Memory is a highly-charged emotional experience for Morrison’s characters in the Beloved project, and it becomes a vast theme for readers to grapple with as well. Questions of how much love is too much or not enough in Morrison’s trilogy project frequently intersect with another set of exigencies: how must the demands of remembering and forgetting be balanced? (See the blog piece Making Time for discussion of the special term, “rememory”)
The Emotional Arcs of Remembering and Forgetting
This blog addresses Morrison’s repeated emphases on memory. What are some of the themes concerning memory in each of the novels, Beloved, Jazz, and Paradise? How do they inflect one another from book to book?
Beloved underscores the importance of remembering the ones who died violently during the Middle Passage, but it also reveals the need to forget the traumas of separation, death, and the various, often obscene, objectifications of the black body in the United States under chattel slavery. But while the demands of remembering permeate the pages of Beloved, the novel’s restorations of the “disremembered” finally launches a tentative, but forward-moving rhythm by the end of the narrative. Looking backwards in order to move forwards, Sethe and Paul D anticipate the momentum of the characters in Jazz.
In Jazz, the inventiveness of urban migrants is in forgetting, since in 1920’s Harlem, New York, “history is over you all, and everything’s ahead at last” (Jazz 7). Instead there is a general “yearning for the gash, the slit,” the jazzy actions that could express the break from traditional history that was a component of modernity in post-World War I. But they find out that history is anything but over as past repeats itself.
The migrants flooding into “the City” in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century are eager to forget the past and its painful memories, and with the new, built environment of the modern city, they create the means to celebrate the present and cast off doubts about the future: urban blues and jazz. The past is not extinguished, however, and neediness grips the characters while the characterized narrator, frequently drawing attention to the performance of narrating, shatters the relations between past, present and future by artfully problematizing the boundary between reader and book.
The chronotopes of both Jazz and Paradise are historically framed with the mass migrations of African Americans out of the South from the 1890’s through the 1910’s, but whereas Jazz designates a northern “City” as its geographical nimbus, Paradise lays out an agrarian landscape with migrants moving West into Oklahoma and Indian territories to establish self-sustaining all-black communities.
In Paradise, a second-generation all-black community is attempting an isolationist project. The townspeople of Ruby (primarily the men) are neither trying to forget the past or leap into a future; their project is to memorialize the past as ideal, as if replicating their ancestors would serve as a hedge against changes that might bring chaos. Thus their Christmas play every year is about the “Disallowing” the first generation of migrants experienced when they were turned away in Langston, Oklahoma Territory. “COME PREPARED OR NOT AT ALL”: it “stung them into confusion” so badly that they built the Oven with “Beware the Furrow of His Brow” engraved on its door.
Ruby’s memorializing practices are so excessive that the present-time community in the town becomes static, vapid, and resentful of change to the point of violence. Violence directed at the outsider-“drift” women who could care less about their memorializing: the female occupants of “the Convent” a few miles away. Again, tensions between remembering and forgetting develop, explode, and drift into otherworldly chronotopes of the (maybe)dead.
Responses Invitation: Reflect, Write, Post:
Taking these three summaries together, what do feel about Morrison’s treatments of memory as emotional experiences, even emotional story-structures? What can you add, from personal experience, to the sometimes challenging “push-pull” between remembering and forgetting?
For more on Time and Memory, go to the blogpiece, “Remembering Seemed Unwise.”
And please sign up for the Newsletter for timely and relevant information on Voice Upon Voice!