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Violence et trauma

Living the Dying Inside”: Writing Violence in Toni Morrison’s A Mercy

Claudine Raynaud


Définir l’écriture de la violence dans A Mercy (2008) de Toni Morrison signifie concevoir une poétique de l’abandon dans un texte où l’acte de lecture doit suppléer à la défaillance du langage. « Enterrée », la violence est le refoulement au cœur du trauma ; elle a partie liée avec la mémoire. Le texte mime la résurgence d’images traumatiques, leur répétition compulsive pour dire la scission du sujet, lieu de partage entre don et dette sur fond d’esclavage. La scène de violence avec Malaik, enfant trouvé, rejoue l’insupportable de la perte et de l’expulsion, véritable « sortie » du langage. Le rêve de Florens rêve en retour : le réveil au sein du rêve est la scène même du trauma (Caruth). Symboliquement, comme les poupées rituelles des Amérindiens, la fille sans visage se tient alors face aux paroles inaudibles de sa mère. La lecture devient le lieu de la rencontre ratée avec le Réel pour « dire » le trauma et met en acte le lien entre mère et fille.

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The systematic looting of language can be recognized by the tendency of its users to forgo its nuanced, complex, mid-wifery properties for menace and subjugation. Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge.
(Toni Morrison, Nobel Lecture, 1993)

  • 1 Burials are also literal and part of the diegesis of many of Morrison’s novels: Song of Solomon (19 (...)
  • 2 Pornography: 1843, "ancient obscene painting, especially in temples of Bacchus," from French pornog (...)

1The violence inherent in oppressive language is resolutely countered in Morrison’s work by a technique that explores the limits and power of a minimalist aesthetics: words are restored to their “original” meaning, adjectives banned so that orality resides in the reader’s appropriation of the voice(s) in/of the text. Thematic or referential violence (gang bang, incest, rape, pedophilia, war) is approached through the characters’ consciousness, be they agents or/and victims. Ellipses, multiple focalizations and reflexive palimpsestic re-writings refuse the graphic, head-on confrontation with what Morrison has herself called the unspeakable (Morrison 1989). The infanticide at the core of her prize winning novel Beloved (1986) is never described: “I thought that the act itself had to be not only buried but also understated, because if the language was going to compete with the violence itself, it would be obscene or pornographic” (Morrison 1993a). This formulation uncovers two crucial elements: first, the “burial” of the act in the text1 and second, the necessary link between sexuality and a linguistic formulation of violence. Indeed, etymologically pornography derives from prostitution2. Obscenity, whose primitive meaning meant ill omen, is also related to sexuality, as the legal definition of the term“appeals to the prurient interest”makes explicit.

  • 3 The edition used throughout this essay is: A Mercy, New York: Knopf, 2008. For want of space, the a (...)
  • 4 One could also read this aesthetic choice as bearing witness to Morrison’s debt to Jean Toomer’s Ca (...)

2Since Beloved and its depiction of slavery have been the object of innumerable studies, my focus here will be on A Mercy (2008) and its poetics of abandonment3. From that novel onwards, Morrison refines and further explores the allusiveness and the indirection at work in her use of language. The recurrent inclusion of poems or short poetic pieces, interspersed through the prose sections, bears witness to that tendency4. The brevity of her latest works, together with their exacerbated plurivocality (short alternate chapters, the use of italics, syncopated transitions), is pushed to the extreme, with much being left unsaid, unspoken. For it is much more what the reader supplies (and what the text prompts) than what the text spells outright that renders the violence of the world, the terror that inhabits and splits the psyche, in the best cases until the healing moment.

“My telling won’t hurt you”

  • 5 In Home, Frank Money’s killing of the Korean girl is similarly “buried” in the text.

3In A Mercy, the violent actFlorens’s assault on the blacksmithis “buried”: i.e. not described, but understated. This “burial” is no doubt a metaphor for the repressed in trauma or at least part of it, but it also stands in for what language falls short of stating.5 One can readily see that the poetic investigation of violence in the textinflicted, but also acted outis a questioning of the workings of memory (see Raynaud 2010, 2014). Psychic violence in Morrison calls for an ethics of the use of language. It is structured on Nachträglichkeit, as reading rehearses and coincides with the belatedness of trauma. The text mimics the resurgence of traumatic images: the “hole” (trou-matisme) that signifies the missed encounter with the real at the heart of trauma. Indeed, playing on the etymology of the word trauma (from the Greek, a wound, a hurt, a defeat) and on “trou” (hole) which also means a gaping wound, Lacan calls “trou-matisme” the subjective moment of the encounter with the Real: “We invent a thing to fill a hole in the real. Where there is no sexual relation, there is a hole-trauma.” (Lacan 1974: 97, translation mine). It also thus tells us what can be known and what remains unknown. The element of surprise—lack, Angst, unpreparedness—that is part of the experience of trauma must be thought together with the compulsion to repeat (Wiederholungszwang) that inscribes the necessity of recurrence. Indeed, the modalities of the reiteration of the traumatic scene in the text, its figuration, need to be probed. One could thus put forward the hypothesis that the upsurge of animal imagery, together with the emphasis on vulnerability, corresponds to a displacement and a sounding of what cannot be uttered and must ultimately rest on images. Linking Morrison’s work to Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright and to Latin American writers such as Gabriel García Márquez and Alejo Carpentier, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. has famously labeled Morrison’s style “magical naturalism.” (Gates and Appiah 1993: ix). Focusing on violence and language by singling out the writing of trauma, and the trauma of the central protagonist of her ninth novel, might shed light on Morrison’s “aesthetics of survival” (Raynaud 1995).

  • 6 The text reverberates here with different connotations of the word curiosity. In Medieval thought c (...)
  • 7 That moment in the novel re-writes the 19th century slave narrative’s descriptions of the auction b (...)

4“Don’t be afraid. My telling won’t hurt you in spite of what I have done” (3). The incipit of Morrison’s A Mercy suggests that the protagonist has committed a crime. In spite, or rather because of the cautionary words, the reader understands that the telling of it might hurt the addressee. The telling of the tale should then counter the violence of the deed—and this also applies to the novel that we are reading, and beyond, to fiction writing. In a way, this first sentence is an answer to the presumption that violent acts necessarily translate into the violence of language or rather a language of violence. The beginning of the novel then explains what will be the grammar of Florens’s text: a “confession” full of “curiosities” (3): she will tell her story, confess her crime, but at the same time the telling will abound in strange things. It will also be formally fastidious (detailed, over sensitive, meticulous), another acception of “curious”6. Florens then proceeds to explain how she reads signs: “If a pea hen refuses to brood I read it quickly” (3). These signs correspond to specific recurrent dreams. One of them is the dream of her mother and her little brother: “[…] sure enough, that night I see a minha mae standing hand in hand with her little boy, my shoes jamming the pocket of her apron” (3). The reader in time understands that Florens’s mother, a slave on Senor d’Ortega’s plantation, gave her away to Jacob Vaark, an Anglo-Dutch farmer, to save her from a life of slavery and sexual exploitation7. She was given to settle a debt. She was seven or eight years old at the time. The young girl, however, has experienced that moment of being given away as her mother’s denial of the filial bond, and more than that, as a denial of self. She is worth nothing, since her own mother gave her away. She has, however, misread her mother’s gesture that was incomprehensible to her.

5The little boy in the dream is her younger brother whom the mother chose to preserve. Florens refers to him as “her little boy,” “her baby boy,” and we are led to understand that he is her half-brother, the outcome of another rape. Her mother was breast-feeding him at the time. The image is a recurrent one, one that she cannot erase from her memory. It is a haunting sight:

I see it forever and ever. Me watching, my mother listening, her baby boy on her hip. Senhor is not paying the whole amount he owes to Sir. Sir saying he will take instead the woman and the girl, not the baby boy and the debt is gone. A minah mae begs no. Her baby boy is still at her breast. Take the girl, she says, my daughter, she says. Me. Me. (7)

6The repetition of the scene is endless. “I see it “; “Me watching”: the pronouns I/me spell the split of the subject at once watching in the original scene of her abandonment and seeing herself (in her memory) watching. Florens is the seer and the seen, both the subject and the object of the gaze. Within the repetitiveness of this seeing, trauma is the enigma of having experienced and survived something that remains unknown, as Cathy Caruth explains:

The repetitions of the traumatic events which remain unavailable to consciousness but intrude repeatedly on sight thus suggest a larger relation to the event that extends beyond what can be seen or what can be known, and is inextricably tied up with the belatedness and incomprehensibility that remains at the heart of this repetitive seeing. (Caruth 1996, 92)

  • 8 Lacan’s playful inversion of the Latin phrase verba volant, scripta manent is writ large in A Mercy(...)
  • 9 I owe this remark to Monica Michlin.
  • 10 The French translation of the title by Anne Wicke is A Gift (Un don). The word “mercy” comes from t (...)

7In this transaction, the intrication or inextricability of the logics of slaverythe slave is/as a thing—and of the mother-daughter link as constitutive of subjectivity—the mother’s “gift” of the daughter (“take the girl”), her negation of mother love—constitutes a double denial that organizes Florens’s experience as trauma. The words “take the girl” are to be “taken” literally as they spell the very rape from which the mother wants to preserve the daughter. The resounding insistence of the mother’s words, that will be replaced in the dream by something that is inaudible, echoes Lacan’s inversion of the Latin phrase: It is scripta which volant, speech remains.” (1988: 198)8. In that trade-off between Jacob and her mother, no money is exchanged. The young girl herself becomes the currency for the debt, her name, Florens, being phonetically the name of the Dutch “florins.”9 She is what is exchanged to fill in a lack (what is missing: i. e. the debt) yet what she herself misses at that very instant is mother love. That the baby boy is at the breast suggests that her “rejection” is another separation that duplicates, or rather replays, her weaning, another earlier painful parting. She is also (at) the (dis)junction between “gift” and “debt”10. The mother “gives” her in a system where she does have this authority while Vaark takes her rather than money and can thus delude himself into believing that he has not “bought” her as a slave. Contrary to D’Ortega, he thinks that he has not “[traded] his conscience for a coin” (28). At one point, he even says that he has “rescued” her, together with the other young girl, Sorrow (34). The perniciousness of that system, and of that reasoning, extends to his eventually dealing in rum. This trade eases his moral conscience since he is not directly buying or selling slaves. He cons himself into thinking that there is a profound difference between “the intimacy of slave bodies” on American soil and “a remote labor force in Barbados” (35).

“I am expel”

8The novel is structured as a quest for the unnamed African blacksmith, the addressee of the words we are reading. Florens’s mistress, who is suffering from smallpox, has asked her to go and bring him back since he possesses the knowledge that will cure her (he had already cured the servant girl Sorrow). The chapters containing Florens’s words, written in the first person and in the present tense, alternate with chaptersin the third persondedicated to the other characters: Jacob Vaark, Rebekka, Jacob’s mail-order bride brought to the New World from England, Lina, a Native American slave whose tribe has been decimated, Sorrow, a schizophrenic young woman found wandering after escaping from a harrowing sea-voyage and who has been raped by the sawyer’s sons, Willard and Scully, two indentured servants who work on Jacob’s farm. Florens is desperately in love with the blacksmith, a love so total and engulfing that aims at compensating for the trauma of her abandonment. When she arrives at his place, he tells her to wait for his return and to take care of a little boy, Malaik, a foundling, whom he has rescued. That the other child is a boy and the main protagonist, the daughter, forces the reader to face gender and sexual difference at the core of the trauma. Hortense Spillers clearly states the black woman’s plight in contradistinction to the black man’s in slavery:

The [black females’] enslavement relegated them to the marketplace of the flesh, an act of commodification so thoroughgoing that the daughters labor even now under the outcome. […] [The black female] became instead the principal point of passage between the human and the non-human worlds. Her issue became the focus of a cunning differencevisually, psychologically, ontologicallyas the route by which the dominant modes decided the distinction between humanity and ‘other’. (2003: 155)

  • 11 Paronomastically, “foundling” may read as “fondling”: to caress lovingly or erotically. It thus res (...)

9In another article, denouncing the infamous Moynihan Report, Spillers develops the particular plight of the black daughter that the report suggests: “The ‘Negro Family’ has no father to speak of […] and it is surprisingly the fault of the daughter, or the female line” (2003: 204). Although set in the 17th century, A Mercy, in a way, anticipates on 19th century slavery, and beyond on analyses of the black family unit that made black women be the source and cause of its dysfunctions. Incidentally, the blacksmith’s action (saving a child) already determines what will happen when Florens meets his protégé. The child is a boy whose supposed father died, and who is then saved and taken care of, whereas Florens has been “thrown away” by her own mother. The repetition of the scene of the trauma is already contained, called forth so to speak, in the word “foundling,”11 as opposed to the “stray” and “unmoored” (33) creatures that people the New World.

10On her way to find the blacksmith, Florens spends the night at some Puritan household (Widow Ealing’s) where the Puritans fear she might be the devil’s minion and examine her body for signs of witchcraft (“a tail, an extra teat, a man’s whip between [her] legs” [114-115]). Daughter Jane, Widow Ealing’s daughter, saves her. Her rejection by a little girl at the Puritans’ re-enacts her “expulsion” by her mother. Florens thus superimposes these two moments in her life when she sees the little boy, the blacksmith’s surrogate son:

This happens twice before. The first time is me peering around my mother’s dress hoping for her hand that is only for her little boy. The second time it is a pointing screaming little girl hiding behind her mother and clinging to her skirts. Both times are full of danger and I am expel. Now I am seeing a little boy come up and he is holding a corn-husk doll. (136)

11The image of her rejection (expulsion, and hence negation) is replayed in these two instances which follow the structure of trauma in the sense that the second scene at the Puritans’ is a projection unto a self that is “like” her (“standing there […] [is] a little girl who reminds me of myself when my mother sends me away” [111], italics mine) and not her. This doubling reenacts the scission mentioned above between “I” and “me” in the endlessly repeated image of the first scene. Here, the screaming little girl points at her: “I am thinking how sweet she seems when she screams and hides behind the skirts of one of the women” (111). The subject is split and sees himself/herself from outside as an “other” who rejects her.

12The second happening follows what Freud uncovered in the analysis of the dream of the dead little boy’s corpse when the father wakes up in chapter seven of The Interpretation of Dreams:

A father had been watching beside the child’s sick bed for days and nights on end. After the child had died, he went into the next room to lie down, but left the room open so he could see from his bedroom into the room in which the child’s body was laid out, with tall candles standing around it. An old man has been engaged to keep watch over it, and sat beside the body murmuring prayers. After a few hours sleep, the father had a dream that his child was standing beside his bed, caught him by the arm and whispered to him reproachfully: ‘Father, don’t you see I’m burning?’ He woke up, noticed a bright glare of light from the next room, hurried into it and found that the old watchman had dropped out to sleep and the wrappings and one of the arms of the beloved child’s dead body had been burned by a candle that had fallen on them. (Freud 1956-74: 547-8)

13In the father’s dream, the boy was saying: “Father, can’t you see I’m burning?” What kind of fulfillment does the dream evidence? In his analysis, Freud puts forward the hypothesis that the dream prolongs our desire to sleep. That the father conjures up the living image of his dead son could thus partly confirm his thesis. Yet this example poses other questions since there is something outside (in reality) that corresponds to what the father sees in his dream. As Cathy Caruth explains: “It is not the father alone who dreams to avoid his child’s death, but consciousness itself, that in its sleep, is tied to a death from which it turns away. Freud seems to suggest that something in reality itself makes us sleep.” (Caruth in Parker and Sedgwick 1995: 94). In his own reading of Freud’s analysis of that same dream, Lacan in turn writes:

It is not that, in the dream, the father persuades himself that the son is still alive. But the terrible version of the dead son taking his father by the arm designates a beyond that makes itself heard in the dream. Desire manifests itself in the dream by the loss expressed in an image at the cruel point of the object. It is only in the dream that this truly unique encounter can occur. Only a rite, an endlessly repeated act, can commemorate this not very memorable encounter [...]. (Lacan 1986: 59)

  • 12 Whereas Florens saw the little girl as her own double, she fails to read Daughter Jane’s plight (sh (...)
  • 13 Lacan theorizes very early in his writings (Les complexes familiaux, 1938) that birth is another we (...)

14This “beyond” that makes itself heard is precisely the encounter with the Real (death). The father wakes up to the death of his son, and to the necessity of surviving it while only the dream could figure this encounter with a beyond. Similarly, Florens loses her mother, or rather “dies” because her mother denies her. This is the meaning of her recurrent dreams of the mother holding hands with the little boy (3). This dream takes over from and encrypts what actually happened: her being given away to Jacob Vaark. The text then figures her reaction to the second encounter that repeats the first scene. The little Puritan girl turns from “sweet” (Florens’s projection) to a screaming accusatory child, the very picture of the fright that her sight causes12. Indeed, when she arrives at the Blacksmith’s, she says: “Here I am not the one to throw out […] No one scream at the sight of me” (137). Florens survives that encounter with death, a death made double in her case, by her being equated to an object at the very moment of her abandonment since her mother “trades” her, “hands” her over. She replays this double death in her dreams, each repetition bringing her closer to what was unbearable in that severing, (itself a repetition of her weaning)13. The third occurrence that Florens anticipates as a repetition is bound to be a re-enactment of her initial rejection. Yet she refuses the destiny inherent in trauma, its necessity.

  • 14 The symbolism of the eggs (death, sterility, the end of generation, the genocide of a people) runs (...)

15In the economy of the novel, the dream of the mother recurs, heralded by the signs of the hens that do not lay eggs14. In keeping with a 17th century worldview, the dream is anticipated (“overdetermined”) by an external sign:

You ask me to water the bean shoots and collect the eggs. I go there but the hens make nothing so I know a minha mae is coming soon. A minha mae leans at the door holding her little boy’s hand, my shoes in her pocket. As always she is trying to tell me something. I tell her to go and when she fades I hear a small creaking. In the dark I know he is there. Eyes big, wondering and cold. (137)

16Internal focalization and first person narration mean that the reader sees the world through Florens’s eyes and deciphers both outside happenings and her dreams as she does. There is also necessarily a blurring between the dream content and the reality that Florens apprehends through her troubled consciousness. As I have shown elsewhere, the reading of the novel for interpretation duplicates the 17th century reading of the world as signs, but also hints at the play between writing and différance (Raynaud 2014). Moreover, its reliance on dreams and its focus on traumaFlorens’s, but also the other characters’: Sorrow’s schizophrenia, Lina’s experience of the war, Rebekka’s rejection by her parentscall for a psychoanalytical approach to the text, while bearing in mind Morrison’s own inclusion in her text of black American culture and its subjugated knowledges, like the use of dream-books.

  • 15 This facelessness might also figure her reversal to total fusion with the mother. In the early stag (...)
  • 16 For another definition of trauma that brings together and critiques Freud and Lacan, see Malabou’s (...)

17Florens writes: “I dream a dream that dreams back at me” (137). In the dream, Florens cannot find her face: “Where my face should be is nothing” (138). She sees Daughter Jane next to her but she disappears: “When I wake a minha mae is standing by your cot and this time her baby boy is Malaik. He is holding her hand. She is moving her lips at me but she is holding Malaik’s hand in her own, 138, italics mine). Florens’s dream contains another dream. In a mise en abyme of the act of dreaming and a reversal of the position of the subject, the dream dreams back. Her selflessness (her death), figured by her lack of reflectionthe loss of the reflection of her face15—gives way to a vision of Daughter Jane—a helping hand, a benevolent friend—and then she wakes in her dream to see her mother and Malaik. Paradoxically, Florens is waking up in her dream to the reality of her mother choosing the other child. This awakening stands in for what is at the heart of her trauma. Cathy Caruth’s careful analysis of Freud’s and Lacan’s reading of the dream of the father uncovers that “awakenings” are precisely what is at stake in the dream16. The critic expatiates: “To awaken is thus precisely to awaken only to one’s repetition of a previous failure to see in time. The force of the trauma is not to the death alone, that is, but to the fact that, in his very attachment to the child, the father was unable to witness the child’s dying as it occurred. Awakening, in Lacan’s reading of the dream, is itself the site of a trauma […]” (Caruth in Parker and Sedgwick 1995: 96, italics Caruth’s).

  • 17 Pickmann clearly expresses the fact that sexuality is intrusive: “[P]our l’être parlant, c’est la s (...)

18In A Mercy, Florens wakes up to a transposition of the primal scene of her trauma in which all the characters have been substituted for each other: the mother is by her lover’s cot and her half-brother is now the foundling Malaik. In this dream, she wakes up to the fact that the child somehow is both her mother’s and her lover’s, which signals a double exclusion17. Her awakening to a rejection that inscribes a sexual relation between her mother and the blacksmith whose offspring would be the foundling is a double negation. The mother takes her place in relation to the blacksmith, which negates her as a woman and her lover chooses the other woman, her mother. Their child is Malaik, the child-king. The daughter does not exist; she is negated. In the diegesis, Florens takes the place of the absent blacksmith in his cot. That repetition of the primal scenewith twistsillustrates the fact that “repetition demands the new” (Lacan 1986: 61). Although the preceding quotation refers more specifically to Lacan’s analysis of the fort/da game, the repetition compulsion of the scene of trauma crystallizes repetition as standing in for representation. The dream foreshadows the confusion that will be hers and her subsequent acting out when he calls the child’s name and blames her for having hurt him: “I don’t hear your horse only your shout and I know I am lost because your shout is not my name. Malaik you shout. Malaik” (140).

  • 18 The text plays once again with paronomasia: “the doll is (s)playing.”

19Another element should draw the reader’s attention. The “corn-husk doll” that Malaik is holding in his hand was mentioned as early as the incipit. Among the “curiosities” familiar only in dreams, Florens lists the following occurrence: “…when a corn-husk doll sitting on a shelf is splaying in the corner of a room and the wicked of how it got there is plain” (3)18. Since the text starts with the end and moves backwards chronologically, its reappearance in the hand of the young boy turns the doll into a predetermined (over-invested) sign of Florens’s own being as non-being (cf. Spillers 2003: 155). She sees the boy standing in the lane “holding tight the corn-husk doll and looking toward where you [the blacksmith] ride away” (139). Florens then reads the signsthe dog’s profile and the curl of a garden snakeand knows that the boy has stolen the boots she cannot find. She says: “His fingers cling the doll. I think that must be where his power is. I take it away and place it on a shelf too high for him to reach.” (139). The child screams and she gets out. When she gets back inside she notices that: “The doll is not on the shelf. It is abandon in a corner like a precious child no one wants.”(139). She carries on: “Or no. Maybe the doll is sitting there hiding. Hiding from me. Afraid. Which? Which is the true reading?” (139). On one level, the confusion she expresses lies in her inability to read the signs, yet one could say that she also reads two contradictory meanings at the same time. The doll that functions like a projection of herself (it is standing in for her) is either abandoned (as she was) or afraid of her. Once again, since the doll is afraid of her, she places her own fright/Angst in another being. Similarly, the little girl at the Puritans’ kept saying: “it scares it scares me”[113]). She then rips off the little boy’s arm to stop him from screaming. The blacksmith arrives at that moment and rescues the boy from Florens’s rage.

20Florens describes the scene in words that duplicate her eviction by the mother: the present tense used throughout her chapters takes now (for the reader) the full meaning of the present of trauma:

You choose the boy. You call his name first. You take him to lie down with the doll and return to me your broken face, eyes without glee, ropes pumps in yours neck. I am lost. No word of sorrow for knocking me off my feet. No tender fingers to touch where you hurt me. I cower. Hold down the feathers lifting. (140, italics mine)

  • 19 In her article on trauma in A Mercy, Monica Michlin analyses this passage as follows: “The ‘clawing (...)
  • 20 A thorough analysis of the function of animal imagery in the novel lies beyond the scope of this pa (...)

21Florens speaks of her inside as a bird of prey (an eagle?) whose feathers are erect, ready to pounce, unfold and scratch. Earlier, she wrote of an inside darkness that paralleled the external darkness of her skin: “[…] a darkness I am born with, outside, yes, but inside as well and the inside dark is small, feathered and touchy. Is that what my mother knows? Why she chooses me to live without? […] Is this dying mine alone?” (115)19. The upsurge of animal imagery answers the lack of tenderness and physical contact that once was at the heart of her passionate lovemaking with the blacksmith, described as “a dancing” by Sorrow (128). It also duplicates the Puritans’ questioning of her evil nature as animal like since they examine her body for “a tail, an extra teat” (114). Florens interiorizes the animal nature (“wilderness,”141) that throughout the novel is seen as close, threatening, yet also somewhat tamable20. Her conversation with the blacksmith (“words that cut”) is reproduced with at its core his accusation of her choosing to be a slave (i.e. not to own herself) and she concludes:

Are you meaning I am nothing to you? That I have no consequence in your world? My face absent in blue water you find only to crush it? Now I am living the dying inside. No. Not again. Not ever. Feathers lifting, I unfold. The claws scratch and scratch until the hammer is in my hand (142, italics mine).

22As the above quotation makes plain, Florens refuses to be negated again. She re-experiences this death of the self and refuses its reoccurrence. The animal imagery is an apt metaphor for her internalization of violence yet it also figures her negated subjectivity as a slave. This internal animal nature spells once again the black female’s predicament as the point of passage between “the human and the non-human”(Spillers 2003: 155). The hammer, not the doll, is in her hand.

“Trying to tell”21

  • 21 Any reader of Faulkner hears these words as a quotation from Benji’s monologue in The Sound and the (...)

23The text performs two things related to trauma and its attendant psychoanalytical concepts: compulsion to repeat, the pleasure principle, the repressed, reminiscences, the death drive. On the one hand, the daughter has a recurrent nightmare about the mother that repeats the moment of abandonment. On the other, in that dream, the mother is “trying to tell her something”. As Cathy Caruth signals (1996: 2-3), Freud, in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), takes an example from literature in order to explain that repetition is a way of controlling the traumatic incident and not a mere reproduction of that incident. To prove his point, he gives the example of Tancred’s unwitting murder of his beloved Clorinda in Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberata and the hero’s subsequent wounding of a tree from which a voice rises. Similarly, Florens restores the voice of the mother in her dream, but the daughter fails to hear what the mother is telling her.

24At one stage in her progress, Florens compares two dreams. Although opposed, one is pleasurable (it is exemplary of the dream as wish-fulfillment since the blossoms [Florens] have given way to fruit [the cherries]), the other one is her recurrent nightmare, both puzzle her:

I sleep then wake at any sound. Then I am dreaming cherry trees walking towards me. I know it is dreaming because they are full in leaves and fruit. I don’t know what they want. To look? To touch? One bends down and I wake with a little scream in my mouth. […] That is a better dream than a minha mae standing near with her little boy. In those dreams she is always wanting to tell me something. (101)

25In the dream narrative, Florens supplements the scene of abandonment (the mother in effect spoke to Jacob and told him to take Florens) with an explanation, that is paradoxically not given, that thus functions as an enigma. Florens’s mother’s desire to talk stops at that: the dream does not provide the words. There is a meaning, but that meaning is beyond words (Lacan’s Symbolic). On the one hand, the nightmare enacts Florens’s desire for meaning: throughout her quest, she kept questioning the meaning of what she saw: “Other signs need more time to understand. Often there are too many signs […] (4) “Is there only one reading?” (139). “What is your meaning?” (141). On the other hand, the dream also fulfills her desire for mother love: the mother talks to her even though she might not make out her words. Indeed, the unknowable at the heart of trauma is “beyond words.” Both meaning and mother love are interrelated for it is the meaning of mother love and the make up of the daughter’s subjectivity that is ultimately questioned. The novel itself provides the mother’s answer, her voice, in the last chapter:

It was not a miracle. Bestowed by God. It was a mercy. Offered by a human. I stayed on my knees. In the dust where my heart will remain each night and everyday until you understand what I know and long to tell you: to be given dominion over another is a hard thing, to wrest dominion over another is a wrong thing, to give dominion of yourself to another is a wicked thing.
Oh Florens. My love. Hear a tua mae. (167)

26Hence this final chapter that utters the love that her mother felt for her may function as a closure to the dream’s desire for understanding. However, the amphibology at the heart of this gift of the daughter (to give away to preserve from a worst evil) leaves the daughter separate from the mother, even at the level of the act of reading. The reader reads the mother’s voice addressed to the daughter, but the daughter does not hear it. Reading becomes the only means of making both desires eventually meet or connect. Reading is the locus of the missed encounter.

  • 22 The dispersal of the slave children here symbolized by the daughter is figured in the text by numer (...)

27Florens stops dreaming once she returns home after her fight with the blacksmith, as if the acting out, the refusal to die “again,” had answered the call without words of the mother in the dream sequence. She starts writing on the walls and the floor of Jacob’s deserted house. She “sleeps among her words” (158) in what has become a “talking room” (161), a metonym for her mother’s silence. Her violent actsthe assault on the little boy, the fight with the blacksmith of whom she does not know whether he is alive of dead when she is writing her story, and more specifically the first oneact out the scene of trauma. Florens symptomatically tears the boy’s arm: the image of “holding hands” can only be the traumatic one of the mother’s bond with the child. The referential violence of the actionsFlorens injures the child, tries to kill her lover—answers and tries to make up for the suffering. The reader’s concurrent reading of the text as a poetics of trauma points to the confusion of discreet moments, the reactivation of the hurt. The psychic wound translates into a prose full of gaps that allows for superimpositions, condensations, displacements, that spells the daughter’s fear of death, her fight for survival22. Her telling won’t hurt, she tells the blacksmith and the reader, unlike her mother’s.

28A Mercy depicts the confusion of colonial times, times of dominions: the various cultures (Native, African, European) that came into contact, the chaos of the New World. The little boy, whose name means King in Arabic, holds a corn-husk doll and corn-husk dolls are part of Native American folklore. In one Iroquois tribe, they corresponded to a specific ritual. One type of doll was made in response to a dream; the doll was then discarded, to be returned to the earth to get rid of the evil spirit that it embodied23. Morrison’s text thus echoes this belief in the conjuration of the evil spirit through the creation of a substitute, a fetish. The doll is also, at the same time, a transitional object: it stands in for the self in a duplication of the mother-child dyad. It figures the link to the mother and repeats it in the sense that it stands in for it24. Just as Florens could not find her own reflection in the lake, uncannily, these dolls have no face. In one Seneca legend, the reason why the corn-husk dolls are faceless is explained by a story that resembles the myth of Narcissus:

Many, many years ago, the corn, one of the Three Sisters, wanted to make something different. She made the moccasin and the salt boxes, the mats, and the face. She wanted to do something different so the Great Spirit gave her permission. So she made the little people out of corn-husk and they were to roam the earth so that they would bring brotherhood and contentment to the Iroquois tribe. But she made one that was very, very beautiful. This beautiful corn person, you might call her, went into the woods and saw herself in a pool. She saw how beautiful she was and she became very vain and naughty. That began to make the people very unhappy and so the Great Spirit decided that wasn't what she was to do. She didn't pay attention to his warning, so the last time the messenger came and told her that she was going to have her punishment. Her punishment would be that she'd have no face, she would not converse with the Senecas or the birds or the animals. She'd roam the earth forever, looking for something to do to gain her face back again. So that's why we don't put any faces on the husk dolls25.

29In the legend, the facelessness of the corn-husk doll figures its muteness since the doll could not talk with the humans, but also with the animals. In Florens’s dream, in which she, like the dolls, loses her face, this inability to communicate corresponds to the mother’s silent words. Both stand apart, separated, the deep subject of the novel being an exploration of this wound, symbolically crystallized, at one point, by a faceless daughter and a speechless mother.

30Commenting on Beloved, Morrison concluded: “There is just a little music, each other, and the urgency of what is at stake. Which is all they [the ex-slaves] had. For that work, the work of language is to get out of the way.” (Morrison 1989). A Mercy impeccably illustrates how language works to “get out of the way,” how “images” haunt and words necessarily fall short. Only a language that will be allusive, careful, benevolent, nurtured, caring and nurturing, can approach the edge of the abyss, can fight against death. In her Nobel lecture that is a long meditation on language, literary creation and death, Morrison stresses the power of language to access knowledge: Be it grand or slender, burrowing, blasting, or refusing to sanctify, whether it laughs out loud or is a cry without an alphabet, the choice word, the chosen silence, unmolested language surges toward knowledge...” (Nobel lecture 1993). Cathy Caruth explains that knowing and not knowing are at the heart of literature and psychoanalytical theory and practice. She even sees the story of Tancred as the story of psychoanalytic writing/theory: “It listens to a voice that it cannot fully know but to which it nonetheless bears witness” (1996: 9). Morrison’s qualifier for language, “unmolested,” metaphorically points towards “abuse” and thus yokes together the writer’s craft (language), trauma (violence) and knowing (until one hits upon what cannot be known). To that effect, the “choice word” must indeed be allied to the “chosen silence.”

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Freud, Sigmund. Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Trans. by James Strachey. New York: Norton, 1961.

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Freud, Sigmund. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. 24 vols. Trans. By James Strachey. London: Hogarth Press, 1956-74.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. and Antony Appiah. Toni Morrison: Critical Perspectives past and present. New York: Amistad, 1993.

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Lacan, Jacques. “Tuché and automaton” in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychanalysis. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan. Book XI. Harmondsworth: Peregrine Bk, 1986, 53-64.

Lacan, Jacques. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychanalysis. Trans. by A. Sheridan. Harmondsworth: Peregrine Bk, 1973/1986.

Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book 2: The Ego in Freud's Theory and in the Technique of Pyschoanalysis 1954-1955. Jean-Alain Miller ed. Trans. By Sylvana Tomaselli. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Lacan, Jacques. “Les non-dupes errent.” Le Séminaire, livre XXI, Lesson of February 19th, 1974. . Accessed 7/11/2015

Malabou, Catherine. “Post-Trauma: Towards a New Definition?” in Telemorphosis: Theory in the Era of Climate Change, Vol. 1. Tom Cohen ed.;view=fulltext. Accessed November 14th 2015.

Mathers, Sherry and Bill Brescia, Our Mother Corn. Seattle, WA, United Indians of All Tribes Foundation, 1981. Accessed April 6th, 2015.

Michlin, Monica. “Writing/Reading Slavery as Trauma: Othering, Resistance, and the Haunting Use of Voice in Toni Morrison’s A Mercy.” Black Studies Papers 1.1 (2014): 105–23. Accessed November 14th, 2015.

Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970.

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Morrison, Toni. “The Art of Fiction” 134, interview by Elissa Schappell, with additional material from Claudia Brodsky Lacour, The Paris Review 128 (Fall 1993a). Accessed on November 9th, 2015

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1 Burials are also literal and part of the diegesis of many of Morrison’s novels: Song of Solomon (1977) and Home (2012), to name the most obvious, deal with the necessity of a proper burial after a violent death. In A Mercy, Patrician, Jacob and Rebekka’s daughter has to be buried twice (79). Beloved places at its core the impossibility of burying the dead who then return to haunt and plague the living. They, of course, figure the return of the repressed on the level of collective memory and history. The haunting past needs to be put to rest. There are also ritual burials: the two little girls in Sula (1973) dig a hole and bury in it all of the small defiling things they [can] find” and Pilate in Song of Solomon (1977) drops her earring, a snuff-box that contains her name, into the grave, yet birds pick it up and fly away with it.

2 Pornography: 1843, "ancient obscene painting, especially in temples of Bacchus," from French pornographie, from Greek pornographos "(one) depicting prostitutes," from porne "prostitute," originally "bought, purchased" (with an original notion, probably of "female slave sold for prostitution") […] Accessed November 14th, 2015.

3 The edition used throughout this essay is: A Mercy, New York: Knopf, 2008. For want of space, the analysis of the writing of trauma (a knife fight between father and son arranged by white men, pedophilia, PTSD) in Home (2012) will be addressed in another paper. Morrison’s latest novel to date God Help the Child (2015) also deals with pedophilia and hence child trauma, a recurrent topic throughout her oeuvre since The Bluest Eye (1970). On trauma, more specifically, see inter alia Schreiber, 2010 and Pribish, 2014.

4 One could also read this aesthetic choice as bearing witness to Morrison’s debt to Jean Toomer’s Cane (1923), its fragmentation and use of different genres (vignettes, poems, short stories, prose drama) to produce a defiantly modernist text. Morrison has acknowledged that influence. For an analysis of Morrison’s work in relation to the African American tradition, see, for instance, Baillie, 2013.

5 In Home, Frank Money’s killing of the Korean girl is similarly “buried” in the text.

6 The text reverberates here with different connotations of the word curiosity. In Medieval thought curiositas, opposed to studiousness, was a vice linked to pride. The desire to acquire knowledge should be measured, restrained, and remain within a moral framework, lest one would think himself/herself superior to God. Renaissance thought kept the valence attributed to that quality.

7 That moment in the novel re-writes the 19th century slave narrative’s descriptions of the auction block and the dispersal of the slave family, the forced separation of children from parents. It is also an interesting variation on William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice (1979). William Styron’s work has been at the heart of heated controversies among African American intellectuals and writers. It, of course, rewrites Sethe’s dilemma in Beloved (1986), who killed her baby daughter to save her from a life of slavery.

8 Lacan’s playful inversion of the Latin phrase verba volant, scripta manent is writ large in A Mercy, as, for instance in the following statement: “[I]f the letter can fly away…” (112).

9 I owe this remark to Monica Michlin.

10 The French translation of the title by Anne Wicke is A Gift (Un don). The word “mercy” comes from the Middle English merci, mercy "mercy," from early French merci, mercit (same meaning); from Latin merces "price paid for something, wages, reward." A “mercy” was the name given to the ransom paid to free Christian slaves in the Arab slave trade of the 7th century.

11 Paronomastically, “foundling” may read as “fondling”: to caress lovingly or erotically. It thus resonates with Florens’s sensuous passion for the blacksmith.

12 Whereas Florens saw the little girl as her own double, she fails to read Daughter Jane’s plight (she is whipped by her own mother) as duplicating her own (see Michlin 2014: 120, note 14). The logic of trauma means that she will not see what is in front of her eyes.

13 Lacan theorizes very early in his writings (Les complexes familiaux, 1938) that birth is another weaning: “The latter—which is weaning in its strictest sense—gives the first and also the most adequate psychic expression to the more obscure imago of an earlier, more painful weaning that is of greater vital importance: that which, at birth, separates the infant from the womb, a premature separation from which comes a malaise that no maternal care can compensate for” (Lacan 1938: 20). On Lacan and the weaning complex, see Barzilai 1990: 135.

14 The symbolism of the eggs (death, sterility, the end of generation, the genocide of a people) runs through the whole text: eggs are hatched in Lina’s dream and Daughter Jane gives Florens a cloth full of eggs when she helps her escape. They may also call forth a Lacanian reading (see Barzalai 1990). Dolls are also a recurrent theme in Morrison’s fiction (cf. The Bluest Eye [1970], Jazz [1992]). Here the corn-husk doll is linked to Morrison’s use of Native American folklore in constructing the character of Lina. Central to an understanding of the text is the legend of the eagle that Lina tells Florens and that Florens recycles in her final words.

15 This facelessness might also figure her reversal to total fusion with the mother. In the early stages, the infans relates only to the mother’s face.

16 For another definition of trauma that brings together and critiques Freud and Lacan, see Malabou’s “Post-Trauma: Towards a New Definition?” in which she answers Žižek’s critique of her The New Wounded (2012). On trauma, phantasm and seduction, see Claude-Noële Pickmann (2003).

17 Pickmann clearly expresses the fact that sexuality is intrusive: “[P]our l’être parlant, c’est la sexualité elle-même qui, à l’origine, est intrusive et fait effraction dans la psyché parce qu’elle est rencontre avec du non-sens tant que la constitution du trauma ne lui a pas donné son sens sexuel” (2003: 41). The daughter needs to be saved from rape, a rape the mother has been subjected to.

18 The text plays once again with paronomasia: “the doll is (s)playing.”

19 In her article on trauma in A Mercy, Monica Michlin analyses this passage as follows: “The ‘clawing feathery thing,’ while an image of resistance, is also a conflicted self-representation, in terms of animality and violence, of oxymorons (‘feathered and toothy’), of an internalized darkness construed as deprivation (‘without’ is to be read in both its meanings) and equated with rage and shame, rather than pride. It heralds the violence Florens will inflict upon Malaik; which in turn will cause the blacksmith to reject her.”(2014: 112).

20 A thorough analysis of the function of animal imagery in the novel lies beyond the scope of this paper. Suffice it to say here that the raccoon Jacob saves, the boneless bear the blacksmith teaches Florens to avoid, the majestic moose that stares at Rebekka’s nakedness and makes her face loose her blood, conjure animal presence as an alluring closeness to the humans in the New World. It figures the attraction and temptation of wilderness, as well as man’s animality in the confusion of colonial times (“we are beasts, also,” 5).

21 Any reader of Faulkner hears these words as a quotation from Benji’s monologue in The Sound and the Fury (1929).

22 The dispersal of the slave children here symbolized by the daughter is figured in the text by numerous displacements and substitutions among the “family”: Florens is a substitute for Patrician, Jacob’s and Rebekka’s daughter; she is also a substitute for Lina’s child. Her split self is figured in Sorrow’s belief that she has an imaginary double whom she names Twin.

23 The legend is told by a Seneca craftswoman, Mrs Snow and reproduced in Sherry Mathers and Bill Brescia, Our Mother Corn. Seattle, WA, United Indians of All Tribes Foundation, 1981. Accessed April 6th, 2015.

24 On the use of a flower-doll to cure two young girls, see Dolto 1949: 53-69. Accessed June 20th, 2016. Dolto explains how the flower doll (that has no face) made by the mother allows the child to express, and thus transfer unto the doll, the negative self-inflicted violence (such as vomiting) that was her reactions to a dysfunctional link to the mother.

25 Accessed April 6th, 2015.

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Claudine Raynaud, « Living the Dying Inside”: Writing Violence in Toni Morrison’s A Mercy », Sillages critiques [En ligne], 22 | 2017, mis en ligne le 20 mars 2017, consulté le 23 juillet 2017. URL :

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Claudine Raynaud

Université Paul-Valéry, Montpellier 3
Claudine Raynaud, Professor of American Studies at Paul-Valéry University, Montpellier 3, has taught in England (Birmingham and Liverpool) and the United States (Michigan, Northwestern and Oberlin). A Fellow at the Du Bois Institute (Harvard, Fall 2005), she was vice president of the CEAA when Michel Fabre was its president, has headed GRAAT, the nationwide African American Studies Research Group in Tours, and works at the CNRS (ITEM). She is the author of Toni Morrison: L’Esthétique de la survie (1995) and numerous articles on black autobiography (Hurston, Wright, Baldwin, Lorde, Angelou), Joyce and feminist theory. Her most notable publications are two contributions to Cambridge Companions: ‘Coming of Age in the African American Novel’ (2004) and ‘Beloved or the Shifting Shapes of Memory’ (2007), the co-edition of a collection of essays on Gloria Naylor (l’Harmattan, 2012) and a book chapter on Hurston’s Tell my Horse in Afromodernisms (Edinburgh UP, 2013). She has just co-edited two volumes of Diasporas, Cultures of Mobilities, ‘Race’ (PULM, 2014, 2016) and the anthology Troubled Legacies: Heritage/Inheritance in Minority American Literatures (with Michel Feith, CSP, 2015). Her translation with a scholarly introduction of Sojourner Truth’s Narrative (PURH, 2016) has just come out.
Claudine Raynaud, Professeur d’études américaines à l’université Paul-Valéry Montpellier 3, a enseigné en Angleterre (Birmingham et Liverpool) et aux Etats-Unis (Michigan, Northwestern et Oberlin). Membre du Du Bois Institute (Harvard, automne 2005), elle était vice-présidente du CEA (présidé par Michel Fabre), a dirigé le GRAAT et la JE EAA à Tours et travaille au CNRS (ITEM). Elle est l’auteur de Toni Morrison: L’Esthétique de la survie (1995) et de nombreux articles sur l’autobiographie noire (Hurston, Wright, Baldwin, Lorde, Angelou), sur Joyce et les théories féministes. Ses publications les plus marquantes sont : deux contributions aux Cambridge Companions: ‘Coming of Age in the African American Novel’ (2004) et ‘Beloved or the Shifting Shapes of Memory’ (2007), la co-direction d’un recueil d’essais sur Gloria Naylor (l’Harmattan, 2012) et un chapitre sur Tell my Horse de Hurston dans Afromodernisms (Edinburgh UP, 2013). Elle vient de co-diriger deux volumes de Diasporas, Cultures of Mobilities, ‘Race’ (PULM, 2014, 2016) et l’ouvrage Troubled Legacies: Heritage/Inheritance in Minority American Literatures (avec Michel Feith, CSP, 2015). Sa traduction, avec une introduction critique, du récit de Sojourner Truth (PURH, 2016) vient de paraître.

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