Academic journal article African American Review

Is Morrison Also among the Prophets?: "Psychoanalytic" Strategies in 'Beloved.' (Toni Morrison)

Academic journal article African American Review

Is Morrison Also among the Prophets?: "Psychoanalytic" Strategies in 'Beloved.' (Toni Morrison)

Article excerpt

In our efforts to consider the structure of "rememory" in Beloved, we should call to mind what Toni Morrison once said:

Because so much in public and scholarly life forbids us to take seriously the milieu of buried stimuli, it is often extremely hard to seek out both the stimulus and its galaxy and to recognize their value when they arrive. Memory is for me always fresh, in spite of the fact that the object being remembered is done and past. ("Memory" 385)

In Beloved, Morrison takes up the challenge of excavating "buried stimuli" of the slave past by employing psychoanalysis to retrace footprints of journeys "done and past." This paper examines the method Morrison employs to (de)construct historical records about a particular incident that happened in 1855.(1) Struck by the incident but dissatisfied with the amount of information reported, Morrison, like a seer for whom time creates no boundaries, proceeds to give an account of this century-old occurence. She creates a narrative with this incident by exploring the psychic dimensions of American slavery, a dimensio that is often glossed over in the general enumeration of human and material loss. Morrison shoulders the task of reinventing the slave past because the facts of slavery are elided, suppressed, and even forgotten in many recorded accounts. Employing a narrative strategy that offers several possible interpretations of the novel Beloved, Morrison displaces the "comfortable" historical positions we might take on the matter of American slavery.

Morrison's narrative strategy--much like the structure of psychoanalysis--acts as a conditional operative, offering her creative opportunities to deal with the real, the fantastic, and the possible events that make up slave history. Her narrative strategy functions in Beloved as a project in historical mythmaking. Utilizing both Western and African interpretations of the psyche, Morrison succeeds in destabilizing stereotypic "re-memberings" on slavery. She suggests, through the multiple meanings her narrative provokes, that recorded history (which often presents certain information to the exclusion of some other) is a social construction reflecting a particular consciousness, a particular agenda. Indeed, with the lingering shadow of dark memories and the appearance and disappearance of ghosts in Beloved, Morrison states simply: There is more than meets the eye in the construction of history.

Morrison constructs the "interiority" of a slave experience in Beloved by straddling the ontological borders of race. She utilizes her double heritage (African American), her "double consciousness," as Du Bois puts it (45), to rewrite the history of slavery. As both an insider and an outsider to the Western tradition in literature, Morrison ruptures the representations of the literary canon by bringing an African dimension to it. She usurps the canon and forges it to fit her own constructions of a "fictionalized history" or a "historicized fiction," as the case may be.(2)

Yes, Morrison can be counted among the prophets of psychoanalysis. Her application of psychoanalytic material, as a rhetorical strategy, deliberately calls attention to, and lays claim to, the double status of the African American as a split subject. This strategy also arms Morrison with a prophetic voice that heralds on stage a contemplation on what a slave past means for the African American, without bracketing the multiple hermeneutic possibilities such a contemplation provokes. Just as Shoshana Felman uses psychoanalysis in a cultural context--something which is and is not there at the same time, conscious and unconscious, the exemplary description of the trace (11)(3)--so also Morrison uses the principal structure of recovery and displacement in psychoanalysis as a model for understanding Beloved. Consequently, tensions build up across many layers of semiotic representations in the novel. The characters as well as the reader must become part of the dramatis personae of this intra-psychic drama on the "reconstruction" of a slave past. …

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