‘We never look at just one thing; we are always looking at the relation between things and ourselves’
– John Berger
How do forms of literary description ask us to look at ‘things’ AND/OR at the relations between the self and the other?
In much of the literature and history of the English canon, the corresponding notions of ‘self’ and ‘other’ have denoted, in conjunction, one relatively simple paradigm of oppositional identification, wherein the ‘self’ remains broadly separate from the ‘other’ (or entity of comparison). But developments in feminist, postcolonial, and Marxist literary thought complicate this phenomenological schema by foregrounding the racially ‘othered’ self, and specifically, the Black self. Edward Said, Franz Fanon, and Jean-Paul Sartre all address, to varying extents, the manner in which a realized Black identity can function as both ‘self’ and ‘other’ simultaneously, due to its historical and ongoing positioning within the racialized structure of the West—for while a Black man might identify a white man as ‘other’ in relation to himself, the pre-existing systems of power in the West mandate that this white man be perceived as “not only ‘the Other,’ but also the master” (Fanon, 148). From a hegemonic standpoint, then, it will always be the Black man who is ‘othered’: his relentless marginalization is ensured by the very nature of the structures already in place. This dynamic ascribes a relative lack of demarcation to the Black identity, within the given phenomenological model of ‘self’ and ‘other,’ and thereby necessitates a category of critical theory that interrogates the interaction of oppositional identification beyond these binary foundations—that is to say, a discourse that addresses not only the ‘self’ and the ‘other,’ but also the ‘othered self.’
Toni Morrison’s 1987 novel, Beloved, epitomizes the strategies and ideals of such a discourse; as early as the first pages of the text, Morrison’s depiction of the fraught relationship that the protagonist, Sethe, endures with her own ‘self’ fundamentally disallows for any diametric reading. Of course, as a Black woman in antebellum America, Sethe is perpetually ‘othered’ in relation to the conditions of her existence; the parameters of her selfhood are thus defined, at least in part, by their oppositional positioning against the literary backdrop of a patriarchal, white supremacist culture. But even beyond the sociopolitical assessment that Fanon emphasizes, the character of Sethe demonstrates a number of compelling tensions between various forms of oppositional identification. The body upon which the narrative takes form, and wherein Sethe’s conflictions and identity are rooted, is maternal as well as formerly enslaved; therefore, its associations to motherhood recall many of the differential paradigms of ‘self’ and ‘other’—specifically those pertaining to children, such as Lacan’s mirror phase or the psychosis of the nursing child. Throughout the narrative, Morrison draws upon the notions of oppositional identification that her thematic emphasis on maternity has produced, employing the selfsame images of birth and psychosis to represent the horrors of slavery. In this fashion, Morrison brilliantly depicts a loss of differentiation between mother and child that mimics the absence of demarcation associated with enslavement; the maternal and formerly enslaved body of Sethe thereby provides the vital symbolic link between each instance of differential identification of the ‘self’ that the text contains.
It is precisely this nuanced representation of the Black ‘self’—as a kind of self-actualized, cultural ‘Other’—that facilitates Morrison’s narrative recalibration of racial centrality in Beloved: what Beth McCoy identifies as an “authorial shift from racialized ‘object’ to racialized ‘subject’” (McCoy, 44). The narrative of Beloved provides, through the production of the text itself, a literary realm wherein the Black ‘self’ is no longer reduced, like some bizarre form of racial chiaroscuro, to an othered foil for the white ‘self.’ Instead, the juxtaposition of a Black ‘self’ against the white ‘other’ establishes the conditions upon which the thematic weight of the novel is largely contingent, by allowing for a differential formation of the Black ‘self.” But this is not to suggest that the full relevance of Black identity in Beloved should be reduced to its terms of relation to the white supremacist paradigms that preceded it; on the contrary, to do so would resituate Blackness as oppositional to the Eurocentric presuppositions of the canon, and thereby reestablish whiteness as the “objective” center of criticism. Nevertheless, the fraught interaction between Morrison’s literature and the aesthetic conventions of the medium with which she engages lends her work a heightened sense of sociopolitical subversion; it therefore seems tantamount, in critical analyses of Beloved, to approach its conceptualization of Black selfhood both in relation to the white supremacist paradigms that inform the text, and as an organic discourse in its own right. For while Morrison’s text reckons fully and consciously with the pre-existing myths of white centrality, the novel is in no sense dependent upon them; on the contrary, Morrison articulates throughout Beloved, “a fully developed theory…that is central to her larger political and philosophical stance on black identity” (O’Reilly, 1).
In any relation between a ‘self’ and ‘other’ within the initial phenomenological model, there is necessarily a degree of oppositional distance whereby the identity of one can be induced from its relation to the other. But the events that inform Beloved’s narrative core are defined by the near-total absence of this distance; instead, the text is linguistically, syntactically, and thematically characterized by an almost staggering sense of intimacy. This loss of differentiation, which the Black ‘self’ suffers both in a phenomenological sense and in the circumstances of the narrative, is disturbing; thematically and linguistically, Morrison draws the Black subject within the narrative into the proximity of the white ‘other’ and makes any form of distinction almost unsettlingly difficult. The most memorable instance of this occurs, of course, when Sethe sees her former masters approaching her home, and reacts against the violence she anticipates by murdering her own daughter. In this instance, rather than replicating the traditional model wherein the ‘self’ and the ‘other’ establish a sort of necessary contingence upon mutual opposition, Morrison depicts a reimagined sense of identification that seems, rather than differential, disturbingly similar. The distance between ‘self’ and the ‘other’ is thereby eradicated; the two become not foils, but mimetic horrors of one another and themselves. This hideous sense of like identification can be read as an allusion to the disturbing mutual reliance of the slave and master upon one another: a specter of the Hegelian master-slave dialectic that haunts the foundations of the text.
But the physical images of intimacy and proximity in Beloved are certainly not limited to the racialized conceptions of ‘self’ and ‘other.’ In this same scene, Morrison also uses near-identical imagery to represent the problematized sense of differentiation inherent between infants and the maternal figures who have been, as historian Walter Johnson articulates, “…forced by their slavery into a doubled relation with their bodies and their children” (Johnson, 11). Even before the supernatural return of her child, Sethe enfolds her daughters within her own maternal identity: in the moments leading up to Sethe’s grisly murder of her own daughter, Morrison writes, “…she collected every bit of her life she had made, all the parts of her that were precious and fine and beautiful, and carried, pushed, dragged them through the veil out, away, over there where no one could hurt them…where they would be safe” (Morrison, 163). In this passage, Sethe’s children are described as “parts of her,” engulfed within the greater whole of the maternal body. In some sense, this image could function as a poignant indicator of Sethe’s limitless devotion to her children; but this reading is problematized by the sheer brutality of Sethe’s subsequent actions. Instead, the overlapping of Sethe’s identity with that of the murdered child seems to thrust the ethical nature of her infanticide into ambiguity, suggesting that she has killed a “part of her,” rather than an autonomous human being. The very language of the passage obscures the agency of the murdered child, thereby casting doubt upon whether Sethe’s actions were a ritual sacrifice, or a kind of suicide. In accordance with this image, the allegorical distance between Sethe and Beloved becomes virtually nonexistent in the text: Jean Wyatt argues that Beloved’s fixation on Sethe echoes infantile psychosis, mimicking a “desire to regain the material closeness of a nursing baby” (Wyatt, 474). This insight is augmented by the images of blood and milk that imbue the narrative recounting of Sethe’s “rough choice” (Morrison, 180), and Morrison’s frequent use of terms like “hunger” to associate Beloved’s desire for Sethe with a desire or need for consumption. Similarly, the sense of utter unification that Sethe experiences is shared by Beloved, as indicated in the ambiguous line, “You are my face; you are me” (Morrison, 216). This quotation appears in arguably the most haunting and obscure section of the text, wherein Beloved’s further references to being “in the water” (Morrison, 216) also function as a potential description of the experience of a child still in psychosis: completely void of identity, and utterly unable to differentiate any semblance of identity separate from the body of the mother.
But at various points in the novel, Beloved also seems to carry within her the entire history of American slavery; in light of this, the appalling conditions, overwhelming darkness, and horrific proximity of bodies that she describes can also easily be read as a description of a voyage on an American slave ship. The very language of the passage is spatially devoid: punctuation is lacking and words seem to merge upon the page, signifying a disorienting and overwhelming sense of physical closeness that represents, according to Wyatt, “The loss of demarcation and differentiation of those caught in an ‘oceanic’ space between cultural identities, between Africa and an unknown destination” (Wyatt, 474). In either reading of this passage, this proximity is defined as a categorically dangerous state of being—a conviction mirrored earlier in the text by the grisly nature of the master- slave dialectic, and later by horrific consequences of Sethe’s lack of differentiation from her daughter. “There are no gaps in Sethe’s world,” Wyatt writes, “no absences to be filled with signifiers; everything is there, an oppressive plentitude” (Wyatt, 474). The complete lack of any form of distance between the Sethe and Beloved, whether it is read as the extended psychosis of a nursing child or a supernatural manifestation of the horror of non-differentiation within the Middle Passage, impedes Sethe’s conception of herself and very nearly consumes her.
The tragedy inherent within Morrison’s multifold, symbolic use of motherhood throughout the novel, particularly in relation to Sethe’s volatile relationship to her maternal and once-enslaved body, is particularly evident in the manner in which the various pieces of textual imagery simultaneously inform and corrupt one another in seemingly arbitrary, incongruous, or even upsetting ways. Slave masters, schoolteachers, mother’s milk, rusted shackles, childbirth, pregnancies, blood, slave ships, steel bits, frightened mothers, laughing children, empty homes—as the images clash and conflate, their horror lies, unsurprisingly, in a lack of differentiation. In this sense, the entire text allegorizes, through a number of narrative, linguistic, and thematic mediums, the white Other’s hegemonic perversions of the Black effort to formulate a realized self within pre-existing phenomenological terms. Although she offers no categorical solution to the problems of differentiation and identification that the text so thoroughly interrogates, Morrison nevertheless provides her audience solace in the form of the novel itself: a riveting narrative plane wherein the realized Black ‘self,’ though relentlessly ‘othered’, can nevertheless be represented and identified on its own terms—and where the Black maternal body, despite its history of suffering and enslavement, can provide this still-emerging ‘self’ with an intimate physical site of violence, desire, and resistance.
Collins, Patricia Hill. “The Meaning of Motherhood in Black Culture and Black Mother/Daughter Relationships.” Sage: A Scholarly Journal on Black Women 4.2 (1987): 4-11. JSTOR. Web.
Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. London: Pluto, 1986. Print.
Ghasemi, Parvin, and Rasool Hajizadeh. “Demystifying the Myth of Motherhood: Toni Morrison’s Revision of African-American Mother Stereotypes.” International Journal of Social Science and Humanity IJSSH (2013): 477-79. JSTOR. Web.
Hirsch, Marianne. The Mother/Daughter Plot: Narrative, Psychoanalysis, Feminism. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1989. Google Scholar. Web.
Johnson, Walter. Soul by Soul: Life inside the Antebellum Slave Market. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1999. Print.
Morrison, Toni. Beloved: A Novel. New York, NY: New American Library, 1988. Print.
O’Reilly, Andrea. Toni Morrison and Motherhood: A Politics of the Heart. Albany: State U of New York, 2004. Print.
Wyatt, Jean. “Giving Body to the Word: The Maternal Symbolic in Toni Morrison’s Beloved.” PMLA 108.3 (1993): 474-88. JSTOR. Web.