Toni Morrison’s treatment of memory is a frequently disturbing revisiting of those aspects of history that have been covered over – for her, black history is not about Conrad’s unspeaking1 but rather a denial of the right to tell her ‘ghastly tale’. Intent as she is on remembering history, she explores old wounds that have since healed over – memories are as hard and livid as scars, and page after page of Morrison’s work aches at the inhumanities undergone by America’s blacks, with the intention of allowing these reopened to finally heal properly.
Memories in Toni Morrison are generally scarring, although they can be visible or invisible. In Beloved, Sethe will forever carry a tree on her back, “A chokecherry tree. Trunk, branches, and even leaves” (Beloved: 16) in memorandum of the nightmare life that she had at Sweet Home, a tree of scars commemorating the beating that made her run away and caused her husbands breakdown. Sethe has obvious scars which Paul D. and Amy Denver can see, and name, and use to make Sethe recount the tale behind them – and yet Sethe herself is closed to their significance. For Sethe, “the picture of the men coming to nurse her was as lifeless as the nerves in her back where the skin buckled like a washboard”(Beloved: 6) – the skin around Sethe’s tree of scars is completely numb, an “absence of physical sensation…[signaling]… the emotional dissociation Sethe experiences”2. Not facing up to the memory in the chokecherry tree is the real reason she feels nothing when Paul D. kisses it better; Sethe knows that “Somethings go. Pass on. Somethings just stay” and knows also that “Anything dead coming back to life hurts” (Beloved: 35), factors combining into her belief it is not worth the pain of acknowledging the significance of her tree. Perhaps Paul D. is in a worse position than Sethe: his scars are internal and he has to fight his own battles- he has never spoken of his time under the Schoolteacher in Sweet Home to anyone, and it is only in accidental defense of the actions of Sethe’s husband Halle, who was ‘broken’ by witnessing the assault on his wife, that Paul D. confesses how difficult stoicism can be, admitting “A man ain’t a goddamn ax. Chopping, hacking, busting every minute of the day. Things get to him. Things he can’t chop down because they’re inside”(Beloved: 69). Paul D. has none of the physical markings of trauma for someone like Sethe to kiss better- even his eyes do not have the usual wildness which Sethe believes follows on from having worn a bit; and so his fight with memory holds the potential for more pain than Sethe. It is not the repression of memory which haunts Sethe, she is plagued by memories3, but Paul D. has to conquer his repression and his tendency to keep his painful remembering “where it belonged: in that tobacco tin buried in his chest where a red heart used to be. Its lid rusted shut.”(Beloved: 72).
Morrison’s Jazz has a different approach to the scarring of memory- the wound caused by the Violet/Joe/Dorcas love triangle is never allowed to close over by Joe and Violet, causing a different kind of pain for the couple. Instead of trying to forget the causes and consequences of Joe’s murderous and Violet’s mutilating responses to Dorcas, the Trace’s choose to set her picture in a prominent place in their home and ‘visit’ it at regular intervals on the night, using her, as Peterson points out, as a means to “reach back into the more distant past to re-collect the stories that will enable them to comprehend their present situation”4. By disallowing present healing and keeping the ‘Dorcas-wound’ open, Violet forces Joe to deal with the scarring his constant remaking of himself has caused, and to deal with all the debris carried by a man who has made himself new seven times, before reaching a pure resolution of the Dorcas wound also, through the figure of Felice and the reconciliation dance. The most complex and rewarding treatment of memory of all is in Paradise, where we are presented with a very different tree of scars- the family trees Patricia Best draw up point to a collective scarring more dangerous even than Beloved‘s. Where Beloved explored maternal love and Jazz sexual love, Paradise contemplates a devout community where divine love is a potent, if increasingly challenged concept, and where an explosive hatred runs down the genealogical tree of scars until it reaches explosion point.
While Morrison is clearly concerned with the scarring potential of memories, she is uncertain of how to balance remembering and forgetting in a healthy way. She does not believe that “Silence is the Most Powerful Cry”5 of that Paul D.’s tin heart is constructive as a means of coping – her discussion of the tendency of slave-narratives to ‘draw a veil’ over the horrors of slavery to make the narrative more palatable she feels that historical accuracy was denied, as “they were silent about many things, and they ‘forgot’ many other things”6 Denial, then, is not an option, yet Morrison also wants to avoid an obsession with the past that will make future events pre-determined – the narrator of Jazz has “lived too much” in her own mind and presumes that the events with Dorcas and the Traces will simply be turned out again with Felice in Dorcas’s stead, and the citizens of Ruby are almost pre-programmed to hate. Paradise begins with a six-shot staccato sentence – “They shot the white girl first”– as Morrison “wanted to open with somebody’s finger on the trigger, to close when it was pulled, and to have the whole novel exist in that moment of the decision to kill or not”7 Essentially, I feel that the resulting treatment of memory is one seeking a way of enjoying constructively with the past; of learning from, yet not being controlled by events rather than merely deeming “It was not a story to pass on”(Beloved:275).
The most obvious symptom of focusing on the past is the tendency of individuals to only remember those stories which are not fit to be passed on. The world-view of Morrison’s protagonists are powerfully marked by central traumatic incidences – Joe Trace sees the Wild mother who disowns him in all aspects of his life; the women in the Convent are introduced to us through the most traumatic events of their lives; while Sethe is defined by the theft of her baby’s milk from her by the Schoolteacher’s apprentices and her consequent theft of her baby’s life. Other people judge merely on the basis of key events also- the perfect example of this being the continued stigmatization of Billie Delia as a loose woman’ as the result of a barebacked horse ride when she was five.
Paul Ricoeur’s study of ‘Memory and Forgetting’ points out that it is not only individual, but also collective conscience which is shaped by key events- as most events to do with the founding of any community are acts and events of violence, he believes that “collective memory is a kind of storage of such individual blows, wounds and scars”8. It is this collective memory that Baby Suggs is trying to appease in her celebrations of the flesh, and this collective memory of a Disallowing that gives such weighty significance to the “Beware the Furrow of His Brow” etched on the Oven in Ruby. This collective memory is the more dangerous one, as any identity built on exclusion is going to reproduce that dynamic. Sethe’s individual response to the threat to her children changes over as a result of the appearance of Beloved, yet the collective experience of the freed slaves does not change. The individual communication breakdown that occurs between Tea and Coffee is not reproduced generations later through Deacon and Stewart Morgan, yet Ruby’s collective memory of exclusion remains one strong enough to allow the ‘Other’ the townsfolk were defining themselves against to be slaughtered in their home.
Memory is inescapable then, as an individual disavowing of past events can not bring about collective amnesia, and make true statements such as “Here comes the new. Look out. There goes the sad stuff. The bad stuff. The things-nobody-could-help-stuff…History is over, you all, and everything’s ahead at last”(Jazz: 7), History is NEVER over, and any attempt to deny it is doomed to failure. The fact that Sethe has made a habit of “Working, working dough. Nothing better than that to start the day’s serious work of beating back the past”(Beloved: 73) is what leads to the appearance of Beloved – and embodiment of the past which has to be believed and confronted now that it has physically materialized. As an embodiment of the past, Beloved is a hair-shirt welcomed by Sethe until she begins to devour her, showing all the greediness and desire for possession that the much debated ‘Furrow’ of Ruby exerts, until Sethe finally resolves the situation into one where the past perpetually haunts them only now as part of them and in their understanding rather than their fear.
The power of Beloved and all that she represents over the residents of 124 is illustrative of the totalising power of the past. It is this power that makes the genealogy of the people of Ruby a tree of scars – it makes the ex-slave residents of “the one all-black town worth the pain” slaves to memory. The effective rulers of Ruby, the Morgan twins, are the bastions of the past in Ruby, as they have “powerful memories. Between them they remember the details of everything that has ever happened- things they witnessed and things they have not”(Paradise:13). They believe themselves to be impartial banks of the collective memory, yet they not only ‘remember’ what they could not possibly have seen, but they and also not infallible – they fail to notice (or perhaps orchestrate?) the decline of the Nativity Play families from nine to seven, coinciding with the marriage of members of two of the nine families with those of a lighter skin. The fallibility of memory is shown through other characters also – Pallas, for instance, can see the crazy woman who spurred her decision to run away “In greater detail now than when first sighted” (Paradise: 163) – yet the twins case is the most interesting, as their insistence on the inherent truth of their memories is the cause of the generation divide in Ruby. Just as they fail to see their inability to remember everything, they fail to see the possibility that “those puppies who wanted to alter words of beaten iron”(Paradise: 99) do not intend disrespect towards the town’s history but rather “it’s because they do know the Oven’s value that they want to give it a new life”(Paradise: 86). In short, they fail to hear the young of Ruby say “Out inheritance is an affront. You want us to have your old blank eyes and see only cruelty and mediocrity”.9
Just as Jazz sees Joe under the sway of the predestined – “It pulls him like a needle through the groove of a Bluebird record. Round and Round about the town. That’s the way the City spins you. Makes you do what it wants…All the while letting you think you’re free…You can’t get off the track a City lays for you”(Jazz: 120) so too are the residents of Ruby. The ultimate issue in Morrison’s treatment of memory is revealed in Ruby’s response to memory – their obsession with the past leaves nothing for the future “About their own lives they shut up. Had nothing to say, pass on. As though past heroism was enough of a future to live by. As though, rather than children, they wanted duplicates”(Paradise:161). Similarly, Beloved sees Sethe’s brain “not interested in the future. Loaded with the past and hungry for more, it left her no room to imagine, let alone plan for the next day” (Beloved:70). Morrison uses the recounting of painful memories and the horrific consequences of a life in denial of them to show us that the past is not an abused record as we can always get out of the groove we are stuck in10, and thus continually make and remake our society into something better than what has gone before.
Matus, Jill Toni Morrison (Manchester: Manchester UP, 1998)
Morrison, Toni ‘The Site of Memory” in William Zinsser Inventing The Truth: the Art and Craft of Memoir (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987) pp.101-124
Morrison, Toni ‘Nobel Lecture 1993’ in World Literature Today 68 (1994)
Morrison, Toni Beloved (1987)
Morrison, Toni Jazz (1992)
Morrison, Toni Paradise (1998)
Peach, Linden ‘Jazz’ in Toni Morrison (London, Macmillan, 1995)
Peterson, Nancy ‘Say Make me, Remake Me’ in Toni Morrison: Critical and Theoretical Approaches (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins Press, 1997)
Ricoeur, Paul ‘Memory and Forgetting’ in Questioning Ethics (Routledge, 1999)
1 Toni Morrison – ‘Unspeakable things unspoken’
2 Matus, pg 108
3 Matus, pg106
4 Peterson, pg204
5 ‘Life is Beautiful’
6 Morrison, ‘The Site of Memory…’ pg110
7 US News Forum, 19/01/1998
8 Ricoeur, pg 8
9 Nobel Lecture 1993 Pg272
10 Matus, pg143
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