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Voix éthniques, ethnic voices. Volume 2

Claudine Raynaud

African American Voices

A Trace of Body Writing: Morrison's Beloved

Sabine Bröck

Texte intégral

"How does it feel, how do you behave, when you own your body, when you are fleshly your-self?"
Toni Morrison at a reading in Frankfurt, May, 1993

  • 1 Toni Morrison, Beloved (New York: Alfred A. Knopf) 1987. All subsequent quotes will be taken from (...)

1The recent proliferation of critical commentary on Toni Morrison's Beloved1 (just to give one example: African American Review in its Fall and Spring issues 92 counts 7 articles on the novel, out of 27) clearly marks Beloved as a "writerly" text which, by its very complexity and craft, invites as much canonisation by different critical "camps," as well as more eccentric readings. For advocates of an African-American aesthetics the Black maternal narrative, the question of the relation between orality and text, Morrison's rewriting of Black history, the role of subjective and collective memory all figure large. At the same time, not always in plain contradiction to it, the text is read by a new generation of "postmodern" Black critics in conjunction with what I will loosely term "poststructuralist" theory, and proves extremely successful in that respect. Feminist readings have stressed the paradigmatic importance of Beloved in that it delivers the point of view most absent in American culture and intellectual self-consciousness — a Black woman's perspective — to our attention, and thus also re-writes central American, and by extension western tenets of philosophy and political/social theory. Thus Beloved, the fictional text, has become an instance of Morrison's by now also theoretically formulated claim: "My project is an effort to avert the critical gaze from the racial object to the racial subject; from the described and imagined to the describers and imaginers; from the serving to the served." (Morrison, 1992, 91)

2In this essay I would like to head Morrison's call, as it were, and reexamine what is widely circulated as avant-garde literary theory through questions the novel has raised about writing and referentiality, writing and the body, about a symbolic order and subversive significations.

  • 2 I take this interesting listing of language's powers from Rachel Blau du Plessis, "Otherhow."

3Beloved wrestles with both the ethical need and desire to consciously re-memory, in order not be consumed by a past of slavery's horrors, and the very impossibility to find a language that will contain that past. Beloved's "This was not a story to pass on" is, thus, not a verdict against memory, but an acknowledgement — reminiscent of Adorno's admonition that there could be no poetry after Auschwitz — that history can be well beyond our language's "connotive, denotive and textual powers."2 Ironically, the sentence becomes the insistent site of demanding the novel's re-readings. Memory, breaking out — being set free by Morrison — of Sethe's body, will write generations of Black women's "insides": it traverses and disrupts the symbolic ground, engaging the inscription of slavery on the very flesh and bodies of Black people, specifically Black women and the various counter-discourses against that inscription.

4Sethe's fractured and fracturing memories cut across as well as occasion the plot of Beloved in delaying ruptures. In the realm of the surrealistic, the phantastic plot of Beloved's return and redemption creates the space needed to tell Sethe's and her lover Paul D's stories in horrifying mimesis, that constantly begs the question however, if and how what was experienced could at all be said. The novel's plot and Sethe's story that Beloved's presence will make her tell fragment by fragment, are at war within the text. Those fragments will not yield closure as long as Sethe tries to repress her haunting memories. However, Morrison does not shy away from "writing the body" — she has Sethe painfully encircle and finally recount the why and how of her terrible act of mother-love.

5As a culmination of a female heritage of violation that older story is allowed to be transcended by a productive break-up of the mother-daughter bonding, by an affirmation of community trust and by erotic compassion unfolding in the "surface" plot — a structure which enables Morrison to force her character and her readers — into a confrontation with Black female bodies' memories of pain, humiliation, shame and responsibility and, in a redemptive move, acknowledge their visceral desire for a life of their own. Effectively, this strategy calls into question the symbolic assumptions for Black women's bodies in the "humanist tradition", their annihilation to "flesh value" on the chattel-market, as well as their erasure from founding American mythologies.

6Morrison's writing goes INSIDE, thereby breaking a code of slave narratives, and novel writing tradition as has been ably demonstrated by African-American critics like Mae Henderson (Henderson, 1991, 62-86) and others. My point here is that Beloved, by way of an elaborate, if quite indirect, intertextuality should also be seen to signify on poststructuralist theoretical approaches to text and writing. Both, Hélène Cixous' thesis in The Laugh of the Medusa about the consequences of a female "writing of the body" as well as the Derridean notion of the "trace" should be re-engaged by Morrison's paradigmatically "Black female" textual production that has been outside the epistemological and ideological reach of those theorists.

7Beloved seems to me a veritable incarnation of Cixous' dictum, figuring however dimensions of her approach well beyond the abstractly metaphorical — as which it has mainly been used. In the same manner that Cixous' use of the Freudian "dark continent" as metaphor for women has served to obscure Black women's material and textualized existence in most of white feminist theory, "writing the female body" has become a catch-all to precisely avoid deciphering different historical inscriptions of and on women's bodies. Hélène Cixous writes:

A woman's body, with its thousand and one thresholds of ardor — once, by smashing yokes and censors, she lets it articulate the profusion of meanings that run through it in every direction — will make the old singlegrooved mother tongue reverberate with more than one language. (Cixous, 1983, 279)

8In passages moving to a rhythm of visceral contractions, memory in a black woman's body in urgent need to be spoken spirals back on itself and its ancestral doublings. The literal marks on African slave women's bodies have become marks of a literate text, signing the narrative with scars, as it were, both as utterly obvious as incomprehensible. If a woman is written down as animal, (as schoolteacher tells his nephews to do), her body written upon with branding iron, what will be written out of this body will necessarily question the status of Cixous' metaphor as literary theory of universal claim for women's textual production.

9In Sethe's, Denver's and Beloved's monologic, and then con/fused voices, the laws of symbolic language break down successively. Beloved finally speaks in the tongues of generations of captive and tortured Black women: the body speaks outside time, beyond telos, throwing itself up against our perception. The female bodies in question here, however, are excessively referential; and the gift they have to put in circulation (another one of Cixous' founding terms) is not one of a Medusa's blissful textual subversion, but the "writing back" of women for whom ownership of the self and the body was a markedly material, visceral, literal urgency.

10At the deepest, most un-memoried bottom of Sethe's body's "inside" Morrison finally unearths and words a deed that is in its most encompassing connotation: wordless. Without words in the doing, without words for describing or conceptualizing by the doer: "And then no words. Humming. No words at all." (152) "No. No. Nono. Nonono." is the zero degree of Sethe's communication with the world of logos and language, when she tries to kill her children, and murders her daughter (163). Whereas Derrida speaks of the "overabundance" of the signifier (Derrida, 1978, 289) Morrison seems to insist on a refusal of the signifier, as if to beg the question if the "overwhelming" of signification cannot ever be arrested, by the materiality of certain acts, by the unethical implications of oppression, and by resistance to it, however "senseless" (Derrida, 1976, 7).

  • 3 There are various episodes strategically placed in the book that, by way of allegory, rewrite othe (...)

11Thus trying to — even at the cost of temporary verbal breakdown — foreground a slave woman's "inside" Morrison allegorically engages a group of voices that have, in history, negotiated slavery from their own perspectives, namely the patriarchal voice in the Black community, the female slave narratives, the abolitionists and white feminists3. Consequently, one could argue that, surpassing even Cixous, the speaking body not only writes, but also enables Sethe (and us) to read those textual traces differently.

12In a second move I want to turn to that notion of the trace that, for Derrida, is an affirmative gift of signification, leading indefinitely to other traces of more text:

Turned towards the lost or impossible presence of the absent origin, this structuralist thematic of broken immediacy is therefore the saddened, negative, nostalgic, guilty, Rousseauistic side of the thinking of play whose other side would be the Nietzschean affirmation, that is the joyous affirmation of the play of the world and of the innocence of becoming, the affirmation of a world of signs without fault, without truth, and without origin which is offered to an active interpretation. This affirmation then determines the non-center otherwise than as loss of the center. And it plays without security. For there is sure play: that which is limited to the substitution of given and existing, present, pieces. In absolute chance, affirmation also surrenders itself to genetic indetermination, to the seminal adventure of the trace. (Derrida, 1978, 292)

13I would like to pose some related questions in reaction to that observation: First, if that is really the only choice we have, between "negative", "guilty" "necessity of interpretation as an exile", trying to "decipher a truth" or "an origin" (as Derrida calls it a paragraph later), and "affirmation of the play of signifiers as traces", beyond "man, humanism, and metaphysics"? Second, can we imagine a kind of sign that traces something other than its own materiality, that could, for example, refer to the visceral enaction and perception of pain that is not always already caught in teleological Systems of signification like "humanism'" that has in fact been left unsignified by those systems? Finally, shouldn't texts like Beloved be seen to bound or frustrate Derrida's trust in, and thrust of, language as play, adventure, and innocent becoming?

14Threaded through the novel, Morrison has laid out what I would call "visceral signs" as her kind of traces, subverting symbolic grounds of narrative, as well as of worded biblical scripture, of epistemology, of ideologies. Letting loose the women's hollering to redeem Sethe, the text aims at questioning "our" entire metahistory in two small, almost invisible sentences: "In the beginning there were no words. In the beginning was the sound, and they all knew what that sound sounded like" (259). Historically, logocentric systems of words have been written over and across glaring but suppressed signs that Morrison's novel re-invents for us, to rescue a semiosis that could break the nominative and legislative power of the law of the symbolic, that is Beloved's "back of words."

15The yelling silence of Paul D's unanswered six "why?" in response to Stamp Paid's laconic remark that a Negro will have to take "all he can" (235) creates an almost unbearable absence in the reader's mind. Morrison intrudes upon this lack with a semiosis that undermines any complacent possession of the novel on the level of humanist discourse, as the back cover claims: by "an entire nation with a past of both abominable and ennobling circumstance." Her counter sign is again a visceral trace: "mad black laughter that could put out the lynching fire" (229), a "hatred so loose it was juba" (227) — which makes Sixo's contempt of English into an embodiment, a mark, as it were, of an oppressed person's resistance to language's symbolizing, generative function, establishing a direct connection between the master's discourse and its deadly effect. Accordingly, "marked" (61) Negroes, themselves having become "signs of grief" (66), don't speak, use words, that is, "because the whites didn't bear speaking on" (52, 53). In Beloved's semiotic universe, words have to be "garbled and tricked" (108) to the Blacks' own purpose to "beat it and get through" (109), or, time and again, "no words" (107) can be used at all.

16The only possible redemptive vision is also held out to us as a body writing of visceral signification: shared by the community in a ritual without words, in a place where Black children laugh, men dance and women cry, and then "it got mixed up", ending in silence (88). And even though Baby Suggs knows that it is only in words, with language, that she will be able to communicate the grace she is after purposefully, to "[offer] up to them her great big heart" (88) those words will have to be verified by dance and music, and her speech is obsessed with the desire to anchor itself in support of black bodies' needs, wants and rights (88, 89).

17The text's power, then, could be located in its self-reflexive, highly sophisticated strategy to break the laws of the symbolic by tracing a subcultural, referential semiosis, but to "know" precisely, in that very move that even those "visceral signs" do appear to a reader's consciousness as words, as written signs, carrying in that specific materiality a burden of inevitable reference to the world of logocentrism that neither the text itself nor its readers can evade. The novel's insistence on a representation of black, crucially female bodies foregrounds instead, again and again, those bodies' claims to a self-reversal: from functioning as signs, marks or traces whose merely negative power lies in a denial of the symbolic, to authorship, thus incorporating those absent traces into a symbolic that has — far into the reaches of critical theory — perpetuated itself at the very cost of their suppression.



Cixous, Hélène. "The Laugh of the Medusa." Ed. Elisabeth Abel, The SIGNS Reader: Women, Gender & Scholarship Chicago: University Press of Chicago, 1983: 279 ff.

Derrida, Jacques. "The End of the Book and the Beginning of Writing." Trans. Gayatri G. Spivak Of Grammatology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976: 1-26.

Derrida, Jacques. "Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences." Transl. Alan Bass, Writing and Difference. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978: 278293.

Blau Du Plessis, Rachel. "Otherhow". The Pink Guitar. New York, London: Routledge, 1991.

Henderson, Mae. "Toni Morrison's Beloved: Re-Membering the Body as Historical Text." Comparative American Identities. Race, Sex and Nationality in the Modern Text. Ed. Hortense Spillers. New York, London: Routledge, 1991: 62-86.

Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Cambridge, London: Harvard University Press, 1992.


1 Toni Morrison, Beloved (New York: Alfred A. Knopf) 1987. All subsequent quotes will be taken from this edition and given in parentheses in the text.

2 I take this interesting listing of language's powers from Rachel Blau du Plessis, "Otherhow."

3 There are various episodes strategically placed in the book that, by way of allegory, rewrite other American "key" texts: Black female texts like slave narratives, or Margaret Walker's Jubilee are taken up and revised; Paul D's first experience with cash money engages Frederick Douglass' memoirs about that same experience; Bodwin embodies Morrison's specific take on the white abolitionists; and, most impressive to me, the scene of the two women, Sethe and Amy, doing "something together, appropriately and well" (p)refigures the role of white women, white feminism and possible alliances.


Sabine Bröck has a Ph.D. of Goethe University, Frankfurt, and taught there for 9 years. Last year she taught American Studies at the University of Hannover. Currently she is completing her second book for the "Habilitation", provisionally entitled White Amnesia? White American Women's Writing and History. Her publications include: Der entkolonisierte Körper. Die Protagonistin in der afroamerikanischen weiblichen Erzähltradition der 30er bis 80er Jahre (Frankfurt, New York, 1988); Reconstructing American Literary and Historical Studies, co-editor with Guenter H. Lenz and Hartmut Keil (Frankfurt, New York, 1990); Plotting Against History, in Guenter H. Lenz. Hartmut Keil. Sabine Bröck-Sallah. ed., Reconstructing American Literary and Historical Studies (Frankfurt, New York, 1990); "Re-Reading Closure. Plots to a happy Ending." in Elisabeth Meese, Alice Parker, ed., Negotiating Feminist Criticism (Amsterdam, London, 1992); "Gertrude Stein's 'Melanotha' in den Diskursen zur 'Natur der Frau,' in Amerikastudien / American Studies. Volume 37, 1992

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 1996

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