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SOURCE: "Beloved and the New Apocalypse," in The Journal of Ethnic Studies, Vol. 18, No. 1, Spring, 1990, pp. 59-77.
In the following essay, Bowers analyzes Beloved in the context of the "long tradition of African-American apocalyptic writing."
Toni Morrison's Beloved joins a long tradition of African-American apocalyptic writing. Early African-American writers believed that "America, after periods of overwhelming darkness, would lift the veil and eternal sunshine would prevail" [Addison Gayle, The Way of the World: The Black Novel in America, 1975]. By the Harlem Renaissance, African-American writers had begun to doubt a messianic age, but the middle and late 1960s saw a return to apocalypticism, emphasizing Armageddon. Many of these works by such writers as John Williams and John Oliver Killens conceived "the longed-for racial battle" as "the culmination of history and the revelatory moment of justice and retribution" [A. Robert Lee, ed., Black Fiction: New Studies in the Afro-American Novel Since 1945, 1980]. Morrison's novel maps a new direction for the African-American apocalyptic tradition which is both more instructive and potentially more powerful than the end-of-the-world versions of the sixties. She has relocated the arena of racial battle from the streets to the African-American psyche from where the racial memories of Black people have been taken hostage.
Morrison has remarked on the dearth of any "songs or dances or tales" about those who died in the Middle Passage and on what was left out of slave narratives.
People who did dwell on it, it probably killed them, and the people who did not dwell on it probably went forward. They tried to make a life. I think that Afro-Americans in rushing away from slavery, which was important to do—it meant rushing out of bondage into freedom—also rushed away from the slaves because it was painful to dwell there, and they may have abandoned some responsibility in so doing. ["In the Realm of Responsibility: A Conversation with Toni Morrison," Women's Review of Books, March 1988]
She believes that her "job as a writer in the last quarter of the 20th century, not much more than a hundred years after Emancipation, becomes how to rip that veil drawn over 'proceedings too terrible to relate.'"
The word "apocalypse" means unveiling, and this novel unveils the angry presence of the "disremembered and unaccounted for" (Morrison, Beloved) those who died from slavery and on the Middle Passage (at least 50% of all Africans on slave ships died between Africa and the American plantations during the 320 years of the slave trade).
Apocalypticism is a form of eschatology. The root meaning of eschaton is "furthermost boundary" or "ultimate edge" in time or space. Apocalypses can be read
as investigations into the edge, the boundary, the interface between radically different realms. If the apocalypse is an unveiling (apo [from or away], kalupsis [covering] from kalupto [to cover], and kalumma[veil]), then clearly the veil is the eschaton, that which stands between the familiar and whatever lies beyond. In this sense the apocalypse becomes largely a matter of seeing. [Douglas Robinson, American Apocalypses, 1985]
The veil or eschaton in Beloved is forgetting. The etymological sense of "forget" is to miss or lose one's hold. The characters of Beloved—and by implication, contemporary African-Americans—have lost touch with those who have died from slavery and even with their own pasts. As a result they have lost part of themselves, their own interior lives. Their struggle is to lift the veil of Lethe to reveal the truth of their personal and collective histories. Morrison fuses Christian notions of apocalypse with West African beliefs to create a revised apocalyptic which principally looks backward, not forward in time, and concentrates on the psychological devastation which began with the horrors of slavery and continued when African-Americans had to let the horrors of the Middle Passage and slavery disappear into the black hole of Lethe, that vortex of forgetting. Working from the foundation of West African philosophy, at the heart of which is communion with ancestors, Morrison presents an apocalyptic demolition of the boundaries between the earthly and spiritual realms, an invasion of the world of the living by the world beyond the veil. The narrative does not drive toward its apocalyptic moment, but recounts the struggle of living through and beyond the reign of the Anti-Christ and of surviving the "mumbling of the black and angry dead" (Beloved).
Beloved's focus on the past may seem contrary to the forward-looking spirit of apocalypse, especially in American literature, where the apocalyptic is considered fundamental. However, African-American apocalypse must be clearly differentiated from White American apocalypse. The fact is that "American apocalypse" is founded on a premise which necessarily excludes African-American writing: that America is the New World, land of rebirth and new life, as opposed to Europe, the Old World of decadence, decay and death. When Europeans discovered America in the sixteenth century, "America was conceived as mankind's last great hope, the Western site of the millenium," and "its future destiny was firmly and prophetically linked with God's plan for the world" [Robinson, American Apocalypses]. As a result, most White American apocalyptic literature has been based on the optimistic expectation of historical, material change. The reverse experience, of course, is true for African-Americans. They did not leave an Old World of death and decadence for a New World of hope and rebirth, but were torn from the world of their families, communities, their own spiritual traditions and languages, to be taken to a world of suffering, death, and alienation. The good life lay not before them, but behind them; yet, every attempt was made to crush their memories of the past. Slaves were isolated from other members of their tribes to keep them from communicating in their own languages and maintaining their own traditions. In Beloved, only when characters can recover the past do they begin to imagine a future.
One way Morrison avoids the end-of-the-world perspective of most apocalyptic fiction is by basing her novel, like Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, on West African philosophy, including the notion of cyclical time. The West African sense of time is part of an organic philosophy that views the world as living—"subject to the law of becoming, of old age and death" [Mircea Eliade, Myth and Reality, 1963]. For such a culture, apocalypse is repeatable and survivable. On the other hand, there can be only one apocalypse if time is conceived of as linear and irreversible as it is in the Judeo-Christian tradition. The constant circling of the narrative in Beloved from present to past and back again enacts the West African perspective and reinforces the importance of the past for both the individual and collective psyche.
Morrison shares with post-Holocaust Jewish artists the monumental difficulties attendant of depicting the victims of racial genocide. What Elie Weisel has stated about the Holocaust applies to the slaughter of ten times as many Africans and African-Americans as the six million Jews killed by Hitler (Morrison has said that 60 million is the smallest figure she had gotten from anyone for the number of slaves who died as a result of slavery).
The Holocaust is not a subject like all the others. It imposes certain limits…. In order not to betray the dead and humiliate the living, this particular subject demands a special sensibility, a different approach, a rigor strengthened by respect and reverence and, above all, faithfulness to memory. [Elie Weisel, "Art and the Holocaust: Trivializing Memory," New York Times, June 11, 1989]
Betrayal would include sentimentalizing and thus trivializing the victims of slavery, rendering them merely pathetic and pitiable. Morrison does not do that. She dedicated Beloved to the "Sixty Million and More," and her novel conjures slaves back to life in many-dimensional characters with a full range of human emotions. They love and hate, sin and forgive, are heroic and mean, self-sacrificing and demanding. They endure incredible hardships to sustain relationships, but the inconceivable brutality and degradation which they experience fractures their communities and inflicts both physical and perhaps irreparable psychological damage on individuals.
One of the questions which Beloved asks is whether it is possible to transform unspeakably horrific experiences into knowledge. Is the magnitude of their horror too great to assimilate? Perhaps because the novel asks its readers, especially African-Americans, to "dwell on the horror" which those rushing away from slavery could not, it addresses what happens when the magnitude of that horror is acknowledged, even suggesting how to survive the bringing into consciousness of what has lain hidden for so long. The struggle of Beloved's characters to confront the effects of the brutality and to recover their human dignity, their selves "dirtied" by White oppression—to transform their experiences into knowledge—is presented in the form of a slave narrative that can be read as a model for contemporary readers attempting to engage these brutal realities. Slave narratives emphasize personal quest as a means of "wrest[ing] the black subject out of anonymity, inferiority and brutal disdain" [Susan Willis, "Black Women Writers: Taking a Critical Perspective," Making a Difference, edited by Gayle Greene and Coppelia Kahn, 1985]. Beloved combines the personal quest theme with the collective memory of racial brutality, for although apocalyptic literature features the destiny of the individual and personal salvation, its "overall perspective is still that of the community" [D. S. Russell, Apocalyptic: Ancient and Modern, 1968.]
It is important to note that Beloved is more explicit than most early slave narratives which could not reveal fully the horror of slave experience, either because their authors dared not offend their White abolitionist audiences or because they too could not bear to dwell on the horror. Beloved does not subordinate the stories of slave life to abstract ideas, unlike the slave narratives which were usually "sandwiched between white abolitionist documents, suggesting that the slave has precious little control over his or her life—even to its writing" [John Sekora, "Is the Slave Narrative a Species of Autobiography?" Studies in Autobiography, edited by James Olney, 1988]. Moreover, Morrison's modeling of her novel on the slave narrative is one way of giving African-Americans back their voices. The slave narrative was an extremely popular form of literature until the Civil War. But after the war, the narratives were "expelled from the center of our literary history."
While an editor at Random House, Morrison worked for 18 months in the early 1970s on a project to unveil the reality of African-American life, The Black Book, which she called "a genuine Black history book—one that simply recollected Black life as lived" [Morrison, "Behind the Making of The Black Book," Black World, February 1974]. The Black Book contains what became the germ of Beloved: the story of a slave woman in Cincinnati who killed one child and tried to kill the other three, to, in her words, "end their sufferings, [rather] than have them taken back to slavery, and murdered by piecemeal." But this "folk journey of Black America" had a far more profound impact upon Morrison than providing her with an initial spark, because it was a model of attempting to tell the truth about a part of African-American life that has been either whitewashed or forgotten, a truth so horrible that it could make a mother see death as desirable for her child.
What The Black Book models is an uncensored exposure of brutality through newspaper clippings and photographs of lynchings and burnings of Black people, for instance, juxtaposed with the celebration of African-American strengths and achievements and folkways. Essentially, The Black Book models the remembering of African-American experience.
"Rememorying" is what Morrison's characters call it, and it is the central activity in Beloved. Because of it the narrative moves constantly back and forth between past and present, mixing time inextricably, as memory escalates its battle against amnesia. The voice of the former slave "above all remembering his ordeal in bondage" can be "the single most impressive feature of a slave narrative" [Robert B. Stepto, From Behind the Veil: A Study of Afro-American Narrative, 1979]. The characters' rememorying in Beloved epitomizes the novel's purpose of conjuring up the spirits and experiences of the past and thus ultimately empowering both characters and readers. Beloved pairs the stories of a woman and a man, Sethe and Paul D. Sethe's name may be an allusion to Lethe, the spring of forgetfulness in Greek myth. The past that was too painful for either to remember alone can be recovered together: "Her story was bearable because it was his as well." Their stories reveal that the worst brutality they have suffered "is less a single act than the systematic denial of the reality of black lives" [Cynthia Davis, "Self, Society and Myth in Toni Morrison's Fiction," Contemporary Literature, 1982], the profound humiliation which both know can be worse than death:
That anybody white could take your whole self for anything that came to mind. Not just work, kill, or maim you, but dirty you. [Beloved]
Remembering is part of reversing the "dirtying" process that robbed slaves of self-esteem.
The concentration on the horrors of the past and present—the misuse of power, the cruelty and injustice—is characteristic of apocalyptic writing. However, the traditional apocalyptic anticipation of the messianic age—the time of freedom and redemption—is missing among these slaves and ex-slaves for whom hope has come to seem a cruel trick. The members of Paul D's chain gang try to destroy that part of themselves as they crush stone: "They killed the flirt whom folks called Life for leading them on."
The typical format of the slave narrative is to trace the story of the individual's life in slavery, escape, and the journey to freedom. What Morrison reveals is that the process must be repeated twice: first to leave physical enslavement by whites and the second time to escape the psychological trauma created by their brutality. The physical escapes of both Sethe and Paul D create the patterns for their psychological escapes: archetypal journeys of courage, descents into almost certain death, and rebirths into beauty and freedom. Sethe gives birth with the help of a young White girl when she reaches the Ohio River and thus freedom. Paul D is helped by Cherokees, who "describe the beginning of the world and its end and tell him to follow the tree flowers to the North and freedom."
But the novel opens with characters still traumatized many years after their escapes from slavery. They are numb, almost incapable of emotion because they have suffered so deeply and seen such terror. Sethe and her daughter are literally haunted by the ghost of her murdered baby. Sethe is unable to feel; every morning she sees the dawn, but never acknowledges its color. Paul D experiences his heart as a "tobacco tin lodged in his chest," which holds the painful memories of his own past, the memories of one friend being burned to death, of others hanging from trees, his brothers being sold and taken away, of being tortured. "By the time he got to 124 nothing in this world could pry it open." Paul D's arrival at 124, Sethe's home, 18 years after the two had last seen each other, begins their long and excruciating process of thawing frozen feeling.
Contemporary research on treatment for post-traumatic stress syndrome indicates that support and caring from others can help victims to heal, but that the most crucial part of healing is the unavoidable confrontation with the original trauma and feeling the pain again. Beloved enacts that theory. Sethe and Paul D are able to help each other to a point, but until they have intimate contact with the original pain and the feelings it created that had to be suppressed, they cannot be purged of its paralyzing effect.
What breaks open Paul D's tin heart and allows Sethe to see and love color again (color often appears in Morrison's fiction as a sign of the ability to feel) is Beloved's return from the dead, not as a ghost but a living being. She climbs fully dressed out of the water—perhaps representing the collective unconscious of African-Americans—while, appropriately, Sethe, Paul D., and Sethe's daughter Denver are at a carnival (etymologically, "festival of flesh"). Beloved has "new skin, lineless and smooth," no expression in her eyes, three thin scratches on her head where Sethe had held her head after severing her neck, and a small neck scar. Although Sethe does not consciously recognize her daughter for some time, her bladder fills the moment she sees her face and she voids "endless" water as if giving birth. For each of the three residents of 124—Sethe, Paul D and Denver—relating to Beloved addresses her or his most profound individual anguish, whatever lies at the core of each identity. For Sethe, it is mothering; for Paul D, his ability to feel, and for Denver, her loneliness. Their individual reactions to her reflect their respective voids, and reveal their deepest selves.
Angela Davis has pointed out that slave women were not recognized as mothers having bonds with their children, but considered only "breeders" and workers. Thus, slave-owners had no scruples about selling children away from their mothers: "Their infant children could be sold away from them like calves from cows" [Davis, Women, Race and Class, 1981]. Beloved is characterized by mothers losing their children: Sethe's mother-in-law barely glanced at the last of her eight children "because it wasn't worth the trouble." Sethe's own mother, hanged when Sethe was a small child, had not been allowed to nurse her. But Sethe defines herself as mother in defiance of the near-impossibility of that role. Even 18 years after her escape, Paul D recognizes that Sethe's mother-love is risky. "For a used-to-be slave woman to love anything that much was dangerous, especially if it was her children she had settled on to love." It was to avoid a future in slavery for her children that led Sethe to plan escape, and to get her milk to her baby—sent ahead with the other children—that made her attempt it alone. She experiences having her milk stolen from her by the nephews of her slavemaster as the ultimate brutality, even worse than the savage beating she received just before escaping. "They handled me like I was the cow, no, the goat, back behind the stable because it was too nasty to stay in with the horses." Beloved's return enables Sethe to mother her abundantly with "lullabies, new stitches, the bottom of the cake bowl, the top of the milk."
If mothering is at the core of Sethe's identity, feeling is at the core of Paul D's. "Not even trying, he had become the kind of man who could walk into a house and make the women cry. Because with him, in his presence, they could." What had led to his own inability to feel was the systematic destruction of his manhood. Like many men, women and children, he had had a bit in his mouth, but the worst part of the experience for Paul D was feeling the superiority of a rooster (called Mister):
Mister was allowed to be and stay what he was…. But wasn't no way I'd ever be Paul D again, living or dead. Schoolteacher changed me. I was something else and that something was less than a chicken sitting in the sun on a tub.
When Beloved seduces Paul D, making love with her breaks open the tobacco tin in his chest to release his red heart.
Sethe's anguish is about her mothering, and Paul D's, the ability to feel. Denver's is her loneliness. Its original cause is Beloved's murder, which alienated the community, made Denver afraid of her mother and of whatever was terrible enough to make her kill her own, and caused the haunting of 124 that made Denver's two brothers leave. She had gone deaf and withdrawn from others for a time after having been asked if she hadn't been in jail with her when her mother was charged with murder. Beloved's gift to Denver is attention. Under her gaze, "Denver's skin dissolved … and became soft and bright."
But Beloved is much more than Sethe's resurrected daughter. She is the embodiment of the collective pain and rage of the millions of slaves who died on the Middle Passage and suffered the tortures of slavery. Therefore, her unconscious knows the desperately crowded conditions of a ship of the Middle Passage:
… there will never be a time when I am not crouching and watching others who are crouching too I am always crouching the man on my face is dead his face is not mine his mouth smells sweet but his eyes are locked
West African religion believes that after physical death, the individual spirit lives, but because it is no longer contained by its "carnal envelope," it gains in power. Spirits "may cause havoc to people if they are spirits of people who were killed in battle or unjustly," and the spirits feel punished if their names are obliterated or forgotten [John S. Mbiti, The Prayers of African Religion, 1975]. (Beloved has no name but the epitaph on her gravestone, a word Sethe remembered from the funeral and which she could pay to have engraved only by enduring the sexual assault of the engraver). The invasion of the world of the living by Beloved's physical presence is evidence of the terrible destruction of the natural order caused by slavery. No one had thought anything about a ghost haunting the house, because ancestral spirits were known to linger in the world. But her physical presence has the effect of Judgment Day on all those whom she encounters: Sethe, Paul D, Denver, and the community. However, because the West African sense of time is non-linear, judgment can be endured and redemption still achieved.
… if the apocalypse stands as one constant pole of the black imagination, as a present possibility, the other pole is an unfashionable conviction that change is possible—that the ghosts of the past can be laid if only they are freely engaged and honestly confessed. [C.W.E. Bigsby, "Judgment Day is Coming! The Apocalyptic Dream in Recent Afro-American Fiction," Black Fiction: New Studies in the Afro-American Novel Since 1945, edited by A. Robert Lee, 1980]
Beloved proclaims that apocalypse and change are not necessarily at opposite poles: an apocalypse—that lifting of the veil on whatever lies beyond—can stimulate change. Its catharsis can be the beginning of transformation; apocalypse can thus become a bridge to the future, passage to freedom.
This novel makes very clear that physical escape into physical freedom was only the first step for the slaves. That fact is symbolized by Beloved's equivalent of Charon, the figure in Greek mythology who ferries the souls across the Acheron to the underworld. This character is an ex-slave who, after handing over his wife to his master's son, changed his name from Joshua to Stamp Paid because "whatever his obligations were, that act paid them off." By ferrying escaped slaves across the Ohio into freedom, he "gave them their own bill of sale," except that the freedom on the Ohio side of the river is illusory, and not only for political and economic reasons. The slaves who cross the river bring with them the memories of lynchings and torture, family members sold away, degradation, and cumulative loss, so that Stamp Paid, like Charon, actually carries them physically to an underworld, to "free" territory where, in Beloved, souls are dead even if bodies are alive. However, Stamp Paid also attempts to carry them out of this underworld into genuine freedom. He "extended the debtlessness [that he believed he had achieved by handing over his wife] to other people by helping them pay out and off whatever they owed in misery."
Stamp Paid interprets the angry mumbling of the spirits around Sethe's home as "the jungle whitefolks planted" in Black people, a jungle which grew and spread, "In, through and after life." Among other things, Beloved is the embodiment of the White folks' jungle, the psychological effects of slavery. The three residents of 124—Sethe, Paul D, and Denver—find out that although Beloved, once no longer a ghost, did address their deepest needs, she is also malevolent. Sethe realizes that Beloved will never accept her explanation for the murder and that Sethe can never make it up to her. Sethe becomes Beloved's slave, goes without food so that Beloved can eat, and begins to die. Paul D recognizes that making love with Beloved "was more like a brainless urge to stay alive." Denver is finally deserted by Beloved when her mother recognizes her dead daughter. When Denver accuses her of strangling Sethe from a distance of several feet, Beloved denies it. "The circle of iron choked it." Her reply reflects the complexity of her character, as both the ghost of Sethe's murdered baby who can't get enough love from her mother and as also the representative of all the angry spirits—the manifestation of the murderous rage created by Whites in enslaved African-Americans. Beloved as the spirit of slavery—the circle of iron around slave necks—did try to kill Sethe; murdered indirectly by Sethe's slavemaster, Beloved is an unquiet spirit. The enormity of the wrongs wreaked upon the "60 million and more" has produced her, obsessed with revenge, desperately needy for love, but incapable of giving it. Beloved is the tangible presence of the painful past. When Sethe finally recognizes her, Sethe is "excited to giddiness by all the things she no longer had to remember." Even though sex with her filled Paul D with repulsion and shame, "he was thankful too for having been escorted to some ocean-deep place he once belonged to."
Beloved's stream of consciousness reveals that she had waited "on the bridge." She herself becomes a bridge between the "other side" and the living, the apocalyptic manifestation of the world beyond the veil. Like a bridge, Beloved enables passage to knowledge of the other side that otherwise would be impossible. We know that medieval chapels were constructed in the middle of bridges so that passengers could contemplate passage from one state of being to another. Beloved's very being forces such contemplation.
In terms of Christian apocalypse, Beloved is not the Anti-Christ; that role belongs to Sethe's slavemaster, representative of the Whites who oppressed African-Americans through slavery. But as the product of slavery, she could be the Anti-Christ's beast. She is a constant sign that this novel is dealing with another level of reality, but also a reminder of the paradoxes about which the novel circles: the killing of a child to protect her and the combined pathos and wrathfulness of the ancestral spirits. Yet, although Sethe's murder of Beloved is the center of the paradox, which occurred 18 years before the action that begins the novel, it is not depicted until nearly the mid-point of Beloved. Instead, the murder is anticipated so often that a dark foreboding is created, just as Sethe's mother-in-law sensed something "dark and coming" as the slavemaster and his accomplices were arriving.
The slavemaster, Schoolteacher, is definitely an Anti-Christ figure, the kind of character who usually functions in apocalyptic writing as a sign of the end. The Anti-Christ signals a return to chaos, and Schoolteacher's arrival produces chaos which permeates Sethe's life and the lives of everyone in her family and in the entire community. Schoolteacher and the three other White men: his nephew, the slavecatcher, and the sheriff, are Morrison's four horsemen of the apocalypse. Their appearance crystallizes the terror and horror of slavery, emphasized by the fact that this episode is the only one in the novel told from the point of view of a white person. When they discover Sethe's sons bleeding at her feet, her baby's head nearly severed, and her trying to kill the other infant, Schoolteacher concedes his economic loss. He believes that Sethe would be useless as a slave to him because she has "gone wild" due to his nephew having "overbeaten" her; she resembles a hound beaten too hard and which, therefore, can never be trusted. He reflects slavery's treatment of African-Americans as animals. Sethe's reaction to seeing the four horsemen is to protect her children in the only way she has left: to remove them from the reach of evil, to try to carry them "through the veil, out, away, over there where no one could hurt them."
This prefiguring of the novel's climactic, redemptive moment is the most violent episode in the novel. Although violence is characteristic of apocalyptic literature, this violence is especially notable because it consists of the victim inflicting the violence on her own children out of utter hopelessness. Stamp Paid calls this event "the Misery" and "Sethe's response to the Fugitive Act." It demonstrates what the characters in Beloved recognize—that actual battle with Whites is impossible because the odds are so stacked against Blacks: "Lay down your sword. This ain't a battle; it's a rout."
Biblical scholars read the four horsemen of the apocalypse as agents of divine wrath; Morrison's four horsemen are only emblems of evil. Her revision of the classic apocalyptic image suggests that she does not share with many apocalyptic writers a belief in a moral force at work in history, the invisible presence of a god who will come again to judge sinners and rescue and reward the oppressed. Instead, Beloved insists that if change is possible, it will happen only when individuals are integrated with the natural world and each other. The only moral agency is human, represented in Beloved by Denver. Born in a boat filling with the "river of freedom," she represents the generation born outside slavery—the future.
Denver is the redemptive figure in this novel. She was only a few days old when her mother murdered Beloved, and Sethe's nipple was covered with her sister's blood when she nursed. "So Denver took her mother's milk right along with the blood of her sister." The image can be read as an allusion to Christ in Revelation "robed in the blood of martyrs" (Rev. 19:13). Like a Christ figure, Denver often functions as an intermediary between spirits and living. Even before Beloved materialized, she saw her in a white dress kneeling beside Sethe, and she was the first to recognize Beloved. Denver not only represents the future; she brings it into being. When neither Sethe nor Beloved seem to care what the next day might bring, "Denver knew it was on her. She would have to leave the yard; step off the edge of the world," and find help. Her efforts lead to everyone's salvation: the reunion of the community. It begins with gifts of food accompanied by the givers' names, but culminates in the women coming to the yard of 124 to exorcise Beloved.
Ella, the former slave woman who had led Sethe and the just-born Denver from the Ohio River, leads Sethe's rescue. She had guided them to the community of former slaves, then led the community's ostracizing of Sethe for 18 years when Sethe had seemed not to need anyone after Beloved's death. Now, it is the idea of Beloved's physical presence which enrages Ella, for she understands that Beloved represents the invasion of one world by the other, and specifically, "the idea of past errors taking possession of the present." As long as Beloved was only a ghost, even a violent ghost, Ella respected it.
But if it took on flesh and came in her world, well, the shoe was on the other foot. She didn't mind a little communication between the two worlds, but this was an invasion.
Ella and the others recognize that Beloved's being violates the boundary between the dead and the living. They know that she is the representative of "the people of the broken necks, of fire-cooked blood" whose anger and suffering could not be contained in the other world as long as the living neither heard nor remembered them: the apocalyptic presence come to demand attention. When the community is forced to acknowledge what she represents in their own interior lives, Beloved can be exorcised. Like Beloved's murder, the exorcism takes place in the yard of 124. It shares several other characteristics with that appearance of the Anti-Christ: the arrival of a White man with a horse, a violent reaction by Sethe, and the demise of Beloved. But it is the contrasts that are most important. This time, the White man's mission is innocent; Sethe does not succeed; Beloved's demise is necessary and beneficial, the community supports Sethe instead of deserting her, and, most important of all, the community achieves a shared revelation that ushers in a new age.
This second momentous gathering at 124 has a fated quality. For instance, at precisely the same moment that the Black women are marching toward 124, Edward Bodwin, the White abolitionist who owns 124, is coming to take Denver to his house to work as a night maid. The women are coming to purge the house of the demon beating up on Sethe, armed with whatever they believe will work: amulets, their Christian faith, anything. It has been 30 years since Bodwin saw 124, the house where he was born, a place about which "he felt something sweeter and deeper" than its commercial value. The thought of it takes him back to his childhood, a time when he had buried his precious treasures in the yard. It has been 18 years since the women were in the yard of 124, at the picnic Sethe's mother-in-law had given the day before Schoolteacher's arrival to celebrate Sethe's escape. If the house is symbolic for Bodwin, it has symbolic value also for the women approaching it. Seeing Beloved on the porch makes them see themselves as young girls picnicking in the yard 18 years earlier, the day before Beloved was killed. What they see is also a reminder of how the community shares responsibility for Beloved's death. The community of former slaves had been so jealous of the huge party which Sethe's mother-in-law had thrown that no one warned 124 of the approaching horsemen. Then the community had not gathered around Sethe when she climbed into the cart for the ride to jail because they felt that she held her head too high. However, Beloved's presence does enable the women to go back in time to being "young and happy." She also lets them recapture the paradisal time they had spent in the Clearing with Sethe's mother-in-law Baby Suggs as their spiritual leader. It is significant that by the end of the novel "rememorying" calls back positive moments instead of the painful, oppressive past. United in memories of joy and collective strength, the women can respond to the need to banish Beloved, the objectification of the angry and revengeful ancestral spirits, with the full power of their spiritual tradition. It is especially important that their leader Ella recognizes at last that she shares something very significant with Sethe. What Ella remembers is the "hairy white thing," fathered by her slavemaster, which she had let die. "The idea of that pup coming back to whip her too set her jaw working." And she hollers, to be joined at once by the others.
They stopped praying and took a step back to the beginning. In the beginning there were no words. In the beginning was the sound, and they all know what that sound sounded like.
The primal sound exorcises Beloved and thus the evil of the "White folks' jungle" in their own lives as well as Sethe's family's. The moment takes them all outside of linear time into a type of apocalypse in which all is reduced to its most fundamental terms, to a purity of emotion and a brilliant clarity. In this moment the cycle has rolled around to begin again. When the women take a step back to the beginning, they touch the eschaton, the boundary, and momentarily escape from the flux of time to the place where clear vision is possible. They remind us that apocalypse is not a synonym for disaster or cataclysm; it is linked to revelation. Seeing clearly into the past, the women can take hold again of what they had lost in forgetting.
A pocalyptic literature is very like Greek tragedy in arousing emotion and creating the conditions for catharsis. Morrison's novel raises all kinds of emotion—pain, grief, remorse, anger, fear—and purges it once "intensified and given objective expression." Beloved focuses the objective expression of emotion. When the women create the powerful, timeless sound which exorcises Beloved, they purge themselves and Sethe and Denver of the emotion which had imprisoned them. It returns them all to a new beginning where, cleansed, they can create a new life.
The apocalyptic imagination may finally be defined in terms of its philosophical preoccupation with that moment of juxtaposition and consequential transformation or transfiguration when an old world of mind discovers a believable new world of mind, which either nullifies and destroys the old system entirely or, less likely, makes it part of a larger design. [David Ketterer, New Worlds for Old; The Apocalyptic Imagination, Science Fiction, and American Literature, 1974]
The women's song or shout creates the moment of redemptive transfiguration in Beloved. Still caught in the mode of forgetting which had been their method of survival after physically escaping slavery, when the women focused on the image of Beloved standing on the front porch of 124, they were themselves dragged through the veil into a world rich with memory of their personal and collective lives and of the "unnamed, unmentioned people left behind."
For Sethe it was as though the Clearing had come to her with all its heat and simmering leaves, where the voices of women searched for the right combination, the key, the code, the sound that broke the back of words.
The Clearing was the open place in the woods where Sethe's mother-in-law, Baby Suggs had led the community in spiritual ceremonies. Baby Suggs had begun those ceremonies by asking the children to laugh, the men to dance, but the women to cry, "For the living and the dead." Then she would direct them all to love themselves deeply.
'Here,' she said, 'in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs, flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh.'
But Baby Suggs gave up after the "Misery" and went to bed to die. When Sethe is taken back to the Clearing by the women's song in her yard, it is a sign of both personal and community redemption; the community at this apocalyptic moment has returned finally to loving themselves, but also to feeling compassion for those who have died. In the yard of 124 when the women found "the sound that broke the backs of words,"
it was a wave of sound wide enough to sound deep water and knock the pods off chestnut trees. It broke over Sethe and she trembled like the baptized in its wash.
The women's song was powerful enough to break "the back of words"—words used to define African-Americans, such as "animal" and "breeding stock" and "slaves." it baptizes Sethe into a new life, into a radical spiritual transformation.
Ironically, Bodwin arrives at the peak of the women's song/shout. His appearance recalls Sethe to that moment when four White horsemen rode into her yard: and so she acts again to protect her child, but this time she runs to kill the oppressor—whom she sees as Bodwin—instead of her own child. Denver stops her. We should not read Sethe's seeing Bodwin as her enemy as a crazed mistake, but rather as evidence of a kind of clear-sightedness, Sethe having just been baptized in primal, sacred sound. Apocalyptic catharsis requires confrontation with hidden horror; it also provides a two-fold purgation by making the wronged one feel better and castigating the sinner. Although the Bodwins did help ex-slaves and worked for abolition of slavery, Beloved makes it clear that they are part of the problem, not the solution. They gave help to run-aways "because they hated slavery worse than they hated slaves." On a shelf by their back door is the figurine of a Black child, his mouth full of money, kneeling on a pedestal with the words, "'At Yo' Service.'" When Bodwin returns to 124, his eyes are transfixed by the sight of Beloved. After she has disappeared Beloved is described as "a naked woman with fish for hair" which may be an allusion to Medusa, the gorgon who turned men to stone. Perhaps Beloved has that effect on Bodwin. Perhaps he recognizes in her what Stamp Paid called "the white folks' jungle." Perhaps his encounter with Beloved—he doesn't even see Sethe approaching to stab him with the ice pick—is his experience of Judgment, occurring appropriately at the house where he was born, where his "treasure" lay hidden.
Apocalypse is a more diffuse experience in Beloved than traditionally conceived, and it is presented as something which can be survived, not as an event at the end of linear time. In Beloved it is an attempt to free African-Americans from guilt and past suffering. What Beloved suggests is that while the suffering of the "black and angry dead" is the inescapable psychological legacy of all African-Americans, they can rescue themselves from the trauma of that legacy by directly confronting it and uniting to loosen its fearsome hold. Beloved's redemptive community of women epitomizes the object of salvation in biblical apocalyptic literature: "the creation of a new society."
Thus, like much African-American writing, Beloved does not conclude with a climactic moment. "For the black writer, incompletion is a fact of private and public life and the basis for social and cultural hope" (Bigsby). The experience of suffering and guilt can begin to be transformed into knowledge, once the trauma is purged, so that the novel leaves the powerful apocalyptic scene of the community's expurgation of Beloved to observe Sethe and Paul D rejoining their stories to each other's. Paul D, who had left upon learning of the murder, must return to Sethe's house to re-establish the intimate connection which will allow them each to find his or her own self and love it. Paul D, despite his inability to feel when he had first arrived at Sethe's, has a deep understanding of the meaning of slavery and freedom, that under slavery "you protected yourself and loved small," but finding freedom means "to get to a place where you could love anything you chose." Linked with Sethe's mother in several ways, including the wearing of the bit, he mothers Sethe as her own mother never could, and when he does, the voice of his lynched best friend enters his mind, speaking about the woman he loved, "She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order."
Beloved is a novel about collecting fragments and welding them into beautiful new wholes, about letting go of pain and guilt, but also recovering what is lost and loving it into life. One of its most poignant images is the ribbon that Stamp Paid finds on the river bottom—"a red ribbon knotted around a curl of wet woolly hair, clinging still to its bit of scalp." Although he knows all the horrors of 1874—the lynchings, whippings, burnings of colored schools, rapes, and lynch fires—it is this discovery which finally weakens Stamp Paid's bone marrow and makes him "dwell on Baby Suggs' wish to consider what in the world was harmless."
What Morrison creates is far from harmless. She knows how painful it is to remember the horrors she presents. She has said in an interview that she expected Beloved to be the least read of all her books because "it is about something that the characters don't want to remember, I don't want to remember, black people don't want to remember, white people don't want to remember. I mean, it's national amnesia" [Bonnie Angelo, "The Pain of Being Black," Time, 22 May 1989]. However, because Beloved insists on remembering, the novel is able to recover and honor the symbolic spirit of the Black girl whose ribbon and piece of scalp Stamp Paid found. In so doing, it makes possible the contemplation and creation of a future in which African-Americans can respect and honor themselves and their ancestors—be beloved. As Paul D says to Sethe, "Me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow." What Beloved suggests is that tomorrow is made possible by the knowledge of yesterday, a knowledge that for contemporary African-Americans can be gained from imagining what it was like to walk in the flesh of their slave ancestors.
Auschwitz lies on the other side of life and on the other side of death. There, one lives differently, one walks differently, one dreams differently…. Only those who lived it in their flesh and their minds can possibly transform their experience into knowledge. [Wiesel]
By giving its readers the inside view of slaves' lives—which bore uncanny resemblance to the holocaust—the novel enables its African-American readers to live the experience of slavery in their minds and to join in the healing primal sound of the women who come to Sethe's yard. By speaking the horror, Morrison assumes and helps to create the community that can hear it and transform it.
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