Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Bad Smells of Toni Morrison

Conventional wisdom holds that our odor vocabulary is sparse and that it’s difficult to use words to describe smells. I dispute both notions in What the Nose Knows, in part by taking a close look at authors who have successfully incorporated smell into their works.

Among them is William Faulkner who made heavily symbolic use of scent in The Unvanquished and The Sound and the Fury. Another is Virginia Woolf whose Flush: A Biography is the story of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s spaniel, told from the dog’s point of view. Woolf’s smell-laden set pieces—of Florence, or Wimpole Street in London—are vivid and a delight to read.

Some authors, of course, don’t make much use of smell. A few try and fail. One of the most spectacular flameouts is Toni Morrison, the winner of a Nobel Prize in Literature and the author of Beloved, a novel that won the Pulitzer prize for fiction in 1988.

Odor is mentioned three dozen times in this three hundred page book, mostly in isolation and most often as either sweet smells or stenches. It’s the bad smells that stand out because they are very bad indeed: the “stench of rotten roses,” “gusts of sour air,” “the smell of burning hair,” “the stench of offal.”

Malodor also dominates the book’s only extended smellscape:
It was three in the afternoon on a Friday so wet and hot Cincinnati’s stench had traveled to the country: from the canal, from hanging meat and things rotting in jars; from small animals dead in the field, town sewers and factories. The stench, the heat, the moisture—trust the devil to make his presence known.
Dramatic as it is this passage just doesn’t ring true. Sewers and factories are clichéd sources of stink. But “hanging meat”? Meat hangs in a butcher shop; how long would a butcher shop with rotten meat stay in business? Perhaps Morrison means the stench of a slaughterhouse, full of blood, feces, and urine. Then why doesn’t she say so?

How about the “things rotting in jars”? What things? Who keeps jars full of rotting stuff? Besides, if the jars have lids, there’s not much to smell. The image is impenetrable and leaves the reader frustrated. And since when does the smell of a small dead animal travel all the way from the countryside to the city? That must be one helluva stinky dead gopher.

Nearly every smell observed in Beloved feels inauthentic. A character remembers “the smell of leaves simmering in the sun.” Leaves can certainly shimmer in the sun. They can bake in the sun. But simmer? When, even metaphorically, does the sun cook leaves in liquid? And what would simmering leaves smell like? Elsewhere, Morrison writes “The odor of burning leaves was brilliant.” Burning leaves can smell pungent, acrid, sharp, or dark; but brilliant?

One gets the sense that the author of Beloved is not at ease with smell and has little grasp of how it affects other people. Take for example the scene where a character is offered a steaming hot piece of fried eel. Because she is sick and injured the character finds “it was an effort to reach for, more to smell, impossible to eat.” We all know from experience that it’s an effort to eat when we’re sick. But it is ever an effort just to smell food? Does smelling require more physical effort than reaching? The only effort on display in this passage is Toni Morrison straining for effect.

In setting another scene, Morrison writes:
The scent of their disapproval lay heavy in the air. [ . . . ] Nothing seemed amiss—yet the smell of disapproval was sharp.
Well, which is it? Is the smell of disapproval heavy or sharp? In years of consumer research I’ve heard odors described as heavy and dull, or bright and sharp. But heavy and sharp? Never.
. . . suddenly, behind the disapproving odor, way way back behind it, she smelled another thing. Dark and coming. Something she couldn’t get at because the other odor hid it.
Who experiences an approaching odor as being located “behind” an odor that’s already there? No one. Morrison’s visual-spatial analogy is off kilter and reveals just how far removed she is from normal olfactory experience.

Assuming for the sake of argument that she isn’t simply a lousy writer, what is Morrison up to in Beloved? She uses the smell of burning hair and burning flesh to drive home the horrors of slavery. Her smells don’t have to be realistic: they are a brutalist tactic in her moralizing campaign, part of what critic Charles Taylor calls her “hectoring lecture on the bloodiest sin on America’s racist soul.”

Taylor also criticizes her “faux-Faulknerian interior prose.” His comment stings because Morrison’s master’s thesis at Cornell was on Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner. Evidently their deft and innovative use of scent made little impression on her own work. It’s possible that Morrison’s simmering leaves and small dead animals are a failed homage to their achievement. But I doubt it. Morrison writes about scent so falsely and so unconvincingly that she sets the mark for bad olfactory prose.


Cecile Johns said...

Oh my - you're aiming at targets far out of your range when you aim at Toni Morrison. Each of the metaphors you dismissed as implausible, I find I perfectly understand and have an analog for. That you don't find resonance with an author does not mean the author herself lacks skill with the language or a goof sense of smell - it simply means you don't get her. Happens all the time. It doesn't mean she has some sort of "smell problem.' What an arrogant, and odd, assumption too make (let alone to publish).

But you did get my attention.

Avery Gilbert said...

Cecile Johns:

So enlighten me and my readers: what is the metaphorical meaning of “simmering leaves”? Or “things rotting in jars”?

Cecile Johns said...

First of all, until this morning, I *was* one of your readers.

Secondly, I don't think it is *enlightenment* you are after. I think you want some sort of racial argument. I don't have that kind of time. .

Your examples of Morrison's "failure" to evoke scent for you all worked, quite powerfully, for me. Not everyone will like a particular artist, no matter the prizes they win. Apparently, you don't like to feel "hector(ed)" about the subject of slavery - another sensation that I did not experience when reading "Beloved".

What I took offense to in your original post was that you seemed to blame your lapses of imagination on Toni Morrison - thousands of people experienced the sensory analogies her writing evoked. You didn't. Why not just say - "I don't get it"? Why turn her into some hectoring harpy who crows on and on about slavery? Is one book on slavery, with imagery of lynching and rotting flesh just one too "moralizing" for you? Assuming, as you claim you do, that Morrison isn't just a "lousy writer"?

I think you do protest just a little too much, sir. I suspect, as I often do when people throw race into an argument about aesthetics, that you just wanted to stir some stinky, All-American shit.


Nathan Branch said...

Hey Mr. Gilbert -- now that you mention it, it makes sense that Ms. Morrison's thesis was on Woolf and Faulker. I read and liked 'Beloved' when it first came out, but I was a Faulker fan and had just finished reading 'The Sound and the Fury', so it all kind of worked for me at the time.

But it's been years (over twenty?) since I've read 'Beloved', and your examples of her writing regarding odors and smells do very much seem to support your claim that her attention to smell was superficial, at best. Considering the imagination she puts into the rest of her writing, she certainly could have done better than "dead things in jars" -- though, to be fair, you're looking at her writing style through the lens of someone who cares deeply about the sense of smell.

But I guess your point is that Morrison seems very much not to.

Oh, and congratulations on getting the righteous finger wag in your comment section . . . you stinky sh*t stirrer, you!

Avery Gilbert said...

Cecile Johns:

Wow, that was fast. Total elapsed time to baseless accusation of racism: 1 hour, 55 minutes.

You “perfectly understand” each of Toni Morrison’s metaphors but you can’t or won’t actually explain even one. Is your theory that a Nobel and Pulitzer prize winning author simply cannot write badly about smell?

Nathan Branch:

Thanks. Every blogger’s rite de passage, eh?

Cecile Johns said...

this *is* fun, Mr. Avery. from one righteous finger-wagger to another.

for the record, though, i did not EVER accuse you of racism. i don't know what your thoughts are on the subject. i only know what you wrote - thatMorrison writes badly about smell because she is mostly interested in coping Faulkner-isms and beating her innocent readers about the head with slavery than in giving 'realistic' smell analogies. why you use an eleven-year-old bad review of Beloved's movie adaptation (which was an unholy mess) to shore up your poor opinion of Morrison's writing, i can't fathom.

Movie review aside, the book Beloved falls into a category broadly called"mafical realism." Yet you insist that Morrison's descriptions of smells must fit into experiences that *you* deem as realistic. As a reader, I was disappointed, Mr. Avery. disappointed because i thought person with your level of education and experience would also have the imagination to know when disparate senses are being brought to bear upon the description of an experience.

The reason I haven't t shared my ideas about Toni Morrison's text here is because I have already been called self-righteous, finger-wagging, someone who baselessly accuses others, when in fact ihave had the utmost respect for you. to tell you what Morrrison's words mean to me seems like something i would glady do among friends, or with a respectful stranger, in the spirit of increasing understanding. But you and mr, branch are congratulating yourself for having riled me up, as though you have won some sort of trophy! if that isn't proof you were just aiming to stir shit, i don't know what is. i just wish you had used a better example of bad writing than "Beloved".

I might have even agreed with you.

Avery Gilbert said...

Cecile Johns:

I think Beloved is a great example of bad olfactory writing and I’ve given my reasons why that should be apparent to any reader. You provide no argument to the contrary—calling it “magical realism” doesn’t make good writing out of inept imagery, clumsy adjectives and hollow sensory melodrama. I go further and recognize that writing poorly about bad smells serves Morrison’s didactic narrative purposes just fine. All you’ve offered in defense of Morrison’s imagery is your subjective conviction that you “get it”.


Cecile Johns said...

well, what we have here is a failure to communicate, cowboy.

let's just leave it at that.

Unknown said...

I think what she is up to is this- She's giving her own subjective interpretation of how things smell. She may in fact be describing it very well for herself, but she is not describing the scent-scapes in universal terms.

When she is talking about jars and fields and things, I imagine that she is talking about a certain smell that she associates with the smell of stuff rotting in a jar and the time that she found a dead dog in a field "insert early childhood smell-association here".

Where she falls short of Faulkner is that Faulkner is able to describe the olfactive experience in a more universal way. Hers is subjective.

Let me try to describe my kitchen visually in a similar style that she describes scent situations.

--On the side of my dominant hand there sits a bottle of my favorite hot sauce. Above that, there is a container made from the type of tree that grew outside my house when i was little. Next to that, there's an appliance that I use when I want to make my favorite topping--

Now let's try Faulkner-- To my right, there is a bottle of Sriracha. On the shelf above, there's a dark pine box and a food processor that is still a little stained by the sun-dried tomato pesto I made today.--

To me, both descriptions would give the same picture. To you, the difference would be vast. Just like her smell descriptions may make perfect sense to her, but may leave the rest of us scratching our heads.

Also- the feeling of the odor being "behind" and the "simmering" leaves sound like classic synesthetic descriptions to me, which is just about as subjective as you can get.

But then again, I see(smell) synesthesia everywhere.

ScentScelf said...

And it comes back to language.

Have been watching this with great interest, as the attempts to make points are finding some gaps between speakers. Either a universal language, or an ability to transcend the gaps, is required, no?

Metaphor = Transcendence. I believe, Mr. Gilbert, you were trying to make that point about Faulkner in your book when you discuss "the olfactory imagination," yes? Faulker does not invoke true descriptions of smell, per se, but turns (forces?) them into metaphors for plot evolution, as in The Sound and the Fury: "the tone of the story changes and honeysuckle is replaced by the harsh smell of gasoline." Apparently, the one step removed-ness, offering a parallel for experience rather than a direct cognate, is what makes a "masterfully gauged metaphor"?

In this context, I'd agree, Faulkner's offering feels less force fed, and why you think Morrison is reaching. One could argue, of course, that perhaps Morrison had reason to use direct tactics without obfuscation, but the point holds.

On the other hand, I'm not so sure that Faulkner was a genius with scent metaphor. His parallel is imposed upon the text, after doesn't become part of the experience, and is not a two-way street of insight. Do we flesh out our understanding or associations with those scents as a result of his equivalence? Does using them really enhance our concept of the character's journey? On the first, I'd say no. On the second, I'd say they seem more to be pathmarks than insights.

I appreciate *everybody's* efforts to keep this from being about anything than the topic. Picking apart what folks are getting out of Faulkner or Morrison is specific fodder for an overall fire that I think merits tending. I am intrigued by the potential for scent metaphor, and in fact was (apparently awkwardly and unclearly) trying to make a related point in an earlier dialogue. Metaphor is the way to provide a transcendent language and a common understanding. Our words may vary, our experiences may not be the same, but the way we draw connections and explain how we see them is going to be the way we find our way to verbally express our limbic experiences--and understand others'.

ScentScelf said...

BTW, my copy of your book arrived. Have been reading it, natch.

Cecile Johns said...

so glad to see this discussion continue in a respectful and questioning way.

i can't compare morrison's work to faulkner's, as i have only read 'the sound and the fury', whereas i have read 'the bluest eye', 'sula' 'song of solomon', and 'beloved' many times, and am familiar with morrison in a way i am not with faulkner.

i am a musician, and i am developing a line of botanical body care products, including simple perfumes, sand i find a lot of sensory crossing over occurs in my life. i think toni morrison's scent metaphors work for me because they trigger something internal that fits the landscape she is describing in an organic way.

synesthesia is what i feel is being invoked - not to imply that any of the characters have (are?) synesthetic, but to invite a multi-layered experience in the reader - which is what happened to me.

the quote of one smell 'behind' another as an example is a good one, i think, becasue to me the most available example is deodorant applied, too late, over body odor - one smell is behind another, or over, another - if i stretch the experience out in time and space, i get a deer, raising her head, looking towards something she can smell, but not see - i imagine many animals have an olfactory foreground and background.

the heavy, sharp smell of disapproval is like a pointed object pressing into your lower back - the smell is weighted, like he smell of grease in a restaurant with a deep fryer where the oil is in the air, and a little bilious.

these are some of my images - synesthetic and totally subjective. i read 'beloved' as an invitation to travel, and an invitation to heal. and i believe it stands on its own as a fine work of literature, whatever your opinions on slavery or race, smell metaphor included.

Anonymous said...

I want to commend you for a spot-on analysis.

As a writer, It's heartening to come across a reader who actually questions someone's prose in a sensible, honest way.

People write that this is synesthesia -- it's not. Or that it's excused because it's "subjective" -- nonsense; obviously a book is written for readers, not the writer. Or that "you just don't get it" -- except you so clearly do.

Morrison has appropriated much of Faulkner's formal technique and even "language" -- but with none of his talent. She is a terrible writer hiding behind pretentious, purple prose and utterly false metaphor and observation.