The Question of Human Reason and “The Canary That Sings on the Skull”
We are humans, not rice, and therefore “we have not yet encountered any god who is as merciful as a man who flicks a beetle over on its feet. There is not a people in the world that behaves as badly as praying mantises.” We are the moral inhabitants of the globe. To deny this, regardless of our feeble attempts to live up to it, is to lie in prison. Of course there is cruelty. Cruelty is a mystery. But if we see the world as one long brutal game, we bump into another mystery, the mystery of beauty, of light, the canary that sings on the skull.Toni Morrison, “Moral Inhabitants”
I chose this passage because I felt that it encapsulates an important facet of Morrison’s philosophical approach to evil in the world. How could she still believe in “mysteries of beauty” when all other pages of the essay describes the atrocities of slavery and the hopeless nature of waiting for humans to change? It was difficult for me to rationalize these two views as simultaneously true, and I wanted to conduct further research into Morrison’s views and inspiration on this subject – including the original source of the quotation and the metaphorical meaning of a “canary that sings on a skull.”
I first researched the quote at the beginning of the passage, which is from Annie Dillard’s 1974 narrative Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. I had little knowledge of Dillard, so I continued by researching her beliefs and how she could be connected to the ideas with which Morrison is grappling in the passage. Dillard spent much of her work in an effort to understand the nature of human suffering and the possible existence of a higher power. In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,she explores the nature surrounding her Roanoke, Virginia home in an effort to discern the identity of a god that would create such a place. Although Dillard seems to primarily explore the Christian theology, the narrative enters into the question of creation from Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish, and Inuit theological perspectives. Through this research, I was better able to understand the quote and Morrison’s intended implication in its usage – despite the atrocities that humans commit, human mercy and kindness cannot be denied. The connection to the philosophy of predestination is also interesting, relating Dillard’s ideas of mercy to the violence described by Morrison at the beginning of the passage and trying to reconcile the two.
I feel that Morrison utilizes this passage in order to emphasize the idea that morality is a human responsibility and to decry the moral escapism that philosophies of predestination enable. Although the sections prior to this in the passage express a more hopeless view of human evil, this ending section allows and encourages efforts to change the narrative through human action – to become the “canary that sings on the skull.” Despite her view that these actions could never erase the stain of atrocities that humans have committed upon each other (specifically actions during the period of widespread enslavement of peoples of color), Morrison leaves a philosophical opening for the existence of human goodness viewed not as a god-given gift, but a mystery equally as unexplainable as the mystery of evil. Through the passage, Morrison simultaneously exhorts the audience to experience the full weight of responsibility for the evil in the world while also confirming the responsibility of humankind to utilize its ability to reason in order to make a positive change in the world. Morrison confirms the human right to reason and asserts its corresponding responsibility – finding our way back to the mystery of light and beauty despite our inability to control the mysteries of either evil or good in the world.
After further analysis of this text by Morrison, I feel that my description of human goodness and evil as balanced within each individual is unable to fully convey the unique nature of Morrison’s argument. Within her depiction in this text, there is no assumption that the “canary” must outweigh the gravity of the horrors she depicts in the preceding pages of the essay – this idea of balance was one of the preconceptions that I brought to my reading, and in order to fully comprehend Morrison’s ideas, I had to move past my own conceptual scheme to fully experience her view. Although the nature of human goodness and evil may seem mysterious or imbalanced, Morrison calls us to look past the arbitrary constrictions we create to see humanity as neither good nor evil. Why define good or evil? Even within events of inhuman evil – such as the Holocaust or slavery – humans committed incredible acts of self-sacrifice for one another. Morrison’s essay forces us to address the messy incongruities of human existence, to introspectively consider her ideas of the incredible grace and unimaginable cruelty of which each one of us is capable.
This passage addresses the question “Why have human beings been given the ability to reason?”