What is the value of aesthetic experience near the end of life? This question has been on my mind as I’ve been thinking about a character from Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved. This is the story of ex-slave Sethe trying to live a new, free life while haunted by the ugliness of the past, not the least of which was her murdering her own daughter to save her from returning to slavery. One memorable character is Baby Suggs, the protagonist’s mother-in-law and the matriarch of Sethe’s new home in Ohio. At the beginning of the novel, Baby Suggs is dying, and she is craving color:
Suspended between the nastiness of life and the meanness of the dead, she couldn’t get interested in leaving life or living it…Her past had been like her present – intolerable – and since she knew death was anything but forgetfulness, she used the little energy left her for pondering color.
“Bring a little lavender in, if you got any. Pink, if you don’t.”
And Sethe would oblige her with anything from fabric to her own tongue. (p. 4)Why would a person spend her final days craving color? By the end of the novel, Sethe thinks she knows:
Now I know why Baby Suggs pondered color her last years. She never had time to see, let alone enjoy it before. Took her a long time to finish with blue, then yellow, then green. She was well into pink when she died. (p. 237)Besides the fact that Beloved is a masterpiece worth reading for many reasons, I think this novel also makes a powerful statement about experiencing beauty amid the ugliness of life. There is no doubt that the characters in this novel saw a lot of ugliness, without the time to consider beauty – to “stop and smell the roses,” as we might say. By the end of her life, though, Baby Suggs desired little but to ponder color. On some level, she needed to see and absorb the beauty of the world that had given her a lifetime of ugliness, and she used the remaining energy she had to do so.