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Book review: “Song of Solomon” by Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison’s 1977 novel Song of Solomon is one of those great works of literature that demands re-reading. 

Once through isn’t enough. There is just too much going on for a reader to absorb.

It’s like a complex piece of music — like a Beethoven symphony or a Bach cantata — that brings great pleasure in a single hearing.  But, even as it ends, the listener wants to hear it again, soon, to be able to pay better attention to its subtleties, its themes, its relationships, the way this section talks with that section, the way one section sets the stage for another.

Song of Solomon is like that.  After finishing my first reading of it, I want to read it again, soon.  I will wait a time, though, to let my first impressions simmer, as it were, ripen, mature.

Even so, I have some ideas about what I will want to look for when I next read the book.

A new scripture

A major thread in Song of Solomon is the Bible, but not the Bible of institutional belief systems.  Morrison is using the Bible for her own purposes.

Consider one of her key characters, Pilate Dead, the aunt of the central figure Macon Dead III, known as Milkman.  Her name, the reader learns early in the novel, was chosen by her illiterate father by putting his finger down at random on a page of the Bible.

She is nothing like the Pontius Pilate of the Bible (at least, I don’t think so), the Roman Governor of Judea who, at the behest of a screaming crowd, sentenced Jesus to crucifixion.  Indeed, she could be seen as the antithesis of that bureaucratic power-wielder.  Pilate Dead, who does not have a bellybutton, keeps her hair cut very short, wears men’s boots and has a ring in her ear that holds a small box containing the piece of the page of the Bible on which her father pointed to her name.

She lives a life on her own, travelling around the country for decades, before ending up in the northern Michigan city along a Great Lake, probably Detroit, where her brother, the second Macon Dead, lives.  With her lives her daughter Reba and Reba’s daughter Hagar.

More Bible names.  But, as with Pilate, these women don’t seem to relate directly to their biblical namesakes — i.e., Hagar doesn’t seem to act like the one in the book of Genesis.

It appears in these cases that Morrison is evoking the Bible in a deeper way — that she is asserting for her characters the thick warp and woof of a biblical-kind of history.

She is placing them into a story of biblical richness that echoes the scripture but also comprises a new book of scripture.

A clear direct parallel

And, then, there are all the references to Solomon in the second half of the book.

There are, for instance, the Solomon of a children’s song, a man named Luther Solomon, a place called Solomon’s Leap, Solomon’s General Store and the Solomon of an origin story of a group of people, new from slavery, who settled in an area of Virginia.

As with the other names, these Solomons are references to the Bible but also take part in the creation of Morrison’s new scripture.

In addition to this, though, the origin story includes an account of its Solomon acting like a king and returning to rule in Africa — as the biblical Solomon ruled in Jerusalem.

So here there is a clear direct parallel of a Morrison character to a biblical character.

And not only a parallel of those two, but also with Milkman.

Song of Solomon and The Song of Songs

The title of Morrison’s novel, of course, calls to mind the book in the Bible called The Song of Solomon or, more commonly, The Song of Songs.

As with the name Pilate, there doesn’t appear to be a direct parallel here:  The Song of Songs is a beautiful, erotic, evocative collection of ancient poems that deal with the intense and intensely lustful love of a young man and young woman.  By contrast, Song of Solomon is the story of Milkman searching to find out who he is.

However, one way to read Song of Solomon is as a journey that Milkman takes in order to find — and love — himself. 

In other words, the biblical book is about two people falling in love (and, by the way, having a hard time getting together in the same place), and the Morrison novel is about one person falling in love with himself.

A black love story

This line of thinking can be taken even further. 

Song of Solomon could be read, not only as the story of Milkman learning to love himself, but also as a parable about American blacks learning to love themselves despite all the negative messages that the white mainstream sends their way. 

In the course of Morrison’s novel, there is not a single white person who utters a sentence.  References to white people are few and far between.

The most frequent references along those lines have to do with a group of black men who form an assassination squad.  When a black person in the United States is killed by some white person who is not prosecuted by the authorities, a member of this squad goes out to carry out a similar, random killing.

Yet, this squad is a small part of the novel.  Overwhelmingly, Morrison’s book is about black people interacting with black people — black people who form, shape and, at times, distort each other’s lives. 

Throughout the novel, there are moments when men and women speak to each other about the black experience, not as a sociological phenomenon, but in deeply personal ways. 

It would be possible, I suspect, to highlight all of these passages and group them together into a dialogue about how blacks, given their circumstances in America, act toward each other for good and ill.

Flights, journeys, odysseys

A final note about a thread to look at in a re-reading of Song of Solomon:

There is a lot in the novel about flight.  Indeed, the book opens with an insurance man leaping to his death from the roof of Mercy Hospital.  There are other physical leaps like that, taken by some of Morrison’s characters.

There is a legend about one great black man flying, like an angel.

Pilate and her brother flee when their father is murdered by whites greedy for his farm.

And the entire second part of the book is about Milkman’s odyssey — a flight from his disagreeable life and toward gold.  He thinks he will find the precious metal, but he eventually learns that he is discovering something much more precious:  himself.  (It’s worth noting that the two lovers in The Song of Songs in the Bible spend most of their time searching for each other.0

I’m not sure how all those flights fit together.

What is clear to me, though, is that the important part of the flights is not the reaching of the end.  The important part is about the flight itself, the journey.

Song of Solomon is about many journeys, many flights, many odysseys, going on back and forth throughout history and in each character’s life.

I’m looking forward to join those journeys again, soon.

Patrick T. Reardon

10.14.19

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