Missing peace in Toni Morrison's 'Sula' and 'Beloved.' (female Afro-American fiction writer)
This essay, accordingly, explores the relationship between the slippage of words and the informing voids (desires) of Morrison's novels by examining two of her most critically recognized works, Sula (1973) and Beloved (1987). Though all of Morrison's novels play upon the variability of language, Sula especially throws into disequilibrium that exemplar dichotomy, good and evil, and by extension all Manichean systems which undergird traditional linguistic and ethical orders. By bringing to light the relativity of meaning, Sula broaches the subject not only of semantic integrity (how we can convey what we mean) but also of epistemological integrity (how can we know anything since there is no objective perspective and no objective essence or truth to know). While the aforementioned questions bristle under each of Morrison's texts, in Sula, Morrison offers to her readers a main character who telescopes that scandal of epistemology. How can we understand or know Sula, who is not only egoless or without a self (and hence undeterminable) but who also is unable to know anything herself?
By contrast, Beloved, set almost a century earlier (c. 1852-1873), deals less with the metaphysical premises of good and evil to focus instead upon the institution of slavery and its overwhelming perversion of meaning. Inspired by a newspaper clipping from the 1850s (Davis 151), Beloved reconstructs the nuances of a black woman's killing of her infant daughter in response to the Fugitive Slave Act. Symbolic and discursive substitutions become emblematic in this latter narrative, where a ghost stands in for the lost living, where memory only approximates event, and where gestures and words struggle to fill the gaps of unvoiced longings. In Beloved, Morrison again highlights the variability of meaning and identity, yet in this case she links approximations of meaning to the historical condition of being enslaved.
Taking the cue from Eva's suggestion that there are no such things as innocent words or gestures - "'How you gone not mean something by it'" (Sula 68) - I engage in close readings of Morrison's texts with an eye toward the overdeter-mined nature of each sign. In addition, by looking at two of her works in conjunction, I hope to shed light on the different levels of language manipulation occurring in each book as well as conjecture the possible implications of these differences. How do the words of 1987 supplement, qualify, or reinforce their 1973 predecessors?
Sula begins with two gestures: a dedication and an epigraph. In the dedication, Morrison reconfigures a traditional signifier of loss and elegiac retrieval, to one of desire: "It is sheer good fortune to miss somebody long before they leave you. This book is for Ford and Slade, whom I miss although they have not left me." Instead of invoking the dead, Morrison places "Ford and Slade" into a "missed" situation, rewriting their future absence into the present and applying associations of loss and profound appreciation (usually reserved for the dead) to persons not yet defined by this absence. In effect, Morrison conveys a heightened sense of the variability of Ford and Slade, their probable mortality, their easy slippage into alter identities. How does the writer, then, who in essence "embalms" or fixes her subject, inscribe this changeableness of character? Does not every descriptive endeavor risk "missing" an essential, uncapturable quality (hence Morrison's play on the other meanings of to miss: 'to not quite capture,' 'to arrive too late,' 'to render inaccurately' - as in missing a piece, missing a train, or missing the point). With this dedication, Morrison unsettles the very sense of to miss and intimates the impossibility of any representation not informed by missing meanings.
The second sign in Sula, the epigraph drawn from Williams's The Rose Tattoo, foreshadows the replication of signs, the overdetermination of meanings, and the thematics of self in the subsequent text:
Nobody knew my rose of the world but me. . . . I had too much glory. They don't want glory like that in nobody's heart.
The Rose Tattoo inscribes its sign upon Morrison's novel, not unlike the birthmark destined for Sula's eye. This birthmark remains an ambiguous sign variously esteemed; it appears "a rose" to the narrative voice, a stemmed rose to Eva and Nel, a "scary black thing" to Nel's children, "a copperhead" to Jude, "Hannah's ashes" to the community, and "a tadpole" to Shadrack. As a mark of and on Sula/Sula, the epigraph foreshadows Sula's final isolation and incomprehensibility. At her death, nobody "knows" Sula but herself. The epigraph also attributes to the eponymous protagonist an excess of self-centeredness. The words "I had too much glory" find a near correlative in Sula's later assertionn "'I can do it all, why can't I have it all?'" (142). Yet, this epigraphic suggestion of Sula's self-love enacts a further corruption of signs, for Morrison later suggests that Sula has no sense of self - "She had no center . . . no ego" (119). Both Rose Tattoos (birthmark and epigraph) become for Sula/Sula symbols of contradictory meanings as well as marks of "missed" identification.
With those dedicatory and epigraphic signs, one enters the narrative body of Sula, where missed meanings between conversants proliferate. After Sula's return to Medallion, she and Nel engage in familiar yet unfamiliar banter:
"You been gone too long, Sula." "Not too long, but maybe too far." "What's that supposed to mean?" . . . "Oh, I don't know." "Want some cool tea?" (96)
While the reader may variously interpret Sula's suggestion that she has gone "too far" (i.e., she has reached a different value system, or has overstepped consensus boundaries), Nel doesn't conjecture these meanings.
Rather, the conversation turns to the distancing etiquette of proffered "tea." Nel's puzzlement over what Sula "mean[s]" is, in itself, an oddity, for the two women's history has been marked by an uncanny unison of thinking and movement that does not require words. Most memorable of that synchronicity is the prelude to Chicken Little's death, where the two girls "in concert, without ever meeting each other's eyes" dig two holes in the ground, furrowing deeper and deeper" until the two holes were one and the same," finally "replac[ing] the soil and cover[ing] the entire grave with uprooted grass [all during which] neither one had spoken a word" (58-59). This ensemble performance significantly occurs in silence, the implications being that words would disrupt the unity of action and, correlatively, that the necessity for words indicates a lesser degree of intimacy. Imbedded in the textual appeal to wordlessness, then, is the notion of language as the site and symptom of difference. Thus, when Nel recalls her former closeness with Sula, she describes them as "two throats and one eye" (147), emphasizing both perceptual "sameness" and discursive "difference." That is, even during the period in which the two girls shared "one eye," their means of articulating themselves were differentiated as "two."
In addition to the slips in language occurring between speakers, Morrison shows the schism between word and delayed/deferred significance that transpires within an individual's mind. When Eva describes her reasons for killing Plum, she speaks "with two voices. Like two people were talking at the same time, saying the same thing, one a fraction of a second behind the other" (71). The two voices say the "same thing" - but with a difference, one articulating, for Hannah, Plum's decline and Eva's response to it; the other translating for Eva, herself, the same scenario but with all the unsaid qualifications of motive and recollected vividness which encompass that "fraction of a second" delay. The "ambiguities of mercy " (Spillers 314), intoned but not made explicit in either Eva's act or her subsequent explanation, suggest that the "two voices" have not adequately justified her killing of Plum; perhaps the clarification required to assess Eva's act as a mercy killing or not lies in the reserve of that delayed moment - in the missing or sublimated text.
Contending with language's slippage presents a dilemma not only for Morrison's characters, but also for the author/narrator. For instance, the words "pig meat" (50) remain inadequate to describe the flavor of Ajax's utterance, the implicit "compliment" of his stylized delivery. The significance of pig meat lies less in the literal content of the term than in
the way [Ajax] handled the words. When he said "hell" he hit the h with his lungs and the impact was greater than the achievement of the most imaginative foul mouth in the town. He could say "shit" with a nastiness impossible to imitate. So, when he said "pig meat" as Nel and Sula passed, they guarded their eyes lest someone see their delight. (50)
This qualification acknowledges the distance between the words at the writer's disposal and the nuances conveyed in the hissing of a particular h. While Morrison elaborates on the h's transformative effects on the word hell, she leaves absent how Ajax utters pig meat to give it a complimentary texture; like shit it remains "impossible to imitate." Thus, despite the supplement that Morrison provides, pig meat as Ajax delivers it, remains missing from the text, only associatively colored by the description of Ajax's hissing hell.
Through such proximal associations, Morrison manages to absent the utterance and, though such absence, deliver the sense. That is, Ajax says aloud what was "in all their minds" yet difficult or prohibitive to express (e.g., "the taste of young sweat on tight skin," or the "mystery curled' beneath "cream-colored trousers" ). The emphasis on the way in which Ajax mouths the words subordinates their referential function to highlight instead the process of meaning's construction. More important than the referent of "pig meat" is the utterance's capacity to inspire for the men in front of the pool hall and for the two walking girls a breeze of sexual (re)awakening. Moreover, the very slips and deviances in both Ajax's intonation and Morrison's description of it provide a stylistic correlative to Sula's and Nel's burgeoning sense of sexuality: They were "like tightrope walkers, as thrilled by the possibility of a slip as by the maintenance of tension and balance" (51). The playfulness in both Ajax's and Morrison's words simultaneously create and avoid the desire for sexual and semantic gratification.
The absence of Ajax's "pig meat" utterance, yet its evocation through supplemental conceit, reveals its simultaneous properties as both missed yet not missing from the narrative. This liminal straddling between absence and presence becomes characteristic of the metonymic device which Morrison shows operating for herself as well as her characters. For instance, Jude's tie and Ajax's license evolve into metonyms for persons with whom they are associated. For Nel, Jude's tie becomes both the sign of his absence and the single remnant of all that he took: ". . . you walked past me saying, 'I'll be back for my things.' And you did but you left your tie" (106). Jude's tie remains liminally situated, as a signifier of absence, only through being present and metaphorically bringing into presence the remembered Jude.
It would seem that Ajax's license would likewise provide Sula with a "tie" to her former lover; however, in this instance, Morrison reflects on the relevance of linguistic error to one's sense of knowing. As Sula searches for signs of Ajax's former presence, she eventually stumbles across physical evidence, which ironically negates Ajax's identity as Sula knows it:
Then one day . . . she found . . . proof that he had been there, his driver's license. . . . But what was this? Albert Jacks? His name was Albert Jacks? A. Jacks. She had thought it was Ajax. . . . when for the first time in her life she had lain in bed with a man and said his name involuntarily or said it truly meaning him, the name she was screaming and saying was not his at all. (135-36)
Although she truly "means him," Sula misses saying Albert Jacks's name with its inscribed difference. This mistake leads Sula to question her knowledge in general: "'. . . there is nothing I did know and I have known nothing since the one thing I wanted was to know his name . . .'" (136). Her conclusion on knowing nothing applies beyond herself - how can anyone know anything when the purveyors of meaning slip, deviate, and deceive?
A correlative question - How can anyone convey anything when words limit and elude? - bristles under Morrison's text. Instead of released verbal expression, Morrison often presents only the gestures toward possible expressions:
The body must move and throw itself about, the eyes must roll, the hands should have no peace, and the throat should release all the yearning, despair and outrage that accompany the stupidity of loss. (107; italics added)
The imperative thrust of must declines into its subjunctive should, a pattern which defers mandatory urgency. Desire and purpose replace definitive action, as Morrison thwarts her character's attempt to "release all yearning": "Nel waited . . . for the oldest cry . . . her very own howl. But it did not come" (108).
The inadequacy of words and the desire for meaningful expression infuse Morrison's novel. Yet Sula's statement on "know[ing] nothing" presents an even graver problem. In the silence of one's interior consciousness, meaning becomes variable or meaningless - knowledge a mere ruse. Variability of meaning, whether articulated or silent, derives from a relativity of perspective. If one could stabilize for a moment the relational connotations of the word bottom, one could not fix the variable viewpoint from which it refers. That is, the Bottom remains "'high up for us,' said the master, 'but when God looks down, it's the bottom. That's why we call it so. It's the bottom of heaven - best land there is'" (5). The white farmer argues from God's "viewpoint" not because he deems it right, but because it allows him to swindle his black slave out of valley or "bottom" land. However, genuine investment in God's point of view informs Eva's judgments of right and wrong as well as communal assessments of good and evil. It remains for Sula to question that fundamental reliance upon God's authority, bringing into focus the implied perspective from which consensus meaning derives:
"Bible say honor thy father and thy mother that thy days may be long upon the land thy God giveth thee," [says Eva].
"Mamma must have skipped that part. Her days wasn't too long," [responds Sula].
"Pus mouth! God's going to strike you!"
"Which God? The one watched you burn Plum?" (93)
By asking "Which God?" Sula poses the relativity of even this monolith and questions both Eva's version of good and evil and good and evil in general. Additionally, Sula flaunts "falling," saying "'What the hell do I care about falling?'" since falling/Falling no longer means the descent into evil implied in Eva's Biblical aphorism ("'Pride goeth before a fall'") (93). Sula accepts this slippage, this fall (in language), and opposes the community's investment in a monolithic God as determiner of meaning.
Interestingly, while Sula here undermines God as monolith, she later seeks an unfallen language to describe the loneliness she seeks in coition -
a loneliness so profound the word itself had no meaning. For loneliness assumed the absence of other people, and the solitude she found in that desperate terrain had never admitted the possibility of other people. (123)
Sula and Morrison seek to describe an absence that antedates presence - a loneliness existing without relation to another. Yet language falls short. Morrison can only approximate Sula's loneliness through a catalog of "lost" items:
She wept then. Tears for the deaths of the littlest things: the castaway shoes of children; broken stems of marsh grass battered and drowned by the sea; prom photographs of dead women she never knew; wedding rings in pawnshop windows; the tidy bodies of Cornish hens in a nest of rice. (123)
This list supplements the idea of loneliness-as-void, yet does not achieve it and, paradoxically, erases it by filling it in.
Morrison later makes more explicit this loneliness defined by another against a loneliness which is "mine." In response to Nel's implicit condemnation of Sula's self-reliant lifestyle ("'Lonely, ain't it?'"), Sula replies, "'Yes. But my lonely is mine. Now your lonely is somebody else's. . . . Ain't that something? A secondhand lonely'" (143). Although Sula has slipped into a "secondhand lonely" for Ajax, the loneliness she describes to Nel consists of a yearning or missing without object. In effect, Sula wishes to describe and achieve an Adamic loneliness, an unfallen, originary loneliness.
Sula/Sula thus exhibits a desire for absolute meaning, though only briefly. Shortly after Nel's departure, Sula contemplates her own lack of permanence and her correlative lack of meaning:
"If I live a hundred years my urine will flow the same way, my armpits and breath will smell the same. . . . I didn't mean anything. I never meant anything. I stood there watching her burn and was thrilled. I wanted her to keep on jerking like that, to keep on dancing." (147; italics added)
Sula describes her unvariability (what one would think implies a stable identity), but also her meaninglessness (perhaps confirming de Sausserian notions of meaning's contingency upon differences [Derrida 140]). Despite this self-evaluation, Sula, rather than meaning nothing, produces an excess of meanings. Her words "I didn't mean anything" can be variously interpreted: Sula cannot intend meaning since meaning and the purveyors of meaning remain corrupt, or Sula hasn't made an impact on the world other than being "a body, a name and an address" (173). The latter interpretation confirms Sula as egoless or only a striving toward identity rather than a completion or, as Deborah McDowell phrases it, "character as process" rather than "character as essence" (81). The context in which Sula "speaks" these thoughts compound their overdetermination. As the last quoted words before her death, these thoughts take on a confessional tone, especially in juxtaposition to her recollection of Hannah's burning. Sula's "I never meant anything" may refer to her gesture of ambivalence, of looking at Hannah's fiery dance, feeling neither remorse nor delight. Thus, Sula reaffirms her non-relation to another, while also denying any substantive presence unto herself. Rather than "never mean[ing] anything," Sula's meanings are endless, incomplete always missed.
The seeming contradiction of Sula as neither in relation to another nor defined as present unto herself resolves itself in the notion of Sula as open-ended or "never achiev[ing] completeness of being" (McDowell 81). That is, to pose Sula's relation to another (effectively writing in what she desires) would be to project a closure to her identity. In Sula, however, closure consistently eludes both author and title character. For instance, the narrative closing of Chicken Little's life, initially described as "the closed place in the water," quickly transforms into "something newly missing" (61), as if closure were always informed by some missing piece (and thus not closed or complete at all). Chicken Little's "ending" oddly remains unseen by most of the community; and because his remains are withheld from viewing by the "closed coffin" (64), closure paradoxically creates a void in perception - a new lack in the text.
Sula's death creates similar gaps in the text. Her narrative continues beyond her last breath, and her post-mortem thoughts "'Well, I'll be damned . . . it didn't even hurt. Wait'll I tell Nel'" (149) not only write her beyond her own ending but also reinforce Sula's striving after supplementation. Sula/Sula asks the reader to "wait" until a doubtful future moment (since she is dead, she cannot tell Nel), deferring infinitely the closure of both book and "self."
Not surprisingly, then, Sula concludes with an open-ended description which re-emphasizes the ambiguous borders of personal and discursive definitions. Nel's contemplation of the Peace gravestones conflates people, words, and desires:
Together they read like a chant: PEACE 1895-1921, PEACE 1890-1923, PEACE 1910-1940, PEACE 1892-1959.
They were not dead people. They were words. Not even words. Wishes, longings. (171)
The associative ambiguity of "Peace" clues the reader into the thematic suggestion that Peace, both the people and the word, remains missing and that this missing Peace (piece) inspires desire. Morrison takes the conventional sentiment of "rest-in-peace" out of equilibrium and overlays grave, book, language, and identity with inconclusiveness. Nel's final cry "'O Lord, Sula . . . girl, girl, girlgirlgirl'" (174) echoes this triple intersection of words, people, and desires. The variable referent of "girl" (Nel's invocation to Sula or to herself) points to language's plurisignifying potential to evoke missed people (others), the missed self, missed meanings, and all the desire encompassed in those yearnings for the "missed." The novel's inconclusiveness, then, reiterates Sula's identity as desire without object, as the narrative itself embodies that same sense of desire for the reader.
Whereas, in Sula, words fail to explain conventional objects (a restroom) or concepts (God), in Beloved, language and expression in general fall short because the experiences they strive to capture are peculiar - always circumscribed by the legacy of having been owned. In her later work, Morrison highlights the lack of vocabulary to speak the experience of the enslaved self as well as the often perilous relation of the former enslaved to a historically specific language which commodifies African Americans. Beloved, then, redefines the duplicity of language with an eye toward its historical warping.
One might begin to define the "something missing" in Beloved through language and its often incomprehensible meanings. Morrison shows that the mutations of time often place language out of reach, so that former words cannot be recollected:
What Nan told her [Sethe] had forgotten, along with the language she told it in. . . . she was picking meaning out of a code she no longer understood. (62)
Facing near hieroglyphs in memory, Sethe must bypass the language and the words for the meaning behind them. Thus, Morrison presents a gap in what Nan says, and instead proposes what Nan "means:"
[Nan] told Sethe that her mother and Nan were together from the sea. Both were taken up many times by the crew. "She threw them all away but you. The one from the crew she threw away on the island. . . . Without names, she threw them. You she gave the name of the black man. She put her arms around him. The others she did not put her arms around." (62)
Morrison switches from third-person paraphrase of Nan's "meaning" to direct quotations - fabricated quotations, however, since the original words and language have been lost. In Sethe's distillation of meaning from a forgotten "code," Morrison implies the dual construction of meaning. The words here are as much fabricated by Sethe as they are delivered by Nan, who, in turn, wishes to convey some elusive meaning from Sethe's mother. This last meaning finally surfaces through a series of deferrals, leaving the reader uncertain as to how to interpret Nan's "words." Are they indicators of Sethe's relative importance to her mother (since she has not met the fate of her half-siblings)? Do they create a threatening picture of mother-love, as Sethe's killing of Beloved has done for Howard and Buglar?
The difficulties of interpreting meaning pose dilemmas not only for those recollecting the past, but also among characters sharing the same narrative present. When Stamp Paid goes to visit the women of 124, he encounters an incomprehensible language:
Out on Bluestone Road he thought he heard a conflagration of hasty voices - loud, urgent, all speaking at once. . . . All he could make out was the word mine. The rest of it stayed outside his mind's reach. (172)
Though Stamp Paid "couldn't describe [this speech] to save his life," the narrator (through Stamp Paid's perspective) supplements this initial description with yet another approximation of these "sounds":
[It was] like the interior sounds a woman makes when she believes she is alone and unobserved at her work; a sth when she misses the needle's eye; a soft moan when she sees another chip in her one good platter; the low, friendly argument with which she greets the hens. Nothing fierce or startling. Just that eternal, private conversation that takes place between women and their tasks. (172)
One wonders whether Morrison, here, portrays more about the perceiver than the perceived. That is, the male figure, representative of the public workplace, glances in the window of the female privatized home, and sees an alien space defined by domestic tasks and an exclusive female presence (down to the hens). To him, the sounds remain unintelligible, the significance of the "argument with which she greets the hens" unfathomable.
As these two examples attest, slippage of language in Beloved occurs between persons who have lost contact. Unlike Sula and Nel, the main characters of this later novel, with the exception of Beloved, remain discrete entities, none having achieved the closeness implied in "two throats and one eye." Even family members do not realize an affinity like Sula's and Nel's. Sethe only knows her mother through two gestures: her mother's revealing to Sethe her circle and cross brand, and the slap Sethe receives upon requesting a similar mark (61); Joshua/Stamp Paid displaces his emotional attachment to his wife Vashti by changing his name rather than snapping her neck (233). In both cases, the distance between mother-daughter and husband-wife must be maintained, for in the pressurized atmosphere of slavery, close ties risk implosion. Thus, Morrison implies how historical realities perpetuate a system that precludes intimate contact: As Denver later articulates, "Slaves not supposed to have pleasurable feelings on their own; their bodies not supposed to be like that . . ." (209). Language's slippage and missed meanings take place across migratory (and chronological) stretches, allowing Morrison to contextualize the corruption of signifiers within the historical exigencies of slavery and its aftermath.
In particular, Morrison shows how certain symbols become overdetermined in meaning. Sethe's breasts, for instance, begin as signifiers of nurturing. Sethe, who is pregnant with Denver but still has "'milk for [her] baby girl,'" must get to Ohio where her daughter awaits her. Yet, before Sethe leaves Sweet Home, Schoolteacher's nephews forcibly "rape" her milk (16-17), reinscribing her breasts as sites of violation and instruments through which to deprive her children of sustenance; they also epitomize how "private" body parts become commodified, public, and un-"own"-ed by the self. The overdetermined meaning of Sethe's breasts results, in part, from the lack of an appropriate language to speak the outrage of slavery. How can one describe the multiple injustices and rage which slavery yields - the "unspeakable thoughts, unspoken" (199)? Thus, tropes such as Sethe's breasts come to approximate the confluence of emotions (guilt, shame, rage, grief, insecurity, terror, numbness . . .) begotten from the "Peculiar Institution."
Likewise, Paul D's rooster becomes the only way for him to express a degradation so severe that it remains unnamed by the narrative's conclusion. In a conversation which begins reluctantly, with intentions both not to tell and not to hear, Paul D finally tells Sethe of the roosters:
"Mister [the rooster], he looked so . . . free. Better than me. Stronger, tougher. Son a bitch couldn't even get out the shell by hisself but he was still king and I was . . ." Paul D stopped and squeezed his left hand with his right. . . . "Mister was allowed to be and stay what he was. But I wasn't allowed to be and stay what I was. Even if you cooked him you'd be cooking a rooster named Mister. But wasn't no way I'd ever be Paul D again, living or dead. . . . I was something else and that something was less than a chicken sitting in the sun on a tub." (72)
The ellipses and hesitations throughout Paul D's speech tell of gaps and deferrals in meaning. Paul D doesn't know whether he can "say it right," or say it fully, and, in fact, as the narrative reveals, ". . . what he was telling her was only the beginning" (72).
Morrison further compounds the meaning of roosters by associating Mister's comb with Paul D's missing or buried "red heart": ". . . there was no red heart bright as Mister's comb beating in him" (73). Red heart and rooster approximate each other, even as they trope toward some more ambiguous meaning. That meaning becomes further complicated by Paul D's chanting "'Red heart'" as he touches Beloved "'on the inside part'" (117) - an act which further shames him.
Morrison finally articulates a clearer image of Paul D's unnamed hurt through a catalog of items:
A shudder ran through Paul D. . . . He didn't know if it was bad whiskey, nights in the cellar, pig fever, iron bits, smiling roosters, fired feet, laughing dead men, hissing grass, rain, apple blossoms, neck jewelry, Judy in the slaughterhouse, Halle in the butter, ghost-white stairs, chokecherry trees, cameo pins, aspens, Paul A's face, sausage or the loss of a red, red heart.
"Tell me something, Stamp." Paul D's eyes were rheumy. "Tell me this one thing. How much is a nigger supposed to take?" (235; italics added)
A shudder and exasperation flavor Morrison's "meaning," which one might conjecture as the degradation of having no agency, of being transformed or moved at will by another. The breasts and roosters, as overdetermined metaphors for the "weight" of being black in America during the late nineteenth century, hint at how this "burden" cannot be expressed simply or singularly. Techniques such as cataloging and metaphorical substitution, displacement, and approximation aid Morrison in conveying the lack of vocabulary to describe fully the degradation of slavery.
Not only words but also gestures become subject to slippage; and often gestures (in themselves a comment on the need for supplements to words) remain the expression of choice for those who have no access to the "master language," Beloved, who returns from the dead, relies heavily upon gesture to supplement her words. In response to Denver's question "'What's it like over there, where you were before?'" Beloved replies, "'Dark . . . I'm small in that place. I'm like this here.' She raised her head off the bed, lay down on her side and curled up" (75). Beloved's gesture seems to indicate a womb of darkness, but her later assertions of her "crouching" with a "dead man on my face" (211) carry suggestions of slave ship passage. More simply, the place "over there" could be death, pre-birth, or void. To say that Beloved's words exhibit missing pieces would be not only to state the obvious but also to overlook Morrison's more masterful troping by gesture. Instead of supplementing Beloved's meaning through additional words, Morrison leaves Beloved's gesture literally at rest - not closed in meaning but accepting of the gaps that already exist in memory and that widen during the conveyance of meaning.
Beloved's "massage-stranglehold" of Sethe's neck becomes another gesture of ambivalent meaning. Denver insists that Beloved has "'choked [Sethe's] neck,'" whereas Beloved claims that she has "'kissed her neck'" (101). Beloved's counterstatement does not necessarily negate Denver's words, A too-strong kiss may strangle, just as a "too-thick love" can result in "unmotherly" acts. Interestingly, Paul D characterizes Sethe's love as "'too thick,'" to which Sethe responds, "'Love is or it ain't. Thin love ain't love at all'" (164). Sethe denies any texture or variable quality to love, while Paul D shows that "love" inadequately describes the emotional relation one has to another. He, thus, exposes "love" as a synecdoche of sorts that only partially names Sethe's relationship to her children. Likewise, the different interpretations of the "massage" as either chokehold or kiss emerge from a similarly reductive (is or ain't) determination of benevolent or malevolent intent. Yet Morrison consistently undermines this benevolent/malevolent dichotomy, showing how love for the captive female can manifest itself in both.
Morrison also shows how characters besides Beloved choose approximating gestures over words. For instance, after Sethe discovers Beloved's identity (as her returned "ghost" daughter), Sethe falls into a flurry of mothering activity: playing with Beloved, braiding her hair, feeding her "fancy food," and clothing her in "ribbon and dress goods" (240). Presumably trying to make up for lost time, Sethe condenses her gestures of care into two months, yet succeeds only in making Beloved, Denver, and herself look "like carnival women with nothing to do" (240). The narrative voice reveals the disjunction between Sethe's pattern-making and the shallowness of result. Instead of the "real thing," one has carnivalesque trappings without substance the displaced substitute of some unrealizable desire.
The scapegoating of Sethe by various members in the community enacts a similar substitutive gesture. Instead of accusing themselves, Ella and Paul D, for instance, transfer self-censure onto the already publicly identified "criminal," Sethe. Ella, who shuns Sethe after the Misery (as Stamp Paid calls the Fugitive Slave Act and Sethe's desperate response to it ), has herself orchestrated a child's death, "a hairy white thing, fathered by 'the lowest yet,'" whom she "delivered, but would not nurse" (258-59). Likewise, Paul D displaces his own shame onto Sethe's recorded public act. As he listens to her explanation of the newspaper article, Paul D judges Sethe's action as "'wrong'. . . . 'You got two feet, Sethe, not four'. . . . Later he would wonder what made him say it. . . . How fast he had moved from his shame to hers" (165). The two displacements allow Ella and Paul D, and by extension the community, to voice the violence engendered by slavery in an already constructed language. That is, they use the language of the white judiciary, white newspapers, and white opinion to assess and fix judgment upon Sethe's act. Instead of arriving at a new discourse to express, encompass, and comprehend (but not necessarily mitigate) Sethe's act, Ella and Paul D misappropriate Sethe's "crime" in order to overlook and keep silent what they have no alternative words for.
"Missing" from the community, then, is a discourse for and about public/private shame. Sethe has ruptured secreted guilt by displaying "on the lawn"(1) the communally shared guilt over child abandonment, malevolent love, and infanticide. Sethe's killing of Beloved remains an inconceivable gesture whose meaning Beloved spends its entire length trying to approximate. In Schoolteacher's nephew's reaction to Sethe's killing in the woodshed, Morrison highlights the mistaken meanings derived from decontextualized judgments:
What she go and do that for? On account of a beating? Hell, he'd been beat a million times and he was white. . . . "What she go and do that for?" (150)
The nephew reduces Sethe's act to a response to a whipping. He compares it to his own projected reaction, that "no way . . . could [he] have" done what she did (150). Not being a slave, he cannot grasp the meaning of Sethe's action, as perhaps that meaning may never be grasped through forgotten agony and "official" versions of history.
Perhaps what is desired, then, is a language to explain and absolve, to encompass all the nuance and ambiguity of motive and emotion - a language which allows the women of 124 "to be what they liked, see whatever they saw and say whatever was on their minds" (199). Morrison approximates this desired language in the lyric section running from pages 200 to 217, a rendition of interior consciousness, for, as Sethe asserts, she doesn't need to vocally explain herself because Beloved "understands everything already" (200). Only an unfallen language would exhibit a unity of thought and word that would render verbalization obsolete - a language in the beginning: "In the beginning there were no words. in the beginning was the sound, and they all knew what that sounded like" (259). Morrison allows that unfallen sounding to become realized for an instant, which recalls the healing work of the Clearing:
For Sethe it was as though the Clearing had come to her with at its heat and simmering leaves, where the voices of women searched for . . . the sound that broke the back of words. . . . It broke over Sethe and she trembled like the baptized in its wash. (261)
Morrison presents the "roaring" of the unspoken, which spiritually blesses and absolves. Yet, this triumphant moment of wordless song lasts only briefly, perhaps a glimpse of Paradise after the Fall. Morrison makes clear that this type of language, though desired, cannot often be realized - that the women of 124, for instance, can "say whatever was on their minds. Almost" (199; italics added). Amongst Sethe, Beloved, and Denver, much remains "unspeakable thoughts, unspoken" (200). Sethe's monologue, for instance, projects into an indeterminate future her "telling" of a specific knowledge: "I know what it is to be without the milk that belongs to you. . . . I'll tell Beloved about that; she'll understand" (200). Like Paul D's rooster, Sethe's stolen milk signals such inexpressible emotions that Sethe defers voicing them, even as she desires to make the incident "understand[able]."
Morrison soberly returns the narrative to language's limitations. Words, akin to the "spores of bluefern growing in the hollows along the riverbank," have the potential to "live out [their] days as planned" (84); i.e., to express authentically. Instead of realizing that intent, however, the spore collapses and the certainty of its expression - its full bloom - "lasts no longer than [a moment!; longer, perhaps than the spore itself" (84).
Morrison does not simply refer to language here. The spore also represents the promise of human life and the fragility of that promise for the enslaved. As former slave Harriet Jacobs observed while watching "two beautiful children playing together" (one a "fair white child," the other her slave), "I foresaw the inevitable blight that would fall on the little slave's heart. I knew how soon her laughter would be changed to sighs" (Jacobs 29). The slave, denied possession of her body, will never realize the promise implied by and borne out in the fruition of her white counterpart. Possessed by another, the enslaved suffers from a fragmentation of self (literal as well as figurative),(2) or as Paul D phrases it, not being able "'to be and stay what I was'" (72). Morrison's characters can only obliquely refer to the situation of being denied a self. For instance, Sethe mentions that "there was no nursing milk to call my own" (200), referring to the shared milk she took as a child from Nan's breasts and her own milk forcibly taken from her by Schoolteacher's nephews. After escaping to Ohio, she claims her post-slavery sense of self by reappropriating her milk for no one but "my own children" (200); through reclaimed agency over her milk, Sethe points to herself as no longer the possession of another.
However, Sethe still evokes her self through others: For Sethe, "the best thing she was, was her children" (251). Even when she earlier conjectures her possible death, Sethe couches it in terms of her baby, "'I believe this baby's ma'am is gonna die in wild onions on the bloody side of the Ohio River.'. . . And it didn't seem such a bad idea . . ." (31). Yet, because she is the "baby's ma'am," Sethe attempts to survive, a decision born of concern not for herself but for her baby. Thus, akin to Morrison's Sula, whose identity remains incomplete, Sethe, too, only proceeds toward an investment in herself as her own "'best thing'" (273). Nel's voiced realization of herself as separate from her mother's influence "'I'm me . . . . Me'" (Sula 28) - becomes echoed in Sethe's concluding remarks which indicate a recognition of the self - but with a difference: "'Me? Me?'" (273). This faux-conclusion to Sethe's narrative revises the stable self implied in Nel's "'I'm me . . . . Me,'" emphasizing the striving toward rather than any realized definition of self.
Beloved's other conclusion (an epilogue?) also thematizes an open-endedness to words, narrative, and desires. In one phrase, "This is not a story to pass on" (275), Morrison seemingly closes her story as well as gestures toward unwriting her narrative. Like the "footprints" by the stream which "come and go, come and go," her narrative seems to imprint and efface itself - much as Beloved has done within collective memory. The community deliberately forgets her "like a bad dream" (274), actively absenting her from their recollections; however, the narrative announces her as the final word of the text - "Beloved" - that which is desired, missing, yet elusively present.
While Sula appears overtly to thematize the notion of signification's duplicity, Beloved grounds language's slippage to the not so distant history of slavery in America. Perhaps Morrison signifies(3) on the earlier text, attempting a redefinition or respecifying of postmodernism's general emphasis on the instability of meaning; that is, whereas Sula capitalizes on the notion of language as aprioristically corrupt, Beloved does not take for granted that there is only one language (i.e., that defined by semioticians or that practiced by Schoolteacher and his nephews).
Morrison contextualizes "corrupt" language as historically specific, even against deconstructionist theories which atemporalize and universalize language. Her historicization in Beloved thus speaks on some level about the limits of poststructuralist findings for African American writers who remain doubly circumscribed by a language which can no longer convey authentically, but which has hitherto effectively constructed black subjects as less than human. Her grounding of discursive slippage to historical circumstances thus offers a praxis of resistance to these theories which would subsume all narratives as corruptions, just when alternate narratives taking the formerly enslaved as their subjects are beginning to emerge. Thus, whereas in Sula, language's slippage exists a priori, in Beloved, gaps and missed meanings evolve from specific sites of corruption due to historical circumstances. In neither text, however, are lapses elided or desires achieved. In effect, Morrison wishes to indulge two seemingly contradictory gestures: to make "Peace" a longing, and to make people "at rest" with this longing piece.
1. In Thinking Through the Body, Jane Gallop describes Joanne Michulski's 1974 killing and dismemberment of her two children as bringing "violence by and to the mother - out of the home and onto the lawn, into the public eye . . . [effectively] reinscrib[ing] it in the world of work and meaning, power and knowledge" (2). Likewise, Sethe, rather than having fallen away from a community's mores, has actually enacted a public spectacle of the community's already shared, secreted history. She effectively reinscribes private crime onto public space.
2. Morrison symbolizes this literal fragmentation in Schoolteacher's dissection of his slaves' body parts: their division into animal characteristics on the right side of the page and human characteristics on the left (Beloved 193).
3. The practice of "Signifyin(g)," according to Henry Louis Gates, Jr., is "repetition and revision, or repetition with a signal difference" (Monkey xxiv). Gates expands the purview of "signifyin(g)" to include African American intertextuality or the activity of "black writers read[ing] and critiqu[ing] other black texts as an act of rhetorical self-definition" (Figures 242). I suggest that Morrison, in Beloved, signifies on the very work of signification in Sula. That is, she repeats with a signal difference the thematics of language slippage so apparent in Sula, the difference being the grounding of that language slippage to historical event.
Davis, Christina. "Beloved: A Question of Identity." Presence Africaine 145 (1988): 151-56.
Derrida, Jacques. "Differance." Speech and Phenomena and Other Essays on Husserl's Theory of Signs. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1973. 129-60.
Gallop, Jane. Thinking Through the Body. New York: Columbia UP, 1988.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the "Racial" Self. New York: Oxford UP, 1987.
-----. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford UP, 1988.
Grant, Robert. "Absence into Presence: The Thematics of Memory and 'Missing' Subjects in Toni Morrison's Sula." McKay 90-103.
Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Ed. Jean Fagan Yellin. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1987.
McDowell, Deborah. "'The Self and the Other': Reading Toni Morrison's Sula and the Black Female Text." McKay 77-89.
McKay, Nellie Y., ed. Critical Essays on Toni Morrison. Boston: Hall, 1988.
Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Knopf, 1987.
-----. Sula. 1973. New York: Plume, 1982.
Spillers, Hortense J. "A Hateful Passion, A Lost Love." Feminist Studies 9.2 (1983): 293-323.
Rachel Lee is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of English at the University of California, Los Angeles. Currently, she is working on her dissertation, entitled "The Americas of Asian American Literature."
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 1994|
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