Academic journal article Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics

The Question of Reading Traumatic Testimony: Jones's Corregidora and Morrison's Beloved

Academic journal article Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics

The Question of Reading Traumatic Testimony: Jones's Corregidora and Morrison's Beloved

Article excerpt

Contemporary writing is haunted by the manifestation of the repressed. This is why the beginning of this new millennium may appropriately be coined 'the era of monstrological revenance': disruptive, angry, and vengeful. The act of writing is henceforth dispossessed, powerless, and unauthoritative. This article is mainly concerned with the question of reading today's ghostly literary productions, focusing on the limits of interpretation, understanding, and comprehension as containment. This is illustrated via an ethical re-evaluation of Toni Morrison's Beloved and Gayl Jones's Corregidora in their encounter with trauma theorists, but mainly with Jacques Derrida's overwhelming reflections on mourning, spectrality, and testimony.

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Language is a place of struggle in language to recover ourselves--to rewrite, to reconcile, to renew. Our words are not without meaning. They are an action--a resistance.

--bell hooks, Talking Back

All about us is noise. All about us is noise and bramble, thorn and din, each one of our ancestors on our tongues ... We encounter each other in words, words spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed, words to consider, reconsider ... Say it plain: that many have died for this day. Sing the names of the dead who brought us here ... Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day.

--Elizabeth Alexander, "Praise Song for the Day"

Speaking is impossible, but so too would be silence or absence or a refusal to share one's sadness.

--Jacques Derrida, Memoires: For Paul de Man

By Way of Introduction

Like millions of viewers, I watched and heard Elizabeth Alexander reciting her inaugural poem (1) immediately after Obama had taken the presidential oath. (2) Like Obama's, Alexander's words are sober with doses of hopeful determination. Parts of the two texts read like a 'rememory' recit, slipping within the joyful uproar that celebrates the event. Yet, without attention, one can hardly perceive the trace of an imperceptible wound through Alexander's apparently well-mastered performance. Beyond the calm of the utterance, methodically structured to build the architectural edifice of the poem, a lament is voiced. Something whispers through the verbal flow. Hardly perceivable, the muffled babble of the wound yet emerges to trace the contours of the structure. As a belated witness, Alexander's narrative poem, like Obama's address, is uttered in the form of a hymn to the dead, as a threshold to catharsis. It is an address to an audience attending the ceremony, as well as to an absent one lurking in the poetess's mind to reach her tongue: "All about us is noise and bramble, thorn and din, each one of our ancestors on our tongues." The spirit of the dead lives on, coated with their "song for struggle," reaching out to a promising future. Note the concordant resonance between bell hooks's epigraph above and Alexander's rhythm: "We encounter each other in words, ... words to consider, reconsider."

With the African-American traumatic saga in mind, the final emphasis in the quoted portion sounds like an insistent call for the endless repetition of an ethical performance. "To consider" is a call for attention, respect, and care; it is an ethically imperative demand for the incorporation of one another's story ("words") that should transpire and be encountered in the form of welcome. Every individual story moves beyond what is said, stated by the speaking subject, to re-emerge, naked and yet not transparent, during its reception. Each story contains its silence. Its very literal exposure is a disguise, a symptom, (3) veiling what remains untold. To "reconsider" urges the audience not to exacerbate the painful past by swiftly moving on through its enunciation in history documents. It insists on the survivors' humility by urging them to visit and to re-visit, slowly, patiently, their ancestors' narrative as a work-in-progress: "Say it plain, that many have died for this day," Alexander says. …

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