Constructing Cognitive Scaffolding Through Embodied Receptiveness: Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye
By Rokotnitz, Naomi
I. Truth in Timbre In a passage close to the beginning of The Bluest Eye, Claudia, the narrator, and her sister Frieda, are dutifully washing jam jars while their mother chats with her friends in the kitchen. Claudia compares the experience to a
wicked dance: sound meets sound, curtsies, shimmies, and retires. Another sound enters but is upstaged by still another: the two circle each other and stop. Sometimes their words move into lofty spirals; other times they take strident leaps, and all of it punctuated with warm-pulsed laughter – like the throb of a heart made of jelly. The edge, the curl, the thrust of their emotions is always clear to Frieda and me. We do not, cannot, know the meaning of all their words, for we are nine and ten years old. So we watch their faces, their hands, their feet, and listen to truth in timbre. (10)
The wealth of understanding that Claudia is able to glean from this seemingly passive act of observation is remarkable.. First, Morrison endows her childprotagonist with a highly developed receptiveness, a keen sensibility, acute musicality and vivid imaginative powers that translate female prattle into images of dance, abstract geometrical shapes, and sensuous representations such as a heart made of jelly. Claudia is unable to understand the meaning of the adults’ words, but she is able to ascertain the ambience of the conversation, and its significance, by converting its emotional “thrust” into mediums she can understand. Then, she projects herself into the action, so that she is effectively participating in it.
I wish to suggest in this article that the kind of empathetic projection described above, and the concomitant sensation of participation in observed action, constitute a powerful epistemological tool that is facilitated by the biological architecture of all human beings who are not disabled by neurological impairment. Through exercising her potential for receptiveness, Claudia is able to surmount the linguistic barrier between herself and the others and to gain valuable knowledge. As she explains in her testimonial narrative passages, recounted with such vividness they are rendered in present tense: “Adults do not talk to us – they give us directions. They issue orders without providing information” (5). Her knowledge base, therefore, is accumulated gradually, in fragments, and relies overwhelmingly on embodied knowledge. She learns to “read” gesture, expression, eye movement,1 body odor: to feel the ambience and cadence of a conversation through attunement to its physical and emotional thrust. Thus she listens for “truth in timbre” (10). Through repeated practice and increasing refinement, Claudia reaches a level of understanding that enables her in later life to articulate, with subtlety, sensitivity and captivating poetry, the constellation of events that lead to the tragedy recounted in The Bluest Eye.
Claudia may be modeled on Morrison herself, and there are certainly many autobiographical elements in the book, so that it is difficult to make a decided distinction between Claudia’s first- person accounts, and the third-person omniscient narrator passages. Naturally, narrator and author are not identical, and Claudia does not define herself as the writer, but I read the novel as the product of the adult Claudia, a stylized expression of her personal history, and that of her community.2 The Bluest Eye traces the process of Claudia MacTeer’s selfconstruction, and of Pecola Breedlove’s (self)destruction. The novel recounts a year in the lives of the two girls, and reflects upon the dramatic differences in character and circumstances that enable one to become a defiantly independent individual, while the other is abused, marginalized and finally driven to insanity.
In the first half of this article I aim to demonstrate that Claudia’s breadth of vision, grounded in her natural intelligence and creative abilities, is absorbed from her direct environment by a process of cognitive interaction. This kind of interaction has been the focus of many recent neuropsychological studies. Research shows that human perception of actions is influenced by the implicit knowledge of the central nervous system concerning the movements that it itself is capable of producing. To a great extent, we are able to interpret the actions of others because we share their motor schemata – we share a bodily knowledge of them. The neurologist Vittorio Gallese terms this “motor equivalence” (47). Gallese argues that humans are endowed with a mirror-matching capacity, an inborn inclination to imitate, indeed simulate, actions they observe others perform. Mirror-matching, appears to be “a basic organizational feature of the brain” (46).
This assertion was sparked by the discovery in the early 1990s of mirror neurons.3 Mirror neurons are activated by goal-related behaviors. They do not respond to random movements, such as a tree swaying in the wind, but only to the apprehension of meaningful interaction, such as a hand reaching to pick an apple. When we observe an action we perceive as intentional, our mirror neurons activate both the visual areas that observe the action and, concurrently, recruit the motor circuits used to perform that action – the circuits that we would use were we to perform that action ourselves. Giacomo Rizzolatti and Michael Arbib explain further that this mirror system is involuntary. Even though we are able to resist imitating actions we observe others perform, we are not able to prevent our bodies from responding at a preconscious imitative level. As Gallese notes, “action observation implies action simulation” (37). This implies that Claudia’s sensation of participating in the action in the kitchen is justified. Not only is she able to take part, through simulation, in the conversational dance she witnesses, but she is able to learn from it, physically, as she would were she really to take part.
Mirror neurons participate in human action-understanding and actionimitation processes (Rizzolatti and Craighero 169). They also influence motor memory (Stefan).4 However, accumulating research suggests that our mirrorresponse mechanisms are distributed about the brain and are not confined to a particular region (Keysers 343; Agnew 291). Quite to the contrary, it seems increasingly likely that our mirror neurons work in conjunction with other neural networks, such as those responsible for memory and inference, and also with an intricate network of peripheral nervous system pathways stretching all over the body, activating empathetic “motor equivalence.”
The philosopher Andy Clark identified this conjunction in 1998. He observed that humans are evolved to exploit “any mixture of neural, bodily, and environmental resources, along with their complex, looping, often nonlinear interactions” in order to inform and supplement their understanding, as well as compensate for their limitations (“Where Brain” 259). The biological brain is just a part, albeit a crucial part, of “a spatially and temporally extended process” of cooperation between brain, body and environmental aids (“Where Brain” 271 ).5 In a sentence that is particularly apt to the passage I have cited from The Bluest Eye, Clark claims that humans “exist, as the thinking things we are, only thanks to a baffling dance of brain bodies and cultural and technological scaffolding” (Natural Born 11 ). The human mirror-system both enables and encourages us to maximize our cognitive potential by drawing upon multiple information gathering and processing mechanisms that extend our “cognitive scaffolding” (“Where Brain” 274). Cognitive Scaffolding, as will shortly becomes clear, also plays an instrumental part in Morrison’s construction of the protagonists in her novel, and in her analysis of the community she describes.
The Bluest Eye is Morrison’s first fictional attempt to explore how one “learns”"racial self-loathing” (Morrison, TBE 167). She recognizes that “the damaging internalization of assumptions of immutable inferiority [originate] in an outside gaze” (168). Yet, at the same time, she examines how the community described in the novel has internalized the white-man’s degrading gaze, so that it grows like a cancer from within.6 Morrison aims to impress upon the African-American community the extent of their (largely unconscious) complicity in the warped hierarchy of values that perpetuates their subjugation. If dominant white ethics define beauty in terms of light skin, light hair and blue eyes, this does not sufficiently explain why most of the African-Americans in Morrison’s novel not only accept but reinforce this view, exposing “the raw nerve of racial selfcontempt” (168).
Although they are free, relative to their slave ancestors, Morrison’s representation of African Americans implies a continued enslavement by cultural prejudices. Their internal enslavement is far more difficult to identify, and so more difficult to eradicate. It implies, of course, a long history of violence, slavery and discrimination, but the process of learning self-depreciation described in the novel is, for the most part, conducted through commercialized market forces: Hollywood movies and their byproducts – Shirley Temple mugs (16), Mary Jane chocolates (37), Jean Harlow hairstyles (96), etc. Ironically, the target-audience for these products is the White middle-class consumer and not minority ethnicities. However, when consumers such as Pauline Breedlove find themselves entirely excluded from marketed notions of desirability, they begin to see themselves through the (blue) eyes of others, thus perceiving a distorted self-image. The more a character becomes convinced of the White beauty-ethic, the more he or she feels innately inadequate. Increasing frustration and rejection develop into a conviction of ugliness – external and internal – that results in pathological behaviors ranging from indifference to abuse, both of self and others. Morrison is careful to portray a range of different responses to this predicament, but she repeatedly shows how focusing on material gains and a fantasy of beauty they cannot possibly fulfill, robs the majority of the AfricanAmericans both of respect for their own merits and of pride in their past heritage. In other words, by simulating the dominant cultural practices which they observe about them, through individual and collective mirror- matching potentialities, the members of the community described in the novel have learned to efface, even deny, their own beauty, social significance and personal worth.7
Morrison explains in the Afterword to her novel that Pecola’s family is not representative but, rather, a study case of the most extreme, even “monstrous” potential of the internalization of racial hatred (168). And yet, as Jane Kuenz points out, the case of Aunt Julie delineates a precursor for Pecola’s own escape into madness, suggesting that “the town has an undiagnosed and unexamined history of producing women like Pecola, that her experience – and the extremity of it – is not an isolated instance” (429).
In the first scene in which the ironically named Breedlove family is presented to the reader, Pecola’s parents, Pauline and Cholly, are engaged in violent combat brought on by “inarticulate fury and aborted desires” (TBE 31). While their son screams at his mother “Kill him! Kill Him!” eleven-year-old Pecola tries to make herself disappear. She tries to imagine away every limb in her body, literally erasing her physical presence. She finds, however, that she cannot erase her eyes. This may imply to the reader that she cannot extract herself from the harsh realities of her home. Unable to grasp the metaphoric significance of her eyes as windows to her soul, Pecola becomes obsessed with their physicality. She prays continually for blue eyes, hoping that were she to have blue eyes, maybe her parents would be different: “Maybe they’d say ‘Why, look at pretty-eyed Pecola. We mustn’t do bad things in front of those pretty eyes’”(34).
Pecola’s invisibility may be a feat of imagination, a studied defense mechanism, but it has tangible effects in the real world. As Malin La Von Walther asserts, “the effect of popular American culture’s specular construction of beauty is that it bestows presence or absence. One’s visibility depends upon one’s beauty” (777). Pecola’s experience of invisibility and her belief in her own ugliness and, thus, her worthlessness, renders her so weak, that even the lowliest characters in her society can take advantage of her. Time after time she is ruthlessly abused, by the school boys, by Junior and his mother Geraldine, by Church Soaphead, and by her own parents. And each time her only response is to try to diminish her own presence. She does not attempt to defend herself, to justify herself, or to attain any measure of understanding. She simply accepts – almost expects – violation after violation.
III: Cognitive Scaffolding
In contrast, Claudia, the narrator, though two years younger than Pecola, possesses a powerful drive to self-determination. I have begun to suggest that this drive is fed by her receptiveness to external stimuli, a receptiveness that enables her to learn from her environment. As the evidence regarding mirror neurons and the theory of cognitive scaffolding jointly suggest, humans learn through interaction. Pecola is disabled, mentally, physically, and socially, by being entirely cut off from all forms of human interaction, while Claudia is exposed to a wide variety of inputs that enable her to extend and develop her personal capabilities: to construct complex cognitive scaffolding.
In a telling scene early in the novel, Claudia and her sister Frieda come across Pecola, encircled by a group of rowdy boys who are taunting her. She has dropped her books and stands in their midst covering her eyes. This devastatingly infantile gesture emphasizes her lack of sophistication. She behaves as a toddler might. The gesture also ties into her obsessive preoccupation with her eyes. She wishes not to see her abusers, and at the same time, hide her ugliness from them. Frieda and Claudia instinctively leap to the rescue. This act of defiance and solidarity exemplifies the extent to which their life-experience has been enabling, where Pecola’s has been crippling. First, Claudia and Frieda have each other as constant companions who expand each other’s fields of knowledge. It is Frieda, for instance, who tells Claudia about menstruation. Pecola has a brother, but the dynamics of her family unit are such that they do not communicate on any level. Instead, like the characters in Sartre’s No Exit, each of them is locked “in his own cell of consciousness, each making his own patchwork quilt of reality” (TBE 25). However, the MacTeer girls’ chief advantage over Pecola is that they are part of a community. Their mother has friends who gossip in the kitchen and, when they try to sell their marigold seeds, the girls are taken in, given lemonade and become privy to the women’s chatter. In this bullying episode, Claudia and Frieda display an understanding of the strategies of threat and negotiation, an understanding they have presumably acquired while overhearing the such chatter – and so participating in conversational-dances of the kind cited above. Frieda has enough confidence in her sexuality to target Woodrow, the ringleader, whom she knows has a crush on her. She implies that she knows a secret that he would not like revealed, and thereby diffuses the situation.
Claudia attributes her sister’s success to the fact that she is physically taller than the boys, but also to the facial expression she assumes: “set lip and Mama’s eyes” (SO).Vanquishing the bullies is achieved through embodied simulation – through adopting the very gestures and expressions their mother uses when taking a stand. Indeed, Mrs. MacTeer is the most influential contributor to the construction and reinforcement of her daughters’ cognitive scaffolding. She has taught her girls, through example, rather than by ever speaking of it, that they have a right to be angry sometimes, that they can and should defend themselves, and that they can take an active stand against abuse. Later on, when Mr. Henry tries to fondle Frieda, she does not hesitate to tell her parents. Outraged, they end up shooting at him, so that he leaves town in disgrace. This stands in stark contrast to poor Pecola who, confiding in her mother after being brutally raped by her own father, is beaten viciously in response. Mrs. MacTeer has also shown her girls, once again through example, that they should help their friends. When Pecola’s father first burns down their house, it is the MacTeer who takes her in, while her own family fail to inquire whether their child is “live or dead” (TBE 17). By observing their mother, the girls have also learned to imitate successfully her very manner and demeanor. This unconscious body-based knowledge, performed through “motor equivalence,” is the most important tool they wield. Blue eyes are not attainable Mama’s are. Successful simulation has tangible effects. This fact is of profound and determining importance in the novel.
Another aspect of Mrs. MacTeer’s unconscious scaffolding- construction can be found in her singing. Morrison’s mother was a singer and it is not by chance that music provides an underlying structure in the novel. The improvisational Jazz, which requires each player to exhibit both individual skill and acute attunement to his fellow musicians, together with the sensual Blues, constitute a form of self affirmation in the novel. As Cat Moses points out, the melody and lyrics of the songs Mrs. MacTeer sings, suggest to Claudia a sense of hope, of freedom and of personal agency. She learns that it is possible to steer the course of one’s own life. The songs also disclose a world of sensuous romance and sexual delight. When Mrs. MacTeer gives way to her singing mood, her voice becomes sweet and her “singing-eyes so melty” that her songs seem “delicious” (18). Her singing is not directed at, nor particularly conscious of, the listening child. Yet it nonetheless imparts invaluable knowledge. Claudia is infused with affection for AfricanAmerican culture and for her own kind. In contrast, Pecola can see no way out of her predicament. She is not fully conscious of the possibility of escape. She has never been sung to, she is hardly ever spoken to. Pauline’s rejection of her own daughter, in favor of the girl for whose family she works, with her corn-colored hair and blue eyes, constitutes one of the most heart-wrenching episodes in the novel (84). Pecola sees herself through increasingly hostile filters, represented by other people’s viewpoints and, significantly, their eyes: Shirley Temple’s idealized innocent blue eyes, and her mother’s oppressive black eyes, filled with scorn. How could Pecola ever work up the confidence or initiative to escape?”
Clark argues that the processes by which individual and environment interact are reciprocal: we both create and, in turn, are created by the very same interactions (“Natural Born”! 1 ). In a reasonably supportive environment, we can adjust, adapt, transform and advance: through accumulating experiences, through gradually refining our understanding. Claudia is able to do just this. And this is what one would normally expect. As Clark asserts, the only constancy our extended cognitive system may be said to enjoy, is its “continual openness to change” (8). Pecola, on the other hand, is denied the benefits of the interactive “loop” and remains unassisted by any form of scaffolding. She stands alone, rejected, on the periphery of the loop. Her plight is made more tangible if we consider her not merely as neglected, but as disabled. Zuckow- Goldring and Arbib have shown that caregivers normatively direct and focus, verbally and nonverbally, the child’s attention to, and. understanding of, the potential uses of specific objects. By both demonstrating the use of a fork, or cup, or ball, and by guiding the child’s initial experimentation with the object, caregivers expand the infant’s understanding of both the opportunities for action available to them, which they term “affordances,” and the repertoire of actions their own bodies may perform, which they term “effectivities” (ZuckowGoldring 2181). Learning through assisted trial and error, infants not only increase their range of skills, but also their confidence in experimentation itself. This is crucial. By being denied any form of caregiving – in infancy or at any other stage of her life – Pecola is left to fend for herself in a sea of information. Indeed, if the assisting caregiver’s direction reduces “search space and thus speed[s] learning,” it becomes clear why Pecola’s learning process is so much slower than that of other children (Zuckow Goldring 2181). She is neither assisted in the learning process nor told which elements in her environment are invariants-persistent or stable-and so do not require continual vigilance. Moreover, though Pecola learns through imitation – through translating observed action into self-executed action, thus drawing upon her mirror-matching neural networks-she is usually denied insight into the impetus for, and the significance of, these actions. This hampers not only her understanding of the actions themselves, or the appropriate moment to imitate them, but also restricts her ability to predict when such behavior may .be used against her. How can she learn to read the signs that would lead another to suspect Junior or Church Soaphead?
Although humans have a natural-born curiosity, a great deal of our interest in exploring the world around us depends upon the encouragement of our caregivers; on what Zuckow-Goldring and Arbib call “educated attention”(2183). Children who are stimulated, encouraged, and then rewarded, by praise or by success, for their (mental) activity, may be expected to continue this behavioral trait in later life. On the other hand, children who are largely ignored will also, eventually, learn to eat, walk, and even talk, but their level of enthusiastic engagement with, and independent exploration of, their environment will be radically reduced “looking is not enough, since the gaze of the untutored infant cannot pick out the relevant affordance”(2182). Pecola, as I continually suggest, represents the “untutored infant”; she is disabled by those who ought to provide care and guidance.
My analysis of the discrepancies between Claudia and Pecola’s cognitive potentialities is, thus, corroborated by neuropsychological research. It seems that the older one gets, and the more one is exposed to demonstrations of complex actions (that can be imitated via the neural system described above), and the more practice one gets in performing these actions oneself, the more one increases one’s range of cognitive complexities. These complexities are registered in the very biological structures of the brain (Molnar-Szakacs). ‘ Moreover, there exists an overlap in activations of action-recognition and language-production areas of the brain (Arbib; Molnar-Szakacs). Increasing cognitive complexity occurs in both action-perception and language production areas concurrently, since these two share the very same cognitive resources and neural substrata (Molnar-Szakacs 925). Understanding observed action, initiating independent action and developing linguistic dexterity are all interlinked and are all facilitated by our mirror-matching system.
The mirror through which Pecola has observed herself since birth is the one reflected in her mother’s disapproving eyes. At the very end of the novel, she stands before a real mirror, gazing into her own eyes, which she thinks are blue, a tragic representation of her desperation to fulfill her mother’s expectations. Ironically, finally obtaining, in her mind, blue eyes does not earn her the minimal recognition for which she hoped. While she was overlooked when she had black eyes, she is actively ostracized once she obtains blue eyes. That she does not understand it is her pregnancy that people are avoiding, emphasizes the solipsistic loop of her radically limited cognitive spectrum.
Meanwhile Claudia’s family context enables her to access a primal power, something close to nature, in tune with the body, that is her natural right. While Pecola consumes milk from a Shirley Temple mug (TBE 16), and devours Mary Jane chocolates (37), literally trying to ingest the beauty these girls represent to her, Claudia buys “Powerhouse bars” (59). Her resilience is a concerted effort, one she actively reinforces everyday – “against everything and everybody” ( 150). Her power enables her to shun cultural restrictions. She recounts how she once received a “big blue-eyed Baby Doll” for Christmas. The gift was physically repellant to her. She had only one desire: “to dismember it” (14). Instead, her image of an ideal Christmas is a harmonious and intimate experience, quite opposed to the dominant consumer culture:
Had any adult with the power to fulfill my desires taken me seriously and asked me what I wanted, they would have known that I did not want anything to own, or to possess any object. I wanted rather to feel something on Christmas day. The real question would have been, “Dear Claudia, what experience would you like on Christmas?” I could have spoken up, “I want to sit on the low stool in Big Mama’s kitchen with my lap full of lilacs and listen to Big Papa play his violin for me alone.” The lowness of the stool made for my body, the security and warmth of Mama’s kitchen, the smell of the lilacs, the sound of the music, and, since it would be good to have all of my senses engaged, the taste of a peach, perhaps, afterward. (IS)
This unapologetic attention to the body is key, I believe, to the greatest discrepancies between Claudia and Pecola, and the very fountain of Claudia’s strength. At the end of the novel, Pecola becomes imprisoned in solitary confinement, forever a child, forever longing for the bluest eye. Claudia, supported by intricate and sturdy scaffolding networks, is able to become one of the most influential fictional characters who helped young girls in the 1970s internalize that black is beautiful.
IV. Just As No Count
In parts IV and V of this article I focus upon Pauline Breedlove, Pecola’s mother, and a number of other adult female figures in the novel, in order to try to locate the cognitive slippage that disables Pecola. The Bluest Eye suggests that the healthiest environment for a growing child is one which rewards body-based, sense-rich, and intuitive perceptions and, thus, provides a necessary balance between embodied knowledge and linguistic, analytical skills. Analytical skills are, of course, equally body- based, in that they take place in the brain, but they function differently, involving the application of reasoning and narrative- constructing skills. It appears, moreover, that there is a biologically predetermined chronology to their application. The neurologist Antonio Damasio asserts that it is the body that first responds to emotional signals, while reflection upon the embodied response is a secondary process (283). This does not imply a hierarchy of importance but simply the stages by which humans regularly comprehend.
The Bluest Eye explores the potential effects of a radical imbalance between automatic body-based responses, and secondary, discursive modes of apprehension and comprehension. Since the novel was written in the 1960s, and published in 1970, Morrison could not have known of either the theoretical arguments or the scientific investigations that now support her claims. My aim is not simply to prove her intuitions were correct by supplying scientific evidence for them, but to show how her astoundingly complex analysis matches what we now know regarding brain functions and human understanding. As Catherine Emmott has asserted: “Cognitive science can provide new technical tools for narratologists, but, conversely, narratology has a wealth of understanding of complex narrative texts to offer cognitive science” (319).
A poignant example of Morrison’s intuitive accuracy can be seen in the passage that describes Pauline Breedlove’s childhood. The reader is impressed by Pauline’s unusual attraction to colors. Her recollection of home is characterized by “a streak of green” created by effervescent June-bugs (TBE 87). She also recalls a time when, as a child, she had picked berries and the juice had seeped through her pockets, staining her very skin. “My whole dress was messed with purple, and it never did wash out. Not the dress nor me. I could feel that purple deep inside me” (90). It is not merely that Pauline is naturally comfortable with her sensuality but that her perceptions, and her memories, are formed though embodied receptiveness. Her sensuousness and her imagination combine to imply both a potent desire for “an all-embracing tenderness” (88) in the form of a partner, and also a distinctive artistic inclination. Pauline, we are led to suspect, was born with the kind of sensibility that, were it encouraged, may have been expressed in beauty. Unfortunately, however, Pauline missed, “without knowing what she missed paints and crayons” (87). Nonetheless, when Pauline falls in love, it is likened to an explosion of color, mingled with varied textures and tastes: berries, lemonade, June-bugs and yellow eyes fuse together into an intense and tactile experience that merges abstract and physical apprehensions. Kuenz notes that, for Pauline, sexual pleasure is tied into a sense of “a power” (TBE 101 ; Kuenz 427). Pauline’s sexual appetite is generated by Cholly’s desire for her, but “not until I know that my flesh is all that be on his mind” (TBE 101). Then, she continues, “/ be strong enough, pretty enough, and young enough to let him make me come.” I must add that Pauline’s orgasms, beyond the sexual pleasure they afford, the sense of communion with her partner, and the gratification of being desired, carry significant weight in terms of empowerment because they remind her of her embodied self. Sex makes her feel “… those little bits of color floating up in me – deep in me[...] then I feel like I am laughing between my legs, and the laughing gets all mixed up with the colors [...] and it be rainbow all inside. And it lasts and lasts and lasts” ( 101 -2). But it does not last. The fact that she needs to feel Cholly’s desire in order to release her own, is tragically replicated in her need to feel that others respect her in order to be able to respect herself. When this does not occur, she loses respect and sexual drive. In the industrial north, Pauline’s increased isolation and loneliness, coupled with the Hollywood films she regularly watches, subdue her nature. Cholly fails to embody a canvas for her colors, and as their intimacy declines, the colors fade. Sensuality is stifled and replaced by his drunkenness and her adoption of dogmatic Church doctrines. The rainbow colors that accompanied her country-life are replaced by color blindness. Her life becomes black and white: black and white movies, black and white skins.
Pauline’s blackness, her pregnancy, and every other manifestation of her physicality are entirely absent from her visual and cultural intake. Gradually understanding the extent of her own invisibility, Pauline tries to match the representations she does see. She changes hair styles, buys new clothes, experiments with makeup. But these efforts only engender a “collecting [of] self contempt by the heap” (95). She feels ridiculous, and she is not accepted by the community of women, who make her feel “just as no count” (91).
The thinning of her physical apprehensions, the threat to the sensuous and artistic rainbow embodiment of experience in which she delighted until then, is represented by her losing her front teeth. “Everything went then… I just didn’t care no more after that” (96). This is particularly telling when viewed in light of Jerome Kagen’s assertion that “chronic identification with a category of self marked by disadvantage and compromised status contributes to the vulnerability to illness”( 181). Poverty is less a hindrance to personal advancement than is the belief in one’s “relative disadvantage” (180). This becomes all the more pronounced among children who are both poor and members of a minority ethnicity. Suspicion that one’s social and biological inheritance is inferior stunts confidence and can often create a level of psychological stress that may contribute “greater morbidity” (181).
Thus, Pecola is born to a mother who has already perfected the devaluation of herself through commercialized fantasies (Rosenberg 440), she has already performed an “abdication of self (Kuenz 422). Her choice of the name Pecola is a symptom of this condition. As Maureen Peal (rather than her own mother) tells Pecola, her namesake is a character in a film called, significantly, Imitation of Life: “this mulatto girl hates her mother ’cause she’s black and ugly” (TBE 52). Morrison adds extra irony to this anecdote through Maureen’s evaluation of the film: “It was real sad. Everybody cries in it” (52).10
I wish to suggest that Pauline’ s story in The Bluest Eye describes how a process is put in motion, by which the constructive potentialities of human mirrormatching capabilities are reversed. Pauline blocks out any external sources with which her own networks may interact productively and tries instead to emulate networks that are alien to her. She rejects all that she is, but cannot attain that which she is not. If, as suggested above, empathetic projection and the sensation of participation in actions observed provide a powerful epistemological tool, then, by the same token, Pauline’s self-effacement can be understood to be a powerful epistemological obstacle. Pauline, in effect, dismantles the cognitive scaffolding that she had constructed for herself in childhood and that, ironically, served her very well until after she was married.
One of Pauline’s greatest cognitive obstacles is an underdeveloped capacity for narrative. In childhood, while her embodied receptiveness was exceptionally vivid, she had a natural aversion to words, even felt “depressed by words” (87). Pauline’s natural inclinations, her innate kind of understanding and her sense of (aesthetic) pleasure, are all abstract, experienced very actively in the body, and lacking, even eschewing, any logical or narrative analysis. This, I submit, makes her vulnerable to the narrative frameworks suggested by others, particularly those most prevalent in her society. As Jerome Bump phrases it, she “accepts the master narrative without questions” (164-65).” Her immersion in the dominant, white, popular culture leads her to assimilate a racist view of herself.
While Claudia has a heightened capacity for embodied receptiveness, she also possesses the ability to frame her sensations, to interpret cause and effect in a social context. Kay Young and Jeffery Saver maintain that “what predominates or fundamentally constitutes our consciousness is the understanding of self and world in story” (73). Claudia is adept at expressing herself in narrative form while Pauline finds it harder to conceive of a narrative progression in her life. Her modes of understanding are antithetical to this secondary process, and this may be one of the causes of her demise.12 This view is enhanced by considering dark’s assertion in “Language, Embodiment, and the Cognitive Niche” that language is “a mode of cognition-enhancing self- stimulation”(370); a “key cognitive tool enabling us to objectify, reflect upon, and hence knowingly engage with, our own thoughts, trains of reasoning, and personal cognitive characters”(372). This may also explain, in part at least, how Pauline’s own pain performs a short-circuiting of her empathetic reactions. Sympathetic as the reader may be to her plight, few can remain tranquil in response to her complete indifference to her daughter’s pain. Pauline’s inability to identify with her daughter derives from her perception of Pecola as embodying all that she rejects in herself. Her resistance to Pecola is fed by her (culturally prompted) resistance of her self. She perceives both herself and Pecola through eyes that deem them repugnant.
Pauline is left stripped of any kind of cognitive scaffolding.” What, then, is left of her essential self? And with what tools may she interact with the world? The answer comes in the form of servitude. Pauline adopts willed schizophrenia. She makes a conscious choice to live a double life, ignoring her own home and family and living exclusively for the benefit of the Fisher family for whom she successfully embodies “the ideal servant” (TBE 99). At the Fisher’s she enjoys “power, praise and luxury.” They even give her “what she had never had – a nickname – Polly” (99). Jennifer Gillan argues that Pauline gladly trades in “her own troubled body and history” for the freedom of movement afforded by her new identity as Polly. Pauline “believes that she is squalid and dark like her apartment and that the Fishers are stately and clean like their house. Pauline can only maintain a positive self-perception by affiliating herself with the Fishers” (Gillan 291). I wish to extend this observation by arguing that the Fishers provide Pauline with the narrative framework she lacks and with a well-defined role. Pauline is blind to the ironies of her exploitation. She is entirely convinced – even comforted by – her own rejection of her essential self in favor of this Polly-persona. And yet she cannot inhabit Polly all the time. At the end of each day, the fantasy must be set aside and the old identity of Pauline re-assumed. Pauline’s persisting dissatisfaction and bitterness remain untouched.
V. Natural Funkiness
Morrison demonstrates that denying one’s natural inclination and denying the physicality of one’s body, result in self- nullification. Consider, for instance, Miss Delia Jones. When her husband is asked “why he left a nice good church woman like Delia for that heifer,” he replies that “the honest-to-God real reason was he couldn’t take no more of that violet water Delia Jones used. Said he wanted a woman to smell like a woman. Said Delia was just too clean for him.” The gossips’ response is telling:
“Old dog. Ain’t that nasty!” one exclaims.
“You telling me,” another replies, “What kind of reasoning is that?” (TBE 8)
This question resounds throughout the novel, for the point is precisely that reason is irrelevant here. It is a matter of physical, sexual attraction, of passion and of authenticity. Just as Claudia cannot relate to the plastic dolls, so Delia’s husband cannot relate to his lavender-besmothered wife. Delia, like Pauline and Geraldine, unable to construct her own narratives, instead adopted those of others, particularly the narrative represented by the Dick and Jane primer passage, which serves as an epigraph to the novel.14 Della and Geraldine cultivate “thrift, patience, high morals, and good manners” at the expense of “the dreadful funkiness of passion, the funkiness of nature, the funkiness of the wide range of human emotions” (64). ” In the process, they nullify their own being, and lose their attractiveness. Indeed, in accordance with the Dick and Jane primer, the “hunger for property, for ownership” is the primary preoccupation of the community (12). “Propertied black people,” recalls Claudia, “spent all their energies, all their love, on their nests.” The use of the word nest implies a nurturing and natural environment, but the fact that all their love is expended on the external structure, implies a lack on the inside. This obsession for housing and cleanliness is partly bred by a fear of being put “outdoors” and partly by a (sub)conscious desire to emulate the white American dream (11). The struggle to fit into a dream from which they are entirely excluded takes up all their energies. This leaves little time or emotional energy for the people who live in the house: themselves and their children.
Interestingly, the more the women in The Bluest Eye care about their houses, the less they care for their own bodies. They are kept clean of course, but to such an extent that they are sterilized. As I have been arguing, the white beauty ethic divorces the women from their sexuality. The more Geraldine and Pauline, in their own ways, try to erase their blackness, the less sexually desirable they become. Morrison complicates this further by tying into Pecola’s rape. The action that Pecola performs that stirs desire in Cholly is the scratching of her ankle – a repetition of the very action her mother was performing when he first met her. Although this rape is rooted in a twisted knot of complicated personal and collective histories, it appears that one of its roots is Cholly’s longing for a simple, unaffected, natural easiness, which Pauline once had.16 While the women hanker after an impossible white ideal, the men still desire their real imperfect bodies.
This is explored further through the characters of Miss Marie, China, and Poland, the three prostitutes. They are, or at least believe themselves to be, prostitutes by choice. They are not owned by any man, nor are they enslaved by drug addiction. They are as much in control of their own lives as any of the other African- American characters in the novel.17 Moreover, though they are no longer young, though China has bandy legs and Marie is overweight, they remain desirable – the men want them. Ironically, these three are the only ones who express any interest in, or exhibit any affection towards, Pecola. While the churchgoing women follow the fire-and-brimstone ethics of judgment, the prostitutes represent an alternative ethic – that of (equally Christian) compassion. Though universally feared and abhorred by all the other female characters in the novel, their company provides a small oasis of ease for Pecola. It is not by chance then, I suggest, that it is in their company that Pecola experiences a momentary awakening of her sensual potentialities. In their midst, she allows her imagination, for one brief instant, to be stimulated. When Marie recalls frying fish with her lover, Pecola not only visualizes the details of this sensuous experience, but experiences an allinclusive sense-rich apprehension:
Pecola saw Marie’s teeth settling down into the back of crisp sea bass; saw the fat fingers putting back into her mouth tiny flakes of white, hot meat that had escaped from her lips; she heard the “pop” of the beer-bottle cap; smelled the acridness of the first stream of vapor; felt the cold beerness hit the tongue. (41 )
However short-lived this “daydream” may be, it allows the reader a glimpse into a window of possibility, biologically available, yet perpetually emotionally closed before Pecola.
This observation feeds back into our assessment of Claudia’s confidence, for it too cannot be detached from her own imagination and sensuality. When Frieda is molested by Mr. Henry, instead of being shocked or outraged, Claudia asks “how did it feel?” This is acknowledged to be “the wrong question” – but is it? (76) I wish to suggest that by fostering her sensuality – her keen senses and her delight in engaging them all-Claudia opens up a world of multiplicity and possibility, of sensual interaction with the world. Claudia is not repelled by the body functions or body products that culture teaches us to clean up.18 She studies her own vomit (6), wants to see the blood of menstruation (20), spends her time picking “toe jam,” and enjoys her nakedness (IS). She and Frieda not only feel comfortable in their own skins, but “admire” its dirt and “cultivate” its scars (57). This ease is partly explained by their young age, still oblivious to the gender and sexuality politics that condition and delimit the feminine, the desirable. And yet, although Claudia admits that, soon after, both sisters succumbed to the dominant cultural prescriptions, this acquiescence is temporary. Adult Claudia, the narrating Claudia of the novel, has seen through her teenage weakness, and has re-acquired the defiance her childhood self championed. Similarly, the rampant jealousy, hatred and violence towards white dolls and their human counterparts, which Claudia and Frieda deem “natural” in 1941, is soon curbed by socialization (59). And yet, physicality and passion are reclaimed – in socially acceptable and far more productive manifestations – by the adult Claudia. As I have indicated above, Claudia’s embodied receptiveness is assisted by increasingly sophisticated discursive modes of analysis – psychological, social, political – that inform the artistic creativity expressed in her narration of her story.
When Pecola’s pregnancy becomes apparent, she is made to leave school and is shunned by all. Claudia recalls the common response: “Ought to be a law: two ugly people doubling up like that to make more ugly. Be better off in the ground” ( 149). People are “disgusted, amused, shocked, outraged, or even excited by the story.” Claudia and Frieda listen for someone to say “Poor little girl,” or “Poor baby,” but they encounter “only head wagging where those words should have been” (149). Against the current of their community’s antipathy, Claudia and Frieda try, once again, to rescue Pecola. They decide to plant marigold seeds, hoping that “if we planted the seeds, and said the right words over them, they would blossom, and everything would be alright” (4).
But the mangolds do not grow, the baby dies, and Pecola goes mad. For years Claudia holds herself responsible, believing she was to blame for these premature deaths. However, as she grows older, as she amasses cultural and sociological knowledge, and as her analytic faculties are developed, she recognizes the web of circumstances that were pitted against flowers and babies alike in 1941. The linguistic skills and idiosyncratic modes of expression she has developed enable her to finally voice those words that were left unsaid – to cry out “Poor Baby”!
This cry is comprehensive in scope. As Claudia herself explains: “More strongly than my fondness for Pecola, I felt a need for someone to want the black baby to live – just to counter the universal love for white baby dolls, Shirley Temples, and Maureen Peals” (149). The girls do not consider the social outrage, or the biological dangers, of Pecola having a baby by her father. But they do sense the “overwhelming hatred for the unborn baby.” Claudia and Frieda want this baby to survive, almost as an existential equivalent of their own struggle for survival and recognition. Claudia’s attunement to the physicality of human bodies also intensifies her sense of the baby’s reality. To her, the child is not an abstract abomination but a living, breathing baby. Conjuring the physicality of the body, its fragility, its blackness, its lovability, counteracts the distorting and distancing discourse of the adults. And this is exactly what she does later on in life by writing this novel.19
Indeed, the written record of Claudia’s testimony, and the intricate narrative devices deployed by Morrison, express not only the maturity of understanding that the protagonist has reached, but the fundamental appreciation of words themselves as intrinsic to our cognitive scaffolding. Clark argues that language is not merely a form of communicating pre-formed ideas but an integral part of the thinking process itself. Words have a “physical existence as encountered and perceptible items, as sounds in the air, as words on the printed page”(“Language” 370). As concrete perceptible items, words allow us to engage in forms of reasoning that would otherwise elude us (371). “Thinking about thinking,” asserts Clark, is “dependant on language for its very existence”(372). By understanding words as “bodily forms,” Clark reconfigures their relation to humans as embodied agents (370). In turn, Claudia’s natural talent for building upon her embodied perceptions through a secondary process of analysis and narrative construction, assisted by intricate external aids – or cognitive scaffolding-enable her to blossom, against the odds, instead of the marigolds. Pecola is lost, but Claudia can try to tell Pecola’s story, and her own. As an adult, Claudia can finally unpack the linguistic component of the conversational-dance she overheard in childhood, enabling her to accept responsibility for her part in the collective ills of the 40s, to lament a tragic loss, and to ask for a measure of forgiveness, while also extending a warm embrace to her own kind. In recounting her story, Claudia manages to overturn the earth, sprinkle it with nutrients, and prepare it for a new batch of marigold seeds. Generations to come will be able to enjoy these flowers, smell their delicate scent, and rejoice in their beauty.
Considering Morrison’s novel in light of recent neuropsychological studies and theories of mind, embodiment and cognition, I suggest that The Bluest Eye offers incisive insights into human processes of intersubjective communication. Morrison’s sensitive portrayal of the emotional histories of her characters facilitates an examination of the role of what Andy Clark terms “cognitive scaffolding” in the construction of self. Claudia’s powerful attraction to the body, which stands in contrast to the accepted norms of the dominant white-Christian culture of her time, allows her to access a primal form of understanding that ought to be available to all humans through “motor equivalence.” Her particular form of receptiveness, which both embraces the body and maximizes its multiple means of knowledge acquisition, and her keen attunement to emotional cadence, generate both self-empowerment and productive socialization. Notes
1 For instance, when Mrs. MacTeer realizes she should not have whipped the girls for “playing bad” when they had in fact been helping the menstruating Pecola, she does not apologize outright. “She pulled both of them towards her, their heads against her stomach” (22). Claudia understands this gesture, and observes that her “eyes were sorry.”
2 For an interesting discussion of narrative technique and narrator personas in the novel see Tirrell.
3 Evidence obtained primarily through electroencephalography (EEG) and magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which provides information about regional cerebral blood flow, enabling the analysis of neural activity, suggests that the human mirror system stems from activity in the inferior parietal lobe, inferior frontal gyres (including Broca’s area), and superior temporal sulcus (STS) (Fadiga; Hari; Muthukamaraswamy and Johnson; Rizzolatti and Craighero). For a detailed summary of the most important stages of the extensive research on mirror neurons see Agnew.
4 Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) was used to show that observation of another individual performing simple repetitive thumb movements gives rise to a kinematically specific memory trace of the observed motions in Mland influences the direction of subsequent actions, supporting evidence of the role of mirror neurons in memory formation and also – possibly – human motor learning.
5 Clark describes the brain as “wetwear,” the body as “hardwear,” and environmental aids as “widewear” (“Where Brain” 271).
6 In Playing in the Dark, Morrison claims that the Whites defined their “Americannes” and their sense of freedom in opposition to what they perceived as raw and savage Africanism (65). Projecting their own anxieties – the “dread of failure, powerless, Nature without limits, natal loneliness, internal aggression, evil, sin, greed” (37- 38) – onto the African “other,” they created an illusion of their own empowerment.
7 By showing the African-American consciousness from within, Morrison resists its marginalization as ethnic other, or at least, counteracts its categorization as inferior. But the community she represents has not reached the level of political awareness or empowerment that the author has achieved.
8 She could, perhaps, have learned from her brother, who often runs away, but he never invites her to join him, and he always returns. Except at the very end of the novel, when she has already lost her mind, he leaves without her and never returns.
9 This relates interestingly to Damasio’s experience with “as if body loops” (281). These simulation mechanisms, bypassing the body proper through the internal activation of sensory body maps, create a representation of emotion-driven body-related changes and result in “significant alteration of brain function” (282).
10 Maureen Peal is a mulatto herself. Gillan argues convincingly that Morrison uses Maureen’s braids, arranged into “two lynch ropes that hung down her back,” to introduce a submerged discussion of racial violence. Gillan draws a parallel between the women’s willful blindness, that adores Maureen’s light skin and green eyes, and “forgets” the historical implications of racial and sexual abuse encoded in her body, and the willful blindness of the political establishment, that preferred to fight racism abroad in World War II, rather than to confront its domestic manifestations.
11 Bump draws parallels between the “emotional literacy” required for, and developed by, family systems therapy, and that exhibited by “family romance” novelists, arguing that “this may well be one of literature’s most important contribution to our culture” (159-60). Indeed, he suggests that Claudia is “one of a long tradition of narrators who escape family disintegration that can be traced back at least to Helen in Anne Bronte’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Helen is the only person who breaks out of the cycle of abuse and addiction in that novel because she too adopts a form of the talking cure” by writing ajournai (163).
12 Roger Schank claims that “intelligence is bound up with our ability to tell the right story at the right time” (21 ). For an exploration of current notions of “theory of mind (ToM), a discussion of the role of quality literary works play in both describing and extending our capacity for reading other people’s minds, and the notion of ‘imagining serially embedded representations of mental states (that is, “representations of representations of representations” of mental states)’” (271) see Lisa Zunshine’s excellent 2003 essay and her recent 2006 book.
13 This is replicated in her daughter, as I have argued above; Pecola is denied the constructive benefits of cognitive scaffolding.
14 This innovative and complex narrative technique, by which Morrison prefaces her novel with a mass-produced paradigm of white consumer culture, and then deconstructs its message through removing spacing and punctuation in three distinctive stages, has been widely discussed. see, for instance, Tirrell or Kuenz.
15 This kind of behavior is primarily encouraged by the church doctrines these women live by and is not a specifically African- American behavioral pattern. However, because Protestant ethics are combined with their self-loathing, born of racial discrimination, these women take their refusal to acknowledge their own bodies to the extreme.
16 Morrison’s attitude to and representation of both Cholly’s life history and his act of rape are complex and very important to a comprehensive understanding of the novel. They can also shed interesting light upon the embodied receptiveness for which I argue in this essay. However, in order to focus this particular paper, I have decided to leave out Cholly and the broader discussion of male sexuality in the novel that he invites. In addition to Morrison’s own discussion of Cholly in her Afterword to the novel, see also, once again, Gillan’s excellent article, as well as Kuenz and Wong.
17 The novel is set in 1941, the year America joined the war. The prostitutes are named after Poland and China, representing the two fronts, European and Asian, of the war. Marie is referred to by the community as “The Maginot Line” (the fortifications built by the French as defense against Nazi invasion, which proved wholly inadequate). Kuenz argues that, in these three, Morrison “literalizes the novel’s overall conflation of black female bodies as sites of fascist invasions” (421 ). Moreover, Ae comparison between these three and the other female figures in their community, who by and large repress their own domestic problems through uniting in abhorrence against prostitutes, is telling. As Jennifer Gillan rightly points out: “There is much focusing on the wrong front in the novel: The townswomen concentrate on vilifying the prostitutes for denigrating black womanhood, but do not acknowledge the economic inequalities that foster prostitution in the first place; the prostitutes focus on hating the townswomen, but exempt from their scorn the churchwomen who seem most to embody the ideology of true womanhood that, in actuality, excludes black women; and the Breedloves focus on attaining the material goods that will enable them to maintain an aura of citizenship, instead of recognizing that the system of commodity compensation not only excludes black people, but also distracts attention from the growing economic inequalities between the rich and the poor of all races” (285).
18 See also Kuenz (423).
19 Let me reiterate the disclaimer I make at the opening of this paper: Claudia and Morrison are not identical, but I believe that the narrative structure of the novel implies that it has been written by the fictional character Claudia.
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Bar Ilan University
Naomi Rokotnitz (firstname.lastname@example.org) teaches at Bar Ilan University. Her article, ‘”It Is Required You Do Awake Your Faith’: Learning to Trust the Body through Performing The Winter’s Tale,” appeared in Performance and Cognition: Theatre Studies After the Cognitive Turn. Eds. F. Elizabeth Hart and Bruce McConachie (Routledge 2006). She is currently finalizing a book entitled Trusting P(l)ays, a cognitive reading of the potentialities of dramatic performance which seeks to mitigate radical skepticism through encouraging attunement to embodied knowledge.
Copyright Northern Illinois University, Department of English Winter 2007
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