Dis(re)membering History's Revenants: Trauma, Writing, and Simulated Orality in Toni Morrison's Beloved

By Bergthaller, Hannes | Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate, January 1, 2006 | Go to article overview

Dis(re)membering History's Revenants: Trauma, Writing, and Simulated Orality in Toni Morrison's Beloved


Bergthaller, Hannes, Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate


"Most artful Teuth, [you], being the father of written letters, have on account of goodwill said the opposite of what they can do. For this will provide forgetfulness in the souls of those who have learned it, through neglect of memory, seeing that, through trust in writing, they recollect from outside with alien markings, not reminding themselves from inside, by themselves. You have therefore found a drug not for memory, but for reminding."

Plato, Phaedrus 275a

I

The suspicion that writing might be an ally not of memory, but of forgetfulness, is perhaps as old as writing itself-at least, that is what the words of divine King Thamos to his subaltern are designed to suggest, thus underscoring one of Plato's principal concerns in the Phaedrus.1 Writing, he has Socrates tell his pupil, is dangerous, as it leads people to mistake the written representation of knowledge for knowledge itself. Instead of teaching them truth, it merely teaches them true opinions, and so truth will fall into oblivion. In the Phaedrus, this distrust of writing gives rise to the dream of a different kind of writing, "one that is written with knowledge in the soul of him who understands, with power to defend itself, and knowing to speak and to keep silence towards those it ought [...], a speech living and endowed with soul" (276a). This would be, in effect, a written logos with the ability not only to convey the originary presence of its "father" but also to establish a community of those who share the truth which this presence imparts. The form in which Plato strove to realize this dream is that of a simulated orality-namely, that of the dialogues themselves, which, if approached in the right spirit, are supposed to restore for the reader the presence of his teacher Socrates.

In the past few decades, this very old anxiety has assumed both a new form and a new kind of urgency, as writers and critics have begun to question if and how the human catastrophes which have shaped modern history could properly be represented and remembered. The French director Claude Lanzmann expressed this anxiety in its most radical form when he argued that "to learn the Holocaust" is effectively to "forget" it (85). Of course, Lanzmann is primarily concerned with the medium of film, but much the same has been argued for written accounts of the Holocaust, most notably by Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub. According to this school of thought, it can never be enough to know 'about' the horror of genocide. As Walter Benn Michaels summarizes the argument, "what the Holocaust requires is a way of transmitting not the normalizing knowledge of the horror but the horror itself" (141).2 Texts which deal with such traumatic historical events must therefore strive not merely to render them in a factually accurate fashion, but rather to reenact them for the reader in order to implicate him in the traumatic experience, and to evoke the lost presence of the victims. Theories of trauma have, over the past decades, become one of the principal tools for conceptualizing not only the Holocaust, but the historical experience of victimized minority groups in general, and for outlining the ethical responsibilities of both writers and critics with respect to the latter.

It is therefore hardly surprising that Toni Morrison's 1987 novel Beloved has frequently been approached from such an angle-it is, after all, a work which announces its ambition to commemorate one of the constitutive historical traumas of American culture already in the famous epigraph: "Sixty Million and More" (xi)-the number of Africans who are estimated to have died during the Middle Passage, before even reaching the shores of America. In this reading of Beloved, I will triangulate such a take on the novel with some ideas from scholarship on the split between orality and literacy, as well as with Toni Morrison's own essays on the poetics of Afro-American art. In the latter, Morrison typically conceives of the relation between reader and text on the model of oral communication, arguing that something like the antiphony characteristic of Afro-American musical forms or the call-and-response interaction between a preacher and his congregation can also take place in reading-indeed, that the achievement of such an interaction between reader and text ought to be the principal measure of a text's literary value. …

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