By Biserka Rashkova
Content warning: Beloved contains frank depictions of sexual assault and racial violence.
In one of his most notable papers, Freud reminds us that we are destined to repeat experiences we cannot remember. We tend to view the world around us in the same ways, to recreate and remain in a very particular, often painful reality and yet again refuse choosing a different version. Tony Morrison’s story “Beloved” coveys how a complex, deep-seated, personal and intergenerational trauma can be repeated until eventually mastered and turned into a steppingstone to carry the individual forward. Morrison integrates this idea as she very skillfully alludes to the early mother – child dyad to immerse us in a place where a mother’s love mingles with horror, and where symbolic meaning begins to fall into pieces. In this sense, where Freud speaks of “remembering” repressed psychic content, I would suggest that the concept also includes “re-membering” as in gathering bits of unthinkable experiences together into a story or picture one can make meaning of and ultimately digest in order to move forward. The class, where the film directed by Jonathan Demme was discussed, also evoked a similar process. Eventually enough data was pieced together so class members could gain access to their feelings about the film and openly voice them. Some of their comments and quotes from written assignments are captured in the discussion below.
The film illustrates the story of a woman named Sethe, a former slave who manages an impossible escape with her three children while nine months pregnant, and who tries to establish a life with them in the free city of Cincinnati, across Ohio river. At the onset of the movie the viewer is presented with the mystery of a haunted house at 124 Bluestone Road which Sethe has inherited from her mother-in-law and in which she has remained detached from her community and largely from the world outside. The ghost acts in an ominous, destructive and spiteful manner, smashing objects, including the house pet, mercilessly against the walls. Sethe stoically endures the daily stresses of this way of being and appears emotionally removed from the terror that her children, on the contrary, are overwhelmed with. Consequently, her two sons run away and only her youngest daughter Denver stays, although petrified.
At that time Paul D, an old friend of Sethe, appears at her front door. He immediately notices an evil presence in the house and is viciously attacked by the ghost, whom he succeeds in driving out temporarily. We gradually understand that the ghost is Sethe’s older daughter who died when she was a young toddler. Paul D also offers his tender love and partnership to Sethe, who appears to have set her sexuality aside ever since she has settled in the house with her remaining children.
Through his conversation with Sethe, bits and pieces from their common past in slavery at the same plantation begin to emerge. She reveals how she was humiliated and whipped in the evening of her escape and her breast-milk was forcefully taken by the nephews of the new sadistic owner of the farm known as Schoolteacher. She learns from Paul D how her husband Halle witnessed it all from his hiding place and, as a result, lost his mind – the reason she never saw him again despite their plan to meet and re-unite with their children at the house of his mother, Baby Suggs, on the free side of the Ohio river. Sethe also learns that she was not abandoned by her other friends during her attempt at escape. Some of them were chained and whipped like Paul D, others burned alive. Meanwhile, severely wounded Sethe made it to the banks of the river and, with the help of a feral, addled white girl named Amy Denver, gave birth to her youngest daughter, whom she named after the accidental midwife. With the help of a free black man named Stamp Paid, Sethe crossed the river, made it to Baby Suggs’s place, reunited with her children and began awaiting her husband.
As the plot develops, soon after Paul D begins living with the family, a strange girl about Denver’s age appears in the front yard and Sethe and Denver shelter her almost instinctively. She has a pronounced difficulty in talking, eating on her own, holding herself straight up and she defecates on herself in her sleep much like a baby. Her name, “Beloved”, coincides with the name on the only word Sethe has been able to secure on the tombstone of her dead baby daughter. The girl insists on constantly being fed with sweets but also with stories from Sethe’s past. That is how we also learn Sethe has never known her father and only met her mother a few times, since she had been forced to work on a separate part of the plantation, until one day the mother was inexplicably hanged in front of her eyes. Beloved, conveying an ominous and disturbing aura, at first seems to become friends with Denver, only to express later that she had her sole interest in Sethe to the point of vicious possessiveness. She also forces Paul D into sexual relations one evening with her magical evil powers, an act for which he hates himself.
At this point in the film, Paul D learns from the man who took Sethe across Ohio river, Stamp Paid, a crucial piece of her past, namely that upon seeing her former owner Schoolteacher and his nephews arriving at Baby Suggs’s house to capture and cart them all back to slavery, Sethe grabbed all her four children and in a state of terror at the thought of having them enslaved, attempted to kill them and take her own life with the wish that they could all be free “on the other side” in heaven. She only succeeded at taking Beloved’s life before being subdued and jailed. Having learned this, Paul D responds in a way similar to her community – he accuses her of animal qualities and leaves her. Immediately after this parting, Sethe recognizes Beloved as the reincarnation of her dead one-year old daughter and the two of them, together with Denver, enter a manic phase of joyful regressive play with unbound, greedy consumption of sweets and the ruinous purchase of colorful pretty things. Sethe soon spends all her savings and loses her job. She also becomes preoccupied in gratifying all of Beloved’s wishes in hopes to prove she really loves her and gain forgiveness. Their relationship becomes intensely entangled and Sethe’s health deteriorates as a full psychotic regression takes hold. When at the point of starvation, Denver gains the courage to go out into the community for the first time and seeks help in the form of food donations from people who have grown accustomed to shunning them. She is also able to secure a job through the renewed kindness of a woman who had once taught her to read. Eventually, in the stirring culmination of the film, women from the town gather to sing hymns and perform an act of exorcism, chasing away the craven, naked and now pregnant Beloved ghost for good. At the end of the film Paul D runs into Denver in town, and with her blessing returns to take care of Sethe who is in a state of catatonic depression. Finally, after catalyzing the survival of her family and shepherding its return to a path of healing, Denver finds her own place in the life of the wider community.
The story captures a complex narrative built at least on two levels of interest to psychoanalysts: the destructive effect on the psyche from experiences as suffocating and horrifying as slavery, and the potentially destructive and suffocating experience of the early mother-child dyad when used to compensate for past losses and traumas. The film poses important questions, such as how can one work-through a past so traumatic when a mere acknowledgement of it might lead to personality collapse? How can such a past be mourned or is it a case of impossible mourning? How can individual guilt be reconciled with a devastating past which was not of one’s choosing, and in which one was brutalized herself?
Sethe appears initially as a character of remarkable strength who is able to survive a trauma as colossal as hers, later attempts to murder herself and her children so they do not also suffer it, and then somehow proceeds with her life. It quickly becomes clear that she has been able to do so only as a sheer act of will rather than through the works of internal transformation. In other words, she succeeds at finding a precarious psychic homeostasis by encapsulating her past and burying it deep in her mind but remaining connected to it without any resolution. Her character conveys an unconscious wish to hold on to it and hope to change it evident in her refusal to leave the haunted house despite the harassment of the destructive baby ghost. As Pauline Park noted “every character wants to move on and have a new life, but it becomes clear that they are chained to their traumatic past [evident in the way] a co-worker responds to Paul D’s unrealistic optimism about being free: “Just ‘cause you can’t see no chains don’t mean they not there” and that Sethe “is possibly punishing herself for what she did”. Shelly Williams also emphasized that Sethe is “committed to her guilt more than anyone else” to the degree that Beloved “becomes a (…) replacement for Sethe’s guilt”. Sethe knows what she has done. She has a strong rationale behind it, but in order to not experience and know her guilt that was too emotionally overwhelming to be known, she holds on to the ghostly presence instead and seeks redemption through punishment by an ever-present, vengeful ,baby daughter. It reminds us of the analysand who would place herself in harm’s way and get repeatedly punished without being consciously convinced she might have been guilty of anything in the first place. In the protagonist’s conscious wish, however to “not run from anything on Earth again”, Ms. Park suggested we can find traces of a part of her infused with what Freud calls “life drive”, leading her to stick around and eventually reach a resolution. She must have known on some level that wherever she goes, the ghost would follow since it really belongs to her mind.
As Sethe begins to piece together the story of her life, the viewer is subjected to enduring the revelation of inconceivable human suffering, humiliation and torture, and much like Sethe and Paul D in the film – can only process one portion at a time. Some members of the class expressed great difficulty watching the whole film at once and questioned why it was assigned at all, a process perhaps parallel to Sethe’s reluctance to remember and confront her past when all she wants is to forget. Her predicament very much resembles a mainstream idea posed by psychoanalysis – namely that one’s resistance to remembering (knowing) all aspects of her or himself is necessary and must be even supported at times as addressing those aspects directly can be detrimental or catastrophic, especially in the case of trauma.
Paul D, a main supporting character, serves a pivotal role in the story in several ways. What he recognizes as an “evil” ghost, Sethe denies and calls “only sad”. Through his perspective we begin catching a glimpse of the work of powerful unconscious denial. What everyone else sees as formidable Sethe does not. Paul D’s presence becomes a catalyst for a journey towards healing long postponed by Sethe. On one hand, he impinges on the rule of the baby ghost, inserts himself in Sethe’s affections and thus between enmeshed mother and child (both between Sethe and Beloved and between Sethe and Denver). With this kind of triangulation established, the “name of the Law” or the “paternal metaphor” in Lacanian terms (the successful substitution of the maternal desire with language and the simultaneous introduction of externality and rules) is laid down so that symbolization can begin where the desire of the mother for the child and the desire of the child for the mother was previously smothering it. Not coincidentally Sethe begins to think of and represent past events in fragmented images when Paul D enters the scene. He also serves another important function, what Bion calls a good container – an empathic listener who could hear about the dramatic events in the life of another, experience, accept and even identify with them without running away, lashing out in anger or falling apart in excessive anxiety, pity or horror (at least until the full knowledge of Sethe’s actions set in). He is able to listen, reflect on, at times confront and offer an additional perspective to her resentment as he evokes further symbolization of emotional experience in the process by asserting touching statements like “a man ain’t a goddamn ax, choppin’ and hackin’, bustin’ every minute of the day. Things get to him. Things he can’t chop down ‘cause they inside”.
In contrast, Beloved demands to be “fed” with stories all the time. And although this evokes in Sethe the same process of re-membering bits and pieces of her past, the fact that Beloved is still emotionally a small child means that she is unable to provide containment of the pain elicited in the process. Paul D supports Sethe in establishing the links in her mind to begin making sense of and digesting her experience, links that had been violently attacked by her experience in slavery. Yet, being a survivor himself, he has his own limitations. He has also disavowed an entire part of his self, explaining that he has locked it in a small tobacco tin rusted shut where “a red heart used to be”. He knows that “saying more could push them back to a place they couldn’t get back from” (72-73). There are no adequate defenses yet to protect them there. Both of them need the hard shells Jonathan Demme presents them as having when he draws a link between them and the scene of copulating turtles.
It is here, I would suggest, that the characters in the movie grapple with something in addition to unconscious guilt or other repressed feelings typical for neurotic states. Amy Denver asserts in the film, “anything dead coming back to life hurts.” Did Morrison imply that such experiences of slavery were not only not repressed but also never came to life (were never mentally represented) in the first place? In other words, must someone who has been excessively traumatized deaden their psychic experience to the extent that it does not even exist in the unconscious but is rather fragmented, impulsively evacuated or locked in bodily sensations? The question here, I believe, is how a human mind can process violence of this magnitude when violence itself shatters the mind into pieces and forecloses its representational capacity. One answer can be found in the symbolism of such psychic fragmentation fellow student Ranjana Mayar discovered in the name of the main heroine: it appeared to derive from Seth, an Egyptian god of the desert and storms often associated with disorder and violence in ancient times. He was originally one who helped repel the god of chaos but later in a violent conflict dismembered the body of his brother Osiris, which was re-membered by Osiris’s wife shortly after. Similarly, Sethe faces the formidable task of gathering the pieces of her mind together and as most theoreticians suggest – the establishment of an integrated psyche involves the deepest of anxieties and most painful feelings.
Additionally, there are particular psychosomatic sensations she resorts to during encounters with Schoolteacher at the farm, later repeated upon his arrival at Baby Suggs’ home. In the book they are described as the way her “head itched like the devil…Like somebody was sticking fine needles in [her] scalp”(193). Such somatic experiences create a substitute channel, a discharge path for an experience that cannot be represented in the mind as feelings and thoughts. Theorists and clinicians like Slade and Wolf (1994) remind us that when the ego is subdued by disintegrating forces from within or without, language cannot become a system of meaning-making signifiers freed from early ties to the body. In such cases thinking about these experiences would be felt as the same as being in them, and articulation would lead to an overwhelming impulse to action. Therefore, the use of language can at times be dangerous and disorganizing in its own right. In this sense, Sethe is unable to articulate her immense suffering and partially keeps it encapsulated in her body, for if acknowledged before it found an adequate container it would drive her to lose her mind, much like it did for her husband Halle.
Freud characterizes this as an overstimulating state of traumatic helplessness that could not be mastered or bound in secondary process (symbolic thought). Instead, the protagonist can only resort to action and do the unthinkable in the little woodshed – impulsive reaction resulting from the terror instilled by her slaveowners, a place of lack of the Symbolic in Lacanian terms, where meaning disintegrates and where one cannot think of “any other way” as Paul D later insists on from his own vantage point. We could consider it as the only means she feels she has to retain any control whatsoever: a desperate attempt to claim her children, her breastmilk, her life and her identity as her own and protect them for the first time from an oppressive, controlling, powerful Other. To make a choice, even one of death, is a way of asserting one’s own subjectivity, autonomy and freedom after all when it was entirely denied by Schoolteacher and his signifier (a symbol representing an underlying latent meaning) rooted in the racist Symbolic (system of symbols) of a slave-owning society.
The film also makes an allusion here to the ambivalent attachment of a mother to her child in its roots. A mother’s instinct can be life giving and nurturing, inspiring one during great hardships to nevertheless take her breast milk to her child across an entire state, but it can be stifling and deadly when in critical moments alternatives in her mind are unimaginable. This can be viewed as an instance of defused (not working constructively together) life and death drives of a “mother’s thick love” also implied in Denver’s song: “I went to milk my cow, I made a mistake and milked my sow”. Sethe later realizes herself that “unless carefree, a mother’s love is a killer” (p.155) echoing Paul D’s initial assertion that it is dangerous and detrimental to oneself to invest all one’s love in one place only. The maternal body and maternal action as a source of both life and death is implied in other images in the film. Pregnancy, appearing several times as a theme, refers to a blissful union with the mother but also to a boundaryless state where there is a lack of autonomy and separateness (whether it is from a person or a painful memory/object in the mind). Water signifies on one hand delivery from a womb-like experience: Denver is born inside a full of water canoe near the river, Sethe escapes into freedom from slavery by crossing the river, and Beloved also emerges from water back into the world. On the other hand, water is associated with the “middle passage”, the path of the slave ships at a sea where Morrison reminds us that the bodies of dead Africans were thrown into the dark waters and some chose to jump in to escape their fate in slavery. Each element represents a double-bind idea the author uses adeptly to immerse us into the conscious wishes of the characters for moving towards individuation but also into unconscious forces keeping them chained to their past and placing them in grave danger. In this way she adeptly illustrates some of the most agonizing conflicts of survivors of trauma.
The further developments in the story are highly symbolic in nature as well. Sethe describes to Paul D her days with her children in freedom before Schoolteacher’s arrival as “twenty-eight good days of free life”, the typical length of a woman’s menstrual cycle at the end of which one of them is murdered and then happiness gives way to a black hole in her psyche. In metaphorical terms there are no more cycles, no possibility for anything new to be conceived of or created. She enters a pregnant stage in her development where her sexual, psychic and creative life are deadened and come to a standstill and where critical delivery is called for. The trauma of her past experience leading to the act of infanticide is marked by the stark change on that day of the look in her eyes that begins to represent rather “two open wells” that “do not reflect firelight” (9). She becomes “blind to this world, possessing an unflinching gaze that is fiercely directed at death itself” (150). We find, though, that there still is some potential for reawakening when this phase ends dramatically with her water breaking depicted as a sudden need to urinate after the appearance of Beloved in her yard.
What is important to note here is that just when Paul D enters Sethe’s life and opens a potential window for her to step into the present, the past returns in full force. Much like in a negative therapeutic reaction, an excessively punitive superego reinforced by the death drive prevails and summons the incarnation of the dead child, this time in flesh and blood. Ranjana Mayar understood these developments as Sethe’s masochistic desire to hurt herself and the beginning of a stage of devastating “confusion between external reality and psychic reality” where Beloved is simultaneously “a victim of evil [and] the victim of a mother’s thick love”. Literary and psychoanalytic critics (Byatt et. al, 1997; Mathieson, 1990; Sadehi and Nia, 2012; George, 2012) generally agree that Morrison constructs the character of Beloved as an embodiment of the dehumanizing experience of all preceding enslaved people and an aftermath of the atrocities of slavery. “To comprehend that past, [the author] invokes the complex range of maternal emotion” (Mathieson, 1990, p.18). One can begin to view Beloved, on one hand, as an object summoned by Sethe in order to claim her denied maternal subjectivity and find forgiveness for her act. On the other hand, Beloved represents a part of the enslaved man’s mind that was forced into a state of total helpless dependency – a part that is too painful and is to be disavowed and externalized into a character outside of Sethe as a subject. “Beloved was never allowed to become a full human being and stand up and walk, and neither in a sense was Sethe” (Byatt et. al, 1997, p.212). In this context we can begin to understand Beloved’s fixation in the oral and anal sadistic phase of development in more than one way and the reasons for the enmeshed mother-daughter relationship at the level of projective identification where Sethe finds herself in an enslaving relationship yet again, this time with her daughter, the one who needed her breast milk so urgently on the days of the escape. A powerful struggle for control and domination ensues between parent and child. In their entanglement one cannot help but ask the question: is it Beloved who desperately depends on Sethe, or Sethe who desperately depends on Beloved?
Sethe herself is unable to transcend her predicament alone, as the trauma of the past left her with insufficient mental energy and differentiation of the self. In Dr. Mara Wagner’s words – Sethe’s development is regressed almost to the same level as Beloved’s. A young child’s behavior fluctuates between very loving and very destructive states and it is appropriate for a mother to tolerate infantile ruthlessness. Tolerating it in an adult, however, such as in the embedded ghost, implies problematic conflicts. Consumed by her struggle to change an event that actually belongs to the past in the here-and-now, Sethe sentences herself to a psychological and physical collapse. In other words, in her deadly repetition compulsion she unknowingly transfers the past into the present and becomes preoccupied with preventing a catastrophe which Winnicott (further elaborated by Ogden) describes as a breakdown of the early mother-infant tie. “The fear of breakdown” (1974), he notes, results from a shattering event (such as prolonged abandonment or retaliation by the main caregiver, usually the mother) that has already happened in the early parent-infant dyad but could not be experienced and made sense of because the child had not achieved unit status yet. In this way, Winnicott adds, the past cannot stay past: instead, one does whatever it takes to not experience the “primitive agony” inherent in a potential breakdown of current relationships. Most defense mechanisms, including psychosis, protect against feeling and knowing this agony and Sethe’s psychotic regression becomes a final and necessary shield. During her manic episode after the reunion with her child she resentfully says to herself:
“Paul D convinced me there was a world out there and that I could live in it. Should have known better. Did know better. Whatever’s going on outside my door ain’t for me. The world is in this room. There’s all there is and all there needs to be.”
In her preoccupation with her slain daughter we can deduce the presence of traces of defense against an early forced breakdown between her and her own mother who was not allowed to nurture her and who was later killed. The wish of young Sethe to be branded just like her mother in order to be recognized by her emerging in one of her memories she tells to Paul D also implies this kind of defensive organization. As more and new layers of suffering enshroud the old ones she is left with no other option but to resort to delusion and hallucinosis such as when she recognizes her lost daughter in Beloved or “sees” her older sons as men coming back to her, holding hands as they had done on the day they escaped her haunted house as boys. Psychotic regression, however, forecloses the opportunity of recognizing her beloved object as separate and whole (as a unity of both bad and good parts) in order for mourning to begin so the object can ultimately be given up. Instead, she mistakes “evil” for good and “confuses Beloved with the internal parts of herself that are her “precious and fine and beautiful” (163). Beloved becomes a cherished internal pain that Sethe refuses to give up, Sethe’s own precious best Thing” (George, 2012, p.119).
In the manic mother-child reunion that ensues after Paul D leaves, milk emerges as a theme again. The three women sit in front of the fire where Sethe serves them hot milk but also shares it with them. As she recognizes a reincarnation of her daughter in Beloved, a metaphoric nursing relationship begins again. Morrison uses it to depict the joys and dangers of the early dyad and emphasizes “the use of milk and food as instruments of cannibalistic struggle between mother and child” where “swallowing and being swallowed by the mother is Beloved’s fantasized image of total unity” (Mathieson, 1990, p. 12). The relationship remains fixated in the oral sadistic level of development as long as Sethe remains convinced she needs to persuade Beloved that what she did was out of love. The more mature (depressive) position can never be reached when this dynamic prevails. Instead, the child ruthlessly devours the mother/breast and grows fatter while the mother/breast is threatened by annihilation.
Since in every repetition part of the life drive holds a potential for mastery and maturation, a renewed nursing relationship also entails a second opportunity for Sethe to work on and secure progress for herself. Authors like Rebecca Stone (2015) focus on details from the story in the book, some of them missing in the film, that point to a maturational development in Sethe’s character. Stone discovers important symbolization taking place in the boundarilessness of nursing where initially Sethe views her milk as a transitional object, her first possession, and as a literal equivalent for her maternal self, robbed by Schoolteacher’s nephews. After the reappearance of grown up Beloved, however, Sethe begins describing her bodily experience in metaphorical terms for the first time and creates a new discourse for herself: “I was big, Paul D, and deep and wide and when I stretched out my arms all my children could get in between. I was that wide. Looked like I loved them more after I got here.”
Stone, referring to Melanie Klein and Julia Kristeva, points out that in the complex bodily experience of nursing, involving multiple separations and reunions, rudimentary symbolization takes place to allow both mother and child to begin emerging as subjects from the initial enmeshed relationship. In the experience of a second nursing relationship with Beloved, Sethe imagines telling her child: “There was no nursing milk to call my own” (p.236). Here she inserts a signifier between herself and her milk and infuses her bodily experience with meaning to begin the process of symbolic representation of her relationship with her daughter r. Looked at this way, the breast, in the experience of nursing, feeds both mother and child opening a space for creativity and potential growth for both. Hence the scene where both mother and daughters drink milk. At the end of the film we witness the aftermath of Sethe’s newly acquired maturational experience: when she mistakes the benevolent Mr. Bodwin for Schoolteacher, she directs her attack outwards or toward him for the first time, instead of inward – toward herself or her family.
Beloved’s reappearance is of special significance for Denver as well. As Byatt suggests, when she arrives at the front door Denver instantly finds a twin object, a sibling to unite with in the newly developed Oedipal situation with Paul D at home and protect against the pain and disillusionment from losing the full dedication of her mother. This continues until it becomes clear that Beloved is interested only in the mother and would attack anyone who might get in the way. Dr. Wagner pointed out that where Beloved is confined by death in the stages of incorporation and imitation corresponding to the oral and anal phases, (Freud. A, 1951) Denver can progress further into identification and individuation. In a pivotal moment of the arc of her development, she summons the object of Baby Suggs in her mind and identifies enough with it to find the strength, self-love and courage to venture out into the community and find support for her mother and herself. As the only child born in freedom she carries a different blueprint that is not intrinsically bound by the invisible chains Sethe and Paul D have to endure, in other words – by personal traumata. This is echoed earlier in the film in the statement, fraught with multiple meanings, by one of Paul D’s coworkers: “Children inherit where they come from”. Because of her blueprint she is unable to relate to Sethe and Paul D’s painful past but she nevertheless asks the right questions – why does everybody talk about Sweet home when “it wasn’t that sweet and it wasn’t home”? The chains of slavery have indirect, intergenerational grip on her through her family’s suffering. What is reflected is also her own perception of her mother’s former deeds: “I spent all of my outside self loving Ma’am so she wouldn’t kill me” (p.207) – a defense mechanism often utilized unconsciously by young children. Denver’s “ambivalence captures the emotions of a child who is ready but unable to break away from the mother. Since submerged ego is a “dead” ego, one without autonomous identity, Denver’s [annihilation] anxiety about her own nonexistence is [additionally] projected onto her mother as a murderous impulse” (Mathieson, 1990, p. 15). Finding then a good (as different from idealized) object in her mind like the story of the loving relationship between her parents or the powerful loving voice of Baby Suggs becomes a platform for transcending her own suffering. Her final step into the world is facilitated by Ms. Lady Jones who can recognize her deepest pain and reflect it back with utmost care and tenderness thus making it more tolerable. Denver’s character and that of her grandmother most strikingly convey a type of personal achievement that is of central importance in the film – the ability to have faith and goodwill. Faith and goodwill provide insulation for one to venture into the more mature (depressive) position and set one’s reparation drive into motion thus restoring the missing links between good and bad objects in his or her mind, between internal and external and as a result orient him or herself towards the world. Where Sethe dismantles her capacity to know reality as a defense against knowing catastrophic emotional truths, Denver develops a capacity for “learning from experience” (Bion, 1962) which helps her separate from her mother’s painful predicament and venture out of her womb and into the community towards individuation.
Baby Suggs, a symbol of dignity and faith herself is an illustration of what Bion calls alpha (containing) function – one’s ability to transform raw, often unbearable, split off or fragmented experiences, and give them complex emotional meaning as the ultimate way to overcome their invisible “chains”. Opposing the character of Schoolteacher who precipitates destruction and disintegration of the personality into separate bits, she comes as an integrating force in the story and therefore at the center of the community life. Her presence and life drive triumph at the end of the film symbolized by the image of her quilt. At first torn by Beloved in a fit of vengeance and envy, it later appears at the place where the young woman is last seen standing after the community of women arrives to perform their final act of exorcism. The quilt, much like the women’s separate voices coming together as one, stands for the totality of one’s fragmented experience and psychic life linked together by a restored alpha function into a fabric of meaning, one often dismantled by violence and sadistic discourse.
As a result, the wish fulfilled in the film that one can reconnect with the community and enter the present by finding redemption from an inconceivable past is presented as a compromise, one that is attained through the community’s coming together and serving as an auxiliary ego. The group of women come to call out and face Sethe’s disavowed parts, contain her immense sorrow and weep for her at the point where she is unable to, singing their powerful chants with hope: “I heard the voice, come and rest onto me”. Beloved is gone. Sethe is free from her psychotic state and enters one of deep depression from her tremendous loss precisely because she is finally able to re-member her fragments and begin a process of mourning. Paradoxically, this brings simultaneously her restored subjectivity to the fore where she can finally reflect on her newly found wholeness gathered in the question “Me?” at the end of the film. Denver also gains independence and is ultimately able to venture into the community life securing “an opinion of her own”. Beloved’s nakedness and pregnancy at the end of the story is perhaps symbolic of a naked truth in the form of a past that needed deliverance. This theme, I believe, is represented in the number “124”. Among other biblical references in the film, it corresponds to Psalm 124 from the Bible that talks about deliverance from danger by God:
“…if the Lord had not been on our side
when people attacked us,
they would have swallowed us alive
when their anger flared against us;
the flood would have engulfed us,
the torrent would have swept over us,
the raging waters
would have swept us away.
Praise be to the Lord,
who has not let us be torn by their teeth.
We have escaped like a bird
from the fowler’s snare;
the snare has been broken,
and we have escaped.”
The deliverance from danger circles back to the notion of having faith as a steppingstone towards an unknown but more fulfilling life, a step which inevitably involves diving in a safe way into the past to prevent unknowingly seeing ghosts in present day figures. Morrison stresses that in order to mourn we need to gather the pieces of our psychic experiences first and represent them in meaningful language. Having arrived there, she warns that unless we link our destructive tendencies to our feelings of loss and sadness we may destine ourselves to endless repetitions. Additionally, the film illustrates that the faith of a holding and containing other, whether a person or a community, is often crucial in times of parenting or following shattering life events. Lacan reminds us that such intense and traumatic experience leads us to stand at the edge of what he calls the psychic register of the Real (an unassimilable place of endless suffering where meaning and subjectivity are dissolved, a place closely corresponding to Freud’s death drive) where ostensible distortion between good and evil resides. Paradoxically, he asserts that internal transformation can be achieved only through an act of return to that place by crossing of a safe limit as our subjectivity lies in close relationship to our death instincts. Through empathizing with Sethe the viewer is able to achieve just that safe crossing (George, 2012) while remaining painfully aware of the lure of the Real and the risks of undue disconnect from the synthetic forces of the life drive in pursuit of a lost jouissance (excessive pleasure stemming from attachment to reminiscences of oneness) from the past. In this sense, the film is able to illustrate the risk of remaining enslaved by the past when at times one thinks they are after something good. There is additional risk of unconsciously passing trauma down the next generation hidden behind good intentions and protective attitudes. As it turns out, the past cannot be changed but it can be re-membered, mourned with the help of supportive figures and ultimately leading to a richer in possibilities present that is no longer enslaved by it, illustrated in the film both as a successful separation of child from mother and of trauma from the self.
Bion, W.R. (1962). Learning from Experience. 1-116. London: Tavistock.
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