Toni Morrison's 'Beloved' ( review ).



Cherry tree

Was the Haunted House meant to kick-start the novel? When the spiteful spirit was exorcised, it seemed so. Maybe the author was making up a fairy tale about things she didnt really know. And a woman with a tree growing out of her back belonged to folk lore! So, the novelist soon got rid of the ghost because she couldnt do much more with it?

Wrong again! Right off, the spirit came back in the flesh, and was called 'Beloved'.
The woman, Sethe, with a back as hard as bark split and charred by lightning, had been viciously whipped. The flayed meat is described by Amy, the white trash who spots Sethe ( alias Lu ) on the run -- by that time scarcely a crawl:

It's a tree, Lu. A chokecherry tree. See, here's the trunk -- it's red and split wide open, full of sap, and this here's the parting for the branches. Leaves, too, look like, and dern if these ain't blossoms. Tiny little cherry blossoms, just as white. Your back got a whole tree on it. In bloom. What God have in mind, I wonder. I had me some whippings, but I don't remember nothing like this.

This beautiful metaphor for a hideous torture, that could only be sadism, would have made an unforgettable poem. As it is, the image dominates the story, like the Norse myth of Yggdrasil, the tree that bound earth to heaven above and hell below. The idea is thought to be a mutation of the cross, the tree of Christ's martyrdom.

Sethe is long-suffering strength. She is the arbor whose branches embrace her children. But another allusion may be made to the Eden tree of the knowledge of good and evil, that harbors a serpent.
When Amy asks who's in the bush, Sethe thinks it's a white boy's voice. Expecting no mercy, she bares her fangs like a snake in the under-growth.

This is an omen of someone who has been driven too far. When the slave-catchers find her, she takes upon herself that her children must have liberty or death.
Toni Morrison works out the practical consequences of this principle. Beloved becomes the unquiet spirit, at having this decision made for her, by her mother. This supposedly spiritualist decision is imaginatively tested in a plot. Beloved is an idea made flesh, and see how you like it.

The negro spiritualist community believe in death as the other side, from which spirits may re-incarnate. However, they shun Sethe for her desperate act.
Their beliefs appear similar to the Christian spiritualists of Brazil. There is evidence in the Gospels that Jesus and his contemporaries believed in re-incarnation. Revisionist scholars have much more to say on such controversies. In the West, there is more tolerance again of mediums, once suppressed with the many charlatans among them.

Whether or not spiritualism, as such, is true, it may be believed to be true. And those spiritualist beliefs have certain consequences in the behavior of believers. Morrison's novel follows the subtle or crude effects on the thoughts and actions of her characters.

William James adapted the philosophy of pragmatism, as a test of truth, to religion. A religion was 'true' if its beliefs were good for the community. The belief is true in the sense of truly working to make for a good society.
Beliefs of principle have qualifiers, as to the conditions in which they truly apply or hold good.

Without evidence, independent of one's opinions, religious belief can become authoritarian. That is not the good society. So, what evidence is there for spiritualism or 'super-nature'? The scientific community has only recently accepted it as a legitimate study. Its academic cause has not been helped by power politics. Those with the research funds may be secretive about their results.

There is much legendary and anecdotal evidence, which cannot be entirely discounted. Chance can not quite be ruled out for odd coincidences, that make no ordinary sense, however disturbing. The best evidence I could offer for ghosts or spirits is a reliable witness at two removes!

An acquiantance's friend has a relative, who can perceive ghosts. She was aware of one in someone's house. She asked the owners if they knew. They checked the sensitive's description of the haunter, and corroborated it as a late inhabitant. The seer is usually right, allegedly.

( After writing this, I remembered a ship's engineer recently telling me of a ghost that disappeared. He appeared regularly at 10 o'clock, between the cylinders of the diesel engine, which was about three stories high. The ghost was a man of about forty, who looked at him and then moved on. The atmosphere seemed to change.
At the end of the watch, at midnight, he reported to the chief and asked had he been killed. But the chief wouldnt say. )

Such anecdotes arent proof but they are a starting point for rigorous investigation. Therefore, I have an open mind about spiritualism.

Negro spiritualism offers an extra dimension to another anti-slavery novel. This cry for freedom should be welcome. Our own liberty depends on the liberty of others. 'Liberty is indivisible.'
Most readers will identify with the slaves making a break, because most of us are tied to our places of shelter and work. The cross-country flights are among the most memorable parts of the book: for instance, Paul D's escape with the chain gang.

Beloved is a counter to the romanticised role of the domestic slave in the southern states. The good masters are outweighed by the bad masters, because 'power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.'

As in the biopic, Malcolm X held an inter-view, when he mimicked the in-house slave, who identifies his interests with the master: Is we alright, massa?
But plantation work was done by negro slaves, simply because it was so hard.

( Also, a different-colored minority could have their race used as an identifying prison uniform. Segregation is a policy of not mixing with the prisoners, lest that subordinate identity be lost. )

Anyone who looks into his heart, when tired, may see the cruelty one contemplates rather than drive oneself on. That natural selfishness sums up the temptation of slavery. In making others do work, we hate to do, we make ourselves hateful towards them.

For that matter, cotton and tobacco exhaust the soil. This pushed slavery westward, one of the tensions that broke out in the American civil war.

Beloved is more about liberty than an after-life. But, as the title tells, love comes first. This review has expressed some common-place sentiments about liberty. The moral of a story may be a truism. It is no less true or important for that. Such first principles form an insignificant part of the novel. Its purpose is to make us feel the truths that are otherwise dismissed as platitudes.
Tho, Morrison does state the obvious, so it may not be over-looked. Contrasting freedom with slavery:

"...when I got here, when I jumped down off that wagon -- there wasn't nobody in the world I couldn't love if I wanted to. You know what I mean?"

( But when ) everything belonged to the men who had guns...you protected yourself and loved small. Picked the tiniest stars out of the sky to own; lay down with head twisted in order to see the loved one over the rim of the trench before you slept. Stole shy glances at her between the trees at chain-up. Grass blades, salamanders, spiders, woodpeckers, beetles, a kingdom of ants. Anything bigger wouldn't do. A woman, a child, a brother -- big love like that would split you wide open... He knew exactly what she meant: to get to a place where you could love anything you chose -- not to need permission for desire -- well now, that was freedom.


Richard Lung

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