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Toni Morrison, goodness and the “shock of forgiveness”

Sanders Theatre filled on Dec. 6 with eager spectators awaiting the arrival of acclaimed author and Princeton professor Toni Morrison. Following opening remarks by both Harvard’s University President Drew Faust and Divinity School Dean William Hempton, the literary luminary proceeded across the stage, smoothly propelled by a wheelchair, until she arrived at a draped table. Morrison serenely began to deliver Goodness: Altruism and the Literary Imagination as the HDS 2012 Ingersoll Lecture on Immortality.

The heartbreaking shooting of nine girls in a Pennsylvanian Amish schoolhouse sparked Morrison’s exploration of “goodness.” While the tragedy itself made national headlines as a classic example of evil, the story evolved into a tale of forgiveness: The Amish community did not seek justice or vengeance, and concomitantly consoled the grieving families of not only the victims but also of the killer. To them, it was “God’s place to judge [the killer], not theirs.” The narrative thus moved from the killer and children to the “sheer shock of forgiveness,” a forgiveness “characteristic of genuine goodness” that spawned Morrison’s journey to demystify the meaning of goodness.

Author Toni Morrison (photo by Corbis)

Morrison – who has a Nobel Prize in literature, Pulitzer Prize for fiction and a Presidential Medal of Freedom – noted her frustration as she delved further into a plethora of definitions and theoretical literature on the definition of goodness. Morrison bounced across interpretations of altruism: Is it instinctive selflessness? Is it narcissistic, serving as ego-enhancement, or perhaps even a mental disorder? Is it a scientifically based phenomenon, in which there is a “good” gene and a “selfish” gene?

Naturally, in her study of goodness, she wondered about its antithesis, evil. Unimpressed by evil but “confounded by how attractive it is to others,” she pondered the origin of this Hollywood-like attraction; perhaps it is the passionate howl, the dances or even the clothing associated with evil. What is more, we may point to the multitudinous literary displays of good and evil, from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment to Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. Extending a personal connection to this intersection of literature and the notion of goodness, Morrison alluded to her own works, such as Mercy and Beloved.

Before hearing the lecture, I might have assumed Morrison would attempt to concretely define goodness for her audience. But there is something about a discussion of goodness that carries with it enough arbitrariness to undermine meaningful discussion in the first place – hence the frustrating plethora of definitions Morrison confronted. Morrison seemed to recognize this, instead simply suggesting her own understanding of goodness as “the acquisition of self-knowledge…when the protagonist has learned something vital…that he or she did not know at the beginning.”

Indeed, an individual may adopt the interpretation Morrison expressed. But the elaborate account of her journey, juxtaposed with a religious atmosphere – manifested by not only Sanders’ intricately carved beams and wooden pews but also Morrison’s spiritual presence centered at that table draped with white cloth, carefully telling her story wearing a dark ensemble coolly topped with a black fedora – set a stage for which members of the audience could reflect upon the idea of goodness for themselves, individually and with one another. It was as if Morrison, personifying a religious character, enlightened us with her journey and tempted the audience to embark upon its own.

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