Sula's Joke on Psychoanalysis.
It is possible to use Toni Morrison's Sula make to psychoanalysis meaningful to black literary studies. Such a reading emerges not by reducing the text to a treatise on race via selected psychoanalytical frameworks or formulas, but instead by identifying the novel's humorous properties to expose psychoanalytically advanced insights into the human experience. The novel enlightens the reader with humor and sorrow, both of which initiate the story. A "standard" approach to psychoanalysis signals a need for a cure, thus unwittingly pathologizing forms of black expression. I suggest that the novel's humorous moments are instructive, and what they instruct, psychoanalysis fundamentally does not want to hear: psychoanalysis must cure itself of its innate narcissism by listening to the Other.
In one sense, psychoanalysis stands poised to listen to the Other by way of Sigmund Freud's Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious (1905). In this text, so intensely concerned with Freud's Jewish ethnicity, Freud invites social investigation into the intrapsychic arena of psychoanalysis. Specifically, "It]he comic arises in the first instance as an unintended discovery derived from human social relations" (234). Of Freud's work, this study began as Freud's own investigation into the social symptom of the subject (Gay xxiii). Still, Jokes remains one of his least utilized texts, considering that it gave him latitude to openly consider social stigma. In this way, psychoanalysis tunes out its own mandate to listen.
Moreover, as Sula's humor depends on a sense of irony, on being able to maintain contradictions as similar, Jokes in particular facilitates a psychoanalytic read of Sula precisely because Freud investigates the connection between the joke and irony--"The only technique that characterizes irony is representation by the opposite. But we call this irony and no longer a joke" (86). Truly, the novel begins with an ironic joke that explains how the black town members can reside in the "Bottom" and be on top at once. Freud eventually acknowledges of jokes what he acknowledges of dreams: "For the time being we may find difficulty in thinking how these two fixed points that we have arrived at in explaining can be reconciled" (Jokes 86).
The joke and the dream share commonalities for Freud--the importance of the joke surfaces in what Freud wrote of dreams: "The way in which dreams treat the category of contraries and contradictories is highly remarkable. It is simply disregarded. 'No' seems not to exist so far as dreams are concerned. They show a particular preference for combining contraries into a unity or for representing them as one and the same thing.., there is no way of deciding at a first glance whether any element that admits of a contrary is present in the dream-thoughts as a positive or a negative" (Interpretation 353). And of course, in his book on jokes, Freud writes that "dream-work operates by the same method of jokes, but in its use of them it transgresses the limits that are respected by jokes" (Jokes 215). The sustenance of opposites may work deeply in dreams, but in jokes, especially with a denigrated group on whom Western fantasies are projected, jokes reach the depth of suspended contraries, making jokes equally indicative as the dream.
Sula steers psychoanalysis away from a reductive mishandling of black literature as a problem. In most readings, black literature is used to address problems of race or show psychoanalysis's agility with race. Sula resists this effort by designating the smallest periphery as its purview: a small black girl from a small, rural black community. Freud's work with jokes and Jacques Lacan's work with ego prove most useful here. The joke works with loss--loss of logic, loss of sense, loss of meaning--and undercuts expectations of stable character or narrative, thereby destabilizing a psychoanalytic demand that all psyches look alike. For Lacan, "[a]t the crux of the true resistances we have to deal with in psychoanalysis' convoluted theoretical discussions of the ego lies the simple refusal to admit that the ego's rightful status in analytic theory is the same as it stains in practice: a function of misrecognition" (Ecrits 560). This critique might apply to literary studies as well, since the critic can count on misrecognition of the nondominant text.
Sula, who lacks "ego" (119), might play a trick on the reader's ego. What often happens, however, is that the one who has "no compulsion to verify herself--be consistent with herself" (119), and for that matter, with the reader, must be made to epitomize race and gender, thus becoming a model of a dominated minority for psychoanalytical pleasure. That reduction casts black expression as a struggle towards culture rather than as a standard of insight. (1) Analyzing "the problem" renders invisible what Cheryl Wall calls the "raunchy humor" of the text (1451), a humor that may otherwise illuminate psychoanalysis' reductive tendencies by exposing its demands. What situates Sula squarely at the site of psychoanalysis is its failure--what it fails to say, show, explain, unify.
Failure is often humorous in hindsight, which is where the novel begins, as Phillip Novak explores in "Circles of Sorrow." (2) The novel's beginning, the failure of the neighborhood, is the joke that created it. At the end of the novel, Nel's loss of Sula and our loss of the text (the joke is over before we realize we heard it), demonstrates how loss and humor remain interdependent. Failure marks the moment human experience stops "working" or producing desirable effect. For Freud, a joke worked most successfully when logic (language for Lacan) ceased working (Jokes 8-10). Sula begins, then, in a space that asks the reader to reconsider failure. As the reader confronts the community's annihilation, traditional expectations of standard fiction signal death. For many in black communities, failure represents the opposite of what many white communities regard as a sign of decay. Historically, it was the failure of plantations, the failure of weather, the failure of black and white health, that provided space for survival. Thus failure had another side--one of rest, recuperation, resilience. In such fertile ground, a joke emerges like a flower from feces.
The joke derides black Americans, underscoring one particular slave's ignorance as a way to get the upper hand. His ignorance was in that way, as Yvonne Atkinson notes of African American signifying tradition, "didactic and inclusive" (17). The narrative tells the reader that everyone gets comfort from the joke. The joke instructs everyone on where and how to find a small space of peace in an environment of oppression and denigration. In contrast to death and mourning as the critical component of the novel, the novel's framework of failure generates humor. (3)
What often dulls the novel's humor for readers is the failure that accompanies the joke. Many of Sula's jokes are missed when focusing on the text's macabre events: a woman is nicknamed after her precise failure (Teapot's Mama) (114); Eva saves Plum in a cold outhouse only to burn him later in bed (34, 48); Hannah fries tomatoes for dinner and then is "stewed" in tomatoes herself (69, 74. 76); the pool hall is named after hard work, which its patrons come there not to do (Time and a Half Pool Hall); and a foul-mouthed man is named after a cleaning product (Ajax). (4) A helmet holds brains like a soup bowl (8); finger tips look like button mushrooms (54); burning alive becomes dancing (76); and Sula's own last gasping breath of air looks like a protracted, bored, incomplete yawn (172).
Sula's jokes often seem nightmarish. They are places where tragedy meets with the ordinary. Chikwenye Okonjo Ogunyemi comments that "the development of the Oedipus complex in [Sula] is modified, since in the world of Sula nothing quite works according to expectation" (132). Indeed for Lacan, the Oedipus complex, so important in the West, is "just rather a thin joke" for many "primitive" societies (Seminar 186). (5) Reader expectations for Sula reflects demand, an egocentric question put to a fluid story with unidentifiable characters and unbelievable incidents. This misrecognition stands in contrast to the text's savior. (6) Further, that expectation becomes the novel's trick, a fallacy of a rigid mind. The novel's humor often escapes psychoanalytic readings of Sula that impose a formative framework of psychoanalysis on the novel, a linear prescription that allows analysis to speak for race or oppression while it simultaneously perpetrates domination. (7)
The use of literature by psychoanalysis as a gateway to the psyche, as Freud used Oedipus Rex and Lacan used "The Purloined Letter," can be problematic considering that literature from underdeveloped communities or the subaltern subject inherently presents a discordant perspective to an egotistical, Western presumption of norm, namely, the neutralization of class, the deletion of race or gender. If literature reveals the Western psyche, then for black American texts, psychoanalysis may dispense therapeutic properties according to a "doubly" troubled psyche.
The title character arrives late (about thirty pages in) and leaves the novel early (about twenty-five pages short of the end). Sula seems like a good joke. Freud describes the "economy" of the joke, its collapse and brevity, as essential to its effectiveness (Jokes 104-05). Sula seems brief and inconsistent. Instead of predictability, Sula acts out "a kaleidoscopic model of self and behavior in the novel which confounds attempts to read it in terms of a binary structure or traditional, unified models of self" (Peach 63). Peach's image of a kaleidoscope might prove too organized for Lacan's concept of ego, which insists on a refraction effect (564-65). Closer to Lacan's ego would be Ogunyemi's discussion, which points out "[t]he fact that [Sula] possesses 'no ego' accounts for her inconsistency" (130), and this inconsistency makes her the powerful joke on the surrounding community who seeks to posit her as their antithesis.
Sula reiterates that Sula is "a funny woman," has an "odd way of looking at things" (104), for "she was laughing at their God" (115), and when Sula returns, "[m]ore than any other thing, humor returned" (95). For Freud, "[a] joke says what it has to say, not always in few words, but in too few words--that is, in words that are insufficient by strict logic" (Jokes 11). The novel often runs short on linear logic. (8) There is too little, for example, told to the reader about whether Sula sees her grandmother kill her uncle.
An example of missing information emerges right after Sula jokes that everyone loves/wants a black man (104). The punch line that Sula supplies Nel and Jude after she left them laughing about Jude's/black men's predicament (everyone envies/desires black men) is lost on them. That small space dividing the narrative between Sula's speech and Nel's reflection on Sula's act (ellipsis or dots mark it as inarticulate) is an odd space lacking syntax, an unspeakable moment wherein Sula performs what she said. Sula's speech becomes what Lacan would call full speech (Seminar III 36-37), for she collapses Nel and Jude's relation as subjects to her joke. "Full speech, essential, committed speech, is based on," Lacan says, the idea that "the subject receives his message form the other in an inverted form" (36). Sula's inverts Jude's complaint into laughter, and then their laughter to suffering, making them live out their subjugation to the discourse of Jude's symptom (his misery at being detested/loved).
As toxic as is denigration, Sula regards its opposite, value, with as much suspicion. With Jude's value comes envy, hatred and fear (103). To be sure, worth always leads to grasping, as Sula's sex with Jude shows Nel first-hand. Sula has insight, foresight, hindsight, and no sight, stemming, like the changing rose/tadpole/ash over her eye, from her own willingness to investigate herself. (9) She simply can t offer her insight in a mediated form. She is without, as Hortense Spillers says, "a discursive/imaginative project ... some object-subject relationship which establishes identity in time and space" (96). Sula resides outside the symbolic order, the order to which the subject must accede for participation in the dominant society. As Spillers indicates, this position leaves her an outsider ("A Hateful"). Sula is capable of revealing the disjointed nature of others' vain attempts to construct a self, their fragile syntax of their story lines, their egos, the thing holding them together as subjects.
But Sula is not simply a momentary "representation of the opposite" (Jokes 215), a spontaneous inspiration to the listener to forgive the inversion and enjoy the contradictory nature of existence. A character without ego, Sula remains a nonsubject, and therefore nonsubjugated. Though Sula's act seems cruel, Sula views her behavior nonchalantly; she didn't try to "take" Jude, so there is no harm done there. She notes that she had space to fill (144), but the act was not a part of a story of self (no romantic interest, no envy, no longing). Clearly Sula does not compete (95), unlike Nel, whose wedding signals a showy and conspicuous event at which Nel and Jude are "stars" (85). Sula knows that women's lives are narrow, clinging as they do to their "jobs" and their men in an attempt to stave off the perplexing nature of existence. Trudier Harris calls this unpredictability an almost unbearable knowledge (60).
For their part, the town's lethargic embrace of consistent "good" behavior is undermined by Sula, who seems to lack effort or dignity to shape her self to their standards. Those standards reflect Nel's own grey ball, formed when things are seemingly perfect between her and Jude. That Sula's return restores juicier gossip, more motherly mothers, more caring neighbors, is not inconsistent. Sula is called various names consistent with instinctual, egoless, creatures: "roach,.... bitch," etc. Morrison is known for advancing such characters, such as Maginot Line and the whores in The Bluest Eye (1070); Junior in Love (2003); Gigi in Paradise (1997); the women being shipped to the U. S. in A Mercy (2008).
Sula's encounter with Ajax, however, moves beyond mere oppositional behavior. Without ego, Sula fails to emerge in the same place at the same time. Sula would be more believable if she consistently rejected permanent bonds with men--her upbringing supports such "man-izing" behavior. Struggling for coherence and meaning, readers expect her character to match Ajax. Sula, however, circumvents this characterization by eventually attaching to this one man who seems wholly invested in detachment himself. His ego sits firmly in place. Sula's does not. Her lack of ego is precisely why she remains free enough to eventually attach to one single man. Although it seems odd that one of Sula's final experiences would be the very experience she inflicted on her best friend (being abandoned by a man), it makes sense considering that egolessness holds no attachment, not even to detachment itself.
Accordingly, Sula attaches to Ajax after establishing herself as a character without nesting qualities. "The Ajax incident simply cannot be made to cohere with the presentation of Sula's character in the rest of the text" (Dubey 74). This is where the joke strengthens. Jokes can work as moments of permeability between binary opposites. Sula thwarts the assumption of character development because she works more like a joke, sustaining opposites and displaying those opposites as inherent in one another. It is humorous when the free-love-loving Ajax runs away the very moment he detects Sula's nesting. (10)
Sula, without ego, sits with this loss rather than seeks to escape it or cover it up. In other words, she does not try to suture the event into a version of self, as does Nel by blaming Sula and refusing to look at the "gray ball". As Barbara Hill Rigney writes, "[m]uch more significant for Sula than Ajax's presence is his absence" (24), which Sula investigates with pure attentiveness. Jill Matus calls it "detachment and distance [that] make her in many ways shockingly evil" (60). Sula seems bemused with her own conditions, however, rather than evil.
Consider when Sula cuts off her fingertip. Though Sula's act seems bizarre to the Nel, the boys, and the reader, it does hold validity as an effort to unravel the ego of the victimizer. She threatened the boys with what she could do to herself, an unusual willingness to dispense with her "self." She did not do anything to them except undermine their ego, their fabricated sense of self based on targeting "lesser" identity groups. Blacks are easy targets for white immigrants, since social order and law refuse to take their claims seriously. Females are easy targets for men for the same reason, but to varying degrees. It was on this basis that the girls became potential victims of defilement. The boys saw both individuals and group members. The threat worked off of the two properties: "girls" who had been trained to see themselves as selves, and especially as objects of worth (female), and blacks, worthlessness and available things (objects of refuse). Girls are certainly not supposed to be agents, and blacks are certainly not supposed to agree to their dispensability. But Sula does both. She acts on the premise that she can dispense with herself voluntarily. Buoyed by her interpretation of Nel, Sula voids the social contract, a very unusual take on domination.
Sula is not the opposite of goodness; she is a deep contemplation of each position. After the finger-cutting incident, Sula "let her emotions dictate her behavior" (141). She "sure did live in this world" (143). Sula's "peace" is not a floating spiritual state whereby she experiences freedom from ego. Rather, Sula experiences everything fully and courageously, without looking away from loss and the humor that accompanies it. Cutting off one's own fingertip is certainly an unnerving way to fend off an attacker. Sula's reasoning seems apparent (to scare off the boys), but her motive doesn't surface until later--she was imitating Nel's control (ego). The narrator relays Sula's thinking: "[w]hen Sula imitated [Nell, or tried to, those long years ago, it always ended up in some action noteworthy not for its coolness but mostly for its being bizarre. The one time she tried to protect Nel, she had cut off her own fingertip and earned not Nel's gratitude but her disgust" (141; emphasis added).
When an adult Nel and Sula have a discussion about putting Eva in a rest home, the narrator again relays Nel's thinking: "when it came to matters of grave importance, [Sula] behaved emotionally and irresponsibly.... Like that time with her finger. Whatever those hunkies did, it wouldn't have been as bad as what she did to herself. But Sula was so scared she had mutilated herself, to protect herself" (101; emphasis added). At worst, Nel's thought is questionable; those boys could have done much worse to the girls than Sula does to herself. At best, Nel's thought indicates a thin understanding of Sula, for Sula's motive is precisely not her "self," but Nel. Nel's thought also displays a preference on her part to be acted upon, rather than agent. She will repeat this pattern with Chicken Little's death and Jude's loss. Especially in the scene between Sula and Jude, Nel'S ego structure mirrors her mother's. When she sees Jude and Sula, she'll smile as her mother does when Jude looks at her like the soldiers looked at her mother (119). Readers are tricked in this respect, for both Nel and the narrator will misrecognize Sula due to the strength of ego-work.
Readers are duped into siding with Nel's socially acceptable move to mature and marry while rejecting Sula, because Sula remains alone and without the socially prescribed "job" (119) for women. Sula, however, does not recognize herself as different from Nel and further believes she is imitating Nel. Reflected from Sula's point of view, Nel has a firmness, an ego-strength. The character Stria seems bizarre, because Nel and the reader agree to notions of good and bad. Nel provides a familiar structure. To follow Nel is to follow the ego habit: craving a solid pattern, a feeling of connectedness. Sula craves it too, which is why the two become friends. Ego is not a condemnation, just something to watch.
The narration, however, assists in casting Sula as emotionally scattered: "Nel seemed stronger and more consistent than Sula, who could hardly be counted on to sustain any emotion for more than three minutes" (53). Nel's casting Sula as scatterbrained determines yet another aspect of Sula's egoless nature. Sula's emotional nature actually reflects openness and fluidity, contrasting with Nel's neurotic repression and her repeated attempt to order and regulate her life. As Patricia McKee observes, Sula "does not attempt to repair or reform things that break or exercise any other control over them; she lets things go" (47).
This "main character" challenges ego for psychoanalysis because she disrupts the very foundation of the Western dilemma that gives rise to psychoanalysis: the individual. Psychoanalytical readings often proffer a developmental model of Sula, regarding her singly or individually, and as shaped by her childhood trauma rather than by a deep meditation on a black experience. Psychoanalytic readings reduce the novel to stage-development or sift out one part of the text, say, anal imagery (the Bottom as the town's name or Plum's outhouse scenario). Several psychoanalytical readings of Sula seem unable or unwilling to assess the novel's challenge to psychoanalysis' formulaic regulations, as Hortense Spillers challenges by way of her critique of psychoanalysis.
Formative readings of Sula veer away from the novel's inconsistencies for the sake of finding psychoanalytic unity. For example, Ashraf Rushdy's psychoanalytical reading argues that Sula's primal scene is the death of Chicken Little--the scene in which both girls dig a hole, bury trash in it, play with Chicken, and accidentally kill him. To be sure, Chicken Little's death is a crucial moment for Nel and Sula's friendship. (11) But neither the moment of bonding, nor their parity growing up, creates the novel's core. Sula is the vortex. Privileging the shared memory ignores the different moments of ego development, the different endings to their traumatic moments, and the way those moments lead the two girls to very different ways of existing in the world. Bluntly stated by Jan Furman, "Sula is different from Nel" (25).
Sula's own "scene" distinguishes the two girls, which is vital for watching the novel work. There is an absence of narratological information regarding Sula's scene. After hearing her mother declare her dislike for her, which is almost simultaneous with hearing her mother's love for her, Sula sits in a confused state with dark thoughts and a sting in her eye until called out by Nel. Readers do not know the intensity of that sting or the length and depth of those dark thoughts. More important is Sula's resistance to solving that confused moment, versus Nel's reorganization of her trauma via her ego. This approach to emotional trouble distinguishes the two girls. Nel resorts to escape, self-protection, like Jude, Shadrack, and Bottom-dwellers. Sula never tries to escape, and therein lies the joke on Sula's reader. While attempting to enjoy a normal novel with character, plot, and moral in tow, we foil our own Lacanian moment. Morrison kicks us out after we get it--a Lacanian "short session," so to speak, with the ego.
What becomes clear is that psychoanalytic attempts to order the text becomes a credentialed disengagement from its inconsistencies and an insistence on placing a "master discourse" (Johnson, "Aesthetic" 8) atop the text's unseemliness. The primary similarity the girls share is that both Nel and Sula are equally human and therefore equally involved in the agonies of existence. The overarching difference remains that Nel attempts to organize her suffering into a schema of self, while Sula experiences her pain fully. Equalizing the two girls denies the central property of Sula. The text is named after Sula, the one whose very existence articulates the fault lines of ego.
Such readings often ignore the joke of the novel; readers are seduced into connecting the sparse information they are given and crafting a storyline like Nel's. Sula easily fills the script of malice, annoyance, or simple evil. Nel's demands prop up our own in the crafty trick the novel plays on the reader; Nel reflects the "thin" imagination human beings display in trying to achieve permanent happiness (Paradise 306). Nel is like many of us and like the Eight-Rocks from Paradise, always trying to do the right thing to get the right result. "Hell is change," she muses (Sula 108).
Though Rushdy chides critics for resisting the psychoanalyst primal-scene rubric--specifically Spillers, who points out that psychoanalysis is not universally equipped to deal with other literatures, Rushdy does fabricate a neat psychoanalytical understanding of the two girls wherein there exist differences and similarities that work to void ego structuration. (12) Actually, there are too many primal scenes for Sula in the novel, as Sula overdetermines the psychoanalysis model. The character presumably witnesses Eva's act of burning her uncle, Plum. She grows up regarding the lawless "manlove" of her mother for other women's men. Sula does overhear her mother admit dislike for her, but also love. She watches her mother burn. These instances provide less a psychoanalytic trajectory than a reflection of the reader's struggle to create a good story, to develop some proof of consistent development. Guided by a standard framework, psychoanalysis flavors criticism of Sula, imputing to the text the development of self/subject in transition to completeness. Karen Carmean finds Hannah's statement that she doesn't like Sula to "unwittingly seve[r] a significant bond with Sula" (36). Sula becomes a model exemplifying self-development towards wholeness rather than a displacement of ego. In this way, Sula eclipses Nel's enjoyment in Chicken's death. Sula's childhood seems "at least partly responsible for making her, even as a child, a person whose actions are sometimes outside the norm of usual human behavior" (House 190). Avoided is Sula's ego-work with our interest in death, our enjoyment of pain, our unusual behavior, our embodiment of contradictions.
In contradiction to Sula, psychoanalysis projects a linear formula of the text rather than a reading of its savoir. The boy Chicken slips from Sula's hands, but readers only have a brief and delayed image of how Sula reacts. Both girls expect him to surface and both girls stare at the water (61). Later, readers find out that Nel not only watches, but also enjoys. At the end of the novel, Nel's fabricated sense of self breaks open, revealing "bright space" that allows "memory [to seep] into it" (169). At Eva's prompting, Nel recalls that she watched and enjoyed as the boy Chicken drowned. "The good feeling [Nell had had when Chicken's hands slipped" (170) sounds remarkably similar to Sula's spectatorship of her mother's death. Death by fire, or death by water, merge and become simple pleasure. Nel and Sula, both intrigued by death, distinguish only as one represses where the other embraces. (13)
At this moment, Sula, by contrast, panics--a very human reaction. Nel reflects on the Chicken incident at the end of the novel: "All these years [Nell had been secretly proud of her calm, controlled behavior when Sula was uncontrollable, her compassion for Sula's frightened and shamed eyes" (170). Sula's response almost slipped by unnoticed. The key here is that while the two girls bond over the death, they react differently to it.
The girl thought to be good turns out to be frighteningly sadistic. The girl thought to be bad turns out to be quite humane. Alongside Nel's enjoyment sits Sula's troubled feelings. Regardless of the reason, Sula has been crying before Shadrack sees her, and she is visibly upset in his house (156). She also cries during the funeral service (65). Nel displays no such emotion; her only concern is rather that she not be caught or blamed (65). At the end of the novel, readers find that Sula disclosed the Chicken incident to Eva, perhaps out of remorse. Nel, meanwhile, tells no one. Perhaps Nel has killed Chicken. She was watching, not panicked, and surely might have jumped in to save him. Nel could have done something if Sula was paralyzed with fear or panicking. Nel seems quietly contained within her self, while Sula talks to cure.
Death, simultaneously normal and abnormal, remains oddly cloaked and exposed, revealing our investment and enjoyment. Some death events are highly visible, like Hannah's, and some are hidden, like Chicken's. There is tittle question that Sula and Nel enjoy death. Yet in Freudian terms, who doesn't? "Their shameless pleasure in watching the harming of others" (Bouson 72) is a common fascination according to Freudian thought. Taking an interest in death is no surprise in psychoanalytical inquiry (Beyond the Pleasure Principle 46-47). Interest in parental death remains even less remarkable in dream work (Sula's interest as her mother burns and her desire to see her mother keep running and jerking seems both nightmarish and humorous). True to form, Sula takes interest in her own death. Sula's own death is observable to herself and the reader. Harris notes that "[s]he has not whined or complained loudly about life, and she refuses to complain about death or the manner in which she is dying" (79). More than that, Sula is interested. She observes her own death with marked attentiveness because she has no ego to protect.
On her deathbed, Sula observes that her armpits and breath will smell the same, that her urine will flow the same way, and that her hair will grow from the same holes (147). Sula regards with equanimity the revolting and attractive nature of her body. Her recognition that all words and smiles, tears and gags are "just something to do" (147) illustrates her awareness of the essentially similar nature of all experience.
It is not simple memory of primal scenes that challenges ego. Sula's awareness sharpens the gaps in Nel's storyline. The text works over ego--the ego that demands a consistent and a consistent plot. For example, Barabara Johnson observes that Sula grows up in part outside of the town and outside of the narrative. No one knows Sula's "dark thoughts" after she flies up those stairs or her reaction directly after Chicken's slip. Readers don't witness Sula's tears in front of Shadrack until he recalls her face. Such ignorance, sparked by moments of brutal insight, proves most rich not simply because the text works according to memory, which it does in some cases and doesn't in other cases, but because Sula exposes the faulty ego-work that attempts to stitch tight the text that thrives on the unsafe, the vulnerable.
Ignorance works as craftily as does intelligence. Knowledge and information serves the master: ego. Especially aware of ego, Lacan foiled psychoanalysis' penchant for formula:
Indeed the analyst cannot follow this path unless he recognizes in his own knowledge the symptom of his own ignorance, in the properly analytic sense that the symptom is the return of the repressed in a compromise [formation] and that repression, here as elsewhere, constitutes the censorship of truth. Ignorance must not, in fact, be understood here as an absence of knowledge, but, just as much of love and hate, as a passion for being--for it can, like them, be a bath by which being forms. (Ecrits 297)
Lacan's thinking disrupts efforts to secure a firm black psyche for analysis so that psychoanalysis can prove itself as "universal." Lacan speaks of the analyst's demand (a solid motivation that can be answered), which needs managing as much as does a patient's ego for the sake of bringing out the analyst's desire (a fluid effort that enables the patient's unconscious to speak). In other words, resisting the seduction of expertise, the analyst must destabilize her own ego.
Lacan's "ignorance" functions as a savior, reflecting Sula's most informative parts. Psychoanalysis' ultimate strength resides in its attention to elisions, gaps, slips, and silences--precisely that which is lost when a schema is forced upon the text: thus Freud's irritating repetition of the patient's words or Lacan's short sessions with patients. In its incarnations, psychoanalysis remains discipline-based, steeped in Western epistemology, claiming its own expertise at the expense of other epistemologies (especially those of minority populations, who seem visible only as problems). In his use of ignorance, which seems less an abhorrence than a place of potential, the therapist (and theorist/reader) is warned of taking their roles too seriously. Lacan suggests a space wherein a switch becomes possible, an exchange of analysand and analyst.
Black experience potentially assists textually where dominant psychoanalytic ideals cannot bear to go. Watching Sula requires watching desire. Sula thwarts the reader's demand (ego) and resists being read as a quest for selfhood (Reddy 36), or as having "egocentric forcefulness and disregard for social expectations" (Grant 97). Sula is much better understood as a text that can instruct and inform psychoanalysis out of its standardized Western experience. This is not to suggest that there are no parallels between psychoanalytical form and this black literary experience. But the joke that Nel ends up largely where Sula does--alone--is not a matter of traumatic moments, similar or different. Rather, the arrival at the same life predicament for Sula and Nel sets up a joke wherein opposites interchange. For all of Nel's apparently normal nature, her character proves a bit loathsome. And for all of her contemptible behavior, Sula seems delightfully honest. Being normal and abnormal, both suffer, end up alone, and enjoy death. Both love and miss each other. The punch line is that they experience the same things, whether they cover life up with ego strategies or confront life like an analysand.
"Sula was distinctly different ... she lived out her days exploring her own thoughts and emotions, giving them full reign, feeling no obligation to please anybody unless their pleasure pleased her. As willing to feel pain as to give pain, to feel pleasure as to give pleasure, hers was an experimental life" (118). While Nel does not know what to do with her grief ("What am I supposed to do with these old thighs now" ), Sula does: "It was as though for the first time she was completely alone where she had always wanted to be--free of the possibility of distraction" (148). On her deathbed, she turns toward the boarded-up window that Eva jumped out of, the same boarded-up window she stared at while waiting for Ajax to finish bathing and come to her. Pleasure and pain, death and sex--all become her self-study. As she lies there like an analysand, she attends the unfolding of all experience.
Sula's way does not give her an exceptional life. Oddly, then, Sula is often regarded as punished. She "lives and dies in isolation" (Grewal 47), and is condemned to "[die] as she lived--alone" (Carmean 43). This isolation is a human condition, not a punishment. Nel's ego-struggle brings her exactly the same experience. Sula unflinchingly rejects human-centered loneliness and instead engages with the predicament of existence itself. Post-coitus, Sula weeps not for people, but for suffering or the loss 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). Her sense of loss resides not with human longing, the syntax of "me." Sula does not identify with Nel's ego "drama," for her eyes flutter with sleepy boredom when Nel questions her motive for having sex with Jude (144). Rather, her sense of loneliness resides with that "thing," or loss itself. Here enters Lacan's real, the place from which Sula makes the reader an offer.
Sula cries for the ring, the shoe, the food, and the photo. The things are loss rather than lost--for they are things out of their signifying chain, they are things out of syntax. It is not for whom she mourns. To whom these things once belonged remains unimportant. Instead she mourns the things removed from the order of time, removed from speech. For "in the center of that [post-coitus] silence was not eternity but the death of time and a loneliness so profound the word itself had no meaning" (123). These things no longer possess the attributes of time. Lacan says of the signified that "[t]he concept is the time of the thing" (SI 243). In another lecture deriding scientific standards for psychoanalysis, Lacan mused, "[i]f this planet doesn't speak, it is not only because it is real, but because it doesn't have the time, in the literal sense--it doesn't have this dimension" (S.II 241). Lacan emphasizes that speech depends upon time as order, a dimension that marks the Western experience. In Lacanian terms, for a word to have meaning, something must be lacking. The "thing" referenced cannot occupy the same space--it must be missing. What commences Lacan's signifying chain is the rupture of time and space--the missing thing. Less important than what Sula mourns is that she mourns fully. She mourns for things without a place in either time or space. The cooked and ready to eat (cf. Claude Levi-Strauss's The Raw and The Cooked), the shoe removed from its pair, the plant killed by too much of its own environment, or a picture of someone she doesn't know, are all things divorced from the state of being missed.
To read Sula's predicament as "punishment" misses the commonality she holds with everyone. So Sula dies alone. Is there another way to die? The contentious force resisting human isolation rests with the ego, striving to make time, to making up stories, to coat and disguise the inherent alienation speaking through our birth in the language of loss. Nel's narrative (her ego), the storyline she adapts, suggests that worship, procreation, community service--a.k.a, being "good"--can alleviate or stave off this loss. But here, the novel encourages readers to identify with this side, and then proves that the opposing perspective is oddly equitable. Aligning with one who is good or one who is bad denies the interconnectivity of both positions (as Morrison pursues via Christine and Heed in Love ). Still, Sula remains the center of the novel--the novel is entitled Sula, not Sula and Nel. Sula is the punch line, but Nel is the setup. To miss this point is to miss the joke.
Nel is the setup to Sula's punch line because her primal scene serves as the norm according to developmental standards. To be sure, Nel's primal scene closes when she scrapes together her remains after witnessing her mother's "custard" confrontation with a white train conductor and the black soldier's disapproving glance. There is little wonder that she eventually agrees to be seen "singly" by Jude (hence marriage). Nel develops as the prototypical individual. Nel's development, strikingly linear, leads her to look into the mirror and ask Jesus to make her wonderful (Sula 29) after her mother becomes "custard," or is annihilated as a firm figure. She reconstructs her self before a mirror, relying on Jesus, the ultimate paternal symbol, to confirm upon herself a limitless, imaginary consistency, a law that shores up her looseness after she has just witnessed the unraveling of her mother. Nel's mirror scene drains her experience (in addition to her mother's dissolution, she is commanded to never speak Creole and never speak of her grandmother) into the paternal symbol that can grant her relief from her lack (she is not wonderful). Nel embraces the (white) phallus.
Nel's scene occurs after returning from the licentious New Orleans, the courtesan grandmother Birdie, and perhaps most importantly, a mother's demand that she not speak Creole. In fact, Nel remarks that the trip to Louisiana leaves her at a loss for words. The soldier's disapproving, "marbled" eyes act as a bar, canceling her mother's demands on her and calling into question her power. Nel successfully integrates this fearful experience into a firm, neurotic identity. She will continue along this trajectory by investing in lawful things--marriage, children, worship, and community service (all, not coincidentally, heterosexist). This is not a condemnation of Nel. As noted above, this "me-ness" attracts Sula and gives Nel the power to befriend Sula against her mother's disdain for dark skin and loose women (for Eva and kin are "sooty" to Helene--indicating African American color hierarchy and class prejudice) (29).
For instance, marriage feeds Nel's individuality. For Sula, Nel's wedding is just another thing to do. At the end of the wedding day, the narrative relays that Sula is amused and smiling (85), as if marriage is a light joke. Sula laughs after the wedding, once the marriage commences. However, she was never flippant about the wedding itself: "Sula was no less excited about the wedding. She thought it was the perfect thing to do following their graduation from general school. She wanted to be the bridesmaid" (84). Marriage is not the perfect thing for Sula, for she goes to college. The distinction becomes clearer: the wedding is something worth doing, but marriage is that "Freudian thing." For Sula, marriage is not a life "sentence." She regards marriage as a joke, a sentence that subverts its own syntax. Meanwhile, for Nel, the wedding commences a marriage that firms up her ego, a sentence that utters her identity completion. Sula departs on this punch line while Nel becomes, says Robert Sargent, "afraid of being alive" (Faith 234), since the ego demands constant protection from change. Jane S. Bakerman writes that "Nel is a tool for Jude's ego" ("Failures" 552). Equally, then, Jude is a prop for Nel's ego: "And greater than [Nel's] friendship [with Sula] was this new feeling of being needed by someone who saw her singly" (84; emphasis added).
Nel's first opportunity surfaces when her marriage ends. Nel might have used her broken marriage as a moment to investigate ego: being regarded singly by Jude and needed by her children. Instead the moment passes: "Nel waited. Waited for the oldest cry. A scream not for others ... but a deeply personal cry for one's own pain. A loud, strident 'Why me?' She waited. The mud shifted, the leaves stirred, the smell of overripe green things enveloped her and announced the beginnings of her very own howl. But it did not come" (108). The why me potentially interrogates her constructed self. When together, Nel and Sula see with one eye the mirage of ego, for they "knew that those women were not jealous of other women; that they were only afraid of losing their jobs. Afraid that their husbands would discover that no uniqueness lay between their legs" (Sula 119).
Nel keeps her ego intact and fits Sula into an appropriate role. Tellingly, Nel confronts Sula about Jude only to reveal her own dependence on her idea of herself: "What about me? Why didn't you think about me? Didn't I count?" (144; emphasis added). Sula, it seems, "destroys her best friend's illusion of domestic happiness" (Heinze 79). But this "illusion" is revealed earlier as a grey web around her heart, a web that forms before Sula returns to town (95).
After Sula has sex with Jude and Jude leaves Nel, Nel recalls Sula's words: "doing anything forever and ever [is] hell" (108). Then she reflects, "Hell ain't things lasting forever. Hell is change" (108). Exactly. Nel's revision reflects her ego-work, all ego-work: staving off change, staving off annihilation. She continues, "Not only did men leave and children grow up and die, but even the misery didn't last. One day she wouldn't even have that. This very grief that had twisted her into a curve on the floor and flayed her would be gone. She would lose that too" (108). Marriage and family, the flagship of Nel's identity, supposedly guards against loss and loneliness. Here, however, Nel confronts the loss of these institutions and the loss of that loss, proving the flimsy nature of any ego identity, even that of victimhood. Neither preeminent institutions that supposedly mark maturity, propriety, value and the future, nor their loss, can prevent ego annihilation, which is one's own death.
Chief among the novel's targets for humor is that heterosexual syntax upholding ego. Heterosexuality structures the foundation of Nel's ego, and Nel's investment in heterosexual norms gives her stock in Jude, homemaking, and children. Barbara Smith's "Toward a Black Feminist Criticism" underscores the girls' homosymbolic challenge to Nel's conformity. Yet Smith's essay is called "wishful reading" by Patrick Bryce Bjork (69) or is refuted in ways that vaguely gesture towards Morrison as homophobic: "Morrison perhaps discovered the kind of book she could not write, at least not if she wanted to avoid being identified by certain feminist critics as a lesbian author, an identification that may have seemed ... detrimental to her aspiration to speak broadly for African American experience" (Duvall 68-69). Even more vaguely hinted at here is the suggestion that a presumably monolithic black "experience" exists, and is homophobic, a supposition to say the very least. More accurate and specific to the text, Madhu Dubey observes that "Heterosexualty in the novel is insistently associated not just with loss, but with death" (72), truly a jest considering that heterosexuality is often propagated as the "natural" solution to mortality.
Houston A. Baker's essay, "When Lindbergh Sleeps with Bessie Smith: The Writing of Place in Sula," remains one of the most curious denials of this anxiety. Focusing on "place," Baker is at pains to refute Smith. Baker underscores Sula's most humorous derision of Nel's heterosexual victimhood--Nel's claim that Sula should have avoided Jude and therefore no one could/will love Sula. Baker argues that Sula's absurd response, "[W]hen Lindbergh makes it with Bessie Smith," supports a heterosexual venue by highlighting exacerbated heterosexual imagery. However, Sula berates heterosexual order by heightening heterosexuality as absurd, not by staging its importance. I further contest that the lines following Sula's joke about Smith and Lindbergh undermine heterosexuality. After concluding that other people will have love left over for her--presumably because she will be the least freakish occurrence--she closes her speech to Nel with the comment that she will know exactly what that love will feel like. She then privately recalls a moment of wind pressing the skirt between her legs as she runs up the bank of a river, to "four leaf locked trees and the digging of holes" (146). It is supposition, but the proximity of Sula's joke to her mind's reflection suggests that love will feel like her time with Nel, when they dug the hole together. This moment in Sula becomes important because their "same sex" friendship forecloses laws of patriarchal kinship, the paternal language that systematically speaks woman's place.
Heterosexuality offers no more hope for solving lack than does homosexuality. Sula and Nel function as homosexuals on a symbolic level to undercut the "rewards" of heterosexual syntax. Homosexual threads throughout the text reveal the craven heterosexual strata that Lacan explored. Reading the homosexual threads of the text confronts these anxieties.
Only Eva's insight drives Nel out of her mind, out of her ego-driven storyline and into her gut, where resides her love and sorrow for Sula. Nel's final cry, cited often enough, is described by the narrator as "fine" (174). Fine--something made up of small or tiny particles, better than average, showing special intricacy or detail, with impurities removed, or--as regards black vernacular--something approvable, marks the moment as Nel's best. The moment is also the best no-thing readers inherit. It is not even Nel's anymore: the loss is ours. Her loss becomes ours because the text is over before we can feel complete. In Keith Byerman's words, "Nel achieves her true humanity by giving her emptiness its rightful name. This name makes possible insight ... it offers not domination but a working through to the truth of experience" (Bloom 70). If so, the moment sorrow is articulated, the narrative stops "talking." If the cure can no longer be spoken, then the experience is one of pure loss.
If, for other cultures, the Oedipus complex is a thin joke, then this something is that the arrival of the racial/third-world/subaltern/marginalized text to wide regard has not been able to make a case for in light of the egotistic-psychoanalytic approach. In this way, psychoanalysis can be accused of not listening, of not being silent long enough to register what might have been unsaid. While sorrow remains politely repressed in Western society, Sula alters the place for loss, finding an appetite for its free expression in uproarious laughter at its ironic disguise in pleasure. How can people be on the bottom and the top at once? Bottom-dwellers feel too "high" to try to get rid of loss or evil (90). They may trifle with sorrow (4), but they never try to destroy it. The one moment they do, they destroy themselves, which is the joke of National Suicide Day. The day they celebrate in an attempt to control death, to destroy the tunnel, is the day the Bottom, and "top," shift.
That much of the neighborhood perishes in the tunnel is not necessarily a condemnation, but yet another manifestation of change.
Sula and Nel relay no huge tragedy or racial formula. Sula is a small, private moment between two women and their community. Perhaps this moment is what makes it possible for psychoanalysis to learn from the small, poor, black person who rejects "therapy," the one who is always at the bottom and the top. Most important, Sula awakens Western epistemology from its nightmare of blackness, always dreaming that the African diaspora is a problem to be solved--in need of benevolence instead of an insight into the human condition.
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(1.) Spillers complicates psychoanalysis in chapter 3 of Black, White, and in Color. See also Bouson's discussion of shame in Sula, in which Bouson cites Morrison's description of the novel as a broken mirror. According to Lacan, all Westerners are "broken mirrors" (Ecrits 565), so to speak, covering up distorted egos (which occurs within the standard of normal development).
(2.) Without implementing an overt framework, Novak discusses psychoanalytical principles at work in Sula, but pathologizes blackness by focusing on oppression (via melancholy) within the text. In some ways, Novak's essay honors African American specificity by refraining from imposing a psychoanalytical framework on the novel. But Novak does not pursue Sula's humor, just melancholia, and in the process indicts the text to address all of the social ills dumped onto black communities.
(3.) Novak, McDowell, and Johnson all underscore loss in Sula and conclude, in Johnson's words, that Morrison's text "runs--indeed courts--the risk of transforming horror into pleasure, violence into beauty" (Feminist Difference 86).
(4.) Although the cleaning product was invented in the 1940s and the character emerges in the 1920s, the name of the character could still be read as a joke with respect to the cleanser.
(5.) Lacan lectures: "One day perhaps I will give you a lecture on what we gain in this respect from the myths of primitive peoples--I wouldn't say inferior, because they aren't inferior, they know much more than we do" (S.I 86). In a later lecture in the same seminar, Lacan notes that "the Oedipus complex is so essential to the very dimension of the analytic experience that its pre-eminence is revealed right from the start of Freud's work and is sustained right up to its end. That is because the Oedipus complex occupies a privileged position, in the present state of Western civilization" (S.I 198).
(6.) According to Hughes and Malone, "savior" describes the "singular experience that comes out of the clinic," though I would prefer to think that the concept translates at some level to a text as it works through ego. In this case, "savior" indicates knowledge that is "irreducible" to the level of information, and concerns the individual's particular relation to jouissance (31).
(7.) Boswell's analysis of a selection from Sula provides an astute reading of the ways in which Lacanian psychoanalysis can be read as racially informative and applicable to black text. Nonetheless, her essay is reductive of the novel (and Boswell is clear about selecting from the novel) for the purposes of tapping into psychoanalysis as "engaged" (132) with problems of the marginal/subaltern/target identity, or the oppressed. Similarly, Stockton's article serves as an example of how psychoanalysis has to posit blackness in permanent spots to analyze and even critique Freud. Stockton herself reduces Morrison's setting as the "1940s--a period before blacks could even dream (Martin Luther King-style) of entering an era of corporate positions and suburban lifestyles" (96), a way of pathologizing nonassimilated black experience. Such presumptions erase the strong black middle class that Morrison constantly addresses in The Bluest Eye, Tar Baby, Song of Solomon, and other works. As such, psychoanalysis seems to need to firm up a conception of blackness in order to maintain a fixation (anal in these cases)--a poor and denigrated group--key to illustrating the ways in which it can be useful outside its usual audience. Many of these discussions end up reducing the text to an imaginary spot for black people.
(8.) McDowell regards these gaps as opposing a single, unified image of the black "SELF" (161), and that the gaps may allow for reader participation (160). McDowell argues that the novel rejects individualist notions of identity in favor of inter-related notions of self--a trait common to African American communities bonded together by racial oppression. The "self" remains faulty considering that Stria eventually loses-if not gives away--her self. Bergenholtz finds a similar subversion of dichotomies by way of satire: "Morrison provides no answers; her goal, like that of many a satirist, is to provoke thought" (97).
(9.) "Misery and the ability to feel deep sorrow" (122) are the experiences Sula seeks. Such experiences are usually avoided, as loss indicates or threatens the annihilation of self.
(10.) Christian-thematic readings of Sula often fabricate a morality, a consistency, for Sula. Jones remarks that for Sula, "This sense of her permanence, or her immortality is Sula's true mark," and "[t]he sense of her own permanence also takes away from her two essential things: fear and compassion" (622). Hunt finds biblical parables the "primary component of [Morrison's] language" (446) and that "the dead remain with the living always, like Sula's 'sleep of water always' " (456). Hunt's "Africanized Christianity" ends with ego in the form of hope: "Sula's 'sleep of water always' (149), and this presence and this yearning inscribes beauty, inscribes hope--inscribes a most significant and subversive empowerment" (456). Lewis's discussion of African spiritual traditions also arrives at a kind of happy ending: "Sula, as a spirit and daughter of the gods is not literally dead and Shadrack, a special son of the gods, will eventually join her in the ancestral world" (95).
(11.) Readers "see" that terror widens Sula's nostrils when the Chicken incident happens on page 61, but they don't see until page 170 the conversation between Nel and Sula, where Sula thinks they should tell and Nel directs Sula away from that impulse.
(12.) See chapter 3 in Spillers for Sula's lack of fitness for any normalized categories of the black female character type (96) and also how psychoanalysis may not fit the landscape of different psyches in chapter 15.
(13.) The two girls seem to dovetail as they are both "[d]aughters of distant mothers"--Hannah is involved in her own sexual gratification, a seemingly "lower-class looseness," and Helene seems tightly constrained within the trappings of middle-class life. Both are daughters of incomprehensible fathers: "Sula's because he was dead; Nel's because he wasn't" (52). Still, Nel and Sula are as obverse to each other as are their parents. See Cedric Gael Bryant, "The Orderliness of Disorder: Madness and Evil in Toni Morrison's Sula," Black American Literature Forum 24.4 (Winter 1990), 739.
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|Author:||Henton, Jennifer E.|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2012|
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