On reading Beloved by Toni Morrison and Don Quixote by Kathy Acker, there seem to be quite a few similarities in themes and characters contained in these texts, the most prevalent of which seems to be of love and language as a path to freedom. We see in Acker?s Don Quixote the abortion she must have before she embarks on a quest for true freedom, which is to love. Similarly, in Morrison?s Beloved, there is a kind abortion, the killing of Beloved by Sethe, which results in and from the freedom that real love provides. And in both texts, the characters are looking for answers and solutions in these “word-shapes” called language.
In Acker?s Don Quixote, the abortion with which the novel opens is a precondition for surrendering the “constructed self.” For Acker, the woman in position on the abortion table over whom a team of doctors and nurses work represents, in an ultimate sense, woman as a constructed object. The only hope is somehow to take control, to subvert the constructed identity on order to name oneself: “She had to name herself. When a doctor sticks a steel catheter into you while you?re lying on your back and you to; finally, blessedly, you let go of your mind. Letting go of your mind is dying. She needed a new life. She had to be named” (Don Quixote 9-10). And she must name herself for a man ? become a man ? before the nobility and the dangers of her ordeals will be esteemed. She is to be a knight on a noble quest to love “someone other than herself” and thus to right all wrongs and to be truly free.
In another of Acker?s works she writes: “Having an abortion was obviously just like getting fucked. If we closed our eyes and spread our legs, we?d be taken care of. They stripped us of our clothes. Gave us white sheets to cover our nakedness. Let us back to the pale green room. I love it when men take care of me (Blood and Guts in High School 33). In Morrison?s Beloved, Sethe has two “abortions.” The first and most obvious is the act of infanticide in killing Beloved. The second “abortion” is Sethe “getting fucked” by the grave-digger. This abortion, like Acker?s protagonist, creates a name. The name is Beloved ? a “word-shape” representing true love, or freedom.
For Sethe, to love also becomes a testament of freedom. For having been owned by others (like Acker?s patriarchy) meant that her claim to love was not her own. She could not love her children, “love ?em proper in Kentucky because they wasn?t [hers] to love” (Beloved 162). Paul D understands that “to get a place where you could love anything you choose ? well now that was freedom” (Beloved 162), but he is also bound to his slave mentality to overcome his fear. He considers Sethe?s unconditional love “risky”: “For a used-to-be-slave woman to love anything that much was dangerous, especially if it was her children she had settled on to love” (Beloved 45). The far safer way was “to love just a little bit, so when they broke its back, or shoved it in a croaker sack, well, maybe you?d have a little love left over for the next one” (Beloved 45). It is this compromised love that even Baby Suggs accepted ? despite her magnificent sermon in the Clearing on loving one?s self ? knowing that her slave master would take her children away. And it is this “weak love” that Paul D tells Sethe she must accept (a patriarchal love, as Acker might say). When Paul D tells her love is “too thick,” however, Sethe insists that “Love is or it ain?t. Thin love ain?t no love at all” (Beloved 164). She believes in this pure love, the kind perhaps Acker?s protagonist is looking for.
Also, like Acker?s Don Quixote, Morrison shows, through the relationship between Sethe and Beloved, the dangerous potential of “free” love. Another similarity shown in Beloved is that freedom is always perilous ? it has the potential to be self-consuming. This love allows Sethe to commit infanticide as well as compelling Beloved to claim possession of Sethe?s self. Despite her efforts to earn Beloved?s understanding of her action, Sethe never retreats from her insistence that the murder was justified. She wills Beloved to return in order to hear her say “I forgive you,” yet she acknowledges no guilt. In her “unspeakable things, unspoken” narrative, she claims that though she does not “have to explain a thing,” she will: “Why I did it. How if I hadn?t killed her she would have died?” (Beloved 200). The more Beloved demands of her, the more “Sethe plead[s] for forgiveness, counting, listing again and again the reasons: that Beloved was more important, meant more to her than her own live” (Beloved 241-242), “that what she had done was right because it came from true love” (Beloved 251). But it seems to be a confession without a crime: “Sethe didn?t really want forgiveness given, she wanted it refused. And Beloved helped her out” (Beloved 252). For Sethe, forgiveness must not cancel out the justification of her act, the very love that generated it transforms infanticide into the profoundest testimony of love, signifying the reverse of what it seems. Sethe is “luxuriating” in not being forgiven, more proud than repentant, paradoxically seeking forgiveness irrespective of a crime.
The acquisition of a new life and name, and love and language are henceforth erratically and erotically pursued in both texts. The means of acquisition are outside, unavailable in a culture locked in patriarchy, or slavery. In order to constitute the self differently, the quester is required to find a different site for enunciating that self. Acker moves her protagonist toward this site through the appropriation of male texts. As the epigraph to Part II of Don Quixote reads: “BEING BORN INTO AND PART OF A MALE WORLD, SHE HAD NO SPEECH OF HER OWN. ALL SHE COULD DO WAS READ MALE TEXTS WHICH WEREN?T HERS” (Don Quixote 39). These texts represent the limits of language and culture within which the female quester attempts to acquire identity. Once inside the male text, the quester, by her very posture, subverts it: “By repeating the past, I?m molding and transforming it.” In the text, Acker explains the subversive effects of plagiarism through Arabs, who in incarnating an “other” of Western culture are comparable to women:
Unlike American and Western culture (generally), the Arabs (in their culture) have no (concept of) originality. That is, culture. They write new stories paint new pictures et cetera only by embellishing old stories pictures ? They write by cutting chunks out of all-ready written texts and in other ways defacing traditions: changing important names into silly ones, making dirty jokes out of matters that should be of the utmost importance to us such as nuclear warfare. (Don Quixote 25).
It seems also in Morrison?s Beloved, with subversion of words and language is apparent when the townsfolk get together at 124. At first they try the prayers that “weren?t theirs,” but when the women?s singing prayer does not have the ability affect the “roaring” around 124, they must go all the way back to the first page of the text in their collective memory: “In the beginning was the sound, and they all knew what the sound sounded like” (Beloved 259). This familiar, original sound revitalizes Sethe?s body and allowing her to break the lock Beloved has had upon her. “For Sethe it was as though the Clearing had come to her with all its heat and simmering leaves, where the voices of women searched for the right combination, the key, the code, the sound that broke the back of words. Building voice upon voice until they found it, and when they did it was a wave of sound wide enough to sound deep water and knock the pods off chestnut trees. It broke over Sethe and she trembled like the baptized in its wash” (Beloved 261). Unleashed, Sethe rushes toward Bodwin (mistaking him for the schoolteacher) with ice pick raised, her body partially transformed into the shape of the weapon she is holding: “The ice pick is not in her hand; it is her hand” (Beloved 262). But the reconstituted community intervenes, pulling her into what Beloved sees as a “hill of black people falling” (Beloved 262). Now that Sethe and Denver have reentered the community, Beloved thinks that she has been left behind, “Alone. Again” (Beloved 262), and the “devil-child” (Beloved 261) vanishes. Thus Sethe?s freedom. She has loved completely.
All this raises a question: Is Acker?s protagonist similar to Sethe or to Beloved? Like Sethe, the “knight-night” believes in a pure love, not excluding taboo. They both also believe that to love one must be freed from their respective slavery, and to be free is the ability to love. However Sethe, and the whole of Morrison?s work, seems to be the incarnation of what Don Quixote is trying to reach. Sethe sees her love a true and pure, while this is the quest of Don Quixote. However, Sethe is “saved” at the end of the text by a community getting in touch with a “language of their own,” while Acker?s protagonist is subverting texts to find or create something this “primal.”
Don Quixote is far more easily paired with the ghost of Beloved. They both are searching for a language they can use and understand and know with the “word-shapes” that they are given. They are both on quests to find love and freedom that are not a product of “slavery.” They both are in search of a name, an identity, that is not a product of an “abortion.” They are both childlike yet adult, trying to understand. And neither of them are asking for, or offering, forgiveness.