The named and the nameless: Morrison's 124 and Naylor's "the other place" as semiotic chorae.
All Willow Springs knows that this woman was nobody's slave. But what was her name?--Gloria Naylor, Mama Day (280)
Naming is an act of creation. The named--whether person, place, or object--is identified or marked by the namer as distinctive, unique, the occupant of a discrete space in the universe. To name is also to claim dominion: naming children, slaves, domestic animals, or real estate is an announcement of figurative, if not literal, ownership of the named, as well as an indication of the namer's relationship to or sentiments about the named. Castles, estates, plantations, and mansions are often named, but ordinary houses are usually unnamed, identified simply by occupant--"Lady Jones's house," "Ambush and Bernice's." If a named house is unusual, even more unusual is a woman without a name, particularly if she is part of a family and thus involved in domestic and communal relationships. Yet these odd constructs are precisely what we find in Toni Morrison's Beloved and Gloria Naylor's Mama Day: a named house and a nameless woman. In these two neo-slave narratives, domestic space and patriarchal notions of domesticity are radically interrogated by the creation of a radical, magic-realist female discourse space.
No group in the United States has had as painful or as vexed a relationship with domesticity as African American women. The forced domestication they have suffered has been two-fold--as women and as people of color--and it has been persistent and pernicious. As house slaves and later, as hired domestics (one of the few types of employment available to black women until a full century after the Emancipation), African American women were required to fill the role of angel of someone else's house, cooking, cleaning, washing, sewing, nursing, and raising or even bearing the children of the master/employer. African American women, particularly those who were heads of households, could rarely afford to own a house, and they were frequently forced to neglect their own children while working for their masters or their employers (a pattern that persists even today). A domicile like Sweet Home in Beloved may have been idyllic to its white owners, but Paul D speaks for all of its black inhabitants and especially for Sethe, whose enforced domestic servitude severely inhibited her ability to mother her own children, when he reflects that Sweet Home "wasn't sweet and it sure wasn't home" (Morrison 15).
The "cult of true womanhood" that underwrote the American patriarchy in the nineteenth century (and whose effects, again, are still being felt today) created ideals virtually impossible for black women to attain. In the case of those in domestic service or servitude, success as a domestic in someone else's house doomed an African American woman to failure or, at best, to mere adequacy in her own domestic life, with consequent damage to her self-esteem and individuation. Thus Harriet Jacobs, who at tremendous personal cost and against nearly impossible odds escaped from slavery and eventually secured legal freedom both for herself and her two children, concludes Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl with, of all things, an apology for her failure to achieve the appurtenances of the domestic ideal: a husband and a home of her own, with her (legitimate) children at her hearth. Marilvn Chandler observes in Dwelling in the Text: Houses in American Fiction that American literature reflects "the project of American self-definition wherein house-building, and for women, housekeeping, have been recognized as a kind of autobiographical enterprise-a visible and concrete means of defining and articulating the self" (3). Because keeping someone else's house cannot ever be a truly autobiographical enterprise, African American women, particularly slave women, were denied an important avenue of identity-formation, of self-individuation.
Houses have long been viewed as representing the people who inhabit them, whose domestic space they constitute. That one's house--one's most intimate personal space, aside from one's body--is implicated in identity formation has been recognized by psychologists since the inception of the field of psychology, and by writers of literature for centuries before that. Carl Jung wrote that he built the "Tower," his house in Bollingen, Switzerland, "to achieve a kind of representation in stone of my innermost thoughts" (223). The Tower, he said in Memories, Dreams, Reflections, was for him "a maternal womb or a maternal figure in which I could become what I was, what I am and will be;" it was "thus a concretization of the individuation process" (225). Interestingly, Sigmund Freud speculated in his "Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis" that rooms symbolize women, not only because rooms have the womb-like property of enclosing human beings, but also because they are "the place assigned for [women's] occupation" (137). (Freud appears to be begging the question of the genesis of the "separate spheres" that underlie the cult of domesticity, but then, Chandler appears to be giving a similarly patriarchal reading when she specifies house-keeping as an autobiographical enterprise for women, thereby implying that house-building is not autobiographical for women and that housekeeping is not autobiographical for men.)
Identity formation necessitates an individual's creating a space for the self to occupy, or "defining a metaphorical space to speak from," in critic Margot Anne Kelley's words (xiii). For African American women, particularly those who, as slaves, had been denied agency in any physical or metaphorical space, including the space of their own bodies, individuation was therefore often difficult to achieve. Kelley speculates that "a persistent awareness of th[e] need to carve a niche, to make a space, may be one of the reasons that the novels of [...] black American women [...] routinely offer highly particular accounts of space--be they architectural spaces, geographical spaces, psychic spaces, or communal spaces" (xiii). In fact, the houses in African American women's literature are often palimpsests of all four kinds of space--architectural, geographic, psychic, and communal--and thus they are multilayered signifiers.
Commenting on the importance of house tropes to American literature, Chandler notes that "houses are [...] the stage on which the dramas of sexual politics and class warfare are played out" (6). For black women, of course, racial politics are also played out in and through houses. African American literature is replete with examples. In the autobiographical Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, for instance, Jacobs escapes from her sexually predatory slaveowner by hiding for seven years in an attic crawl-space in her grandmother's house. The Youngers in Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun aspire to live in a house of their own with a yard and a garden even if they have to desegregate a "white" neighborhood to do so. Morrison's The Bluest Eye contrasts the bleak storefront room in which the Breedloves live with at least five other domiciles, among them the run-down old house that the MacTeers work so hard and so proudly to own, the comfortable, happy suburban home with the white picket fence of the "Dick and Jane" basal readers, and the wealthy Fischer family's posh mansion where Pauline Breedlove finds fulfillment as a domestic. Naylor's Bailey's Cafe and Morrison's Paradise focus on controversial "women's" houses on the margins of an African American community: Eve's boardinghouse--or whorehouse--in Bailey's Cafe and the old convent occupied by "outcast" women a few miles from Ruby, Oklahoma, in Paradise. In these and many other American literary texts, "a house stands at stage center as a unifying symbolic structure that represents and defines the relationships of the central characters to one another, to themselves, and to the world" (Chandler 3).
124 Bluestone Road, in Toni Morrison's Beloved, and "the other place," in Gloria Naylor's Mama Day, provide precisely this kind of unifying symbolic structure. Though imbued with the mystery of the supernatural, the houses themselves are ordinary buildings, devoid of dungeons, turrets, secret staircases, or hidden rooms. The geography of these novels is not gothic but magical realist. As magic realist houses, 124 and the other place literally embody the otherworldly women who inhabit them, thus erasing the boundaries between the supernormal and the normal. These houses represent the African American feminine Other by re-presenting it, by giving textual (and architectural) voice to its silences, its ways of knowing and being, and its power. The space of women's discourse, including liminal or otherworldly discourse, is figured as domestic space in these novels.
The other place and 124 function as what Julia Kristeva calls in Revolution in Poetic Language the "semiotic chora," a pre-verbal, pre-Oedipal space of the mother, a discourse space that Plato, from whom Kristeva took the term chora, designates as an indeterminate, "unnameable" maternal receptacle (qtd. in Rivkin and Ryan 453-54; 46061, n5). Kristeva describes the chora in "Le Sujet en Proces" as "a womb or a nurse in which elements are without identity [i.e. nameless] and without reason" (qtd. in Oliver 46). As semiotic chorae inscribing African American women, 124 and the other place support Chandler's conclusion that houses in American fiction symbolize the relationships of characters to one another, to themselves, and to the world.
Despite the pivotal heterosexual romantic relationships in Beloved and Mama Day, the novels are essentially "mother/daughter plot[s]" (to borrow Marianne Hirsch's phrase) enacted in and through the houses. It is remarkable how many women in these two texts are heavily invested in maternality and how frequent are the references to physical maternal functions. All of the major female characters--Sethe, Denver, Beloved, Baby Suggs, Mama Day, Cocoa, Sapphira, Bernice, and Abigail--and most of the minor female characters, including Ella, Amy Denver, Ophelia (Mama Day's mother), Grace (Cocoa's mother), Reema, and Carmen Rae, are at some time during the course of the narrative either pregnant; attempting to become pregnant; involved in labor and delivery, either as mother, midwife, or infant; breastfeeding, either as mother or infant; or contemplating or discussing breastfeeding. A few of the women are involved in all of these maternal activities. For the women in these texts, subjectivity is closely tied to their relationship to the maternal body, whether that body is their own or another's.
Kristeva's observation (derived from the psychological theories of Melanie Klein) that "pre-Oedipal processes are organized through projection onto the mother's body" (qtd. in Rivkin & Ryan 462, n14) also applies in these novels to the male characters, for whom the relationship to the maternal body is a locus of particular concern. For example, George, abandoned as an infant by his mother, unconsciously displaces his pain, anger, and fear of abandonment onto his wife Cocoa by making passive-aggressive cracks about her small breasts every time someone asks him even the most innocuous question about his mother. Only once is George's unconscious defensive behavior less aggressive: in this instance, instead of lashing out at Cocoa, the normally outwardly unemotional George cries on Cocoa's breast after asking her to breastfeed the babies they hope to have. George's deeply-conflicted relationship to the feminine (or, as Klein would say, to the breast) leads him to enter the space(s) of the Mother--the other place and, later, the henhouse--with extreme reluctance, and with a rigidly rationalist mind closed to the nonrationalist "madness" (286) of the mother responsible for his presence in those spaces, Mama Day, whom he angrily disparages as a "crazy old woman" (296).
Gary Storhoff notes the significance of hens and especially eggs as "the text's dominant symbol of the anima" (172), the archetype of the feminine principle. "Throughout the novel," Storhoff observes, "Miranda has identified herself with eggs, while George has avoided them" (172). Amy Levin points out the close association between chickens and women in women's secret societies in Africa, where "the chicken [is] a woman's confidant and protector ... a women who sign of domesticity, of community" . George's fear of live chickens is an outward sign of his unrecognized but deep-seated fear of the feminine. To bring George to the point of acceding to her nonrationalist method of saving Cocoa, Miranda assigns him an appropriate test/quest: he must enter the maternal magic circle- the other place--of his own accord; he must then enter a more threatening maternal, domestic space--the henhouse--and search behind the nest of the fiercest setting hen; and finally, he must return, no matter how pecked and bloodied he is, to the other place to put into Miranda's hand whatever he has found behind the hen's nest. George's relationship to these maternal bodies is so conflicted that he insults and almost strikes the 90-year-old Mama Day and later clubs to death--by his own admission "like a madman" (301)--all the hens in the henhouse with first the walking stick and then the ledger that Miranda has given him as talismans.
The maternal body is also a locus of concern for the male characters in Beloved. Halle, the man who has bought his elderly mother's freedom with years of extra farm labor, loses his mind when he watches, powerless, as schoolteacher's nephews "rape" his wife Sethe of her breast milk. Howard and Buglar, Sethe's sons, are so terrified of the mother who gave them life and then tried to take that life away that they cast her in the role of witch, inventing deaths for her ("die-witch" stories) to separate themselves from the devouring maternal body until they can make the separation permanent by running away. Paul D, desperate to break Beloved's unwanted sexual hold over him, resolves to ask Sethe for help, but instead, he finds himself asking her to become pregnant and bear his child (129). It is evident that in both novels, relationships are largely negotiated through maternal bodies. At 124 and the other place, maternal law supercedes paternal law.
Not surprisingly, then, the two houses are sites of resistance to the patriarchal logos, particularly as it is voiced through that most patriarchal of institutions, slavery. 124 was originally owned and continues to be operated according to patriarchal law. The house belongs to Mr. Bodwin, a Cincinnati abolitionist who inherited the house from his father and who, with his sister, rents the house for a nominal fee to Baby Suggs and later to Sethe. When schoolteacher arrives from Sweet Home in 1855 to capture the escaped Sethe and her children and return them to slavery, the law of the land--the Fugitive Slave Act--gives him the legal right to enter 124 at will to seize, repossess, and remove "his property," even though 124 is owned by an abolitionist.
The only thing that stops schoolteacher is Sethe's horrific action of killing her year-old daughter and attempting to kill her other three children. By this desperate assertion of maternal ownership, Sethe seizes power from her enslaver. Schoolteacher recognizes the impossibility and the danger of re-enslaving a woman who would choose to kill her children and herself rather than have her children returned to slavery, and he voluntarily abandons his repossession effort, effectively freeing Sethe and the children. Schoolteacher nevertheless believes that he owns Sethe's children because he has a binding legal contract (the patriarchal logos) in the form of a bill of sale for Sethe, while Sethe knows that her children (and her milk) belong to her for a reason beyond the capacity of language to affirm or refute: she created them out of her own maternal body.
The other place in Mama Day was built expressly to fulfill patriarchal ambitions. In creating a plantation empire for himself on Willow Springs, Bascombe Wade built the other place as his plantation house. He may have built it expressly for Sapphira, whom Wade had apparently bought to be his "house" slave--his cook and concubine--and whom he loved deeply. In any case, the house was intended to domesticate and confine Sapphira, the object (in all senses of the word) of Wade's patriarchal affections. Sapphira refused objectification, though, insisting on her subjectivity in the teeth of slavery. Her body may have been Wade's legal property, but her mind was owned by no one but herself. As George intuits when he first sees the other place, "a slave hadn't lived in this house" (225), even though Sapphira was certainly enslaved there. After Wade's death in 1823--a death for which Sapphira is given full credit by the people of Willow Springs--Sapphira lived as a free woman in the other place with her sons until she, according to legend, flew back to Africa.
A century and a half later, when the events in the novel occur, the other place is "owned" entirely by women--Miranda, Abigail, and Cocoa (or, more accurately, by Cocoa's descendants)--and used by Miranda for "women's" purposes: growing food, herbs, and medicinal plants in the garden, making medicines, and performing women's magic (such as the secret ritual that results in Bernice's pregnancy). George's patriarchal logos--his "no" in refusing to trust Miranda's magic by refusing to complete his quest--results in his own death, just as Bascombe Wade's "no" in refusing to let Sapphira "go in peace" results in his death. However, the "no of the father"/law of the father, conferred through the symbolic order (language), is in the end less powerful in Mama Day and Beloved than the semiotic order, the pre-verbal, "unnameable" sign of the mother.
Significantly, the other place and 124 are both houses with names, while the otherworldly women the houses embody do not have names. In Mama Day, everyone on the island of Willow Springs knows the other place--its name, its location, the history of its ownership, its liminality--but no one knows the name of the powerful conjure woman who made the other place a "magic circle," not even Mama Day, her direct descendant. The reader is introduced to this conjure woman as "Sapphira Wade" in the first words of the text, but according to the communal narrator, that name is "never breathed out of a single mouth in Willow Springs" (4), for good reason: Sapphira, whom Miranda never calls "my great grandmother" but always "the great, grand, Mother" (48), exists only in the collective unconscious of the community. As the communal narrator says about Sapphira, "she don't live in the part of our memory we can use to form words" (4). In Kristevan terms, she is situated in the pre-verbal semiotic register, where communication is intuitive, wordless, and negotiated through the mother's body.
In fact, no one, not even the reader, ever knows Sapphira's real name. "Sapphira" is merely the slave name assigned by her captors; "Wade" is the surname of Bascombe Wade, the man who purchased her. As the bill of sale in the frontispiece of Mama Day states with unintentional accuracy, this is a woman "answering to the name Sapphira" (emphasis mine)--but answering to that name only when forced to do so by the conditions of chattel slavery, the intensely patriarchal institution that Sapphira resists with equal intensity. As Kimberly Benston points out, "the refusal to be named ... thrust[s] the self beyond received patterns and relationships into a stance of unchallenged authority" (153). The reader learns early in the prologue that although no one in Willow Springs knows Sapphira's name, everyone knows that it was she who in 1823 conjured away Bascombe Wade's patriarchal power at the other place, which thereupon became a sacred space of the Mother, the birthplace of the Willow Springs community. The other place is considered to be so imbued with Sapphira's spirit and so closely associated with Sapphira's--and Miranda's--powerful conjure that the people of Willow Springs keep a respectful, awed, even fearful distance from the house. Such is its reputation that if the other place needs repairs, as it does after the hurricane, Miranda must hire workers from the mainland who are unfamiliar with Willow Springs, for no one on the island is willing to risk working at "ground zero" of the supernatural.
Like the other place, 124 in Beloved is a house with a name. It is a house with feelings and moods as well, full of "venom" (3), "rage" (5), "fury" (5), and "grief" (9), acting by turns "spiteful" (3), "outrageous" (4), or "sad" (8), sounding by turns "loud" (169) or "quiet" (239). The person whose moods the house takes on, however, never had a name even when she was alive. Though Sethe's daughter was nearly a year old when she died, she was called "the baby" or the "crawling already? girl" both before and after her death, the only one of Sethe's four children whose name we do not know. The strange young woman who appears in the yard of 124 one day in August, 1873, says that her name is "Beloved," but she later casts doubt on the authenticity of "Beloved" as her actual name when she tells Denver that "in the dark my name is Beloved" (75) and that white men ("ghosts without skin") "said beloved in the dark and bitch in the light" (215).
Of course, "Beloved" also happens to be the one word Sethe could afford to have carved on the crawling already? girl's tombstone, thus forging a connection in Sethe's and Denver's minds between the dead child and the mysterious stranger, who they (and later others in the community) come to believe is the reincarnation of the dead child and thus the literal embodiment of the ghost that haunts 124. However, the word "Beloved" on the tombstone is not a name either; it is both an adjective describing Sethe's feelings about her child and the traditional salutation at a Christian funeral service (indeed, "Dearly Beloved" are the only two words of her daughter's funeral service that the bereaved Sethe hears). Although the novel ends with the word "Beloved," we are told in the final chapter that "everybody knew what she was called, but nobody anywhere knew her name" (274).
Why should the women in these two texts remain in effect unnamed while the houses are named? The answer to this question is critical to an understanding of Beloved and Mama Day. In cultures the world over, naming is a politically charged act. In Judeo-Christian epistemology, logos implies power, both sociopolitical power (Adam's naming of the animals signifies his dominion over them) and creative power ("God said 'Let there be light' and there was light" [Gen.l:3]; "In the beginning was the Word [...] and the Word was God" [John 1:1]). In West African tribal cultures, the creative power of the word is called nommo. In these cultures, naming is considered a sacred act because it brings a person into being or makes real and actual what was considered only figurative or inanimate prior to its naming. Indeed, it is believed that a baby who has not been named in a naming ritual does not yet exist as a person but remains in the category of "living object" (Handley 677). As a Yoruban proverb says, "Whatever we have a name for, that is" (Benston 165). West Africans enslaved in America brought with them their belief in nommo, which was reinforced by Anglo-American culture's post-Enlightenment equation of the word, especially the written word, with rationality and thus with (patriarchal) power.
Gloria Naylor and Toni Morrison are American writers who have been steeped from childhood in African American cultures and traditions. They are well aware of the significance of naming, both in the African and in the Anglo-American traditions. Morrison, in fact, uses the African term nommo in "Unspeakable Things Unspoken" to describe the power of the artist's words to summon into being characters and scenes that "work," that take on life (33). In African American literature, naming has always held a special, "double" significance because of its dual cultural heritage. Dropping one's slave name and renaming oneself to begin life anew as a free person was often the first act of a former slave: Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth are examples. Stamp Paid in Beloved renames himself even before attaining freedom, as a repudiation of slavery and a means of claiming subjectivity. When she is freed, Baby Suggs rejects the slave name "Jenny Whitlow"-a name no one but white people have ever called her--and continues to call herself "Baby Suggs." ("Baby" was her husband's nickname for her, and she had adopted her husband's surname, "Suggs," even though slave marriages were not recognized by whites.) She uses the name "Baby Suggs" because she wants her husband to recognize her should he by chance still be alive and searching for her, even though she has heard nothing from him or about him since his disappearance in an escape attempt 20 years previously. (They had agreed that if either ever had the opportunity to escape, the opportunity should be seized without thought for the other.)
Names are significant in Mama Day also. Sapphira rejects the slave name "Wade" for her free-born sons, giving them a surname of her own devising--"Day"--that implies the dawn of a new life for the family. Miranda views her sister Abigail's fulfillment of her naming duties during the crisis of Cocoa's birth not just as a necessary task completed but as an important sign of her sister's strength of character. According to custom, the crib name must be given to a baby by "the mama's mama" (Naylor 39), and it must be a name that fixes and anchors that child as a unique individual within the family and the community. Despite Miranda and Abigail's round-the-clock struggle to save the tiny infant, Abigail has the presence of mind to give the baby "a proper crib name" (39)--exactly the right crib name, Miranda notes with approval. "The Baby Girl" fixes Cocoa perfectly as the last of the line of Day women, the Kore to Sapphira's Mother and Mama Day's Crone. Naming is clearly a socially and politically charged act in both Mama Day and Beloved.
In a lecture at Syracuse University in 1988, Morrison detailed the care with which she had chosen "124" as the name for the house in Beloved. (1) The postmodern double entendre of "the other place" as a signifier for the place of the feminine African American Other demonstrates that Naylor named the house in Mama Day with equal care. I have already noted Morrison's and Naylor's insistence upon not naming the supernatural women who play such important roles in Beloved and Mama Day. Naming the houses and "unnaming" the women in these texts is a pivotal act, undertaken thoughtfully and deliberately. Named, the two houses take on lives of their own. They become the repositories and the physical representations of the spirits of the "unnamed" women who lived in them when alive and inhabit them still after death.
That 124 embodies Sethe's dead daughter is made plain in the first 20 words of Beloved: "124 was spiteful. Full of a baby's venom. The women in the house knew it, and so did the children" (3). The spiteful signs (note that Morrison places us immediately in the realm of the semiotic) through which the ghost makes its feelings known--overturned kettles, milk jugs, and slop jars; the prints of tiny hands in cakes; gusts of sour air; touches and slaps from the other side; heavy sideboards moved into the middle of rooms, and so on--are attributed not to the ghost but to the house, which represents and is conflated with the ghost that haunts it. Sethe's sons, we are told, run away "from the lively spite the house felt for them" as soon as "the house committed ... the one insult not to be borne or witnessed a second time" (3) [emphases mine]. Denver regards the house "as a person rather than a structure. A person that wept, sighed, trembled and fell into fits" (29). When Paul D. suggests to Sethe that she move away from her haunted house, "something in the house braced" and listened (15), and when the house begins shaking and pitching, Paul D bashes a table leg about, "screaming back at the screaming house" (18).
Although the family experiences periods of respite that sometimes last for weeks, the "outrageous behavior of that place" (4) continues unabated for 18 years, until the young woman who says she is called "Beloved" arrives in the yard one day in 1873. During the whole of the year that Beloved is in residence, no ghostly activities occur in 124: no sideboards move, no pulsing red lights bathe people in grief, no dogs are levitated and slammed into walls, no thunderous noises sound on the empty stairs. This fact lends credence to the conflation of the house with the ghost of the "crawling already? girl" and the ghost with the woman called Beloved.
For 18 and a half of the 19 years covered by the narration, 124 is occupied exclusively by mothers and children, a dozen of those years exclusively by mothers and their literal or figurative daughters: Baby Suggs (until her death), Sethe, Denver, the ghost of the crawling already? girl, and Beloved. Because Paul D, the only adult male resident of 124, is essentially an outsider living there at Sethe's invitation, he is not permitted to discipline or criticize Denver or Beloved or to countermand Sethe's decision to let Beloved stay. After Paul D's five-month stay, 124 becomes entirely the house of the Other. Indecipherable otherworldly female voices, loud enough to be heard from the road, ring 124 "like a noose" (183), completely isolating Sethe, Denver, and Beloved. Stamp Paid tries to break through the ring of voices, but Denver and Beloved, whom Stamp can see inside the house, cannot hear his furious knocking on the front door. Mixed in with the voices that ring the house are "the thoughts of the women of 124, unspeakable thoughts, unspoken" (199).
Plainly, this noose of indecipherable female voices and unspeakable, unspoken female thoughts represents the semiotic register, and the noosed house containing the mother and two daughters is a Kristevan semiotic chora, a non-verbal, nonrationalist, maternal magic circle. When Denver is emotionally shut out of the threesome, a destructive role reversal takes place wherein Beloved "ate up [Sethe's] life [....] [The bigger Beloved got, the smaller Sethe became" until "Beloved [...] looked the mother, Sethe the teething child" (250). While Beloved assumes the role of devouring mother, Denver takes on the role of loving, nurturing mother, asking neighbor women for food, "washing, cooking, forcing, cajoling her mother to eat a little now and then, providing sweet things for Beloved [...] to calm her down" (250), trying to protect Sethe from the insatiable succubus Beloved.
Significantly, it is the women of the community who finally break through the noose surrounding 124 and free the house of Beloved. They do it by finding "the key, the code, the sound that broke the back of words" (261), creating, just as they used to do in the Clearing, their own semiotic chora--and chorus--that encloses the noosed house in sound. The women return to the pre-verbal, the pre-nommo, and in effect they "unname" Beloved, who disappears and soon is "disremembered" (274), intentionally forgotten, even by the family. Long after Beloved's departure, 124 remains "quiet" (239), a house where mysterious skirt rustlings and touches from the other side are deliberately perceived by the inhabitants as "wind in the eaves or spring ice thawing [...] just weather" (275). It seems that on a deep, unconscious level, the family fears that to name Beloved will be to call the ghost of the murdered baby into being once again. Though the house no longer embodies the ghost, apparently, the threatening possibility always remains that it could again.
Like 124 in Beloved, the other place in Mama Day is a semiotic chora that embodies or represents the Mother/Other. Sapphira, "the great, grand Mother" (49), was a creator and nurturer of life with extraordinary nonrationalist ways of knowing. A root doctor, healer, and midwife of mythic skill, her pharmacopoeia, the center of her healing practice, was located at the other place. There, as legend has it, she made medicine of magical potency by "grab[bing] a bolt of lightning in the palm of her hand [...] to start the kindling going under her medicine pot [....] She turned the moon into salve [...] and healed the wounds of every creature walking up on two or down on four" (3). As midwife, mother, matriarch, and archetypal Mother, Sapphira embodied maternality. The women's magic she enacted on Bascombe Wade at the other place literally gave birth to the community of Willow Springs: Bascombe Wade was conjured into freeing his slaves in his will and deeding them the entire island. The beneficiaries of this powerful conjuring, the free, property-owning, self-governing African Americans of Willow Springs, revere Sapphira as their founding mother and the other place as her sacred space. The house was also the literal birthplace of Sapphira's seven sons--a magical number. When she gave the surname "Day" to her sons, she cast herself as a maternal Creator, mother of all of the Days/days, an identity Miranda underlines by referring to Sapphira as "the Mother who began the Days" (262). (2)
The house is also the birthplace of Miranda, eldest daughter of the seventh son of the seventh son (an exponentially magical male) of the Mother. "Mama" Day is the inheritor of Sapphira's supernatural powers, as well as inheritor of the sacred space of the Mother, the other place. As midwife in Willow Springs for 70 years and matriarch of the community for 40 or 50 years at the time the novel begins, the childless Mama Day is the figurative mother of all the islanders. Though she no longer lives in the house (and thus, it is her "other place" rather than her domicile), she spends a great deal of time there. Her extensive garden and fruit trees are at the other place--in fact, she has restored Sapphira's garden exactly, mostly by intuition, over the course of 65 years after a hurricane destroyed it in 1920--and she dries herbs on Sapphira's drying-hooks, grinds them with Sapphira's mortar and pestle, and cooks them in Sapphira's medicine pots at the other place. And of course in privacy at the other place, she performs what even she admits are "amazing things" with her "gifted hands" (89). Thus, the other place has been regarded as a matriarchal magic circle, a chora, for nearly two centuries.
When Miranda realizes that Cocoa is dying from the effects of Ruby's fix, the other place is where she immediately goes for help. Miranda moves out to the other place; here she and Cocoa are both grounded, and here she must be to "hear" the Mother's counsel. After all, she muses, "all that Baby Girl is was made by the people who walked these oak floors, sat and dreamed on that balcony" (278). The house has been damaged in the hurricane, however, and Miranda must first make some temporary repairs to the leaking roof. While nailing up matting in the attic, she discovers Bascombe Wade's plantation ledger, folded in half and wedged into the point of the roof, hidden there purposely by her father, she intuits. Inside the ledger, as water-damaged, stained, and unreadable as the ledger pages, she finds the bill of sale for her legendary great-grandmother, whose name no one in Willow Springs knows. Almost all that she can make out is "Sold to Mister Bascombe Wade of Willow Springs, one negress answering to the name of Sa" (280).
She searches her memory and then her unconscious for hours, trying to connect with Sapphira, to bring the Mother into being by naming her. The name, she intuits, is "the missing key to an unknown door somewhere in that house. The door to help Baby Girl" (280, emphasis mine). Plainly, the Mother is conflated with the house; indeed, with the historical proof of her existence--the bill of sale--"built into" the peak of the roof of the other place, Sapphira appears to have imbued the very wood and shingles of the house with her absent presence. Miranda knows that the unknown "door" in the house, unlocked by the "password," the Mother's name, will lead her to Sapphira, who will lead her to a way to save Cocoa. Going to bed at the other place that night, Miranda "pray[s] to the Father and Son as she had been taught. But she fails asleep murmuring the names of women" (283). The name-of-the-father is not going to help her here--only the name of the Mother.
Sleeping, Miranda continues to search for Sapphira. In her dreams, she "opens door upon door upon door. She asks each door the same thing: Tell me your name. And her answer is to have it swing open so she's facing another" (283). At last, when she is too exhausted to open even one more door, she reaches the nameless Mother, who cradles and nurses Miranda at her full breast. The pre-verbal semiotic communication between mother and infant is emphasized in this passage: "Daughter....[Miranda] can't really hear [the word] 'cause she's got no ears, or call out 'cause she's got no mouth. There's only the sense of being. Daughter" (283). If, as Freud believed, rooms symbolize wombs and doors the entrance to wombs, then Miranda's dream symbolizes a return to the enfolding security of the womb, a nourishing, comforting, blissful preverbal (re-)union with the mother. In the end, it is "the beating of [the Mother's] calm and steady heart" (283) that "tells" Miranda how to find the answer she is searching for: she "knows" (283) that she must uncover the old well in the garden and look past the pain.
In ancient Greek mythology, wells are sacred to the Mother. At Eleusis, the center of the worship of the Mother for many centuries, the well around which the celebrants danced in a circle during the Mysteries was called the [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] (omphalos), "the navel of the world"; it was believed to be the umbilical cord connecting the upper world to the chthonic (Earth) Mother. (3) The well at the other place is a similarly liminal, semiotic choric space. From the silent well, "with a force that almost knocks [Miranda] on her knees" (284), come the screams of women in pain: Miranda's baby sister Peace, Miranda's mother Ophelia, who tried to throw herself down the well where Peace had drowned, and Miranda's great-grandmother Sapphira, begging Bascombe Wade for her freedom. When Miranda "looks past the pain," as the Mother has instructed, she intuits what she--and George--must do to save Cocoa. (4)
Miranda also intuits that if George is to be saved as well as Cocoa, she needs George's hand in hers "here at the other place" (285, emphasis mine). George must of his own free will enter the space of the Other and trust the mother he finds there. However, George's fear of the very feminine for which he so desperately longs, a fear generated in infancy by his mother's abandonment, is so intense that he cannot overcome it. As I have already indicated, he verbally abuses Miranda and nearly strikes her when, having reluctantly made the journey to the other place, he learns that she wants him to lay aside rationalism in favor of "mumbo jumbo" (295). George does eventually complete the first part of the quest on which Miranda sends him--he enters the henhouse, for him a dangerous and frightening maternal space, and searches the nest of the fiercest hen, as instructed--but he refuses to return to the other place and put his pecked and bleeding hands in Miranda's. He rejects the Mother's "connected knowing," which is centered at the other place. Instead, he chooses rationalist "separate knowing," venting his fury at the nonrational (to him, the irrational) feminine by killing all the mothers within his reach--the hens in the henhouse--and killing himself in the process by overtaxing his delicate heart, causing a fatal heart attack. George's death results from his insistence on valorizing the symbolic order alone--on viewing Mama Day's nonrationalist, intuitive, connected knowing as nothing more than "riddle[s]," "games," and "convoluted [and therefore invalid] reasoning" (266, emphasis mine)--when only the semiotic order of the mother at the other place can connect him to life. (5)
The other place and 124 thus stand at center stage in Mama Day and Beloved as unifying symbols. The houses represent the "unnamed" supernatural women at the heart of these texts by lending them a physical "body" through which their relationships to the other characters are largely defined and negotiated. In addition, they exemplify the African American female Other in a position of resistance to the patriarchal logos. Most importantly, as Kristevan semiotic chorae, the houses embody women's nonrationalist epistemology, the powerful connected knowing vital to matrilineal narratives like Mama Day and Beloved. Thus, 124 and the other place represent and define the relationships of the female characters to themselves--that is, to their own subjectivities--to those around them, and to the patriarchal, Cartesian, logocentric world in which these two African American women's dramas are so movingly played out. Extraordinary domestic space has become radical discourse space for the named and the unnamed women in these two African American magic-realist novels.
(1.) Morrison wanted to use a simple, three-digit number with no repeated digits. "123" (i.e., 1-2-3) was, she felt, too simple, too reductive, even though she liked "3 "because it is a magic number in Western cultures. "124," however, contained "4," a number associated with magic in both West African and Western cultures; and instead of a simple arithmetic progression, each successive number in "124 "doubles the preceding number, creating an open-ended geometric progression (Jeanette K. Watson Lecture).
(2.) Sapphira's similarity to the Christian God-the-Creator is underlined by her tongue-in-cheek choice of surname for her children: she chooses "Day" for her seven sons because "God rested on the seventh day, and so would she" (iii). Naylor may possibly have had in mind a feminist revision of the Christian hymn that addresses God the Creator as "Ancient of days" ["Ancient of days, [...]/Thy love hast blessed/The wide world's wondrous story/With light and life/Since Eden's dawning day"].
(3.) To read the well at the other place through Derrida, as Philip Page does in" 'Into the Midst of Nothing': Gloria Naylor and the Differance," seems to me less accurate than an archetypal reading. Page argues that wells symbolize differance (or, life at the edge of the abyss) in Naylor's fiction, but because only one actual well can be found in all of Naylor's oeuvre, Page includes as evidence "well-like images such as basements, alleys, and walls" (114), structures that bear little or no resemblance to wells. An archetypal reading posits wells as omphalos (umbilical cords) connecting the living people in the upper world with the "loving and terrible Mother" in the underworld, almost precisely Miranda's experience when she uncovers the well at the other place and hears "[c]ircles and circles of screaming" from two long-dead mothers, Sapphira and Ophelia, and one baby daughter, Peace, issuing from the depths of the well.
(4.) I disagree with Page's conflation of the unconscious with repression in his discussion of this pain. To say that Miranda and her "entire family had privileged consciousness and presence in their acceptance of the ancestry of Sapphira Wade and their denial of the family's tragedies" (p.115) is to overlook not only the half-dozen references to Sapphira as archetype and part of the collective unconscious of the Willow Springs community but also the many references to and acknowledgments of the family's tragedies throughout the text, particularly in Miranda's sections. Moreover, Miranda knows very little about her great grandmother or Bascombe Wade; it is difficult to repress what one does not know.
(5.) In "Metaphor and Maternity in Mama Day," Amy Levin misreads the evidence when she argues that Miranda deliberately "eliminate[s] George before he draws Cocoa away from [her] influence permanently" (81). Although George's rationalism does threaten the semiotic chora to some extent, Miranda knows that Cocoa is deeply rooted in Willow Springs at the other place as a Day. Moreover, Miranda admires, respects, and loves George; she thinks that he is the perfect husband for her strong-willed great-niece. In fact, "it scares [Miranda] sometimes how much she likes [George]" (229). At the climax of the novel, Miranda's conflict with George is over how best to save Cocoa, not over who "controls" Cocoa.
If Miranda had wanted to eliminate George, she would not have needed to lift a finger after realizing that George could save Cocoa by sacrificing himself; she could have just sat in the rocker at the other place and waited for George, a non-swimmer, to enact his planned attempt to row across the treacherous Sound in a leaky rowboat to get help for Cocoa. Instead, Miranda uses every resource at her disposal to convince George to employ her nonrationalist, supernatural method of saving Cocoa so that George, too, can be saved.
Benston, Kimberly W. "I yam what I am: The Topos of (Un)Naming in Afro-American Literature." Black Literature and Black Theory. Ed. Henry Louis Gates Jr. New York: Methuen, 1984. 151-72.
Chandler, Marilyn R. Dwelling in the Text: Houses in American Fiction. Berkeley: U of California P, 1991.
Freud, Sigmund. "Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis." 1922. Trans. Joan Riviere. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1968.
Handley, William R. "The House a Ghost Built: Nommo, Allegory, and the Ethics of Reading in Toni Morrison's Beloved." Contemporary Literature 36 (1995): 676-701.
Hirsch, Marianne. The Mother/Daughter Plot: Narrative, Psychoanalysis, Feminism. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1989.
Jung, Carl G. Memories, Dreams, Reflections. 1961. Ed. Aniela Jaffa. Trans. Richard and Clara Winston. New York: Vintage, 1989.
Kelley, Margot Anne, ed. Introduction. Gloria Naylor's Early Novels. Gainesville: UP Florida, 1999. xix-xiv.
Kristeva, Julia. Revolution in Poetic Language. Trans. Margaret Waller. New York: Columbia UP, 1984. Rivkin and Ryan 451-63.
--. "Stabat Mater." Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. Tales of Love. By Kristeva. New York: Columbia UP, 1987. 234-63.
Levin, Amy K. "Metaphor and Maternity in Mama Day." Kelley 70-88.
Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: New American Library, 1987.
--. "Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature." Michigan Quarterly Review 28 (1989): 1-34.
--. Lecture. 19 October 1988. Jeanette K. Watson Visiting Writer Lectureship, Syracuse University.
Naylor, Gloria. Mama Day. New York: Vintage, 1988.
Oliver, Kelly. Reading Kristeva: Unraveling the Double-Bind. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1993.
Page, Philip. "'Into the Midst of Nothing': Gloria Naylor and the Difference." Kelley 112-32.
Rivkin, Julie, and Michael Ryan, eds. Literary Theory: An Anthology. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1998.
Storhoff, Gary. "'The Only Voice is Your Own': Gloria Naylor's Revision of The Tempest." Kelley 166-76.
Elizabeth T. Hayes is the O'Connell Distinguished Teaching Professor of the Humanities at Le Moyne College, editor of Images of Persephone: Feminist Readings in Western Literature, and author of several articles on magical realist fiction.
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|Author:||Hayes, Elizabeth T.|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2004|
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