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Oct 26, 2012

Beloved: Morrison

The most overrated novel ever has got to be Beloved. Upon its initial publication, it was rightly passed over for the 1988 National Book Award, which went to Larry Heinemann’s Paco’s Story, while the National Book Critics Circle handed its fiction award instead to Philip Roth for The Counterlife. In protest, forty-eight “black critics and black writers”—their own self-description—wrote to the New York Times Book Review, “asserting [them]selves against the oversight and harmful whimsy” by which white males were preferred to Toni Morrison. “The legitimate need for our own critical voice in relation to our own literature can no longer be denied,” the forty-eight declared.[1]

Not quite ten weeks later Beloved was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Everyone quoted on the record agreed that the protest and demands for recognition did not influence the prize committee’s decision—not a chance, no way, no how. Just to be sure, the Swedish Academy gave Toni Morrison the Nobel Prize in literature four years later. “She is the first black woman to receive the prize,” the Times helpfully noted on the front page.[2]

To her credit, Morrison disclaimed the “extra-literary responsibility” of expressing black writers’ legitimate need. That was a responsibility Beloved “was never designed for,” she said.[3] And yet the novel invited such an investment of collective hopes: “Sixty Million and more,” read its dedication. In the annals of comparative martyrology, she appeared to suggest, the toll of the slave trade was ten times greater than the Nazi Holocaust.

The novel’s epigraph, taken verbatim from the King James Version of Paul’s letter to the Romans, makes a similar appropriation:
I will call them my people,
which were not my people;
and her beloved,
which was not beloved.
Although it is not clear whether Morrison knows as much, Paul is himself appropriating the words of the prophet Hosea here: “V’amarti l’lo-ami ami-atah v’hi yomar elohai—And I will say to them that were not my people, You are my people, and they shall say, You are my God” (2.25). Originally a reassertion of God’s promise to the people of Israel that, even though they are scattered to the four corners of the earth, they will be gathered back into the land of Israel and return to their God, Hosea’s words are revolved by Paul to refer to the Christians—they will now be God’s people, who were not before—and then revolved again by Morrison to refer to the children of slaves.

In short, the forematter assigns to Beloved just exactly the sort of “extra-literary responsibility” that Morrison sought to disclaim in the New York Times. The novel is intended to be a monument, a permanent marker of memory and history; and this is the source of its failure. It is less mythic than typological; less a “story to pass on” than a dense allegory of racial suffering. Consider the last chapter in which Morrison tries to sum up the history of the people “which were not my people” by identifying them with the ghost of Sethe’s murdered daughter:
Everybody knew what she was called, but nobody anywhere knew her name. Disremembered and unaccounted for, she cannot be lost because no one is looking for her, and even if they were, how can they call her if they don’t know her name? Although she has a claim, she is not claimed. In the place where long grass opens, the girl who waited to be loved and cry shame erupts into her separate parts, to make it easy for the chewing laughter to swallow her all away.[4]Although “she” in this passage is both Sethe’s daughter and the black race, the succession of paradoxes about “her” is effective only if the reader stays on one level of meaning at a time. Any attempt to hold them both in the mind will end in confusion. If everybody knows that the girl is called “Beloved” then the word Beloved merely needs to be halloed in order to summon her. But if everybody knows what the race is popularly called (insert ugly racial epithet here ________) then shouting out the epithet will summon not the people but only a racist projection, a bogey; that is, a ghost. The passage is written with a crossword puzzler’s ear for language. It attains neither rhythm nor sharpness, and the plays on words (lost–looking, claim–claimed) are clumsy rather than charming. As for that last sentence: try picturing it.

Yet Beloved cannot be discussed apart from Morrison’s fumbling for a distinctive rhetoric. The Swedish Academy praised her stylistic experimentation in awarding her the Nobel Prize: “She delves into the language itself, a language she wants to liberate from the fetters of race.” Well, maybe. But you know the saying: when you find yourself in a hole, stop delving. Here she is describing Paul D’s entrance into Sethe’s Cincinnati house. He must pass through a “pool of pulsing red light” to get in: “Walking through it, a wave of grief soaked him so thoroughly he wanted to cry. It seemed a long way to the normal light surrounding the table, but he made it—dry-eyed and lucky” (p. 9). Morrison’s technique might be characterized as literalizing stock language. If you can mention a “wave of grief,” she can say that it soaks you. But then she nods or the effort of linguistic distinction proves too tiring, and so the light “surrounding the table” (was there a skylight? A pendant lamp? An angel?) is, um, “normal.” Is there a norm to indoor light?

I cannot think of a worse prose writer who is praised for her language: “What she knew was that the responsibility for her breasts, at last, was in somebody else’s hands” (p. 18). But everyone agrees that Morrison is a great writer and Beloved is a great novel; there is a huge body of scholarship to enforce the agreement (as I found, there are over six hundred items in the MLA International Bibliography in whole or part on the novel). In the most recent scholarly article on it, for example, the critic singles out a “stream-of-consciousness interlude” in which Beloved recalls the transatlantic passage of Africans bound for slavery:
All of it is now     it is always now     there will never be a time when I am not crouching and watching others who are crouching too     I am always crouching     the man on my face is dead     his face is not mine     his mouth smells sweet but his eyes are locked      (p. 210)And then three paragraphs later:We are not crouching now     we are standing but my legs are like my dead man’s eyes     I cannot fall because there is no room to     the men without skin are making loud noises     I am not dead     the bread is sea-colored     I am too hungry to eat it     the man closes my eyes     those able to die are in a pile     (p. 211)The critic then goes on to elucidate this passage, observing that the way in which Beloved speaks of “the living and the dead being piled on top of one another and fastened together by chains in the holds of slave ships graphically testifies to how the killing of the African slave involved more than the taking of her biological life. Stated simply, Black Atlantic and ‘New World’ mass internment, enslavement, and genocide were and are produced as much through the mass reproduction of living death as through the production of biologically expired bodies.”[5] Whether this conclusion deserves the jargon required to yield it is beside the point. The point is that, as Yvor Winters wrote of Edgar Allan Poe, “when a writer is supported by a sufficient body of such scholarship, a very little philosophical elucidation will suffice to establish him [or her] in the scholarly world as a writer whose greatness is self-evident.”[6]

Rather than taking the “stream-of-consciousness interlude” at face value, the critic might ask the obvious question: what is its place and function in the novel? How is it possible that a slave child, born in Kentucky and murdered by her mother at less than a month old (“If I hadn't killed her she would have died and that is something I could not bear” [p. 200]), is familiar with the experience of the Middle Passage in horrifying detail? In fiction anything is possible, but Morrison does nothing to devise the possibility. She merely introduces the “interlude” with an allusion to the biblical Song of Songs (“I am Beloved and she is mine”), which implies, I suppose, that Sethe has merged with Beloved after living with the ghost for so long. And Beloved, a victim of slavery, embodies the collective consciousness of racial suffering? And so Sethe achieves mystic oneness with the race’s memory? Or something?

The truth is that the stream-of-racial-consciousness interlude is a display piece, a verbal stunt that is connected to the rest of the novel by the thinnest of fictions—and by the ambition to leave a monument to the suffering caused by black slavery. The odd spacing and lack of punctuation, the fragmented phrases, are little more than an attempt to defamiliarize what are, to be honest, scenes and images that have been familiar since the first photographs of Hitler’s death camps were published in the United States. The dead, heaped in a pile, are nothing new. Only the typography is new.

And that, finally, is the trouble with Beloved. The central idea of the novel is arresting and memorable, although Sethe’s murder of her child may only be a variation on Sophie’s Choice, but nothing else about it is. Beloved has been called a ghost story, but it has neither of the “two ingredients most valuable in concocting a ghost story,” according to M. R. James, the genre’s best-known practitioner—it has neither atmosphere nor the “nicely managed crescendo.”[7] It has, in fact, no pace at all; it is, at best, a series of tableaux. Morrison is more interested in disrupting the chronological narrative than in telling a story. And her ghost is not really a ghost; she is the Oversoul of black folk. My guess is that, secretly, few readers believe in her reality. They claim to believe otherwise because the novel’s monumental pretensions and rhetorical self-importance—to say nothing of the overwhelming scholarly backing—suggest the presence of greatness where nothing of the sort is to be found.

[1] Robert Allen, Maya Angelou, et al., “Statement,” New York Times Book Review (January 24, 1988): 36.

[2] William Grimes, “Toni Morrison Is ’93 Winner of Nobel Prize in Literature,” New York Times (October 8, 1993): A1.

[3] Herbert Mitgang, “For Morrison, Prize Silences Gossip,” New York Times (April 1, 1988): B5.

[4] Toni Morrison, Beloved [1987] (New York: Plume, 1988), p. 274. Subsequent references in parentheses.

[5] Dennis Childs, “ ‘You Ain't Seen Nothin’ Yet’: Beloved, the American Chain Gang, and the Middle Passage Remix,” American Quarterly 61 (June 2009): 277.

[6] Yvor Winters, Maule’s Curse: Seven Studies in the History of American Obscurantism [1938], reprinted in In Defense of Reason (Chicago: Swallow, 1947), p. 234.

[7] M. R. James, Preface to More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary [1911], reprinted in Casting the Runes and Other Ghost Stories, ed. Michael Cox (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 339.

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