Consciousness, Literature and the Arts




Volume 7 Number 3, December 2006


Bringing Experience to Life and Life to Experience: Conscious Experience and Representation in Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon



David Pendery  

National Chengchi University, Taipei


How small is the cosmos…how paltry and puny in comparison to

human consciousness, to a single individual recollection…


Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory




Toni Morrison’s portrayal of interaction and development within black communities, black families and the lives of black individuals—their evolving relationships, their histories as processes of discovery and recovery, the construction and reconstruction of their identities—has yielded immensely rewarding fruits during her career. A principal way these intertwined themes are brought to life in Morrison’s Song of Solomon (1978) is through her multi-faceted descriptions of conscious experience—the interconnectivity of communal consciousness, the intimate links of family consciousness, and the flamboyant world of individual consciousness. Morrison has described her writing approach as access to “the structure that transparently (and invisibly) permits the ordered life it contains to exist in the larger world” (“Playing in

the Dark” 17). Such a description could apply to the constituents of and relationships among individual and collective consciousness.

In this paper, I will examine Morrison’s portrayals of conscious experience in Song of Solomon, applying theories of consciousness and cognition, as well as narrative theory (though ostensibly disparate, the two disciplines often cohere), in order to illuminate Morrison’s narrative technique and themes. I hope to show that Morrison’s depictions of consciousness in Song of Solomon bring her characters vividly to life, and that these conduits of awareness and cognition in turn bring life to the experience of readers.


Conscious Experience: Theory and Definitions

Although a complete scientific understanding of consciousness is an ongoing project, the constituents of conscious experience (including emotion, memory, cognition, mental imagery, communication, the sense of self, and qualia—the rich phenomenology of sensory experience) have been cataloged relatively comprehensively, and ever-more intricate and complete theories of consciousness are being developed. Further, an intuitive conception of consciousness is easily grasped, and descriptions of conscious experience and conceptions of self in literature are quite common. We thus have an inventory of research and prior practice on which to draw.


Mikhail Bakhtin, while usually not interpreted in light of consciousness and the novel, in fact forecasted key elements in this area. His conceptions of dialogism and diverse voices (heteroglossia) that “[lie] on the borderline between one-self and the other” (Bakhtin 293) create a platform for “specific points of view on the world, forms for conceptualizing the world in words…each characterized by its own objects, meanings and values” (Bakhtin 291-292). Bakhtin’s words capture several key contours of consciousness as it is now understood, and the following list of his “basic types of compositional-stylistic unities” of novelistic discourse (Bakhtin 262) further touch on elements of consciousness (and by connection, consciousness in the novel) that I shall examine in this paper:

·        Direct authorial intervention

·        Oral everyday narration

·        Written everyday narration

·        Additional extra-artistic authorial speech (moral, philosophical, scientific, oratory, ethnographic descriptions, memoranda, etc.)

·        Individualized speech of characters[1]


Bakhtin’s factors describe 1) the influence of the author’s own consciousness on conscious experience expressed in the novel; 2) the roles of oral and written language in novelistic discourse, and which are in turn linguistic productions which play a central role in human conscious experience; and 3) incorporation of varied characters’ points of view and perspectives (“individualized speech”), encapsulated in both first person experience and reflection, and third person report, variations of which play important roles in interactive themes of consciousness that I shall examine. Note how Bakhtin’s narrative elements could be applied to phenomena “associated with the notion of consciousness,” according to noted consciousness researcher and theorist David Chalmers:


one sometimes says that a mental state is conscious when it is verbally reportable [oral narration, written narration]…. Sometimes a system is said to be conscious of some information when it has the ability to react [intervene] on the basis of that information, or, more strongly, when it attends to that information, or when it can integrate that information and exploit it in the sophisticated control of behavior[2]


Bakhtin’s inventory provides us with a valuable general view of the elements of consciousness in the novel.[3] In addition to the above, David Chalmers provides a register of more specific constituents of conscious experience. According to Chalmers, the varieties of conscious experience can include, singly and in combination the following qualities (Chalmers concedes that the list below is “pretheoretical, impressionistic” [The Conscious Mind 6], but his list of these elements of consciousness are very common and can be applied within other more rigorous theoretical models to enable more concise and complete analysis):

·        Sensory experience (visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, taste)

·        Pain/bodily sensations

·        Mental imagery (the “inner eye”)

·        Conscious thought (thoughts, beliefs, interior dialogue, memory)

·        Emotions

·        Sense of self[4]


The above is largely a list of the qualia of consciousness. Chalmers also theorizes about the underlying structure of consciousness and posits a fundamental congruence between conscious experience and human awareness. He writes:

…wherever we find consciousness, we find awareness. Wherever there is conscious experience, there is some corresponding information in the cognitive system that is available in the control of behavior, and available for verbal report. Conversely, it seems that whenever information is available for report and for global control, there is a corresponding conscious experience. Thus, there is a direct correspondence between consciousness and awareness. (“Facing” emphasis added)[5]


Chalmers' theory seems to describe the “lighting in a bottle” quality of the novelist’s ability to convey (in a novel, a “verbal report,”) the vibrant world of human consciousness (awareness), and in turn captures readers’ conscious experience in response to novelistic discourse (readers’ experience a “corresponding conscious experience” in response to “information available for report and for global control” provided in the novel). Such reader/writer interaction has been much considered over the years, but applying a view such as Chalmers’s may be the first time light has been shed on this relationship as a form of interactive conscious experience—light which is perhaps sketchy in this brief characterization, but which we shall see is reflected in several other conceptions employed within consciousness studies, such as intentionality, tracking, communal intention and interactive intentionality (this last my own term) to be discussed below.


Viewed through Chalmers’s lens, novelistic discourse takes something of a snapshot of conscious experience in all its rich intricacy and perceptual possibilities—and can be seen as an extension of human consciousness (or we may say an artifact of human consciousness) that “[creates] fictional models of what it is like to be a human being, moving through space and time” (Lodge 14). Below we shall see how Toni Morrison brings these conceptual possibilities to life in Song of Solomon.


In addition to these ideas, theories of the narrative construction of self and consciousness are now very well established, and these ideas can be usefully applied to Song of Solomon (and, for that matter, all of Morrison’s work, which so strongly centers on themes of identity and awareness). At the most basic (even, possibly, evolutionary) level, human conscious experience stems from “a natural preverbal occurrence of story-telling,” and this may in turn be implicative in humanity’s impulse to convey conscious experience in literature (Demasio qtd. in Lodge 14). Daniel C. Dennett has posited a “Multiple Drafts of narrative” organization of conscious experience, which are assembled into a “center of narrative gravity” in the brain (see Dennett “The Self as the Center of Narrative Gravity,” and Dennett and Kinsbourne). Dennett has also written that “the process of self description,” an interior narrative comprised of “the acts and events you can tell us about, and the reasons for them,” which “begins in earliest childhood and…continues through life…is what we are” (Kinds of Minds 156, emphasis in original). Dan Lloyd has conducted recent studies of consciousness and posited that “every moment of every brain is a story unto itself,” and that “brains and stories do seem to have a powerful metaphorical connection. Both unfold worlds” (332). Lloyd recommends a flexible interpretive approach to analyzing the “abstract space between the narrative of one’s life and the matter in which the narrative is inscribed” in consciousness (331-332). John Bickle, similarly, refers to the concept of self-consciousness as “the creation and expression of a story,” by way of a person’s conscious and unconscious interior dialog, which is a series of “continuous self-constructing linguistic productions” (199) that are “created and expressed by the narratives generated by constant activity in the brain’s language production and comprehension regions” (198). Owen Flanagan sums up the essence of human consciousness interacting and ultimately representing and re-representing narrative worlds, and creates a fascinating turn of phrase that could stand for the novelist’s craft itself when he writes, “thoughts, whether turned toward the external world or to the organism itself, are enriched with complex anticipatory models of the nature of what we are about to meet, and they are steeped and dyed in waters rich with information about the self and past agency” (182).[6]

Clearly theories of consciousness and self as narrative construction or discourse are amenable to application in the study of literature. The study of feedback loops of narrative structure and production, linking novelistic discourse—which provides humanity with “a record of human consciousness, the richest and most comprehensive we have” (Lodge 32)—and reader’s own conscious experience—as they engage in the interactive experience I have described above, and later, when they put down the novel, digesting and reflecting on their reading experience—may unite conscious studies, cognitive science and the study of literature in richly detailed new ways.


Keeping in mind that language itself is a central constituent of conscious experience (what Dennett calls the interior “spoken language of thought—an offspring of our natural, public language” [Kinds of Minds 147, emphasis in original]), we can expand the above conceptions into a deeper understanding of novelistic discourse as an extension (an artifact) of human consciousness.[7] Dennett, citing the work of Richard Gregory, has examined the human use of language as a mind tool that not only requires intelligence but also confers intelligence, strengthening an “inner environment that permits [humans] to construct ever more subtle generators and move testers” as elements of conscious experience (Kinds of Minds 99-100). The creation of novelistic narrative can be viewed in this light—as one apparatus in humanity’s linguistic toolbox, allowing for ever richer and more refined personal and collective conscious experience, “conferring” yet more intelligence and understanding along the way. These considerations can better be understood in light of a key concept in philosophy and consciousness studies: intentionality. According to Dennett, things with intentionality “[aim]…at whatever it is the phenomena are about or refer to or allude to” (Kinds of Minds 36). Intentional systems “contain a representation of something else” (Kinds of Minds 35), a “generative, indefinitely extendable” representational system (The Intentional Stance, 35), dependent on language, by which we ultimately conceive of, plan for, and interact with these other things. To return to our considerations of language, at the most basic level, language as a mediator of conscious experience in humans—which represents conscious experience and phenomena within intentional settings—strengthens the conception of the novel as a genuine artifact of consciousness. We can in this language-based view comprehend the novel as a method used by humans to “off-load” cognition and consciousness into their environments (internal and external, personal and public) in order to “store, process, and re-represent…meanings” (Kinds of Minds 134-135) and create interpretive mental maps enabling the understanding of “otherwise imponderable, unnoticeable metaphysical possibilities” (Kinds of Minds 146).

We can see that consciousness and the novel are linked in intricate and revealing ways that often overlap. Discourse and description in novels seem well-positioned to reflect and portray the entire range of conscious experience, from vivid qualia to the deeper elements of consciousness—cognition, memory, beliefs, values, mental imagery and sense of self. Many of these experiences can be fleeting and inconsistent in normal human life and awareness, but novelistic narrative provides us with a comprehensive, concatenated, stable picture, allowing us to “possess the continuum of experience…in a way we are never able to in reality” (Lodge 32, emphasis in original).[8] We will also see that Morrison’s Song of Solomon features a plethora of detailed depictions of the varied qualities examined here, which I shall turn to in the following inquiries.


Conscious Experience in Song of Solomon: Themes and Methods

Throughout Song of Solomon, readers are treated to a fascinating array of surface qualia and deeper conscious experience, which Morrison focalizes through individual and collective conscious experience, and which play out within her themes of bearing witness to the disturbed past of the black people, exploring division within a family that has lived through that past, and chronicling personal quests to reconstruct splintered identity. To create the conscious experiences that imbue Song of Solomon not only with vibrant, directly-encountered realism (Morrison the realist), but also ethereal themes and experiences (Morrison the magical realist), Morrison first accesses her own consciousness and experience. In short, Morrison is the “intrinsic” source of the “derived intentionality” of the consciousness experiences expressed in the novel (the conception of “intrinsic” and “derived” intentionality is taken from John Searle in Dennett, Kinds of Minds 50-55).[9] In Song of Solomon, Morrison’s own consciousness and experience become that of the characters in her novels—they are “filtered” through Morrison’s consciousness, as it were. This is in a real sense a method of conjecturing about the experience and consciousness of others, a distinguishing element of human consciousness. Dennett writes that “one uses one’s self-consciousness as a source of hypotheses about the other-consciousness…because one gets into the habit of adopting the intentional stance toward others” (Kinds of Minds 120). (I shall re-interpret this conception into my similar idea of interactive intentionality, below). We see the fruits of this conception in the way that Morrison’s work manages varied points of view, and in turn creates “a convincing sense of what the consciousness of people other than ourselves is like” (Lodge 30).[10]


In the following two sections I will examine interrelated conscious experiences in Song of Solomon. Let me note at the outset that although I shall ostensibly examine “individual” and “collective” (familial and communal) conscious experiences in Song of Solomon, there is not always a clear dividing line separating these experiences. We shall see that, necessarily, along the continuum of conscious experience the individual plays out within the collective, and the collective within the individual (the consciousness theory examined above indicates as much). Taken together, the interplay of individual and collective conscious experience makes the study of consciousness and novelistic narrative yet more exciting and diverse, and in Song of Solomon Toni Morrison weaves the experiences linking personal, familial and communal consciousness into a dense web of “memory, the association of ideas in the mind, the causes of emotions and the individual’s sense of self” (Lodge 40).


Almost needless to say, the search for whole identity and sense of self is central to Song of Solomon, constituting a key element of the depictions of conscious experience in the novel. Milkman Dead is seen by most as the central protagonist, with his search for meaning and a way out of his purposeless existence and brittle personal relationships comprising the novel’s primary thematic thrust. Milkman travels through the first half of the novel a disfigured psyche that is “unimpressed” by his face in the mirror, a face which “lacked coherence, a coming together of the features into a total self” (69).[11] The nihilistic Milkman sees “infinite possibilities and enormous responsibilities stretched out before him,” but he is “not prepared to take advantage of the former, or accept the burden of the latter” (68). At his worst, Milkman is a “sad, pitiful, stupid, selfish, hateful man” (216). In the second half of the novel and to the conclusion, however, Milkman slowly repairs his sense of self, and after a difficult initiation into better-developed personal and communal consciousness, he experiences genuine accountability and finds that “he had stopped evading things, sliding through, over, and around difficulties” (271).[12] I shall below examine this transformation in Milkman’s consciousness, as it is fitted within Morrison’s other depictions of conscious experience, in more detail.


One way in which Morrison illuminates both collective and individual conscious experience in Song of Solomon is through vivid descriptions of qualia—colors, tastes, smells, sounds and textures. In one episode in chapter 2, as Milkman begins to make contact with his aunt Pilate, she reflects on her own past and the past of her community, and then directs Milkman’s attention to the color of the sky in order to highlight her relationship with her mother (color is recognized by many theorists as the defining qualia of conscious experience). Morrison’s vivid writing talents take it from there:


The year they shot the Irish people down in the streets. Was a good year for guns and gravediggers, I know that.… One morning we woke up when the sun was nearly a quarter way cross the sky. Bright as anything. And blue. Blue like the ribbons in my mother’s bonnet…. Same color as my mama’s ribbons. I’d know her ribbon color anywhere, but I don’t know her name. (42-43)


Later, in chapter 9, Milkman reflects on the growing importance of his aunt and her impact on his emergent view of self. The narrative refers back to the above event, which—in Morrison’s inimitable way—mirrors the linked associations, recurrent awareness, evolving understanding and multiple interpretations in human consciousness and memory:


To knock down an old black lady who had cooked him his first perfect egg, who had shown him the sky, the blue of it, which was like her mother’s ribbons, so that from then on when he looked at it, it had not distance, not remoteness, but was intimate, familiar. (209-210)


In chapter 8, Morrison’s description of a ginger odor wafting through the Michigan town that the main characters of the novel live in is not only an evocative and luscious depiction of olfactory qualia, but also complements her themes of lament for lost community and culture, and restless search for personal identity. The “each” at the end of the paragraph refers to Milkman and his friend Guitar, who is also wrestling with identity issues:

On autumn nights, in some parts of the city, the wind from the lake brings a sweetish smell to shore. An odor like crystallized ginger, or sweet iced tea with a dark clove floating in it…. [T]his heavy spice-sweet smell…made you think of the East and striped tents and the sha-sha-sha of leg bracelets…. To the Southside residents who were awake on such nights, it gave all their thoughts and activity a quality being both intimate and far away. The two men standing near the pines on Darling street—right near the brown house where wine drinkers went—could smell the air, but they didn’t think of ginger. Each thought it was the way freedom smelled, or justice, or luxury, or vengeance. (184-185)


Further, in chapter 11, during the hunt scene, the following wonderfully realized description of sounds coheres with Morrison’s exploration of language as a carrier of conscious experience, and communication across groups (which, in a deft, magically realist turn, includes the group’s hunting dogs!):


 The men and the dogs were talking to each other. In distinctive voices they were saying distinctive, complicated things. The long yah sound was followed by a specific kind of howl from one of the dogs. The low howm howm that sounded like a string bass imitating a bassoon meant something the dogs understood and executed. And the dogs spoke to the men: single-shot barks—evenly spaced and widely spaced—one every three or four minutes, that might go on for twenty minutes…. All those shrieks, those rapid tumbling barks, the long sustained yells, the tubas sounds, the drumbeat sounds, the low liquid howm howm, the reedy whistles, the thin eeee’s of a cornet, the unh unh unh bass chords. It was all language. (277-278)


In her depiction of the interrelated memories of Song of Solomon’s characters, Morrison taps into another central aspect of conscious experience, which she uses as a vehicle to convey her themes about personal, familial and communal identity. Morrison has written that “the act of imagination is bound up with memory” (“Site of Memory” 305), and all of the characters in Song of Solomon relate lengthy memories, with the multiple points of view creating “a sprawling, river-with-tributaries-branching-in-all-directions novel” (David 92). Passages of memory in the novel pack the color of sensory experience, link events and development across time and space, and explore characters’ gradually-congealing individual and collective memories, cognition and reflection.[13]


An extended example of Morrison’s employment of memory (combined with qualia and personal conscious awareness), is seen when Chapter 10 opens with Milkman gazing at the house where the family friend Circe lives, which “looked as if it had been eaten by a galloping disease, the sores of which were dark and fluid” (220). From here, in classic Morrison fashion, the narrative shifts into Milkman’s memory, which traces back through his airplane trip from his home in Michigan to his father’s childhood home in Pennsylvania, his last conversation with his friend Guitar (which itself sidelongs into Guitar’s memories of his mother and father), his bus ride to his father’s hometown, his encounter with his father’s old friends, his automobile ride out to Circe’s—and back beneath the walnut trees outside Circe’s house, where we had left Milkman 19 pages before.


Found in the above passages is the following description of the thoughts, feelings, memories and sense perceptions that course through Milkman’s mind and experience as he drinks homemade alcohol with Reverend Cooper, taking us into Milkman’s experience with vibrant immediacy:


Milkman felt a glow of listening to a story come from this man that he’d heard many times before but only half listened to. Or maybe it was being there in the place where it happened that made it seem so real. Hearing Pilate talk about caves and woods and earrings on Darling Street, or his father talk about cooking wild turkey over the automobile noise of Not Doctor Street, seemed exotic, something from another world and age, and maybe not even true. Here in the parsonage, sitting in a cane-bottomed chair near an upright piano and drinking homemade whiskey poured from a mayonnaise jar, it was real. (231)


Whether a “family consciousness” exists or not is, perhaps, debatable, but we may usefully view this conception as a sort of “collective consciousness” or, perhaps more accurately (and in keeping with our examination of Morrison’s use of memory in Song of Solomon), a “collective memory.” The varied memories of Milkman, Macon Dead, Ruth, Pilate, Circe, Milkman’s sisters and others create a composite picture allowing them to understand and remedy difficulties and deceits over time and across space that have led them into their troubled relationships. The mosaic of memories about Milkman’s mother and father’s past, as well Pilate and Macon Dead’s upbringing, are prime examples of how Morrison manages family memories. We have already seen one example of this in Pilate’s recollection of her mother and youthful experience, and how Milkman gradually draws closer to his aunt, the woman who had “cooked him his first perfect egg, who had shown him the sky” (209).


Morrison’s use of memory as a compass to locate her characters in personal, familial and community contexts can be linked to Daniel C. Dennett’s conception of “tracking” in consciousness. Conscious creatures track concentrations of “pointers, landmarks, labels, symbols, and other reminders” (Kinds of Minds 142) in their environments by way of representation, recognition and re-identification, and these internal and external environmental “keys” or “effectors” yield conscious (or unconscious) experience. This system of monitoring, manipulation, prediction and performance takes place in an information-rich inner environment that humans are gifted with, wherein they are able to “design ever more effective interactions with [the] world” (Kinds of Minds 93). Dennett writes that “[t]his ability to ‘keep in touch’ with another object (literally touching and manipulating it, if possible) is the prerequisite for high-quality perception” (Kinds of Minds 106-107). We might broadly apply these conceptions within Morrison’s goal of creating a “broader cosmology” (David 32) of experience via the novel, but we can more concretely interpret them in terms of memory (organized and interpreted with higher-order cognition and language skills) as a means to “keep in touch” and “manipulate” experience as characters develop and change. In this light, Morrison’s detailed and revealing depictions of memory in Song of Solomon again fit into a broader conception of consciousness in the novel.


As personal as Morrison’s characters and writing are, we know that she always has her “eyes on the prize” of greater community and historical understanding among black people. In his presentation speech for Morrison’s 1993 Nobel Prize, Sture Allén said Morrison “has given the Afro-American people their history back, piece by piece.” The personal and the communal in Morrison’s work are always linked in a symbiotic relationship in which one feed backs with and supports the growth of the other. Morrison herself has written of her creation of “spaces and places in which a single person could enter and behave as an individual within the context of the community,” creating “a public and a private expression” that is both “solitary and representative” (“Rootedness” 339). With this ongoing reconciliation between individuals and communities Morrison’s work “substantiates the premise that literature is a reflection of the society in which it is produced” (Rigney 50). In Song of Solomon, most of the characters, flawed though they are, bear witness in this way as they search for their own keys to strengthened identity, which leads in the book to increased community consciousness.


In Song of Solomon, Pilate, Circe and Ruth maintain active connections to their pasts, with each in her way illustrating Morrison’s belief that “if we don’t keep in touch with the ancestor…we are, in fact, lost” (“Rootedness” 344). Pilate constantly communicates with her dead father, Ruth visits her father’s gravesite year after year, and Circe continues to live on the plantation that saw the tragic early development of the Dead family. These connections to the past are complemented by intricate current interaction among characters. Taken together, this overall interaction constitutes another key to personal and collective conscious experience that is related to Dennett’s conception of tracking. As I briefly referred to earlier, by presenting the members of a community interrelating with each other in manifold ways (in both the past and the present), an interactive intentionality is created, by way of which we witness the ongoing assumptions, intentions, contemplation, and hypotheses about the consciousnesses of others (Dennett also refers to “communal intentions” knit together by linguistic reference points, which bear a resemblance to this description of interactive intentionality; see Kinds of Minds 50). Further, Carroll writes that “imaginatively assimilated experience serves not only to guide our own behavior but also to assess the experience of others” (171).


In terms of the relationship of individual and collective consciousness, in Milkman, particularly, Morrison “[created] a protagonist whose survival depends on his development of a people consciousness” (Rigney 51). In spite of his confused identity in the first half of the novel, Milkman seems at least obliquely aware of the importance of his community and history. His awareness sharpens during his quest for self-actualization, and he participates in a series of initiation rites that both strengthen his personal identity and instate him into his newly found community. These catechisms culminate in his participation in the hunt with the other Shalimar men, where Milkman finds his personal and community identities linked, and, at last, whole. Returning from the hunt Milkman joins the other men as one and—

They hooted and laughed all the way back to the car, teasing Milkman, egging him on to tell more about how scared he was. And he told them. Laughing too, hard, loud, and long. Really laughing, and he found himself exhilarated by simply walking the earth. Walking it like he belonged on it; like his legs were stalks, tree trunks, a part of his body that extended down down down into the rock and soil, and were comfortable there—on the earth and on the place where he walked. And he did not limp. (280-281)


After the hunt the other men ask Milkman of the slain bobcat, “You want the heart?” (282), and we further sense Milkman’s deepening sense of heart, of self, and his reach outside of his isolated personal consciousness toward genuine connection to others. We see this connection perhaps most beautifully illustrated in a classic passage where Milkman connects with his lover Sweet, engaging in a mutuality that would have been impossible earlier in the book:

He washed her hair. She sprinkled talcum on his feet. He straddled her behind and massaged her back. She put witch hazel on his swollen neck. He made up the bed. She gave him gumbo to eat. He washed the dishes. She washed his clothes and hung them out to dry. He scoured her tub. She ironed his shirt and pants…. (285)


In chapter 15, Milkman reflects on his quest, now complete, visualizing a panoply of others he has interacted with and communities he has been too that have impacted him and contributed to his emergent sense of self and community connection. His reflections and mental imagery appeal to his personal, familial and community development, and the emergence of the mass of names in the ensuing paragraph reaches to the very essence of consciousness and selfhood—a fact that Toni Morrison has realized as perceptively as any writer:


He closed his eyes and thought of the black men in Shalimar, Roanoke, Petersburg, Newport News, Danville, in the Blood bank, on Darling Street, in the pool halls, the barbershops. Their names. Names they got from yearnings, gestures, flaws, events, mistakes, weaknesses. Names that bore witness. Macon Dead. Sing Byrd, Crowell Byrd, Pilate, Reba, Hagar, Magdalene, First Corinthians, Milkman, Guitar… (330)



In this paper I have tried to show how Toni Morrison’s writing is steeped in portrayals of conscious awareness, and how this writing approach supports her themes of interaction and development in black individuals, families and communities in fascinating and fruitful ways. Morrison’s methods and narrative output in this respect are in accord with much current theory of consciousness, including theory that directly or obliquely links the inner and outer worlds of human conscious experience and sense of self to narrative structures and processes. In Song of Solomon, Morrison conveys these varied qualities, probing the inner reaches of human consciousness in all its fecund dimensionality, and ultimately creating something like ”consciousness writ on the page.” And yet Morrison’s inscriptions of consciousness go beyond the individual and even the community, and widen out into a broader historical and cultural context, which is embodied in several characteristics Morrison has said should define the aims and content of African-American writing. These properties include a “participatory quality,” an aural quality, open-endedness, and (as noted earlier), the creation of a “broader cosmology” that has an “obligation to bear witness” and to function as a “conduit for the ancestor” (David 32, emphasis in original). Needless to say, Song of Solomon incorporates these various characteristics into a richly evocative portrait stemming from the interconnectivity of communal consciousness, the intimate links of family consciousness, and the flamboyant world of individual consciousness.


Toni Morrison’s work has brought experience to life in ways that have rarely been equaled in literature, mirroring vivid conscious experience in startlingly realistic and exceptionally detailed ways. Her accomplishments have in turn brought life to the experience of readers everywhere. After Song of Solomon, Morrison continued in works such as Beloved, Jazz, Paradise and Love on this path paved with multiple levels of conscious experience within explorations of sense of self, family relationships, community, and history as sequences of discovery and recovery. The world of literature is a more informed, more federated, more integrated place, and we are all
more cognizant, aware and whole because of what she has done.  

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--- The Conscious Mind. New York, Oxford: Oxford UP, 1996.


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---. The Intentional Stance. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1998.


---. “The Self as a Center of Narrative Gravity.” Self and Consciousness: Multiple Perspectives. Eds. F. Kessel, P. Cole and D. Johnson. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, 1992. Accessed 23 November 2006 on the WWW at <>.


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---. “Black Matters.” Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. New York: Vintage, 1993. 3-28.


---. “Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation.” Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation. Ed. Mari Evans. Garden City, New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1984. 339-345.


---. “The Site of Memory.” Out There: Marginalization and Contemporary Cultures. Eds. Ferguson, Russell, et al. New York: The New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1990. 299-305.


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Woolf, Virginia. “Modern Fiction,” in The Common Reader. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc, 1925.


[1] From Bakhtin 262.

[2] Quote above and block quote from “Facing,” with author’s additions from Bakhtin in brackets.

[3] I suspect that the views of many other literary theorists could be re-cast through the lens of consciousness theory, and that such an approach would be revealing and could potentially enlighten, broaden and clarify many areas in literary theory. However this is a project for another day.

[4] Based on Chalmers, The Conscious Mind 12, with author’s additions.

[5] Note that some researchers concern themselves with the importance of “verbal” qualities when applied to understandings of consciousness. Somewhat problematically, many humans lack the ability to “verbally report” conscious experience, though clearly the still have conscious experience. I hope that it is clear that for my purposes in this paper, I must restrict myself to conscious experiences which are, indeed, verbally (written or spoken) reportable

[6] See also Lloyd 270-273 for a model of consciousness illustrating the simultaneity and interaction of past memories (retention), present experience and future anticipation (protention). Lloyd’s model interestingly mirrors novelistic discourse’s palimpsests of experience and understanding, change and development. In Lloyd’s model of consciousness, echoed in much of Toni Morrison’s management of temporal experience in Song of Solomon, “the brain has to keep many layers of the past alive at every instant” (154; see also 270-273).

[7] My definition of an “artifact” of consciousness should be explained. For some researchers, such an artifact of consciousness would have to be a type of machine (as a computer) that exactly simulates human conscious experience (variously, from the highest to the lowest levels). Of course novelistic discourse is not such a creation. Rather, I mean artifact as a human creation that organizes experience into perceptual and conceptual categories, by way, primarily, of communicative value (public and private), language and memory stemming from human experience and value systems. I believe that narrative meets this definition. This explanation is based on Gerald M. Edelman, from his Bright Air, Brilliant Fire.

[8] Admittedly, some novelistic discourse is less than a “comprehensive, concatenated, stable picture.” Certain non-linear, fantastic and experimental forms create seemingly unstable, de-centered depictions of experience, but these depictions fit nonetheless clearly within the hypotheses and ideas outlined thus far, for conscious experience can itself be unstable or decentered, a veritable multiplicity of ongoing perceptions, bound together (to the extent possible) by human beings. Take for example a common concept in consciousness studies, superposition, an “ever-present symbiosis of object and interpretation” (Lloyd 255) that results in any given object of experience being accompanied by a “flock” of sensory and non-sensory meanings that are unified by consciousness (Lloyd 254). Consider also examples of damaged or unstable perceptions and sense of self, which have been much explored and depicted in novelistic narrative. In light of more straightforward narrative theory and technique, many observers have felt that depicting conscious experience in the manner we are discussing here is in fact the most accurate narrative approach. Virginia Woolf, one of the earliest proponents of this view, wrote in her “Modern Fiction” that writers and artists could most truthfully and realistically represent conscious experience by recognizing that “life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end…let us trace the pattern, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance” (154).

[9] In her vigorous pursuit of communal themes and development, Morrison minimizes the importance of the personal (the “intrinsic” intentionality) in her work. “I am not indulging myself in some private, close exercise of my imagination,” she has written. “The work must be political” (Morrison, “Rootedness” 344). Note that my conception of Morrison’s contribution of intentionality in her work and her impact on the conscious experience portrayed in her novels does not conflict with this claim, though it does highlight the value of her “private” contribution which could be interpreted in other ways.

[10] The reader is directed to David Lodge’s Consciousness and the Novel, which contains additional examination of this topic through examinations of points of view, focalization, narrator perspective, and objectivity and subjectivity in narrative.

[11] We see here an oblique instance of a description of decentered or “non-linear” conscious experience, as noted above. However, aside from Morrison’s famed technique of presenting narrative fragments that must be assembled into whole depictions by readers, she does not truly describe Milkman’s conscious experience in a non-linear or experimental way.

[12] Milkman is not the only character in search of meaning, and Morrison also weaves into the narrative the evolving sense of self of Pilate, Guitar, Ruth, Hagar, Milkman’s sisters, and others into a tapestry of human awareness and development.

[13] We might also relate this to Dan Lloyd’s temporal model of conscious experience, described above in footnote 6.