Monday, June 10, 2013
Opening Line: Beloved by Toni Morrison
This blog is undergoing revision; a temporary archive of Opening Line can be found here.
124 was spiteful.
Ordinarily I try to stay fairly impersonal on these posts, because on the whole I'm less interesting than the books we're discussing. In this case, though, it seems only right to begin with a personal confession: I've been putting off doing this one.
Why put it off? If you're going to do a series on famous novels, and especially if, as I do, you focus on modern classics, you really cannot leave out Toni Morrison. Pulitzer Prize winner, Nobel Laureate, and now, since 2012, bearer of the Presidential Medal of Freedom as well, Toni Morrison is a giant among authors, an author you cannot discuss modern literature without talking about. But at the same time - and, really, for the same reasons - she's an author I've had a deep passion for more or less all my adult life. She was one of the first adult novelists I really fell in love with, halfway through my teens when I still only half-understood what she was getting at. I began with The Bluest Eye, and it was like nothing else I'd ever seen; I had to know more, so I moved on to to Song of Solomon and Sula and her other big books of the time, and eventually on to Beloved, the book you had to read if you admired Morrison, her acknowledged masterpiece and book of terror. It was a daunting prospect for a girl of sixteen or seventeen - I still have my worn old paperback with its pictureless cover, nothing but that one resonant word and those uncompromising reds and golds on the grim black background, as if to say, 'Don't pick this up unless you mean it; don't read it unless you're prepared to let it dominate you.' Well, I was - and it did. I was a white English girl with little American history on my school curriculum and my knowledge of the tragedy of Atlantic slavery was sketchy at best, and I really didn't know, culturally speaking, what she was talking about. But I knew how she was talking, and oh, how she was talking! It was a dense, difficult read for a kid, a challenge that forced me to push my mind to greater understanding like a walk up a steep, ragged hill ... but ignorant as I was, there was something there, a passion and beauty and horror and grace, that I had to walk towards. I am no Toni Morrison, but she's one of the reasons I became a writer: even without knowing the situation she was writing about or the culture she was writing to, this, this was writing, this was art screaming from the page and making something utterly new, something I didn't know could be until I saw Morrison make it. I struggled with it, but that struggle changed me. Now, as an adult - and more, as a parent - I understand more of what she's addressing, but even back then, just to read the devastating final pages was to leave myself desperate and drunken and breathless with art.
So, yes, I've been putting off talking about it, because how do you do justice to a book like that? And how do I do justice, more, to a book about and of a people whose struggles I have been spared all my safe white life? There's nothing for it, though: I cannot, in conscience, talk about modern literature without mentioning Toni Morrison. At some point I'm going to have to do her the lesser injustice of talking about her inadequately instead of the greater injustice of not talking about her at all.
So, short, staccato and uncompromising, a three-word sentence beginning the master work of one of the most eloquent, poetic, and linguistically inventive writers in the world. It's a repeated phrase, in fact; the second section begins '124 was loud,' and the third, '124 was quiet,' the phases following one after another: the house haunted by a baby's ghost, the house ravaged by the ghost's physical presence, and the house devastated by the explosion of the ghost's grief and fury. It's a movement from tension to chaos to grief, the eternal rhythm of disaster, for it's disaster that animates this novel, on a both human and historical level, both the disaster of a person and of a people.
The story isn't difficult to relate, though it's difficult to bear. Sethe, a slave on a small farm called Sweet Home, manages to escape with her four children after suffering too much torment at the hands of its new managers; seeing slave-catchers coming for her - an apocalyptic 'four horsemen' - she runs to the woodshed to kill her babies, anything but let them be re-taken. She's stopped before she's killed more than one of them, a baby girl whose real name we never know but is buried under a headstone reading only 'Beloved', a message Sethe takes from the 'dearly beloved' of the funeral service and cannot afford to include the 'dearly'. Sethe's house remains haunted, until one day a young woman calling herself Beloved walks out of the water and comes to stay, bringing with her the body and speech of an adult but, as life falls apart around her, the understanding of an infant - a child who cannot understand her mother's explanations or pleas, cannot understand anything except the violation of the mother-child bond. Sethe didn't protect her, she hurt and abandoned her, and she doesn't know or care what Sethe says to explain why she couldn't do otherwise: 'Beloved wasn't interested. She said that when she cried there was no one.' Babies cry for their mothers whatever their mothers are doing or thinking, and this baby's ghost is a voice of anguished humanity, that doesn't see anything except the sheer horror of what was done: a mother didn't protect her baby, and it blots out the world.
It's a horror at once simple and complex: in the context of slavery, love cannot be enacted naturally between parents and children, because slaves cannot stop masters from hurting their children, raping their children, torturing their children, selling their children, and when love makes you want to do right by your children and life makes it impossible for you to do so, love and life become intolerable - and under that pressure, the edges of things get confused. It's the humanity of African Americans that's ultimately at stake in Beloved, that inherent humanity that slavery tried so hard to legislate and intimidate away, and the nightmare of being forbidden to be human affects all the characters one way or another: Paul D, Sethe's lover, unable to feel his 'manhood' real after being 'collared like a beast'; Baby Suggs, her mother-in-law who survives the sale of all but one of her children and grows 'holy' in the sheer force of her refusal to stop valuing the hearts of those around her; Sethe, whose self-control starts to go when she sees the whites on the farm taking notes on her and listing her human and animal characteristics in different columns on the page, and breaks further when attacked while pregnant by white boys on the farm who drink the milk from her breasts and then whip her for telling. Paul D is appalled by the whipping, but it's the interruption of her motherhood that truly scars Sethe:
'They used cowhide on you?'
Paul D is kindly, but he can't understand the force of motherhood Sethe feels. Even the most natural product of her body, created for her babies and no one else, isn't hers to keep, and when whites can rob even that, can break the ultimate boundary of what isn't for them, Sethe can no longer resign herself. The scarred 'tree on my back' is not what hurts the most. This:
is not the worst thing that was done to her. To Sethe, mother of young children, being prevented from being a mother is being prevented from being human:
...worse than that - far worse - was ... that anybody white could take your whole self for anything that came to mind. Not just work, kill or maim you, but dirty you. Dirty you so bad you couldn't like yourself anymore. Dirty you so bad you forgot who you were and couldn't think it up. And though she and the others lived through and got over it, she could never let it happen to her own. The best thing she was, was her children. Whites might dirty her all right, but not her best thing, her beautiful, magical best thing - the part of her that was clean. No undreamable dreams about whether the headless, feetless torso hanging in the tree with a sign on it was her husband or Paul A; whether the bubbling-hot girls in the colored-school fire set by patriots included her daughter; whether a gang of whites invaded her daughter's private parts, soiled her thighs and threw her daughter out of the wagon. She might have to work the slaughterhouse yard, but not her daughter.
And no one, nobody on this earth, would list her daughter's characteristics on the animal side of the paper. No. Oh no. Maybe Baby Suggs could worry about it, live with the likelihood of it; Sethe had refused - and refused still.
This, the baby Beloved doesn't understand. And Sethe's neighbours don't accept it, though they at least understand the impulse: Sethe has gone too far because she has failed or refused to separate her own self from that of her children. She hasn't killed Beloved because she thought Beloved better dead so much as because she couldn't bear to watch Beloved suffer: 'This here new Sethe didn't know where the world stopped and she began,' as Paul D perceives. It's a common sin of motherhood, and an entirely human one: with a very small baby, you have to let the lines blur because a baby needs so much; if you see the baby as fully separate from you, you don't nurture it. Most mothers would rather feel pain themselves than watch it happen to their babies - not even out of self-sacrifice, but out of selfishness, because as with so much about motherhood, it actually hurts less to have it happen to you. The sound of your baby crying is the worst thing in the world - it's created by evolution to get a woman with no sleep and a torn perineum on her feet - and most of the time you'd do anything, take anything, rather than feel the pain of your baby's suffering inside your own mind. But it's this refusal of Sethe's to feel anything less that problematises her: Paul D commits the inexcusable crime of responding to her insistence by telling her, 'You got two feet, Sethe, not four,' siding for a moment with 'schoolteacher' and the students who listed her 'animal characteristics', and until the last few pages, this entirely ends their relationship. Sethe, in effect, declares that she must have full humanity or nothing. But she's also a woman who can't 'like [her]self any more' and so transfers the full burden of her humanity to her children ... and so becomes a mother who kills her child, becoming both more and less human. That's the damage of slavery.
How is this relevant to the first sentence? Well, look at the first word: '124'. That's a house number - not even spelled in letters, but in numbers, like you'd see on the front door - and yet it's presented like a name. Not 'Number 124', not '124 Bluestone Road', which is the actual address, but '124', as if it were the name of a grand mansion, or a farm, or a plantation. Or even a person, because '124 was spiteful', a house with a personality and a mood. The name of the house isn't prettied up, but it's still a name.
Which is important in Beloved, because names are a crucial element of American slaves' disputed humanity. Famously, for example, Malcolm Little became Malcolm X: 'The Muslim's "X" symbolized the true African family name that he could never know. For me, my "X" replaced the white slavemaster name of "Little" which some blue-eyed devil named Little had imposed upon my paternal forbears.'* Whether every African American surname is originally a slavemaster's name is a debated question - Bill Bryson remarks in Made in America, for instance, that 'the evidence - not to mention common sense - suggests that blacks showed no special affection for the names of their masters. Those names that feature most prominently among Southern slaveholders - Pinckney, Randolph and Rutledge, for instance - appear only incidentally among any list of modern black names. It appears that most freed slaves either adopted an innocuous American name - Johnson, Jones, Smith, Robinson, and the like - or named themselves for a hero. Hence the relatively large number of African-Americans named Washington, Jefferson, Brown (from the abolitionist John Brown), and Howard (after General O.O. Howard, head of the Freedmen's Bureau in the years after the Civil War) - but not, oddly and inexplicably, Lincoln.'** (Perhaps the slaves noticed that Lincoln stated openly that he'd be willing to preserve slavery if it would preserve the Union; that kind of attitude doesn't exactly bump you up the list of heroes.) Welsh names like Powell are also fairly common, apparently, which suggests the influence of Quakers on the underground railroad or of Nonconformist preachers whose interpretation of Christianity appealed to former slaves - picking the surname of someone who helped you or whose religion you share certainly seems more natural than keeping the name of the bastard who enslaved you - but wherever most modern African American surnames come from, the place they clearly don't come from is Africa. The handing on of names from parent to child was broken by slavery, leaving a people who had to decide for themselves where to find a name.
Morrison, being a novelist rather than an historian, addresses the issue through the choices individual characters make. 'Baby Suggs, holy' chooses her name over the slave handle 'Jenny Whitlow' because her husband's name was Suggs and he called her Baby, and 'Baby Suggs was all she had left of the "husband" she claimed'. It's a peculiar name, but it at least comes from someone who meant something to her - from someone who was, in the fundamental sense, family. Other characters get equally strange but important names, such as Stamp Paid, who chooses his name to symbolise the settlement of debts, and who has to do it because if he doesn't, he'll take all the frustration of slavery out on his wife and murder her. Names are reminders, not so much identifiers of self as of links to other people, to principles, to some kind of 'best thing' that you hold on to to stay sane. The very title of the book, Beloved, speaks to that ultimate loss: a child with no name, except the only name that means anything. Right from the beginning, an ordinary house has a name: not much of a name, just the number it comes with, but its inhabitants choose to personify it because if a hell like Sweet Home has a name, why not their own place? In a world where names are stripped away, they have to be reapplied, and applied according to what's important to the characters. 124 Bluestone Road is important to Sethe's family, and so its number becomes a name. When emotions run this high and sanity is so badly challenged, the ordinary takes on mythic status, because people need myths to keep the madness in check.
And '124' is a name bestowed, not just random: on the first page, we hear that when Sethe's family first lived there, 'It didn't have a number then, because Cincinnati didn't stretch that far.' The name, or the number, marks a change in history, a change that her sons didn't stick around to see. The house is '124' now, now it's down to its core, Sethe and her daughter Denver, named for the 'whitegirl' who helped at her birth, and her ghostly daughter, with no name but that anguished word. What we see in this first sentence is a house whose name has grown on it along with the gathering haunting, haunted before it was named but haunted worse as the days go by. Its name is at once a plain label imposed, like so much of Sethe's tragedy, by politics and authority beyond her reach, and a name she and her family have made out of those circumstances. The people of Beloved take what they can and invest it with the meaning of their lives - the meaning of their contested humanity. And particularly, 124 has become a female house: the departure of the boys Howard and Buglar leaves only Sethe, Denver, and the dying Baby Suggs among the living. The story begins with the entry of Paul D, 'last of the Sweet Home men', but the haunting eventually drives him away, and it's only after Beloved has gone - cast out by the neighbourhood women finally uniting not so much in support of Sethe as of the principle that if the past come back to punish us, none of us will survive - that he's able to return. For all its dry numeracy, '124' is a female name. Manhood is an issue in Beloved, and one that Morrison handles with compassion and respect, but at its centre are the relationships between women and girls, and we're more or less told in the first paragraph that 124 is, as long as the ghost is unlaid, a women's place.
A women's place, and a quasi-sentient place: that blunt information tells us something crucial about the book that we need to know at once if we're to keep our feet. This is a ghost story - not in the fireside spooks tradition, but in the magic realist tradition where reality is heightened to metaphor - and we're told straight away that there's a haunting; unlike Marquez or Allende, Morrison doesn't sneak the information up on us, but throws it in our faces, because nothing but metaphor can possibly express the scale of the story she has in hand. And it's interesting that 124 has a personality. Think of it in the context of slavery: a house is, by anyone's lights, a genuine piece of property. The whole of Western law is founded on the concept of property, and owning land and buildings is one of the most basic elements of such a society. Here, though, we have a haunted house to which the 'venom' of its ghost is attributed, as if the house itself had thoughts and feelings. What we begin with, in other words, is a piece of property refusing to remain a mere possession. It's a brilliant stroke: all our characters are people who have been required to consider themselves mere property and have been unable to do so. Now, in the aftermath, it's as if the madness of owning the ensouled has seeped out into their new, free world: Sethe's desperate rejection of slavery has created a life in which even her house won't accept that it's a mere owned object. The people in 124 are haunted, so 124 is haunted: the dead won't accept death and houses won't accept domesticity and nothing will lie down. So terrible a stroke has slavery laid upon the mind that the echoes ring off every surface, until a house on an ordinary street doesn't seem to know whether it's living or dead. Sethe's cry of ensoulment has been heard so loud that ensoulment seems to rub off on whatever she owns.
It's notable, too, that '124' is presented in terms of moral judgement: not 'troubled' or 'pained' or even 'angry', but 'spiteful.' 'Full of a baby's venom,' as the narrative continues, and even before the physical Beloved walks into the house, the poltergeist has already wrought such havoc that it's driven out its brothers, both of Sethe's sons. Is this supposed to be the definitive judgement, the authorial pronouncement on what the baby ghost really is? Clearly not, as compassion for the baby as well as for Sethe burns on every page. What it is, instead, is the bewilderment of people suffering at the hands of a ghost that they do not yet fully know. The haunting is causing them pain - above all, it's inflicted further breaks on an already shattered family - and so we begin with that condemnation of the baby that breaks mirrors, leaves handprints in the cake, tips over kettles, strews lines of crumbs, all listed in the very first paragraph. Even in the first few pages, though, the ghost's motivations are under debate: 'Lonely and rebuked', is Denver's interpretation, while Paul D's first word is 'evil', which Sethe corrects to 'sad', and later 'mad', having already corrected Denver's doubts with her own fatal assurance: 'You're forgetting how little it is ... Too little to understand ... But if she'd only come, I could make it clear to her.' Of the three of them, Sethe's is probably the closest to the truth based on how Beloved acts when she finally does 'come', except for that painful mother's folly, the belief that if only they'd let us explain, our children would forgive us. Which of course, Beloved doesn't: the violation is too great and inflicted too young, and Beloved herself is no longer human. She's grief and outrage and incomprehension, all the human reactions to slavery, detached from the human capacity to learn. Anger detached from learning often does become 'spiteful', with a human being, and so we're forewarned with that word: Sethe's yearning to explain and be understood is one that her lost girl will never fulfil. It's not that Beloved is exactly spiteful, but she's wild and vengeful and will not forgive. We are warned against her at the beginning, put on our guard. We begin, in short, with an understanding of what it's like to be her victim. By the end, with so much victimhood on display, and so much choice too, so much human complexity that leaves no one a mere victim without action or agency of their own, all we have left is that final, grieving word: 'Beloved.'
I will call them my people,So goes the epigraph to the book: the horrible complications of family and love that come when your name and your children are torn away from you. Yet to call Beloved 'not beloved', except in the actions of her mother, is not right: what she is is unprotected, which should be something else but, in the raw logic of mother-and-baby, in the blind understanding of the baby itself, is not. And this is a bigger story than the tale of one family; it's about a 'people', the 'Sixty Million / and more' to whom Morrison dedicates the book. The focus on a mother and child makes the story universal because that is the centrepoint, the irreducible unit of personhood, the love between mother and child - and if even that is violated, nothing can thrive. African Americans lived in 'chattel slavery', the crime that is reducing people to livestock, and it's no coincidence that Morrison chooses love as the theme of her novel, because it's by loving each other that we recognise each other's humanity, and by forming families - by being families - that even the slaves who didn't run expressed their resistance to their enslavement. Consider this passage from Frederick Douglass's famous letter to Thomas Auld:
At this moment, you are probably the guilty holder of at least three of my own dear sisters, and my only brother in bondage. These you regard as your property. They are recorded on your ledger, or perhaps have been sold to human flesh mongers, with a view to filling your own ever-hungry purse. Sir, I desire to know how and where these dear sisters are. Have you sold them? or are they still in your possession? What has become of them? are they living or dead? And my dear old grandmother, whom you turned out like an old horse, to die in the woods—is she still alive? Write and let me know all about them. If my grandmother be still alive, she is of no service to you, for by this time she must be nearly eighty years old—too old to be cared for by one to whom she has ceased to be of service, send her to me at Rochester, or bring her to Philadelphia, and it shall be the crowning happiness of my life to take care of her in her old age. Oh! she was to me a mother, and a father, so far as hard toil for my comfort could make her such. Send me my grandmother! that I may watch over and take care of her in her old age. And my sisters, let me know all about them. I would write to them, and learn all I want to know of them, without disturbing you in any way, but that, through your unrighteous conduct, they have been entirely deprived of the power to read and write. You have kept them in utter ignorance, and have therefore robbed them of the sweet enjoyments of writing or receiving letters from absent friends and relatives. Your wickedness and cruelty committed in this respect on your fellow-creatures, are greater than all the stripes you have laid upon my back, or theirs. It is an outrage upon the soul—a war upon the immortal spirit, and one for which you must give account at the bar of our common Father and Creator.
It's in that cry of 'Send me my grandmother!', in the anguish of being unable to write to his sisters and brother, that Douglass locates the greatest crime of all, the 'outrage upon the soul.' Consider, too, the popularity of the TV series Roots, an early case of black characters taking centre stage in mainstream media, in which the entire theme rests on the belief that a hero may give up his fight for freedom in order to stay with his child, and that the last avenue of resistance is the refusal to lose the memory of one's parents and grandparents. Morrison is writing in a clear tradition in which that word of grief is also a word of resistance: Beloved. But it's because the enslaved characters resist that they suffer. 'Anything dead coming back to life hurts,' as the helpful whitegirl Amy counsels, and anything live struggling not to die hurts too: flesh, love, 'immortal spirit'.
124 was spiteful. A house contains its name in its number, and that nameless name means more than can be easily expressed. That's the succinctness of Toni Morrison, her alchemic ability to take a normal-seeming word and set it in a context where it rings out magically new. It's the confidence of a writer at her prime, too, the curt eloquence of three words stepping us over the threshold and giving no concession to our attention: keep up, the book says, or don't, but this story will be told as it needs to fall. This is not a tale told in chronological sequence, but one that, in the modernist tradition, loops back and back to events until we understand in full, like a bruised brain returning to a trauma that can only be viewed in glimpses. We enter a house already traumatised, a tragedy already committed and a handful of lives filled with memories that are so painful that we need to see them in retrospect to understand them: the damage they wrought can only be seen in the context of a damaged life. Sethe's murder of her child is a culmination of too much horror, and as the baby's ghost won't die, that moment of murder, that culmination, has never really ended. We have to enter where we do, a short sentence that spins in the bleak time between greater horrors, if we are to grasp even the beginnings of what has been done.
It's a small sentence, clipped, surprising if you're used to Morrison's expansive poetry. Sometimes, though, the poetry is not in the use of many words, but in the density of a few. '124 was spiteful,' and already history has us by the throat.
*Autobiography of Malcolm X, (c) Alex Haley and Malcolm X, 1964, from the Penguin Books edition, p 296
**Made in America, Bill Bryson, (c) 1994, from the Black Swan edition, p 118
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