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Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison and the Art of Living in the Present (without Being Devoured by It)


To be young in an era of information bombardment is not simple; but luckily there is art.

US writer Toni Morrison was invited to Wellesley College in May 2004 to give a talk to recent graduates. The graduation speech is a literary genre in itself as they are a mixture of the emotive and the rhetorical, as well as a celebration to mark the end of a cycle: some words to mark the threshold that divides the years of education from adult life.

Morrison, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993, referred to the clichés of the rites of passage in these kinds of speeches, such as that which dictates that the future belongs to the young. In reality, “in contrast to what you have heard or learned, the past is not done or finished, it is still in process,” as “it changes to the extent that it is reexamined and its deepest resonances listened to.”

Another cliché is that youth “is the best period of your lives.” Well if it is, Morrison says, “then you have my condolences. Because you are going to want to remain here, trapped in this allegedly best period, without ever maturing, solely wanting to see yourself as you feel yourself to be, and continue to be that adolescent that whole industries are committed to forcing us to be.”

And it is difficult to not be just a niche market. How can you seek to lead a good, happy and productive life without falling into the categories of the market? Without worrying about how we resolve our professional future, for Morrison “there is nothing more satisfying or gratifying than real adulthood.” It is not simply about getting old, “the process of becoming oneself is not inevitable. Its achievement is a difficult beauty, a hard-won glory, from which commercial forces and cultural insipidness must not divert you.”

But Morrison ultimately dedicates herself to telling stories, so that her approach to time is mediated by a narrative awareness of the same, as is the interference of the narrator (ourselves) in the development of the plot. The end of her speech has not one wasted word:

You are your own stories and therefore free to imagine and experience what it means to be human without wealth. What it feels like to be human without domination over others, without reckless arrogance, without fear of others unlike you, without rotating, rehearsing and reinventing the hatreds you learned in the sandbox. And although you don’t have complete control over the narrative (no author does, I can tell you), you could nevertheless create it.

Although you will never fully know or successfully manipulate the characters who surface or disrupt your plot, you can respect the ones who do by paying them close attention and doing them justice. The theme you choose may change or simply elude you, but being your own story means you can always choose the tone. It also means that you can invent the language to say who you are and what you mean. But then, I am a teller of stories and therefore an optimist, a believer in the ethical bend of the human heart, a believer in the mind’s disgust with fraud and its appetite for truth, a believer in the ferocity of beauty. So, from my point of view, which is that of a storyteller, I see your life as already artful, waiting, just waiting and ready for you to make it art.


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