Excerpt: A. S. Byatt’s introduction to 'Beloved' by Toni Morrison
I reviewed Beloved when it first appeared in Britain, in 1987. I remember the experience of reading it for the first time. I wrote then, "This novel gave me nightmares and yet I sat up late, paradoxically smiling to myself with intense pleasure at the exact beauty of the singing prose. I recognized it as a writer, as one of those "fortunate" books whose forms present themselves fluently in the writing, whose problems know their own solutions. Morrison in her 2004 foreword describes how it was written, in a rare period of freedom, when she had given up her publishing work and was able to think about what "free" meant -- to women, and beyond that, to people who were, or had been, slaves. Her subject rose up at her, as the solid female ghost rose out of the water, in a "nice hat," to haunt the women in the house in 1873, and to embody an American masterpiece in 1987. I reread it before writing this introduction, with the same mixture of delight and terror and with even more admiration for the brilliance of its art.
Beloved turns on the slaughter of a baby by her own mother. Sethe kills her child rather than have her returned from freedom into slavery. Sethe has escaped from Sweet Home in Kentucky to freedom in Ohio, where she has joined her mother-in-law, Baby Suggs, whose freedom has been bought by the labor of Sethe’s husband, Halle. Sethe’s three elder children, two boys and a "crawling-already" daughter, are already in the free house, number 124. Sethe has given birth to another daughter, Denver, on the way there. The harsh Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 gave slaveholders the right to retrieve their "property" from states that had abolished slavery. The Act had been passed as part of a payment for southern support for the admission of California to the Union as a free state, and for the ending of the slave trade in the District of Columbia. The Act aroused anger and distress in northern states. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in 1852, dramatized the moral distress of the abolitionists. The act was repealed in 1864. Northern states’ attempts to legislate against the Act led to the secession of South Carolina in 1860, and to the American Civil War of 1861–1865.
Sethe’s escape is modeled on the story of Margaret Garner, who escaped from Kentucky with sixteen other slaves in January 1856. The fugitives were pursued by a posse, of slave masters and sheriff’s officers. They fought back. Margaret Garner cut her youngest daughter’s throat with a butcher’s knife and tried to kill herself and the rest of her children. There was a sensational trial, in which the slaves’ lawyer paradoxically suggested that Margaret be charged with murder and the others with complicity -- trying to ensure that she remained in the Free State to be judged as a person, not returned as property. She was, however, returned, and her other baby daughter was drowned when the boat returning them capsized. Margaret is reported as having "displayed frantic joy" at this death.
The tale is grim. Margaret Garner became a symbolic heroine for the abolitionists. Harriet Beecher Stowe dramatized the events in Dred, a novel about a slave revolution, which enacted, grimly, the lynchings and mob riots of the South, sold 100,000 copies in four weeks, and was adapted for the stage. Stowe’s Cora Gordon speaks in her own justification with strong and argued rhetoric. Morrison, in her introduction to Beloved, speaks of the real Margaret Garner’s "intellect," "ferocity," and "willingness to risk everything for what was to her the necessity of freedom." Morrison invented Sethe in order to have space to imagine history—an imagined history of slavery, both reality and myth at once.
Beloved is, in ways to which I shall come back, the great American nineteenth-century novel that wasn’t written, about those things that were not written about, but that haunt those great novels, by Melville and Poe, that were. In American fiction of that period there is always a sense of a reality beyond realism, a reaching-out for the "myth before the myth began," as Wallace Stevens puts it in "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction." Beloved has everything that makes the delight of strong realist fiction—complex, believable, admirable and suffering characters, fully imagined places and things, food, clothes, social awkwardnesses and narrownesses, singing dialogue in real voices. It has the bleak power of true, not symbolic tragedy, the defeat of fully imagined human beings. It makes its readers, relentlessly, contemplate terrors they are really horrified by, with no Gothic thrill -- mundane, unimaginative cruelties, the extremity of infanticide and its effects on everyone near it. But it has also the quality of American Gothic, the black veil of metaphor, the symbolic glitter of myth.
The two worlds are connected—indivisibly entwined—by the extraordinary solidity of the ghost of the unappeased dead baby, who is introduced in the first two brief sentences. "124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom." The invisible spite willfully creates her own solidity, clothes her body with real clothes, and puts shoes on her unused feet (she was only "crawling-already"), rises dripping from the water, and demands love with the unappeasable desire of a dependent baby. She becomes black and shining, lovely, greedy, and terrible. Her bodily presence anchors her in the real world of the novel. Her name, and other names, place her in a myth.
Margaret Atwood, reviewing the novel, noted the importance of its epigraph.
I will call them my people,
which were not my people;
and her beloved,
which was not beloved.
This is from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, and comes from a passage in which Paul is arguing that the Gentiles, as well as the Jews, are the children of God. Paul goes on:
And it shall come to pass that in the place where it was said unto them, Ye are not my people; there shall they be called the children of the living God.
This passage is about the inclusion of the excluded, the despised, and the rejected of men, and can be compared to the defiant citation, by rebellious slaves, of the Declaration of Independence. "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." (Stowe’s Dred is impressive in this context.)
The passage could also be connected to what I take to be the biblical origin of Morrison’s choice of name for her heroine—Sethe. I like to think it rhymes with the classical Lethe, the river of oblivion, but I am not sure about this. What does seem clear is that Sethe was named for Adam and Eve’s third child, Seth, born after the murder of Abel by Cain. This child, according to certain traditions, was presented with the staff God gave to Adam, a branch of the Tree of Life, and Kallimachus says that it is "well known…that the descendants of Cain are distinguished in Scripture by the name of the sons of man or Adam; those of Seth by the name of the sons of God." (This appears to be an allusion to those "sons of God" in Genesis 6:2 who "saw the daughters of men that they were fair.") Christ called himself the son of God, and the quotation from Romans, taken with the description of Seth, suggests that the excluded are the true inheritors.
Set, or Seth, is also an ambivalent deity, worshipped in ancient Egypt as a form of Typhon, the destroying serpent, female as well as male. Hippolytus in his refutation of heresies in the early days of Christianity says that the "Sethians" worshipped "the Eternal Logos -- Darkness, and Mist, and Tempest." The divinity also became associated with the waters of the Nile and the regenerative mud that produced life from death. Some esoteric heresies identify Set or Seth with the Serpent in Paradise, the third (excluded) member of the trinity Adam, Eve, and the Serpent. Essentially what Beloved takes from this cluster of myths is this symbolic grouping of female, darkness, water, rejected, but secretly the source of life. There is a wonderful mythic moment when Sethe is at her lowest, battered, bleeding, crawling on her pregnant belly to hide in the grass, just before she meets Amy, the raggedy white girl.
She thinks she hears a white boy and becomes a destroyer.
She told Denver that a something came up out of the earth into her—like a freezing, but moving too, like jaws inside. "Look like I was just cold jaws grinding," she said. Suddenly she was eager for his eyes, to bite into them; to gnaw his cheek."
Amy is brusquely kind (her name means love, or gentleness; all the names in the novel, I think, have meanings). She speaks to Sethe.
Down in the grass, like the snake she believed she was, Sethe opened her mouth, and instead of fangs and a split tongue, out shot the truth.
And Amy massages Sethe’s bleeding feet, which carries Christian associations -- Christ’s bleeding feet, Christ washing the feet of the disciples.
In a symbolic novel, a metaphor is as real in the reader’s mind as a thing on the level of the primary narrative. Sethe is a snake. It is no accident that in the storytelling of the novel, the imaged snake is juxtaposed to a brief description Sethe gives her daughter Denver, named for Amy’s home town, of schoolteacher, the white man at Sweet Home who inherits the slaves and is writing a book comparing the animal and human characteristics of the black people. (It was important to the argument that the Declaration of Independence didn’t apply to blacks, to claim that they were part animals, in some way inferior to those "all men" [not women?] who are born free.) Sethe in the realist novel is painfully human. At her lowest moment, Paul D tells her "You got two feet, Sethe, not four," recalling the unspeakable idea of animal characteristics. The sentence goes on "and right then a forest sprang up between them; trackless and quiet." The word forest is not the word jungle, to which we shall come. But the insult carries the whole weight of the horror of being black and human and a slave.
Almost all readers of Beloved, I imagine, will associate the title more readily with the biblical Song of Solomon than with St. Paul. "I am black, but comely," says the beloved, who was perhaps the Queen of Sheba. "Look not upon me because I am black, because the sun hath looked upon me. My mother’s children were angry with me. They made me the keeper of the vineyards; but mine own vineyard have I not kept." The whole poem is dripping with sweetness, bodily pleasure, and paradisal imagery. The erotic garden of the black but comely Beloved is a version of the Paradise Garden, and the beloved is the garden.
A garden enclosed is my sister, my spouse;
A spring shut up, a fountain sealed …
A fountain of gardens, a well of living waters,
And streams from Lebanon …
Almost every line of the Song of Solomon has its resonance in Beloved, with its triumphant sensuality, its land of milk and honey, its imagery of children as well as lovers.
O that thou wert as my brother
That sucked the breasts of my mother!
When I should find thee without,
I would kiss thee;
Yea, I should not be despised.
I would lead thee
And bring thee into my mother’s house
Who would instruct me.
Here is the voice of Denver speaking to the beloved ghost, and also the voice of Sethe, seeking out the good mother, Baby Suggs.
For love is strong as death;
Jealousy is as cruel as the grave;
The coals thereof are as coals of fire,
Which hath a most vehement flame.
Many waters cannot quench love,
Neither can the floods drown it …
We have a little sister, and she hath no breasts;
What shall we do for our sister
In the day when she shall be spoken for?
The Song of Solomon is a world of shining archetypes, apple trees, milk, water, bright black flesh for which the metaphors are pomegranates and tender grapes. It is set both ironically and in a kind of yearning counterpart against the world in which Sethe, Paul D, and Baby Suggs try to live well.
There are other, more corrupt versions of the Paradise Garden. Toni Morrison’s naming of the Kentucky farm, Sweet Home, is a stroke of genius. Its owners are kinder than most slaveholders and almost treat their slaves as men and women. When Sethe remembers it, she cannot recall the fields and trees without a kind of love for the beauty of the earth, followed by the immediate sense that she does not want to love it, for it is not hers, and she was not at home in it but was a slave and a captive. I think Morrison kept the original name of the owners of Margaret Garner because it has its own wicked irony -- the owners garner the fruits of the land, the slaves bring in the harvest. Sethe’s only contact with her mother is watching her working in the fields before she is hanged. Baby Suggs grants that Sweet Home is an improvement on her tortured life in Carolina. "And no matter, for the sadness was at her center the desolated center where the self that was no self made its home."
The American Dream sees the New World as a paradise. I shall come back to that.
It could be argued that the black people in the novel have an almost pastoral or mythical quality of virtue and intelligence. They are all good, patient, heroic, and defeated. There is no malice among the Sweet Home slaves, although the venom and spite they suppress collects and manifests itself in the swelling ghost of the baby-woman. The neighboring blacks, in the free community around 124, feel suspicion and spite when Baby Suggs manages to make a kind of paradisal harvest feast in the house. That is the spite of the humiliated, unable to claim their world for their own as bravely as she has done. Sethe’s child-killing stands out as quite different from the crime of Medea, slaughtering her children because she is rejected as a woman. Sethe kills out of extreme love and fear, and Paul D’s horror of her act is her worst (and just) punishment (except for the terrible presence of the ghost). What is hard to write about is the exact justice with which Morrison depicts these damaged people’s grown-up intelligence and dignity in a world that gives them no home. They do not have even have their own names—the Sweet Home men are Paul D Garner, Paul F Garner and Paul A Garner, and the wild Sixo. Baby Suggs’s owner always believed she was called "Jenny" because that was on her papers. But she sticks to the odd and awkward Baby Suggs because her husband was called Suggs, and he called her "Baby." I have wondered whether Baby Suggs carries the suggestion of the child at the breast -- baby sucks. Baby is a diminutive that makes a child of a woman, even if it is loving -- but Baby Suggs is nothing if not grown-up, wise, and generous. (And Denver, finally, feels she is a woman when Lady Jones calls her "Baby".) These are people who hardly dare love their children because they may be sold tomorrow; who will not love, or reluctantly partly love, children fathered by white masters; who do not know, as human beings need to know, who their ancestors are, where they come from. They are people who own nothing, and are themselves owned. Yet, in this tale, they are not brutalized. The chain gang rescues itself in the flood because they move together, each depending on the other.
The true representative of this goodness and dignity is Paul D. One of the most moving moments in the novel, for me, is when he thinks -- clearly -- about the need to restrict his love to little things.
Listening to the doves in Alfred, Georgia, and having neither the right nor the permission to enjoy it because in that place mist, doves, sunlight, copper dirt, moon—everything belonged to the men who had the guns. Little men, some of them, big men too, each one of whom he could snap like a twig if he wanted to … And these "men" who made even vixen laugh could, if you let them, stop you from hearing doves or loving moonlight. So you protected yourself and loved small. Picked the tiniest stars out of the sky to own … Grass blades, salamanders, spiders, woodpeckers, beetles, a kingdom of ants. Anything bigger wouldn’t do. A woman, a child, a brother -- a big love like that would split you right open in Alfred, Georgia.
Paul D has his heart in a figurative tobacco tin, rusted shut -- witched open by Beloved, who seduces him, as much as by his much more cautious settling in with Sethe.
The extraordinary form of the unfolding of the tale of this novel, terrible and beautiful, is essentially constructed round what is both a survival mechanism and a profound courtesy between the survivors -- the reluctance to remember the horrors, or to speak of them to others, which might bring those horrors back to life. So Paul D does not intend to damage Sethe by telling her what happened to her husband, Halle, or to Sixo. So the community does not tell Paul D what Sethe has done, at least for some time. And so, bit by bit, Toni Morrison’s readers move through a fictive present full of bearable reminiscences to the concealed horrors -- and shattered passions -- embodied in Beloved. It is only on a second reading that one can see how delicately Sethe cherry-picks what can be told to Denver as the epic triumph of Denver’s birth, out of the unspeakable evil that led to it happening as it did.
Connected to this, and providing a bridge back to a different discussion of the mythic dimension of this novel, is the treatment of the white people who appear. Whiteness in this story is blankness, emptiness. White people on the periphery of the events are not very much imagined -- they are unimagined presences of the unimaginable, and also of the unimaginative. (Consider the limitations of the ability to talk to or understand the black people displayed by Mr. Garner as he takes Baby Suggs to liberty, or the dying Mrs. Garner, thanking Sethe but unaware of, and uninterested in, what is distressing her.) The schoolteacher’s sons who steal milk are distinguished only by their repulsive "mossy teeth." The black girl’s voice in the visionary scene of the slave ship describes whites uncomprehendingly as incomplete, people without skins. They are ghosts, demons.
This reverses, in a wonderful way, the dangerous building of black skins into old associations of darkness with blackness, with danger, even with evil. The American nineteenth-century novel is full of lurid contrasts between black and white, based in religious and metaphysical ambiguities and questioning. I was a postgraduate student in the late 1950s, studying what was then a new subject and a new discipline -- American literature. American literature was in a sense defined as the attempt to define and describe America, the Brave New World of the American Dream. One of the critical books that most impressed me at the time was The Power of Blackness by Harry Levin. It studied images of darkness and light, blackness and whiteness in Hawthorne, Poe, and Melville, and defined a certain kind of metaphysical, allegorical, Gothic darkness as an essential characteristic of early American novels. It discussed the Puritan black gloom of Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, and his minister who wore a Black Veil. It discussed Poe’s black Raven, and went on to look at Poe’s imaginary journey to the then unexplored Antarctic, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, published in 1838. In that fantastic adventure Pym sails, like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, past black ships of death, in search of the South Pole. Here is Harry Levin at the South Pole:
Curiosity is rewarded at the expense of plausibility when land is sighted beyond the ice floes, "a singular ledge of rock … bearing a strong resemblance to corded bales of cotton." But the Ultima Thule on which they eventually set foot has no "light-colored substances of any kind." "Everything is black, the flora and fauna, the dwellings and artefacts, not only the skin but the teeth of the woolly-haired inhabitants. The very water is opaque and purplish. Whereas the shirts and sails of the visitors, the pages of their books and the shells of their eggs -- everything white is taboo; and an untouchable white animal with red teeth is a sort of totem." The black-skinned warriors inter the white-skinned mariners alive. They escape through grey vapour, milky water, a rain of "fine white powder resembling ashes," the flight of "many gigantic and pallidly white birds." Their last vision is a shrouded figure, huger than lifesize, blocking their path. "And the hue of the skin of the figure was of the perfect whiteness of the snow."
There is a lot more of this, and of other paradoxical black-white contrasts. Levin remarks, considering Poe’s loathing of abolitionists, that "in the troubled depths of Poe’s unconscious, there must have been not only the fantasy of a lost heritage, but a resentment and a racial phobia."
Levin also considers Melville, whose tale "Benito Cereno" dramatizes the revolt of an enslaved crew against a Spanish captain, and whose masterpiece, Moby Dick, depicts a whaler, with a crew of all races, with a captain with a white ivory leg, careering across all the oceans of the world in pursuit of an unmasterable demonic whale, whose impossible color is white, and who can only be struck by a harpoon baptized by black magic in the blood of three dark-complexioned harpooners. Melville’s Ishmael is rescued by his brotherhood with the "savage" harpooner Queequeg (just as Sethe, perhaps, does need the poor white Amy, in the only scene where a white has a voice and a character). But what is remarkable about Moby Dick is the extraordinary beauty of the long passage about the horror of the whiteness of the whale, in the chapter with that heading. It is tendentious, it is extravagant, it creates new associations for the "color of purity" and, as it says itself, "the very veil of the Christian’s Deity." Melville’s rhetoric rides past the horror of the white bear of the poles and the white shark of the tropics, the pale dread of the albatross and the "strangely hideous" albino human. He identifies whiteness with indifference and cruelty.
Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way? Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color, and at the same time the concrete of all colors; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows -- a colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink? … "Pondering all this, the palsied universe lies before us a leper … "
It is in this chapter that Melville comes to his terrible conclusion: "Though in many of its aspects this visible world seems formed in love, the invisible spheres were formed in fright." He wrote to Hawthorne of this book, "I have written a wicked book, and feel spotless as the lamb"—a traditional image of white innocence that he has compromised.
I myself read Uncle Tom’s Cabin when I was far too young, sitting in my grandmother’s garden with an old copy I had found on her shelf and feeling overwhelmed by simple horror that a way of life could have existed like the one described in that story. It was one of my very earliest experiences of real evil, and it hurt me. When I read Harry Levin in the fifties, I simply assumed that he was saying that Poe’s, and Melville’s, turning of the religious imagery of whiteness into horror was at some level, conscious and unconscious, an admission that the New World is contaminated by a new sin, the racial guilt of enslavement. He doesn’t in fact say that -- he draws back from it, though from time to time he implies it.
In Playing in the Dark (1992) Toni Morrison does, with considerable irony and a kind of implacable charity, discuss the absence of the presence of the enslaved black nation in American literature. She fixes on the image that white American literature gives of the society that wants to see itself as creating a new, earthly Paradise -- democratic, just, and free of the shackles and hierarchies of Old Europe. She remarks sharply:
"Living in a nation of people who decided that their worldview would combine agendas for individual freedom and mechanisms for devastating racial oppression presents a singular landscape for a writer."
I have suggested that the blankness of Morrison’s whites can be connected to Poe’s and Melville’s white horrors. The virtuoso use of the language of colors in Beloved rewrites the color language of the American classics that came before it. Its mythic and poetic images connect it to that symbolic tradition of American writing. Its realism makes the fates of real, individual people matter, free, unfree, and in the process of claiming freedom.
Morrison is rightly fearful of what she calls "metaphorical shortcuts." In Britain at least, enthusiastic critical moralists have attempted to deny or prevent the use of blackness to symbolize fear or evil or horror. Human beings of all colors were afraid of the dark in all societies, because danger came out of it, because it was beyond control, and this has not much to do with skin color. Black people are afraid of the dark as white and yellow and beige people are. Morrison writes finely, "Neither blackness nor ‘people of color’ stimulates in me notions of excessive, limitless love, anarchy, or routine dread." But she has made a collection of "the associative language of dread and love that accompanies blackness…. Examples I thought of as a category of sources of imagery, like water, flight, war, birth, religion and so on, that make up the writer’s kit."
In Beloved, then, white is blank, and black is on the whole invisible, because people are black, real people who inhabit this novel are black. To be human is to be black, and to be white is to be at least in danger of being inhuman, at the margins. There is a religious symbolism of two connected colors, white and red, the white of milk and the red of blood, both connected with life and death at the extremes. Denver as a baby drinks her sister’s blood and her mother’s milk together. Paul D has shut up his red heart in his rusted tobacco box. The source of Baby Suggs’s life and her religious calling in the green Clearing is the life in her red heart. Red is the color of the ribbon that Stamp Paid thought was a cardinal feather in the river but that turned out to be "a red ribbon knotted around a curl of wet woolly hair, clinging still to its bit of scalp." "Red" is what Baby Suggs slips in, trying to wrest Denver from the wild and murderous Sethe. Red is also the color of the innocent velvet Amy is traveling to Boston in search of, but the word she uses is the rich word "carmine".
It is in this context that we need to read Baby Suggs’s preoccupation with color, as she lies in bed, defeated, we later learn, by Sethe’s blow for freedom.
Her past had been like her present -- intolerable -- and since she knew death was anything but forgetfulness, she used the little energy left her for pondering color.
"Bring in a little lavender if you got any. Pink, if you don’t."
Pink is a dubious color -- it is the pleasing flesh of a pink tongue, pondered by Baby. It is the tombstone, "pink as a fingernail," that Sethe leans on to pay with sex to have the word Beloved chiseled on the baby’s headstone. It is also the wonderfully described blossom on tree after tree, in American orchard after American orchard, that Paul D follows north after the Civil War to find a new place to be, waiting until one tree fades and hunting out the next one, in a cooler and later climate. This is a different version of the Paradise Garden, half-wild, half-cultivated, entered but not owned, full of birds that can be heard singing, and must be eaten raw to survive.
Color is the scraps of material that Baby Suggs makes into an American quilt, in 124, where she is free and defeated. Two patches of orange among the drab. She tells Stamp Paid that she needs to fix on something harmless in this world. "Blue don’t hurt nobody. Yellow neither." Stamp Paid later fingers his talismanic ribbon and "hopes she stuck to blue, yellow, maybe green, and never fixed on red."
Color is Denver thinking about her years of shocked speechlessness and the return of the solid ghost.
Anything is better than the silence in which she answered to hands gesturing and was indifferent to the movement of lips. When she saw every little thing and colors leaped smoldering into view. She will forgo the most violent of sunsets, stars as fat as dinner plates and all the blood of autumn, and settle for the palest yellow if it comes from her Beloved.
Color is Denver, going to find work, only half hearing Miss Bodwin "because she was stepping on something soft and blue. All around her was thick, soft and blue." It is her first experience of a carpet.
Color is connected in a very complex way to flesh and blood. Baby Suggs, free, listening to her great heart, calls the people and tells them to love their flesh because
the only grace they could have was the grace they could imagine. That if they could not see it, they would not have it.
"Here," she said, "in this here place we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh."
Flesh is solid in this novel, tortured flesh, damaged flesh, tentatively loving flesh, the willed flesh of the too solid ghost, the bodily fluids of birth and death, spit, blood, piss, milk, and water. When baby Suggs is strong, she can love flesh in the Clearing. When she is defeated, she retreats -- she "dismissed her great heart and lay in the keeping-room bed, roused once in a while by a craving for color, and not for another thing. ‘Those white things have taken all I had or dreamed,’ she said, ‘and broke my heartstrings too. There is no bad luck in the world but whitefolks.’"
Stamp Paid, in his way, also reverses both the paradisal imagery, and its opposing image, the savage jungle from which black cannibals, in white mythology, come. He broods.
"Whitepeople believed that whatever the manners, under every dark skin was a jungle. The more coloredpeople spent their strength trying to convince them how gentle they were, how clever and loving, how human, the more they used themselves up to persuade whites of something Negroes believed could not be questioned, the deeper and more tangled the jungle grew inside. But it wasn’t the jungle blacks brought with them to this place from the other (livable) place. It was the jungle whitefolks planted in them. And it grew … until it invaded the whites who had made it … Made them bloody, silly, worse than even they wanted to be, so scared were they of the jungle they had made. The screaming baboon lived under their own white skin; the red gums were their own."
T. S. Eliot, in "Tradition and the Individual Talent," said that every new work of literature altered the literature of the past -- in a sense reread that literature. Beloved enacts this alteration more forcefully than most classics. But the book does also have that gentler quality of seeming to be something that, while entirely new, was always there to be discovered, has always existed. I tried to describe that feeling in a novel (Possession). I was moved to find Toni Morrison quoting my sentence in Playing in the Dark, as an example of the way in which "writing and reading are not all that distinct for a writer." Morrison quotes my passage as "an example of certain kinds of readings that seem to me inextricable from certain experiences of writing." It goes:
"When the knowledge that we shall know the writing differently or better or satisfactorily runs ahead of any capacity to say what we know, or how. In these readings, a sense that the text has appeared to be wholly new, never before seen, is followed, almost immediately, by the sense that it was always there, that we, the readers, knew it was always there, and have always known it was as it was, though we have now for the first time recognized, become fully cognizant of, our knowledge."
Beloved is the novel I think of first, when I think of this kind of reading, this kind of writing.
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