Approaching the Thing of slavery: a Lacanian analysis of Toni Morrison's Beloved.
If the function of repetition is important to psychoanalysis, it is important to the extent that, as Jacques Lacan asserts, "psychoanalytic thought defines itself" in "terms of traumas and their persistence" (Ethics 10). What Morrison's Beloved points to is precisely the persistence of a traumatic past that haunts the present through a subjective, psychic experience of trauma that defies the limits of time and space. Morrison's novel presents us with a literary understanding of a past that functions as what Lacan calls the Real, the Real as "that which is always in the same place" (70), as the "excluded" Thing that is "at the heart of me" as "something strange to me," the "prehistoric Other that it is impossible to forget," or to remember (71). It is this Real that Morrison's protagonist Sethe attempts to circumscribe in her description of Sweet Home as a place from her past that is "still there," not just in her "rememory," but "out there outside [her] head" (36). Speaking of her traumatic enslavement at Sweet Home, Sethe asserts, "even though it's all over--over and done for--it's going to always be there waiting," because "that place is real" (36).
Beloved's understanding that "some things just stay" founds its articulation of a historical trauma that equally haunts the residents of 124 and contemporary African Americans (35). The text presents to us a trauma that reemerges in the moment of our identification with its past location. Speaking of the Real place, Sethe proclaims, "it's never going away ..., and what's more, if you go there--you who never was there--if you go there and stand in the place where it was, it will happen again" (36). Through Sethe's description of a traumatic past that is always there waiting, Morrison suggests the notion of an African American population continually imperiled, not so much physically as psychically, by the history of slavery. Baby Suggs, Sethe's mother-in-law, declares that "not a house in the country ain't packed to its rafters with some dead Negro's grief" (5). This past grief is depicted in Beloved as a repetition that haunts and claims African Americans because they claim the racial past.
I read Morrison's Beloved as a textual presentation of race and the racial past of slavery as sublimated representatives of the Lacanian Real. Where race in particular is claimed by many African Americans as a socially accepted object of attachment, Beloved is a literary attempt to free African Americans from a self-destructive investment in the traumatic, racial past that frequently grounds their identity as "raced subjects." Lacan defines sublimation as a process that "raises an object ... to the dignity of the Thing," to the level of the Real (Ethics 112). His most telling example of a sublimated figure is perhaps "the image of the crucifixion" that "Christianity has erected in the place of all other gods" (261). Lacan finds in this sublimated image the function of an Ate, the "divinization" of a "limit" that simultaneously draws us toward and keeps us a safe distance from that which "represents the disqualification of all concepts," that which represents the void of the "empty" Real (262). The sublimated image, as Ate, as barrier, protects us from a desubjectifying confrontation with the traumatic Real by attracting "to itself all the threads of our desire" (262). But it also effectively traps us at the entranceway unto the beyond of this limit, unto the place where Christianity positions its one "true" god. Like the Crucifixion, I argue, race functions as a sublimated object of attachment, leaving many African Americans trapped at the entranceway unto an empty, Real place of trauma that has been taken up by the horror of American slavery.
Morrison states that "there is a necessity for remembering [slavery's] horror" in "a manner in which it can be digested, in a manner in which the memory is not destructive" (qtd. in Darling 5). For Morrison, "writing the book" provides "a way of confronting [the past] and making it possible to remember" (qtd. in Darling 5). This book functions, in my view, for both Morrison herself and her reader, as a new object cause of desire that potentially unhinges our attachment both to race as a sublimated Ate and to the Real of slavery. Beloved adopts the role that Lacan ascribes to the analyst, through whom the subject reorients her/his desire and reaches that point at which s/he "renounces [her/his] object" (Fundamental 276). Where it is race that attracts "to itself all the threads" of many African Americans' desire, leaving them tethered at the limit in a recursive path around the Real past, Beloved seeks to enable what Lacan calls a "beneficial crossing of the limit" (Ethics 309), a crossing that brings the subject back to a place "where the possibility of metamorphosis is located" (265). Aimed most urgently at African Americans, Beloved facilitates for each reader a tuche, or an encounter with the Real. Taking us through a journey that reveals to us the deadly path toward this destructive Real that one travels in pursuit of race and the traumatic past, Beloved enables in readers the capacity for a catharsis, or a "purification of desire" (323). And what the reader's desire is potentially purified of is an attachment to the concept of race that so grounds this traumatic history in our American Symbolic.
The Pursuit of Jouissanoe
I identify in Beloved warning issued to African Americans about the dangers of centering their identity upon the racial past. This warning can be understood in the context of Lacan's description of the subject's pursuit of the sublimated object through which s/he comes to desire and embrace a jouissance of suffering. Lacanian theory shows that, in its proper functioning, desire maintains a trajectory around the Real in search of a lost jouissance, a lost experience of bliss, of pure lust/unlust, both pleasure and pain, that the subject associates with the Real. Subjectivity arises out of a traumatic split that through the function of language constitutes, on the one hand, the Symbolic world of meaning and the consciousness that perceives it, and, on the other, all that refuses symbolization through language, most properly the unconscious and the Real. This traumatic, constitutive splitting of the subject institutes at the heart of subjectivity a sense of loss, a central lack. The very inaccessibility of what is lacking, particularly of what Lacan calls the Real, enables the subject's retroactive articulation of this Real as itself a now absent jouissance that can he refound in the Symbolic. Slavoj Zizek defines jouissance most aptly as an "objectless ecstasy" that is imagined to be lost by the subject and "subsequently" is "attached to some historically determined representation" (50). I read Beloved as presenting through its characters a process wherein the traumatic past of slavery comes to represent this lost jouissance of lust/unlust for African Americans, embodied as a historical representative of subjectivity's originary trauma. (1)
My contention is that slavery comes to represent the Real because it visibly repeats and makes manifest in the Symbolic man's true psychic condition of lack, his enslavement to a Symbolic universe in which he is ever deprived of a full sense of being, of a full psychic sense of completion and wholeness. By defining both the slave and his descendant as subhuman, slavery and the racism that emerges with it confront these racialized subjects with an identity that threatens to shatter that which is absolutely essential to each subject's psychic life: the fantasies of self that mask the traumatic fact of lack. Because this threat to subjective fantasies of being appears so visibly in slavery, slavery itself becomes for many African Americans a "historically determined representative" of the Real, a manifested lack, marking a specified moment in time from which issues those stereotyped, racist notions of personal identity that seek traumatically to overlay and stifle these subjects' productive and enabling fantasies of wholeness and self.
The psychic need for such fantasies has led African Americans to embrace and themselves redeploy the concept of race; but the history of slavery yet predetermines the contours and function of this concept. I suggest that by pinning lack to racial identity slavery has not only arisen as a representative of the constitutive trauma of subjectivity, but it has also conflated social losses with psychic lack for many African Americans, making it possible for them to experience losses suffered at both the personal and the historical/racial levels as attacks upon being. Through race, slavery contextualizes and makes intelligible both their identity and their experiences in the racist Symbolic, emerging for many African Americans as the Real void into which all losses fall and the "excluded" center around which all subjective meaning gather (Ethics 71). With personal access to being thus imbricated with racial identity, race has concomitantly emerged for many African Americans as what Lacan calls the objet a, the fantasy object that promises to guarantee the fullness of an identity that is both individual and communal, a group identity that can return African Americans to the jouissance of that illusory wholeness which is figured as having been shattered by slavery in a primal, historical confrontation with lack. (2) However, an obsessive attachment to the sublimated objet a of race poses significant dangers to African Americans. Where desire is fundamentally that through which the subject is propelled forward in his/her search for the objects that promise to compensate for psychic lack, not only can race stall the metonymic functioning of desire, through its sublimation and masquerade as the only source of selfhood and being worthy of the subject's attention, but it can also lock the subject into an all-consuming relationship with the Real.
The character Beloved enables our understanding of the dangerous function of this sublimated objet a of race. Lacan describes the objet a "as an empty body, a ghost," an "enfeebled jouissance" of the Real (Ethics 61). Beloved, as Sethe's objet a, embodies for Sethe both the jouissance of the Real past and the horrific specter of Sethe's psychic death. She emulates the role of race, as the illusory, intangible object that grants African Americans a sense of being and identity, the impossible, fantasy possession of all African Americans that not only links them through time as an exclusionary group, making of them African Americans, but also lures them psychically to the trauma of the past.
As a haunting manifestation of this racial past, Beloved displays a tenuous, often willed relation of African Americans to the "sixty million and more" dead slaves of Morrison's epigraph, a racial relation that is based both on notions of ancestry and on the psychic compulsions of fantasy. Just as African Americans remain temporally removed from these frequently, unspecified "ancestors," often electing hyperbolically, as Morrison's excerpt from Romans 9:25 states, to "call them my people, which were not my people," Sethe claims in Beloved a daughter that is not strictly of her engendering. Beloved's own claim to Sethe is her ability to conflate Sethe's face with that of an African mother who picks "yellow flowers in the place before the crouching" of the slave ship and later jumps into the sea to escape the "men without skin" (215). As a child of slavery's Real past, Beloved reaches out across time, not for Sethe specifically, but for someone willing to stand in as "the underwater face she need[s]," for anyone content to embrace the identity substitutions through which race, as objet a, binds one to the Real of slavery (275). Through Sethe's hasty proclamation of Beloved as her child, with the single word "mine," Sethe embraces the jouissance of a Real saturated with both her own personal suffering and the trauma of a people grievously slighted, coming to echo with her utterance of the word "mine" what Stamp Paid calls the "mumbling of the black and angry dead" (199). She displays, not the possibility of one's recovery of what is lost, but that dangerous obsession with the fantasy object which draws African Americans to the devastating trauma of slavery that threatens to consume Sethe's subjective self.
Morrison's Beloved and Lacan's seminars both make salient this possibility of a subject's consumption by the representatives of the Real s/he embraces. Though Morrison herself speaks of Beloved as a "paying-out of homage still due" ("Home" 7), Morrison maintains that "we need to rethink the subtle yet persuasive attachments we may have to the architecture of race" and the past that designed it (8). This identification of a persuasive, and even dangerous, attachment to the objects to which we pay homage is what centers Lacan's reading of Christianity. Lacan argues that in its imitation and representation of that which is positioned in the beyond, the "central image" of the Crucifixion poses a threat to desire, which for Lacan is integral to subjectivity. This "exemplary image," says Lacan, "absorbs all other images of desire in man with significant consequences." Not only is the Crucifixion an "image of the limit in which a being remains in a state of suffering," but it also engenders in its worshippers a fixated desire, an irresistible allegiance to that image through which "Christianity has been crucifying man in holiness for centuries" (Ethics 262). It is this type of crucifixion, this sacrificing of one's self to a sublimated image, that I find operating in Morrison's text as a strict allegiance to the traumatic past.
Morrison reveals that the idea of writing Beloved came to her as she was "considering certain aspects of self-sabotage, the way in which the best things we do so often carry seeds of one's own destruction" (qtd. in Rothstein). In stepping out of the beyond to claim Sethe as her mother, Beloved comes precisely to embody for Sethe a sublimated representative of the Real, a destructive Thing that Sethe claims as her own "best thing" (251). Emerging first as the objet a that promises to fulfill Sethe's longing for an impossible return to a fantasy state of completion and oneness with her lost child, Beloved is soon transformed into what Lacan calls after Freud das Ding, or the Thing, the embodiment of the Real, in the presence of which one can experience only ceaseless, unchanging suffering. (3) Before Beloved's arrival, "all that mattered" to Sethe was "keeping the past at bay" (41), avoiding the Real of her trauma by choosing never to "go inside" (46). But, convinced that Beloved's appearance indicates her slain child "ain't even mad" with her (182), Sethe begins to speak for "the first time" of events from her past that justify the murder (193). Beloved, as objet a, as the fantasy of a ghostly jouissance around which Sethe's life already traces a centrifugal path, entices Sethe to claim the Thing of the Real as her own. Though Beloved makes present the traumatic past of slavery, repeating it in Sethe's life, Sethe confuses Beloved with the internal "parts" of her that are "precious and free and beautiful" (163). Beloved becomes a cherished internal pain that Sethe refuses to give up, Sethe's own precious, best Thing.
Lacan argues that when the subject is assured s/he has found that which allows her/him access to the lost jouissance of the Real, as "if under some monstrous spell," the subject at times cannot "resist succumbing" to the offering-up of "an object of sacrifice" to what is positioned for the subject in the beyond (Fundamental 275). Sethe's sacrificial offering is both her own sanity and her very existence as a desiring subject. Finding in Beloved what she thought she had lost forever, Sethe is "wrapped in the timeless present" (184), desireless with "no plans at all" for the future (272). Lacan shows that it is in a "state of wishing for" the Real and "waiting for it" that "the optimum tension will be sought," and "below that there is neither perception nor effort" (Ethics 52). In embracing Beloved as the objet a that fills her lack, in aiding Beloved's return from "the timeless place," Sethe becomes a full, desireless subject with nothing to inspire in her the effort to carry on into the future (182). She reaches what Beloved calls "the join" (213), and what Lacan calls the joiner (301). In this joiner, Lacan tells us, "the subject can achieve nothing but some form of psychosis or perversion," where this psychosis is marked precisely by a fullness, in the presences of the Real, that eliminates the dimension of desire and all subjective aspirations (301). It is this self-destructive, desubjectifying fullness that Morrison's Beloved suggests African Americans move toward when embracing completely the racial past of slavery; and it is the novel itself that enables a possible separation of the subject from the trauma of this past.
Ate and the Illusory Self
In The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, Lacan presents a reading of Sophocles' Antigone that makes plain the possibility of an audience's safe encounter with and separation from the Thing of the Real through the mediation of a literary text such as Beloved. For Lacan, the text of Antigone becomes the means through which, to the audience, a sublimated Ate is made manifest in all its alluring and deadly beauty. Antigone designates the place of this Ate, both revealing the very limit beyond which lies the desolate Real and displaying to the reader the consequences of trekking past this limit. Beyond Ate lies only death, the dissolution of subjectivity in the presence of the Real; but Lacan's assertion is that "it is always through some beneficial crossing of the limit that man experiences his desire" (309). For Lacan, "the function of desire must remain in a fundamental relationship to death" (303); and through the text, we journey into the beyond and experience something of our own relation to death. In such journeyed returns, Lacan shows, the subject comes to learn "a little more about the deepest level of himself" and "the poles of [his] desire" (323). Lacanian theory recognizes desire as "nothing other than that which supports an unconscious theme" (319), that which, when properly oriented away from the false gods of our sublimations and when maintained at a safe distance from the Real, "roots us in a particular destiny" and protects us "from all kinds of inner catastrophes," including "neurosis and its consequences" (319). By granting the subject this knowledge of desire and death, the text of Antigone enables a "tempering of desire," allowing for "the disruption" of the subject's unconditional attachment to his/her destructive, sublimated objects (249).
Lacan reads the character Antigone as herself constituting for the reader an alluring Ate, a "violent illumination" (Ethics 281) that both "attracts us and startles us" with its relation to death (247). This function as Ate is precisely what Morrison's Sethe also serves for Beloved's reader. Lacan explains that the Greek word Ate is linked to and "found in" the word "atrocious" (263). Ate identifies "the limit that human life can only briefly cross" (262). What we see in both Antigone and Sethe is a desire that breaches the limit of the atrocious, a desire that brings them to the "level of the monstrous," beyond "the limit of the human" (263). Antigone is fueled by her unbending intent upon burying her brother, pushing "to the limit the realization" of a "pure and simple desire of death" by accepting Creon's decree that she be buried alive in her brother's tomb (277). (4) In going past the limit of the atrocious, Antigone unveils for us the abysmal emptiness of the Real place beyond Ate. Through this unveiling, she comes to stand for us at the threshold of the beyond as barrier, as the "fascinating image" (247) that "dazzles and separates" us from a direct confrontation with the Real (281). Antigone embodies Ate, revealing to us, "only in a blinding flash," that which Sethe also makes manifest to Beloved's reader: the absolute condition of "man's relation to his own death," the desire for the atrocity of the Real that continually draws us to the beyond (295).
Lacan ties the lure of the Real to man's propensity to "mistake evil for good" (Ethics 270). In Sethe we see what it means to embrace the ultimate evil of the Real itself as the good, the evil of a traumatic jouissance that Sethe pursues through Beloved. Initially, while plotting and executing her escape from Sweet Home, Sethe is guided by her insistent desire to get her milk to her children and live on in freedom (83); but, when tracked down by schoolteacher, Sethe discards all laws of morality, grounding her notion of the good only on what Lacan describes as an "order of law" that "is not developed in any signifying chain," an ethics that is founded upon the Real beyond the law (278). Sethe becomes irreconcilable, unbending to the end, intent upon her desire for death. Like Antigone, Sethe believes that her life can only be lived from what Lacan calls "the place of that limit where her life is already lost, where she is already on the other side" (280). Traumatized by both the experience of slavery and her later act of infanticide, Sethe ends her own life with Beloved's death. Her death in life is marked by the disappearance of the whites of her eyes on the day of the murder, their replacement by "two open wells" that do "not reflect firelight" (9). She is "blind" to this world, possessing an unflinching gaze that is fiercely directed at death itself (150). Denver tells us that her mother is "the one who never looked away," not "when a man got stomped to death by a mare" nor when a "sow began eating her own litter" (12). This fierce willingness in Sethe to face death head-on is what most disturbs and fascinates the reader.
For the reader, Sethe's unflinching gaze, like that of Antigone, is "the line of sight that defines desire" in its relation to death (Ethics 247). Lacan argues that man can only have access to his own horrifying "death instinct, to his own relationship to death," insofar as he "articulates a signifying chain" that enables him to come "up against the fact that he may disappear from the chain of what he is" (295). Beloved as text and Sethe as protagonist allow the articulation of such a chain. The text encourages us to experience Sethe's pain, to insert ourselves into its narrative as subjects who are ourselves faced with an evanescent disappearance, of our psychic sense of being, from the Symbolic chain of who we are. Freed of Symbolic impediments founded upon moral definitions of the good, Sethe not only shows desire to be in its essence grafted upon the Real, but she also becomes for us the Ate, the "lure" that "keeps us awake" and "helps us adjust" to this most essential desire for death (239). We can say in Lacan's words that Sethe "crosses" the "invisible line" of "outrage" and is "insensitive" to this crossing (238); but, in the process, she reveals to the reader what is at stake in such a crossing. Through her desire for death and the slow movement toward a psychosis inducing self-conflation with the Real, she unveils for us what Lacan calls "the important risk" of "aphanisis," quite simply "the loss of desire" and the dissolution of one's status as a desiring subject that may result from pursuit of the Real past (309).
Sethe burns with a desire for this Real, radiating an effulgent passion that Beloved intends the reader to feel and experience, but not emulate. Bringing us to the precipice of that abysmal conflagration that is Sethe's infernal jouissance, the text encourages all of its readers, whether African American or not, to rally against the racial past and its haunting psychic legacy. Most notably through the character Ella, the text models for its readers a hermeneutics by which they are to safely confront the Real past and bring its trauma to an end. Through Ella, Beloved encourages readers to engage the past by not only becoming a part of the telling of this very fragmented American tale, but also by supplementing Sethe's experience with an understanding of their own varied relation to race and the traumatic Real of slavery.
Ella's distinct understanding of the past is conditioned by the fact that her "puberty was spent in a house where she was shared by father and son, whom she called 'the lowest yet'" (257). Unlike Sethe, however, Ella asserts that "the future [is] sunset" and "the past something to leave behind" (256). Ella resists her past "taking possession of the present" by embracing the pain of others (256). Aiding Stamp Paid in rescuing run-away slaves, Ella stops to listen "for the holes--the things the fugitives [do] not say" (92). Able subjectively to insert herself into their stories, Ella fills these gaps in the slave's narrative with her own understanding of suffering. Ella measures "all atrocities" against her own torment at the hands of "the lowest yet" (256). When seeing Beloved for the first time, Ella also sees the "hairy white thing, fathered by 'the lowest yet,'" that she had "delivered, but would not nurse" (259); and it is "the idea of that pup coming back to whip her" the way Beloved whipped Sethe that "set her jaw working" (259): from Ella's determination to "stomp out" (256) the past emerges the "holler," the cry, the primal scream that begins the exorcism of Beloved (259).
This effort to stomp out and exorcise the past preoccupies the text, and Morrison repeatedly presents it as a process dependent upon a subject's embrace of others' stories of trauma. The final page of the novel asserts, "this is not a story to pass on" (275). Playing upon a dual meaning in the words "pass on," the narrative affirms that it is precisely by not passing by this story casually, but by actively embracing its narrative of trauma, that we prevent its suffering from being passed on into the future. By repeatedly conveying this affirmation, first in Ella's actions, then in Denver's ability to imagine how "it must have felt for her mother" as she tells Sethe's stories (78), and again in Paul D's desire to "put his story next to" Sethe's (273), Beloved encourages its readers to use the text to begin articulating the narrative of their own varied and individualized relation to the traumatic past. While implying an especial symmetry between the experiences of many African Americans and Sethe, Beloved seeks to battle the past and restructure the racial Symbolic by involving all of its readers in a process of engaging and mediating the Real through the signifier.
Lacan says that "the magic circle that separates us" from the painful jouissance of the Real "is imposed by our relation to the signifier" (Ethics 134). Through the signifier, man articulates the fantasies that allow safe access to jouissance. What we find in Beloved is the assertion that the traumatic past of slavery leaves African Americans more deprived than most other subjects of control of the Symbolic's signifiers, and thus more open to the painful jouissance of the past. Especially through the character schoolteacher, Beloved highlights as traumatic a persistent and almost casual ability to name the other that, in an American Symbolic grounded in notions of race, is often claimed as the unspoken privilege of racial whiteness. This continual onslaught within the Symbolic of the signifiers that seek to redefine them is the source of the psychic trauma suffered not only by the slave, but also by contemporary African Americans.
As is characteristic of those who have lived through a traumatic experience, Sethe cannot directly identify the source of her trauma; she is aware, however, that it is connected to the fact that, as she says, "schoolteacher was teaching us things we couldn't learn" (191). Schoolteacher asserted to his slaves that "definitions belonged to the definers--not the defined," and what he attempted to teach the slaves of Sweet Home was a new self-definition (190). Sethe and the other slaves initially "laughed about" schoolteacher's brand of what we may call scientific racism (191). Sethe relates to Beloved: "I didn't care ... schoolteacher'd wrap that string all over my head, 'cross my nose, around my behind.... Number my teeth.... I thought he was a fool" (191). But Sethe soon begins to learn the traumatic power of definitions when she overhears schoolteacher's use of the word "characteristics": "That's not the way.... I told you to put her human characteristics on the left; her animal ones on the right" (193). This word, characteristics, is what conveys to Sethe the traumatic knowledge she "couldn't learn." (5)
Charles Shepherdson has shown that encounters with trauma involve a breakdown in the "familiar order of representation" maintained by the subject (par. 45). This breakdown begins to occur, in Sethe's case, the moment she confronts the signifier that challenges her self-definitions. Through schoolteacher, Sethe begins to encounter the truth about her place in the social Symbolic of slavery, the truth that she continues to resist; as the scene between schoolteacher and his pupils plays out in front of her, Sethe "commence[s] to walk backward" (193). "Lifting [her] feet and pushing back," Sethe "bump[s] up against a tree" and begins to sense the irresistible but still faint presence of something that will repeliliously present itself to her in the form of a "prickling" in her scalp (193). Sethe says that after bumping into the tree her "head itched like the devil.... Like somebody was sticking fine needles in [her] scalp" (193). This prickling marks the presence of an insistent, traumatic signifier that Sethe's conscious mind cannot assimilate.
Shepherdson defines trauma as an experience "in which two chains of signifiers, previously kept apart, are suddenly made to intersect, in such a way, ... that in the place of 'meaning,' a hole is produced," a" 'cut' in the universe of meaning ... that is linked to an obscure 'knowledge' ... a 'forbidden knowledge' that remains excluded the moment it appears" (par. 46). Initially "soft" and "trusting" (188), Sethe and her view of the world are radically altered by what she overhears. She confronts through schoolteacher the signifier that promises to grant her the only knowledge that is truly forbidden within a subject's fantasy of self, the knowledge of her inescapable dependence as a desiring subject upon the signifiers of the Other. In actuality, what psychically traumatizes Sethe is not her powerlessness against the slave master, but her powerlessness against words. Sethe's ultimate aim is not simply to escape schoolteacher. What Sethe strives for, both for herself and for her children, is precisely what the subject can never fully have in life: freedom from the signifier. (6)
Sethe achieves only a small sense of this freedom when she escapes Sweet Home. Her pursuit of this freedom is what inspires her murderous act, but Sethe cannot fully explain the relation between the murder and freedom. When asked by Paul D why she committed the murder, Sethe speaks instead of how it felt to have her children with her after escaping Sweet Home:
It was a kind of selfishness I never knew nothing about before. It felt good. Good and right. I was big, Paul D, and deep and wide and when I stretched out my arms all my children could get in between. I was that wide. Look like I love em more after I got here. Or maybe I couldn't love em properly in Kentucky because they wasn't mine to love. (162)
What Sethe herself calls a "circular" and indirect answer to Paul D's question about the murder touches upon the knowledge Sethe cannot articulate about being subjected to the Other's signifiers (163). Sethe's discussion of her freedom in terms of a new found selfishness and possessiveness alludes to her ability in the north to construct more freely a fantasy of being, a fantasy self that is thus felt to be more "deep and wide" than she has ever known (162). Finding in her freedom a new "selfish pleasure" (163), Sethe establishes over the unbearable jouissance of lack that slavery attempts to force upon her what Lacan calls a "dominance of the signifier" (Ethics 134). Strictly speaking, this dominance is the pleasure principle itself, that which circulates within the Symbolic the semblance of jouissance that keeps the subject a safe distance from the Real. Because Sethe now is not forced to submit consciously to the Other's signifiers, she encounters, in the Symbolic, an experience that for her is both "good and right" (162). It is the transitive nature of this experience that ultimately pushes Sethe to kill.
In spite of Sethe's inability to explain fully what motivates the killing, Paul D yet isolates in her words a truth that transcends his own complete understanding: "to get to a place where you could love anything you chose--not to need permission for desire--well now, that was freedom" (162). The full implication of this truth is masked from Paul D because, having "never stayed uncaught" (268) for "seven years" after his escape from Sweet Home (270), Patti D longs for a freedom he associates with a yet distant fantasy "place" (162). What Sethe appreciates better than Paul D is that reaching such a place of complete freedom of desire and autonomy from the Other means also making an absolute choice to accept one's own Symbolic death. As Lacan states, there is "an emergence of the subject at the level of meaning only," and meaning can only be granted by the Symbolic of the Other (Fundamental 221); thus man must make an absolute choice between freedom outside of the Symbolic and life in the Symbolic, wherein "if he chooses freedom, he loses both immediately," and "if he chooses life, he has life deprived of freedom" (212). This insight into the nature of desire and freedom is at the heart of Lacan's assertion that existence in the Symbolic is inextricably linked to "alienation, [to] that by which man enters into the way of slavery" (212). It is toward this Symbolic slavery that Sethe ultimately directs her murderous act of resistance. (7)
Where Sethe cannot sustain her illusory freedom of being in life, in the Symbolic, she seeks it in death. Sethe says of Beloved, "if I hadn't killed her she would have died" (200). Through the murder, Sethe tries to maintain for herself and her child the fantasy of a complete and autonomous self that schoolteacher threatens. Speaking of the murder, the narrator reveals:
The truth was simple, not a long-drawn-out record of flowered shifts, tree cages, selfishness, ankle ropes and wells. Simple: She was squatting in the garden and when she saw them coming and recognized schoolteacher's hat, she heard wings. Little hummingbirds stuck their needle beaks right through her headcloth into her hair and beat their wings. And if she thought anything, it was No. No. Nono. Nono. Simple. She just flew. Collected every bit of life she had made, all the parts of her that were precious and fine and beautiful, and carried, pushed, dragged them through the veil, out, away, over there where no one could hurt them. (163)
Without thinking "anything," Sethe makes an impulsive, unconscious choice to drag her children through the veil. Significantly, her choice is made in response both to schoolteacher's presence and to the piercing beaks of the hummingbirds that flock Sethe's mind as schoolteacher steps into her yard. Replicating the prickling in Sethe's scalp that she felt upon hearing the word characteristics, this image of needled beaks piercing her head marks the repetition of the psychosomatic symptoms that take the place of Sethe's conscious confrontation with the Other's signifier. Lacan argues that in the psychosomatic a "signifying induction at the level of the subject [occurs] in a way that does not bring into play the aphanisis of the subject" (Fundamental 227). Sethe here stands at the threshold of a limit that she cannot pass, spared a confrontation with her subjective aphanisis only by an induction that already half marks the presence of the truth she cannot confront. Finding that the only defense available to her in the Symbolic is an impotent liturgy of denials, Sethe chooses instead to breach the limit and step across the veil.
This self-destructive act of liberation is what most directly positions Sethe as Ate for us. In seeking a physical death that is to spare her from a Symbolic death, Sethe shows us exactly what is at stake in the pursuit of absolute freedom. As Lacan explains, "in the conditions in which someone says to you, freedom or death!, the only proof of freedom that you can have ... is precisely to choose death, for there, you show that you have freedom of choice" (Fundamental 213). But Sethe fails to execute the suicide that would establish her full freedom of choice, and her success in killing only her child brings the reader with her to the place where both Sethe and the reader must confront and grapple with the traumatic past that comes to permeate Sethe's existence. We stand with Sethe at this place of Ate, watching as precipitously she approaches the absolute desirelessness that she will encounter in the full presence of the Real.
Beloved's return brings Sethe to this Real, producing in Sethe the belief that she can safely engage and remember the Thing her conscious mind has defensively forgotten. Sethe says, "now I can look at things because she's here to see them too" (201). As Beloved "joins" with Sethe, Beloved becomes the suffering that Sethe will not allow to disappear, the interior self that Sethe will protect from aphanisis at all cost. h is this Thing of hers, more important than Sethe herself, that Sethe attempts to preserve in attacking Mr. Bodwin. Unable to break free of the signifier's repetition, Sethe is convinced not only that Bodwin is schoolteacher "coming into her yard" again, but also that "he is coming for her best thing" (262). Once again Sethe "hears wings," as "little hummingbirds stick needle beaks right through her headcloth into her hair" (262); and once again Sethe utters her impotent no's, as she lashes out impulsively, attacking Bodwin with an ice pick. Caught in the repetition of the past and its signifiers, Sethe is saved only by the ability of her daughter, Denver, to use the signifier to create for herself and Sethe a return path from the Real.
Separation from the Thing
In a strictly Lacanian application of the word, the true "hero" of Beloved is Denver. The hero, Lacan tells us, is someone who does not give "ground relative to [his/her] desire" (Ethics 321). To the extent that both Sethe and Antigone unswervingly follow their desire for death into the zone of the Real, this definition is clearly applicable to each of them. But, for Lacan, what justifies the hero's journey into this zone is the fact that through this journey "something is defined and liberated" (320). In discussing the hero, Lacan seeks to establish an ethics that is focused upon "nothing less than the impossibility in which we recognize the topology of our desire" (315). Where the subject who remains in this zone can achieve nothing but a desireless state of psychosis, in a truly clinical sense, "not giving ground" on one's desire means above all achieving a "return" from the Real that "involves some gain" (323), a return that involves the subject's placement upon the "track of something that is specifically [his/her] business" (319). It is only when the subject returns to a safe distance from the Real that agitates and orients his/her desire that the subject can live out his/her destiny in the Symbolic. (8) Of all of Beloved's characters, it is Denver alone who is able independently to make this return journey and, in the Symbolic, establish herself upon the tracks of her desire.
Denver may be conceived of as positioned initially within the Lacanian mirror stage. (9) Like the child of this stage, Denver develops from the maternal figure of Sethe the sense of a bodily self that remains dependent for its coherence upon the watchful mother whose presence it confuses with its own. While learning from Baby Suggs to "always listen to" and "love" her own body (209), Denver simultaneously believes that it is only "as long as her mother [does] not look away" from her that her body can be spared from devolving into something that is "more than vision" itself can "bear" (12). But Denver also seeks out the absent father, Halle, as paternal metaphor, as the signifier of lack that breaks the bond between mother and child and precipitates entrance into the Symbolic. Denver thus exists in a liminal state where she depends upon Sethe, but longs for her father.
While Denver exists in this condition of stasis and liminality, she displays to the reader an uncomfortable but necessary alternative to Sethe's relation to trauma. Denver simultaneously fears and seeks both the Symbolic and the Real. In pursuit of the Real, Denver searches for "the thing" in her mother "that makes it all right [for Sethe] to kill her children" (206); she explains, "I need to know what that thing might be, but I don't want to" (205). Denver expresses a cautionary fear of the Thing, adopting the necessary distance so lacking in Sethe from the sought after Real. But while remaining sufficiently distant from the Real, Denver also possesses a paralyzing fear of the racist Symbolic, a fear that the novel suggests both Denver and the reader must conquer. Denver is convinced that the "thing" in her mother came "from outside the yard," and her fear is that it can "come right on in the yard [again] if it wants to" (205).
It is Baby Suggs who presents Denver with the means through which Denver moves forward from her place of stasis. Baby Suggs counterbalances Denver's fear of Sethe's Thing with stories about "all [of Denver's] daddy's things" (209). Introducing Denver to the beliefs that guided Halle's most noble actions and made it possible for him to buy his mother's freedom, Baby Suggs informs Denver that her daddy always said, "if you can't count they can cheat you," and "if you can't read they can beat you" (208). This image of an "angelic" (208), unreachable, father who himself navigates the Symbolic and manipulates its signifiers is what continually draws Denver's imagination toward the little 'i' and the "sentences [that rolled] out like pie dough" from her lips at Lady Jones's school (121). Denver hungers to complete the narcissistic mirror stage so that this 'i' can become the point of articulation of a self that develops through identification with the paternal metaphor and separation from the mother.
Denver is key to our understanding of the agency the signifier holds over the Real. She is the mirror image of her mother, possessing the same indomitable will and uncompromising drive, but aiming heroically at the Symbolic itself. Lacan maintains that the "difference between an ordinary man and a hero" is that "for the ordinary man the betrayal that almost always occurs" at the hands of those he trusts makes him able "never again [to] find that factor which restores a sense of direction" to him (Ethics 321). Betrayed and abandoned both by a grandmother that no longer wants to face the "bitterness of life" (4) and two brothers who would rather "fight [in] the War" than live with the "killing woman" that is their mother (205), Denver does not "know where to go or what to do" (14). Caught in the middle of a love-hate relationship between her mother and the manifested Thing-of-a-sister that threatens to consume all in its path, Denver only finds a sense of direction in her hopeless hope that Halle is "coming" for her (207). But it is Denver's persistence in the tracks of her hopeless desire for the absent father that makes of her a hero. Lacan states that "the path of the hero is traced" in "each of us," and "it is precisely as an ordinary man that one follows it to the end" (319). As an ordinary and very helpless girl, Denver makes a path for herself toward the paternal metaphor and the signifier, relying only upon the power of her own determination not to give ground on her desire.
In Denver we find modeled what we may call a "desirousness" that steers us clear of Sethe's path. As Lacan shows, "it is in seeing a whole chain come into play at the level of the desire of the Other that the subject's desire is constituted" (Fundamental 235). Like the analyst, Denver serves, in Beloved, the function of "the subject who is supposed to know" desire (232), who presents one with an experienced desire that "intervenes" to make possible the process by which desire "renounces its object" (276). Honed in the experience of her mother's trauma, Denver's desire emulates the analyst's "desire to obtain absolute difference" from the Real Thing and the mother (276); and as we see Sethe consumed by the Real of the racial past, Denver's desire models most aptly the process of our own separation from this past. In analysis, Lacan says, "the subject counts the vote relative to his own law," to a law that is "in the first place always the acceptance of something" that "strictly speaking [is] Ate" (Ethics 300). Similarly, through Denver, the reader comes to calculate his own distance from that law of Ate that can protect him/her from the trauma of the racial past.
The reader's appreciation of this need to escape the past and its repetitious signifiers is meant to coincide in Beloved with his/her appreciation for, or even identification with, Sethe's pain. Denver's own link to her mother is what enables her escape from Sethe's presence and her retreat from the overwhelming jouissance of Beloved and the Real. Like Denver, we remain ambivalently linked to Sethe as the murderer whom we pity, and it is this link that is meant to aid our own separation from the Real of the racial past. Lacan states that when approaching the Real, if "the subject turns back on his tracks," s/he does so to prevent "from assaulting the image of the other," from assaulting that on "which we were formed as an ego" (Ethics 195). Where Denver's only sense of self is mirrored in the image of her mother, Denver makes the decision to "leave the yard" and "step off the edge of the world" in order to save Sethe's body, and her own, from Beloved (243). As it becomes obvious to her that "her mother could die and leave her," Denver begins to steer clear of the path both she and the reader take while identifying with Sethe (243).
Denver tries to preserve the image of the Other on which she depends. When she sees Sethe "carrying out Beloved's night bucket, Denver race[s] to relieve her of it" (242). "Frightened" as Denver is of "the thing in Sethe," it "shame[s] her to see her mother serving a girl not much older than her" (243). Denver witnesses firsthand her mother's degradation, and she is personally embarrassed and threatened by it. She sees Sethe's willful starvation, as Sethe goes without, "pick-eating around the edge of the table and stove" (242), so that Beloved's "basket-fat stomach" can stay full (243). The job Denver had embraced, of protecting Beloved from the woman whose body mirrors Denver's own, finally changes to "protecting her mother from Beloved" when Denver recognizes the full extent of the damage done to her mother's body: it "rocked Denver like gunshot" to see "Sethe spit up something she had not eaten" (243). Denver comes to realize that her own well-being is tied to the preservation of this woman in whose tracks she follows. And through Denver's eyes, we see the danger to ourselves of the route Sethe takes. Denver makes possible our perception of Sethe as having crossed that limit of Ate, beyond which the reader should not trek. While the text initially urges us to insert ourselves into its narrative and form an identification with both Sethe and the racial past she embraces through Beloved, Denver's spectatorial presence aids our recognition of the perils inherent in this path toward the past.
As Beloved brings the reader to the point of desiring a separation from Sethe's path, the text seeks to redirect both the reader and Denver toward the Symbolic and its signifiers. Beloved identifies the act of storytelling as crucial to such separation. It is not, however, the paternal figure of her father that finally allows Denver to construct a subjective identity in the Symbolic, but the maternal keeper of her father's stories. In Lacan's work, the paternal metaphor is only a metaphor for the process of separation itself, and Denver reaches the Symbolic through the agency of Baby Suggs, the maternal figure that initiated her into the act of storytelling. (10) It is Baby Suggs whose voice comes to Denver "clear as anything" as Denver stands on the porch unable to leave her yard (245). Denver finds herself unsure of what to do when Baby Suggs herself has said that "there is no defense" from what is out there (245). Baby Suggs suggests, however, that it is the stories of the past that will themselves protect Denver, asking Denver: "You mean I never told you nothing about Carolina," or "your daddy," or "how come I walk the way I do?" (245). Indicating that she has already prepared Denver for the outside world, Baby Suggs encourages Denver to "know" that there is "no defense" and "go out the yard" anyway (245). Urging both Denver and the reader toward the terrifying Symbolic that produced the traumatic past, Beloved asserts through Baby Suggs that it is after we have already engaged the trauma of the past and the Symbolic in which it circulates that we can begin to free ourselves of the past. This engagement is what enables what Lacan describes simply as "distance," the gap between the way the subject once expressed her/his "instinctual drives" and the way s/he expresses it after the process of "arranging and organizing them" is made available to her/him (Ethics 301).
Denver uses the stories of the past to reorganize her desire and resist the drive for death that she is exposed to through Sethe. Enabling her finally to leave the yard, these stories not only separate her from the maternal Other, but also give birth to Denver as a subject fully positioned within the Symbolic. Here, in this terrifying place of the Other, Denver reacquaints herself with Lady Jones, the woman who, in addressing her as "baby," inaugurates "her life in the world as a woman" (248). Spoken "softly and with such kindness," this word, "baby," presents Denver with a maternal affection that both stems from a Symbolic Other and, unlike Sethe's affection, does not consume her (248). Lady Jones's affection and help come with a price that must be paid in the Symbolic itself. What Denver is forced to realize is that "nobody was going to help her unless she told it--told all of it" (253). And Denver begins to elicit the help she needs precisely by coming to embrace and utilize the signifiers that she had sought since her childhood.
It is Denver's telling of her mother's tale to the community, and the ability of its members to find in this tale the unspeakable traumatic truth beyond what even Denver can articulate, that cause the gathering at Sethe's doorsteps of the thirty women who exorcise Beloved. Seeing "themselves" in Denver, the women join Ella in uttering a purgative, primal scream that rocks both Beloved and Sethe (258). The narrator tells us that they take "a step back to the beginning" (259): "in the beginning there were no words," only "the sound, and they knew what that sound sounded like" (259). This sound, as primal scream, is what Lacan refers to as the cry, as that which "fulfills the function of discharge" and first marks the psychic presence of the yet unarticulated Thing (Ethics 32). It is the "bridge" to the Thing, which would "remain obscure and unconscious if the cry did not lend it" the "sign that gives it its own weight, presence, structure" (32). Yet unable to utter the words that are to name Sethe's and their own trauma, the women "search for the right combination, the key, the code, the sound that broke the back of words" (261); it is by finding this sound that they produce the wave that cleanses Sethe "like the baptized in its wash" (261).
This baptism is as much for the reader as it is for the thirty women and Sethe. It involves what Lacan calls "catharsis" or "abreaction," the "discharge of an emotion," where "an emotion or a traumatic experience may" have left "something unresolved" (Ethics 244). With the reader having moved through an ambivalent emotional identification with Sethe to a recognition, through Denver, of the urgent need to separate from both Sethe and the racial past, this cry lends voice, in the stead of the reader's own utterance, to the unnamed and individualized emotions that accompany each reader's full recognition of his/her own subjugation to the racial past and the signifiers of race. Lacan shows that in the play Antigone, the chorus takes care of our emotions for us, responding as the reader should to all that occurs in the text so that the reader does not have to him/herself (252). By gauging her/his responses against that of the chorus, the reader partakes of a journey in which as "spectator" s/he is not left "in ignorance as to where the pole of [her/his] desire is," or as to her/his relation to its "pathological interests" (323). In a similar way, the community of thirty produces in place of the reader the cry that is the final vehicle through which the subject is brought to some consciousness of that level of unconscious pleasure and pain s/he experiences through her/his relation to the jouissance of the past.
But this cry that resounds within the place of trauma in which the women stand yet demands a response from the reader. It beckons from the reader not only his/her recognition but, more imperatively, his/her utterance of the word that saves, the "me" that is the subject's only salvation. For the reader, the cry is voiced by the women in their capacity as Symbolic Other, as the Other through whom the reader gathers his/her own defenses against the Real Thing. It finds its parallel in what Lacan describes as the familiar cry of "You!" that "may appear" on another subject's lips in a "moment of utter helplessness, distress, or surprise," the call to action that emanates from the Symbolic Other most fundamentally and originally as a call to embrace actively that subjective positionality within the Symbolic that makes action itself possible (Ethics 56). This "You!" always functions, according to Lacan, as a "pronoun of interpellation," a replay of the constitutive call to subjective status in the Symbolic (56). It is a cry that reaches the subject as though it were an accusatory "You!"--an interpellation to which the subject simply responds, in "refusal" and in "apology," with the word "Me?" (56).
In answering "Me?" the subject is "made responsible or accountable for something" that is simply the "I" of subjectivity, the defense granted him/her by the Symbolic against that "unforgettable Other" of the Real, which must necessarily cast him/her down from the "height" of its presence (Ethics 56). Where Beloved itself is the cry that announces to the reader the terrible pain and trauma of a past that not only still haunts African Americans in the present, but also yet besieges the Symbolic with its evil jouissance, what the text ultimately requires of the reader is a re-articulation of the subjective "I." In aiding the reader's recognition of race as that which shackles African Americans to the jouissance of slavery, Beloved presents the potential for a traversal of race as that "fundamental phantasy" through which the subject seeks to access being (Fundamental 273). It is in the beyond of this fantasy, at that point where the subject confronts his/her own lack, that the subject must come to "recognize" him/herself (270). (11) Confronting then rejecting jouissance, Beloved opens up the possibility for an identity grounded in the metonymy proper to desire, so that the subject may become liberated to find him/herself within a multiplicity of ever shifting identity formations. But Lacanian theory shows that even in analysis "the loop" of the subject's fantasy "must be run through several times" before it is traversed in "its totality" (274). Called by the Symbolic to voice that response which will eject him/her from the Real place of his/her jouissance, the subject most naturally resists. Of its own, the cry, when emanating only from the Other, is insufficiently capable of producing a separation from jouissance.
It is only after Sethe herself repeats the cry first uttered by the women, thus making herself responsible for the traumatic truth it announces, that Sethe finally speaks what will be her last words in the text: "Me? Me?" (273). As Sethe begins to weep, giving voice to the unarticulated pain that emerges with her conviction that her "best thing" has "left" her, it is Paul D who positions himself as the Symbolic Other from whom emanates the accusatory "you": "You your best thing, Sethe.... You are" (273). Sethe's journey begins to end, as will the reader's own journey, only when she starts to accept and articulate a notion of self that stands distantly apart from the racial past that traumatizes her. In uttering, with her tentative uncertainty, the word that promises to save her--"Me? Me?"--, Sethe herein marks the beginnings of a reconstructed fantasy of self through which she may resist the insistence of those signifiers presented to her by schoolteacher and the racial past. Through Paul D, Sethe finally starts to accept for herself the task upon which is rooted the very praxis of psychoanalysis: the effort to establish that illusory "'I' which is supposed to come to be where 'it' was" (Ethics 7).
This task is what Beloved leaves also to its readers, most especially to its African American readers, whose racialized identifies open them up so perilously to the trauma of the Real past. Like Sethe, African Americans must establish in the place of the "it" granted them by the racial signifiers of the American Symbolic an "I" that does not seek to find itself in a crossing of that limit beyond which lies the traumatic Real of the racial past. Beloved, as Ate, defines this limit, bringing its readers back to a safe distance from the Real while also revealing to them the point beyond which that essential illusion of self is shattered. In having returned from the beyond of this point, Sethe seems to have found in Paul D someone who, in his words, can "gather" the "pieces" of who she "is" and "give them back" to her in "all the fight order" (272-73). Through Beloved, we too gather the pieces of our selves. But, while Beloved introduces us to the process of mapping our own relation to the Real as defense against the racial past, the task remains ours to carry out this process to some hoped-for conclusion in our own Symbolic universe beyond the text.
Bouson, J. Brooks. Quiet as it's Kept: Shame, Trauma, and Race in the Novels of Toni Morrison. Albany: SUNY P, 2000.
Caruth, Cathy. Trauma: Explorations in Memory. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1995.
Daring, Marsha Jean. "In the Realm of Responsibility: A Conversation with Toni Morrison." Women's Review of Books 5.6 (March 1988): 5-6.
Fink, Bruce. The Lacanian Subject: Between Language and Jouissance. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1995.
Forter, Greg. "Against Melancholia: Contemporary Mourning Theory, Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, and the Politics of Unfinished Grief." More on Humanism. Eds. Elizabeth Weed and Ellen Rooney. Spec. issue of differences 14.2 (2003): 134-70.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. "Introduction: 'Tell Me Sir, ... What is Black Literature?'" PMLA 105.1 (January 1990): 11-22.
Lacan, Jacques. The Ethics of Psychoanalysis. 1959-1960. Trans. Dennis Porter. New York: Norton, 1992.
--. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis. 1964. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Norton, 1981.
Matus, Jill. Toni Morrison: Contemporary World Writers. New York: Manchester UP, 1998.
Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Plume, 1988.
--. "Home." The House that Race Built. Ed. Wahneema Lubiano. New York: Pantheon, 1997.3-12
Restuccia, Frances. Amorous Acts: Lacanian Ethics in Modernism, Film, and Queer Theory. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2006.
Rothstein, Mervyn. "Toni Morrison, in Her New Novel, Defends Women." New York Times 26 Aug. 1987: C17.
Schreiber, Evelyn Jaffe. Subversive Voices: Eroticizing the Other in William Faulkner and Toni Morrison. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 2001.
Shepherdson, Charles. "The Intimate Alterity of the Real: A Response to Reader Commentary on 'History and the Real.'" Postmodern Culture 6.3 (May 1996): 2-35; 65 paras.. PMC Online. Web. 27 July 2009.
Wyatt, Jean. "Giving Body to the Word: The Maternal Symbolic in Toni Morrison's Beloved." PMLA 108.3 (May 1993): 474-88.
--. Risking Difference: Identification, Race and Community in Contemporary Fiction and Feminism. New York: SUNY P, 2004.
Zizek, Slavoj. The Plague of Fantasies. New York: Verso, 1997.
(1.) My reading of trauma is founded on Lacan's work in The Four Fundamental Concepts and differs from that of trauma theorists like Caruth. Caruth associates trauma with an "overwhelming occurrence" that "remains, in its insistent return, absolutely true to the event" (5). While this "literality" of the event is a central component of trauma (5), one we may associate with its repetition, Lacan's work allows us to view the traumatic occurrence as itself a kind of repetition, as a tuche or an ever-"missed encounter" (55). If, as Caruth observes, the traumatic event remains "unassimilable to associative chains of meaning" (5), this is not caused so much by the "literality" of the event as by the fact that trauma points to that which escapes meaning in any significatory chain. Trauma is, in Lacan's words, "an act of homage" (58) to the "very split that occurs in the subject," the split through which "we apprehend the real," and all that comes to occupy it, as "originally unwelcome" in the Symbolic (69).
(2.) Here the Real presents itself in two forms that Shepherdson calls "presymbolic" and "postsymbolic." While the "postsymbolic real" is the traumatic void that language produces in the split subject with the constitution of subjectivity, the "presymbolic real" is "a myth" (par. 63). The "postsymbolic real" comes to be represented by the historical traumatic occurrence; but the "presymbolic real" arises as a compensatory "retroactive effect" of trauma (be the trauma constitutive or historical), emerging as the fantasy of that lost jouissance of wholeness (in the Imaginary, or the mirror stage, for example) which the objet a promises to make manifest (par. 47). Slavery thus represents the void of the split subject's "postsymbolic real," and the mythical, preslavery identity emerges retroactively as an illusory, "presymbolic" wholeness (that existed in "Mother Africa," for example, and bonds African Americans as "brothers" and "sisters"). For more on the two versions of the Real, see also Fink.
(3.) In Risking Difference, Wyatt also links Beloved to the Real, stating that specifically the book's "last two pages put the exiled Beloved in the space of the real" (182).
(4.) What Lacan refers to here in Ethics as a "desire of death," or a "death instinct," is more fully elaborated as "the drive" in The Four Fundamental Concepts.
(5.) Bouson reads this moment in the text as emblematic of a traumatic "shaming" to which African Americans are continually submitted. For Bouson, the scene displays the "dirtying power of racist discourse, which constructs white identity as racially and biologically pure and black identity as impure or dirty" (146). My own reading suggests that shame, as a source of trauma, should be understood within the larger framework of the relation between the Other's signifier and the subject's lack.
(6.) This scene may be read as a moment in which Sethe, through the eyes of schoolteacher, experiences the Lacanian gaze, the look of the Other through which we apprehend ourselves as lack. Schreiber uses this concept to read Beloved as enabling a process wherein "marginalized blacks and women confront the gaze and become the gaze for dominant white males," a process through which "cultural changes can occur" (17). My suggestion that Sethe's psyche is here almost shattered by her encounter with schoolteacher's gaze confirms Schreiber's own sense that such change is "extremely difficult" to bring about (16).
(7.) A number of theorists have read Sethe's act as a form of maternal excess, a blurring of the limits between mother and child. Matus, for example, points to an altered "genealogy of mothering under slavery," one that, first, produces in Sethe a "maternal subjectivity," or an "identification" with the mother who leaves her behind while attempting to run away from slavery, and second, urges Sethe to "replay" in the murder "her longing for a mother who would similarly protect and stay with her" (111). Though compelling, such readings ground Sethe's act primarily in the Imaginary, missing the Lacanian recognition that the mother's absence merely marks the place of that more primal lack, as Real, constituted in subjectivity.
(8.) Here I am in agreement with Restuccia's argument that "recent claims made by Zizek and others in support of an 'ethics of jouissance' [an ethics grounded on the drive, instead of on desire] are based on a misreading of Lacan" (xiii).
(9.) My argument here is influenced by Wyatt's reading of Denver's relation to the mirror stage.
(10.) Wyatt also makes note of Baby Suggs's role in bringing Denver to the Symbolic. But Wyatt overvalues the importance of Baby Suggs's gender and reads too literally the term paternal metaphor, using Baby Suggs as further proof for her argument that the text presents the radical notion of a "Maternal Symbolic" that is distinct from Lacan's ("Giving Body").
(11.) Though Forter urges a strict distinction between historical and constitutive losses, my argument suggests that the trauma of slavery is both linked to and extricable from the Real lack of subjectivity. Calling for a focus on historical specificity, Forter uses the work of Eric Santner and Judith Butler to argue that "to absorb historical losses--which are contingent and therefore resistible--into structural losses-which are inevitable and therefore irresistible--is to vacate the field of ethical choice and political action altogether" (137): it is to make "resistance to the forces impelling those loses impossible" (143). My reading of Beloved, however, presents the process of disarticulating the historical losses of slavery from the a historical lack of subjectivity as a political and ethical imperative for African Americans. And as contemporary African Americans have not lived through this past that claims many of them, what is salutary is not their engagement with the historical specificities of slavery, but rather an individualized investigation of their current psychic relation to the past.
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2012|
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