Essay: You Only Live Twice by Anusree Ganguly

Anusree Ganguly writes a literary essay exploring two novels (Jagari & Beloved) highlighting how both are a window into deplorable social conditions and say something about the herculean courage of its men and women.

Two masterpieces – ‘Jagari’ (The Night Vigil, in Bengali) and ‘Beloved’ – but both have a common thought as its takeaway – to have an upside-down world, made awry by outside forces, put right by combating fear with courage, once, to taste life at its toughest and, two, sometimes to look death in the face. If Jagari (author: Satinath Bhaduri) answers the imperative of “Who’s awake?” with the spirit of the one who owns his mind, even if the body is not free to roam; then Beloved (author: Toni Morrison) answers the imperative of the ‘red heart’ – the love for all experiences, good or bad, intensified by the fear of desolation that inheres in love displaced – by answering the stirrings of ‘rememory’ with love for life, and sometimes for death. Jagari is not just the story of an imprisoned freedom-fighter’s family (each chapter a look into the strength of the human mind – the husband, wife and the two sons – in distress but never sinking in it); and Beloved is not just the story of a slave who is also a runaway from the unhappy condition of slavery. Both authors evince an interest in the human being as survivors against ailing times taking a fall in life without fear, yet arms opened wide for memories or ‘rememories’. 

In Jagari, the elder brother is in prison from the deposition by the younger brother belonging to a rival political group in the pre-independence era of India. Yet, the elder brother remembers their days in innocent play as more true-to-life than any sorrow in broken relationships and broken trust which he confronts with an intrepid mind and a stalwart heart:

The same Neelu, the same captain Neelu in half-pants barely covering his waist, the same ‘maachpatori’ Neelu, the same Neelu whose Dada is his word unto himself – that same being behaved in this way with me? I never expected such behaviour from him. ….Shame on him!

The next moment the elder brother revises his opinion and says:

What is this! How could I think like this?…The deep wound of the heart is perhaps no longer hidden under the ointment of foregone memories and the patina of logic. No, if I don’t understand Neelu right, then how would others do?

In Beloved, ‘rememory’ as depicted by Toni Morrison: is a metonymy, a poetic device, to imagine the person by an attribute of his so closely linked with his aura that the attribute becomes that person. For example, ‘Beloved’ is a metonym of surviving alienation at multiple levels by a slave: 

Pre-emption of lifetime to protect her children: Firstly, Sethe’s (the protagonist) dead, longed-after child is named Beloved who is the tussle in her between the right (that her children were hers to cherish, that “nobody going to keep me[Sethe, a slave] from my children” pp. 238) and the wrong (in most of Sethe’s life, and in Baby Suggs’, her mother-in-law, too, children were “moved around like checkers….run off or been hanged, got rented out, loaned out, bought up, brought back, stored up, mortgaged, won, stolen or seized.” and “that nobody stopped playing checkers just because the pieces included her[Baby Suggs] children” pp.28) bringing alienation in life and surviving it the pressing need, with the pre-emption of a lifetime, and beyond, to love and protect her children, just as she must wait a lifetime for ‘her boys’, Howard and Buglar, longing for them to return:

“when she scanned the fields every morning and every evening for her boys….Cloud shadow on the road, an old woman, a wandering goat untethered and gnawing bramble – each one looked at first like Howard – no, Buglar. Little by little she stopped and their thirteen-year-old faces faded completely into their baby ones, which came to her in sleep.”

Selfishness to outmanoeuvre slavery’s purpose: Secondly, Beloved – a picture of stubbornness in helplessness:

“A young colored woman drifting was drifting from ruin. He [Paul D] had been in Rochester four years ago and seen five women with fourteen female children. All their men – brothers, uncles, fathers, husbands, sons – had been picked off one by one by one. They had a single piece of paper directing them to a preacher on DeVore Street…”

Beloved, Vintage, pp 62

is the slave’s taking control over her life to survive slavery’s nameless dread: that, she is the one with “breeding years left” and her babies herds of slaves (most poignantly imagined in Sethe’s ‘rememory’ of Beloved leaving her pp. 308-309). Ensuing alienation as Sethe vacillates between a right (happiness of having babies and wanting to watch them grow up) and a wrong (her babies being measured up as breeding animals just as she [Sethe] had been when schoolteacher said “No. No. That’s not the way. I told you to put her [Sethe] human characteristics on the left; her animal characteristics on the right. And don’t forget to line them up.” pp. 228) was fought with the pre-emption of a selfishness to keep her babies with her, chance or no chance, when she runs and no looking back:

“I did it. I got us all out. Without Halle too. Up till then it was the only thing I ever did on my own. Decided. And it came right, like it was supposed to. We was here. Each and every one of my babies and me too. I birthed them and I got em out and it wasn’t no accident. I did that. I had help, of course, lots of that, but still it was me doing it; me saying, Go on, and Now. Me having to look out. Me using my own head. But it was more than that. It was a selfishness I never knew nothing about before.

(pp. 190) 

Possessiveness to survive Disenfranchisement of motherlove: Thirdly, once she is at House ‘124’, Beloved – the picture of one who knows her belongingness for she vouches “She (Sethe) is the one. She is the one I need. You[Denver] can go but she is the one I have to have (pp. 89)” and, therefore, she is ‘smiling’ (pp. 60) – is the pre-emption of possessiveness now resolving the disenfranchisement of motherlove in the past in slavery (most potently signified by ‘they took my milk!’ (pp. 20): ‘breastmilk’ Sethe had never had enough, given white babies had right to it first, when she nursed from Nan, because the mother was in rice fields; and then, when she was nursed by ‘mossy teeth’ taking the milk she had had for her baby). Grappling with a right (Ma’am loved her according to Nan: “She[Sethe’s mother] threw them all away but you. The one from the crew she threw away on the island. The others from more whites she also threw away. Without names, she threw them. You she gave the name of a black man. She put her arms around him. The others she did not put her arms around. Never.”) vis-à-vis a wrong (she didn’t remember her Ma’am. “I didn’t see her but a few times out in the fields and once when she was working indigo. By the time I woke up in the morning, she was in line. She must have nursed me two or three weeks – that’s the way the others did. Then she went back in rice and I sucked from another woman whose job it was.”) brought only alienation and, to survive it, the unfurling of Sethe’s heart’s possessiveness over her children that had no place for anything else:

“That’s the way it is, Paul D. I can’t explain it to you no better than that, but that’s the way it is. If I have to choose – well, it’s not even a choice.
“That’s the point. The whole point. I’m not asking you to choose. Nobody would. I thought – well, I thought you could – there was some space for me.” 

Anger to survive disavowal of motherlove: Lastly, once Beloved pushes out Paul D from ‘124’ while tolerating Denver, Beloved – the picture of motherlove claimed – is the slave’s anger against a punitive system given shape to survive disavowal of motherlove (most prominently witnessed in the mother scaring the child by showing her ‘the circle and cross’ burnt under her breast, her sorrow of motherlove endowed and wasted sunk below the sorrow of a bloodline decimated, as she said “This is your ma’am. This, ‘and she pointed. ‘I am the only one got this mark now. The rest dead. If something happens to me and you can’t tell me by my face, you can know me by this mark.”.) As Sethe struggled between a right (that, there is no need for words to unravel the code, that is in motherlove implicitly understood when a mother nurses her child, as Beloved’s touch [“no heavier than a feather but loaded, nevertheless, with desire”] and her eyes [“the longing she saw there was bottomless. Some plea barely in control”] hunger for Sethe’s touch and love but in which storytelling must suffice as ‘a way to feeding her’.  pp. 69) and a wrong (Ma’am’s love for Sethe was upto Nan to recount and upto Sethe to remember but “what Nan told her she had forgotten, along with the language she told it in. The same language her ma’am spoke, and which would never come back. But the message – that was and been there all along. Holding the damp white sheets against her chest, she was picking meaning out of a code she no longer understood.” pp. 74) the alienation was obviated with anger ‘she was uncertain at what’, against a predatory system or those who are its prey. 

In “Toni Morrison’s Beloved: History, “Rememory,” and a “Clamor for a Kiss” (American Literary History, Spring, 1995, Vol. 7, No. 1 (Spring, 1995), pp. 92- 119), author Caroline Rody writes:

For Sethe a “rememory” (an individual experience) hangs around as a “picture” that can enter another’s “rememory” (the part of the brain that “rememories”) and complicate consciousness and identity. “Rememory” as trope postulates the interconnectedness of minds, past and present…”

“places, places are still there. If a house burns down, it’s gone, but the places – the picture of it – stays, and not just in my rememory, but out there, in the world….. The picture is still there and what’s more, if you go there – you who was never there – if you go there and stand in the place where it was, it will happen again; it will be there for you, waiting for you. So, Denver, you can’t never go there. Never.” (Beloved, pp 43)

Caroline Rody says: “She (the author Toni Morrison) must work to “rememory” these ancestors who wish they could forget. In the absence of their particular faces, she must create the characters she wants to mourn…. ‘Rememory’ transforms memory into a property of consciousness with the heightened imaginative power sufficient to the ethnic historical novel’s claim to represent the past.”

This essay amplifies upon this ‘rememory’ by reorienting it so that it’s right at the centre of literary imagination as the mind identifies with and connects to the familiar and, then, pours out in pensive glory. Metonymy [metōnumiā] is a part of speech that properly applies to one thing but indicates [sēmainei] another thing by way of what is familiar [oikeion] to it. For example: ‘they were holding [the meat to be roasted] over Hēphaistos’ instead of ‘[they were holding the meat to be roasted] over the fire’. That is because fire is familiar [oikeion] to [the god of fire] Hēphaistos.

  • Scholia for Dionysius of Thrace Ars Grammatica 461.5 Hilgard[5]

in Nagy, Gregory. 2015. Masterpieces of Metonymy: From Ancient Greek Times to Now. Hellenic Studies Series 72. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

When Sethe withdrew into her introverted world where she is claimed by Beloved – the picture of her anger – Sethe preempts the risk to Denver by rememorizing losing Beloved. Beloved’s hands are in Sethe’s as the latter dangles between the right (the absence of fear in the singing women that Sethe who had tried to kill her children loves them whom she shows off: ‘It’[the devil-child, who stood next to Sethe holding her hand] had taken the shape of a pregnant woman “naked and smiling in the heat of the afternoon sun. Thunder-black and glistening, she stood on long straight legs, her belly big and tight. Vines of hair twisted all over her head. Jesus. Her smile was dazzling.”) and the wrong (school teacher returning, “his black hat wide-brimmed enough to hide his face but not his purpose. He is coming into her yard and he is coming for her best thing.) and there is alienation with an overpowering need to survive its ominous portent: her children getting marked by the circle and cross, a sign of body and mental torture.

“she hears wings. Little hummingbirds stick needle beaks right through her head cloth into her hair and beat their wings. And, if she thinks anything, it is no. No, no. Nonono. She flies. The ice pick is not in her hand; it is her hand.” 

Sethe sees Denver who is her face running towards the “hill of black people, falling. And above them all, rising from his place with a whip in his hand, the man without skin, looking. He is looking at her.” pp. 308-309), to find her marked mother hanged for running away, falling lifeless on the pile, and she is running towards targeted body torture that is in a circle and a cross burnt on your child’s skin with “a hot thing” (pp 255) and “the picture” [the rememory – oscillating between a mother’s love, plausibly, and it leaving no imprint on the mind because the mother pushed her away] is reset into motion, but this time for Denver. Sethe must now kill the schoolteacher to finally don the mantle of Death, her hand the tool of extinction, her lap the place where her babies are forever safe. And, finally, to reunite with Beloved, standing alone on the porch, empty handed but smiling (contented), her doubts resolved that her mother really loved her who wouldn’t leave her to the mercy of them with the power to hurt her.

“There is always something more interesting at stake than a clear resolution in a novel. I’m interested in survival – who survives and who does not, and why – and I would like to chart a course that suggests where the dangers are and where the safety might be. I do not want to bow out with easy answers to complex questions.”

  • Toni Morrison 

(qtd. in Nellie McKay, “An interview with Toni Morrison.”)


Anusree Ganguly is a poet and essayist, short fiction writer and translator (Bengali to English), widely anthologized in prestigious literary journals like Indian Literature (Sahitya Akademi), The Festival Issue (The Statesman), The Journal (The Poetry Society of India) and elsewhere. She lives and works in Kolkata, West Bengal.  

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