The passing away of Toni Morrison shook up America, well as it should.
Prolific, ferociously erudite and astonishingly widely read, it is fair to say that for many years she was the unofficial but undisputed queen of American letters. Her long, distinguished and productive career is strewn with pretty much every major award—the Nobel Prize, the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics’ Circle Award, a presidential recognition (conferred by the previous occupant of the White House, obviously).
As America continues to strive for greater racial fairness, most will concede that it is still a work in progress. But the passing of Toni Morrison is one of those moments when we can take some solace. The massive outpouring of grief and unreserved affection and respect accorded to this literary colossus transcended racial boundaries and made me hopeful about the essential inclusive humanity that animates most decent Americans. God knows it’s not easy to be hopeful in these troubled times.
There was one glaring exception.
That would be our tweeter-in-chief, the current resident in the White House, who loves to greet the crack of dawn with meanspirited 140-character spurts of pure venom in reaction to the latest perceived slight. President Donald J Trump was conspicuously, if unsurprisingly, silent.
Somehow the passing of arguably one of America’s greatest living writers was not worthy of his attention.
There are two issues here: one broad, another more personal. The broader socio-cultural question is whether the demise of literary icons has lost some of its profound significance of yesteryear. The entire nation was in mourning when Charles Dickens died in 1870, and he was buried with national honours (albeit against his wishes) in Westminster Abbey. An estimated two million people joined the funeral procession in Paris after Victor Hugo passed away in 1885, and his remains were subsequently interred in the crypts of the Arc de Triomphe.
While such massive public demonstration of grief and homage did not follow Morrison’s death, her death was nonetheless extensively and reverently reported in the press.
On a personal level, my strong hunch is even if his aides suggested a few words of condolence, Trump would have refused to have any truck with it. Toni Morrison had done something unforgivable in Trump’s eyes—she had been critical of him. It also may not be entirely coincidental that she happened to be African American—a community the president has shown repeated signs of not being particularly fond of, to put it mildly. Now, there are instances of past Trump critics who have been rehabilitated—his former aide Steven Bannon and US Senator Ted Cruz come to mind. But to get back into Trump’s good books you have to grovel, an option, alas, no longer available to Morrison.
What a contrast with President George W Bush. Now Bush would hardly be confused with Santa Claus, particularly given his odious and illegal war with Iraq on false pretences. But he had his moments of humanity, and one of the noblest was when he condoled the death of the bitingly witty humourist and columnist Molly Ivins, who had mercilessly taunted him in her columns. She called him “Shrub”, arguing he wasn’t smart enough to be called “Bush”. It surely wasn’t much fun being the butt of Ivins’ jokes, but when she died, he had the enormous grace to put rancour aside. “I respected her convictions, her passionate belief in the power of words. She fought her illness with that same passion. Her quick wit and commitment will be missed,” Bush said in a statement.
How times have changed. Trump’s silence brought back memories of the days following the death of Shamsur Rahman, the unofficial poet laureate of Bangladesh. The BNP was in power at that time, and erstwhile Prime Minister Khaleda Zia did not exactly cover herself with glory. She had followed Trump’s route. But Bangladeshis responded with a massive outpouring of grief—the number of people who turned up was possibly one of the greatest in living memory.
What Trump and Khaleda fail to realise is that they are in no position to disrespect literary titans. Their conduct reminds me of a story of a visitor to a distinguished art museum which had a rare collection of past masters. He perused the art and shrugged. A curious guard asked him about his experience. He said he wasn’t terribly impressed with what he saw. In his view, the art didn’t amount to much.
“Ah, sir, that’s where you are mistaken,” the custodian said. “I think you have got it backwards. Those works of art have stood the test of time and are universally recognised as great art. You don’t get to judge them. They judge you. It is you whose ability to appreciate art is judged depending on how you react.”
Trump and Khaleda, too, are hardly in a position to assail the stature of Morrison and Rahman. Their conduct, however, speaks volumes about them.
It’s hard to know if they even care. We live in particularly toxic political times when sheer political animus can rob people of the humanity and generosity of spirit so essential to harmonious civic life. It would appear that there’s no price to be paid for hatred in today’s polarised politics, and no particular gain to be made by being honourable and kind.
I worry about another hero of mine, Amartya Sen, the Nobel laureate economist, the quintessential gentleman whose commitment to reason, tempered thought and argument make him seem so charmingly old-world.
Yet he has been treated horribly by the current Indian government, for the simple reason that he has refused to back off from telling harsh truths about the breakdown of civility and tolerance in his country.
When he is gone, will we have to suffer through another egregious bout of studied silence from a head of state? I shudder to think about that day.
Ashfaque Swapan is a contributing editor for Siliconeer, a monthly periodical for South Asians in the United States.