Tar Baby

Screen Shot 2017-12-03 at 8.41.28 PMTar Baby
Toni Morrison (1981)
Picador, Pan Books Ltd (1991)

I would like to write about the role which nature plays in Tar Baby. Initially, the book seems to be focused on the particular inter-relations between individuals, but as the opening suggests, this is a story about the various universes which coexist outside the levels of our perception. Many of which never touch, nor know about one another’s existence. This operates clearly on the human level, Valerian is orbiting in another existence entirely to his wife and that of the historical past of their son. Similarly, Jadine and Son begin and end their shared history on different wavelengths. These separate revolutions eclipse one another for a short moment (not even a year), only to be thrust back into their respective orbits and realities.

More interesting for myself perhaps, is the kingdom positioned at the natural level. From an anthropomorphic perspective, we could suggest that phrases like “water-lady” (p.3) or “teenage avocado” (p.135) suggest an agency to nature which is operating on a human level, almost as an imitation of human forms and definitions. However, as the book progresses, a different image of the natural world emerges, one which is epistemologically incredibly difficult to fathom given the locked-in nature of human perception. Even so, I would like to suggest that Morrison does at times touch at an understanding of one layer of nature which is external to the human experience. One way to access this layer of symbolism is through the image of the house. In the description of Son’s nocturnal wanderings we see the possibility of parallel universes which co-exist, but never meet:

“He spent some part of every night with her and grew to know the house well, for he sneaked out just before dawn when the kitchen came alive. And he had to admit now, standing in the sunlight, that he had liked living in the house that way. It became his, sort of. A nighttime possession complete with a beautiful sleeping woman. (p.138-139)

Interestingly, Son’s adventures are only nocturnal to the protagonists which command the story, individuals like Valerian and even Jade. They are not nocturnal for Son, for his cycle of rest is at direct odds with the other inhabitants of the house. So once we grasp this symbol of the house, we can see that nature also exists within the story on the level of an alternate universe. If we look back to Son’s initial vision of the house, we see him there, one hand on the tree, eyes looking at the “cool and civilised” (p.134) house, and more than ever the world of nature emerges in sharp contrast to the the world of humans and practical industry. I think this is the only moment in the book when the gulf between one very specific layer of nature, the nature experienced through the sensations of a man on the run who exists on the fringes of human worlds, and the layer of civilised existence, merge. Civilised in the colonial sense, where a mother can abuse her own child due to the perversity of the socialised environment to which she has been brought. It is at this instance, before Son begins to float among the fringes of the world of the house, that nature and human species are rejoined.

Importantly, this coming together of worlds is only possible through the perspective of what one would call an ‘uncivilised man’ in the social lexicon of prison based society. From this lense, Son is a man who has lived on the borders of society, an escaped convict, a criminal and a deserter of his way of existence. And it is through his eyes that the house is incredibly ugly, and of course Son knows this too:

“They are drinking clear water in there, he thought, with ice cubes in it. He should have stayed on the boat for the night.” (p.134)

When viewed through this perspective, the ending is simply Son’s return to a state of being,  which is not to be classified as ‘nature’ for how can we understand that which he has become from without? Again, this would be an endeavour in anthropomorphism. Instead all we can do is watch from afar, in the same way as Son initially viewed the house, and only touch at the universe within.

“By and by he walked steadier, now steadier. The mist lifted and the trees stepped back a bit as if to make the way easier for a certain kind of man.” (p.309)

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