Academic journal article African American Review

Alternatives to the "Talking Cure": Black Music as Traumatic Testimony in Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon

Academic journal article African American Review

Alternatives to the "Talking Cure": Black Music as Traumatic Testimony in Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon

Article excerpt

In her critical inquiry Bread Out of Stone, Caribbean Canadian author Dionne Brand gestures to the implicit correlation between Freudian psychoanalysis and black music:

   Someone asks when did blues piano develop ... "beyond the
   twelve-bar blues." She replies, stupendously, "When Freud and Jung
   discovered more about the human psyche over in Europe all that
   thinking had an influence on blues music." My lover and I let out a
   loud, simultaneous "Puhlease!" "Like Freud discovered the
   Mississippi Delta, like he set up a couch in a buffet flat in
   Chicago!" (149)

The anecdote suggests that disenfranchised African Americans, who were, of course, not members of the bourgeois European society whom Freud and Jung usually treated, developed their own form of psychotherapy, namely, the blues and black music in general. This parallel is to some extent unusual. Freud's interest in unconscious drives and desires does not speak to the African American experience, which was situated in the external realities of slavery and social marginalization. Freud's early manifestation of psychoanalysis, however--what the hysteric Anna O. termed the "talking cure"--did in fact deal with external events; specifically, it involved the narrativization of traumatic events. The "talking cure," then, is a model of traumatic testimony and is decidedly comparable to black music. Toni Morrison makes this parallel in her novel Song of Solomon, and has certainly designated music as therapeutic in other works. In "Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation," she explicitly argues that music was "for a long time, the art form that was healing for Black people" (340). This assessment, however, is reinforced by the novel's treatment of black music in a particular way: music and song in Song of Solomon are situated as akin to the "talking cure." This link is based on the ways in which expression, in both paradigms of testimony, has a performative function. As in conventional models of testimony like the "talking cure," black music is a speech act that engenders emotional catharsis and brings latent memories to the fore.

Song of Solomon, however, does not simply establish parallels between these two paradigms of testimony; ultimately, the novel inherently explores the ways in which they differ. Song of Solomon suggests that black music serves the same purpose as talk therapy, but its configuration as a model of testimony distinctly varies. So although the two paradigms may have the same emotional and psychological function--that is, what they do is similar--the ways in which they accomplish these underlying functions fundamentally differ. These differences are significant, as they encourage a reconsideration of the foundational dimensions of traumatic testimony as they are encoded in current discourses of trauma. Specifically, our understanding of traumatic testimony, particularly as "talking cure," implicitly privileges two coefficients: language and Western culture. This emphasis on language predominately derives from notions of testimony as a narrative act, an assessment apparent in both nineteenth- and twentieth-century theories of trauma. Similarly, theories of trauma and testimony are grounded in Western assumptions and traditions, a Eurocentric perspective apparent in the works of individual critics such as Cathy Caruth and Judith Herman, and theorists who have historicized the concept of trauma such as Ruth Leys and Allan Young. The central place of both language and Western culture may be apparent in current theories of traumatic testimony; representations of black music as testimony in Song of Solomon, however, question their privileged status and so deviate from recent discourses of trauma. In this essay, I consider the ways in which black music is situated as an alternative to the "talking cure" in Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon, and explore how its status as a narrative paradigm and cultural artifact encourages a reconsideration of the central place of both language and Western culture in current theories of testimony. …

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