"When the Pear Blossoms / Cast Their Pale Faces on / the Darker Face of the Earth": Miscegenation, the Primal Scene, and the Incest Motif in Rita Dove's Work

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Rita Dove's verse drama The Darker Face of the Earth is a curiously important text in her oeuvre. Curious, because while its initial publication date is 1994, it originates, according to Dove, in the late 1970s and was first drafted in the early 1980s, thus placing it with her earliest work (Pereira interview 185-87). Furthermore, after its initial publication, it was substantially rewritten, resulting in a "completely revised second edition," according to the cover of the 1996 version. Such a process of thinking, writing, and rewriting spanning almost twenty years of a career offers an important view into the development of key themes and issues in Dove's work.

Such a long process also suggests struggle. While Dove admits that some of the impetus for the 1996 revision came from putting the play into production (Pereira interview 185-87), that accounts for only a small portion--two years--of the play's writing process. The play's entire writing history is a struggle between burial and expression: After writing the play in the early 1980s, Dove says she "put it away"; it was only because her husband, Fred Viebahn, "kept bugging [her] every five years or so to do something that [she] finally re-wrote it and Storyline Press published it in 1994." Even then, Dove viewed the play as a repressed text in her oeuvre thinking that only "when I was dead someone would [perform] it out of pity or whatever" (Pereira interview 185). Dove's comments suggest an unconscious wish that the play remain buried. The Darker Face of the Earth has had an extended writing process because, I would argue, it presents an African American primal scene Dove's writing has anxiously repressed--and symptomatically expressed--throughout her oeuvre.

Freud saw primal scenes as originary traumas explaining adult neuroses. In "The Case of the Wolf Man," the primal scene Freud inferred was that the patient, at the age of one-and-a-half, had seen his parents copulating. Unable to comprehend the scene, he interpreted it as a violent castration of the mother, and thus repressed the memory. Various rather interesting symptoms resulted from this repression. Freud believed that discovering this primal scene in the course of psychoanalytic therapy would lift the repression and resolve the patient's neurotic symptoms. Discovery of the primal scene, however, was to be aided by the therapist, for the patient's repression is such that s/he cannot consciously remember the scene. As Ned Lukacher, in his redevelopment of the idea of the primal scene for literary analysis, asserts: In the notion of the primal scene,

Freud developed a theory of the unsaid and a technique for discovering the tropes and figures that determine the shape of a patient's discourse but that the patient himself can never remember. The patient's speech "remembers," while the patient himself remains oblivious and utterly resists all the analyst's efforts to bring the "memory" to consciousness. (12)

While perhaps overstating the lack of awareness on the part of the patient, this description of the method of determining the primal scene through tropes and figures of a patient's discourse remains useful in reading texts with an ear to hearing their repressed primal scene. For Lukacher, the critic of a literary text plays a similar role with respect to the "patient-text": "Interpretation is always a kind of listening or reading that enables one to translate one set of words into another. The voice of the text, like the voice of the patient, is a verbal mask that conceals forgotten words and the forgotten scenes they compose" (68). In brief, the critic can read the text's discourse as a key to discovering its forgotten primal scene.

Among critics using the idea of the primal scene in literary analysis, there is some difference of opinion as to the "realness" of the repressed event. Jennifer L. Holden-Kirwan writes of Beloved's experience of the Middle Passage as her primal scene in Toni Morrison's Beloved, maintaining a direct connection among the lived experience, the repressed memories of the horrors, and Beloved's behavior. …