“It was not a story to pass on”: Teaching Toni Morrison’s Beloved

1031607I started this blog post earlier in the semester as my students and I were ending our discussion of Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987). It has been difficult keeping on-track with blogging during this course; finishing my dissertation and being on the job market (more than anything, really) has taken-up most of my time. As I fly home for Thanksgiving, it is difficult to believe that the semester is almost over. Today we discussed the first half of Jonathan “Swifty” Lang’s graphic novel, Feeding Ground, which I will address in a blog post soon (I hope!).

I have to give my students so much credit. They have been exemplary, bringing so much intelligence, flexibility, and curiosity to the table in all our examinations of the texts we have discussed this semester. The “Monster Blog” is something I envisioned before the course started, and I am thinking through ways to apply it more clearly and regularly to our every-day conversations. I wished to have blogged alongside my students, commenting on their posts every week.

When I began this blog posts about Morrison’s important (this word seems lacking––how do you describe a novel of this significance in American letters?) novel, Beloved, I was thinking about our discussion through the analysis of Saidiya Hartman’s essay, “Venus in Two Acts.” As in all her work, Hartman considers the role of archivists, historians, and literary scholars mining the African American tradition, asking:

How can narrative embody life in words and at the same time respect what we cannot know? How does one listen to for the groans and cries, the undecipherable songs, the crackle of fire in the cane fields, the laments of the dead, and the shouts of victory, and then assign words to all of it?…Can beauty provide an antidote to dishonor, and love a way to ‘exhume buried cries’ and reanimate the dead. (3)

It is crucial that Hartman turns to the science fiction of Octavia Butler in order to grapple with the silences of the historical archive and the impossibility of writing about the violence and loss created by slavery. When the protagonist of Butler’s Kindred, Dana, travels to the past of the 1820s and encounters her enslaved ancestor, she also finds herself unable to rescue her family from the violence of slavery, but comes to accept that it is this system which has made her own existence in the twentieth century possible:

The task of writing the impossible…has as its prerequisites the embrace of likely failure and the readiness to accept the ongoing, unfinished and provisional character of this effort, particularly when the arrangements of power occlude the very object that we desire to rescue. Like Dana, we too emerge from the encounter with a sense of incompleteness and with the recognition that some part of the self is missing as a consequence of this engagement. (14)

I find Hartman’s analysis in “Venus in Two Acts” (in all her work, really), particularly useful for thinking about Morrison’s project in Beloved. The novel’s complex structure obsessively circles around the trauma of infanticide without arriving at the event itself until late in the novel (the same is true of other moments of individual trauma, such as Halle’s butter-covered face and Sixo’s murder). As we discussed throughout our reading of Beloved, the text’s content is mirrored in its formal qualities: as the narrative’s plot unearths questions of memory, confronting the violence of the past, familial love, and forgiveness, it emulates the uncertainties each character feels through repetition, interrupted character plot lines, and narrative fragmentation.

At the beginning of our discussion of Beloved, I asked students to consider the role of pain and memory in the novel, concluding here that the novel’s form demonstrates the overwhelming and recurring effects of trauma and horror that is paradoxically always present but always unrecoverable. For example, in one of the novel’s emblematic scenes, Sethe, Denver, and Beloved speak to, against, and past each other as the text moves quickly through each character’s point-of-view (POV). Importantly, it is in these “conversations” that each character defines themselves and their relationship through their affiliation to the ghost and to death. As Beloved begins to formulate a tenuous understanding of herself as an “I” (a construction that should remind us of Eleanor in The Haunting of Hill House), stating, “I am,” “I am not,” “I do not,” “I cannot” (251), she simultaneously defines herself through her ownership of Sethe: “I am Beloved and she is mine.” The ghost of the past attempts throughout the novel to assert itself, first in 124 as a red light or handprints on a cake, then as a lost young woman, and finally as a succubus-type entity that insatiately feeds on story and food alike. Beloved’s desire to be in the present and posses Sethe is, moreover, a need to be of her as well, asking throughout her stream-of-consciousness, “Will we smile at me?” (254). These questions demonstrate the collapse of the individual in the face of horror, where victim and victimized (in this case Sethe is the perpetrator of violence) become one and the same. Furthermore, Beloved’s speech patterns also demonstrate the breakdown of past, present, and future and the enduring effects of violence and the trauma of slavery. “There is no place where I stop” (251), Beloved states. “All of it is now   it is always now” (251)––in effect, the representation of this idea in language breaks-down on the page itself, necessitating extra space (extra breath? extra pauses?) to illustrate it.

As my students’ analysis of this novel demonstrated, Beloved performs the impossibility of expressing the pain of slavery and its aftermath in language, much as Hartman’s analysis of Venus contends with the silences of the archive and the certainty that writing about the archive and its omissions is always a failed, yet necessary, task. Throughout this semester I have continually been impressed with my students’ ability to tackle difficult material, and their approach to Beloved exemplifies their focused attention to what we have been calling throughout the semester “the grammar of horror.”

During the two weeks we dedicated to this novel (definitely not enough time!), many students noted how as Beloved asserts herself as a physical presence in 124, becoming engorged as if pregnant, Sethe seems to shrink (294), demonstrating the chokehold the past has on possibilities in the present and regenerative future. At the conclusion of our discussion of Beloved, our class explored how Beloved is not only Sethe’s (and her family’s) individual trauma, but representative of communal suffering. Beloved is, as Paul D describes her, an “ocean-deep place” (311)––Middle Passage and baby ghost, “a hot thing” (250) and “crawling-already? baby girl” (122)––and her haunting extends beyond her physical presence in 124 and her effect on Sethe, Denver, and Paul, but portrays communal horrors as well. Indeed, the novel’s ending returns us to its opening dedication. The repetition of “This is not a story to pass on” throughout the last pages of the text remind us of the “Sixty Million and more” to which the novel is dedicated. As we concluded our conversation about Beloved, our class discussed the different interpretations readers could make depending on where they place their emphasis: Is it “This is not a story to pass on” or “This is not a story to pass on“? In the first instance, the phrase denotes an imperative for a story not to be transmitted to future generations, a story not to be repeated, while the second emphasis instructs readers that Beloved’s story is one that should not be ignored, passed over. However, as Morrison’s dedication clearly illustrates, the importance lies in the “and more”––unrecoverable stories like the ones Hartman presents in “Venus in Two Acts.” Impossible to obtain these narratives, we must contend with the violence and mourning Beloved’s body represents.

 

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