Volume 3 Issue 6 - March 7, 2008
“The Penelope Work of Forgetting”: Dreams, Memory, and the Recovery of Wholeness in Joy Kogawa’s Obasan
Rufus Cook, Professor

Department of Foreign Languages and Literature, National Cheng Kung University
*Email: ernestrufus@yahoo.com

College Literature 34.3 (2007): 54-69. (A&HCI, SSCI)

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One striking characteristic of the world in which Naomi Nakane finds herself at the beginning of Kogawa’s Obasan is the fact that it is fragmented and disconnected.  At the most obvious level, the tight-knit social community that she knew as a child has been fractured and fragmented as a result of the forced dispersal and relocation of the Japanese immigrant community in the course of the war.  Knit “carefully into one blanket” by her parents’ marriage, her extended family has now been reduced to little more than “a few scattered skeins—the remains of what might once have been a fisherman’s net” (Kogawa 24-25).  Just as debilitating in its psychological effects is the polarization of values that prevails in her society, that pits speech against silence, gratitude against protest or resistance, the necessity of remembering against forgetting.  Should Naomi be grateful for the blessings that life in Canada has brought to her and her family or should she join in Aunt Emily’s protest again the abuses and injustices they have had to endure (Kogawa 50-51)?  It is indicative of the polarized moral and political atmosphere in which she finds herself that she doesn’t know which she is supposed to do, that she is torn between completely antithetical conceptions of herself.

If the fragmentation that Naomi is afflicted by can be explained in terms of the specific social and political situation in which she finds herself, however, it can also be explained in more general psychological terms as a result of her “entry into the symbolic order of language” (Magnusson 62), of her assumption of a phenomenal time-bound social identity.  From this point of view, the idyllic childhood world that she begins to recall in Chapters 9 and 10 is one in which the “rift” separating the child from its mother has not yet occurred (Kogawa 77), in which feelings still “flow freely in imaginary language.”  Only when she submits to the “phallic authority” of the father and takes her place as a separate individual in the symbolic social order (Brivic 28), is the child cut off from this “purer language” of desire and the “direct wordless possession of her mother” that goes with it (Magnusson 60, 61).  In Naomi’s case, of course, it is her guilty secret regarding her molestation by Old Man Gower that cuts her off from this “unmediated communication.”

Instead of the craving for social justice that Aunt Emily tries to instill in her, then, it is a longing for lost spiritual or psychological unity that that Naomi is mainly driven by.  Frustrated by the confusions and distortions involved in verbal communication (Cheung 133-139), she longs for the time, associated by Foucault with the “origin” (142-143), when feeling could be communicated directly, without the need for words.  Like Uncle Isamu as he dies, she longs to “tunnel backwards,” following the underground stream or one of the “astonishing tunnels” associated with Obasan (Kogawa 18-19), until she reaches that undifferentiated, preconscious level of experience described in the poetic prologue to the novel as a “sensate sea” or “amniotic deep” (n. pag.).  Since the “determinate symbolic language” separating her from her mother has not yet been imposed at this level of experience, she should be able to recapture the sense of  wholeness that she knew as a child, to recover what Walter Benjamin refers to as “the  original, the first happiness” (204).  The question, then, is how she can get back to this level of experience, how she can manage to go beyond “the phenomenal realm of names and forms” (Campbell 89).  The temporal escape that she imagines for her uncle takes place as he is dying, as his conscious rational mind undergoes dissolution, and it is my contention that a similar “annihilating fall into nothingness” (Miller 193) is required if Naomi herself is to escape, that she is cut off from wholeness mainly by her own ego, by her attachment to an illusory time-bound phenomenal identity (Campbell 88-89).  In the process of self-overcoming required of her, it is her dreams and “involuntary” or “spontaneous recollection” (Benjamin 202) that play the decisive role, not the packet of historical documents supplied by Aunt Emily.

Though Naomi’s escape from time and a fragmented temporal identity begins in her dreams with her realization that there is something beyond the “curtain” of mist or cloud that is “reaching out to [her]” or “straining to speak” (Kogawa 199, 35), it is in her capitulation to the flood of memories welling up involuntarily from her unconscious mind that she finally succeeds in “going beyond or getting outside [her]self” (Brivic 24).  Because they are a threat to her identity, confronting it with the prospect “of dispersion, of darkness, of indistinction, sleep, and death” (Miller 184), Naomi’s first reaction to this flood of memory is to resist it, to forestall what Benjamin refers to as the “Penelope work of forgetting” (Kogawa 202).  By the beginning of Chapter 15, however, she has surrendered almost completely to the demands of the past, and her memories are pouring back into her mind with an insistence that threatens to displace the present, “overwhelming it with the immediate presence of the past” (Miller 184).  What this flood of memories indicates in Seldon Brivic’s Lacanian terms is that Naomi is beginning to go beyond the limits imposed on her by her time-bound phenomenal identity, that the masculine “fixation” of time and space and logical identity is giving way to a “feminine flow” of ideas and images (Brivic 27, 45).  Like Stephen Dedalus at the end of each chapter in Portrait of the Artist, Naomi at this point is in “an area outside boundaries, an area swarming with the shifting of language” (Brivic 43).

Even from Benjamin’s point of view, “involuntary recollection” seems to involve  some sort of “area outside boundaries,” some sort of release from time and space and logical identity.  That is why he equates it with forgetting instead of remembering (202), because at the level at which it operates there is no framework in which a specific time or place or conceptual identity could be ascribed to an experience.  Involuntary memory does order experience, of course, but the “resemblances” or “correspondences” on the basis of which it does so are pre-rational in origin.  Benjamin refers to them as “opaque” (Kogawa 204) precisely because they have no intelligible conceptual foundation, no basis in “a principle of unity that precedes them” (Miller 8-9).  Because it operates outside the framework of time and space and logical identity, on the basis of preconscious  resemblances, involuntary memory has the power to short-circuit temporal or logical distinctions, to bring together experiences that from a rational point of view belong to completely separate categories of existence.  It is on this basis that Benjamin distinguishes between a remembered event and an experienced one: on the ground that the remembered event is “infinite” in its implications or associations, that it is interwoven at an unconscious level “with everything that happened before it and after it” (Benjamin 202).  Naomi’s inability to tell whether it is a “cluttered attic” in which she is sitting at the beginning of Chapter 15 or the train or waiting room she remembers from childhood is a perfect example of this capacity of involuntary memory to collapse distinctions of time and space, to overlay or superimpose “two temporally disparate sensations” (Lloyd 144).

Among the distinctions that the “Penelope work of forgetting” threatens to dissolve, however, one is the distinction of identity or selfhood.  If Naomi is to be reunited with her mother and other lost loved ones, she has to accept the annihilation that this entails for her time-bound phenomenal identity.  As Joseph Campbell warns in his discussion of “threshold guardians” (Kogawa 77-89), however, one’s phenomenal identity is defended by powerful psychological forces, represented in Naomi’s case by the soldiers and Grand Inquisitor that appear in her dreams (Kogawa 34-35, 73-74, 273-274).  Corresponding in Lacanian terms to the “phallic authority” of the father, the Inquisitor intervenes at precisely those points in her dreams when Naomi and her mother are about to be reunited (Kogawa 35, 273).  In her realization that the inquisitor’s interrogation of her mother is “a judgment and a refusal to hear” (Kogawa 273), however, Naomi also begins to understand the significance of her own aggressive questioning of her mother.  “Did I doubt her love?” she asks herself: “Am I her accuser?” (Kogawa 74).  It is this insight into her own motivation that finally frees Naomi, that enables her to finish “going beyond and getting outside [her]self.”  In calling an end to her “inquisition” at the end of Chapter 35, she is putting an end simultaneously to the obsessive self-concern that lies behind it, that has cut her off from the possibility of love, compassion, or spiritual communion. Up to this point in her life, Naomi has been baffled by “language” like Obasan’s or Uncle Isamu’s that “remains deeply underground” (Kogawa 39), that “hides like an animal in a storm” (Kogawa 4).  In leaving her time-bound phenomenal ego behind, however, she is also starting to go beyond the determinate symbolic language on which it is based.  When Nakayama-sensei admonishes her and Stephen to listen in her grandmother Kato’s letter to their mother’s voice (Kogawa 279), she is suddenly in a position to comply: to begin attending to all the “absent voices” and “wordless words” in her experience (Kogawa 289).  In particular, she finds herself able to “attend [her mother’s] speech” (Kogawa 289) and see her face (Kogawa 290), to “know [her] presence though [she is] not here” (Kogawa 292).  After a lifetime of loneliness and isolation, she feels that she has “turned and returned” to her loved one’s arms again in the closing chapters of the novel (Kogawa 295), that she has recaptured the sense of wholeness and integration that she knew as a child.  Even when she returns in the closing scene to the world of determinate phenomenal forms (Kogawa 296), she is still conscious of something “behind the field of appearances” that gives connection and coherence to experience.  Whether it is described in Lacanian terms as “the Other behind what can be seen” (Brivic 126) or in Benjamin’s as the “aura” of memory or “prehistory” (Benjamin 183-188), it is this unifying presence that Naomi has gained access to by capitulating to the pressure of her spontaneous memory.

Works Cited
  • Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. Ed. Hannah Arendt. Trans.  Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken, 1968.

  • Brivic, Roland. The Veil of Signs: Joyce, Lacan, and Perception. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1991.

  • Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Cleveland: World Publishing, 1956.

  • Cheung, King-Kok. Articulate Silences. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1993.

  • Foucault, Michel. Language, Counter-Memory, Practice. Ed. Donald F. Bouchard. Trans.  Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1977.

  • Kogawa, Joy. Obasan. 1981. New York: Doubleday, 1994.

  • Lloyd, Genevieve. Being in Time. London: Routledge, 1993.

  • Magnusson, Lynne. “Language and Longing in Joy Kogawa’s Obasan.” Canadian Literature. 116 (1988): 58-66.
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