Song of Solomon is required reading for my junior IB class. I was happy to see it on the list, since it’s a book I’ve had on my shelf for years, ever since I read Beloved in my Women’s Literature course in college and started buying every used Morrison book I came across. It goes without saying that the novel is complex that the strands of thought and theme are too numerous to consider all at once, must be considered over time and conversations and compositions such as this. For this first read, this first year (I will teach it again next year) my own written reflection will settle on one theme, the most universal of all themes: love. Even in this I find myself bouncing about in my own mind trying to tie together this and this and this to come up with some statement of meaning. In doing this over the last few weeks, I’ve come to this conclusion about Morrison’s message about love in Song of Solomon: Love is not a good in and of itself. Love, to be good and beautiful, must be without exclusion, conditions, boundaries, or claims. A love like that takes strength.
Morrison chose her title from the famous love song from the bible, a lyric the reminds me of the hardbound little book containing the song and illustrations that my love-mad mother gave me as a gift some years ago. My mother is love mad and so am I by degrees, which, for me, is a constant source of struggle. Love madness is common, pervasive and older than Shakespeare’s Romeo. Hagar is the character in Morrison’s novel who represents what I mean by love madness.
Hagar, in the disturbing scene after she sees herself in the mirror and begins her frantic mission to look good for Milkman who has rejected her, is asked by Pilate, who is desperate to cure her niece of her illness that is her broken heart, “What you need?” to which Hagar replies, “I need everything.” This line demonstrates the tragic source of her madness. Woman like Hagar, and for that matter Solomon’s wife Ryna, and Milkman’s mother, Ruth, who depend entirely on the love of one man for their own sense of purpose are left to a loveless life pining after love. A woman who “needs everything” is doomed. A woman has to be able to depend on herself and has to be able to have enough to distribute to all who love her. Pilate, though she is isolated, had enough to distribute as is indicated in her near last words, “I would of loved ‘em all.”
Pilate brings her broad-reaching mother love into Ruth and Macon’s home and eventually is turned away for it by her brother, who is ruled by his notions of wealth and power. Paranoia, jealousy, greed, and notions of family and class structure cut Macon off from love. He might have loved Ruth if he could have stood her loving anyone but him, and she might have loved him if she were capable of loving without exclusion. But, he couldn’t stand her blind devotion to her father, and she was so hungry for father love that she saved nothing for herself or anyone else. She tries to love her children, but her hunger turns them off. This is what makes the image of her nursing the boy Milkman well passed the age to wean ironic. She is the hungry one, destroyed by her inability to feed herself with good love. Her love dies with her father, because he had all her love. She seeks love from her children, her husband, but continues to give her love to her dead father whose grave she takes long trips by train to visit. It’s not her fault though. She’s been cut off from love by the intense patriarchy she was raised in. She lived isolated with her father, isolated by her class and her father’s lovelessness. Then, she is married to another man who feels superior to the people in his community and keeps his family under his control. She is never free to love and shows some slight, too late development in her silent demand for money for Hagar’s funeral from Macon that mostly indicates that women instinctually love well, so long as they are not bound by love for or control by their father’s and lovers, perhaps indicative of the potential for matriarchy to save us from the dangers of love gone bad.
Milkman breaks the bounds of love that he has learned from his family. He’s always wanted to, at least since he started visiting and fell in love with his outcast Aunt, Pilate. He loves Guitar, even though Guitar tries to kill him. When he frees himself to love without limits, his life is full, “He almost broke her door down. ‘I want to swim!’…”I’m dirty and I want waaaaater!” Water symbolizes the vitality for life that Milkman “Dead” now has. In his revelation he tells Sweet that he is a son of Solomon, like so many in those parts, and when she teases, “You belong to that tribe of niggers?” he replies, “Yeah, that tribe. That flyin motherfuckin tribe.” One can be freed by love like Milkman and Pilate or destroyed by it like Hagar, Ruth, and Guitar. Love is not a good in and of itself. Love has been the justification for the worst crimes against humanity and destroys good men and women through hungry addiction all the time. I don’t know…probably three wrecked lives every three seconds or something.