Chronesthesia is defined as a form of consciousness that allows individuals to think about the subjective time in which they live and that makes it possible for them to mentally travel in such time. (Consciousness of Subjective Time in the Brain.)
We all know that people can spend a lot of time dwelling on the past and worrying about the future. Rather than mulling over some jerk of a husband, or hoping to win the lottery, some people seem to be able to mentally project themselves into the moment as active participants, or as passive observers. According to Consciousness of Subjective Time in the Brain, “this thinking… has metaphorically been referred to as mental time travel” (22356). Mental time travel is also called “chronesthesia,” or “self-projection.”
Regardless of whether we mentally travel through time longing to change the past or to visualize the future we want, we cannot do either without consequences. Louis Dupré says in “Alienation and Redemption Through Time and Memory,” that “memory never copies the past: it constitutes it as past by breathing new life into a bygone reality, and by placing it in a wholly new context. Thus, memory mysteriously revives the past in a new time and a new space” (673).
Someone once said that being unable to let go of the past is like carrying a dead body on your back. It’s a burden, to say the least. And thoughts are energy released; that energy has to go somewhere. When you live in the past, you cannot exist in the present without being haunted in some way by memory. The characters in the works of both Toni Morrison and William Faulkner are ruled by their memories, and both authors work to explore what that means and the detriment it places on one’s life.
|Like too many blacked out starry nights.|
Sometimes we can be ruled by the past without being consciously aware of it. Even if we’ve repressed a trauma, it’s always in the back of the mind, and at any time can be triggered. In an interview with Angels Carabi, Morrison remarks about Paul D’s arrival in Beloved that, “Sethe begins to think about certain things…” (106). Before he shows up, Sethe’s guilt is repressed, but it is nevertheless knocking around in her subconscious mind. In “Ripping the Veil,” Wilfred Samuels says, “It is due in part to her successful act of ‘disremembering,’ of consciously obliterating her painful past” (Samuels, 99).
In Beloved, Sethe says, “I got a tree on my back and a haint in my house, and nothing in between but the daughter I am holding in my arms. No more running—from nothing. I will never run from another thing on this earth” (18). This is untrue. As we know, Sethe is in denial… she’s still running from her past. “To Sethe, the future was a matter of keeping the past at bay” (51).
|It's a struggle.|
This potential energy is released like telekinesis, which causes supernatural disturbances in the home. The presence of Paul D makes it physically impossible for Sethe to keep forgetting, and as a result she unleashes her subconscious into a full-blown manifestation of her guilt, her memories and her past. “In spite of her effort to beat back the past, she is unable to transcend it” (Samuels, 95).
When we dwell on the past, we manifest whatever the past represents into the present. In a sense, the emotions one felt, the decisions that were made—even a trauma that occurred—follows you from your past into your future and takes root, creating its own new existence. According to Jean-Paul Sartre, “Consciousness can exist within time only on condition that it becomes time—it must become ‘temporalized’ as Heidegger says... the nature of consciousness implies… that it project itself into the future” (Sartre). Whether that consciousness is manifested as an alcohol problem or an angry dead baby, the outcome can’t be good.
Sethe cannot keep the guilt over her past bottled up. She has to face what she did, look at it clearly, and deal with it. When she takes one step towards that, all hell breaks loose. In “Time, Memory and Self-Remembering,” it is stated that “It must be finally admitted that the past is present not as a representation of itself but as presence” (4). This can be seen as a memory manifesting itself into temporality, as is the case with Beloved, the memory of whom has been manifested as a semi-conscious being.
In the interview with Angels Carabi, Morrison says, “I wanted a baby in human body, without past or future, having been killed so young and also to be the embodiment of the past… she was violently disremembered…” (106). Having died so traumatically, the memory has become willful and “her physical presence is so persistent that she cannot be ignored any more, so they have to deal with her” (107).
One of the reasons we sometimes cannot accept and then let go of the past is our lack of understanding of what has happened. The human mind is constantly trying to make sense of things; but, whether because of naïveté or ignorance, when one experiences trauma, it’s nearly impossible to understand why—especially if it’s at the hands of the object of one’s attachment, like a parent or a lover. As Sartre said in his essay on Faulkner, “The mind’s own temporal perspective prevents it from ever exhaustively understanding its past” (Sartre). No matter how much Sethe tries to explain what happened, Beloved is incapable of discerning the bigger picture. Sethe herself is, too.
|It's harder than it looks.|
Even though Beloved shows up appearing like a twenty year-old woman, “[her] behavior is for the most part that of a child, even an infant [emphasis mine]” (Samuels, 103). She was killed as a baby—her consciousness voided from her body. Without ever having the “opportunity to come into her own, to find a central self by moving beyond the stage of her infantile ego… Beloved does not differentiate herself from Sethe… her world is merged with Sethe’s” (Samuels, 104).
Nancy Chodorow says, in “Pre-Oedipal Gender Configurations,” that a clinical example of a “negative Oedipus complex in girls” is when they are invested in “their mothers… this attachment is dramatically intense and ambivalent” (472-473). And because of Sethe’s guilt, “ever present as a reminder of the past is Beloved… the manifestation of her mother’s conscience” (Samuels, 94). Sethe is so obsessed with her memory of Beloved, and that conscious manifestation of the memory is so attached to Sethe, we could even go as far as to say that their consciousnesses are merged, and it is Sethe’s inability to remove herself from the past that allows Beloved to again become temporalized. She is, in effect, as an infant, projected into the future—her future as a woman, with the consciousness of a child, a manifestation of Sethe’s memory and guilt.
In an article called “The Definitive Guide to Guilt,” from Psychology Today, Dr. Susan Whitbourne says, “The psychodynamic theory of Freud proposes that we build defense mechanisms to protect us from the guilt we would experience if we knew just how awful our awful desires really were” (Whitbourne). Sethe’s defense is justification—her excuse for killing her baby.
In her interview with Morrison, Carabi says, “Sethe’s sense of guilt turns her into Beloved’s victim and their roles reversed,” and Morrison replies, “It’s herself she can’t forgive; so now she is not so sure of her deed” (110). She keeps making these excuses to Beloved, but really she’s making them to herself, and Beloved’s responses of “you hurt me” and “you left me” (256) are always indicative of Sethe’s guilty conscience.
The interviewer later prompts, “Sethe must confront her past to achieve self-knowledge to save her best thing, which is herself. When this past is assumed Beloved can disappear,” and Morrison again replies, “Beloved has no place there now. Sethe is now going to concentrate on taking care of herself, the beloved that is inside her which is her. ‘She’ is the beloved, not the child. The past is returned and buried again or gone” (110).
Once Sethe has dealt with her guilt, she can realize that what is done is done. It is time to learn to forgive herself and move on. The memories can go back to living in the past and no longer hold her hostage. This isn’t just about guilt and memory, it is also about acceptance. It’s not just about Sethe forgiving herself, it’s about accepting what she did without making excuses. While she can forgive, there’s no way she’ll ever forget, but she has the chance of becoming a whole person again. Morrison says, “if you just dwell on the past you can’t go forward. If you confront the past there is a possibility to move on” (111).
In the same interview, when talking about the characters in Beloved, Morrison says of the past:
“It’s always threatening to break out… If you are serious about not wanting to remember, if you try to contain it, hold it back, it takes activity; you have to work at preventing the past from coming through. If you don’t work hard, it will come out in distorted ways. You can’t let those memories come back until you are strong enough to deal with them” (114).
In a perfect world, Sethe would have had therapy after she got out of jail—she should have been given the opportunity to face her demons in a safe place with someone who could help her work through her tragic past.
Song of Solomon is another case in point: the watermark on the table can also be seen as a metaphor for manifested memory: “The watermark, hidden by the bowl all these years, was exposed. And once exposed, it behaved as though it were itself a plant and flourished into a huge suede-gray flower that throbbed like fever, and sighed like the shift of sand dunes. But it could also be still. Patient, restful, and still” (12-13).
The sometimes “patient, restful, and still” memories of Ruth’s past are all bottled up inside her and they are manifested in various ways. “Long deprived of sex, long dependent on self-manipulation, she saw her son’s imminent death as the annihilation of the last occasion she had been made love to” (134). It is that manifestation that drives her to protect the baby in her womb and eventually use breastfeeding him as a distorted way to relieve her sexual frustration. Because Ruth has not faced and dealt with her past, it is robbing her of her present sanity.
We can’t just ignore the past, like Sethe and Ruth, in the hopes that it will go away. We can’t sweep our grief under the rug; we can’t cover it up with a centerpiece, like a stain on the kitchen table. We have to face it and deal with it before we can move on, like Milkman does. At one point in Song of Solomon, he pees on Corinthians because he turns around before he has finished; “it was becoming a habit—this concentration on things behind him. Almost as though there were no future to be had” (35). Milkman is obsessed with the past—not just his past, but also the past of his family. That of which he has no memory haunts him, because it distorts his sense of self. When he looks in the mirror, his reflection “lacked coherence, a coming together of the features into a total self. It was all very tentative, the way he looked, like a man peeping around a corner of someplace he is not supposed to be, trying to make up his mind whether to go forward or to turn back” (69-70). In order for him to go forward, he must first turn back. This is why Morrison says, “Wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down” (179). Actively letting go of (not passively ignoring) the past is essential to moving forward.
In “Unquiet Ghosts: Memory and Determinism in Faulkner,” Lee Anne Fennell says, “it is memory, with its disregard for chronological time and its idiosyncratic and highly personal chains of association, that pulls pieces of the past into the present, resurrects the dead, and remakes family history” (35). Fennell goes on to say that “remembered events may lie dormant for years and then emerge suddenly and vividly in response to a particular sensory impression or chain of associations. It is this interaction with present experience that makes memory such a powerful, intrusive, and insistent force in the lives of many of Faulkner’s characters” (36).
Unlike Morrison’s stories, whose characters are sometimes literally haunted by their pasts but strive for a better future, “what is missing from Faulknerian time is not memory, but the concept of hope which would make contemplation of the future possible” (Fennell, 40). While in Toni Morrison’s world people run from the past (slavery & racism) towards the future (freedom) with guarded yet open arms, Faulkner’s characters are paralyzed by their pasts, which leaves them stuck in the present.
Perhaps the first step in facing the past or preparing for the future is to try and live as simply as possible and start working on getting rid of all the extra baggage. In The Bear, Isaac’s “leaving of the gun was not enough. He stood for a moment—a child, alien and lost in the green and soaring gloom of the markless wilderness. Then he relinquished completely to it. It was the watch and the compass” (190). Isaac’s letting go of the watch and compass is like stepping out of space and time and quieting his mind in order to see without obstruction. It is then that Isaac finds the clearing and sees the bear. “It did not emerge, appear: it was just there, immobile, fixed in the green and windless noon’s hot dappling, not as big as he had dreamed it but as big as he had expected, bigger, dimensionless against the dappled obscurity, looking at him… then it was gone… it faded [emphasis mine]” (191), like a memory. Way to work through it, Isaac.
Finally, we come to Quentin. This young man is basically time locked in the past. He can’t get over his sister, he can’t shake his white southern guilt, and he’s afraid to move on, because to him forgetting his pain is equal to losing his sense of self. According to Fennell regarding Absalom, Absalom! “The work of memory culminates in Quentin and Shreve’s cold dormitory room, where the highly personal meaning Quentin draws from the reconstructed story leaves him panting in the dark as he recalls a South he can neither forget nor disavow” (Fennell, 40). Like Sethe, Quentin seeks freedom; he does this by going to University, and like Sethe, he not only can’t, but also doesn’t want to escape the memories.
Shreve’s comments on Quentin’s relationship with the south are meant to help him with clarity. He says:
“You were not supposed to know when and why you left, but only that you had escaped, that whatever power had created the place for you to hate it had likewise got you away from the place so you could hate it good and never forgive it… that you were to thank god you didn’t remember anything about it yet at the same time you were not to, maybe dared not to, ever forget it’” (239).
Unfortunately his words fall on deaf ears. Fennell goes on again to say:
“But the influence of the memory of Sutpen is still not finished; it presumably continues to work on Quentin’s mind, interweaving itself with Quentin’s own troubling memories of Caddy as he moves closer and closer to suicide… despite all the pain that memory causes, Faulkner suggests that the prospect of forgetting is far worse… but if memory is a hedge against mortality and forgetting, it also exacts a price—the agonizing grief that the acknowledgment of loss entails… [Quentin Compson finds] the price of memory too high, he drowns himself and extinguishes the memories he alone held of his beautiful, lost sister” (46-47).
In The Sound and the Fury, Quentin’s father gives him his grandfather’s watch and says, “I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all your breath trying to conquer it” (76). Quentin is afraid of the passage of time, because with it comes forgetting, and he doesn’t want to forget. Quentin’s father hopes that the watch will keep Quentin in the present, instead of being fixated on the past, an obsession that ultimately drives him to suicide.
As complicated as it may be to read Faulkner or Morrison, it is no wonder their work is held in such high regard. While Morrison’s stories can be hard on the heart to read—her characters suffer brutal realities at the hands of those completely bankrupt of common sense and compassion—novels like Song of Solomon and Beloved leave us with hope and understanding amidst our grief. Faulkner’s characters aren’t as lucky—or at least not as hopeful; but sometimes that’s the reality. Once a person is broken, sometimes he or she can never put him or herself back together again, regardless of any support or encouragement received.
When the past comes haunting, there are times when we can get a hold of ourselves, have a moment of clarity and really see what it is causing us to do to ourselves or our loved ones—and as G.I. Joe said, “knowing is half the battle.” Faulkner and Morrison both understand this, and, in their own greatly differing ways, have approached the importance of the past in the hopes, I like to think, of leading us to the clearing.
NOTE: All photos are my own and taken with either my Fuji Finepix SL1000 or my iPhone.
Chodorow, Nancy. “Pre-Oedipal Gender Configurations.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004. Print.
Dupré, Louis. “Alienation and Redemption Through Time and Memory: An Essay on Religious Time Consciousness.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion. Vol. 43. No. 4 (1975): pp. 671-679. JSTOR. Web. August, 2014.
Faulkner, William. Absalom, Absalom! New York: Vintage International, 1986. Print.
Faulkner, William. “The Bear.” The Portable Faulkner. Ed. Malcolm Cowley. New York: Viking Press, 1946. 177-288. Print.
Faulkner, William. The Sound and the Fury. New York: Vintage International, 1984. Print.
Fenell, Lee Anne. “Unquiet Ghosts: Memory and Determinism in Faulkner.” The Southern Literary Journal. Vol. 31. No. 2 (1999): pp. 35-49. JSTOR. Web. August, 2014.
Haight, David and Marjorie. “Time, Memory, and Self-Remembering.” The Journal of Speculative Philosophy. New Series, Vol. 3. No. 1 (1989): pp. 1-11. JSTOR. Web. August, 2014.
Nyberg, Lars, et al. “Consciousness of Subjective Time in the Brain.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Vol. 107. No. 51 (2010): pp. 22356-22359. JSTOR. Web. August, 2014.
Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Vintage, 1987. Print.
Morrison, Toni. Song of Solomon. New York: Vintage, 1977. Print.
Morrison, Toni. Interview by Angels Carabi (Toni Morrison’s Beloved: ‘And the Past Achieved Flesh’). Revista de Estudios Norteamericanos. No. 2 (1993): pp. 105-115. JSTOR. Web. August, 2014.
Porter, Stephen and Kristine A. Peace. “The Scars of Memory.” Psychological Science. Vol. 18. No. 5 (2007): pp. 435-441. JSTOR. Web. August, 2014.
Samuels, Wilfred D. and Clenora Hudson-Weems. “’Ripping the Veil’: Meaning Through Rememory in Beloved.” Toni Morrison. New York: Twain, 1990. Print.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. “On The Sound and the Fury: Time in the Work of Faulkner.” The Humanities and Fine Arts Digital Research Center. University of Saskatchewan. Web. August, 2014.
Whitbourne, Susan Krauss, Ph.D. “The Definitive Guide to Guilt: The Five Types of Guilt and How You Can Cope With Each.” Psychology Today, 11 Aug. 2012. Web. August, 2014.