- Toni Morrison's Beloved: Origins
Anybody who opens her book with a pointed simile about a "seemingly endless palimpsest" is a friend of my mind. Like Toni Morrison's beginnings and endings, Justine Tally's comparison of Beloved to a parchment that has been variously inscribed, the previous texts having thus been imperfectly erased and therefore still partly visible, is well nigh perfect to introduce her Origins. Tally's rendition of Morrison's Beloved origins describes how the narrative enactment of a theory, specifically Michel Foucault's ideas about the struggle for the power and authority of the Word, becomes superimposed over speculations about collective memory and imaginative truth, over a subversive strike against a repressive academic environment, over affirmations of African civilizations as the foundations of contemporary culture, over Morrison's celebration of African American survival via the Egyptian myths of regeneration. Hence, Beloved not only embodies the sacred palimpsest, but its debate about the merits of a linguistic theory "ties up the loose threads and presents a multicolored yet unified fabric, an encompassing design that interrogates the very construction of the self—specifically the black self—in all its history, its foibles, and its promise." This allows the book to become "as much of an experiment and a serious piece of research as a novel" (xiv-xv).
Obviously the labor of a seasoned scholar who has read widely and taken her time, Tally's critical adventure explores the contents and continents required to accumulate the richly interpretative hermeneutics demanded by her writer. Origins nonetheless concurs with both John Crowe Ransom's belief that in examining a work of art, the literary critic creates a little work of art in its honor and Morrison's lament about a state of modern criticism that talks about itself as though it were the work of art. [End Page 178]
As Tally good-naturedly acknowledges the parasitic nature of the critic while she acquiesces to the artist's stance that the critic should stand behind the writer, she turns to the text, which to my mind renders her book a page-turner, the writing remarkably readable, sometimes riveting, often funny.
Tally's Preface calls up Beloved's critical past. Most scholars have based their studies on three major assumptions: that the book's work of recovery deals with African American history, especially the Middle Passage, that memory provides the central motif, and that the character of Beloved represents both the ghost of a murdered child returned to exact retribution and a living victim of the slave trade. While others have noted the African heritage present in the novel, Tally contends that no cohesive argument exists to explain how and why the multiple referents come together as a whole. She approaches Beloved as a more complex and comprehensive project, which incorporates Foucault's theories of discourse and power and Morrison's reclamations of myth. In this way, "the Middle Passage triangle of commerce, traditionally tobacco, sugar and slaves, among Europe, America, and 'Darkest' Africa" is transformed in favor of "a new triangle of culture, knowledge, and ethics from the 'Light' of Africa … Conrad's Heart of Darkness reclaimed in the Egyptian Scribe Thoth's Heart of Knowledge" (xv).
Tally's chapter on what Morrison calls "literary archaeology" elucidates why Foucault's theoretical principles, which assert that truth cannot be verified in historical fact but in the re-creation of experience embedded in the book, become central to Morrison's narrative. More counter-than neo-slave, said narrative goes further to challenge the notion that writing has anything to do with "humanity" at all. Beloved engages all of Foucault's issues: the question of an authentic subjectivity in the face of "objective" truth; humanity as associated with literacy during the eighteenth-century "Age of Enlightenment," a period coterminous with the Age of Scientific Racism during which many intellectuals were convinced of the inferiority of peoples of African descent; the silencing of a sector of the population that does not participate in the systemization of knowledge, made most explicit in Sixo's defense against schoolteacher...