Virgilian Intimacy at the Threshold of Toni Morrison’s Trilogy

At the threshold of Hell, Dante the Pilgrim—in Canto III shaken by the epigraph to “abandon all hope” and the sounds of agony, “sighs, cries, and shrieks of lamentation”—expresses sorrow at the start of his journey. Later, as he closes in on Hell’s exit in Canto XXXI, at the icy expanse  of Cocytus, he feels his “fear [take] on more shape.” However, Dante is not alone; guiding him through Hell, drawing sorrow and misery from his body like sucking poison from a forearm, Virgil inserts himself. At both turning points in Dante’s Inferno, Virgil uses intimacy to guide the Pilgrim out of despair: at the threshold of Hell, he uses a slight touch of the hand and a smile; at Hell’s exit, Virgil “lovingly took Dante by the hand,” and led him forward. In an inclusio of intimacy, Dante Alighieri utilizes this connection as a fulcrum enabling the Pilgrim to progress through Hell; as a literal and emotional guide, Virgil evokes the philia between himself and Dante to guide them through the agony, misery, and pain of Hell.

I feel that Toni Morrison, likewise, uses intimacy as a generative, guiding force. In her novel Beloved, even as characters harm themselves and others out of love, intimacy functions as a mode through which they navigate their pains and traumas. At the threshold of Morrison’s trilogy—passing out of Beloved and beyond—I am thinking deeply about the intimacy and love she shapes between her characters, and the ways in which these entanglements—like Virgil’s touch, his smile, his gaze—guide characters out of the catalog of aches that burden their bodies, memories, and thoughts.

I see the ideas that Audre Lorde presents in her essay “The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power” as a throughline entangling the characters Morrison shapes and the love they engage with. She describes how systems of power can place limits on, restrict, and suppress the erotic—the “resource within each of us that lies in a deeply female and spiritual plane, firmly rooted in the power of our unexpressed or unrecognized feeling”—as a form of control. Lorde’s definition functions in several ways; she writes that it provides “the power which comes from sharing deeply any pursuit with another person. The sharing of joy, whether physical, emotional, psychic, or intellectual, forms a bridge between the sharer…and lessens the threat of their difference.” When this joy is experienced and shared, the individuals in tune with their eros becomes “less willing to accept powerlessness, or…resignation, despair, self-effacement, depression, self-denial.”

Intimacy in all of its forms enables the sharers to endure Hellish structures, to survive cruelty and violence. Although Beloved’s depictions of love are not restricted to eros—agape, philia, storge, pragma, philautia all find their places in the novel, and are often joined together as a chimera to enhance the characters and their relationships—and although the love each character holds is both tender and violent, intimacy nonetheless behaves as a Virgilian construct, guiding Sethe in particular through the Hell of her “rememory.”

Beloved’s Virgilian intimacy often reacts to—as described by Dr. Beth McCoy—the ways in which the past and present are in a state of “churning.” The dual Hells of 124 and the past flood Morrison’s characters with grief, tension, and conflict, as the trauma of their past constantly recoils into their consciousness.

Intimacy in Beloved behaves—similar to Lorde’s description of the erotic, in which the sharing of an experience bridges the sharers together to empower them—as a means of guiding Sethe out of the depravity created by the conditions of her past. When Paul D visits her at 124, she describes the assault on her body that engrained Sweet Home’s memory as a malicious one. “After I left you,” she says, “those boys came in here and took my milk,” and after reporting the incident to Mrs. Garner, Schoolteacher lashed Sethe’s back, the scar resembling a chokecherry tree (21). However, Paul D’s touch guides Sethe out of the pain of her past. Paul D stood behind her as she was baking bread for him, pressing his cheek into “the branches of her chokecherry tree,” becoming the “kind of man who could walk into a house and make the women cry,” his body an “arc of kindness.” As he rubbed his cheek and lips over her back, holding her breasts in his hands, tracing the roots and branches and trunk of her scars, he undid the top of her dress. Paul D would “tolerate no peace until he had touched every ridge and leaf of it with his mouth,” and she leans into his touch, feeling that “the responsibility for her breasts, at last, was in somebody else’s hands” (22).

The tenderness of the scene—the careful touch of Paul D’s cheek and lips on the scarred, chokecherry flesh, that symbol of the cruelty of Sweet Home, the mark on her body that carries the weight of her memory intruding her mind and her home—carries Sethe from the threshold of the cruel conditions of her “rememory.” Despite Paul D’s own role in inflicting wounds—sleeping with Beloved, closing himself off to Sethe by pushing everything into the “tobacco tin” in his chest, leaving Sethe behind after learning about her infanticide—he does eventually realize the love that went into the murder, and that he loves this woman.

At the end of the novel, he recognizes the depth of Sethe’s love, the thickness that drove her to kill her “crawling already? baby” because she refused to let her die in the hands of bondage and violence, and accepts her. How if Sethe hadn’t killed her she would have died as a nonhuman in the eyes of the white men who came to 124 to claim Sethe and her family as theirs (256). How at the sight of schoolteacher she gathered “every bit of life she had made, all the parts of her that were precious and fine and beautiful, and carried, pushed, dragged them through the veil, out, away, over there where no one could hurt them. Over there. Outside this place, where they would be safe” in death (209). An act of violence produced from “true love” (320). With Beloved’s departure, Sethe lies sick and weary and wearing away, unwashed, and sorrowful. Paul D returns and wants to “put his story next to hers.” He grabs her hand, touches her face, and says “You your best thing, Sethe” (348).

Paul D—in this moment, in a repetition of his intimacy in the beginning of the book—gives her rest, gives her love, and allows her to be vulnerable, sharing the weight of their past aches, to find “some kind of tomorrow” (348). Intimacy guides Sethe out of the Hell of her churning past that surfaces in a physical manifestation as 124, then in the flesh as Beloved, and—like the loving touch or kind words of Virgil, like the shared resiliency and empowerment of Lorde’s eros—shares the weight of her past with Paul D, leans again into his touch, and allows herself to heal, to be loved, and to give her love in return. Both characters, traumatized by their past, in this moment are made accountable for their actions, and with the intention to share love between them, evoke Lorde’s erotic to begin the work of escaping their Hell.

I am, however, wary of Morrison’s love; even as I am drawn to the way it operates in her craft—as relief, as tenderness, as healing—that love is likewise harmful. Love, in excess, and coming from a place of possession, can be violent, and encircles her novel in another Hellish ring.

It is crucial to Lorde’s essay that the erotic is a shared experience, and when characters in Beloved evoke love as possessive and excessive devices, violence brews as a result of a lack of intention to share this love. Paul D leaving 124 at the news of Sethe’s infanticide causes a shift into the first person, where we receive the interior thoughts of Sethe, Denver, and Beloved, all three of which express possessive desires. Sethe, realizing Beloved is her dead daughter made flesh, both fiercely protects her children—as she recalls her intention to bring her and her children to the “other side” to keep out of returning to bondage under schoolteacher—and desires to possess them, as she remarks how “She come back to me, my daughter, and she is mine” (261). Denver, fearing that she and Beloved will be murdered by Sethe like the baby was, fiercely resigns to protect Beloved from her mother, saying that she drank her blood and her mother’s milk at once the day she was killed, saying “She’s mine, Beloved. She’s mine” (268). Beloved herself notes seeing Sethe’s facing, the “face she lost” and has finally found, and states that she “will not lose her again. She is mine” (275). Towards the end of the book, when Denver, Sethe, and Beloved’s narratives converge into a chant of “you are mine,” the language becomes a possessive, violent, and harmful expression of love in excess.

The act sharing—as defined by Audre Lorde in her discussion of eros—therefore acts as one of the through lines connecting me to the rest of the trilogy. Passing out of Beloved—crossing the threshold into a new novel and a new phase of the course, out of Hell and into Purgatory—I am struck by (moved by, impacted by, allured by, shocked by) the forcefulness of the intimacy Morrison constructs. Sethe’s character endures the Hell of her past and present through her entanglements with others, and just as Paul D’s touch, his kindness, guides her from becoming a lost soul wandering the terrain of her own thoughts, I too am led through Morrison’s work by her love, both violent and tender, destructive and resilient, sacrificial and comforting, fragmented and whole.

At the threshold of the course and Morrison’s trilogy, I am thinking—and feeling—the weight of intimacy, the forcefulness of the senses tied to this emotion, the mechanisms that construct this love, both within Beloved and out into Jazz, and eventually Paradise. I am thinking about sharing that love, how love functions within the self and out, out into the loved from the loving, pulsing through her sentences, her prose, her characters, her conflicts like a heartbeat, guiding us through her works, “working, dough. Working, working dough.”


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