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Regards croisés sur les Afro-Américains

Claude Julien

Fiction corner

Toni Morrison: Site and Memory1

Claudine Raynaud

Texte intégral

  • 1 An earlier version of this essay appeared in French in Etudes de poétique (Raynaud, 2001).

Consciousness and memory cancel each other out.
(Freud, letter to Fliess, 1896)

Memory (the deliberate act of remembering) is a form of willed creation.
(Morrison, 1984, 384)

1Critics of Toni Morrison's novels have often dealt with the theme of memory (in German Gedächtnis and Errinerung) that is central to creation in her work (Andrews, 1999; Fabre, 1993). Remembering shapes the narrative that espouses the ceaseless returns to the not-so distant past, the comings and the goings between now and then, and ultimately the circular motion of the production of memories. The literary text inscribes the tribulations of individual and collective history in and through what memory both holds up and passes on. The question is: can one shed light on Morrison's writing starting from a reflection on memory? To do so, I intend to look at the excerpt that describes what she calls “rememory” in order to understand to what extent the staging of the workings of memory is akin to a fantasy. Morrison's coinage is derived from the Black English “to memory” or “to remember”; it can be read as a “the narrative of a fable”, or “fabulation”, that figures the return of the repressed.

  • 2 Toni Morrison, Beloved (New York: Picador, 1987). Hereafter cited as B.

2The main character of Beloved, the slave Sethe – with a possible word play on Lethe, the river of oblivion – willfully buries the memory of her infanticide. Only a hurtful process – “anything dead coming back to life hurts” (B, 35) – that requires wording can make it present to memory.2 Beloved can then be said to be a novel about the necessity of remembering in its relation to History's trauma: the Middle Passage and slavery in America. Trying to forget may help one survive. Yet surviving means being able to confront that traumatic memory in the very process of reconstructing the scene of its happening. This figuration, that bears the weight of the return of memory, opens the way for its transcendence. It then permits one to “pass on” to something else, to take up the verb that stigmatizes intransitivity in the novel: “This is not a story to pass on” (B, 275). The “story” halts transmission. Conversely, transmission can only happen through the paradoxical telling of that story as “no-story”, as trauma.

1. Memory/creation: fantasy and reality

3Beloved deals with collective as much as with individual memory, with America's amnesia about its past of slavery and the slave trade. Morrison has not written an autobiography but autobiographical elements enter the composition of her novels. In an essay entitled “The Site of Memory” she explains that the point is not to remember things precisely, but the creation of a character, or of a scene, finds its origin in an impression, an association, a concentration. One could even go so far as to use the Freudian term “condensation”. “Pieces” coalesce to form a “part”. For the writer the act of creation is akin to archeological research:

  • 3 Toni Morrison,“The Site of Memory” in William Zinsser Ed. Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of (...)

It is a kind of literary archeology: on the basis of some information and a little bit of guesswork you journey to a site to see what remains were left behind and to reconstruct the world that these remains imply. (SM, 302)3

4The metaphor of the site is explicit: it is an archeological site, loaded with the possibility of History, a necessarily incomplete History: fragments, remnants. These “remains” retain in their very “remanence” what cannot and will not be wholly erased. Starting from these remains, the construction of the past that finds its source in the imagination can begin. In the creation of fiction, the writer mingles “re-collection” with imagination, as well as with the feelings associated with the image:

What makes it fiction is the nature of the imaginative act: my reliance on the image – on the remains – in addition to recollection, to yield up a kind of truth. By “image”, of course, I don’t mean “symbol”, I simply mean “picture” and the feelings that accompany the picture. (SM, 302)

5No wonder that the metaphor of the veil, so recurrent in Black American literature – the veil of self-censorship in slave narratives, among others – should come back under Morrison's pen. She wants to tear that veil: “My job becomes how to rip that veil drawn over ‘proceedings too terrible to relate’” (SM, 302). In another section of the text, she uses the word “part” again, this time with the meaning of parting, lifting, putting aside:

If I’m trying to fill in the blanks that the slave narratives left – to part the veil that was so frequently drawn, to implement that stories that I heard – then the approach that’s most productive and most trustworthy for me is the recollection that moves from the image to the text. Not the text to the image. (SM, 303, italics mine)

6The “picture” comes before the memory; it tells what the memory means; it informs it. That definition is close to a psychoanalytical definition of memory in so far as it is linked to the visual. Like the patient who confides all he or she knows together with what he or she does not know, the image gives access to memory as soon as it appears. One can also take up the metaphor of the magic slate that Freud used in 1925 to describe the process of memory. The writer proceeds as follows: from the image, she moves to the meaning, and finally to the text. To illustrate this motion, she takes the example of the corn on the cob “that she sees” when she is working on the manuscript of Beloved (cf. Harding and Martin, 1994):

I’m trying to write a particular kind of scene, and I see com on the cob. To “see” com on the cob does not mean that it suddenly hovers; it only means that it keeps coming back. And in trying to figure out “What is all this com doing?” I discover what it is doing. (SM, 304)

7The image keeps coming back, a sign that compulsion towards repetition is linked to memory, but in this case, not in a morbid way since the repetition is acknowledged. The image as picture imposes itself; it is linked to childhood memories. Here is the narrative of these memories:

I see the house where I grew up in Lorain, Ohio. My parents had a garden some distance from our house, and they didn’t welcome me and my sister there, when we were young, because we were not able to distinguish between the things they wanted to grow and the things that they didn’t. So we were not able to hoe, or weed, until much later.
I see them walking, together, away from me. I’m looking at their backs and what they are carrying in their arms: their tools, and maybe a peck basket. Sometimes when they walk away from me they hold hands, and they go to this other place in the garden. They have to cross some railroad tracks to get there.
I also am aware that my mother and my father sleep at odd hours because my father works many jobs and works at night. And these naps are times of pleasure for me and my sister because nobody’s giving us chores, or telling us what to do, or nagging us in any way. In addition to which, there is some feeling of pleasure in them that I’m only vaguely aware of. They’re very rested when they take these naps.
And later on in the summer we have an opportunity to eat corn, which is the one plant that I can distinguish from the others, and which is the harvest that I like the best; the others are the food that no children likes – the collards, the okra, the strong, violent vegetables that I would give a great deal for now. But I do like the corn because it’s sweet, and because we all sit down to eat it, and it’s finger food, and it’s hot, and it’s even good cold, and there are neighbors in, and there are uncles in, and it’s easy, and it’s nice.
The picture of the corn and the nimbus of emotion surrounding it became a powerful one in the manuscript I am now completing.

8Unmistakenly, the personal memory of the family garden from which the children are excluded points to sexual difference, a distinction only faintly veiled in the little girls' inability to tell what can be eaten from what cannot. They cannot tell the edible, what can be consumed, from the inedible weeds. The parents' sexuality, already implicitly present earlier, resurfaces in the vision of their joined hands and of the reserved territory that is barred by the railroad tracks: “that other place in the garden”, or that place of the Other. The opposition has been gradually built up by the motion from the vegetable garden to the sexual space. In the next sequence, the children play while the parents take a nap. Transgression is then possible. There is no law, which is what is spelt out, among other things, by the inversion between day (sleep) and night (work). The parents' “disappearance”, their absence, also signals lawlessness, since, not being there, they cannot forbid anything. Two taboos, the sexual, and what stands for it in Morrison's memory, the vegetable garden, are juxtaposed. Both spaces are fordidden to the children. In the narrative reconstructed through memory the garden yields fruit, sensual sweet warm finger food. The memory also tells that it is adult food. From that space of exclusion emerges the possibility of a collective (adult and children) gathering imbued with sensuality.

9Although Morrison does not explicitly link that childhood memory to a particular scene in Beloved, summertime, the family garden, the parents' nap, the food shared with the neighbors, the uncles, and the extended family, suggest the passage in which Sethe and Paul D remember the time when Sethe and Halle, then slaves on Garner's plantation, made love in a corn field. From the image of the food that one seizes with one's fingers (“finger food”), the writer frees a complex erotic scene. The ear of corn is both food one shares, but also food of partition. Slave work, fieldwork, the separation of the cob from its sheath and its threads, calls forth in its association to food, sexual intercourse, in the same way as both elements were linked in the writer's childhood memory. The taboo of sexual intercourse is exposed at the same time as the food taboo is transgressed. That forbiddance is doubled up for the slaves by a dictate for procreation since sexual coupling was imposed by the logic of chattel slavery. Moreover, Paul D and his companions steal corn from their master. Their jouisssance takes place within that space, that of theft and of the consumption of food that does not belong to them. The space of theft is also that of metaphor. Metaphor, that displacement from one space to another, allows the subtraction and the appropriation of what necessarily belongs to the other. Morrison also writes that eating corn is never what it appears to be, that metaphor signals theft, freedom, “flight”, precisely within a controlled space.

10The ears of corn from the writer's memory become in the text of Beloved Sethe's memory in which Halle's body melts with cast away husks and silk threads torn off from the cob: “[Sethe] remembered that some of the corn stalks broke, folded down over Halle's back, and among the things her fingers clutched were husk and cornsilk hair” (B, 27). There is a mise en abyme of autobiographical memory, relayed by the character who does the remembering. In love as they are with Sethe, the other slaves' voyeurism is elaborated textually starting from the gradual disclosing of the cob, the baring of the kernels of unsheathed corn: “corn shucking”.

11In Morrison's memory, the little girls were also excluded from their parents' sexuality, from their parents' garden. In the fictive scene, secretive sexual intercourse becomes public knowledge. One cannot not see the space created by the broken and folded down stalks in the field. The text constructs the scene starting from the autobiographical memory and by following a logic of inversion: “The jealous admiration of the watching men melted with the feast of the new corn they allowed themselves that night” (B, 27). From sexual intercourse one moves without transition to food whereas the garden and its produce appear before the parents' nap in the childhood memory. Corn is a metonym for sexual intercourse and conversely, sexual intercourse is nothing but a displacement from the infants' first relationship to food, that of need. The genital stage replaces the oral stage; the oral stage is substituted to the genital.

12The memory is also that of Paul D, as if sharing food had to be translated in the text into the sharing of memories: “... now Paul D could not remember how they'd cooked those ears too young to eat. What he did remember was parting the hair to get to the tip, the edge of his fingernail just under, so as not to graze a single kernel” (B, 27, italics mine). The task becomes an act of sharing, of parting, which recalls in its very expression the veil ripped over the unspeakable. The male character parts so as not to hurt, not to scratch, not to graze. Excessive youth, immaturity, both topos and symptom in a novel whose central theme is the murder of a little girl is evoked by this food which should not be consumed. The ambivalence between the cob and the body persists through the use of the word “hair”. The following sentence is written from Sethe's point of view; she cannot help associating the sharp noise of the sheath, when it is taken off, to physical pain: “The pulling down of the tight sheath, the ripping sound always convinced her it hurt” (B, 27). The text then moves abruptly to Paul D's point of view: “As soon as one strip of husk was down, the rest obeyed and the ear yielded up to him its shy rows, exposed at last” (B, 27). Through the creation of characters who symbolise “male” and “female” in their relationship to sexual intercourse, the act of writing inscribes sexual difference in alternating semantic doubles: protection vs exposure, untouchability vs physical pain, shyness vs experience. The omniscient narrator passes from one to the other and thus shares with the reader the workings of difference within the slaves' imaginary, what Morrison calls: “the unwritten interior life of these people” (SM, 302). The advent of writing consists in this deployment of this register of images from the core of the childhood memory.

  • 4 "Slaves not only picked cotton but planted rice, husked corn, rowed boats, rocked babies, cooked fo (...)

13In an excess of sensuality and explicit correspondences, poetic evocation translates into a promise of freedom, chanted in the text like the lyrics of a song. The refrain calls for freedom in crescendo variations. The reader does not know whether they are uttered by one character, by both, by all the characters mentioned, all the slaves working for Garner, or indeed by the omniscient narrator: “How loose the silk. How jailed down the juice”.... “How loose the silk. How quick the jailed-up flavor ran free”.... “How loose the silk. How fine and loose and free” (B, 27). The narrative deliberately blurs the different points of view and re-calls the presence of sexual metaphor in the slaves' worksongs. The text exposes and enacts the reappropriation of this ability to tell without telling that the slaves have always possessed.4 Freedom, jouissance, spaces not controlled by the Master find in the metonymie play of corn their ideal expression. The feast stands at the antipodes of the horrors described by slave narratives, yet it also comes close to the horror for one touches at this point in the text upon the unspeakable of jouissance.

14This example of the workings of an image that transforms itself into text after a series of displacements illustrates the creative process at the core of writing. Contrary to analytical recollection or to an impulse that might want to reach the goal of an exhaustive description of the past, the act of creation rests content, so to speak, with details yielded up by the act of remembering:

  • 5 Toni Morrison, “Memory, Creation, and Writing”, Thought 59, n° 235 (December, 1984) 385-390. Hereaf (...)

I have a memory of [a woman called Hannah Peace], and it’s like this: the color of her skin – the mat quality of it. Something purple around her. Also eyes not completely open. There emanated from her an aloofness that seemed to me kindly disposed. But most of all I remember her name – or the way people pronounced it – never Hannah or Miss Peace – always Hannah Peace. (T, 386)5

15In the essay “The Site of Memory”, Morrison also mentions the creation process at work in Sula and the place of memory in the composition of that novel:

I began to write my second book, which was called Sula, because of my preoccupation with a picture of a woman and the way in which I heard her name pronounced. Her name was Hannah, and I think she was a friend of my mother’s. I don’t remember seeing her very much, but what I do remember is the color around her – a kind of violet, a suffusion of violet – and her eyes, which appeared to be half closed. But what I remember most is how the women said her name: how they said “Hannah Peace” and smiled to themselves, and there was some secret about her that they knew, which they didn’t talk about, at least not in my hearing, but it seems loaded in the way they said her name. And I suspected that she was a little bit of an outlaw but they approved in some way. (SM, 304)

16Within the act of creation, memory and its agregate of emotions are what matters: “What is useful – definitive – is the galaxy of emotions that accompanied the woman as I pursued my memory of her, not the woman herself” (T, 386, italics mine). Creation is memory work, work that stems from memory. Creative imagination is part and parcel of the strength of remembering: “The act of imagination is bound up with memory” (SM, 304).

17Morrison closes her essay on the site of memory with the metaphor of the Mississippi floods. In stormy weather the river goes back to its old bed even when dikes have tamed it. Old Man River remembers his original place and reconquers violently what man's work and willpower had taken away from him. The memory of water, fluidity and infiltration, flooding and remembering share the movements of overflow and access. The excess which makes both go back to the origin, the primal site before the detour because taming means breaking down, redressing, making right, straightening. A writer's memory is wild like the river flow.

2. Remembering/"rememory": the site of the scene in fantasy

  • 6 In the monologue when she addresses Beloved, Sethe remembers and asks her daughter to remember, but (...)

18In Morrison's syntax the word “rememory” changes category: from verb it becomes a noun whereas the noun “memory” becomes a verb.6 It is a reminiscence? A mnemic trace? A screen memory? Or more than that in the novel’s poetic universe? Sethe explains to her daughter Denver that a memory is linked to a certain space where it dwells while the location has been transformed not to leave any trace of human presence, no imprint or sign that might feed memory. The dialogue between Sethe and Denver, after the latter has seen her mother hug the white-robed ghost who looks like her, is a series of interrogations. Denver asks her mother to tell her what she was saying:

“I was talking about time. It’s so hard for me to believe in it. Some things go. Pass on. Some things just stay. I used to think it was my rememory. You know. Some things you forget. Other things you never do. But it’s not. Places, places are still there. If a house burns down, it’s gone but the place – the picture of it – stays, but not just in my rememory, but out there, in the world. What I remember is a picture floating around out there outside my head. I mean, even if I don’t think it, even if I die, the picture of what I did, or knew, or saw is still out there. Right in the place where it happened.”
“Can other people see it?” asked Denver.
“Oh yes. Oh, yes, yes, yes. Someday you be walking down the road and you hear something or see something going on. So clear. And you think it’s you thinking it up. A thought picture. But no. And it’s when you bump into a
rememory that belongs to somebody else. Where I was before I came here, that place is real. It’s never going away. Even if the whole farm, every tree and grass blade of it dies. The picture is still there and what’s more if you go there – you who never was there – if you go there and stand in the place where it was, it will happen again; it will be there for you, waiting for you. So, Denver, you can’t never go there. Never. Because even though it’s all over – over and done with – it’s goin to always be there waiting for you.” (B, 35-36, italics mine)

19Sethe first mentions a time made of loss. The reader cannot help but link the passing of time to the sentence which, when transitive, paradoxically closes and does not close the narrative: “It was not a story to pass on” (B, 275). But time is also made up of what remains (“stay”). Time is both parting and staying, disappearing and remaining, flight and “being there”. Sethe describes the workings of memory, a combination of forgetting and traces, an alternative placed under the sign of the cycle, of re-turn: “re-memory”. Remembering gives way to “recalling”, a process whose crucial role in the psychoanalytic cure Freud underlined:

[The doctor’s] goal is to recall memory in the old way, its reproduction in the psychic realm. This goal, he pursues it even when he realizes that the old technique does not enable him to reach it. In order to maintain on the psychic terrain impulses that the patient would like to enact, he undertakes, against the latter’s will, a neverending struggle and when he succeeds, thanks to the work of rememoration, to get rid of what the patient would like to ease himself from through action, he considers this result as a triumph of the cure. (Freud, 1997, 112, translation mine)

20The fantasy articulated around memory is stated in Morrison's text as the reality of places: “Places. Places are still there”. Time is scansion. Constitutive of the workings of memory and consubstantive with it it is made of forgetting, memory lapses, remembering, recalling. It makes room for space, or rather for place. Fantasy is anchored there, in a “being there” of place. The character of Sethe describes in fact the motion from individual to collective memory. The house burns, but the place remains, or rather the picture of the place. The irreducible quality of fantasy translates into a passage from inside to outside. Sethe seems to be naming in this dilaogue the fondamental fantasy of the link between place and experience. The scene of the trauma is inscribed within space. Indeed, Freud spoke of “exhuming” memories. One could say that a “territorialisation” of memory takes place, a link to the soil is established in the motion from individual to collective memory. Individual memory is objectified in order to be fixed down. The scene of the trauma thus moves from its presentation in the individual psyche to a presentation without a subject. The text effectively passes from “my rememory”, a rememoration which is that of the singular subject, to “Place”, to “The picture of the place”. Indeed, psychoanalyst Gérard Miller sums up the articulation of the subject to fantasy as follows:

The reflection on fantasy is constructed upon the subject of the unconscious. Fantasy is actually the necessary consequence of the subject at the same time as it constitutes the limits of the symbolic functioning of the speaking subject. There is no subject without fantasy, but fantasy is what allows the subject to think that it can escape the supremacy of the signifier. (1987, 112)

21Freud's statements describes the three phases of fantasy as follows: 1) “A child is being beaten”; 2) “I am being beaten by the father”; 3) “The father is beating a child that I hate”. Transposed to Sethe's fiction, this “core of individual myth of the neurotic,” to take up Lacan's words, or fundamental fantasy, seems to make the trace of the subject disappear behind the visual impact of the image of the place, and ultimately behind that place itself. One could even read this passage as an allegory of the notion of screen memory. The irreducible quality of fantasy translates into the fading of the subject behind the place of the trauma: “A house has been burnt out there” (cf. Β, 36) which becomes in Sethe's mind: “A child has been killed out there”. The primacy of place is written in the passage from the singular to the plural. Collective memory is constituted upon the fundamental fantasy of the link of the place to the scene of trauma: in the present case, Sethe's rape, her torture, the murder of her daughter. Thus this fable that stresses the fundamentally external character of memory tells the fantasy of a soil which maintains its link to an inter-subjective collective memory.

22This mythological narrativisation of the process of memory leads to a foregrounding of the fundamentally exernal and indelible character of fantasy: “Out there” is repeated several times. It is what fantasy bumps into. Sethe describes a visualisation which is such that memory becomes a mental image, a “thought picture”. Memory detaches itself from the subject to subsist, stay, remain permanently in the place (in place) of its experience. How can that memory be “out there,” be “outside” to such a degree as to no longer belong to the subject? This aspect of Sethe's memory mirrors Zora Neale Hurston's inner memories (“memories within”) and could then be understood as outside memories or “memories without” (1984, 3). However, how can “memory” be both the outcome of Sethe's introspection-or her inner gaze-and be located, “stuck” to the very place of the experience which produced it? That place reaches then a degree of utmost reality: “That place is real,” Sethe tells her daughter. “The real,” writes Lacan, “is what is missing in its place.”

23One may also read this passage as the fantasy of the link to the mother's body, that “real” place of origin: the body of the mother and southern soil. Sethe's infanticide would then be placed in relation to the mass murder of the slave trade. The subject's individual story, shaped by the muder of a child, parallels a people's History constructed upon the non-being and the animal nature at the core of the practice of slavery.

24Let us go back to the scene of fantasy in Beloved. In Jean-Daniel Nasio's words, fantasy is “a narrative that depicts an imagined scene with its places, its colors, its time, its light and its sounds” (1994, 168). In Sethe's narrative memory becomes an object; it is external to the subject to the point of turning into an object. From process, memory becomes the production of a series of image-objects: “thought pictures.” These objects, as outside traces of a subject's memory, become obstacles into which another subject happens to bump. The object “picture” has first become bound to a subject's consciousness to then turn into an object for an other consciousness. This brutal encounter acts as a figuration of the cure in which the analytical relation – “that space in-between that encloses and absorbs the two analytical partners” (Nasio, 1994, 133) – contains both the analyst and the analysand.

25Sethe describes a scene in which the other speaker in the dialogue is struck: he or she sees, hears, feels something that assails him or her since it belongs to that place, the “already there” of the subjectivity that produced it. The formal matrix of fantasy contains four elements, a subject, an object, a signifier, and images: “ Everything is ordered according to a precise, generally perverse scenario, generally through a sentence in the patient's narrative” (Nasio, 1994, 171). In the present case, the one who remembers becomes memory. The subject becomes a process of remembering. He or she gives rise to a hybrid object: a mental image, a “thought picture.” From a psychoanalytical perspective, one is indeed dealing with fantasy: i.e. with what one loses. The mise en abyme of fantasy leads to fundamental fantasy (Nasio, 1994, 172). At its deepest level, Sethe's fantasy is articulated around the death of her child. Yet at the beginning of the novel, she also loses her memory: "[S]he could not remember remembering" (B, 39). In this radical staging of the process of memory, Sethe loses what she owns, what is hers only (“her rememory”) in order for that object to become somebody else's (“a rememory that belongs to someone else”).

26The sentence in the patient's narrative around which fantasy is articulated would be in the present case, if one transposes the Freudian statement to Morrison's text: “You bump into a rememory that belong to someone else.” Like the verb “to beat” in the fantasy analysed by Freud, the verb at the core of this fantasy is “to bump.” The sudden, chance blow received when one bumps into somebody else's memory may be turned around. The memory that belongs to the other hurts; it strikes one, makes one fall down. These blows of the memory of the other are violent, indelible, “stuck” to the scene: “The picture is still there” (B, 36). The motionlessness, the fixedness of the picture pierce through the notion of the “always already there” of rememory. Memory's repetition does not take place within an individual conciousness but memory, that has now become a process, is watching/waiting for the other subject, ready to catch up with him/her, as if the familiar phrase “it will catch up with you one day or another”– in French: “Tu ne perds rien pour attendre” – were to be taken literally: “If you go there and stand in the place where it was, it will happen again; it will be there for you, waiting for you.... It's going to always be there, waiting for you” (B, 36, italics mine). The “always” of this waiting, halfway between pursuit and desire, its enactment in the blow and the enigma of its happening point to the subject of Beloved. Like fantasy, the ghost is a hybrid being. In a letter to Fliess, Freud describes fantasy as a half-breed, a being who does not specifically belong to either of the worlds from which he springs. Like a psychic formation in constant motion, fantasy is both conscious and unconscious. He called it the “black-white to show that fantasy changes register in the comings and goings between consciousness and the unconscious” (Nasio, 1994, 172).

27At the end of her “mythological” narrative on memory, Sethe utters the sentence that justifies the murder of her child when placed back within the context of the novel: “That's how I had to get all my children out. No matter what” (B, 36) She wanted to take her children out of the grip of these phantoms/fantasies that were on the look out for them, ready to assail them, to take them out of the site of memory, of the memory of the site. If one paraphrases the Freudian fantasy of the beaten child, the depths of the murderous act can be spelt as follows: “There, a (female) child is being beaten/There, a (female) child is being killed.” Fantasy is acted on but within it, the child's murder can only be told in the following paradoxical way: “I am taking my child from the place – site of death/site of life – of her certain death, threatened as she is by the other's reminiscences and I take her into a place where she shall be free from these assaults: i. e. death”. Indeed, Denver talks about her mother as a murderer: “There sure is something in her that makes it all right to kill her own” (B, 205).

28If remembering is taboo in the sense that Sethe refuses to remember, Beloved follows the meanderings of memory’s journey to consciousness as a mechanical process where things are re-ordered after having been misplaced: “The click had clicked; things were where they ought to be or poised and ready to glide in” (B, 176). The moment of remembering is presented as a a series of concentric circles that Sethe describes physically around Paul D and mentally around the subject. Incidentally, Freud uses the same metaphor of circles for memory:

She knew that the circle she was making around the room, him, the subject, would remain one. That she could never close in, pin it down for anybody who had to ask.... The truth was simple.... Simple: she was squatting in the garden and when she saw them coming and recognized schoolteacher’s hat, she heard wings. Little hummingbirds stuck their needle beaks right through her headcloth into her hair and beat their wings. And if she thought anything, it was No. No. Nono. Nonono. Simple. She just flew. Collected every bit of life she had made, all the parts of her that were precious and fine and beautiful, and carried, pushed, dragged them through the veil, out, away, over there where noone could hurt them. Over there. Outside this place, where they would be safe. And the hummingbird wings beat on. (B, 163, italics mine)

29To the traditional “out there” of the scene of memory’s fantasy corresponds the “over there” of the moment of the murder that is superimposed to flight: Sethe’s flight to the free states, but also her flight into death described here as a passage “through the veil”. For the metaphor of the veil returns to echo that veil of prudishness, of censureship that the writer wanted to lift, to part in order to invent the slaves’ inner lives. Sethe takes her children beyond the veil, to the other side of the veil, and she performs that act literally if one thinks of the dead child. This dead child whose name nobody can remember at the end of the novel cannot be “reclaimed”, re-called. At this point, one comes up against the play on transitivity and literalisation which the French translates as reflexiveness (se rappeler).

30The metaphor of that mother who collects her life’s most precious fragments mimicks memory’s effort to gather, to cull, to recollect, to give that memory a shelter. It is also akin to the creative act in the relation between pieces and parts. The “yes, yes, yes” of fantasy that inscribes the indelible character of the object-souvenir, its remanence and permanency, echoes in this passage the “nonono” of refusal, the rejection of violence, or its acceptance in the name of a withdrawal from a greater violence. The circle cannot be closed even if it tries to narrow down its subject. It inscribes in its center the void of the unspeakable, what writing cannot spell. Whereas the memory-object blocks, fills in, clogs, the re-call of the murder of the daughter points to a void, a hole, a place that has been emptied out, both loss and excess (Raynaud, 1993).

3. Narrative/re-creation: the color of memory

31The narrative creates reality and substitutes for it several times in the novel through the character of Beloved. The ghost, this phantom, acts as the return of the repressed. Sethe’s second daughter Denver spins a web of words the better to hold up her fleeing sister, running away like water, who showed up one fine day without warning. The two sisters love to recreate in their dialogue the story of Denver’s miraculous birth, a narrative that only the mother can tell since she is the only one to have experienced birthgiving, a “delivery”:

The two did the best they could to create what really happened, how it really was, something only Sethe knew because she alone had the mind for it and the time afterward to shape it: the quality of Amy’s voice, her breath like burning wood. The quick-change weather up in those hills – cool at night, hot in the day, sudden fog. (B, 78, italics mine)

32To tell one’s story is described as an a posteriori recreation of experience, an act of figuration which takes time. But the metaphor of abrupt change (“quick”, “sudden”) and this switching between hot and cold recall the fog of that day, a necessary blurring, a liminal state between liquid and solid, “condensation”. The unspeakable of voice and breath, the narrative of birth become the birth of the subjet in the alienation of language. It is symptomatic of the novel that Denver should ask to hear it several times and that the sisters should generate the tale of the birth of the latter through the words of the dead other. Their mother Sethe also learns that listening can be appeasing, can bring satisfaction:

Sethe learned the profound satisfaction that Beloved got from storytelling. It amazed Sethe (as much as it pleased Beloved) because very mention of her past life hurt. Everything in it was painful or lost... But as she began telling about her earrings, she found herself wanting it liking it. Perhaps it was Beloved’s distance from the events itself or her thirst for hearing it – in any case it was an unexpected pleasure, (italics mine,)

33In the narrative of the past that Beloved demands, Sethe’s pain gives way to pleasure. The loss inscribed in the memory of events changes into the production of a narrative for the other that is motivated by desire (want) and an unexpected pleasure found in storytelling. The objectification of the other must happen for pain and suffering to give way to pleasure.

34Further on, the text describes the surprising eruption of this memory that one thought was lost, but that is still there. Sethe folds and refolds a sheet after Paul D’s visit:

  • 7 Another narrative instance of the difficulty in remembering linked to the fragmented body is exempl (...)

Then she folded, refolded and double folded it. She took another. Neither was completely dry but the folding was too fine to stop. She had to do something with her hands because she was remembering something she had forgotten she knew. Something privately shameful that had seeped into a slit in her mind right behind the slap on her face and the circled cross, (italics mine)7

35In Study on Hysteria Freud reports the following exchange. He tells Lucy R.: “But since you have said that you did not like the professor”. Lucy answers: “I did not know it, or rather I did not want to know it, I wanted to chase it from my mind, never think of it, I think I managed quite well lately”. Like Sethe, whose task consists in resisting the removal of the repressed once the latter has come back to consciousness, the patient does not wnat to know (that she knows). The removal of the repressed, as in the case of any defense mechanism, consists in acknowledging that one always already knew and to go through other - in the present case traumatic- memories. They are indeed inscribed within Sethe’s flesh; the slap her mother gives her on the one hand and, on the other, the symbol of the circle and the cross (the circled cross) which is the Master’s mark. The trace that serves for the daughter’s recognition of the mother is at the same time the mark of her “chattel” status.

36The folds and the refolds, the double folds of the sheets converge to support the analysis of a multilayered memory, akin to the folds in the sheets of the washerwoman or the ironing woman. The iron of slavery’s schackles can be heard in the English metaphor whereas the French tells of the comings and goings, the passing of the iron: “repasser”. Memory lapses must be added to the irreductible loss of the mothertongue. Sethe no longer remembers: “What Nan told her she had forgotten, along with the language she told it in. The same language her ma’am spoke, and which would never come back. But the message – that was and had been there all along” (B,). It is litterally a language of no-return since the words are no longer there and the African soil has been lost. The return of the trauma (“re-memory”) is spelt in the text precisely in opposition to the impossibility to recover this original language. Sethe’s first traumatic memory is that of being raped, deprived of her mother’s milk by Schoolteacher’s nephews. Mother’s milk – essential food and answer to need – runs into blood: but is it the blood of life (genealogy) or the blood of death (murder)? The bleeding child with the slit throat symbolically translates into self-mutilation. The infanticide is that other moment that Sethe cannot put into words, in place, around which she describes concentric circles.

37Following a progress that contrasts with Sethe's remembering, Halle’s mother, Baby Suggs, once a courageous and powerful woman, a female preacher for unloved bodies, gradually locks herself into a gray and black universe, a colorless world. She gives up her struggle. Her mental evolution towards death is described as a process in which she forces herself to think of colors, to go through the colors of the rainbow, one by one in her head to reach red, a color she will fail to get at: the impossible color of murder. “Pondering color” () means both to weigh the burden of color or race, while thinking what makes one go from one to the other while maintaining that unstable balance. Dividing colors into discreet entitiesledas to an impossible abstraction. What is white when white is so white that it becomes blue, and blue so dark that it becomes black? That will be one of the questions asked about Beloved's eyes which were wells of darkness. Baby Suggs dies before the moment when she could have reached red. Paul D will reach it at the bottom of a heart: “Red heart”. Amy yearns for the color red of the velvet material sold in Boston: “In Boston they got all the colors. Carmine. That means red but when you talk about velvet you’ve got to say ‘carmine’”(B, 33). Stamp Paid fishes from the river the red ribbon to which still clings a bit of scalp: a macabre souvenir, a fetished fragment of memory:

Tying his flatbed up on the bank of the Licking River, securing it the best he could, he caught sight of something red in its bottom. Reaching for it, he thought it was a cardinal feather stuck to his boat. He tugged and what came loose in his hand was a red ribbon knotted around a curl of wet wholly hair, clinging still to its bit of scalp. (Β,)

38Stamp keeps this ribbon:

He kept this ribbon; the skin smell nagged him, and his weakened marrow made him dwell on Baby Suggs’ wish to consider what in the world was harmless. He hoped she stuck to blue, yellow, maybe green, and never fixed on red. (B, 181)

39Sethe, who had failed to understand the meaning of the old woman's retreat, enters her bedroom and analyses this process. She herself in her desire to maintain a certain distance with her past, or in her words “to [keep] the past at bay” (B, 42), had reached a stage where she could no longer percieve colors:

Sethe looked at her hands, her bottle-green sleeves, and thought how little color there was in the house and how strange that she had not missed it the way Baby did. Deliberate, she thought, it must be deliberate, because the last color she remembered was the pink chips in the headstone of her baby girl. After that she became as color conscious as a hen. Every dawn she worked at fruit pies, potato dishes and vegetables while the cook did the soup, meat and all the rest. And she could not remember remembering a molly apple or a yellow squash. Every dawn, she saw the dawn, but she never acknowledged or remarked its color. It was as if one day she saw red baby blood, another day pink gravestone chips, and that was the last of it. (B, 39, italics mine)

40The process of repression is described as a mise en abyme of remembering. Sethe does not remember the fact that she could remember. What is lost is the ability to remember; she cannot remember the workings of memory. The visual aspects of memories also fail her. Dawn is colorless. Two colors forbid the process of remembering: the red of her child's blood and the pink of the marble tombstone on which she has had her daughter’s name engraved: “Beloved.” Sethe passes from red to pink, ans stops there. This process is the reverse of Baby Suggs'. To remember means to allow the memory of the narrative of the child's murder, of her child's blood that she herself has shed, to come back to her consciousness.

41At the end of her essay on the “site” of memory –as one speaks of an archeological site– Morrison defines her inner memories as follows: “These ‘memories within’ are the subsoil of my work”, taking up the words of her literary foremother Zora Neale Hurston at the beginning of Dust Tracks on a Road. Hurston uses the comparison with apparently dead rocks whose apparent coldness nonetheless contains the material of the “I”: “Like the dead seeming cold rocks I have memories within that came out of the material that went to make me” (1984, 3). It is within the enigma of this death-in- life that memory works on creative imagination. The geological metaphor is nothing but innocent. It yokes the “myth” of memory as it relates to the soil (“formation” of a nation, of a people, “sites” of memory) to the metaphorical process at work in Black American literature.


Works cited

Andrews, William and Nellie McKay, 1999. Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Oxford: Oxford UP.

Fabre, Geneviève and Claudine Raynaud Eds. 1993. Beloved, She is Mine. Essais sur Beloved de Toni Morrison. Paris: Presses Universitaire de la Sorbonne Nouvelle.

Freud, Sigmund, [1953] 1997. La Technique psychanalytique, chapitre Χ, “Remémoration, répétition, et perlaboration”. Paris: PUF.

Harding, Wendy and Jacky Martin, 1994. “Reading at the Cultural Interface: The Corn Symbolism of Beloved”, MELUS, The Journal of the Society for the Study of Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States 19, 85-97.

Hurston, Zora Neale, [1942] 1984. Dust Tracks on a Road. Urbana-Champaign, IL: Illinois UP.

Levine, Lawrence, 1977. Black Culture and Black Consciousness. New York: Oxford UP.

Miller, Gérard, 1987. Lacan. Paris: Bordas.

Morrison, Toni, 1984. “Memory, Creation, and Writing”, Thought 59, n° 235, December, 385-390.

----, 1987. “The Site of Memory” in William Zinsser Ed. Inventing the Truth: The art and Craft of Memoir. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 103-124.

Nasio, Jean-Daniel, [1992] 1994. Cinq leçons sur la théorie de Jacques Lacan. Paris: Payot.

Raynaud, Claudine, 1993. “Figures of Excess in Morrioson’s Beloved” in Fabre 1993,139-150.

----, 1997. “Looking for Langston: Dream, Desire, Deferral”, in Claudine Raynaud, ed. Sexualités américaines: Regards théoriques, réponses institutionnelles. Actes du Congrès de l’AFEA, Tours 1996, GRAAT 17, 193-208

----, 2001. “Toni Morrison: le lieu et la mémoire” in Josiane Paccaud-Huguet et Michèle Rivoire Eds. Etudes de poétique, Presses Universitaires de Lyon 11,45-63.


1 An earlier version of this essay appeared in French in Etudes de poétique (Raynaud, 2001).

2 Toni Morrison, Beloved (New York: Picador, 1987). Hereafter cited as B.

3 Toni Morrison,“The Site of Memory” in William Zinsser Ed. Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987, 103-124. Hereafter cited in the text as SM.

4 "Slaves not only picked cotton but planted rice, husked corn, rowed boats, rocked babies, cooked food, indeed performed almost every conceivable task to the accompaniement of song with an intensity and style that continually licited the comments of the whites around them" (Levine, 1977, 6). Levine refers to these songs which accompanied that specific task as "corn shucking songs" (Levine, 1977, 16).

5 Toni Morrison, “Memory, Creation, and Writing”, Thought 59, n° 235 (December, 1984) 385-390. Hereafter cited in the text as T.

6 In the monologue when she addresses Beloved, Sethe remembers and asks her daughter to remember, but she was too small at the time: “But you were there and even if you too young to memory it, I can tell it to you. The grape harbor. You memory that?” (B, 202, italics mine).

7 Another narrative instance of the difficulty in remembering linked to the fragmented body is exemplified by Ella who links the loss of her tooth and that of her child: “She remembered the bottom teeth she had lost to the brake and the scars from the bell were thick as rope round her waist. She had delivered but could not nurse, a hairy white thing, fathered by 'the lowest yet'. It lived five days never making a sound. The idea of that pup coming back to whip her too set her jaw working, and Ella hollered” (B, 258-259, italics mine). Beloved's body is also dismembered: “Beloved. It is difficult keeping her head on her neck, her hips attached to her hips when she is by herself. Among the things she could not remember was when she first knew that she could wake up any day and find herself in pieces. She had two dreams: exploding or being swallowed” (B, 133, italics mine).

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