The debate concerning the relationship between history and postmodernism has been given special impetus by Fredric Jameson's argument that the postmodern is inextricably tied to late capitalist consumer culture and that its artefacts work at the level of surfaces, pastiche or the schizophrenic fracturing of time so that all happens in the present. As a consequence, the only access to history that the postmodern can offer is through consumer images of the past. Writing of Doctorow's Ragtime, Jameson brings his critique to a poignant and pessimistic climax:
This historical novel can no longer set out to represent the historical past; it can only "represent" our ideas and stereotypes about that past (which thereby at once becomes "pop history"). Cultural production is thereby driven back inside a mental space which is no longer that of the old monadic subject but rather that of some degraded collective "objective spirit": it can no longer gaze directly on some putative real world, at some reconstruction of a past history which was once itself a present; rather, as in Plato's cave, it must trace our mental images of that past upon its confining walls. If there is any realism left here, it is a "realism" that is meant to derive from the shock of grasping that confinement and of slowly becoming aware of a new and original historical situation in which we are condemned to seek History by way of our own pop images and simulacra of that history, which itself remains forever out of reach.2
More optimistic is John Barth's essay, "The Literature of Replenishment," in which he takes his cue from what is commonly known as "magical realism.” He praises the work of Marques and Calvino who "keep one foot in fantasy, one in objective reality."3 Marques is especially to be praised for being a "master of the storyteller's art."4 A Hundred Years of Solitude is a "synthesis of straightforwardness and artifice, realism and magic and myth, political passion and nonpolitical artistry, characterization and caricature, humour and terror."5 The fragmentation, the aphasia and the amnesia of the postmodern may then, in this view, be redeemed by a return to the “narrative past,”6 to storytelling in its primitive and folkloric sense, to what Walter Ong would call the "human lifeworld."7 It is a Kierkegaardian return,
1 Toni Morrison, Beloved (1987; London: Picador, 1988); Louise Erdrich, Tracks (1988; New York: Harper & Row, 1989). 2 Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (London: Verso, 1991), 25. 3 John Barth, “The Literature of Replenishment,” in The Post-Modern Reader, edited by Charles Jencks (London: Academy Editions, 1992), 179. 4 Ibid. 5 Ibid. 6 Ibid. 7 Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy (London: Routledge, 1982). however, a repetition where "consciousness is raised to the second power," the past received back doubly.8
Barth's discussion of the replenishment enabled by this heightened consciousness might perhaps be a tentative consolation to that great cataloguist of the postmodern, Ihab Hassan, who calls, with some anguish, for the need to "remythify the imagination ... and bring back the reign of wonder into our lives.”9 Of course this plea for a return to myth is a problematic one for politics and history. One recalls Barthes' analysis of myth as frozen language. But there is also Nietzsche's warning of what happens to the mythless, the rootless, the unspiritual man. This second reading of myth asserts its ancient power to revitalize our connectedness to each other, to the social and the natural world, and to a broader conception of the movement of time in a way that is surely profoundly political.
I would like to argue that Morrison and Erdrich have written works that achieve the same kind of synthesis for which Barth praises Marques. In so doing, they also resurrect, or rememory, as Morrison would have it, histories that have been repressed, destroyed, denied by hegemonic narratives. Central to the process of rememory is the tangible, material power of that resurrection: bodies come back to life, bodies come to life, material nature is animated by spirit, the trees talk. Metamorphosis is central to these narratives of rediscovery. The notion of transformation is double•faced, of course: carnivalesque and grotesque in both their Bakhtinian and their Brueghelian modes. The energy and laughter of metamorphosis are countered by the dissolution and terror as one form is dismembered for another to take its place. The pain of transition, of liminality is acutely felt in both books—the transition between psychic, physical, political and historical states.
Morrison, an African-American woman writer, a hyphenated consciousness, takes as her subject the "sixty million and more" (epigraph) who died in slavery. Beloved is not only Sethe's murdered daughter, but the resurrection of slave history. The intense physicality of this embrace of the past is prefigured in the very naming of Beloved. Sethe sells her body over the grave of her child to pay for the name on the tombstone, one of the words spoken at the funeral, "beloved." So the name is created out of sex and death. The "crawling-already?" baby who never had a name is given a second birth into the word memorialized on the stone, born out of her mother's body. In the cyclic nature of ghosts and hauntings, the word will return as flesh. This is also an image of what Morrison is doing. Her word embodies history as a meditation on the torment and the power of the woman's body.
But there is dualism inherent in the image of the woman as flesh and as word. Beloved's resurrection of the middle passage, in her stream-of-consciousness monologue, is a passage of separation and death. In broken syntax and the imagery of nightmare, the collapsing of forms, of consciousness, of individual being,
8 Søren Kierkegaard, Repetition: An Essay in Experimental Psychology, translated by Walter Lowrie (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1941), 156. 9 Ihab Hassan, “Pluralism in Postmodern Perspective,” in Jencks, 204.
2 Beloved's incantation brings to birth the movement of Africans across the Atlantic, a past made eternally present:
All of it is now it is always now there will never be a time when I am not crouching and watching others who are crouching too I am always crouching the man on my face is dead his face is not mine his mouth smells sweet but his eyes are locked…. (210)
The passage climaxes in Beloved's merging with her mother, both a joyous return to the mother•daughter dyad and a terrible vision of cannibalism. Beloved's ambiguity as both haunting and embrace is finely captured:
... she chews and swallows me I am gone now I am her face my own face has left me ... Sethe sees me see her and I see the smile her smiling face is the place for me it is the place I lost she is my face smiling at me doing it at last a hot thing now we can join a hot thing (213)
History, then, is something suspended in the womb, but the womb as gothic space of claustrophobic enclosure, the dead sea of the middle passage, out of which you are born a slave. The "hot thing" becomes both the inferno of the slave ship and the mutual devouring of mother and daughter in a grotesque compensation for the rupture of family caused by the slave market. Possession and dispossession feed off each other.
At one level, the answering monologues of Sethe and Denver argue for orality and motherhood, both signifying presence, fullness, the plenitude of the voice and the maternal body. Moreover, the mother has two mouths, one that gives birth figuratively to words and stories; one that gives birth literally to life. Irigaray's "two lips" speak together to generate a world, an extension of the body, not a separation from the body.
Nevertheless, when Sethe gives her body in order to write a word on the tombstone, she also gives birth to death and separation. Writing and giving birth are both connected to divorce, the written word separated from the living tongue, the body, the voice. For Kristeva, birth, too, is a moment of abjection, rupture, splitting. Morrison's novel seeks a way back to what Kristeva calls ''WORD FLESH.”10 In the beginning was the word, sheathed in the body of the mother. But it is a quest that must not succumb to mutual devouring, circling back into the hungry past of conception under the sign of death.
The central path back to this integration is through the telling of stories. Beloved's orality, her constant desire for things to eat is tied to her hunger for stories, to have herself told and brought into being as more than a name, as part of a narrative, a fiction of concord, as Kermode might put it. Denver shares in this awareness of the
10 Julia Kristeva, Tales of Love, translated by Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987), 235.
3 importance of having a story to make oneself feel real. She is jealous over stories that do not include her. To be excluded from a story is like being murdered. When Denver tells Beloved the story of her own birth, she resurrects the sensual fullness through the presence of her ghostly sister, the past reincarnated: "Feeling how it must have felt to her mother. Seeing how it must have looked" (78). But the centrepiece, the revelation of Sethe's murder of her child, is a travesty of storytelling. At the heart of her darkness, she cannot put the story together, a dramatic depiction of an unspeakable history:
It made [Paul D] dizzy. At first he thought it was her spinning. Circling him the way she was circling the subject. Round and round, never changing direction, which might have helped his head. Then he thought, No it's the sound of her voice; it's too near. Each turn she made was at least three yards from where he sat, but listening to her was like having a child whisper in your ear so close you could feel its lips form the words you couldn't make out because they were too close. (161)
The duet spoken by Beloved and Denver, as they recount Denver's birth, is replete with images of renewal and bonding, not only between mother and child, but between black slave and poor white Amy. In trying to recount her heart of darkness, however, Sethe's body is no longer a place of rich fertility and bonding. Now her body cannot stay still, cannot be centred. She becomes the spinning world and Paul D’s horror can offer no still point. It is a tale of dismemberment, told vertiginously, excluding Paul D, the listener, the community, the human lifeworld
Denver, deafened by the terror of her mother's infanticide, becomes further dispossessed by the merging of Sethe and Beloved, but out of that dispossession discovers the strength implicit in her birth on the banks of the Ohio, the liminal moment, the space of metamorphosis from slavery to freedom. She moves "off the edge of the world" (239) into the community and enables the contrapuntal monologues of herself, her sister and her mother to give way to the sea of rising voices of all the women of the community:
For Sethe it was as though the Clearing had come to her with all its heat and simmering leaves, where the voices of women searched for the right combination, the key, the code, the sound that broke the back of words. Building voice upon voice until they found it, and when they did it was a wave of sound wide enough to sound deep water and knock the pods off chestnut trees. It broke over Sethe and she trembled like the baptized in its wash. (261)
The Clearing is the temple of trees, the space of imagination, grace and transformation in which Sethe's mother-in-law woke the community to joy in their bodies and their voices, urging them to love themselves: " '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"' (88).
4 The tree is an abiding image in the book of the capacity for the imagination to remember and rewrite the past. One of Sethe's most hideous "rememories" is that of the dead black bodies hanging from the beautiful trees of Sweet Home. She carries the inscription of Schoolteacher on her back, scars in the form of what Amy describes as a chokecherry tree. But for Paul D, the flowering trees are signposts to the North and freedom, and when he finds Sethe, his gentle touch on her scarred back begins the process of rememory, of resurrecting history so that it may, like Beloved, finally be exorcised. The image of the tree becomes an image of the imaginative reclamation of the land, a process begun even earlier for Sethe, when she gave birth among the ferns of the river, woman and nature no longer a metaphor for masculine colonization, but claiming the power of fecundity for themselves.
The singing women recall, then, the Clearing, the forest, the moment when an old black woman made the land her own, a temple for the celebration of the rediscovery of joy in owning oneself and one's freedom. Even as Beloved, the resurrection of the past, enables that recollection, she is also the past that must be put away. As the women sing, she splits apart to "make it easy for the chewing laughter to swallow her all away" (274). But swallowing, ingestion, means absorption into one's own body; she becomes a part of everyone. "Down by the stream in back of 124 her foorprints come and go. They are so familiar. Should a child, an adult place his feet in them, they will fit” (275). And yet, no one knows her name. There is always the secret, the terrible mystery that cannot be named, invoked, brought under control. ''By and by all trace is gone ... " (275). The trace that is her name on the gravestone, the name written, separated from the body, the voice, the lips. At the moment that Beloved splits apart, the trace is gone. Yet the last word of the book is her name, Beloved, written down on the memorializing page of Morrison's book, to be passed on, disseminated, reborn every time someone reads this story.
While Morrison's chief focus is the suffering of those never allowed to possess history or the land, her text is haunted by those dispossessed of both. The expulsion from Eden of the Indian for an original sin committed elsewhere, and the ensuing pain of watching the desecration of the garden are remembered. Sixo meets his Thirty-Mile Woman at a "deserted stone structure that Redmen used way back when they thought the land was theirs" (24). Paul D walks a path "that took him smack dab through the middle of a cemetery as old as sky, rife with the agitation of dead Miami no longer content to rest in the mounds that covered them" (155). In one brutal paragraph, Morrison sums up the history of injustice, violence, betrayal and malicious irony suffered by the Cherokee. Paul D is rescued by a group dying of illness but refusing to move further west into Oklahoma:
The illness that swept them now was reminiscent of the one that had killed half their number two hundred years earlier. In between that calamity and this, they had visited George III in London, published a newspaper, made baskets, led Oglethorpe through forests, helped Andrew Jackson fight Creek, cooked maize, drawn up a constitution, petitioned the King of Spain, been experimented on by Dartmouth, established asylums, wrote their language, resisted settlers, shot bear
5 and translated scripture. All to no avail. The forced move to the Arkansas River, insisted upon by the same president they fought for against the Creek, destroyed another quarter of their already shattered number. (111)
The Chippewa or Ojibway are the focus of Erdrich's work, their land the harsh, rugged world of Minnesota and North Dakota. These are the people whose stories were first written down by ethnologist Henry Rowe Schoolcraft. The stories became the basis for Longfellow's mellifluous rhymes in The Song of Hiawatha. As Newton Arvin points out, though, Longfellow's hero is something of a confusion between the romantic culture hero and historical character, Hiawatha, and the very complex figure of Manabozho, wise man and trickster, benevolent bringer of medicine and the strategies of hunting but also "mischievous, conceited, treacherous, malignant."11
Erdrich's Tracks offers, in the character of the storyteller Nanapush, a recovery of the multivalent Manabozho. Her novel is as deeply concerned with the power of storytelling as is Morrison's, not so much to resurrect history as to keep it alive, and, by that means to keep communities alive. Her vision is much darker, however. If Beloved is apocalyptic in its emphasis on revelation and its promise of a tomorrow to counterpoint the yesterdays, Erdrich has, perforce, to offer an elegy. Nevertheless, like Morrison, she appropriates the "white" form of the novel, the "postmodern" play with that form (here in terms of overlapping temporality and a double point of view), the social realism of political protest and blends them with a powerfully lyrical evocation of the supernatural.
The dramatization of the history of the Chippewa and the necessity for a listening "human lifeworld" are conveyed through the story that the old trickster, Nanapush, tells his adopted daughter, Lulu. The creation of an intra-diegetic audience also has the ambiguous function of creating an exclusive space for the sharing of Indian history. We are eavesdroppers on a tale of mystery, magic and betrayal. Lulu is, indeed, part representative of the outside, the city, with her high-heeled shoes and lack of respect for the old spinner of yarns. That Lulu is adopted points to the failure of the line, the displacement of lineage, the breaking down of family bonds. But she is also part initiate. It is her history that is being recovered for her. Nanapush tells the story of Fleur, Lulu’s mother, in an attempt to remind her of her own history, a butterfly child brought up on the shores of the magical Matchimanito Lake, surrounded by whispering trees, filled with the voices of dead—dead by foreign disease, or liquor or despair as the land was gradually taken from them. It is a well- known story, a story that has been passed on, and yet has made little or no difference to the plight of the people of whom it tells.
Yet Nanapush is determined that stories, the tongue speaking is what sustains life:
Talk is an old man’s last vice….I shouldn’t have been caused to live so long, shown so much of death, had to squeeze so many stories in the corners of my
11 Newton Arvin, Longfellow: His Life and Work (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1962), 157.
6 brain. They’re all attached and once I start there is no end to telling because they’re hooked from one side to the other, mouth to tail. During the year of sickness, when I was the last one left, I saved myself by starting a story….I fainted, lost breath, so that I could hardly keep moving my lips. But I did continue and recovered. I got well by talking. Death could not get a word in edgewise, grew discouraged and traveled on. (46)
Later, he will sing the warmth and life back into Lulu’s frozen feet, and, while Fleur’s child ensures that the name Nanapush won’t die out, Nanapush’s story ensures that Fleur will live. The telling of her story is also, quite consciously, the creation of a fiction of concord. In a Yeatsian moment, Nanapush says that “there is a story to tell, never visible while it is happening. Only after, when an old man sits dreaming and talking in his chair, the design springs clear” (34). Telling Fleur’s story, moreover, becomes the history of telling all her people. She was, says Nanapush, “the funnel of our history” (178). The vaginal image points to her status as mother, but the moment of description is also the moment of Fleur’s recognition that she is losing her power. Her second baby dies, her dreams no longer tell true and she is betrayed by her lover’s family, who sacrifice her land to save theirs. Unlike Nanapush, who moves on into this history of decimation, taking pleasure in the reality of his love for Margaret and Lulu, Fleur’s identity is totally locked into a sense of her power to overcome history: “In her mind she was huge, she was endless. There was no room for the failures of anyone else….As the lone survivors of the Pillagers, she staggered now beneath the burden of a life she was failing to deserve” (178).
The mythic power with which Fleur is invested is further inflected by the second voice of the novel, that of Pauline, speaking to no one inside the narrative, perhaps speaking to us, out of a fanatical and massively confused religious apocalypticism. She sees Fleur as the wild woman:
She messed with evil, laughed at the old women's advice and dressed like a man. She got herself into some half-forgotten medicine, studied ways we shouldn't talk about. Some say she kept the finger of a child in her pocket and a powder of unborn rabbits in a leather thong around her neck. She laid the heart of an owl on her tongue so she could see at night, and went out, hunting, not even in her own body. We know for sure because the next morning, in the snow or dust, we followed the tracks of her bare feet and saw where they changed, where the claws sprang out. (12)
Where Pauline takes to heart Mother Superior's intimation that the penance she puts herself through makes her akin to Saint Theresa, The Little Flower, it is Fleur who is is the flower of the forest, the beloved of the green and gold man of the lake, Misshepeshu, the beloved of Eli Kashpaw, whose spirit is at one with the woods. Pauline is the antithesis of this natural life. She is the harbinger of death, the "crow of the reservation" (54), in a quite literal way, delivering the dead, believing in a Christ
7 whose hunger for the dead is that of Moloch. Her gaunt bones oppose the rich fire of Fleur's body; her self-torture opposes Fleur's delight in Eli, her child and her forest.
Pauline's antagonism is specifically seen as the product of her desire to purge all Indian cultural and spiritual identity. Her adoption of bizarre means of pleasing Christ (wearing her shoes on the wrong feet, urinating only twice a day, wearing potato sacks against her skin) are hopelessly conflated with her sexual desires. The confusion culminates in her final stand against the evil of the Indian as she challenges the man of the lake. Naked, she engages in a titanic struggle only to discover that she has been wrestling and has killed Napoleon Morrissey, her ravisher and the father of her abandoned child. She bathes herself in mud and defecation and retreats to the convent to take her vows. While the struggle is an expression of Pauline's frustrated masochistic sexuality, it is also an attempt to destroy Fleur's power, that is the power of the Indian way, Indian history, to rewrite that story through the remaking of her own body. If Nanapush sees Fleur as the funnel of history, Pauline sees her as a doorway between the present misery of the Indians and the secrets of the lake:
She was the one who closed the door or swung it open. Between the people and the gold•eyed creature in the lake, the spirit which they said was neither good nor bad but simply had an appetite, Fleur was the hinge…. There would come a turning, a gathering, another door. And it would be Pauline who opened it .... Not Fleur Pillager. (139)
Pauline's desire is, then, darkly apocalyptic. Hers is the terroristic imagination that desires a submission of the world, life and metamorphosis to the totalizing design of one diseased mind. She has lost all contact with the joyful dimensions of carnival and the grotesque. Fleur's tracks metamorphose for Pauline as a sign of Fleur's evil connection to the natural world; as a sign, too, of her access to the secrets of her tribe's history. Pauline refuses to fit her feet to those tracks.
The darkness of Erdrich's own vision in this novel lies in its account of the fading of Fleur's tracks. In a kind of spiritual suicide, Fleur tricks those who eventually come to claim the land because the levy has not been paid. The sound of the axe pervades the clearing, repeating the history of ravishment of the virgin forests of the new world. Fleur's response is to saw the trees around the lake until they are held together by mere slivers of wood. As the treecutters appear on the shores of the lake, the wind builds and builds until the trees start crashing down killing men and destroying the tools of their rapacious trade. Finally, Fleur makes her last tracks. She buckles herself into the traces of a "greenwood cart" and, "face alight," she sets off: “I watched her,” says Nanapush, "until the road bent, traveling south to widen, flatten, and eventually in its course meet with the government school, depots, stores, the plotted squares of Farms" (224).
So Fleur hitches her wagon, not to a star, but to the road that repeats her people's history, tramping that history, like Hardy’s Tess, embodying it in her own strength,
8 her own weakness and suffering. She first appears in Erdrich's The Beet Queen, as a mysterious, mythically charged figure against the landscape. The history behind that figure is what Nanapush and Pauline offer, the one using the stories that funnel a disappearing history, the other trying to shut the door on that history. The double voice is a dramatization of the conflict in twentieth-century American Indian experience: to guard jealously the political autonomy and cultural identity of the tribe, or to assimilate to western ways. That western ways are figured with such ruthlessly comic grotesquerie in the madness of Pauline suggests the decimation of the spiritual, the loss of mythic connection to both the natural world and the erotic self. The logical outcome of Pauline's spiritual vision is murder of the self and the other.
Both Morrison and Erdrich, then, validate the vital power of orality, the wellsprings of story as a way out of the impasse of postmodern surface and fracture. Both, moreover, attempt to give the tongue back to the word, the body back to writing, and the love of the land back to an eroticized consciousness. If land and body find a harsher union in our last sight of Fleur, that is perhaps because the Indian's dispossession of the land has been documented before their disbelieving eyes for five centuries. Slave history experiences the hopeful reversal of 1865. For the Indians, there has been no reversal, even if there are pockets of consumer prosperity, typified in the bingo halls. No surprise that Erdrich's most recent, and perhaps bleakest novel is called The Bingo Palace.
This essay appeared as
“Secret Histories: Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Louise Erdrich’s Tracks.” In Proceedings of the 1995 Conference of the Association of University English Teachers of Southern Africa. Ed. Annette Combrink. Potchefstroom: University of Potchefstroom, 1996. 16-23.