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A New Hystery: History and Hysteria in Toni Morrison's Beloved.

In "The Laugh of the Medusa" (1981), Helene Cixous states that "The new history is coming" (253), and with Toni Morrison's Beloved (1987) it begins to arrive. The novel is based on the true story of Margaret Garner, an escaped slave who killed her daughter in a desperate bid to save her from the misery and indignity of slavery when threatened with recapture--a story very few people knew before the publication of Morrison's book. Yet, while Beloved is a woman-centered narrative that challenges the "phallusy" of history (the lack of representation or misrepresentation of women in male-dominated versions of history), it is not so much a "herstory" as a "hystery" in the sense that the central protagonists can be read as hysterics: subjects haunted by the past, characters who unconsciously express repressed memories of psychic trauma through physical symptoms and use a corporeal discourse to articulate what is otherwise unspeakable. Drawing on insights from psychoanalysis and employing French feminist ideas about hysteria, I will argue that Beloved explores the means by which the disempowered and dispossessed express personal dissatisfaction and enact political dissent. By examining the relationship between the repression of pain and the repossession of the past, I propose that, like hysteria, Morrison's novel highlights the importance of confronting, reclaiming, and transforming history, and that it points to the healing potential of memory. However, I also argue that in its exploration of the politics of gender and race, Beloved challenges both Freudian and French feminist theories of hysteria in significant ways.

In Studies on Hysteria, Freud and Breuer first challenged prevailing nineteenth-century views of hysteria as an organic physical illness and argued instead that it needed to be understood as a psychic disorder. They proposed that hysteria is the product of a traumatic event that is subsequently excluded from consciousness. Repressed memories of unresolved trauma are unconsciously transformed into bodily symptoms (such as coughs, convulsions, limps, or linguistic distortions) which function as physical metaphors of psychic distress. In other words, trauma is converted into somatic symptoms that function as "mnemic symbols" of discontent (Freud 2: xviii). For example, hysterical paralysis can be seen as a symbol of feelings of powerlessness. Hysteria thus represents repressed hostility and desire transformed into physical symptoms that simultaneously reveal and conceal those feelings (Bernheimer and Kahane 5-6), or as Juliet Mitchell explains, hysterical symptoms are "an alternative representation of a forbidde n wish which has broken through from the unconscious, whence it was banished, into consciousness--but in an 'unrecognizable' form" (9). What distinguishes hysteria from other kinds of neurosis or psychosomatic illness is the mutability of its symptoms, the manner in which trauma can be converted into a potentially infinite array of corporeal manifestations. The conviction of Freud and Breuer that "Hysterics suffer mainly from reminiscences" (2:7) confirms that hysteria functions as a useful conceptual tool in reading a novel that concerns what Morrison calls "rememory": the continued presence of that which has disappeared or been forgotten, as when Sethe "remember[s] something she had forgotten she knew" (Beloved 61).

Like Freud and Breuer, Irigaray regards hysteria as a nonverbal language, a mode of physical communication that broadcasts a coded message. For Irigaray, hysteria is a "symptomatic acting out of a proposition the hysteric cannot articulate.... The hysteric 'articulates' a corporeal discourse; her symptoms 'speak' on her behalf" (qtd. in Grosz 134, 135). However, there are a number of features of Irigaray's theory of hysteria that make it markedly different from that of Freud and more pertinent to a reading of Beloved. Firstly, unlike Freud, Irigaray understands hysteria primarily as a form of protest against patriarchal law and locates it outside of and in opposition to what Lacan terms the symbolic order, the rule-governed phallic economy that subjects enter when they acquire language and submit to the Law-of-the-Father. Irigaray explains hysteria's potential to resist and subvert symbolic law in terms of mimicry. According to her, the hysteric mimes an imposed femininity: By mimicking hegemonic modes of beh avior to excess--by taking on, in the most exaggerated form, what is expected but to such an extreme degree that the end result is the opposite of compliance--the hysteric challenges the dominant order. To paraphrase Toril Moi, mimicry involves undoing patriarchal discourse by overdoing it (140). A second area in which Irigaray's view of hysteria differs from that of Freud is motherhood. Whereas Freud almost completely ignores the role of the mother in hysteria, Irigaray proposes that hysterical discourse has a privileged relation to the maternal body.

Perhaps most importantly, because Irigaray (following Lacan) recognizes the ways in which subjectivity is shaped by the symbolic order, the realm of culture and ideology, her theorization of hysteria allows for a broader sense of social-historical trauma than that permitted by Freudian theory, which focuses on the hysteric's relationship to her family. Read from an Irigarayan perspective, hysteria in Beloved can be seen as a product of public as well as personal repression, a response to what is repressed in history. As Barbara Christian has noted, it is a novel that probes "those terrible spaces that nineteenth-century slave narratives could not write about" ("Fixing" 364). As such, it can also be read as a hysterical response to the inability of language to articulate the immensity of the horrors of slavery. Irigaray asserts that the hysteric "senses something remains to be said that resists all speech" (Speculum 193). When Sethe tells her friend Paul D that she wants to hear about his past, to learn what has happened to him during and since their escape from slavery, his comment that "I just ain't sure I can say it. Say it right" (71) points to the inadequacy of words to articulate what he has to say. Sethe too recognizes that there are things in their past that "neither had word-shapes for" (99). To reiterate the central point here: hysteria, as conceived by Irigaray, is productive because it provides a means to express what is otherwise inexpressible, what Morrison terms "unspeakable thoughts, unspoken" (199), not simply in terms of the individual psyche but in terms of history.

Yet, because Irigaray overlooks issues of race in her revision of Freud and focuses on issues of sexual difference to the exclusion of racial difference, her usefulness is limited. As I will show, Beloved ultimately challenges several aspects of Freudian and French feminist theories of hysteria: in the way that the text highlights the culturally and historically specific character of hysterical symptoms, in its emphasis on the importance of the individual's relation to the community, in its representation of hysteria as a social rather than familial phenomenon, and in its reservations about the adequacy of hysteria as a strategy for subversion, Beloved calls for a reconstitution of psychoanalytic formulations of hysteria.

Although almost all of the African American characters in this novel can be read as hysterics, Beloved, Sethe's daughter, is linked most closely to hysteria as both a hysterical subject and a hysterical symptom. Her ambivalence is significant as it undermines the philosophical system of mutually exclusive binary oppositions that undergirds dominant ideology, a system of thought that establishes masculinity and whiteness as culturally central and normative by constructing femininity and blackness as Other. Both her role as a hysteric and her status as a hysterical symptom have a significant function in the narrative. As a hysteric, she highlights the insights that psychoanalysis can offer--and its shortcomings--in understanding black female subjectivity. As a symptom of other characters' hysteria, she represents the return of the repressed, and the community's response to her reveals possible ways of dealing with the pain of personal and historical trauma.

Beloved's violent haunting of 124 demonstrates the combination of feelings characteristic of hysterical subjects: hostility and desire, a longing for retribution and reconciliation, an inability to forgive coupled with a reluctance to forgo the mother who killed her. In rereading Freud, Claire Kahane has argued that an aspect of hysteria that needs more attention is its spawning of rage (35), and Beloved is undoubtedly angry. The ghost of a child who died before she was two years old and hence "Too little to talk much" (4), Beloved has no voice to communicate her discontent, which is initially expressed through acts of violence. Before she returns as a person, there are several histrionic outbursts in which she spills or smashes things and even sadistically attacks the dog, Here Boy. Cixous's celebration of hysteria's capacity to demolish dominant structures and disturb arrangements makes Beloved's violence--so powerful that the whole house quakes at one point--suggestive of a metaphorical dissatisfaction wi th the established order (Cixous and Clement 154, 156).

Even when she returns in the physical form of a young woman, Beloved does not (at least initially) speak of her pain despite being obviously disturbed by some profound sorrow. This points to repression. Given the nature and context of Beloved's death readers may well expect her memories to be traumatic, but the fact that she only seems to recall comforting snatches of her past, such as Sethe's earrings and a song, suggests that painful memories are avoided. Instead of being consciously acknowledged and articulated, her feelings are expressed obliquely through what can be interpreted as hysterical symptoms: namely, her insatiable desire for sweet foods and her cannibalistic behavior toward Sethe. After she rematerializes, Beloved develops a persistent craving for sweetness and regularly devours such things as "Honey as well as the wax it came in, sugar sandwiches, the sludgy molasses gone hard and brutal in the can, lemonade, taffy and any type of dessert Sethe brought home from the restaurant" (55).

It is the enormity of Beloved's desire for sweets that marks it as a hysterical symptom. Irigaray links hysteria to obsession (Whitford 40) and stresses that the hysteric's symptoms are always excessive (Grosz 135). Ironically, when Sethe, Denver, and Paul D first meet Beloved, Sethe thinks that the young girl looks poorly fed, and when she decides to let her stay, explains to Paul D that "Feeding her is no trouble" (67). However, Denver knows that Beloved is "greedy" (209), and Sethe notes that the longing in her eyes is "bottomless" (58). As is typical of hysterics who, according to Cixous, seem to say "I want everything" (Cixous and Clement 155), Beloved becomes voracious: "She took the best of everything--first. The best chair, the biggest piece, the prettiest plate, the brightest ribbon for her hair" (241). However, her desire cannot be abated. Just as Irigaray says of the hysteric, "the 'I' is empty still, ever more empty, opening wide in rapture of soul.... no hands can fill the open hungry mouth with the food that both nourishes and devours" (Speculum 195), so Beloved is insatiable because nothing can make reparation for her death.

Beloved's desire for sugar is matched only by her craving for the sweetness of mother love. Her hunger for food and affection soon merge as she develops a cannibalistic appetite and begins to devour Sethe metaphorically. Beloved cannot take her eyes off her mother: "Sethe was licked, tasted, eaten by Beloved's eyes" (57). Beloved draws her sustenance from Sethe and grows "plumper by the day" (239), while her mother becomes physically and emotionally emaciated: "Beloved ate up her life, took it, swelled up with it, grew taller on it. And the older woman yielded it up without a murmur" (250).

To appreciate why a passion for sweets and a propensity for (metaphoric) cannibalism constitute hysterical symptoms, and to read them as an encoded expression of the trauma of Beloved's unspeakable past, it is crucial to locate sugar and cannibalism in their racial and historical context. This is particularly important given the general skepticism about the value of psychoanalysis among black feminists who criticize its ethnocentrism, ahistoricism, and universalizing tendencies. [1] Like Ania Loomba, I propose that psychoanalysis can be productive if it takes account of specific histories, locations, and contexts (Loomba 179). As a substance inscribed with both patriarchal and imperialistic values, sugar signifies race and gender power structures. Sugar, as nursery rhymes and pop songs remind us ("What are little girls made of? Sugar and spice and everything nice"; The Rolling Stones' "Brown Sugar"), evokes powerful stereotypes of femininity. Beloved's love of sugar thus exemplifies Elizabeth Bronfen's asser tion that hysteria is a form of self-fashioning in which hysteric strategies of self-representation imitate the culture that produces hysterical symptoms (44). Since Beloved's unappeasable appetite for sugar makes her far from a sweet girl, it demonstrates precisely how the excessive and parodic character of the hysteric's symptoms function as counterhegemonic form of mimicry.

While sugar conjures up a set of gendered associations, it simultaneously invokes the history of slavery--sugar being one of the main products of slave plantations in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The name of the farm where Beloved is born, Sweet Home, acts as a reminder of this, and the knowledge that many slaves were bred to work on sugar plantations reveals a painful irony in the line "It was as though sweet things were what she was born for" (55). The observation by Freud and Breuer that hysterical symptoms can take the form of an inverted representation of the impact of trauma suggests that Beloved's desire for sweetness is a ciphered expression of bitterness. Indeed, for Irigaray, this combination of "Unbearable sweetness and bitterness" characterizes the condition of the hysteric's existence (Speculum 194). However, an awareness of the racial history of sugar suggests that, as a hysterical symptom, Beloved's craving for sweetness is not only a parodic expression of her personal bitterness but also a representation of a more general African American need for reparation, articulated through the substance deeply implicated in the enslavement of a race.

Through Beloved, Morrison not only demonstrates the hysteric's parody of a socially defined gender role identified by feminist psychoanalysis but also extends this parody to imposed constructions of race. The word cannibal is derived from Carib, the name that colonial invaders gave to the indigenous people of the Caribbean in order to construct their racial Otherness. It exemplifies the way in which race functions as a relational concept as it implies a savagery that establishes and contrasts the supposedly superior civilization of "white" people. Underlining this, the group of white men who come to recapture Sethe and her children view the incident that Stamp Paid calls "the Misery as testimony to the results of a little so-called freedom imposed on people who needed every care and guidance in the world to keep them from the cannibal life they preferred" (151). Stamp recognizes that "Whitepeople believed that whatever the manners, under every dark skin was a jungle.... red gums ready for their sweet white b lood" (198). Yet he also says that if there is a jungle, it is one "whitefolks planted in them," suggesting that fantasies of cannibalism are the product of fears that one group projects onto its racial Other.

Like her desire for sugar, Beloved's metaphoric cannibalism is a form of hysterical mimicry in the sense that it reproduces the logic of master discourses but does so in such a way that this logic begins to deconstruct itself. Her consumption of her mother mimics and deconstructs the racist representation of blacks as cannibals because it emphasizes the inhumanity of slavery rather than Beloved herself: cannibalism is an expression of her desire for Sethe, her desire is generated by loss, and slavery is responsible for this loss. Beloved's cannibalistic tendencies thus draw attention to the devastatingly cannibalistic character of the slavery that destroys her and threatens to destroy her family. Baby Suggs, for example, feels that white people "chewed up her life and spit it out like a fish bone" (177). Stamp's conclusion that if white people see red gums then "the red gums were their own" (199), makes it clear where barbarism and pathology really lie.

As a hysteric, Beloved mimics dominant ideas about madness as well as orthodox definitions of gender and race. To read Beloved as a hysteric is to see Morrison's novel as a challenge to the way in which sexual and racial difference have been pathologized historically. Elaine Showalter has shown that at the end of the nineteenth century hysteria was used as a label for deviant female behavior that served to discredit and pathologize women's protest (145). Sander L. Gilman has shown that pathology was linked not only to gender but also to racial identity, particularly through the US national census of 1840, which created a mythic association between insanity and blackness (137). Although the accuracy of the results of the census are dubious, the purportedly disproportionately high incidence of mental health problems among the black population was used as evidence by antiabolitionists to support the view that slaves were congenitally unfit for freedom. Insofar as Freud considered "primitives" akin to the "civi lized" neurotic, he contributed to this pathologizing of racial identity. Loomba points out that in Totem and Taboo and Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud associates European male adulthood with civilization and rationality while he conflates non-Europeans, children, primitivism, and madness (138). However, Beloved subverts the ethnocentric and patriarchal bias in the discourses of history and psychoanalysis by pointing out the contradictions that underscore them. Paradoxically, even though medical discourse of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries pathologized difference in order to construct an Other against which the dominant, normative conception of self could be defined, psychiatric institutions preoccupied themselves with white patients. Morrison thus points to the contradictions inherent in a system that is both dependent on and seeks to exclude Otherness when she writes: "If the whitepeople of Cincinnati had allowed Negroes into their lunatic asylum they could have found candidates in 124 " (250, emphasis added).

Although orality is "a privileged zone of hysterical displacement (Kahane 22), and the oral nature of Beloved's desire is typical of symptoms exhibited by Freud's hysterics, Beloved is by no means a characteristic hysteric according to Freudian tradition. For example, the nature of Beloved's symptoms--her sweet tooth and cannibalistic cravings--suggest that the origin of Beloved's trauma is not sexual, whereas Freud believed that it always is (2: xxix). Rather than bourgeois sexual neurosis, the foundation of Beloved's hysteria is the horrors of slavery. Even though Freud acknowledged that "pure" hysteria is rare (2: 260), it is not surprising that a theory developed from work with middle-class, white, European women will provide an inadequate or unsuitable account of the experience of an African American girl, a member of a cultural underclass. While hysteria represents a nonresolution of the contradictions in a woman's life, the contradictions posed to different races and classes of women in different perio ds are specific (Ramas 152, 158). Freud and Morrison occupy different ideological positions, and this shapes their conception of the hysteric. In short, an awareness of the differences between Freud and Morrison allows the reader to recognize that hysteria is a malaise of a particular Culture at a particular moment.

Reading Beloved as a hysteric not only resists the universalizing tendencies of psychoanalysis, it also prompts a challenge to the phallocentrism of Freudian theory. Freud explains hysteria in terms of the Oedipal complex, but in Beloved the figure of the father is marginalized. Halle disappears after the escape from Sweet Home and neither Beloved nor Denver (his daughters) ever really knows him. Morrison's representation of Halle constitutes a challenge to Freudian theory, which conceptualizes femininity as lack, since he is figured in the text as an absence (especially by Denver, who misses and longs for him). Halle's absence provides a reminder that, as an institution, the family functions in different ways for white Americans and African Americans, and that the latter "have historically been denied the privilege of forming family units" because "the family for them has been forged in the crucible of racial oppression" (Loomba 165). His peripheral position indicates that Beloved's hysteria cannot be accou nted for merely in terms of Oedipal structures.

As in Irigaray's theory of hysteria, which privileges the subject's pre-Oedipal relationship with the mother, and in contrast to Freud's early accounts of hysteria, which completely overlook the mother's role, mother-daughter relations are central to Beloved. [2] Various critics have noted the way in which Freud occludes the mother in his case histories and see this as symptomatic of his phallocentricism, his repression of the feminine, and his refusal to acknowledge sexual difference. [3] However, for Irigaray, a pre-Oedipal, homosexual desire for the mother is a key characteristic of hysteria (Grosz 134). Like Dora, Freud's most famous hysterical patient (described in "Fragment of an Analysis of Hysteria"), whose second dream (in which she returns home when her father dies) articulates a literal and metaphorical desire to return to the mother, Beloved desires fusion with Sethe. The two sections that begin "I am Beloved and she is mine" signal a withdrawal from the patriarchal symbolic realm and a retreat i nto a pre-Oedipal state of merger between self and Other: "I am not separate from her there is no place where I stop her face is my own and I want to be there in the place where her face is and to be looking at it too" (210). In this sense, hysteria, which comes from the Greek word hysteros, meaning womb, is an ironically apt description of Beloved's condition, not because she has a wandering womb but because she desires to return to a womblike fusion with her mother. The breakdown of syntax and the absence of punctuation in these passages create a fluidity that accords with Kristeva's description of the (maternal/feminine) semiotic--the locus of polymorphous, unrepresentable, presymbolic sexual drives transformed into rhythms and energies that are characterized by fluidity; multiplicity; and heterogeneity, and that, although repressed within the symbolic, are capable of defying the Law-of-the-Father when they erupt. These two sections thus represent a subversive defiance of patriarchal law. When Sethe loses her job, she effectively withdraws from society and the symbolic order and joins her two daughters to live like a recluse in the house, oblivious to the outside world. A pre-Oedipal realm is evoked when, in contrast to the ordered, regulated, unified symbolic, 124 becomes a place of "no-time" (191), suggesting that Sethe and Beloved, by retreating into the semiotic, escape the psychic structures of the dominant socio-symbolic order that cause their pain.

Nevertheless, Beloved depicts the destructiveness of hysteria that feminist psychoanalytic criticism warns of even as it celebrates hysteric disruption of patriarchy. Irigaray acknowledges that a woman cannot survive long-term hysteria, which simply becomes pathology: "But can life go on in such violence, however sweet it may be?" (Speculum 196). Denver seems to recognize the potential for destruction as she watches Sethe get thinner and thinner while Beloved grows: she realizes that her sister could eventually kill her mother. Kristeva argues that to be revolutionary the semiotic must combine with the symbolic because complete withdrawal into the semiotic (the situation that arises when Sethe and Beloved lock themselves away in the house) leads to psychosis or even death (82, 102, 139). It is significant, therefore, that Beloved stresses that radical change is instigated not by a retreat into the semiotic but through an eruption of the semiotic within the symbolic. The women who gather outside Sethe's house to exorcise the ghost do so by making a prelinguistic noise, "the sound that broke the back of words" (261). This sound evokes the semiotic within the symbolic, an eruption that has the power to disrupt the symbolic structures of white, male oppression: "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 knew what that sound sounded like" (259). As several critics such as Kubitschek and Rigney have noted, Morrison directly contradicts masculine authority here: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God" (John 1). The noise the women make is startlingly reminiscent of the hysterical noises of Anna O., Breuer's first hysterical patient. During hysterical attacks, Anna O. (Bertha Pappenheim) often spoke a cacophony of different languages or a gibberish babble. So for both Anna O. and the chanting women in Beloved, the disruption of the symbolic through the disorganization of speech a nd linguistic discord is a way of rejecting patriarchal authority and prescribed cultural identity. [4] Nevertheless, what makes Anna O.'s behavior, and that of Sethe and Beloved when they become recluses, different from that of the group of women in the exorcism scene is that while the former represents a complete withdrawal into the semiotic, the latter is not a movement away from the symbolic and does not entail giving up the status of a symbolic subject. This is the difference between pathology and effective political protest. The retreat of mother and daughter into the semiotic may represent a defiance of symbolic law, but it is limited as a form of subversion because while it threatens to destroy Sethe, it leaves existing symbolic structures intact. This is why Sethe must be rescued from the house and find an alternative means of relieving her pain if she is to survive. The prelinguistic chant performed by the group of women is more revolutionary because it constitutes an eruption of the semiotic withi n the symbolic, and this eruption forces a change in the structures of the dominant order. Such a change is signaled by Beloved's retreat.

Morrison's focus on the individual's relation to the community is another way in which Beloved constitutes a radical reconceptualization of the hysteric. Catherine Clement argues that the emphasis on individualism in Cixous's conception of hysteria undermines its effectiveness as a feminist strategy for subversion. This is why, for her, Dora never becomes "a revolutionary character" (Cixous and Clement 157). As Morrison's novel demonstrates, individual protest is potentially self-destructive, and only communal protest is capable of subverting symbolic structures. Only collective action leads to freedom, something Paul D learns when the chain gang escapes from the Georgia prison: "For one lost, all lost. The chain that held them would save all or none" (11O). This is why, at the end of the novel, it is collective action by the women of the community that brings change and makes healing possible. Realizing that the situation at home has reached a crisis point, Denver asks her former teacher for a job, after whi ch gifts of food from people in the town regularly appear outside the house. The same women who provide the food gather together to exorcise the ghost. It is important that a group of women is involved in this act, as they are all partly culpable for Beloved's death: following Sethe's escape from Sweet Home, they failed to warn Baby Suggs that schoolteacher was coming to recapture Sethe and her children. Moreover, it is significant that the community is involved in the exorcism because, as I will show, Beloved represents the pain of slavery they all suffer in some way.

Whereas Freud conceived of hysteria as an individual or familial phenomenon, Morrison links Beloved's trauma to a broader social malaise. Because hysteria has no organic causes, the hysteric imitates the lesions of other illnesses. As an arch dissembler, she mimes the disorder of others. Beloved exemplifies this in that, while she is characterized by insatiability, her hunger mirrors the hunger suffered by almost all the other characters in the book, thus suggesting that she is a representation of cultural discontent. On the farm, the slaves are made to hunger physically, sexually, and psychologically, and Sethe recalls that she was deprived of her own mother's milk, fed by a wet nurse only after she had finished feeding white babies. The hunger that Baby Suggs has had to repress in order to survive as a slave erupts on the day she is freed, when she suddenly feels "hungrier than she had ever been in her life" (144). Although she has food as a free woman, she dies "starved for color" (38). Denver's loneliness produces a metaphoric hunger, a longing for a "taste of a life" (120), the result of being ostracized by a community that is disgusted by her mother's actions. Beloved's presence nourishes her because "anything is better than the original hunger" (121), "the old hunger--the before-Beloved hunger" (120), and when she thinks that Beloved has left her, Denver is desolate: "Death is a skipped meal compared to this" (123).

Beloved's appetite differs from that of the other characters only in degree, and this, together with the fact that she has no name (Beloved is the word inscribed on her headstone), suggests that she represents an African American Everywoman or the "Sixty Million and more" to whom the book is so movingly dedicated. Her memory of the Middle Passage indicates that she is an ancestral spirit, the spirit of the memory of her African ancestors, rather than simply the ghost of Sethe's daughter. After Beloved's departure, when Paul D asks Denver if she thinks the mysterious young woman was her sister, Denver replies, "At times I think she was--more" (266). Beloved's identity is neither singular nor straight- forward. As the last page of the novel states, the feet of adults and children alike fit her footprints. But if Beloved is from the past, she is also of the future. The first page, in fact the opening line, of the novel--"124 was spiteful" (3)--suggests that Beloved mimes the disorder not only of the other charac ters in the novel but also of some contemporary readers. 124 is Sethe's house number but so too is it exactly the number of years between the abolition of slavery (1863) and the date of the novel's publication (1987), thus indirectly suggesting that life for African Americans in the late twentieth century is still spiteful, and that Beloved is a manifestation of contemporary rage and pain.

The ambiguity and fluidity of Beloved's identity (singular/plural, past/future) means that if she can be read as a hysterical subject, she can also be read as a manifestation of mass hysteria, a hysterical symptom conjured up by the whole African American community Sethe's hysteria is hinted at when Denver explains what is happening in her house to Janey, who thinks "This Sethe has lost her wits" (254), and it is demonstrated by her retreat into the semiotic when she locks herself in the house with Beloved. Sethe's experience epitomizes the debilitating effects of the hysteric haunting of the present by the past. Desperately trying to explain her actions to Beloved, she is unable to accept the past as past, and submerges herself in it so completely that the present effectively evaporates: fed by attention, Beloved swells while Denver goes unnoticed.

Sethe's hysteria is confirmed by her actions in the exorcism scene, where she attacks the liberal white man, Edward Bodwin. Freud and Breuer proposed that hysterical symptoms disappear when the memory of the disturbing event that first provoked symptoms is recalled and the affect of trauma is aroused (2:6). Cure comes through the reproduction of the primal scene of trauma, which creates an opportunity for revision of the psychic events that cause hysterical symptoms. Beloved disappears following the scene in which her mother tries to kill Bodwin, a scene that symbolically constitutes a restaging of Sethe's trauma: the death of her daughter. Bodwin approaches the house to collect Denver for work in the same way that schoolteacher approached to recapture his slaves, but this time, Sethe chooses a different course of action. Instead of trying to protect her children by killing them, she flies at Bodwin with an ice pick. For the first time, her protest is directed outward toward the source of oppression, represen ted by Bodwin (who stands for schoolteacher), rather than taking the form of self-destruction.

As hysterics, the difference between Beloved and Sethe once again underlines the difference between hysteria as a pathology and hysteria as a temporary and productive strategy for subversion. Unlike Sethe, who is engaged in a process of repetition and change, Beloved is compelled simply to repeat earlier events. The scene in which she almost strangles Sethe, an act that mirrors the way her mother previously sawed through her throat, signals the disastrous consequences of failing to break historically established patterns of harmful behavior. Pathology is revealed by her violence and viciousness: she seduces her mother's lover (Paul D) and attacks Sethe's dog, her house, and Sethe herself. Because mother and daughter have become indistinguishable, her attack on Sethe is effectively a form of self-destruction. Beloved's death means that she is stuck in the past, and as a ghost, she is unable to take up a satisfactory place in the symbolic order. For these reasons, she is an incurable hysteric. Sethe is not. At moments her hysteria threatens to become pathological and self-destructive, but the exorcism scene demonstrates her capacity for change.

That other people see Beloved indicates that several characters share Sethe's hysterical disposition. If 124 houses candidates for the lunatic asylum, then that includes Denver and Paul D. Paul D describes Denver as "half out of her mind" (15) when he first meets her, and her temporary deafness can be read as a hysterical symptom: it has no organic cause but rather constitutes an unconscious refusal to confront what she knows about the manner of her sister's death. When Nelson Lord asked her, "Didn't your mother get locked away for murder? Wasn't you there with her when she went?" Denver "went deaf rather than hear the answer" (104-05). Similarly, Paul D's trembling, which "began inside" (106) and left his hands uncontrollable at night in the Georgia prison box, is a dislocated physical expression of psychic distress, a hysterical response to trauma reminiscent of the shell shock suffered by soldiers in the First World War like Shadrack in Morrison's second novel, Sula. Like Sethe and Denver, Paul D uses avoi dance as a survival strategy, a means of self-preservation: he goes "crazy so he would not lose his mind" (41, emphasis added). Although Halle is not around to encounter Beloved, he too suffers trauma and exhibits hysterical symptoms. Hiding in the roof of the barn where schoolteacher's nephews steal Sethe's breast milk, Halle is forced to witness what happens but is unable to stop it. This harrowing incident produces a hysterical response. Afterward, unable to think of anything but Sethe's milk, he sits by the milk shed and smears butter over his face. All of these characters are subjects whose bodies convey an anguished message about pain and privation that cannot be articulated any other way. In the context of the novel, such pain is clearly a social and not an isolated phenomenon: when Paul D decides that Sethe is "crazy," Stamp Paid responds, "Yeah, well, ain't we all?" (265).

If the ghost can be read as a shared hysterical symptom, this implies that "rememory" must be a communal project for peace to be established. Beloved's presence pries the lid from Paul D's tobacco tin of memories, the tin "buried in his chest where a red heart used to be" (72-73). As he says, "She reminds me of something. Something, look like, I'm supposed to remember" (234). Denver's trip to Lady Jones's house to ask for help when the situation at home becomes unbearable suggests that memory is vital for survival. Although she has not left 124 for more than a decade, she slowly remembers the way and begins a journey that will lead to salvation. Amy recognizes that the process of healing is painful--rubbing Sethe's feet, the white girl who helps to deliver Denver tells her, "Anything dead coming back to life hurts," and "Can't nothing heal without pain" (35, 78)--but just as the table Paul D breaks during one of the ghost's tantrums is stronger after he mends it, the novel suggests that rebuilding the past ca n improve the present.

Just as Morrison follows Freud in her emphasis on memory, Beloved, like Freud's talking cure, points to the power of storytelling. To understand the value of narrative in Beloved, Freudian insights must be combined with those from French feminism. Narrative, only possible within the symbolic order of language, allows a subject to exercise a degree of control over her story rather than being physically controlled by it, as in hysteria. Narrative enables the hysteric to tell her story in a different way (with words rather than her body), but her hysteria also enables her to tell a story that is different from any hitherto heard in the symbolic because her sojourn in the semiotic provides access to what is normally repressed in the dominant order. Narratives that emerge out of hysteria thus have the potential to create a new perspective on the past that creates new possibilities for the future.

Ned Lukacher defines hysteria as a story about the turning away from another story (vii), the kind of horrific story that Morrison describes as "not a story to pass on" (275). Confirming this, before Beloved's appearance, Sethe attempts to repress her painful memories of the past: "she worked hard to remember as close to nothing as was safe" (6), and begins each day "beating back the past" (73). However, "not a story to pass on" also implies that the story must not be refused. Morrison warns of the dangers of evasion and encourages readers to confront even the most sorrowful tales. Beloved encourages her mother to tell stories about family history, and gradually recollecting the past, Sethe eventually confronts the memory of her daughter's death. Her experience, the recollection of trauma followed by a restaging of the cause of that trauma in the exorcism scene, illustrates that Beloved is thus "not a story to pass on" in the sense that it proposes that the horrors of history must be retold rather than repeat ed, and retold in order not to be repeated. After the exorcism scene Sethe takes to her bed to die like Baby Suggs before her, but Paul D's intervention suggests that, with his support, she will rise once more. In particular, his desire to "put his story next to hers" (273) points to the importance of sharing stories, of the possibility of healing through access to communal narratives that construct a commemorative history of the victims of slavery, "the disremembered and unaccounted for" (275).

Beloved is a narrative that employs the body as text to speak the unspeakable: what I call a "hystery." In doing so, it challenges the cultural construction of gender and race in the discourses of history and hysteria and draws attention to the blind spots in psychoanalysis as well as in our knowledge of the past. Beloved invokes hysteria to communicate pain and protest and to suggest sources of salve for historical trauma. However, just as hysterics tend to resist cure, so the community chooses to forget Beloved after she retreats, and the process of repression begins over again: "Remembering seemed unwise" (274). In this way, Morrison implies that the traumatic impact of slavery can never be fully effaced. Although Beloved withdraws and fragments at the end of the novel, her footprints that come and go indicate that she does not vanish completely. Even if she does disappear ("By and by all trace is gone" [275]), the line "not a story to pass on" (in addition to all its other meanings) indicates that the pai n of slavery her story represents will never pass on or away--that is, will never die. For Morrison's characters, there is no complete recovery from hysteria, only a potential for healing, something that involves learning to confront grief without being governed by it, to possess the past without becoming possessed.

Emma Parker is lecturer in English at the University of Leicester. She has published essays on Christina Rossetti, Angela Carter, Margaret Atwood, and Michele Roberts and has written entries for The Cambridge Guide to Women's Writing in English. She is completing a book called Contemporary Women's Writing and French Feminist Theory.


(1.) Black feminist critics such as Barbara Smith, Barbara Christian ("The Race for Theory"), and Patricia Hill Collins dismiss psychoanalysis on the grounds of these objections. However, not all black feminists share their views. Claudia Tate defends the use of psychoanalysis in literary criticism and argues that it has a role to play in explaining the social pathology of racism (16). Female Subjects in Black and White, edited by Abel, Christian, and Moglen, likewise contains essays by black feminist critics that offer psychoanalytic readings of texts written by African American women. Morrison herself has stated that except "when its sole purpose is to place value only where that influence is located, ... Finding or imposing Western influences in/on Afro-American literature has value" ("Unspeakable" 209).

(2.) Freud eventually acknowledged the importance of an unresolved attachment to the mother in the etiology of hysteria in his essay "Female Sexuality" (21:227).

(3.) The following critics mention this in Bernheimer and Kahane: Claire Kahane (26-27), Suzanne Gearhart (120), Jacqueline Rose (131, 136), Maria Ramas (152, 172), Toril Moi (194), and Sara Van Den Berg (296).

(4.) See Dianne Hunter.

Works Cited

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-----. Introduction. Bernheimer and Kahane.

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Chisholm, Dianne. "Irigaray's Hysteria." Engaging with Irigaray: Feminist Philosophy and Modern European Thought. Ed. Carolyn Burke, Naomi Schor, and Margaret Whitford. New York: Columbia UP, 1994.263-83.

Christian, Barbara. "Fixing Methodologies: Beloved." Abel, Christian, and Moglen 363-70.

-----. "The Race for Theory." Feminist Studies 14.1 (1988): 67-80.

Cixous, Helene. "The Laugh of the Medusa." New French Feminisms: An Anthology. Ed. Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron. Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1981.245-64.

Cixous, Helene, and Catherine Clement. The Newly Born Woman. Trans. Betsy Wing. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1986.

Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. Perspectives on Gender 2. London: Routledge, 1990.

Freud, Sigmund. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Trans. and ed. James Strachey. 24 vols. London: Hogarth, 1953- 74.

Gilman, Sander L. Difference and Pathology: Stereotypes of Sexuality, Race, and Madness. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985.

Grosz, Elizabeth. Sexual Subversions: Three French Feminists. St. Leonards: Allen, 1989.

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Irigaray, Luce. Speculum of the Other Woman. Trans. Gillian C. Gill. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985.

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Kristeva, Julia. Revolution in Poetic Language. Trans. Margaret Waller. New York: Columbia UP, 1984.

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Mitchell, Juliet. Psychoanalysis and Feminism. London: Penguin, 1990.

Moi, Toril. Sexual/Textual Politics. London: Methuen, 1985.

Morrison, Toni. Beloved. 1987. New York: Plume, 1998.

-----. "Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature." Toni Morrison. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea, 1990. 201-30.

Ramas, Maria. "Freud's Dora, Dora's Hysteria." Bernheimer and Kahane 149-80.

Rigney, Barbara Hill. The Voices of Toni Morrison. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1991.

Rose, Jacqueline. "Dora: Fragment of an Analysis." Bernheimer and Kahane 128-48.

Showalter, Elaine. The Female Malady: Women, Madness, and English Culture 1830-1980. London: Virago, 1987.

Smith, Barbara. "Toward a Black Feminist Criticism." The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature, and Theory. Ed. Elaine Showalter. London: Virago, 1986. 168-85.

Tate, Claudia. Psychoanalysis and Black Novels: Desire and the Protocols of Race. New York: Oxford UP, 1998.

Whitford, Margaret. Luce Irigaray: Philosophy in the Feminine. London: Routledge, 1991.
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Author:Parker, Emma
Publication:Twentieth Century Literature
Article Type:Critical Essay
Date:Mar 22, 2001
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