- Knitting and Knotting the Narrative Thread—Beloved as Postmodern Novel
Beloved weaves a story on a singular frame: interpretation represents an integral part of black cultural and social identity. In Toni Morrison's book, the fictional characters and communities—as objects of exploitation in both slave and free-market societies—transform an essential absence into a powerful presence. A sense of self emerges from experiences of exploitation, marginalization and denial. Analogously, Morrison's narrative, confronting a facelessness the dominant culture in America threatens to impose on black expression, forges out of cultural and social absence a voice and identity. Beloved creates an aesthetic identity by playing against and through the cultural field of postmodernism.
At a very basic level, this engagement with postmodernism manifests itself in the aesthetic play of the novel. Throughout, Beloved demonstrates its concern with linguistic expression: the evocation of both oral and written discourses, the shifting from third person narration to omniscient narration to interior monologue, the iteration and reiteration of words and phrases and passages. While this linguistic and narrative variation is evocative of an oral literature that shapes and retraces various tellings of the same story, it also demonstrates a concern (characteristic of experimental twentieth-century [End Page 689] literary discourses) with the production and meaning of language. The text thus spins a story woven of myth that creates a pattern of sophisticated linguistic play. There is a crossing of genres and styles and narrative perspectives in Beloved that suggests it filters the absent or marginalized oral discourse of a precapitalist black community through the self-conscious discourse of the contemporary novel. The narrative emerges, then, at the point at which premodern and postmodern forms of literary expression cross.
The action in Beloved turns on processes of reinscription and reinterpretation. It intertwines the mythic, folkloric and poetic threads of an oral literature with the rhetorical and discursive trajectories of a postmodern literary landscape. The novel stands amid a cultural context in which play, allusion, quotation serve as privileged aesthetic techniques. Beloved and other novels that emerge from multicultural histories diverge from classically postmodern texts—Pynchon's V, Barth's Giles Goat-Boy, Barthelme's The Dead Father —in their relation to socio-historical realities. Henry Louis Gates has, for example, discussed the theoretical basis of black literature. His work has placed in a new light a tired issue: what distinguishes black literary production in the Americas from other literary works? He positions the question thusly: "the problem, for us, can perhaps be usefully stated in the irony implicit in the attempt to posit a 'black self in the very Western languages in which blackness itself is a figure of absence, a negation. Ethnocentrism and 'logocentrism' are profoundly interrelated in Western discourse as old as the Phaedrus of Plato, in which one finds one of the earliest figures of blackness as absence, a figure of negation" (7). The question from this view becomes not how African American literary production distinguishes itself from other forms, but rather how—given socio-historical conditions compelling it towards silence—the literature manages to speak at all. Gates's work looks at the ways linguistic structures at once mask and reveal the social and political structures from which they arise and which they create. How can black writers, Gates questions, use a language in which blackness signifies absence to write about their own "blackness" as a source of identity? Gates will finally come to argue that black writers have had to digest both Western and non-Western forms of literary production. Out of this process they forge a literary discourse that transforms notions of blackness.
The "blackness" of black literary texts, historically read to signify a lack in Western discourse, becomes in Morrison's hands an important [End Page 690] thread tying together the sometimes (especially in a North American context) all too disparate realms of politics and aesthetics. The "not" signified by blackness becomes for Morrison a means by which to weave her tale. A process of interpretation and reinterpretation in Beloved serves to form an "is" out of the "nots," helps untie the tangled threads by which Morrison knits together her novel. Beloved...