters from the toxic, controlling ‘tracks’ (e.g., rail, subway, exploitative record labels) of the City (Harlem). Although critics have explored the ways in which the City in Toni Morrison’s Jazz is oppressive, I discuss the oppression of citified tracking as a contradiction of the natural, spontaneous, and wild form that mimics jazz music. Although the characters face exploitation in the City, their deterioration is not a result of the City itself (sometimes a site of possibility and hope for African-Americans migrating North) but of the toxic ways in which they interact with the City. Ultimately, Morrison demonstrates the importance of maintaining one’s African-American Southern rural roots and of creating one’s own tracks. By examining the exploitation and subsequent healing the characters experience in the City, this paper suggests that African-Americans in present-day cities can overcome some of the oppression of capitalist urban centres by avoiding the toxic, urban ‘tracks’ that seek to control them. By discussing African-American issues of identity and individuality, especially in terms of their connection with nature, this paper contributes to narrative inclusivity and the merging of disciplines.
In Toni Morrison’s novel Jazz, nature and wildness provide an environment for self-discovery, contrasting the toxic environment of the City (in this case, the city of Harlem). Many critics have investigated the role of jazz music in the novel and the way that its improvisational style structures the narrative, but few have explored the relationship between jazz, wildness, and nature. Jazz and nature are both wild/improvisational and both lack rigid restrictions. In the novel, tracking—marking out or tracing a path (OED)—is a central motif. Characters follow and create tracks both in the rural South and in Harlem, but the way in which they track, as well as the consequences of their quests, differs greatly. While the novel’s tracking motif has been explored, the way in which Morrison emphasizes the importance of improvisatory, natural tracking as opposed to toxic, citified tracking remains untouched. I will argue that creating, rather than following, tracks is necessary in establishing an identity as an African-American. Vincent O’Keefe writes that readers should recognize “the potential oppression inherent in all track-making” (347). However, I shall argue that track-making becomes dangerous only when people fall prey to tracks that “spin you” (Morrison 120) like the tightly-controlled jazz of urban centres; track-making (and jazz) should be wild and spontaneous to escape the toxicity of the City. This paper will explore the textual evidence supporting the harmful effects of the City; employ a deconstructionist lens to examine the way in which traces of the past disrupt the urban lives of the main characters (Violet and Joe); and highlight Morrison’s portrayal of Wild as an exemplary character whose rogue lifestyle connects her to the epigraph’s indeterminate speaker, allows her to make her own tracks, and shows other characters the value of wildness.
Morrison uses nature in the text to connect characters to their African-American roots and their true identities, contrasting the rural South and the toxic urban North. Violet has been connected to nature since her birth in the South: her name is that of a flower that grows in the wild. Even her mother’s name is that of a flower: ‘Rose Dear.’ In terms of Violet’s teen years in the South, the narrator says that “[Violet] became the powerfully strong young woman who could handle mules, bale hay and chop wood as good as any man. It was there where the palms of her hands and the soles of her feet grew shields no gloves or shoes could match” (Morrison 105). This description is held in contrast to the woman Violet becomes when she moves away from nature to the City: as Hogue notes, “In the city, Violet becomes soft, weak, and crazy in contrast to the strong Violet from rural Virginia” (179). Even the most fundamental component of Violet’s identity is taken away in the City: people begin calling her ‘Violent’ due to her attempt to stab Joe’s deceased young lover, Dorcas (Morrison 79). In this way, the nature-loving, strong Violet is starkly different from the depressed and aggressive ‘Violent.’ Not only does Violet’s personality change, but she exemplifies the opposite of her previous positive qualities such as strength and toughness, demonstrating the toxic effects of the City.
The City is also toxic for Joe, as he forgets his past and abandons nature. Prior to Joe’s relocation to the City, the narrator says that he “loved the woods” (106). In fact, his connection with nature is so strong that everyone he knows is shocked when he decides to leave his rural home behind in favour of an urban centre. When Joe moves to the City, he forgets important aspects of his past. Joe is aware of what the old days with Violet looked like, but not what they felt like (36). During Joe’s search for Wild in the South, he walks past the rock formation and believes he hears “some combination of running water and wind in high trees” (176). The next sentence states that this is “[t]he music the world makes” (176). The narrator describes this music as hypnotizing, freezing, and gladdening animals and woodsmen, thereby demonstrating the power of these sounds and their ability to affect an individual’s feelings. Although the sound is actually Wild’s voice (177), Wild is equated with nature throughout the text. For instance, Joe conflates Wild with nature in his mind. He believes that “[m]aybe those were her fingers moving like that in the bush, not twigs” (37). Hence, Wild is not just immersed in nature but is nature, and Joe’s relationship with her becomes vital to his identity. Wild exemplifies a form of jazz that is free from the constraints of the City since she lives in and moves as freely as nature. In the urban City where Joe has moved to start a new life, he suffers a disconnect from Wild, from nature, and from his true self.
By severing Joe’s relationship with Wild/nature, Morrison demonstrates the resulting detrimental effects on Joe’s identity and reveals the toxicity of the City. Ultimately, Joe loses his way in the City, which is made most obvious by his cheating on his wife and, eventually, his killing of his young lover, Dorcas. Because Joe forgets his past, he occupies his time with Dorcas (36) and violates the advice his surrogate father Henry gave him: “I taught both you all never kill the tender and nothing female if you can help it. Didn’t think I had to teach you about people. Now, learn this: [Wild] ain’t prey. You got to know the difference” (175). However, Joe clearly forgets this advice in the City. As Andrea O’Reilly writes, “Wild is the woman [Joe shoots] and it is her death that Joe mourns” (163). The pain he feels is the repressed pain of his youth that he never acknowledged as a child. Joe states that he “wasn’t looking for the trail,” but instead, it was looking for him (Morrison 130). To clarify, Joe’s tracking of Dorcas is flawed because he fails to follow Henry’s example of natural tracking; instead, he follows the City’s tracks. Hence, Morrison emphasizes the importance of natural improvisation rather than following the prescribed tracks of the City, underlining the toxicity of Joe’s urban environment.
The narrator contrasts the capitalist environment of the City to life in the South, showing the ways in which the City can be toxic. Hogue writes that “Morrison notes… the loss with which African-Americans were encumbered as they left the rural South and migrated to the urban North, where they were affected more directly by industrial capitalism and modern American mass culture. In the city, they forget and therefore become disconnected from their past” (179). The narrator emphasizes this contrast between the country and the City: “[t]he woman who churned a man’s blood as she leaned all alone on a fence by a country road might not expect even to catch his eye in the City. . . . In no time at all he forgets little pebbly creeks and apple trees” (Morrison 34). Hence, the implication is that residents of the City become enamoured with its charms, forget nature and their past, and forget their true selves. In addition, the narrator writes that people do not bother to look up at the sun or stars in the City because they have been “made irrelevant by the light of thrilling, wasteful street lamps” (34). Juxtaposing the words “thrilling” and “wasteful” to describe an aspect of the City suggests that the City may seem glamorous and exciting but can also be toxic. As Hogue suggests, the capitalist nature of the City prevents residents from enjoying nature, which can cause them to lose themselves. In discussing the effects of capitalism and mass culture, Hogue writes, “[African-Americans] migrate to the city looking for the American dream, but it does not turn out to be paradise or salvation. Instead, they are exploited for their labor” (179). This exploitation is shown by Joe’s working day and night before he can acquire “hotel work.” Similarly, Violet is an unlicensed hairdresser who must accommodate the women whose hair she styles and suffer reduced wages (Mbalia 629). When speaking about the “citysky,” the narrator states, “I have seen women stir shirts into boiled starch or put the tiniest stitches into their hose while a girl straightens the hair of her sister at the stove, and all the while heaven, unnoticed and as beautiful as an Iroquois, drifts past their window” (36). Through the narrator’s voice, Morrison tells her readers that the sky has an important, even divine, significance, but its residents choose to ignore it because they are wrapped up in pursuits of the seductive City. This quotation could also criticize the person Violet has become as a result of living in the City, as she has left nature behind to start a career in hairdressing, and it emphasizes the contrast between nature and capitalism. Morrison criticizes those who value money over nature, as often occurs in capitalist urban environments. Joe and Violet are trapped in exhausting and unfulfilling careers because they believe they can achieve the American dream, but the text suggests that their lives were more rewarding in the past, as they were stronger and happier before they moved. Thus, Joe and Violet demonstrate the toxicity inherent in urban environments when residents become distracted by the allure of the City and follow its constricting tracks.
The City symbolizes the characters’ forgetting of the past and often causes them to lose themselves in its tracks, but self-directed track-making is still possible. The narrator comments on the controlling aspects of the City, saying that “[t]hat’s the way the City spins you. Makes you do what it wants, go where the laid-out roads say to. All the while letting you think you’re free; that you can jump into thickets because you feel like it. There are no thickets here and if mowed grass is okay to walk on the City will let you know” (120). This passage sets the City and the country in direct opposition: “There are no thickets here.” It also refers to the grass as “mowed” as if nature has been tamed. The narrator’s remarks demonstrate that the City is both rigid and toxic, that it does not allow for personal freedom or even freedom of nature. Additionally, the notion of the City “spinning” people shows that the City has premade tracks that its inhabitants are expected to follow, positioning it as a controlling entity. This description also likens the City to grooves in a jazz record (O’Keefe 340); the City is a place of manufactured jazz music that adheres to the desires of white record labels. The music produced there is no longer free, or ‘wild.’ O’Keefe states that the “City in the 1920’s is only warm and protective for those who follow its white-man-made, totalitarian ‘designs,’ or tracks” (337). The City manipulates its migrants into feeling “more like themselves” (Morrison 35), yet in doing so they forget what is truly important. However, Anne-Marie Paquet-Deyris points out that the City, in Jazz, “becomes an acting site of reconstruction, of potential and actual articulation of some traumatic traces of the past” (221). She notes that “[t]he cityscape is suddenly redesigned and redefined by this unexpected wave of Blacks flooding part of downtown Manhattan and protesting against white violence during the deadly East St. Louis riots of 1917” (222). These two opposing depictions of the City are both reasonable, and the true effects of urban living depend on the African-American inhabitants’ ability to track naturally. In a City of control, it is the City that makes the tracks. In a City of reconstruction, protestors create their own tracks; they become wild and no longer subscribe to the City’s will. This certainly applies to the characters in Jazz: the deterioration they suffer in the City is a result not of the setting itself, but of the way in which they interpret the setting and the degree to which they take control of their lives.
In the City, Violet and Joe are unable to create their own tracks because they are preoccupied with traces of their past from the South. The characters’ unhealthy fixations relate to Derrida’s concept of the trace. According to Philip Page, “For Derrida the trace designates the play or oscillation between a present, a thing-as-it-is, and an absence, an other” (56). In Jazz, the trace takes the form of the characters’ memories of their rural home because they become inseparable from their lives in the City. Joe subconsciously searches for Wild in the City by projecting her onto Dorcas. Page writes that “[Joe] loves Dorcas because… she for him is the trace of… himself” (57). Joe’s “presence is only understood, only exists, in terms of the play between it and his absent parents, his absent past, and therefore his absent self” (Page 57). Joe believes he needs Dorcas’s tracks to reconcile his past and expresses that he does not want Dorcas’s “hoof marks” to disappear from her face, as this would leave him with “no tracks at all” (Morrison 130). Joe’s tracking of Dorcas/Wild is made explicit near the end of the text when the narrator realizes that “[a]ll the while he was running through the streets in bad weather I thought he was looking for [Dorcas], not Wild’s chamber of gold” (221). However, Joe is “mistaken in his quest” (Page 57), as Dorcas will never be able to give him the maternal validity he seeks from Wild. Although he may not realize it, when Joe shoots Dorcas, he demonstrates that his life in the City is conflated in his mind with traces of his past because he believes he is shooting Wild (O’Reilly 163). In the toxic City, Joe allows his absences to become a present, hindering his relationships with others and his ability to heal.
Violet, too, loses herself in traces of the past because of her separation from her rural home. As Andrea O’Reilly suggests, in the City, Violet seems to exhibit symptoms of schizophrenia (368). She sees specific tasks being done, but she does not “see herself doing these things” (Morrison 22). She behaves in a manner that is socially unacceptable: for example, when she attempts to steal a baby (20) and when she sits down in the middle of the street (23), but most importantly when she tries to stab Dorcas’s corpse. Violet’s mental disconnect can only be healed once she re-establishes her identity. Page notes two closely-related reasons for Violet’s disconnect: her mother’s suicide and her incapacity to have a child (56). Both of these elements are remnants from Violet’s past in the South; they are traces, absences that create a presence. She initially does not want children (“never never have children” (Morrison 102)), but in the City Violet eventually becomes obsessed with the idea of having a child (20). She is unable to free herself from the traces of her past because she is caught up in these components of her identity, even as she resides in the City. This suggests that the City is not inherently toxic, but rather that it can become a hindrance to healing or growth when residents fail to reconcile their past. Moreover, just as Joe needs to accept the loss of his mother, Violet must forgive her mother. When Violet identifies with her mother’s feelings and understands her reason for ending her life, the two halves of her identity finally come together: she “noticed, at the same moment as that Violet did, that it was spring” (114; emphasis in original). By learning to forgive her mother, Violet is able to fill some of her cracks. Hence, the allure of the City becomes toxic to Joe and Violet, as they both inadvertently follow its tracks while they are lost in traces of their past. Joe cannot establish meaningful relationships because he is searching for traces of Wild, and Violet cannot move forward with her own family until she forgives her mother and accepts the possibility of becoming a mother herself. In Jazz, then, the City is a setting of toxicity when the characters are lured into its pre-made tracks instead of reconciling their pasts and creating their own tracks.
Wild is a character who embodies the improvisatory nature of jazz, emphasizing her freedom from control. The epigraph of Jazz is a quote from the Nag Hammadi, a collection of texts written by the ancient Gnostics; specifically, the excerpt derives from “Thunder, Perfect Mind,” which features an unidentified female speaker:
I am the name of the sound
and the sound of the name
I am the sign of the letter
and the designation of the division.
This epigraph points readers toward the significance of sound, especially Wild’s form of sound. Wild does not communicate in the same way the other characters do (by speaking), but she has a close relationship with sound. Mbalia writes that “jazz itself is wild” (625), and the two sounds Wild makes in the novel are laughter (Morrison 37) and song (177). Wild symbolizes a natural form of jazz music that is untainted by the constraints or commercialism of the City; instead, she is one with nature and its sounds, and her lifestyle is an extreme example of recovering the rural blues that threaten to be forgotten in the City. Natural jazz is wild, so Wild is literally “the name of the sound.” This is the model for freedom that Morrison is endorsing, as Wild manages to circumvent the control of any location.
Wild’s rogue lifestyle and unstable signification suggest that indeterminacy is crucial in creating tracks. According to Philip Page, “Rogueness is needed—the unpredictable, the uncentered, the undeterminable”; otherwise, he says, people can become static (60). Hence, rogueness is important in the novel, and the epigraph makes this clear from the beginning. The speaker of the epigraph is present and absent (and a series of other contradictions); likewise, in Jazz, Wild is “everywhere and nowhere” (Morrison 179). She exists only in traces. The first time Joe looks for her, he hears only “the scrap of a song” (177). The second time, he sees “four redwings [shoot] up from the lower limbs of a white-oak tree” (178). The third time Joe tries to find her, the narrator states that he attempts “to look closer for signs of her, recognizing none” (183). Finally, he finds the traces of her existence: a green dress, a rocking chair, cooking stones, earrings, a photograph, and so on, but Wild herself is nowhere to be found (184). As Page notes, Wild’s presence/absence exists in the interplay between signifiers and signified (the human being) (57). Although she is linked to several signifiers, they are not concrete and never lead directly to her. When characters see or hear the word “Wild,” it does not point to a tangible signified, since she is so elusive; people make assumptions about her based on her traces, but they do not truly know her. In addition, because Wild is separated from the City, she does not establish herself in society or embody the “American dream.” However, the fact that she is intangible and does not make a name for herself improves the quality of her life, as her form of track-making is superior to Joe’s. While Joe becomes trapped in and searches for others’ tracks, Wild creates her own, leaving traces upon which others stumble. Hence, Wild’s indeterminacy, suggested also by the instability of her signification, allows her to practice a natural and beneficial form of track-making.
Morrison validates Wild’s lifestyle, further suggesting that her separation from the City is acceptable and even preferable to urban life. Firstly, the fact that Morrison links Wild to the speaker of the Nag Hammadi text from the epigraph reveals her privileging of unconventional narratives. The Nag Hammadi was written by the ancient Gnostics, “a group whose knowledge has traditionally been ‘discredited’” (O’Keefe 333), and Wild is the Nag Hammadi figure of the text. Morrison states, “If my work is to confront a reality unlike that received reality of the West, it must centralize and animate information discredited by the West—discredited… because it is… information dismissed as ‘lore’ or ‘gossip’ or ‘magic’ or ‘sentiment’” (qtd. in O’Keefe 333). This quotation does more than express Morrison’s inclination to move outside notions accepted in the West; it also relates directly to Wild because characters in Jazz do not approve of or understand her life choices. The narrator states that during his search for Wild, Joe “saw himself pawing around in the dirt for a not just crazy but also dirty woman who happened to be his secret mother that Hunter once knew but who orphaned her baby rather than nurse him or coddle him or stay in the house with him” (Morrison 178). This description of Wild identifies her as “crazy,” and one of the prime reasons for this is that she does not abide by society’s norms and traditional gender roles. She does not stay in the house to look after her son, and therefore, she must be crazy. In addition, Wild “frightened children, made men sharpen their knives,” and prompted brides to leave food out for her (under the assumption she would otherwise steal it anyway) (178). Society is frightened by Wild because they do not understand her; her rogue existence is not an accepted option for women. Hence, including a text from the Nag Hammadi and establishing parallels between its speaker and Wild show readers the value of wildness and of existences that differ from those in the West. Secondly, when the narrator discusses Wild’s “home in the rock,” she says that she would like to live there even though the home is not necessarily desirable (221), further validating Wild’s habitat as opposed to the toxicity of Harlem. The narrator describes the cave as “both snug and wide open,” in perfect harmony with nature (221). O’Keefe writes that “[t]he burrow is where black characters are able to be reborn and together create new gnostic tracks” (345). This ties together the ideas of nature, improvisation (or wildness) rather than control, and therefore jazz, making Wild an exemplary character in the text.
Morrison also presents Wild as an embodiment of improvisation and jazz to promote connections between the African-American women through a sense of wildness, suggesting that they lose this bond in the City. Mbalia writes that Morrison focuses particularly on African-American women because they face “triple oppression” based on race, gender, and class (625). However, this oppression is ultimately a source of bonding among female characters in Jazz and something that they must learn to understand. Moving to the city in the 1920s provided an even wilder atmosphere than the South because Africans “forgot the necessity of communication” (Mbalia 627-628). Hence, it is necessary for African-Americans, especially women, to communicate with each other. In particular, Violet’s bonds with Dorcas’s aunt and guardian, Alice, and best friend, Felice, help her come to terms with her wildness and re-establish her identity. Elizabeth Cannon states that the first step in forming an identity as a subject is for women to recognize one another as subjects rather than objects (243). This idea of subjectivity is important in illuminating the dangers of the City’s controlling tracks; characters must become subjects to make their own tracks. Violet helps Alice cultivate her wildness and, in doing so, overcomes the societal constraints that kept her silent. At the end of the novel, Alice has learned to express some of the wildness within her which had been repressed for most of her life, and most importantly, she now creates her own tracks without living in fear. Similarly, Violet helps Felice to live her life according to her own rules. Violet asks her, “What’s the world for if you can’t make it up the way you want it?” (Morrison 208). Through this conversation, Violet demonstrates that following the City’s premade tracks is dangerous, stating that in doing so she “messed up [her] life” (208). Finally, toward the end of the novel, the narrator admits that she “missed it altogether” because she assumed that between Violet, Joe, and Felice, “one would kill the other” (220), inevitably recreating the scenario in which Joe killed Dorcas. She states that she previously believed that nothing could stop the past from repeating itself and that “no power on earth could lift the arm that held the needle” (220), suggesting that Violet, Joe, and Felice all heal because they reverse the predictable, City-made tracks that the narrator and society expect them to follow and create their own. Thus, Morrison shows readers the value of improvisation and wildness rather than being bound by the control of the toxic City.
Violet and Joe’s migration to the North causes them to forget about essential components of their past. They fall prey to the allure of the City, its energy tamed by white record labels, and overlook nature and the natural form of music that is connected to their African-American roots. The City becomes a dangerous place if residents follow its oppressive tracks and fail to make their own. For Violet and Joe, the traces of their past in the South hinder their ability to create tracks in the City. By presenting Wild as a rogue woman who leaves behind traces rather than searching for a trail, Morrison suggests that wildness can help characters escape the toxic, capitalist constraints of the City. Finally, the African-American women of the novel share a bond of triple oppression, being othered on the basis of sex, race, and class. Through learning to see each other as subjects, expressing (not suppressing) their wildness, and carving new tracks in the City, the characters in Jazz are able to heal and establish their true identities. Similarly, African-Americans in present-day cities can overcome some of the oppression of capitalist urban centres by avoiding the toxic urban ‘tracks’ that seek to control them.
Maria Theodora Diakantoniou
University of Windsor
1. For example, see W. Lawrence Hogue’s “Postmodernism, Traditional Cultural Forms, and the African American Narrative: Major’s ‘Reflex,’ Morrison’s ‘Jazz,’ and Reed’s ‘Mumbo Jumbo.’”
2. For a discussion of wildness in Jazz, particularly relating to female characters, see Doreatha Mbalia’s “Women Who Run with Wild: The Need for Sisterhoods in ‘Jazz.’”
3.See Philip Page’s “Traces of Derrida in Toni Morrison’s Jazz” and Vincent O’Keefe’s “From ‘Other’ Sides of the Realist Tracks: (A)Gnostic Narratives in Toni Morrison’s ‘Jazz.’”
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