Written By Elizabeth Palmer
Sigmund Freud writes that the uncanny is a distinct “class of…frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar.” He goes on to rhetorically ask how it is “possible…[for] the familiar [to] become uncanny and frightening.” What frightens us most are the things which we can almost recognize. Sometimes, that almost recognizable thing is memory. In Toni Morrison’s Beloved, the word “rememory” is used when the main character, Sethe, recalls moments that have been forgotten. She is faced with these uncanny re-memories—moments that are not quite familiar because they have been tucked away for so long—and at their sudden manifestation, becomes haunted by their existence.
At first glance, the reader may interpret the word “rememory” off as a part of Sethe’s colloquial language. However, Morrison’s story and word choice here is much more intentional than that. Morrison is clearly making a distinction between “rememory” and memory. Memory is a constant knowledge and represents the moments we willingly recall. “Rememory” addresses the recollection of the things that a person has forgotten and, as Freud puts it, repressed.
Multiple times throughout Beloved, Sethe’s mind recalls moments from her past. There are certain things that are always in her memory: her wedding, meeting the white girl who helps save her and Denver, the pink flecks in the headstone for her lost daughter. But Sethe’s “rememory” is something that catches her off guard. Specifically, it is the moments when Sethe recalls something that she forgot that she knew. Upon remembering the smell of her mother’s burning flesh and hair, Morrison writes:
“Sethe gathered hair from the comb and leaning back tossed it into the fire. It exploded into stars and the smell infuriated them. ‘Oh, my Jesus,’ she said and stood up so suddenly the comb she had parked in Denver’s hair fell to the floor. . .She had to do something with her hands because she was remembering something she had forgotten she knew” (73).
Just as after Sethe describes “rememory,” we see her experiencing the recollection. “Some things go on. Pass on. Some things just stay. I used to thing it was just my rememory. You know. Some things you forget. Other things you never do” (43).
It is safe to say that Morrison explores “rememory” as the repressed moments bubbling up from the deep. The things that we repressed are often the things that we are forced to remember, thus creating a haunting within our own minds—a haunting of memory and “rememory.”
Outside of the literary world, Freud’s analysis and definition of the uncanny and repressed paired with Morrison’s exploration of “rememory” (the recollection of the repressed) can be used to unpack personal hauntings. Often, the idea of the double and the uncanny is explored in relation to personal reflections. Admittedly, there are days I can stare in the mirror and not recognize the face staring back. When I was young, I would crawl onto the counter of my mother’s vanity, stare at my reflection, and speak to myself. I would repeat my name over and over until the word lost all meaning and it felt wrong and awkward coming from my tongue. That feeling of disconnect between knowing what should be familiar and not being able to recognize the familiarity is, in my opinion, the essence of the uncanny.
As children, any sort of repressed or incomprehensible fear can easily be manifested into an uncanny experience in order to process and understand trauma. While I was growing up, simultaneous to my conversations with my reflection (my “double”), I lived in an almost constant fear of my eldest brother. This was no instance of common sibling rivalry and taunting, but rather my adopted sibling has his own personal hauntings that manifested in anger and violence. There was a great deal of raised, angry voices—an experience which, to this day, still has the power to put me in an incontrollable state of fear, shakes, and tears. While the details of most of his actions remain either untold to me or locked away in my young memories, the fear of that angry, looming presence in my childhood home was always constant.
Of course it was not until later and, most recently, after exploring many readings, I have begun to distinctly recall and connect the uncanny fear I experienced within that home. As it has been quite sometime, I cannot differentiate between dream and reality of some of these recollections. However, there was always an uncanny fear produced from the shadows cast in doorways by the small, electric flame candles in the upstairs hallway. This looming, angry, and almost man shaped figure had a habit of haunting my dreams and keeping me sprinting from my bedroom to my parents’ at the end of the hall.
This is not to say that there was, in fact, a shadowy figure haunting the doorways of my home but that after eighteen years, there is still that image engraved in my brain. Sometimes, that image is pushed away, but repression does not cause something to simply disappear. Instead, it gets pushed down, tucked away under piles of better things. It is a hidden piece of our mind and being, but much like the baby in the house of Beloved demands to be noticed, repressed memories—re-memories—always demand to be noticed eventually.
Freud, Sigmund. “The ‘Uncanny.'” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: Norton, 2001. 929-52.
Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Vintage Books, 2004. Print.