Since its publication in 1987, Toni Morrison's dedication of Beloved to "sixty million and more" has generated discomfort for many of the novel's readers and critics. Amy Schwartz writes for the Washington Post that "the book's dedication page brings up echoes of another experience entirely: 'Sixty Million, and More,' it says," adding wryly, "the echo has not gone unnoticed" (B7). This ellipticism informs other, more critical responses to the dedication: "Sixty is ten times six, of course," Stanley Crouch informs us, "and that is very important to remember" (67). While "the figure bears no relation to any scholarly estimate," writes Peter Novick, "it is, of course, ten times six million" (194). Emily Budick's relative bluntness is especially welcome: "in the American context this dedication cannot, especially to a Jewish readership, but recall the 'six million' of the Holocaust" (161).
In each of these responses, an emphasis on the "obvious," the "of course," and the "cannot but recall" implicitly reiterates these critics' assumption that the Holocaust holds a certain centrality in Western [End Page 581] literature and history, a centrality that goes without saying, as obvious and as unquestionable as six times ten. In light of such an assumption, "six million," unlike "sixty million and more," appears inarguable, irrefutable; despite Raul Hilberg's official estimate that the number of Jews murdered in the Holocaust is closer to five million, 1 "six million" is posited as the standard against which Morrison's figure requires explanation, justification, and recourse to such official sources as scholarly estimates and reliable documentation. "I take it to be incontrovertible that the number of Jews who lost their lives owing to the Holocaust was six million or thereabouts," writes Laurence Thomas. "On the other hand, estimates of the number of blacks who lost their lives during the voyage from Africa to the United States—the Middle Passage, as it is traditionally called—have gotten wildly out of control"(9). 2
The issue of comparative atrocities is a thorny one, and it is, at best, misguided to suppose that a writer of Morrison's critical and political acumen could be so naïve as to assume that she could evoke this figure without generating such responses. And yet, having invited discussion—"you haven't asked about the 60 million," she reminds an interviewer ("A Gravestone" 75)—Morrison refuses to engage in it. In interviews following the publication of Beloved, Morrison has repeatedly emphasized that the dedication of the novel to "sixty million and more" has nothing to do with the Holocaust. Rather, she states, the figure is an estimation (since official sources are lacking) as to the number of slavery's victims. At the same time, Morrison's own accounts of the figure vary radically. Speaking to Newsweek on 28 September 1987, Morrison explained that the figure of sixty million is "the best educated guess at the number of black Africans who never even made it into slavery—those who died as captives in Africa or on slave ships" ("A Gravestone" 75). One week later, on 5 October of the same year, she stated: "I asked some scholars to estimate for me the number of black people who died in 200 years of slavery [. . .] those 60 million are people who didn't make it from there to here and through." ("Toni Morrison's" 12; emphasis added). 3
There is, however, a significant difference between those who never made it into slavery on the one hand, and those who died in Africa and on slave ships in addition to the victims of slavery itself on the other. So drastic a revision of the figure's referent within so short a space of time [End Page 582] itself attests to the significant absence of adequate documentation of the atrocities perpetrated by slaveholders, slave-traders, and the institution of American slavery itself. "Slavery," writes Karla Holloway, "defies traditional historiography. The victim's own chronicles of these events were systematically submerged, ignored, mistrusted, or superceded by 'historians' of the era" (68). Unlike the Holocaust, where the presence of documentation is overwhelming, it is the absence of such documentation that contributes to the horror of slavery. Morrison's figure and the slippage of its referents eloquently emphasize how, in light of such significant absence of historical documentation, the numbers themselves are clearly not the point. Human suffering is.
Why, then, would Morrison choose to evoke the Holocaust's "six million" in her novel about slavery in the US? What do the two have in common? The answer is the debate's American context, a context that obscures the historical and cultural distinctions between these atrocities, their perpetrators, and their victims; effaces the different methods and manners of these genocides, the ideologies under which they were conceived and the means by which they were carried out; and elides the crucial fact that slavery, unlike the Holocaust, was perpetuated by US citizens on American soil. The dedication itself and the debate arising from it are, then, no more about slavery and the Holocaust then they are about whether "sixty million and more" is an accurate estimation of those who did perish; rather, "sixty million and more" and the responses it evokes raise the complex implications of African Americans and Jewish Americans comparing the extent, degree, and clout of their respective victimizations.
In this specifically American context, then, Morrison's dedication of Beloved to "sixty million and more" is deliberately posited as a vague approximation that serves the purpose of evoking a vast array of dead bodies rather than counting and accounting for the bodies themselves. It demonstrates the extent to which numerical figures (not to mention figures of speech) cannot account for so vast and devastating a disaster. 4 Evoking this figure works to efface the figure's referent, to challenge the very concept of numerical accuracy, and to foreground the inevitable insufficiency of scholarly appraisal while demonstrating language's inherent unreliability when confronted with overwhelming mass suffering. 5 Finally, Morrison's emphasis on the referent's instability enables her to [End Page 583] posit herself as ethically invested in the principle of inclusiveness over and above the notion of historical accuracy: "Some people told me 40 million, but I also heard 60 million, and I didn't want to leave anybody out" ("Toni Morrison's" 12).
To say that Morrison is "appropriating" the Holocaust by citing the figure of sixty million (and, perhaps, upping the victimization ante by adding "and more") is, then, inaccurate. In dedicating Beloved to "sixty million and more" Morrison is evoking a sense of the limits of language in order to establish that slavery shares, with the Holocaust, a certain quality of horror that exceeds representation: like Auschwitz, slavery "lies outside speech as it lies outside reason" (Steiner 123); in its wake, like in the wake of the Holocaust "the human imagination [. . .] is simply not the same as it was before" (Rosenfeld 13). By evoking this quality of unrepresentable horror, Morrison is foregrounding suffering under slavery in the context of an historical narrative usually imagined as "after Auschwitz," and, more importantly, granting this suffering a certain degree of legitimacy by defining it in terms derived from the rhetoric of ineffability that surrounds discussions of the Holocaust. 6 At the same time, though, this deliberate evocation of the limits of language also enables Morrison to avoid the issue of comparative atrocities by strategically situating herself above and beyond the possibility of comparison per se. To Crouch's now-infamous description of Beloved as "a blackface holocaust novel [ . . . ]written in order to enter American slavery into the big-time martyr ratings contest, a contest usually won by references to, and works about, the experience of Jews at the hands of the Nazis" (67), Morrison has replied: "The game of who suffered most? I'm not playing that game. That's a media argument. It's almost about quantity. One dead child is enough for me. One little child [. . .] who didn't make it. That's plenty for me" (Interview with Cecil Brown 466). 7
Morrison has described Beloved as a novel "about something the characters don't want to remember, I don't want to remember, black people don't want to remember, white people don't want to remember" (qtd. in Rushdy 39). For Morrison, this reluctance to remember is reflected, if not embodied, in the absence of memorials: [End Page 584]
There is no place you or I can go, to think about or not think about, to summon the presences of, or recollect the absences of slaves; nothing that reminds us of the ones who made the journey and of those who did not make it. There is no suitable memorial or plaque or wreath or wall or park or skyscraper lobby. There's no 300 foot tower. There's no small bench by the road. There is not even a tree scored, an initial that I can visit or you can visit in Charleston or Savannah or New York or Providence or, better still, on the banks of the Mississippi. And because such a place does not exist (that I know of), the book had to. ("A Bench by the Road," qtd. in McKay 3)
So broad a definition of "memorial"—from a 300 foot tower to a small bench by the road, from a skyscraper lobby to an initial on a tree—and so expansive a description of the work of memory—thinking and not thinking, summoning presence and recollecting absence—rephrases Morrison's statement about not wanting to remember as a statement about the inability to commemorate. As a result, this statement about "no small bench by the road" is less about the absence of suitable memorials and more about the impossibility of adequate or suitable memorialization of the Middle Passage and of slavery. The implicit assumption performed by this emphasis on "suitable" memorialization is this: no memorial can ever be sufficiently "suitable" or compelling, no monument can be grand enough or mean enough to contain such limitless suffering.
When Beloved stands for the absence of suitable memorial spaces, then, it is not so much rendering absence present but rather articulating the paradox of absence and presence, memory and forgetting, the unspeakable and speech. Critical writing on Beloved tends to stress this paradox: "[Morrison's] themes revolve around the wish to forget and the necessity to remember, to reject and to reclaim, and to elide the boundaries between past and present" writes Nellie McKay ("Introduction" 12). Rafael Pérez-Torres notes that "the interplay between presence and absence, accepting and rejecting, appearing and disappearing, repeats and resurfaces throughout the course of Beloved" ("Knitting and Knotting," 93). Barbara Hill Rigney says that "the history of slavery itself, Morrison writes in Beloved, is 'not a story to pass on,' but rather is something that is 'unspeakable,' unconscionable, unbearable" (142-43). 8 [End Page 585]
But when considering these paradoxes, we need to keep in mind that silence and forgetting are as much a strategic and self-conscious gesture on the part of the subjugated as they are the product of the subjugating culture's demands and requirements. On the one hand, absence and silence have been imposed—there is indeed no "bench by the road"—but at the same time, absence and silence are assumed: there are, in fact, plenty of benches by roads, but none of these, Morrison declares, can adequately serve as a suitable memorial for slavery, because there can be no suitable memorial for the unspeakable. In order to speak the unspeakable, then, it is necessary to posit what you are speaking as unspeakable in the first place. Doing so involves a double effacement: something must be silenced in order to be rendered unspeakable, and the unspeakable must be forgotten in order to be commemorated as such. Once something—an experience, a history, an event—is posited as unspeakable, its negotiation into language is especially hazardous, and the novel opens with precisely such a hazardous negotiation: Sethe's purchase of a tombstone for her murdered child.
Despite some critics' confusion, 9 "Beloved" is not the name of the baby Sethe murdered in the shed. In fact, Sethe's first daughter's name is not mentioned in the text; she is referred to only as Sethe's "crawling already?" baby girl. Since all Sethe's other children do have names, and Denver refers to the baby's "given name," the fact we never learn Sethe's third child's name is the result not of the child being nameless but rather of a general reluctance or refusal, on the part of the novel's characters and narrator, to speak it. The baby's given name, then, is posited as unspeakable, and as such, its confrontation with, or negotiation into, the realm of language is both violent and violating:
"For a baby she throws a powerful spell," said Denver.
"No more powerful than the way I loved her," Sethe answered and there it was again. The welcoming cool of unchiseled headstones; the one she selected to lean against on tiptoe, her knees wide open as any grave. Pink as a fingernail it was, and sprinkled with glittering chips. Ten minutes, he said. You got ten minutes I'll do it for free. (Beloved 4-5)
It is Sethe's statement about the way she loved her baby, an expression so potent that it rivals the ghost's persecution of the inhabitants [End Page 586] of 124, that conjures up this moment of "rememory." The inscription on the tombstone is less about the murdered baby than it is about Sethe and her own "rough love." Hence when the young woman who walks out of the water assumes the name "Beloved" upon her arrival to 124, she embodies the replacement of her own name and identity by the word on the tombstone. In 124 she slowly spells B-E-L-O-V-E-D, identifying herself as a process of inscription (letter by letter) rather than by her given name. It is by this process of inscription that Denver recognizes her: "when she came back I knew who she was too. Not right away, but soon as she spelled her name—not her given name, but the one Ma'am paid the stonecutter for—I knew" (208; emphasis added).
As the murdered baby's given name is replaced by "the way" Sethe loved her, Sethe speaks the unspeakable: she does not name that which has no name, but rather replaces an existing name silenced by a community's reluctance to utter it with an expression of her (Sethe's) personal response to this silencing. Further, her actions reveal the extent to which performing her relation to this silencing—the inscription is not an expression of her love, but an expression of an action, the way she loved—renders her position vis-à-vis this unspeakability even more complex: the "way" Sethe loved posits her as an active agent—a far more problematic position than that of helpless victim. If we, like Paul D, assume that Sethe "lived with 124 in helpless, apologetic resignation because she had no choice," we, like Paul D, are "wrong" (164). As an active agent with her own disturbing "way" of loving, Sethe's actions challenge the paradoxes stressed by Morrison's critics—presence and absence, memory and forgetting, the unspeakable and speech—by introducing the problematic issues of agency, responsibility, and volition. Sethe assents to and participates in her own violation by the stonecutter: this is prostitution, not a rape.
Ten minutes for seven letters. With another ten could she have gotten "Dearly" too? She had not thought to ask him and it bothered her still that it might have been possible—that for twenty minutes, a half hour, say, she could have had the whole thing, every word she heard the preacher say at the funeral (and all there was to say, surely) engraved on her baby's headstone: Dearly Beloved. But what she got, settled for, was the one word that mattered. (5) [End Page 587]
"The one word that mattered" locates Sethe's own agendas, priorities, and agency at the center of this act of memorialization. Crucial to Sethe's rememory of this moment is her recollection of "every word she had heard the preacher say at the funeral." Sethe never attended her child's funeral, since she was in prison at the time. 10 When wondering why Sethe claims to remember words she hears spoken at a funeral, a ceremony she never attended, we need to keep in mind another ceremony Sethe never attended: a marriage ceremony. Sethe recalls "how bad [she] felt when [she] found out there wasn't going to be no [marriage] ceremony, no preacher. Nothing" (58). The words she remembers from the "funeral" constitute a phrase that commonly opens a marriage ceremony—"Dearly Beloved"—and the merging of two missed ceremonies in Sethe's memory indicates the extent to which Sethe's own (unconscious?) motives and agendas dictate her speaking what has been posed, by the community, to be unspeakable. Thus, when Sethe claims that "Beloved" is "the one word that mattered," begging the question, "mattered to whom?" the answer is "mattered to Sethe": this word serves as her response to the community that condemned her; it is her own answer to "one more preacher, one more abolitionist and a town full of disgust" (5). Speaking the unspeakable, then, is more a reflection on the speaker herself than it is an expression of what had been rendered unspeakable in the first place—"Dearly Beloved, which is what you are to me," Sethe recalls (184; emphasis added)—and Sethe's "answer" to the community, her choice of "the one word that mattered," figures, in this scene, as a disturbing effacement, reflecting the implicit silencing and forgetting bound up in the act of commemoration:
Counting on the stillness of her own soul, she had forgotten the other one: the soul of her baby girl. Who would have thought that a little old baby could harbor so much rage? Rutting among the stones under the eyes of the engraver's son was not enough. Not only did she have to live out her years in a house palsied by the baby's fury at having its throat cut, but those ten minutes she spent pressed up against dawn-colored stone studded with star chips, her knees wide open as the grave, were longer than life, more alive, more pulsating than the baby blood that soaked her fingers like oil. (5) [End Page 588]
The act of speaking the unspeakable replaces and effaces what had been determined—overtly or covertly—to be unspeakable in the first place, propelling the speaker—Sethe—into a disturbing complicity, since she is the one replacing and effacing her murdered daughter with the word on the tombstone. It is this complicity that most disturbs her: having to "live out her years in a house palsied by the baby's fury," is, ultimately, less of an ordeal than having to live with the way that her acquisition of the engraving on the tombstone, her commemoration of the baby's death, replaced that death with a life defiled and defined by concentric degrees of violation: "those ten minutes [. . .] were longer than life, more alive, more pulsating than the baby blood that soaked her fingers like oil."
In the context of this complicity, though, the tension between language and its limits resurfaces. As the inscription becomes less about the nameless baby and more about Sethe and her own motivations and agendas, the engraving's appropriation of the murdered baby's identity is reflected, in Sethe's rememory of the moment, by language's appropriation of perception. Sethe's description of the tombstone moves from simile and adjective ("pink as fingernail" and "glittering chips") to metaphor ("dawn-colored" and "star chips"), as the images of her recollection replace its objects. In this movement from simile to metaphor, from asserting resemblance to creating identity, the figurative language in this scene performs a certain kind of translation and appropriation, rendering the external world an expression of Sethe's own mind, a translation enacted in the subtle transition from "any grave" to "the grave."
As Sethe names, unnames, commemorates, forgets, and silences, the fact remains that "Beloved" is not the name of Sethe's murdered baby. Beloved names Sethe's own frustrations and desires, and it is precisely these frustrations and desires that come back to haunt her, rendering language simultaneously superfluous and crucial, and positing the relation between speech and the unspeakable as the crux of the novel. This relation originates in the problematic negotiation in and out of language in the tombstone scene and remains an integral part of the interactions of Beloved, Denver, and Sethe: Denver, fearful of losing Beloved, is "careful to appear uninquisitive about the things she was dying to ask [her]" (119). And Sethe, identifying Beloved as her nameless child, aligns this recognition with a respite from speech: "Thank God I don't [End Page 589] have to rememory or say a thing because you know it. All" (191) thinks Sethe; "I know you don't need me to do it. To tell it or even think over it. You don't have to listen either, if you don't want to" (193). But despite Denver's caution and Sethe's disavowals of the necessity of telling or saying, their deteriorating relationship with Beloved is defined by the inevitability of speech and its attendant destruction: "even when Beloved was quiet, dreamy, minding her own business, Sethe got her going again. Whispering, muttering some justification, some bit of clarifying information to Beloved to explain what it had been like, and why, and how come" (252).
Sethe's memorialization and Morrison's are, then, very different. In her discussion of "no bench by the road," Morrison posits an absence of memorial spaces that "had to" be addressed by the presence of the book, implicitly situating the literary space of Beloved as an arena where an absence of physical space can be addressed, but concurrently eliding the uncomfortable negotiations involved in selecting, say, one bench, one tree, one initial (whose?) over another. Absent here are Morrison's own agency and volition, the implications of her own gesture of memorialization that, like Sethe's, silences as it articulates. In other words, while Morrison's description of why the book "had to" exist posits her as responsibly addressing a crucial and painful absence while excluding her from the problematic performance of such an address, the fictional depiction of Sethe's performance actively challenges and problematizes such responsibility: speaking what had been determined to be unspeakable propels Sethe into complicity, forcing her into actions that force us to question the uneasy distinctions between presence and absence, memory and forgetting, the unspeakable and speech.
Like the challenge to representation posed by extreme human suffering, the problem of language's complicity with subjugation is a concern that African American criticism and Holocaust criticism share. If language is, as Steiner says of German, "not innocent of the horrors of Nazism," 11 (99) Henry Louis Gates extends this concern with complicity to all Western languages in which the articulation of a black self is especially problematic because in these languages "blackness itself is a [End Page 590] figure of absence, a negation" (7). But like the innate privileging of the Holocaust highlighted by "sixty million and more," this concern with a predominantly linguistic complicity works to mask the underlying assertions of identity politics. Holocaust writers pose the Holocaust as a challenge, not to a specific language, but to language per se, a challenge that produces a rigorous investment in language's limits. This investment is generally perceived as not merely the prerogative of Jews only, in the wake of this specific instance of Jewish persecution, but of human culture in general, in the wake of the (presumably, universal) Holocaust. Hence Berel Lang extends Steiner's (much criticized) emphasis on the German language to language in general, while locating Nazi genocide as, if not the origin, at least the acme, of this challenge: "there is [in Nazi genocide] evidence of the same general purpose at once to rationalize language and to subordinate it to authority, that is, to make it into a political instrument which in its own structure would incorporate the features of moral violation" (96).
There is a difference between challenging the structure of language itself (as Lang and Steiner do) on the one hand, and delineating the challenge that language poses to (Black) self-articulation (as per Gates) on the other. This difference facilitates the assumption that the challenge to language posed by the Holocaust is universal, while the challenge to language posed by slavery is the province of African Americans only. What makes these identity politics especially insidious is that under the aegis of this emphasis on language's limits, Jewish suffering is equated with human suffering, while African American suffering is not. While the Holocaust figures as a challenge to language in particular, and to human culture (as a linguistic community) as a whole, the concern with complicity posed by the enslavement and subjugation of Africans (which occurred, and still occurs, over a longer period of time and which was—and is—perpetrated by a more universal community than Nazi Germany between 1939-1945) is figured as a challenge to the articulation of Black subjectivity, and Black subjectivity alone. Hence my distinction, in these paragraphs, between Holocaust criticism (a body of criticism defined by its object) and African American criticism, in which, as Gates puts it, "the question of 'blackness' inhabits the subject, as well as the object" (7; emphasis added). It appears that for much African American criticism that deals with identity after atrocity, complicity and the concurrent investment [End Page 591] in silence challenges the articulation, not only of the subject, but of subjectivity—specifically, African American subjectivity—while Holocaust criticism, dealing with the same issues, neglects the specificities of identity and poses complicity as a linguistic concern, approached primarily through a wary, judicious "speech" (a speech in which silence, as a space external to language and hence presumably not contaminated by complicity, is privileged).
This vexed relation with silence informs much critical writing on Beloved, and linking this silence to the specificity of African American identity is a crucial common denominator among a wide variety of critical approaches to the novel. Pérez-Torres writes, "Given sociohistorical conditions compelling it toward silence, African American literary production questions not what distinguishes itself from other forms but rather how it manages to speak at all. Language at once masks and reveals the social and political structures from which it arises and which it creates. The link between language and ideology presents black writers with a quandary: how to speak when compelled to silence?" ("Between" 179) Dwight McBride puts it thus: "the language of the African American text itself stands as an emblem of the Herculean struggle to represent an experience that the language is not intended to accommodate. Such texts constitute the attempt to write the seemingly unwritable, the unspeakable" (150). And Barbara Hill Rigney, in an oft-quoted passage, notes:
All of Morrison's works are about silence as well as about language, whether that silence is metaphysical or physically enforced by circumstance. All African Americans, like a great many immigrants to America, write and speak in a language they do not own as theirs. Historically, the dominant culture has enforced black silence through illiteracy, through the metaphoric and the actual insertion of the bit in the mouth [. . .]. Morrison indicates in each of her novels that images of the zero, the absence, the silence that is both chosen and enforced, are ideologically and politically revelatory. (142-43)
But silence is also a privilege, and silence, like forgetting, can have its own agencies and agendas. Here, too, we need to distinguish between Morrison's silences (and those the critics see in her writing) and the silences forced on to her characters. To forget this distinction is to conflate [End Page 592] the characters' trauma with the author's rhetorical evocation of that trauma, and ultimately to conflate the author with her characters. McKay, for example, writes that "Morrison faces the challenge of transforming Sethe's 'rememories' of a dreadful past into a discourse shaped by her own narrativity," adding that "[f]or both, the question becomes: how does one, from a cluster of images (rememories), create history that represents the unspeakable and unspoken in narrative?" ("Introduction" 15; emphasis added). In casting the matter in this fashion, McKay effaces the significant differences between Morrison's and Sethe's relation to slavery by locating both in the inaccessible realm of the unspeakable. More significantly, McKay effaces the distinction between Morrison's rhetorical construction of slavery's unspeakability on the one hand, and Sethe's very different inability to address the traumatic manifestations of her past, on the other.
The complicity that language forces on those who have no option but to use it is, as we have seen, a concern central to Morrison's novel. Kathleen Brogan writes that in Beloved, "language itself has in a sense been sullied by its disastrous uses and has become so intertwined with violence that the creation of a counternarrative to white domination is not, at this point, fully conceivable for the novel's characters." In keeping with the prominence of identity that inhabits African American criticism's concerns with complicity, the body—its mute but eloquent physicality—is often posed as an alternate site of engagement with such complicity: hence Brogan adds that "Beloved works to detach writing from this appropriation of black bodies, while at the same time dramatizing how difficult it is to redeem a language so deeply implicated in a history of oppression" (87). But Brogan's assumption that writing can be detached from black bodies' appropriation somewhat more successfully than language can be detached from oppression does not sufficiently take into account that bodies, too, can be rendered complicit in such a language and hence in such a history. In Beloved, it is the body, marked by slavery, that performs the inevitable complicity of language with oppression, rather than posing an alternate site of engagement. This is most crucial and poignant for slave women like Sethe, Sethe's Ma'am, and Baby Suggs, whose reproductive capacity significantly contributed to their value as slave-owners' property. Further, as property that produces more property without cost, the slave woman's body becomes the means by which [End Page 593] the institution of slavery is perpetuated and maintained—both physically and discursively—forcing the slave woman into complicity with her own subjugation. When Sethe mourns to Paul D, "He couldn't have done it if I hadn't made the ink" (271), she is painfully aware of how her physical subjugation perpetuates the subjugating discourse of slavery, grotesquely figured by the recurring image of the schoolteacher's nephews suckling her as he documents the scene "in ink she herself had made" (98).
In stark contrast to much of the slave-narrative genre, in which the acquisition of literacy, the production of texts, and the power of speech are figured as powerfully liberating forces, words offer no such recourse to Beloved's female characters, whose bodies, as well as their language, are appropriated by slavery's pervasive and all-encompassing discourse—both material and immaterial. While names can be changed, assumed, relinquished, called, claimed, and reclaimed, an appropriated body can claim no identity other than its own appropriation. 12 Sethe recalls that her mother "had the bit so many times she smiled. When she wasn't smiling she smiled, and I never saw her own smile." Sethe identifies her mother's disfigured face with the fake smiles of the slaughterhouse prostitutes: "They said it was the bit that made her smile when she didn't want to. Like the Saturday girls working the slaughterhouse yard" (203). Sethe's effacement of her murdered daughter's identity with the word on the headstone re-enacts this appropriation: "Working a pig yard. That has got to be something for a woman to do, and I got close to it myself when I got out of jail and bought, so to speak, your name" (204). Furthermore, while Sethe describes herself as "able to smile on my own like now when I think about you" (204), Beloved has a "smile [. . .] under her chin" (239) where Sethe drew the handsaw. While obscuring individual identity, then, the appropriated body remains the only expression of identity, and the disembodied voice of the middle section locates herself in and identifies herself as this appropriation, physical and psychic: "her smiling face is the place for me it is the face I lost she is my face smiling at me" (213).
This interrelation of a complicit speech with a complicit body both invites community and renders it unsustainable. Sethe's mother identifies herself by her brand but slaps Sethe's face when Sethe responds, "mark the mark on me too" (61), and Sethe's own "mark" (the tree on [End Page 594] her back) initially attracts and then repels Paul D. Finally, Baby Suggs, who "speaks" by dancing with her twisted hip, presents a vision of community that is irrevocably marked by the bodily violation that is its history. Perhaps it is Baby Suggs's suspicion that her words, like her body, cannot be distinguished from this violation that causes her to couch her physical abandonment of the Clearing and her withdrawal from the community in terms of speech's betrayal: "Baby Suggs, holy, proved herself a liar [. . .] Baby Suggs, holy, believed she had lied" (89).
The characters' inability to extricate language—and its attendant complicity with subjugation—from their own bodies and actions extends to their work of storytelling through which the narrative unfolds. Speaking, telling, and passing on stories are crucial for the characters in Beloved. And yet, the traumatic experiences of slavery's survivors curtail this storytelling. "One of Beloved's strengths lies in Morrison's powerfully compelling representation of the tortured internal world of those traumatized by slavery," writes Brogan (79), and the many stories Sethe does tell in the course of the novel are abruptly curtailed by the limits of language that trauma imposes. Significantly, these limits are expressed in spatial, as well as physical, terms: "the single slow blink of the eyes; the bottom lip sliding up slowly to cover the top; and then a nostril sigh, like the snuff of a candle flame—signs that Sethe had reached the point beyond which she would not go" (37). For Sethe and Paul D, whose relationship to their past and to each other determines the narrative's momentum, speaking has uncomfortable implications for their bodily, as well as their psychic, integrity—implications that propel them both toward and away from each other, toward and away from language, toward and away from complicity, toward and away from silence.
Sethe envisions her future with Paul D in terms of a single story, and sharing that story involves speaking their shared past to themselves and to each other: "Her story was bearable because it was his as well—to tell, to refine and tell again," Sethe thinks (99; emphasis added). She perceives her future with Paul D as a process of capturing the unspeakable in speech—speaking what, at present, was to both of them unspeakable: "The things neither knew about the other—the things neither [End Page 595] had word-shapes for, well, it would come in time: where they led him off to sucking iron; the perfect death of her crawling-already? baby girl" (99). Sethe's vision of a community and of a future depends, then, on rendering their traumatic experiences as stories to tell and to retell. In the course of the novel, however, Sethe's and Paul D's attempts to speak the unspeakability of their respective traumas, to tell "the things neither had word-shapes for" forces the realization of complicity, a realization that drives them apart, rather than together.
As Sethe attempts to tell Paul D about the death of her baby girl, to speak what is, to her, unspeakable, she is keenly aware of the inadequacy of language to convey what she is trying to say: "she knew that the words she did not understand hadn't any more power than she had to explain" (161). Rather than attempting to tell Paul D her story—informed, as it is, by multiple levels of complicity—Sethe performs multiple circles around the story as well as around the room, physically demarcating the space of the unspeakable. Recognizing that her circling, literal and figurative, echoes her inability to "close in, pin it down" (163), she pauses to concentrate on the fence that used to encircle the yard. The fence is a border which separates outside from inside, and while it can be crossed ("there was a fence with a gate that someone was always latching and unlatching in the time when 124 was busy as a way station"), it operates as a line distinguishing "124" from "not-124," and the white men's trespasses are the beginning of a series of boundary disruptions that culminate in Sethe's murder of her baby. Sethe's memory recreates these disruptions:
When she got back from the jail house, she was glad the fence was gone. That's where they had hitched their horses—where she saw, floating above the railing as she squatted in the garden, schoolteacher's hat. By the time she faced him, looked him dead in the eye, she had something in her arms that stopped him in his tracks. He took a backward step with each jump of the baby heart until finally there were none. (163-64)
Significantly, it is Sethe's act, rather than anything she can say, that disrupts the discourse that authorized the power balance between herself and schoolteacher: "she had something in her arms that stopped him in his tracks." These disruptions, while unspeakable to Sethe, are performed [End Page 596] by the language employed to describe them: the schoolteacher's receding steps and the baby's dying merge; "there were none" can refer equally to the backward steps and the baby's heartbeats, lending special weight to Sethe's gaze as she looks the schoolteacher "dead in the eye."
At the core of this multiple disruption of boundaries, Sethe tries, to the best of her ability, to put her act into words: "'I stopped him,' she said, staring at the place where the fence used to be. 'I took and put my babies where they'd be safe'" (164). Sethe displaces what is, for her, unspeakable into its purpose and result, lending her actions a figurative tone that, by its multiple plays on the word "safe," dissolves the referential power of language, both forcing and enforcing the limits of speech as an adequate form of communication. The word "safe" has been destabilized: we, like Paul D, no longer know what it means. "This here Sethe," thinks Paul D, "talked about love like any other woman; talked about baby clothes like any other woman, but what she meant could cleave the bone. This here Sethe talked about safety with a handsaw" (164; emphasis added).
This violation of description with performance, in the discrepancy between words and what they mean, emphasizes language's inherent inadequacy while simultaneously disrupting the distinction between language and that for which it is inadequate by violating the presence with absence, the present with the past, reality and fantasy. As Sethe speaks these words, she "[stares] at the place where the fence used to be," evoking, by her gaze, the significant absence of borders. Staring at where the fence used to be calls up the fence's presence while emphasizing its absence. It dissolves the border between what is there and what is not. It injects the present with the past, violates reality with fantasy. Finally, it radically challenges the possibility of a coherent identity that can be defined in the context of an identifiable community or a comprehensible language, a challenge demonstrated by this section's deterioration of reference: the Sethe Paul D "knew" in the past is rendered unrecognizable by the present, "new" Sethe—significantly, a Sethe defined not in reference to Halle (presumably, for Paul D, a known quantity)—but rather a Sethe external to any and all referential contexts: "The prickly, mean-eyed Sweet Home girl he knew as Halle's girl was obedient (like Halle), shy (like Halle), and work-crazy (like Halle)," thinks Paul D, "This here Sethe was new [. . .] This here new Sethe didn't know where the world stopped and she began" (164). [End Page 597]
Paul D's response to "this here new Sethe," and to the multiple dissolutions of coherence that her act realizes and forces him to realize, is to explicitly exclude Sethe from his definition of human culture by identifying her as an animal: "you got two feet, Sethe, not four," he says (165). By doing so, he aligns himself with Schoolteacher whose instructions to "put her human characteristics on the left; her animal ones on the right" (193) propelled Sethe to get her children away from Sweet Home at any cost, and propelled her to murder them rather than send them back: "no one, nobody on this earth, would list her daughter's characteristics on the animal side of the paper. No. Oh no" (251). Paul D accuses Sethe of complicity with this rhetoric, of acting like an animal that cannot distinguish between right and wrong, that cannot imagine an "other way."
Significantly, Paul D's accusation of Sethe's complicity is propelled precisely by his disturbing sense of his own: "Later he would wonder what made him say it. The calves of his youth? or the conviction that he was being observed through the ceiling? How fast he had moved from his shame to hers. From his cold-house secret to her too-thick love" (165). It is Paul D's sense of complicity that drives him to accuse Sethe of complicity, that forces silence between them—"right then a forest sprang up between them, trackless and quiet"—and their mutual reluctance to speak the word "goodbye" reinforces their mutual retreat from language: Paul D, unwilling to hurt Sethe further by telling her he is leaving, merely informs her he will be late getting back; Sethe, rueful and amused by Paul D's strategy, nonetheless acquiesces to his retreat from her story as well as from her, and collaborates with him in the silent "forest" that separates the two: "'So long,' she murmured from the far side of the trees" (165).
Paul D's and Sethe's reunion in the novel's penultimate scene takes the form of reconciling themselves to the silences that Sethe had been so sure "word-shapes" (99) would be found for. The future envisioned here is one sustained by maintaining silence, rather than trying to speak the unspeakable. But after the exorcism of Beloved, Paul D and Sethe are left in very different relations to language, identity, and community. On his way to 124, Paul D encounters Denver, who is looking forward to a future, and Paul D significantly refrains from warning her that her future may be contaminated by his past: "When he asked her if they [End Page 598] treated her all right over there, she said more than all right. Miss Bodwin taught her stuff. He asked her what stuff and she laughed and said book stuff. 'She says I might go to Oberlin. She's experimenting on me.' And he didn't say, 'Watch out. Watch out. Nothing in the world more dangerous than a white schoolteacher'" (266; emphasis added).
Paul D's ability to choose silence, to consciously refrain from warning Denver, embodies his vision of "some kind of tomorrow" with Sethe, a future that is made possible through silence, not speech. It is through this silence, rather than speech and its attendant complicity, that Paul D envisions his future with Sethe: rather than telling and retelling a shared story, "he wants to put his story next to hers" (273; emphasis added).
But Paul D's assumption that he and Sethe each possess a story that can be placed in proximity disregards Sethe's profound sense of loss for both her mother and her child, both of whom can be the referent for "she left me," and "she was my best thing" (272). This loss of her "best thing," and hence of a significant part of herself, results not only in a fractured subjectivity whose ability to tell or to possess a "story" is highly questionable; it also reinforces Sethe's exclusion from stories and from the ability to tell and retell that—figured in Baby Suggs' Call in the Clearing—performs community in Beloved. Earlier in the novel, Sethe recalled the death of her mother, an abandonment couched as an exclusion from speech—her stuttering—an exclusion that ceases only as she sees Halle, her children's father: "Nan snatched me back," she recalls, "before I could check for the sign. It was her all right, but for a long time I didn't believe it. I looked everywhere for that hat. Stuttered after that. Didn't stop it till I saw Halle" (201; emphasis added). Looking at Paul D, Sethe recalls this exclusion ("her ma'am had hurt her feelings and she couldn't find her hat anywhere" ), so that when she confesses, "she left me [. . .] she was my best thing," the conflation of her mother and her daughter in the referent to "she" posits Sethe herself, mother and daughter, as the embodiment of that abandonment—both physical and linguistic. Hence Sethe does not possess the agency, as Paul D does, to silence the past by refraining from speech; nor can she locate her identity in her equally fractured body: "There's nothing to rub now and no reason to. Nothing left to bathe" (272). Instead, she can only articulate the forced complicity that has destroyed her: "I made the ink, Paul D. He couldn't have done it if I hadn't made the ink," she tells him (271). It is this complicity [End Page 599] that forces a fragmentation of her identity—both physical ("if he bathes her in sections, will the parts hold?" ) and, in light of the function stories hold in creating identity in Beloved, linguistic: when Paul D assures her, "you your best thing, Sethe. You are" (273), she can only respond by questioning both affirmations. "Me? Me?" she stutters (273), doubtful not only that she is her own "best thing," but also as to whether she can lay claim to the ontological verb "are," a verb which, like the adjective "Beloved," lies abandoned, without a subject: an orphaned part of speech. 13
Hence it is not surprising that Beloved's epilogue enacts a gradual forgetting and silencing in terms of a movement out of memory, speech, and materiality: "It took longer for those who had spoken to her, lived with her, fallen in love with her, to forget, until they realized they couldn't remember or repeat a single thing she said, and began to believe that, other than what they themselves were thinking, she hadn't said anything at all. So, in the end, they forgot her too" [274; emphasis added]. The forgetting is further reiterated by the repetition of "this was not a story to pass on." But the final word of the novel is posited as a gesture of naming what has been excluded from language, speaking what has been deliberately cast as unspeakable: the last word of the novel is its title, Beloved. Since her violent negotiation into language in the opening pages of the novel, Beloved performs complicity: brought into being by the multiple violations that Sethe endures and performs as she purchases the name on the gravestone, she is the nameless child that Sethe, like her Ma'am, "threw away" (62). Beloved embodies "the black and angry dead" (198) that return to wreck havoc on the living and force back into speech what Sethe feels she "don't have to explain"; the "cursing cursed" (117) that Paul D both fears and, against his will, embraces; the young girl whose gaze through the ceiling drove Paul D to "[count] Sethe's feet and [leave] without saying goodbye" (189). When this nameless "she" has been "quickly and deliberately" forgotten (274), the narrator of the epilogue speaks her name as a response to this willed silencing.
The gentle gesture of commemoration that ends the novel—"Beloved"—is, then, both the narrator's eloquent evocation of the "disremembered and unaccounted for" (275) and an equally eloquent restating of the complicity forced on to the characters by Beloved's presence in the novel. As if reflecting the uneasy tension between the compulsion to speak and the equally compelling need to remain silent, [End Page 600] the double movement of this final section (the brief paragraphs that describe a gradual process of forgetting, punctuated with the staccato "not a story to pass on") enacts a simultaneous movement away from language and toward it. The narrative of gradual forgetting traces a process of forgetting from speech ("they couldn't remember or repeat a single thing she said" ) to image ("Sometimes the photograph of a close friend or relative—looked at too long—shifts" ) to the physical world ("Down by the stream in back of 124 her footprints come and go [. . . ] By and by all trace is gone" ), and ends with a poetic disintegration into the elements of earth, wind, water: "The rest is weather. Not the breath of the disremembered and unaccounted for, but wind in the eaves, or spring ice thawing too quickly. Just weather." In eloquent counterpoint to this narrative of forgetting is the movement from "It was not a story to pass on" to "This is not a story to pass on" (274-75; emphasis added) and finally, "Beloved." Through this movement from the unstable referent of "it" to the more immediate referent of "this" and finally into the presence of articulation, "Beloved" emerges precisely at the moment of memory's (literal) decomposition. "Beloved," then, both names the embodiment of the unspeakable who performs language's complicity with atrocity and is itself a literal performance of the identification of memory with forgetting, absence with presence, language with silence, the unspeakable with speech.
My emphasis thus far has been on the extent to which the characters' speech and their bodies are enmeshed in complicity—so much so that, in the novel, slavery's survivors cannot articulate an identity, construct a community, tell a story, or remember a past without implicating themselves in the problematic ramifications of such articulations. This complicity dissolves the distinction between speech and the unspeakable by introducing agency and volition into the notion of language and its limits; speaking the unspeakable is, for the characters in the novel, a performance of identity, of community, of remembering, and of forgetting—a performance that culminates in the novel's final word, which is also its title. Given that Beloved, itself, is consistently read as precisely such a performance, we need to ask: if we eschew the paradoxes of [End Page 601] presence and absence, memory and forgetting, speech and the unspeakable, what kind of readings does this texture of complicity produce?
In her widely-acclaimed and oft-quoted Tanner Lecture "Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature," Morrison foregrounds the challenge that the presence of African American writing poses to US national literature, interrogating what her identity as an African American woman writer means to the identity of the political, as well as cultural, arena which she enters, challenges, highlights, or subverts. "Other than melanin and subject matter, what, in fact, may make me a black writer?" she asks. "Other than my own ethnicity—what is going on in my work that makes me believe it is demonstrably inseparable from a cultural specificity that is Afro-American?" (19) In response to these questions, Morrison highlights her writing as an expression of her cultural specificity; more precisely, she posits a vexed relation with language as the locus of her African American identity. Through a series of close readings of the opening sentences of each of her novels, Morrison describes the in medias res quality of her writing that serves the purpose of disorienting the reader, confronting him or her with the powerful presence of what is left out. Opening Beloved with numerals rather than words, says Morrison, serves the purpose of making the reader feel "snatched, yanked, thrown into an environment completely foreign [. . .]. Snatched just as the slaves were from one place to another, from any place to another, without preparation and without defense" (32). In order to perform this effect, Morrison concludes, "the work of language is to get out of the way" (33).
While critical readings of Morrison understandably offer a variety of opinions on just what determines the cultural identity of her writing, this investment in language's limits remains a crucial common denominator. For Yvonne Atkinson, these limits appear as oral and non-verbal elements: "Morrison consciously writes a Black text, one that is centered in African American cultural traditions [. . .]. She uses in her written discourse systems from within the Black English oral tradition that facilitates the inclusion of nonverbal gestures and tonal inflections" (247). Rigney adds that Morrison's language is the "language of black and feminine discourse—semiotic, maternal, informed as much by silence as by dialogue, as much by absence as by presence" (138). "Because of their African American origins," writes Linden Peach, "[Morrison's texts] attempt [End Page 602] to pursue subjects and narrative possibilities which have not yet been previously realized in fiction" (2). All these critical assertions about the cultural specificity of Morrison's fiction share this common element—an emphasis on absence, exclusion, and silence. For both Morrison and her critics, what is left with language "out of the way" is precisely what marks Morrison's writing as African American, a cultural specificity that challenges the critical and historical context into which this novel enters—a context that, as Morrison emphasizes throughout "Unspeakable Things, Unspoken," is an explicitly American one, informed by the problematic presence of blackness in US national literature, culture, and history.
But it is precisely this American context that, as I pointed out in the opening pages of this essay, enables crucial distinctions between atrocities to be effaced, and the US's historical responsibility toward atrocities perpetuated by its citizens, on its soil, in its history, to be elided. To return to the dedication and to the concern with comparative atrocities it evoked, we need to remember that the dedication to "sixty million and more" derived its effective clout not by appropriating the Holocaust but rather by evoking the limits of language, of historical discourse, of numerical figures and figures of speech: the referent of "sixty million and more" (Africans? slaves? both?) is subsumed by the very challenge to reference that the figure is assumed to enact. "Speaking" this figure, treating it as referential, returns us to the issue of comparative atrocities, forcing us to address the relation of African American and Jewish American reliance on a rhetoric of the unspeakable for their own self-descriptions.
In order to do so we need to look more closely at the figure that is so often assumed to "go without saying": the "six million" of the Holocaust. "Six million," while generally evoked as a reference to the Nazi genocide in occupied Europe, refers only to one part of that program, the "final solution" to the Jewish problem. Excluding other victims—Poles, Gypsies, homosexuals, real or suspected resistors to the regime, the physically and mentally ill, and many, many others—"six million" refers only to Jews. Discomfort with Morrison's dedication, then, reflects a discomfort not with the appropriation of an atrocity per se, but of an atrocity with a cultural specificity that is unequivocally Jewish. In light of the specificity of this referent, when "six million" is expanded to "sixty million and more," the question of appropriation and of comparative atrocities does re-emerge. [End Page 603]
This complex interaction of identity and the unspeakable raised by the dedication and enacted in the cultural contention it invites becomes more explicit in the epigraph: "I will call them my people, who were not my people, and her Beloved, who was not beloved (Romans 9:25)." In powerful contrast to the dedication, the epigraph is referenced by book and verse, explicitly proclaiming its New Testament origins and its alignment with Christianity. Here, too, the specificity of Jewish identity is effaced: "Even us, whom he hath called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles," reads the text, "I will call them my people, who were not my people; and her beloved, who was not beloved" (Romans 9:24-25; emphasis added). "This is one of the major statements in the New Testament, justifying the displacement of the Jews by Christianity," writes Budick. "It is also a statement frequently cited in anti-Semitic contexts" (162).
The epigraph, then, seriously qualifies the dedication's initial effect of inclusion, an effect predicated on the absence of reference and enhanced by Morrison's claim, "I didn't want to leave anybody out." By effacing Jewish cultural specificity in its redefinition of the "Chosen People," the epigraph re-evokes the absent referent of the figure of "sixty million and more" in the dedication; thus, the epigraph speaks what the dedication had posited as unspeakable. Juxtaposed with the principle of inclusion that, Morrison claims, dictated the choice of sixty, as opposed to forty, million—an inclusiveness powerfully reiterated by "and more"—is, then, a dispossession and appropriation of Jewish identity and history that is made even more forceful by virtue by the historical context that informs the passage from Romans. 14 If Morrison's initial evocation of the unspeakable in "sixty million and more" invited a debate about comparative atrocities while avoiding the uncomfortable implications of actually participating in such a debate, speaking the unspeakable, interrogating the figure in light of its juxtaposition with the epigraph that gives the novel its name forces these issues to resurface, with these uncomfortable implications: the dedication, with its choice of "sixty million," establishes slavery as unspeakable, and such unspeakability effectively occludes the appropriation of Jewish identity that the epigraph performs.
"How can they call her," the narrator muses, "if they don't know her name?" (274) And yet the name "Beloved" forces a complicity that not only haunts the novel but encloses it. Like the epilogue, the opening [End Page 604] pages utilize an investment with language's limits in order to perform the crucial problematic of complicity's inextricability from language, the identification of memory with forgetting, and the uneasy position that this problematic forces on to the novel's author, as well as its readers and critics. As Budick puts it, "the line between acknowledgement or allusion, on the one hand, and, on the other, displacement or supersessionism, may not be all that sturdy" (162). What makes that line especially tenuous is the uncomfortable fact of complicity that speaking the unspeakable reveals. When that line is invested with a strong sense of language's limits—as six or sixty million is—any act of speech is perilous, and the motivations behind choosing silence deserve our close attention.
Morrison has advocated that language is a crucial political tool for addressing injustice, but that it is also dangerous by virtue of its complicity in historic subjugation: "Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge," she states in her Nobel lecture. "Sexist language, racist language, theistic language—all are typical of the policing languages of mastery, and cannot, do not permit new knowledge or encourage the mutual exchange of ideas" (269). But for Morrison, evoking language's limits redeems it from such complicity, reinstating language as a recuperative and healing force. A language that foregrounds its limits, she writes, "arcs toward the place where meaning may lie": "Language can never 'pin down' slavery, genocide, war. Nor should it yearn for the arrogance to be able to do so. Its force, its felicity is in its reach toward the ineffable" (270). Hence Morrison responds to the complicity of language in atrocity by evoking language's limits, and investing these limits with a strong sense of ethics—to speak the unspeakable is an expression of "arrogance," a gesture away from "meaning," while gesturing toward the unspeakable and the eloquent spaces of silence is assumed to recuperate language from the implications of such uncomfortable alliances, imbuing it with (at least the possibility of) moral redemption.
Perhaps, then, it should not be surprising that critical approaches to Beloved tend to stress the novel's challenge to language through a [End Page 605] general emphasis on Morrison's "rendering absence present," repeated invocations of her evocative lament for the "disremembered and unaccounted for," and attention to how the text denies its reader the relative coherence of an affective response. Roger Sale, for example, effectively aligns the issue away from the horror of the events related to the manner in which their representation renders these events unspeakable: "there are horrible images of things that happened to slaves here, no question. [. . .] But Morrison's art makes us gasp at these moments, then insists we not organize our feeling as if for protest or other action." (166; emphasis added). Valerie Smith's claim that "the novel's reliance on paradox and indeterminacy finally undermines the authority of any single reading or interpretive posture" (353) extends this unspeakability from readers' responses to critical reading and interpretation: "the novel reminds us that our critical acumen and narrative capacities notwithstanding, we can never know what they [American slaves] endured. We can never enjoy a complacent understanding of lives lived under slavery. To the extent that Beloved returns the slaves to themselves, the novel humbles contemporary readers before the unknown and finally unknowable horrors the slaves endured" (354). Such emphases on the text's challenge to interpretative categories and its foreclosure of a cathartic emotional response replicate Morrison's investment in language's limits, presumably safeguarding the characters' suffering from the intrusive, degrading misreadings forced on them by a complicit discourse, and, at the same time, shielding the reader from complicity in such violent misreadings.
Further, Morrison's identification of her ethnic identity with what is left with language "out of the way," and the extent to which, in the novel, "languages of mastery" so tragically situate themselves within the slaves' bodies, as well as within their words, shed new light on the plethora of self-conscious "apologies" or "confessions" in critical writing on Beloved. Jean Wyatt devotes a footnote to the discomfort her race, class, and intellectual position present, as if referring to her sense of guilt had some bearing on the critical methods she employs: "As a white middle-class feminist who practices psychoanalytic theory, I come to this project burdened not only by the usual guilt about my own implication in the racist structures that Morrison uncovers but also by doubts about the suitability of psychoanalytic theory for analyzing an African American text" (226). James Phelan, identifying himself as "a privileged, white, male [End Page 606] reader" (237) poetically expresses his sense of the novel's inaccessibility: "Like Stamp Paid, I enter without knocking. For days I live at 124. I become Sethe. Paul D. Denver. Amy Denver; Baby Suggs; Stamp Paid. The days are intense, difficult, exhausting, rewarding. I reach to understand. Stretching, straining, marveling, I perform Morrison's world. But Beloved also eludes me. Like Stamp Paid on the threshold of 124, I cannot enter. Parts of Morrison's world won't let me in [. . .] something, someone blocks my way. Morrison? Me? My race? Gender?" (225-26) Mark Ledbetter's mea culpa-type litany of his complicity and guilt in the atrocities performed by the "narrative master plot" of a Southern white male in the US is so excessive it verges on parody, 15 and in a footnote to his chapter on Beloved he professes himself more than willing to relinquish his entire interpretation and choose silence rather than offend: "while I do think that my reading and interpretation of these issues are responsible, I am by no means suggesting that they are right and am more than willing to remain silent in the face of understandings and approaches other than my own, in particular those of persons of an other race and/or gender" (55).
In light of such obvious discomfort in applying conceptual criteria to a text, maintaining Beloved's challenge to these criteria, emphasizing the assumption of its unspeakability, becomes for the text's critics a morally and ethically efficacious gesture. Phelan devotes his discussion of Beloved to an emphasis on the ethical necessity of safeguarding the limits of interpretation: "the act of interpretation rests upon a desire to make texts yield up their secrets, to take possession of them. This desire to possess [. . .] often leads to brilliant interpretive insights, but it also blinds interpretation to its own hubris" (231). Ledbetter emphasizes "hearing silenced voices" as a crucial space in which narrative ethics can be performed (5-6). And Valerie Smith concludes her essay thus: "by representing the inaccessibility of the suffering of former slaves, Morrison reveals the limits of hegemonic, authoritarian systems of knowledge. The novel challenges us to use our interpretive skills, but finally turns them back upon themselves. By representing the inexpressibility of its subject, the novel asserts and reasserts the subjectivity of the former slaves and the depth of their suffering" (354).
But this tendency to emphasize the text's unspeakability forecloses its multiple evocations of complicity. Once we posit Beloved beyond comprehension, [End Page 607] interpretation, and "systems of knowledge," we efface the characters' complicit actions—be they forced or chosen—and safeguard ourselves from the necessity of realizing how reading and writing about the novel posits similar pitfalls for its critic. Morrison's description of Beloved as a novel that "had to" exist because there was no small bench by the road—a description that posited Morrison as responsibly addressing the absence of memorials while simultaneously excluding her from the painful complicity that a similar commemoration forces Sethe to perform—raises the distinction, however fragile and contingent, between the relatively safe space of fiction, on the one hand, and the more problematic space of a response to that fiction, on the other. While the double movement of the epilogue reflects both the need and the reluctance to speak, the imperative to forget and the violent effacement that such forgetting forces on to "the girl who waited to be loved and cry shame" (274), an emphasis on language's limits establishes too easy a distance from the implications of such a problematic articulation—as our reading of the epigraph revealed. When the novel's author evokes these limits, when its critics maintain them, the painful complicities delineated in Beloved remain, deceptively and safely, between the covers of the book. 16
Any account of horror
reflects the problematic choice of language over
silence. Stressing the limits of language, evoking the unspeakable,
safeguards that account from accountability, resurrecting the initial
silences that needed to be broken. Silence is not an acceptable
to a history of atrocity, but neither is reiterating the paradoxes
of language and silence, the unspeakable and speech, narrative and
trauma, rememory and forgetting—these paradoxes merely maintain an
uneasy equilibrium between two uncomfortable choices while denying the
problematic implications of either. The characters in Beloved
have no such refuge and no such privilege: in order to survive both
their past and their future, they must speak the unspeakable, and
hence are forced to face the disturbing consequences of their complicit
actions. Stressing the novel's and its subject's limits to language is
an ethical gesture of respect to the victims and their suffering—as
Beloved's critics would have it—but rather, I argue, a
retreat into a privileged space of silence that effectively elides the
inevitable complicity that language, action, and a history of atrocity
forces upon us all. Like the footprints in back of 124
[End Page 608]
that come and go, come and go, complicity cannot be forgotten,
or effaced. Like the clamor for a kiss, it is not assuaged by its
denial. Beloved, like Beloved, will not be appeased.
Naomi Mandel is assistant professor of contemporary US literature and culture at the University of Rhode Island. Her article "Rethinking 'After Auschwitz': Against a Rhetoric of the Unspeakable in Holocaust Writing" recently appeared in boundary 2. She is currently working on a book that explores the interrelation of atrocity and identity in literature, critical theory, popular culture, and film.
I would like to thank Michael P. Clark for his thoughtful and generous readings of this essay's many incarnations, and for his consistent support, encouragement, and advice.
1. The figure Hilberg gives is 5,100,000. See Hilberg, Appendix B ("Statistical Recapitulation") 338-39.
2. See Hugh Thomas's The Slave Trade "Appendix 3: Statistics" for a detailed overview of historical, journalistic and demographic estimates of the slave trade volume. Thomas concludes with an approximation of "something like eleven million, give or take 500,000" (862). Paul E. Lovejoy estimates a rate of 10% of losses in Africa en route to embarkation (63) and 9-15% for ship-board deaths (64). These figures are significantly higher than what Lawrence Thomas assumes, and significantly lower than what Morrison claims.
3. In "The Pain of Being Black" Morrison is questioned as to the historical proof of "60 million" and responds: "Some historians told me 200 million died. The smallest number I got from anybody was 60 million." She proceeds to move from number to image: "There were travel accounts of people who were in the Congo—that's a wide river—saying, 'We could not get the boat through the river, it was choked with bodies.' That's like a logjam. A lot of people died. Half of them died in those ships" (120). Note how Morrison replaces image with argument to create an emotional effect that is designed to eclipse the unreliability of her sources and the inaccuracy of her figures.
4. Caroline Rody writes that the dedication "suggest[s] at once the numerous ancestors the novel attempts to memorialize and a vast absence its words could never fill" (93). But like other critics of the novel, she accepts Morrison's explanation of the figure's origin without question.
5. As Elaine Scarry puts it, "On the one hand, counting makes an extreme claim about its correspondence with the material realm [. . .]. On the other hand, numbers and numerical operations are, presumably with good reason, habitually thought of as abstract, as occupying a space wholly cut off from the world. Even forms of counting that claim to have worldly content sometimes seem instead characterized by the complete lack of it: the 'body count' in war is a notoriously insubstantial form of speech" (viii).
6. For a critique of this rhetoric in Holocaust writing, see my article "Rethinking 'After Auschwitz': Against a Rhetoric of the Unspeakable in Holocaust Writing."
7. I should clarify that "the one little child who didn't make it" is a reference to The Bluest Eye, but in this comment Morrison is explicitly responding to Crouch's review of Beloved. Therefore, while Morrison is not explicitly evoking Beloved here, I think it's fair to cite this quote as an example of the general attitude of moral superiority with which Morrison approaches this controversial issue.
8. Morrison has noted that with Beloved, she was "trying to insert this memory [of the Middle Passage] that was unbearable and unspeakable into the literature . . . It was a silence within the race. So it's a kind of healing experience. There are certain things that are repressed because they are unthinkable, and the only way to come free of that is to go back and deal with them." Responding to this statement, Pérez-Torres re-inscribes it in terms of "the interplay between absence and presence, between silence and voicing" ("Between Presence and Absence" 198).
9. Mark Ledbetter refers to Sethe's child as "Beloved" throughout his discussion of the novel, both before and after the baby's death, and Caroline Rody writes that "Beloved" is the murdered baby's name "because she died still unnamed" (104).
10. Another source of critical confusion, though the distinction between funeral and burial is made quite explicitly in the novel: "'They going to let you out for the burial,' [Baby Suggs] said, 'not the funeral, just the burial'" (183).
11. "The unspeakable being said, over and over, for twelve years. The unthinkable being written down, indexed, filed for reference. [. . .] Something will happen to it. Something will happen to the words" (Steiner 100-01).
12. See Kimberly Benston's "I Yam What I Am: The Topos of (Un)naming in Afro-American Literature" for a discussion of the relation between the claiming (or disclaiming) of a name and the assumption of identity.
13. For a different reading of this section, see Wyatt, who suggests that with these words Sethe is "recognizing herself in the first person singular," thus moving toward a symbolic order that excludes her relationship with Beloved, to whom Wyatt refers as "the unspeakable." But Wyatt also concedes that these words may well be an expression of "disbelief" (484).
14. Of the epigraph, Rody writes: "Suggesting that the naming function of the text be read as an offering of narrative love, the epigraph proposes a kind of history-telling that can turn estrangement into intimacy" (102). Given Rody's nuanced approach to the historiographical project of Beloved in her complex, luminous, and evocative essay, her inattention to the historical context of the quote from Romans is surprising.
15. Ledbetter writes: "I am a Southern white male in the United States. My narrative master plot seeks to distance me from a history of slavery and pain inflicted on African Americans, to make others complicit in its institution, and to describe all the good things which my ancestors and I did for African Americans. I am corporate white male in the United States, and my narrative master plot describes the jobs I have brought to corporate America and the money I have circulated in the economy. I do not tell of women and minorities denied jobs or given lower salaries because of race and gender. I am upper-middle-class Christian in the United States, and I like the name of God on my coins, manger scenes of Christ in the public square, and prayers in public schools" (14).
16. Commenting on the epilogue, Rody writes: "For us of course, closing the book, there is nothing but weather. The past does not exist unless we choose to hear its clamor." But for Rody, the clamor of loss that Morrison's prose evokes is, finally, "hushed" (113).
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———. "Criticism in the Jungle." Gates 1-24.
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———. "A Gravestone of Memories." Interview with Walter Clemons. Newsweek (28 Sept. 1987): 74-75.
———. Interview with Cecil Brown. Massachusetts Review 36 (1995): 455-73.
———. Nobel Lecture. Peterson 267-73.
———. "The Pain of Being Black." Interview with Bonnie Angelo. Time (May 22, 1989) 120-22.
———."Toni Morrison's Beloved Country: The Writer and Her Haunting Tale of Slavery." Interview with Elizabeth Kastor. Washington Post (5 Oct. 1987): 1+.
———. "Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature." Michigan Quarterly Review 28 (1989): 1-34.
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———. "Between Presence and Absence: Beloved, Postmodernism, and Blackness." McKay and Andrews 179-201.
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