Saturday, June 23, 2012

Jesse Broussard
English 344, SAS 1.

Broad, Robert L. "Giving Blood to the Scraps: Haints, History, and Hosea in Beloved" African American Review, Vol. 28, no. 2 (Summer of 1994), pp. 189-196.

Robert L. Broad's insightful and well-crafted essay entitled Giving Blood to the Scraps (a quote he attributes to Morrison) was a delightfully intriguing foray into the question: "Who the hell is Beloved?" (as Broad refreshingly phrases it). He bases his heterodox answer primarily upon the internal monologue we find on page 248 (the memory of being on board a slave ship), as well as other, scattered excerpts from Beloved. But despite this rather select arrangement of sources (or should I say source?), he manages to erect what was to me a wholly novel interpretation of the extremely bizarre and often entirely indecipherable character of Beloved.
He argues that Beloved is not simply, if I can so apply such an adverb, the daughter that Sethe murdered. No, she is the collective consciousness of the oppressed African-American race, including Beloved. As he puts it, she is the "puzzled and puzzling, poly-generational, mnemonically tortured" incarnation of the "sixty million or more" to whom Morrison dedicated the novel: the sixty million or more African Americans that were killed in their capture in Africa or subsequent transportation to America.
To this reading he adds several qualifications. First, he explains how the character of Beloved is both Sethe's murdered daughter and the myriad forgotten dead:

Where Beloved comes from, we will find no individual spirits. There, identity and time are conflated. Denver and Sethe conjure a particular spirit and expect it to play by their rules-- rules like maintaining a single, unified identity and consciousness. As it turns out, however, in the spirit world our boundaries do not apply.

For defense, he appeals to Beloved's own enigmatic "All of it is now, it is always now" (248). So, by his argument, the body is most definitely that of the murdered (now adult) Beloved, but the "person" within the body is not limited to Beloved, but includes all of the oppressed African Americans. Beloved's body is inhabited by a collective spirit consciousness, if you will, that she has become a part of: the "sixty million or more."
He then goes on to address Morrison's epigraph, a quotation from Paul, found in the book of Romans:

I will call them my people
Which were not my people
And her beloved
Which was not beloved.

He uses the switch from plural (them, people) to singular (her, beloved) to argue further for the individual equating to the collective, and claims that any restoration of the individual is impossible without accepting the collective community as a whole. As he says "looking for their 'beloved,' Sethe and Denver get their people too. All sixty million of them." For a further example of what Rene Girard would call "this interdividuality," Broad cites Paul D's escape via chain: "For one lost, all lost. The chain that held them would save all or none."
Then Broad shifts his focus and proposes a secondary thesis. From looking back and offering a different reading of the novel, he asserts a final claim that is both brilliant and daring. To understand it, some degree of Biblical literacy is required, but I'll summarize as briefly as I can.
Morrison's epigraph is a quotation from Paul, but Paul is himself quoting the prophet Hosea. The quoted prophecy is about the restoration of Israel (presumably after their Babylonian exile): a promise that God will be faithful and restore them. But then comes Paul. He applies this passage to the Christians at Rome, who were most definitely not Jews. Worse, Paul maintains in the same letter that to follow God, one did not have to become a Jew. Then worse still, if worse were possible, he asserts that the Jewish people were no longer the people of God: God had sent His Son, His Messiah, and the Jews had crucified Him, unwittingly taking their birthright and handing it over to the Gentile world. So according to Paul, God says to the Gentiles (who had not been His people) "My people;" to those whom He had hated, He now says "My beloved," and, literally, to hell with any unrepentant Jews, to whom this prophecy had originally been written. This application of Hosea's prophecy obviously turns the context on its head.
Broad assumes that Morrison is well aware of this, which is why she quotes the passage from Paul instead of from Hosea. Broad believes that she is referring to the historical revisionism of Paul as a warning to the American "chosen people of God" who Morrison sees as imitating this type of historical reinterpretation. According to Broad, Morrison sees America as a new Paul in the worst possible way, rewriting the context of our history to justify the abominations that we've committed upon the African American world.

As I stated before, I greatly enjoyed Broad's essay. His thesis was novel and fascinating, his argument was clear, and his final point was pleasantly unexpected. Kudos, props, etc. The problem I have with his theory is that it is wholly founded upon a very particular reading of a very small section--and a very small esoteric, extremely poetically oriented section at that--of a decent-sized book. There is not another page, not another word that would imply, let alone obligate belief in a "collective spirit consciousness" possessing Beloved. Not one. There is not a hint dropped anywhere in the book that Morrison assumes any type of collective unity, let alone consciousness, among African Americans, living or dead. So why would the catalyzing character of the entire novel be some type of smorgasbord of the deceased of an entire race?
You cannot expect to build a four-thousand square foot house on a four foot square foundation without building it on the lawn. And that's what Broad is doing here. Yes, it is a possible interpretation, but it's an interpretation that does far too much violence to the text to be readily accepted, and his reason for doing this much violence to the text is so small that I simply cannot give his theory credence. He fully fails to compel. To assume that an author as completely capable as Morrison chose to give us one intentionally inchoate, incredibly isolated and extremely, obscurely poetical page (out of over three-hundred) to conclusively demonstrate that she named her magnum opus, Pulitzer-Prize winning novel after the "collective spirit consciousness" of an entire race? A glacial titan of a theme that's otherwise unmentioned in the entirety of the book? This is so far-fetched it must have killed the dog. And it is the entire fantastic foundation of his argument.
The second issue that I have is with his final point, his inferring a criticism of revisionist historians from Morrison's Pauline quote. I fully grant that Morrison makes enough Biblical references to compel any Biblical scholar to credit her with some level of Scriptural awareness. Also, I gladly grant that she is a complex author, and that her story contains "wheels within wheels," for a Biblical reference of my own. But again, where is his evidence? If an author wants to make a point, isn't it generally helpful to, I don't know, make it? Maybe Morrison does think America is rewriting history. But she doesn't say so in this book, and ten bucks says that twice the number of Americans have read Romans as could find Hosea. C. S. Lewis claimed that writing was like herding sheep: if any side gate was left unlocked, then that's the one his ovine readers would take. I believe that Broad has demonstrated this admirably. He found a hammer, and the world became a nail.

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