“She is a friend of my mind… The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order.” So wrote the famed novelist Toni Morrison in Beloved, in a passage describing a love that goes deeper than the physical, engendering self-worth. Such love runs throughout many of the books written by Morrison, who died last night at age 88. Given this news, it seems an appropriate time to share the following, from her eulogy for James Baldwin, which she wrote in 1987:

Like many of us left here I thought I knew you. Now I discover that in your company it is myself I know. That is the astonishing gift of your art and your friendship: You gave us ourselves to think about, to cherish. We are like Hall Montana watching “with new wonder” his brother saints, knowing the song he sang is us, “He is us.”

I never heard a single command from you, yet the demands you made on me, the challenges you issued to me, were nevertheless unmistakable, even if unenforced: that I work and think at the top of my form, that I stand on moral ground but know that ground must be shored up by mercy, that “the world is before [ me ] and [ I ] need not take it or leave it as it was when [ I ] came in.” […]

Yours was a tenderness, of vulnerability, that asked everything, expected everything and, like the world’s own Merlin, provided us with the ways and means to deliver. I suppose that is why I was always a bit better behaved around you, smarter, more capable, wanting to be worth the love you lavished, and wanting to be steady enough to witness the pain you had witnessed and were tough enough to bear while it broke your heart, wanting to be generous enough to join your smile with one of my own, and reckless enough to jump on in that laugh you laughed. Because our joy and our laughter were not only all right, they were necessary.

You knew, didn’t you, how I needed your language and the mind that formed it? How I relied on your fierce courage to tame wildernesses for me? How strengthened I was by the certainty that came from knowing you would never hurt me? You knew, didn’t you, how I loved your love? You knew. This then is no calamity. No. This is jubilee. “Our crown,” you said, “has already been bought and paid for. All we have to do,” you said, “is wear it.”

I think we could, in so many ways, re-direct these words to Ms. Morrison herself. As this small excerpt attests, she illustrated the gut-level pain and redemption that is present but hard to consciously address in everyday life. She was deeply concerned with language, but for her, importantly, it had to be more than merely “poetic”; it had to help readers know themselves, their lives, and how to live them. She novelized intergenerational guilt, the sublime, and the scales of atonement; defined love as “unmotivated respect.” If the revival of religion — revival, period — is indeed a rhetorical task, then Morrison made a real offering.

For more see “Her Guilt Sanctified Us: Love and Exchange in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye” and “The Problem With Paradise (According to Toni Morrison).

Oh, and read Beloved.