Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
A man suffers because modernity has liquidated all the traditions that once gave stable significance and communal support to individual lives. He violently lashes out at others and at himself in his balked longing to return to the matrix of meaning from which modern selfishness and atomization have banished him. Can he get back to the garden—and if he can’t, can he live?
As Hamlet and Don Quixote, this story sits at the heart of the modern western literary canon. Because this canon is said to have abetted the oppression it otherwise seems to protest, however, readers are encouraged to seek their literary pleasures elsewhere—in Ceremony, for instance, Leslie Marmon Silko’s classic 1977 first novel, an explicitly counter-canonical spell against the white man’s reign cast on behalf of the Indians of the American Southwest. Its story? A man suffers because modernity has liquidated all the traditions that once gave etc. etc. Literature exists to give particular expression to universal dilemmas, but Silko offers something more ambiguous: a particularist manifesto, with all the danger that has always come with particularist solutions to modern problems.
Ceremony begins after World War II. Its hero, Tayo, is a traumatized veteran who’d been a prisoner of the Japanese. Now back at his home on a Pueblo reservation, he alternates between bedbound flashbacks and bouts of riotous drinking with his friends, also veterans, who spend their days boasting of the white women they’d bedded on their way to the Pacific and getting into bar brawls. Tayo himself is racially mixed; his mother had him with an unknown white man before leaving him with his aunt to spare him her dissolute lifestyle. Tayo’s aunt’s son, Robert, was by contrast the family’s golden boy, destined to leave the community, go to college, and attain the American dream; but Robert died in the war, and now the resentful, pious aunt is forced to look after her nephew, whom she, along with others in the community, scorns for his status as “half-breed.”
Tayo suffers not only from the trauma of the war, but also from the loss, while he was overseas, of his wise uncle and father-figure, Josiah. Before leaving to fight, he’d promised to help Josiah breed a head of cattle the older man had purchased through his Mexican lover, a dancer called the Night Swan; but Josiah died before Tayo returned and the cattle have vanished. Before going off to fight, Tayo himself had made love to the Night Swan; she assured him that their shared racially-mixed heritage was a blessing, despite the fearful projections of others:
“They are afraid, Tayo. They feel something happening, they can see something happening around them, and it scares them. Indians or Mexicans or whites—most people are afraid of change. They think that if their children have the same color of skin, the same color of eyes, that nothing is changing.”
As Tayo’s trauma worsens, Tayo’s grandmother convinces his aunt to consult a local medicine man, which begins a healing process that leads Tayo to the titular ceremony in the hills above Gallup, New Mexico. There an even more powerful medicine man, Betonie, shows him his destiny inscribed in the land and the stars. Betonie tells him:
“They don’t understand. We know these hills, and we are comfortable here.” There was something about the way the old man said the word “comfortable.” It had a different meaning—not the comfort of big houses or rich food or even clean streets, but the comfort of belonging with the land, and the peace of being with these hills.
Tayo goes on a night mission to recover Josiah’s cattle from a white man’s ranch and eventually finds salvation in the arms of a mysterious woman named Ts’eh, who, like Betonie, is a gatherer and healer. The novel reaches its climax when Tayo’s old cronies, fearing and resenting his transformation, hunt him to an abandoned uranium mine where the resources used to build the A-bomb were extracted. He renounces the way of violence, however, and refuses to fight them, leaving them to the gruesome fates they’ve prepared for themselves. At the end of the novel, he successfully reintegrates into his community.
While the story can be summed up straightforwardly—it’s a traditional hero’s-journey Bildungsroman—Silko’s style is much more complex. She follows the disordered thoughts of her hero, sometimes enters other perspectives, and, most strikingly, interpolates long passages of poetry into the prose narrative. The verse narrates the novel’s mythic substructure, a Pueblo myth dreamed by the creator-deity “Thought-Woman, the spider” about the “witchery” that led to the birth and dominance of white men over the American continent and how this dire development might be undone. Despite its late-20th-century publication date, then, Ceremony echoes not only Hamlet and Don Quixote, but also modernist literature with its “mythic method,” where a gritty, chaotic, naturalistic surface style conceals an armature of myth and legend, as in Eliot’s use of the grail cycle in The Waste Land, Joyce’s appropriation of Homer in Ulysses, Faulkner’s reliance on Greek tragedy and Bible stories in multiple novels, etc. Silko also encompasses the coming-of-age tale’s linear narrative (a male-coded form, given its phallic forward thrust) within the cyclical patterns of female-governed nature: Tayo’s masculine quest is Thought-Woman’s revery, watched over by his grandmother and blessed by the erotic ministrations of the Night Swan and Ts’eh, just as the eponymous (male) journey to the lighthouse in Woolf is contained within the (female) artist’s culminating vision.
I insist on these antecedents not to charge Silko with lacking originality or authenticity—every writer I’ve named is a revisionist and bricoleur: culture is appropriation—but to query the novel’s own conviction that it strikes a blow against Europe when everything about it except the specific myth at its core is European. Though the Night Swan praises hybrid vigor and Betonie—himself mixed-race—warns Tayo, “you don’t write off all the white people, just like you don’t trust all the Indians,” and insists that the indigenous rituals must be renewed with changing times, the novel’s underlying myth nevertheless positions white people tout court as a cosmic mistake and reduces western civilization to the killing logic of atomization—
…the things the white doctors had yelled at him—that he had to think only of himself, and not about the others, that he would never get well as long as he used words like “we” and “us.”
—as if most of canonical western literature from Shakespeare and Cervantes forward were not a protest against just such reductionism. The question is what form one’s protest should take.
David Treuer, for one, harshly interrogates Silko’s protest in Native American Fiction: A User’s Manual, a 2006 polemic against Silko and other writers for passing off standard western fictional tropes as instances of Native American culture in their acclaimed novels, an imposture that, in Treuer’s view, both obscures the art of literature with irrelevant identity politics and allows white liberal readers to feel they’ve understood Indian cultures when the actual material practices that embody these cultures remain threatened by unglamorous matters of law and economics. Less kind to Silko than I am, he places Ceremony among contemporaneous kitsch:
The question of interpretation is a pesky one is general, and even peskier when we are confronted with material that looks different and seems different than that found in “mainstream” or “Western” literature. The mythic material in Ceremony, even the book itself, seems to come from some other place. But Ceremony hails from much closer to home (our shared modern home, that is) than we could have imagined. It is no accident that Tayo’s moral and sociopolitical predicaments mirror Luke Skywalker’s. He, like Skywalker, is an orphan of sorts, raised by his extended family. Like Skywalker, Tayo must choose between the good and the bad and is tempted up until the very end to go over to the dark side of the force. Like Skywalker his home is a very dry environment and both Luke and Tayo have their biggest moments of self-doubt in appropriately wet and humid environments. It is also no accident that both Star Wars and Ceremony came out in 1977. Even if all of that is coincidental, it is not accidental. Both stories are products of their time and the stories that surround them. It should be clear by now that the novel turns on psychological investigation, layered meaning and significance, and that it takes up many issues that are the stock and trade of the novel, not of the culture. Silko, however, sees her writing as Pueblo writing. Not just Native in spirit, but Native in fact…
This literal nativism raises certain unavoidable questions, despite Silko’s reputation among the right-thinking. For example, when Tayo comes to judge his fellow veterans for aggrandizing themselves as “Americans” rather than Indians by killing America’s Japanese enemies, and when he links the expropriation of the Southwest Indians to the development of the atom bomb dropped on Japan, Silko rewrites World War II as some kind of colonial venture (“the white people’s big war,” a medicine man calls it in the text), a nonsensical position she’s forced into lest she concede that imperialism, war, and genocide were hardly monopolized by Europe. Silko’s inadvertent redemption of Imperial Japan—and presumably also its allies in the struggle against American imperialism—also makes me question the novel’s metaphysic of land, narrative, and identity: “You don’t have anything / if you don’t have the stories.” In Ceremony, identity comes from the narrative traditions of one’s native land, and sickness is nothing less than deracination from this home plot, a rootlessness forced by cosmopolitan modernity and its textual (rather than oral) and universalist (rather than tribal) traditions:
He knew what white people thought about the stories. In school the science teacher had explained what superstition was, and then held the science textbook up for the class to see the true source of explanations. He had studied those books, and he had no reasons to believe the stories any more. The science books explained the causes and effects. But old Grandma always used to say, “Back in time immemorial, things were different, the animals could talk to human beings and many magical things still happened.” He never lost the feeling he had in his chest when she spoke those words, as she did each time she told them stories; and he still felt it was true, despite all they had taught him in school—that long long ago things had been different, and human beings could understand what the animals said…
I also reject scientistic arrogance and a lethal neglect of holistic comprehension. I hesitate, however, when a writer ties worldview inextricably to land and lineage, and even more when the universal is stigmatized as such by limiting it to the worst of its associations and applications. We confront here the discomforting difficulty that the “indigenous” is not a self-evidently harmless political category, as Elizabeth Chatterjee has recently written in the London Review of Books:
An earlier generation of environmentalists rejected such an emphasis on place and authenticity as irrevocably tainted by its links to Heidegger, and by extension Nazism. As they might have predicted, contemporary appeals to land and indigeneity have provided fertile ground for a return to racist lifeboat ethics. Anders Behring Breivik, who murdered 77 people around Oslo in 2011, insisted that the rhetoric of indigenous rights was ‘an untapped goldmine’ for white nationalists: ‘We are no more terrorists than Sitting Bull.’ Breivik himself was a climate denialist, but the nascent eco-fascist movement has found it easy to fuse his ethnic chauvinism with environmental concerns. ‘Green nationalism is the only true nationalism,’ the Christchurch attacker wrote.
When we encounter a reflux of romantic nationalism in a Native American text—as we do because, Treuer reminds us, Native American literature is a modern literature—why are we expected to nod along cheerfully, even though it rightly disturbs us when we find it in the likes of Heidegger or Yeats (who also, we might remember, enlisted indigenous myth on behalf of a colonized and dispossessed people)? I contend that such courteous indifference to political dynamite is the patronizing gesture par excellence of the white liberal. We only quarrel with those we regard as equals; with those we consider inferior, we smile politely no matter what they say—because what do we have to fear from them? It is indecent not to pay a writer the respect of taking her ideas seriously.
Still, I might not insist on a political quarrel if Ceremony were a more arresting novel. Much of what I’ve said above applies equally to Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, another 1977 release (Morrison, by the way, was Treuer’s professor at Princeton); yet in my essay on that novel, I was too enthused by Morrison’s page-by-page and sentence-by-sentence inventiveness to bother contesting the ideology Morrison intended that inventiveness to transmit; to put it another way, Morrison writes so well that she shows me who I would be if I believed what she believed, an important service rendered to humanity by the imaginative writer, which is why no ideology whatsoever should be banned in literature. And even though Treuer censures Louise Erdrich for the same reason he chides Silko, I would compare her often uproariously unpredictable fiction to Morrison’s. By contrast, Ceremony, despite its structural intelligence, is overwhelmingly lugubrious and didactic; it leaves me little to do but argue with its questionable claims to absolute cultural singularity and troubling incantations to the holiness of blood and soil.