Toni Morrison's Beloved and the Apotropaic Imagination

Synopsis

Toni Morrison's Beloved and the Apotropaic Imagination investigates Toni Morrison's Beloved in light of ancient Greek influences, arguing that the African American experience depicted in the novel can be set in a broader context than is usually allowed. Kathleen Marks gives a history of the apotropaic from ancient to modern times, and shows the ways that Beloved's protagonist, Sethe, and her community, engage the apotropaic as a mode of dealing with their communal suffering.

Apotropaic, from the Greek, meaning "to turn away from" refers to rituals that were performed in ancient times to ward off evil deities. Modern scholars use the term to denote an action that, in attempting to prevent an evil, causes that very evil. Freud used the apotropaic to inform his thought concerning Medusa and the castration complex, and Derrida found the apotropaic's logic of self-sabotage consonant with his own thought.

Marks draws on this critical history and argues that Morrison's heroine's effort to keep the past at bay is apotropaic: gestures aimed at resisting a danger, a threat, an imperative. These gestures anticipate, mirror, and put into effect that which they seek to avoid -- one does what one finds horrible so as to mitigate its horror. In Beloved, Sethe's killing of her baby reveals this logic: she kills the baby in order to save it. Her action has ritualistic undertones that link it to the type of primal crimes that can bring relief not only to herself but also to a petrified community. As do all great heroes, Sethe transgresses boundaries, and such transgressions bring with them terrific dangers. It is through a series of these gestures that the heroine and the community resist whatMorrison calls "cultural amnesia" and engage in a shared past, inaugurating a new order of love.

Toni Morrison's Beloved and the Apotropaic Imagination is eclectic in its approach -- calling upon Greek religion, Greek mythology