Beloved | Critical Essay by Karla F. C. Holloway

This literature criticism consists of approximately 13 pages of analysis & critique of Beloved.
This section contains 3,883 words
(approx. 13 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Karla F. C. Holloway

SOURCE: "Beloved: A Spiritual," in Callaloo, Vol. 13, No. 3, Summer, 1990, pp. 516-25.

In the essay below, Holloway examines myth, historical revisionism, voice, and remembrance in Beloved on both thematic and structural levels.

       I have to cast my lot with those
       who age after age, peversely,
       with no extraordinary power,
       reconstitute the world.
              —Adrienne Rich, "Natural Resources"

The literary and linguistic devices which can facilitate the revision of the historical and cultural texts of black women's experiences have perhaps their most sustained illustration in Toni Morrison's Beloved. Here, narrative structures have been consciously manipulated through a complicated interplay between the implicit orature of recovered and (re)membered events and the explicit structures of literature. The reclamation and revision of history function as both a thematic emphasis and textual methodology. The persistence of this revision is the significant strategic device of the narrative structures of the novel.

Myth dominates the text. Not only has Morrison's reclamation of this story from the scores of people who interviewed Margaret Garner shortly after she killed her child in 1855 constituted an act of recovery, it has accomplished a mythic revisioning as well. Morrison refused to do any further research on Margaret Garner beyond her reviewing of the magazine article that recounted the astonishment of the preachers and journalists who found her to be "very calm … very serene" after murdering her child [as recounted in Mervyn Rothstein's "Morrison Discusses New Novel," The New York Times, 26 August 1987]. The imagination that restructures the initial article Morrison read into her novel Beloved is the imagination of a mythmaker. The mythological dimensions of her story, those that recall her earlier texts, that rediscover the altered universe of the black diaspora, that challenge the Western valuations of time and event (place and space) are those that, in various quantities in other black women writers and in sustained quantities in Morrison's works, allow a critical theory of text to emerge. [The critic adds in a footnote: "My position is that a critical theory of black women's writing emerges as the dimensions of a cultural expression within an African-American literary tradition and specifies, through an interpretation of literary style and substance and its formal modes and figurations, certain textual modes of discourse. Such a specification underscores my primary argument that black women's literature reflects its community—its cultural ways of knowing as well as its ways of framing that knowledge in language. The figures of language that testify to that cultural mooring place—the inversive, recursive, and sometimes even subversive structures that layer the black text—give it a dimension only accessed when the cultural and gendered points of its initiation are acknowledged."]

Morrison revisions a history both spoken and written, felt and submerged. It is in the coalescence of the known and unknown elements of slavery—the events, miniscule in significance to the captors but major disruptions of black folks' experience in nurturing and loving and being—where Morrison's reconstruction of the historical text of slavery occurs. Morrison's reformulation propels a backlog of memories headlong into a postemancipation community that has been nearly spiritually incapacitated by the trauma of slavery. For Morrison's novel, what complicates the physical and psychic anguish is the reality that slavery itself defies traditional historiography. The victim's own chronicles of these events were systematically submerged, ignored, mistrusted, or superceded by "historians" of the era. This novel positions the consequences of black invisibility in both the records of slavery and the record-keeping as a situation of primary spiritual significance. Thus, the "ghostly"/"historical" presence that intrudes itself into this novel serves to belie the reportage that passes for historical records of this era as well as to reconstruct those lives into the spiritual ways that constituted the dimensions of their living.

Because slavery effectively placed black women outside of a historical universe governed by a traditional (Western) consideration of time, the aspect of their being—the quality and nature of their "state" of being—becomes a more appropriate measure of their reality. In historian Joan Kelly's essays the exclusion of women throughout "historical time" is discussed in terms that clarify how the activities of civilization were determined by and exclusive to males. In defining a "feminist historiography" (a deconstruction of male-centered formulations of historical periods), Kelly focuses [in her Women, History and Theory, 1984] on the ways in which history is "rewritten and periodized" according to issues that affect women. In black women's writing, this deperiodization is more fully articulated because of the propensity of this literature to strategically place a detemporalized universe into the centers of their texts. Not surprisingly, black women have experienced the universe that Kelly's essays on women's history theoretically discuss.

It is perhaps the insistence of this alternative perspective in regards to black women's experiences that explains some dimension of the strident element in the critical response to Beloved. Stanley Crouch, who wrote ["Aunt Medea: Beloved by Toni Morrison"] in The New Republic [19 October 1987] that "[i]t seems to have been written in order to enter American slavery into the big-time martyr ratings contest," missed the point entirely. Morrison wrote Beloved precisely because:

It was not a story to pass on.

They forgot her like a bad dream. After they made up their tales, shaped and decorated them … in the end, they forgot her too. Remembering seemed unwise….

It was not a story to pass on….

This is not a story to pass on.

Like the litany of repetition that is a consistent narrative device in black women's literature, these closing phrases of the novel echo between the seeming contradiction of the initial "it was/this is not …" and the final words "pass on." The phrase becomes a directive. Its message reveals that this was not a story to die. Morrison revisions "Pass on," inverting it to mean go on through … continue … tell. She privileges the consequences of the sustained echo and in this way forces the sounds of these words (orature) to contradict the appearance of the visual (literate) text. Morrison has "passed on" this story in defiance of those who would diminish the experience she voices back into presence.

The final pages of the novel, where these lines appear, illustrate what I see as the interplay between structures that are implicitly orate but explicitly literate in black women's writing. In Morrison, this contrapuntal structure dominates the novel and appears as a device that mediates speech and narrative, the visual and the cognitive, and time and space. These paired elements of text and philosophy are central to my discussion in this essay.

Mediation such as the contrapuntal interplay sustains the text and rescues it from formlessness. Even when the narrative structure, for example, dissolves into the eddying recollection of Beloved's memory, the text survives and the reader, almost drowning in the sheer weight of her overwhelmingly tactile recollection, survives this immersion into text because of Morrison's comforting mediation. In a discussion with a group of Virginia Polytechnic Institute students in 1988, Morrison explained to them that one of her goals for this work was to acknowledge the reader's presence and participation in what she admitted was a difficult and painful story. Her strategy was in part an assurance of her mediative narrative presence. She spoke of writing with the sense that she was inviting the reader to "Come on in," and that she would assure safe passage. As I listened to her, I was reminded of the pieladies in the basement churches Son remembers in Tar Baby, whose "Come on in, you honey you" echoed through his adult memories. A similar guide, ancestral and essentially beneficent, also mediates the story of Beloved.

The signals of "telling" as a survival strategy—dialect, narrative recursion, suspension of time and place—are all in this text, especially in the compact and powerful passages where Sethe's, Denver's and Beloved's voices are prosopopeic (re)memory. Morrison introduces this section with a particularly beautiful and haunting recollection of the elements of speech and the devices of narrative that black women writers have used so effectively. Morrison's blending of voice and text privileges neither. Instead they both collapse into the other and emerge as an introspective that enfolds the dimensions of both the mind and history in a visually rich and dazzling projection of a revisioned time and space. The narrative streams that (re)member and chronicle these events are prefigured in an episode when Denver, Sethe, and Beloved are ice-skating in a place where the "sky above them was another country. Winter stars, close enough to lick, had come out before sunset." It is at this moment that Beloved sings the song that fulfills her mother's intimation that this is indeed the spirit of her dead daughter. At that time, Morrison writes, "Outside, snow solidified itself into graceful forms. The peace of winter stars seemed permanent." In this way of removing hours from their reality (Sethe tells her daughters that it's "time to sleep") and placing them into a seasonal metaphor (they stumbled over the snow, but—and Morrison uses the following recursive, repeated structure—"nobody saw them falling" at least three times), the text prepares itself, the reader, and these three women for its temporal lapse. The chapter just prior to Sethe's discursive monologue ends in this way:

When Sethe locked the door, the women inside were free at last to be what they liked, see whatever they saw and say whatever was on their minds.

Almost. Mixed in with the voices surrounding the house … were the thoughts of the women of 124, unspeakable thoughts, unspoken.

But they are spoken, for the next voice is Sethe's. And her first statement is in dialect—a sign that the text is about to embrace recursion and signify upon itself: "Beloved, she my daughter. She mine."

Sethe's version of her awareness of Beloved, and each of the three passages that follows hers are indeed "versions" of the same story with a different narrator. This is not particularly structurally ambiguous even though it is instead crowded with information that makes any attention to time or place simply inappropriate. French theorist and philosopher Cathérine Clément, in a dialogue with Hélène Cixous about the nature of their discourse in La Jeune Née [translated as The Newly Born Woman, 1986], accepts that:

there can be two women in the same space who are differently engaged, speaking of almost exactly the same things, investing in two or three different kinds of discourse and going from one to the other and then on to the spoken exchange.

Cixous replies how she basically "distrust[s] the identification of a subject with a single discourse."

At this space in Beloved, Morrison cannot entrust this story to the single, individual discourse of any of the three women who are implicated in the myth. Instead, it is their collective telling that accomplishes the creative process of their task—to tell, (re)member and validate their own narratives and to place them, full-bodied and spoken, into the space they share. Each of their voices is distinct, examples of the "different kind of discourse" Clément refers to, even though the three women are in the same dissolved space of Beloved's ephemeral presence.

Sethe's discourse is dense—interwoven with dialect and poetry and complicated with the smells and touches and colors that are left to frame her reality.

Think what the spring will be for us! I'll plant carrots just so she can see them, and turnips … white and purple with a tender tail and a hard head. Feels good when you hold it in your hand and smells like the creek when it floods … we'll smell them together.

Hers is a discourse vibrant and redolent—almost as if the vitality of her description would defy the dying and killing she acknowledges with her wintry declaration that, "Beloved, she my daughter."

Denver's discourse, in the same space as Sethe's, for she too uses her "unspeakable thoughts" to acknowledge Beloved, is the "different engagement" but "same thing" that Cixous and Clément discuss. Morrison highlights this "same difference" with the technique of repetition that functions as a recursion strategy—a means of accessing memory and enabling its domination of the text. Denver's first words "Beloved is my sister" take us back to Sethe's. Her discourse also recollects her first memories, and then propels her into her current dilemma. It (re)members her sister's death from a variety of perspectives—what she did (went to her secret house in the woods), what she tasted (her mother's milk along with her sister's blood), what she was told (by Grandma Baby). But it is the final repetition of her opening claim of Beloved as "my sister" that encircles her narrative discourse and encloses it within the safety of kinship acknowledged—"She's mine, Beloved. She's mine."

Beloved's discourse is the Derridean trace element—the one that dislocates the other two by challenging—disrupting what semblance of narrative structure of sense there had been in Sethe's or Denver's thinking. But her discourse also supports the narrative because her dialogue accomplishes the same kind of disruption that her presence actualized. It was she who denied them their space in a secure and memory-less present. So her discourse opens with an elliptical "I am Beloved and she is mine." That opening pronouncement is the last structure syntactically marked as a sentence. The rest evidences a fully divested text. Western time is obliterated, space is not even relevant because Beloved's presence is debatable, and the nature of her being is a nonissue because her belonging ("she is mine") has been established by her mother and sister.

       I am not dead       I am not      there is a house
       there is what she whispered to me      I am where
       she   told   me      the   sun   closes   my eyes      when I
       open them I see the face I lost.

Emptied of the values that mark and specify dimension in a Western tradition, Morrison's narrative now belongs to itself—the text claims its text. Voice ("I am where she told me") is the only certain locus that remains. Her next chapter verifies the creation of this oracular space. It collapses all their voices into a tightened poetic chant. Finally the identity of the speaker is absolutely unclear and singularly irrelevant. Sethe's, Denver's, and Beloved's voices blend and merge as text and lose the distinction of discourse as they narrate:

       You are my face; I am you.
       Why did you leave me who am you?
       I will never leave you again
       Don't ever leave me again
       You went in the water
       I drank your blood
       I brought your milk …
       I waited for you
       You are mine
       You are mine
       You are mine.

When Zora Neale Hurston described dialect as the "urge to adorn"—an oral "hieroglyph"—she probably was not prefiguring the dimensions that Morrison has brought to the glyph of black language. However, Hurston certainly recognized the potential in black language to dissolve the artificial constructs of time that confine it to a tradition that belies its origin. What Morrison does with language is an act of liberation. The consequences of this freedom is that the text which seems to be literate, i.e., written, is revealed as an oracular, i.e., a spoken, event. This is a blend that Walter Ong explicitly acknowledges when he writes [in Orality and Literacy: The Technology of the World, 1983] that orality is "never completely eradicable; reading a text oralizes it." Morrison enriches Ong's observation. Her texts are a constant exchange between an implicit mythic voice, one that struggles against the wall of history to assert itself and an explicit narrator, one that is inextricably bound to its spoken counterpoint.

The structures within African and African-American novels consistently defy the collected eventualities of time "past, present, and future" and in consequence a consideration of aspect may be a more appropriate frame through which to consider the chronicle of events in this story. [In an endnote, the critic states: "Aspect describes action in terms of its duration without a consideration of its place in time. In Caribbean and African Languages Morgan Dalphini's discussion explores how aspect is a better descriptor of such basic cultural concepts than those traditionally measured by a '(past/present/future) time-based yardstick.' The implications of such a measure for literature that reflects its culture in the arrangement and use of language is clearly relevant to literatures of the African diaspora."] Temporal time represents a narrow specific moment of occurrence. The relatively limited idea of time as being either in the past, the present, or the future is inadequate for a text like Beloved, where the pattern of events criss-crosses through these dimensions and enlarges the spaces that they suggest. This novel immediately makes it clear that a traditional (Western) valuation of time is not definitive of the experience it (re)members, instead it is an intrusion on a universe that has existed seemingly without its mediation. Weeks, months, and years become irrelevant to the spite of 124—the house that Beloved's spirit inhabits. Baby Suggs, Morrison writes, was "suspended between the nastiness of life and the meanness of the dead." This suspension was shared by more than Baby Suggs. Living itself is suspended in this story because of the simultaneous presence of the past.

In "Toward the Solstice" Adrienne Rich writes:

              if I could know
      in what language to address
      the spirits that claim a place
      beneath these low and simple ceilings,
      tenants that neither speak nor stir
      yet dwell in mute insistence
      till I can feel utterly ghosted in this house.

When spirits "claim a place" there must be a simultaneous disruption of the spaces occupied not only by others, but by their aspect—their beings. The "tenants" in Rich's poem who "neither speak nor stir" still manage to pull her into their places until she feels "utterly ghosted." Morrison's spirit is a tug as well, and yet it is not only the dimensions of being that Beloved has claimed as her own, it is dimensionality itself—including the fourth dimension, time. Once time is implicated in Beloved's "insistence" a pattern familiar to Morrison's work asserts itself.

Sula's time "ends" on earth with her death, and yet, after she has died we hear her remark that it didn't even hurt—and her urge to tell her best friend Nel of that revelation. Her voice survived, suspended through the dimensions, or across them, as did her urge to share her knowledge, to continue to "tell." Circe, in Morrison's Song of Solomon, clearly defies time. How old is she? It's immaterial. What is critical is that she has lived past (and through) time to assure that the myth Milkman needed to reclaim his legacy would one day be his. She alone is able to retell the story he must hear if he is to solve the riddle that is his life. Milkman, who tells her "They think you're dead," is easily claimed by her mythic dimensions. The fruity, ginger odor of her house that smells like Pilate's and her dark embracing presence draw him into her fabric. Time is suspended long enough for him to lose his place in the dangerous present that threatens his spirituality and find his place in a nurturing past. Tar Baby, Morrison's sustained mythic text, begins with a water lady, a goddess reminiscent of the African water goddesses, nudging Son to an island where reclamation is the only surety. On Isles des Chevaliers, the mythology of ancestral blind horsemen dominates the present and everyone there is waiting for the past to renew itself through them. For Morrison, myth becomes a metaphorical abandonment of time because its function is to reconnect the poetry that the development in languages has shifted away from the word. The sense of a metaphor is represented as origin in myth—the two are not separable and therefore to be metaphorical is to abandon the dissonance of time. Within such a cosmology, the potential of Beloved is freed from the dominance of a history that would submerge this story. This liberation is perhaps the most critical issue of Morrison's novel.

If Beloved is not only Sethe's dead daughter returned, but the return of all the faces, all the drowned, but remembered, faces of mothers and their children who have lost their being because of the force of the EuroAmerican slave-history, then she has become a cultural mooring place, a moment for reclamation and for naming. Morrison's epigraph to her novel cites the Old Testament: "I will call her Beloved who was not Beloved." I will call. I will name her who was not named. "I need to find a place to be," Beloved's discourse insists. Her being depended on not losing her self again. "Say my name," Beloved insists to Paul D. She demands to be removed from her nothingness, to be specified, to be "called."

If history has disabled human potential, then assertion, the ghostly insistence that Rich writes of in "Toward the Solstice" must come outside of history. Beloved's existence is liminal. Between worlds, being neither "in," nor "of" a past or a present, she is a confrontation of a killing history and a disabling present. Since neither aspect allows the kind of life that a postemancipation black community would have imagined for itself because at the very least, "not a house in the county ain't packed to the rafters with some dead Negro's grief," Beloved becomes a text collected with the textures of living and dying rather than with a linear movements of events. Morrison has written novels marked by seasons (The Bluest Eye) and years (Sula) but this story is marked by the shifting presence of the house, number 124 on Bluestone Road, that was introduced in Book One as "spite[ful]," in Book Two as "loud," and in Book Three, as finally "quiet." This shift allows the focus of the novel to ignore the possible time frames. Neither distance nor years mattered to the white house where Beloved insisted herself back into reality. For Sethe, "the future was a matter of keeping the past at bay" and since this story (not a story to "pass on") demystifies time, allowing it to "be" where/whenever it must be, we know, even before the story assumes this "text," that there was neither future nor present in the woman who walked fully dressed out of the water.

The recursion of this text, its sublimation of time and its privileging of an alternative not only to history, but to reality, places it into the tradition of literature by black women because of its dependence on the alternative, the inversion that sustains the "place" that has re-placed reality. Certainly not all recursive texts sublimate time, but temporal displacement is clearly a possibility of such technique. This is why Hurston's note that black folk think in glyphs rather than writing is not only an acknowledgement of another cosmology, but an acknowledgement of the necessity of evolution in the basic design of the ways we think about thought. Thomas Kuhn's discussion in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions considers "evolution from the community's state of knowledge at any given time" as the appropriate visual dimension of progress. It is evolution, i.e. a changing and shifting conceptualization that identifies the aspective nature of recursion, rather than temporicity as the operative narrative space of Morrison's text. In her re-visioning of the history of slavery, Morrison proposes a paradigm of that history that privileges the vision of its victims and that denies the closure of death as a way of side-stepping any of that tragedy. The houses of the counties held grief; Sethe practiced, without success, holding back the past, and Beloved held not only her own history, but those of "sixty million and more." In these ways, the vision of this novel is innervision, the cognitive reclamation of our spiritual histories.

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