Toni Morrison, "Peril." First published in Burn This Book: PEN Writers Speak Out on the Power of the Word (2009)
“Peril" is a short essay by Toni Morrison published in both The Source of Self-Regard (2019) and Burn This Book: PEN Writers Speak Out on the Power of the Word (2009). The essay is, in general, a vigorous defense of the freedom of expression of writers in various states of unfreedom, whether from totalitarian regimes or threats of violence or intimidation.
Here, Morrison writes of three different threats that writers pose. First, writers are a threat to authoritarian regimes, which is why, Morrison suggests, even the most foolish of governments know better than to give “perceptive, dissident writers free range to publish their judgments or follow their creative instincts.” Indeed, she argues that “writers—journalists, essayists, bloggers, poets, playwrights,” serve an important dissident function within the social and political landscapes, for they can “disturb the social oppression that functions like a coma on the population, a coma despots call peace”; moreover, writers can “stanch the blood flow of war that hawks and profiteers thrill to” (Source of Self-Regard, 1).
However, Morrison makes a notable distinction—what she describes as “their,” the oppressors’ peril, and “ours,” which “is of another sort” (2). She defines this second peril by first reminding us of how “unlivable” and “insufferable” life would be without the richness of great artwork and writers’ capabilities, in particular, to “translate…trauma and turn sorrow into meaning, sharpening the moral imagination” (2; 4). As such, “the life and work of writers facing peril” demands urgent protection—not only for their sake, but for society’s as well, for “the choking off of a writer’s work, its cruel amputation, is of equal peril to us” (2).
One important theme Morrison brings up here is the capacity of writers to engage in naming:
I have been told that there are two human responses to the perception of chaos: naming and violence. When the chaos is simply the unknown, the naming can be accomplished effortlessly--a new species, star, formula, equation, prognosis. there is also mapping, charting, or devising proper nouns for unnamed or stripped-of-names geography, landscape, or population." (2)
The theme of naming will of course be familiar to readers of many Morrison novels, where her characters' often-ad hoc names contain the seeds of the stories of their lives (one thinks of Baby Suggs' chosen name in Beloved, Milkman's search for his family name in Song of Solomon, and many other instances).
Because “truth is trouble” for “the warmonger, the torturer, the corporate thief, the political hack, the corrupt justice system,” and a “comatose public”; and, because writers uncircumscribed by the national silencing of their fingers and minds are “trouble for the ignorant bully, the sly racist, and the predators feeding off the world’s resources,” we must recognize, Morrison claims, not only the importance of the dissident capabilities of writers, but what their existence, and, more importantly, what their absence, signifies, foreshadows, warns of (2). As Morrison explains,
The historical suppression of writers is earliest harbinger of the steady peeling away of additional rights and liberties that will follow. The history of persecuted writers is as long as the history of literature itself. And the efforts to censor, starve, regulate, and annihilate us are clear sings that something important has taken place. (2)
This “something,” for Morrison, may cause the “perception of chaos,” to which there are three responses: naming, violence, and stillness (3). Stillness does not have to mean “passivity and dumbfoundedness” or “paralytic fear”; rather, it “can also be art” (3). Morrison emphasizes, then, that the writers who “construct meaning in the face of chaos must be nurtured, protected” (3). In a call-to-arms, Morrison suggests that this protection begin with other writers themselves.