Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Trauma and the Specters of Enslavement in Morrison's Beloved

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Trauma and the Specters of Enslavement in Morrison's Beloved

Article excerpt

Reading Beloved specifically, this essay considers the explicit tension between trauma as a trope for recovered history and those therapeutic, empiricist-minded narratives that require a subject to progress beyond and locate herself rationally outside the traumatic moment.

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In the literary world populated by ghosts that eventually became synonymous with the Gothic tradition, the plot of haunting figures its social concerns as metaphysical matters, even to the point where the dramatic spectacle of the ghost makes it hard to trace the social meaning of which it is a spectral emanation. The social relevance of the ghost seems especially obsolete when the haunting coincides with a narrative of fatalism, as if the one who experiences the ghost and the one who suffers history must alike submit to a symbolic social order overdetermined by the spirits of ancestry and cast too strongly in the die of the past. Toni Morrison's Beloved, through its turn to Gothic tradition, recovers an untold history of suffering, which seems both the product of such an overdetermined past and a criticism of our conventional historical narratives. As Valerie Smith has argued, Morrison's method of circling her story back upon itself marks a suspicion about the "limits of hegemonic, authoritarian systems of k nowledge" (346). But it also marks, within the world of the story, the characters' inability to become adequate to a historical sense of themselves and thus to trace the social meanings behind their sufferings--a point made all too clearly when Paul D becomes frustrated with Sethe's inability to offer a linear, rational account of herself. Part of the problem, as Homi Bhabha has suggested, is that Sethe cannot construct herself by means of a teleological social narrative in which she would figure as an agent who chooses her own actions, and so, in Bhabha's view, we are forced to read the inwardness of the slave world from the outside--that is, through the ghostly returning memory of Sethe's infanticide (16-18). Like many readers of Beloved, Bhabha views this ghostly return as intimating a reclamation of Sethe's voice and a restoration of an interpersonal social reality eclipsed by the fatalism of slavery, so that history survives beyond the question of its overt visibility, if only in the "deepest resources of our amnesia, of our unconsciousness" (18).

Bhabha's use of psychoanalytic categories veers so close to the contemporary discourse of trauma as to make him complicitous--say, from the perspective of empiricist-minded critics who yield to the trauma all the status they would grant a ghost--with the trauma's most unreasonable tendencies. Lived as a resistance to an empirically conceived realism about persons, events, and, most significantly, time itself, trauma is a phenomenon that violently interrupts the present tense of consciousness, occurring for the first time only by being repeated. By virtue of this structure of repetition, trauma poses a challenge to historical knowledge, since it is always the symptomology of trauma that one confronts and never the event itself, much as it is always the lack of knowledge that perpetuates the traumatic effect. As an excess or afterlife of the event, trauma refers to an act not yet encountered--as it were, to a specter of the past. To the extent that it testifies, to borrow Cathy Caruth's phrase, to "a reality or truth that is otherwise not available"(4), the trauma depends by definition on the inadequacy of our knowledge in the present order. For this very reason, the trauma has come to function for many critics as a trope of access to more difficult histories, providing us with entry into a world inhabited by the victims of extraordinary social violences, those perspectives so often left out of rational, progressive narratives of history. Indeed, in this respect the trauma functions rather as a ghost of rationality, that which announces a history haunting the very possibility of history. …

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