Evelyn Jaffe Schreiber. Race, Trauma, and Home in the Novels of Toni Morrison.
The strengths of Evelyn Schreiber's book are her careful and attentive readings of Morrison's novels and a focus on the deep and difficult histories embodied by these characters. Race, Trauma, and Home works through Morrison's earlier novels depicting slavery to the more recent works, Love and A Mercy, and her notes on the 2006 Louvre exhibition "The Foreigner's Home." The chapters most often cover two novels thematically--memory, "inherited" trauma, and the "almost insurmountable task of recovering ... to gain subjectivity." Thematically, Schreiber works from the traumas of slavery through the inherited and generational traumas of postslavery America. She examines all the novels with a clear and focused textual analysis joined together with insights drawn from the disciplines of psychoanalysis and neurocognitive science. In many cases, her readings are buttressed by these nonliterary modes of analysis, and a picture of Morrison's theoretical and political trajectory is made clear. Morrison as the chronicler of complex, nuanced and particular lives of African Americans, especially women, emerges throughout Schreiber's work as a potent, real and effective social commentator who can also be of use in deeply individual, personal, and subjective ways.
For the most part, Schreiber provides the reader with careful close readings of Morrison's narratives. She works her way through Morrison's career, starting with the early novels and concluding with Morrison's most recent works. She also engages somewhat with Morrison's own critical and theoretical writings. Her focus throughout is on the parental relations under the conditions of racism. Since Morrison herself writes her narratives using deeply historicized and very particularized moments in African American and American history, Schreiber's readings are thematically unifying, drawing out the repeating, traumatic, and violent effects on these relations under the conditions of white supremacy. This tends somewhat to reduce Morrison's careful historicity. This reveals one of the difficulties of bringing to bear a psychoanalytic lens on fictional narratives. There is an inherent tension between the grounding narrative of psychoanalysis in the mother-child relation and the historicizing and particularizing narrative of the novels.
Schreiber's strength is her ability to elucidate Morrison's own concerns with the ongoing and lasting effects of both physical and psychical violence under the conditions of racism and white supremacy. In her own criticism and theoretical writings, Morrison suggests this thread. Schreiber adds to her readings of the novels by layering some insights drawn from research into trauma by both psychoanalysis and neuropsychology. The concurrent conclusions about the ongoing and embodied nature of trauma drawn from these kinds of research confirm Schreiber's (and Morrison's) workings out of these scenarios in fiction. That said, Schreiber mostly uses these scientifically framed notions to gird up and confirm Morrison's insights into the effects of racism and its institutions as well as her own readings of Morrison. The result of this is that the various forms of "data" gathered on the effects of trauma on families, especially problematic or ineffectual maternal attachment, merely confirm one another. Each of these various ways of describing trauma and its effects in the body and on relationships (fiction, psychoanalysis, neuropsychology) demand specific assumptions and commitments. Some of these are contrary to each other and others to the project of historicizing and particularizing the (fictional) lives Morrison describes. Schreiber sees them all as merely descriptive of reality, rather than perhaps constitutive. It is not terribly surprising to find contemporary thinking on the effects of trauma, namely violence in novels that mirrors and reflects contemporary thinking on these effects in other disciplines.
The problem that this raises for this reader is that the universalizing narrative forms of science and psychoanalysis may override the historical particularity of the novels. This runs the risk of describing parental relations as always traumatized and traumatizing under the conditions of white supremacy. Schreiber's focus on the damage done to black women and their children misses some of Morrison's most profound insights on the traumatizing effects of racism--the white supremacists are the most damaged and damaging of her characters. They are the "bereft," as Morrison once described them in an interview with Charlie Rose.
Furthermore, by virtually ignoring the damaged subjectivities of white racists by examining only the traumatizing effects of white supremacy on black women and their children, there are two dangers: 1) racism is reinforced as a problem only for African Americans, not for American society in general and white people in particular; and 2) the reinforcement of the notion that black families, in particular black mothers, are pathological and that they will inevitably transmit their traumas to their children. These traumas are not only part of their story, but now, thanks to a new scientific reading of the traumatized body, are located in their brains and bodies. The intersections of psychoanalysis, trauma theory, and neuroscience could be a moment in which each of the disciplines challenged and engaged the assumptions of the other. It could be a moment when the reductive and normative assumptions of one exposed the most troubling aspects of the other. Rather, Schreiber takes interesting and provocative readings of Morrison's characters and attaches them in a somewhat uncritical and overly simplistic way to shore up her fine and careful textual analysis. Perhaps she, like many literary scholars of the day, feels the need to add to their assailed knowledge the legitimacy of science.
Reviewed by Nancy Jesser, Ohio State University
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2012|
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