Academic journal article African American Review

Approaching the Thing of Slavery: A Lacanian Analysis of Toni Morrison's Beloved

Academic journal article African American Review

Approaching the Thing of Slavery: A Lacanian Analysis of Toni Morrison's Beloved

Article excerpt

African American literature is often defined through reference to the concepts of repetition and revision. African American scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. argues that it is precisely because "black authors read and revise one another, address similar themes and repeat the cultural and linguistic codes of a common symbolic geography," that "we can think of them as forming literary traditions" (20). It is in the context of this literary process of repetition and revision that we may first view Toni Morrison's novel Beloved. At its most basic level, Beloved is an imaginative repeating and revising of the history of a slave woman named Margaret Garner, the historical figure upon whom the character Sethe is based. However, what is most compelling about Beloved is its articulation of a psychoanalytic conception of the role that repetition plays in the lives of both its African American characters and many of the members of its contemporary African American reading audience.

If the function of repetition is important to psychoanalysis, it is important to the extent that, as Jacques Lacan asserts, "psychoanalytic thought defines itself" in "terms of traumas and their persistence" (Ethics 10). What Morrison's Beloved points to is precisely the persistence of a traumatic past that haunts the present through a subjective, psychic experience of trauma that defies the limits of time and space. Morrison's novel presents us with a literary understanding of a past that functions as what Lacan calls the Real, the Real as "that which is always in the same place" (70), as the "excluded" Thing that is "at the heart of me" as "something strange to me," the "prehistoric Other that it is impossible to forget," or to remember (71). It is this Real that Morrison's protagonist Sethe attempts to circumscribe in her description of Sweet Home as a place from her past that is "still there," not just in her "rememory," but "out there outside [her] head" (36). Speaking of her traumatic enslavement at Sweet Home, Sethe asserts, "even though it's all over--over and done for--it's going to always be there waiting," because "that place is real" (36).

Beloved's understanding that "some things just stay" founds its articulation of a historical trauma that equally haunts the residents of 124 and contemporary African Americans (35). The text presents to us a trauma that reemerges in the moment of our identification with its past location. Speaking of the Real place, Sethe proclaims, "it's never going away ..., and what's more, if you go there--you who never was there--if you go there and stand in the place where it was, it will happen again" (36). Through Sethe's description of a traumatic past that is always there waiting, Morrison suggests the notion of an African American population continually imperiled, not so much physically as psychically, by the history of slavery. Baby Suggs, Sethe's mother-in-law, declares that "not a house in the country ain't packed to its rafters with some dead Negro's grief" (5). This past grief is depicted in Beloved as a repetition that haunts and claims African Americans because they claim the racial past.

I read Morrison's Beloved as a textual presentation of race and the racial past of slavery as sublimated representatives of the Lacanian Real. Where race in particular is claimed by many African Americans as a socially accepted object of attachment, Beloved is a literary attempt to free African Americans from a self-destructive investment in the traumatic, racial past that frequently grounds their identity as "raced subjects." Lacan defines sublimation as a process that "raises an object ... to the dignity of the Thing," to the level of the Real (Ethics 112). His most telling example of a sublimated figure is perhaps "the image of the crucifixion" that "Christianity has erected in the place of all other gods" (261). Lacan finds in this sublimated image the function of an Ate, the "divinization" of a "limit" that simultaneously draws us toward and keeps us a safe distance from that which "represents the disqualification of all concepts," that which represents the void of the "empty" Real (262). …

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