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Lingua e letterature angloamericane, I Modulo

Coming from the shadows


Il modulo sar dedicato alla lettura e al commento di tre testi di scrittrici degli Stati Uniti, pubblicati negli anni
Settanta, che affrontano il tema del trauma e del suo superamento da una prospettiva femminile. Le autrici in
questione sono Joan Didion, Toni Morrison e Leslie Marmon Silko. Nello specifico, i temi della guerra, della
violenza, e della diversit etnica e sessuale saranno analizzati in rapporto alla societ degli Stati Uniti di
quegli anni.
BIBLIOGRAFIA
richiesta la lettura analitica dei tre testi primari. Dei testi indicati nella bibliografia storico-critica
richiesto lo studio dei testi numero 1, 2, 6, 10 e 14 e di un testo a scelta per ciascun romanzo (uno tra
i nn. 3, 4, 5; uno tra i nn. 7, 8, 9; uno tra i nn. 11, 12, 13). Il testo n. 14, insieme agli schemi riportati in
fondo (riadattamento di testi esistenti sul romanzo) una guida alla lettura di Ceremony.
Testi primari (qualsiasi edizione integrale e in lingua inglese; i tre testi sono disponibili nelle biblioteche
dAteneo):
Joan Didion, Play It as It Lays (1970)
Toni Morrison, Sula (1973)
Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony (1977)
Bibliografia storico-critica:
1. Maria Cristina Iuli, Gli anni Settanta? Un universo parallelo, Enthymema, VII, 2012, pp. 275-284.
2. Jennifer Brady, Joan Didion, in Marshall Boswell and Carl Rollyson, eds, Encyclopedia of American
Literature. 1607 to the Present, Facts on File, New York, 2008, pp. 320-323.
3. David J. Geherin, Nothingness and Beyond: Joan Didion's Play It As It Lays, Critique, 16: 1, 1974, pp.
64-78.
4. Cynthia Griffin Wolff, "Play It as It Lays: Didion and the Diver Heroine, Contemporary Literature, 24: 4,
1983, pp. 480-495
5. Cinzia Scarpino, I, the Implacable I: lopera di Joan Didion negli anni Settanta, Enthymema, VII, 2012,
pp. 453-472.
6. Marshall Boswell, Toni Morrison, in Marshall Boswell and Carl Rollyson, eds, Encyclopedia of American
Literature. 1607 to the Present, Facts on File, New York, 2008, pp. 773-776.
7. Cedric Gael Bryant, The Orderliness of Disorder: Madness and Evil in Toni Morrison's Sula, Black
American Literature Forum, 24: 4, 1990, pp. 731-745.
8. Rita A. Bergenholtz, Toni Morrison's Sula: A Satire on Binary Thinking, African American Review, 30: 1,
1996, pp. 89-98.
9. Marie Nigro, In Search of Self: Frustration and Denial in Toni Morrison's Sula, Journal of Black Studies,
28: 6, 1998, pp. 724-737.
10. Marshall Boswell, Leslie Marmon Silko, in Marshall Boswell and Carl Rollyson, eds, Encyclopedia of
American Literature. 1607 to the Present, Facts on File, New York, 2008, pp. 1060-1061.
11. Nancy Gilderhus, The Art of Storytelling in Leslie Silko's Ceremony, The English Journal, 83: 2, 1994,
pp. 70-72.
12. Dennis Cutchins, So That the Nations May Become Genuine Indian: Nativism and Leslie Marmon
Silkos Ceremony, Journal of American Culture, 2: 4, 1999, pp. 77-89,
13. Aaron Derosa, Cultural Trauma, Evolution, and Americas Atomic Legacy in Silkos Ceremony, Journal
of Literary Theory, 6:1, 2012, pp. 41-64.
14. Laura Coltelli, Leslie Marmon Silko, in Allan Chavkin, ed., Leslie Marmon Silkos Ceremony. A
Casebook, Oxford UP, Oxford 2002, pp. 241-255.
Sulle tre autrici pu essere inoltre utile la consultazione del volume Guida alla letteratura degli Stati Uniti.
Percorsi e protagonisti 1945-2014 (di Cinzia Scarpino, Cinzia Schiavini, Sostene M. Zangari, Odoya,
Bologna 2014), disponibile nella Biblioteca di Scienze del linguaggio (collocazione: 1DIDATTICA
LETTERATURA 056).

Gli anni Settanta? Un universo parallelo?


Maria Cristina Iuli

Gli anni Settanta? Un universo parallelo


Maria Cristina Iuli

Universit degli Studi del Piemonte Orientale Amedeo Avogadro - Vercelli

Abstract
Visti dalla prospettiva del presente, gli anni Settanta sembrano inscritti in un paradosso. Chiaramente identificati con larco di anni compresi tra il 1968 e il 1980, secondo una cronologia che
coincide perfettamente in Europa e negli Stati Uniti, non presentano alcun problema di periodizzazione. E tuttavia, la chiusura cronologica che contrassegna il decennio differenziandolo nettamente da quanto venuto prima (i Sessanta) e dopo (gli Ottanta) dissolta dal campo di forze,
idee, nei nessi di tensioni sociali e elaborazioni teoriche che ne hanno alimentato lesperienza storica senza tuttavia essere contenute, risolte o esaurite entro il perimetro della cornice temporale
che li designa. Questa sezione speciale di Enthymema offre un primo tentativo di ricognizione
sul campo di ci che resta di quellesperienza nelle estetiche, nelle poetiche e nella teoria del presente.1
Parole chiave
Contatti
Anni Settanta, partecipazione, collettivi, segno, potere
cristina.iuli@lett.unipmn.it

1. Gli anni Settanta? Un universo parallelo


Cos li definisce Lenny Lenny Kaye nellintervista raccolta da Cristina Garrigos e Roberto Soler per questa rassegna sugli anni Settanta. E aggiunge, a proposito della scena
musicale Newyorchese: Non che fosse una controcultura nel senso di ribellione, nel
senso di dire, la societ fa cos, allora noi facciamo il contrario. che pi che altro era un
universo parallelo.
Visti dalla prospettiva del presente, gli anni Settanta sembrano inscritti in un paradosso. Da un lato, non presentano alcun problema di periodizzazione, in quanto unanimemente e chiaramente identificati con larco di anni compresi tra il 1968 e il 1969, secondo
una cronologia che coincide perfettamente in Europa e negli Stati Uniti. Dallaltro lato,
tuttavia, la chiusura cronologica che contrassegna il decennio differenziandolo nettamente da quanto venuto prima (i Sessanta) e dopo (gli Ottanta), dissolta dal campo di
forze e idee, e nei nessi di tensioni sociali e elaborazioni teoriche che ne hanno alimentato lesperienza storica senza tuttavia essere contenuti, risolti o esauriti entro il perimetro
della cornice temporale che li designa. Gli anni Settanta un universo parallelo inferiore
o superiore alla linearit della successione di eventi che ha fatto scorrere per circa dodici
anni attraverso molti paesi occidentali una quantit di energia sociale senza precedenti
nelle societ democratiche ebbero inizio a Parigi, nel maggio 1968, e terminarono in
Italia, nellottobre 1980. Come noto, levento del Maggio 1968 e la catena contagiosa di
effetti trasformativi e progressisti che innesc in ogni aspetto della vita politica, sociale e
1

Desidero ringraziare tutta la redazione di Enthymema per il lavoro svolto con grande professionalit e
per lassistenza generosamente e pazientemente donatami nella preparazione di questa sezione speciale.

Enthymema, VII 2012, p. 275


http://riviste.unimi.it/index.php/enthymema

Gli anni Settanta? Un universo parallelo


Maria Cristina Iuli

culturale in Francia e in Italia, ebbe inizio con la protesta degli studenti per estendersi poi
ai lavoratori, alle donne e a settori sempre pi ampi della corpo sociale. Segn il debutto
di un nuovo tipo di partecipazione politica di massa che metteva in dubbio ogni forma di
potere istituzionale, di assoggettamento, contestava lerezione di rigide barriere sociali, si
proponeva di disgregare la logica riproduttiva della segregazione economica e sociale in
ogni ambito della vita sociale e portava sulla scena politica nuovi soggetti sociali: gli studenti, le donne, i lavoratori, gli artisti. Questo movimento contagioso di idee e corpi attravers le barriere di classe e genere, e fin spesso per incorporare o fondersi con altri
movimenti e altre istanze, come quelle femministe, ad esempio, o ambientaliste, o con le
rivendicazioni dei collettivi artistici e le lotte sindacali. Era portatore di un profondo impulso democratico che trasform la politica apportandovi tutta una serie di questioni
lasciate irrisolte o represse dallorganizzazione formale delle democrazie rappresentative,
e innesc un profondo processo di revisione delle relazioni sociali. Sollev, anzitutto, il
problema della distanza tra la realizzazione personale e individuale, tra la felicit del soggetto e le logiche di assoggettamento realizzate attraverso le strutture sociali e istituzionali (la scuola, la famiglia, il partito). In secondo luogo, pose il problema della protezione,
estensione e attualizzazione concreta dei principi democratici in ogni aspetto della vita
affettiva, personale, e sociale; infine evidenzi la necessit di difendere la libert e la libert di espressione e di scelta dellindividuo e la sua autodeterminazione contro il potere
arbitrario e intrusivo dello stato.
Il progetto di democrazia radicale che emerse dalle lotte degli anni 70 implicava la ridefinizione delle identit individuali e collettive in relazione alle dimensioni pubblica e
privata dellesperienza storica, e comportava una parallela ridefinizione delle differenze di
genere, classe e cultura. Questo progetto termin in Italia nel 1980, anno segnato da due
eventi che chiusero simbolicamente il decennio, racchiudendone le molte contraddizioni
e storie segrete. Il primo, il 2 agosto, fu lesplosione di una bomba alla stazione di Bologna, che uccise 85 persone e ne fer pi di 200. Il secondo fu la marcia dei 40,000 che il
14 ottobre port in piazza a Torino 40 mila tra quadri e impiegati dipendenti FIAT per
protestare contro lo sciopero degli operai che si stava protraendo da 35 giorni. Quella
manifestazione segn la fine del protagonismo operaio e linizio della perdita di potere di
quella figura che era stata al centro della scena economica, politica e culturale per tutti gli
anni Settanta, e ristabil lordine tra classi sociali e ripristinando rigidi rapporti di potere.2
Negli Stati Uniti linizio degli anni Settanta fu segnato da tre eventi che diversamente da quanto avvenne in Europa segnarono la fine della mobilitazione sociale progressista degli anni Sessanta e santificarono il ruolo della televisione come principale medium
nazionale.3 Loffensiva del Tet in Vietnam, a gennaio, fu il primo di questi eventi. Port
sugli schermi televisivi delle famiglie americane le contraddizioni tra il discorso politico
C un significativo consenso tra storici, scienziati politici, e testimoni nel collocare linizio degli anni
Settanta italiani con la Strage di Piazza Fontana avvenuta il 12 dicembre 1969, quando una bomba
collocata nella sede della Banca Nazionale dellAgricoltura, nel centro di Milano, uccise 16 persone e
ne fer pi di 80. Quella strage, come noto, segna linizio della cosiddetta strategia della tensione,
una serie di stragi perpetrate da gruppi di matrice neofascista collegati ad apparati deviati dello stato
nel tentativo di creare una richiesta popolare di un governo forte. Lassenza a tuttoggi di una verit
storica, politica e giudiziaria conclusiva su questa stagione di stragi impedisce lelaborazione di una
memoria storica condivisa sugli anni Settanta, come hanno evidenziato gli storici che si sono occupati
di quel periodo. Si veda, su questo, De Luna (2009), Moro (2005), Crainz (2003).
3 Nel saggio La gravit dei Settanta: reticolarit e dissidenza in Gravitys Rainbow (1973) di Thomas
Pynchon, Pamela Mansutti ricostruisce in maggiore dettaglio il passaggio dagli anni Sessanta ai Settanta negli Stati Uniti.
2

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Maria Cristina Iuli

pubblico e le azioni militari, esponendo alla nazione le menzogne del governo sul Vietnam e sul ruolo degli Stati Uniti in quella guerra. Il secondo, il 4 aprile, fu lassassinio del
Reverendo Martin Luther King, Jr., terzo omicidio politico degli anni Sessanta, la cui
conta si sarebbe alzata di una testa il 5 giugno dello stesso anno, quando a Los Angeles
venne ucciso anche il Senatore Robert Kennedy, in corsa alle primarie per linvestitura
alla candidatura presidenziale nel partito Democratico. Questi eventi influenzarono profondamente il rapporto tra i cittadini e il potere e la cultura ufficiale. La televisione espose chiaramente il nesso tra media e rappresentazione e lo scarto tra rappresentazione e
realt, intensificando ulteriormente lo scetticismo nei confronti della supposta neutralit
del linguaggio, dellattendibilit delle informazioni, e della credibilit delle istituzioni di
potere. Sfiducia e scetticismo nei confronti del governo non fecero che aumentare nel
corso degli anni Settanta, con laffiorare dei Pentagon Papers, dello scandalo Watergate e con
lemergere di centri di potere segreti che esulavano dal controllo delle istituzioni democratiche. La fine brutale di una stagione di azioni civili e movimenti di massa facilit
lintensificarsi del conflitto sociale, che si radicalizz gi nella prima met del decennio e
gener una serie di gruppi armati militanti, come i Weathermen Underground e il Black Panthers Party.4 Il sipario finale sui Settanta negli Stati Uniti lo cal la rivoluzione islamica in
Iran e la crisi degli ostaggi nellAmbasciata Americana a Teheran, che si concluse con un
fallimento diplomatico internazionale per gli Stati Uniti e la sconfitta personale irrecuperabile dellallora Presidente Jimmy Carter. La lunga crisi economica che invest il paese
nel 1980 e lelezione del repubblicano Ronald Reagan a Presidente lo stesso anno segnarono linizio di una diversa fase storica.

2. Immaginazione e potere
Nonostante la nota di delusione su cui si chiusero, gli anni Settanta innescarono una serie
di trasformazioni e di riforme di impatto sociale, politico e culturale decisivo, i cui effetti
superano ampiamenti i limiti della periodizzazione storica, e su cui il giudizio resta problematicamente sospeso, in bilico tra un senso di crisi e fallimento e un senso di realizzazione. Bench siano ricordati come lepoca della prima crisi petrolifera, della recessione
economica peggiore della seconda parte del ventesimo secolo, o come il decennio della
violenza e della conseguente repressione da parte dello Stato e gli anni delle penetrazione
di droghe pesanti e economicamente accessibili nelle culture dopposizione e giovanili, gli
anni Settanta vanno anche ricordati per il lungo elenco di riforme sociali progressiste che
li hanno caratterizzati. In Italia, Francia e negli Stati Uniti vennero promulgate leggi su
questioni di grande impatto sociale, come divorzio, aborto, diritto del lavoro, assistenza
sanitaria, tutela ambientale, obiezione di coscienza, sostegno alle minoranze.
Ma nessun elenco di risultati e fallimenti e nessuna sequenza di eventi storici pu
spiegare la fenomenale partecipazione di massa allorganizzazione della vita pubblica che
ha caratterizzato lesperienza storica del decennio. La rivendicazione di una gestione diretta della vita sociale, politica e culturale, e le tensioni tra le forze sociali progressiste e
conservatrici che hanno definito lantagonismo politico degli anni Settanta sono difficilmente immaginabili, oggi, dalla terminologia scarna di cui ci serviamo a cui ci siamo
progressivamente abituati per descrivere lambiente sociale, per articolare il discorso
politico e per immaginare il futuro personale e collettivo. Come stato fatto notare,
4

Bailey and Farber (2004); Schulman (2001); Bergamini (2010).

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Maria Cristina Iuli

lassenza di un vocabolario concettuale adeguato alla descrizione degli anni Settanta lascia
il passato compreso in quel decennio sospeso in una nube di sovradeterminazioni ideologiche che condizionano la composizione di una memoria pubblica condivisa e impediscono la rielaborazione delle contraddizioni irriducibili che allepoca si erano determinate
tra aspettative individuali e sociali e contrazioni e chiusure politiche e economiche.5 La
mancanza di un concetto interpretativo degli anni Settanta blocca la formulazione di
unipotesi complessiva sulla relazione tra esperienza storica e la logica delle sue articolazioni in diverse forme sociali. Le spiegazioni tendono a restare scisse tra descrizioni storico-politiche e teorico-metodologiche. con il desiderio di recuperare alcune delle connessioni emerse nel corso degli anni Settanta tra forme sociali e concetti e di osservare le
tracce dei loro ritorni, le continuit e discontinuit che esse hanno intrecciato al presente
che abbiamo sollecitato i contributi con cui inizia questo primo, provvisorio lavoro di
ricognizione.
Ma la difficolt nellindividuare un concetto storico proprio agli anni Settanta va forse
messa in relazione alla consapevolezza che le domande poste nel corso di quel decennio
singolarmente teorico, pur avendo cambiato per sempre il modo di concepire il nesso tra
esperienza sociale e rappresentazione, e tra rappresentazione e azione, restano oggi irrisolte, se non addirittura represse. Erano domande, quelle, che riguardavano lo statuto del
sapere, la sua funzione istituzionale nellinteresse della riproduzione dei poteri politici e
economici e della segregazione sociale, e che avevano per oggetto il ruolo
dellintellettuale nei confronti della societ e del potere istituzionale, e del potere nei confronti della democrazia e dei soggetti sociali.
Il linguaggio fu al centro del processo di disarticolazione critica e creativa di discorsi e
pratiche consolidate e della produzione di azioni militanti che contraddistinsero limpulso
(contro) culturale degli anni Settanta. Da strumento di rappresentazione il linguaggio divenne azione, come proclama uno dei graffiti del 1968: : Linsolence est la nouvelle arme rvolutionnaire (Rohan 108). E una volta esposto il ruolo svolto dal linguaggio
nellinteresse politico e nellesercizio del potere, lo studio delle sue logiche operative nella
costruzione di discorsi normativi, scientifici o pseudo-scientifici divenne fondamentale. Il
progetto genealogico di Michel Foucault, avviato con Folie et draison (1961), sviluppato
nei testi archeologici degli anni Sessanta, e pienamente articolato in Surveiller et Punir
(1975) si radica in questo nuovo concetto di linguaggio come codice e azione. Tracciare
lemergere delle scienze umane individuando il nesso di relazioni che le collega a norme,
test, esami e istruzioni divenne lobiettivo centrale della ricerca di Foucault negli anni
Settanta. Come ha sottolineato Diego Melegari nel suo saggio Lampi di possibili tempeste, in quella fase del suo progetto intellettuale il distacco temporaneo del pensatore
francese dallosservazione pittorica e letteraria aveva lo scopo di reindirizzare il metodo
genealogico verso una critica non strategica capace di influenzare il soggetto, di agire su
di lui cambiandolo impercettibilmente attraverso unazione che operasse al di sotto del
Su questo si veda, ad esempio, Giovanni Moro (2005). Tentativi ricorrenti di formulare serie di parole chiave in grado di elaborare e chiarire il terreno concettuale e storico degli anni Settanta vanno considerati, riteniamo, sintomatici della mancanza di unipotesi interpretativa che integri le diverse forme
sociali che si sono manifestate negli anni Settanta o, per usare lespressione di Fredric Jameson, di un
concetto di storia tuttora assente che faccia affiorare le relazioni tra forme filosofiche, estetiche, culturali, economiche (Jameson 1988). Il sito web intitolato al progetto editoriale Doppiozero diretto da Marco Belpoliti e Stefano Chiodi ha dedicato notevoli energie alla mappatura degli anni Settanta italiani
attraverso la pubblicazione di ricerche, saggi, documenti, interventi lunghi e brevi, lelaborazione di
concetti e parole chiave, la diffusione di riflessioni sugli anni Settanta attraverso lezioni e conferenze
pubbliche (<htttp://www.doppiozero.com>).
5

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livello del discorso, e i cui effetti avrebbero potuto manifestarsi solo indirettamente come
pratica di resistenza al potere.
Ma anche al di fuori del progetto di critica genealogica iniziata da Foucault, lanalisi
del potere fu trasversale al discorso teorico degli anni Settanta, in relazione esplicita al
linguaggio, al corpo, allinconscio e al desiderio, alle strutture sociali, alla produzione e
circolazione delle immagini e degli oggetti, alla narrativit, e allarticolazione delle soggettivit. Lo studio degli effetti di potere istituzionale, politico, familiare, affettivo, educativo sul corpo sociale e sui corpi individuali, e della funzione del potere nei processi di
assoggettamento e soggettivazione offr allo psichiatra e psicoanalista Elvio Fachinelli il
terreno di elaborazione di una psicoanalisi socializzata nei fini (Fachinelli, Psicoanalista posizione 17). Un progetto che, come illustra Alessandra Diazzi nel suo saggio Il
sapere inquietante di Elvio Fachinelli: una psicoanalisi Anni Settanta, poteva scaturire
solo dal confronto con le questioni sociali fondamentali dellepoca: la libert personale e
soggettiva, lemancipazione femminile, la liberazione sessuale, lattacco alla famiglia in
quanto istituzione repressiva borghese e matrice di disfunzioni, la lotta contro i poteri
autoritari, il conflitto di classe, e molte altre. Lesempio di Fachinelli aiuta anche a comprendere la centralit dellanalisi delle strutture che riproducono ideologia e dellanalisi
dei rapporti che stringono capitalismo, produzione di desiderio e reificazione, che ebbe
grande importanza nel progetto teorico degli anni Settanta. Non diversamente dal linguaggio, anche la critica era concepita come azione militante finalizzata alla creazione di
una forza antagonista necessaria a costruire una societ pi libera e pi democratica
composta da cittadini attenti, svegli, informati e consapevoli.6
La doppia articolazione delle culture critiche degli anni Settanta, che si occupa simultaneamente degli effetti materiali del potere istituzionale e della fabbricazione discorsiva
del mondo sociale, evidenzia lattenzione alla dimensione incarnata, fabbricata, costruita
dei fenomeni culturali, e enfatizza la continuit tra la fabbrica e latelier, tra loperaio e
lartista, protagonisti uguali sulla scena sociale, come rivela linflazionato termine fabbricazione.7 Essa conferma inoltre la convergenza, soprattutto nelle azioni artistiche e letterarie, di due tradizioni filosofiche parallele che hanno definito lesperienza estetica e la sua
relazione al significato lungo tutto il Novecento: la fenomenologia e la linguistica strutturale. Entrambe comparvero sulla soglia dellestetica allepoca del primo modernismo, ma
in particolare tra i Sessanta e i Settanta le loro tensioni reciproche iniziarono ad essere
assunte a oggetto di speculazione teorica e come materiale critico da parte degli artisti. E
allincirca negli stessi anni venne elaborato intorno al concetto di segno un discorso teoriIl riferimento fondamentale qui , naturlamente, Louis Althusser, il cui saggio immensamente influente, LIdologie et les Apparats idologiques dEtat (1969) fu tradotto in italiano nel 1970 e in inglese nel 1971. Althusser, il suo ex-studente Pierre Macherey (Pour une Theorie de la Production Litteraire,
1978), Jean Baudrillard (Pour une critique de lconomie politique du signe, 1972. Traduzione italiana, 1974,
inglese 1981; Lchange symbolique et la mort, 1976; traduzione italiana 1979; inglese 1993 ), hanno pubblicato le loro opere pi importanti tra la fine degli anni Sessanta e i primi anni Settanta, mentre Roland
Barthes aveva gi iniziato a pubblicare alla fine degli anni cinquanta. La disponibilit quasi simultanea
di queste opere sul mercato italiano spiega la continuit della scena teorica tra i due paesi. Negli Stati
Uniti, invece, alcune di queste opere furono tradotte e iniziarono a circolare un po pi tardi, tra la
met degli anni Ottanta e i primi anni Novanta.
7 Lenfasi sul concetto di fabbricazione e la riscoperta del corpo negli anni Settanta documentata nel
saggio di Fernanda Fedi, Collettivi e pratiche sociali dellarte a Milano. Il catalogo della mostra, Addio Anni 70. Arte a Milano 1969-1980 presenta molti riferimenti testuali e iconografici sugli stessi temi.
Di grande interesse per una prospettiva nazionale su questi temi il catalogo della mostra In Pubblico.
Azioni e idee degli anni Settanta (Fochessati, Piazza e Solimano 2007).
6

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co che assumeva a proprio specifico oggetto di indagine quelle tensioni. La semiologia, in


qualit di scienza dei segni descritti nelle loro relazioni di sistema e nelle loro funzioni
fenomenologiche e culturali, emerse come punto di convergenza metodologico tra queste due tradizioni filosofiche tra la fine degli anni Cinquanta (Mitologies di Roland Barthes
venne pubblicato nel 1957) e i primi Settanta. Tuttavia, come sottolinea Paolo Desogus
nel suo saggio La teoria critica di Umberto Eco. La critica dellideologia e la guerriglia
semiologica, analogamente a quanto avvenne con altre pratiche critiche militanti, anche
la semiologia non fu semplice metodologia descrittiva, ma strumento di guerriglia critica
che si prefiggeva di disarticolare le ideologie attraverso lanalisi dei segni. Dalla lettura
dellopera di Eco negli anni Settanta emerge chiaramente che la guerriglia praticata dal
semiologo un conflitto ai segni condotta attraverso i segni.
Il rinnovato interesse per la materialit dellesperienza e della cultura e le pressioni del
femminismo contribuirono a ricollocare il corpo al centro dei discorsi politici e estetici e
ad allineare le opere degli artisti alle rivendicazioni femministe di una politica che tenesse
conto della differenza di genere e del modo in cui questa si inscrive nel corpo. Concorsero inoltre a cementare la prassi collettiva e la collaborazione tra i diversi gruppi sociali.8
La reinscrizione testuale del corpo soprattutto del corpo femminile nelle politiche del
discorso e nelle pratiche estetiche incise indubbiamente sullattuazione di politiche e politiche della rappresentazione progressiste e emancipative. Questo accadde, ad esempio,
con gli Exploitation film degli anni Settanta e primi anni Ottanta, discussi da Jenny Platz
nel suo saggio, Return to the Grindhouse: Tarantino and the modernization of 1970s
Exploitation(Ritorno ai Grindhouse: Tarantino e la modernizzazione dellExploitation
anni Settanta). Quelle pellicole, sottolinea Platz, furono le prime a consentire a personaggi femminili di assumere il controllo della diegesi filmica e della scena, mentre il tentativo di Tarantino di modernizzarli fallisce proprio sul piano ideologico.
Ma il corpo non emerse necessariamente come immagine antropomorfa o per evocare un ambito nascosto e interiore di coscienza. Al contrario, compariva come presenza
oggettuale e in relazione al linguaggio. Corpi, segni, oggetti, oggetti testuali divennero le
figure chiave di un micro alfabeto intorno al quale le nozioni di soggetto e soggettivit
venivano riformulate dentro o fuori la psicoanalisi come risultati di determinazioni
contingenti di linguaggio, strutture sociali e forze materiali e immateriali. In questa prospettiva, linguaggio e immaginazione restavano ipotizzati come le principali fonti di differenza, come ci che teneva aperte linee di fuga dalla ripetizione e reificazione del desiderio, dellespressione e della soggettivit. In questa prospettiva Matteo Martelli discute
le condizioni di emersione di una soggettivit laterale o minore come effetto di pratiche
intertestuali concepite allo scopo di sottrarsi al potere normativo del linguaggio e a sganciare il testo dalla logica riproduttiva del sapere. Lo fa in relazione a tre testi importanti
nella narrativa italiana degli anni Settanta. Su un piano contiguo, Danilo Mariscalco, nel
suo saggio A/traverso? La transizione. Le pratiche culturali del movimento del 77 e il
paradigma artistico, estende lanalisi delle soggettivit mutanti, teorizzate allinterno del
movimento studentesco alla fine degli anni Settanta, fino a includere poetiche e pratiche
critiche militanti non letterarie quali la radio e le performances pubbliche e le relative
strategie metodologiche (soprattutto riappropriazione, riuso e dtournement), al fine di farne emergere loriginalit estetica rispetto a quella delle avanguardie storiche.

Qui i riferimenti sarebbero enciclopedici. Fernanda Fedi in questa raccolta documenta la dimensione
locale, Milanese, di questo mescolarsi di gruppi femministi con collettivi artistici e altri gruppi di azione civile e di opposizione.
8

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Lenfasi posta dai due saggi sullinterconnessione fra gli aspetti poetici e politici in
tutte le forme di comunicazione descritte consente di esemplificare la relazione chiastica
inscritta in gran parte dellimmaginazione/espressione politica e estetica degli anni Settanta, che insiste sulla manifestazione del politico nel poetico come ad esempio nel titolo programmatico della mostra Un Po-poetico, un Po-politico (Fedi 84) e del poetico nel
politico come ad esempio recita limmensamente popolare e ipercodificato slogan
femminista il personale politico. Questa figura retorica portatrice di un principio logico
che sostituisce fondazioni epistemologiche certe e riorganizza i processi di significazione.
Il germe di una simile dislocazione per mezzo della quale una figura retorica funziona
come fondazione di sapere e genera effetti di verit va individuato, come abbiamo gi
accennato, nella costellazione di rotture concettuali che attraversarono il periodo compreso tra la seconda met degli anni Sessanta e la prima dei Settanta. Il concetto di logocentrismo di Jacques Derrida, quello di soggetto diviso di Jacques Lacan, la critica dellideologia
di Louis Althusser e la lettura della storia come sequenza di rotture epistemiche di Michel
Foucault minarono alla radice le fondazioni epistemologiche dellumanesimo occidentale,
perch avviarono la decostruzione dellunit del soggetto, della linearit della storia, della
stabilit del testo scritto, della neutralit oggettiva del sapere. Come ha perfettamente
sintetizzato Susan Suleiman, Ci che sembr comportare fu unimpresa di rilettura che
avrebbe cambiato non solo la nostra prospettiva sul passato ma anche il nostro senso del
futuro (Suleiman 1014).
Ri-lettura implicava diverse nozioni di scrittura e lettura, della relazione tra autore,
testo e significazione e, in termini pi generali, della logica dellesperienza estetica. Come
enfatizza il gi citato saggio di Desogus, lopera di Eco negli anni Settanta fu fortemente
indirizzata alla sovversione e riformulazione delle strutture gerarchiche in base alle quali
veniva concepito il rapporto tra emittente e ricevente (e autore e lettore) nella teoria della
comunicazione e nella teoria della letteratura. Non pi teorizzata come manifestazione
delloggetto autonomo e autosufficiente, ma come dialogo cooperativo o come processo
sistemico, la comunicazione e la pratica estetica generava anche una diversa concezione di arte. In essa il peso del valore e dellattribuzione estetica si spostava dal concetto
di creazione a quello di processo, dalloggetto alla performance e dallautore allazione
cooperativa (o oppositiva).
La produzione teorica dei Settanta si focalizz a lungo e ampiamente sulla riformulazione dei principi che presiedono alla produzione testuale e extra-testuale di significato,
mentre la relazione tra produttore e utente (e artista e pubblico, autore e lettore) venne
incessantemente rinegoziata riguardo a ogni aspetto della vita sociale. Non sorprende,
dunque, che buona parte dei saggi qui presentati dedicati alla letteratura degli anni Settanta si confrontino con il problema della relazione autore/lettore e con le strategie retoriche per mezzo delle quali i testi producono al proprio interno, attraverso la propria organizzazione, occasioni di dissenso verso le strutture linguistiche e culturali. I due saggi
su Italo Calvino discutono molto diversamente luno dallaltro le raffinate operazioni
retoriche di cui Calvino si serve per negoziare la relazione tra autore come effetto di discorso, o macchina da scrittura, e il lettore come occhio che si prende cura della vita della letteratura ricollegando il testo a un universo che si espande (Calvino 1967). Il saggio di
Paolo Giovannetti, Faccio delle cose coi libri. Calvino vs. anni Settanta, decostruisce
la strategia attraverso cui Calvino reinscrive surrettiziamente la figura dellautore come
regista della performativit testuale in Se una notte dinverno un viaggiatore, cio al termine di
un processo retorico di decostruzione della funzione autoriale. Sabrina Ovan, invece, nel
suo Names, Travelers, Transindividuality: Italo Calvino in the 1970s (Nomi, Viaggia-

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tori, Transindividualit: Italo Calvino negli anni Settanta), ricollega in modo pi diretto
luso strategico che Calvino fa dei nomi e della nominazione a definizioni operative di
autorialit e collettivit.
Forse il concetto a venire degli anni Settanta ci consegner un giorno quanto di pi
prossimo possiamo sperare di ottenere a una forma storica del postmoderno. Il postmodernismo, anche in letteratura, non ha mai nominato un movimento, ma un orizzonte
operativo nel quale la sperimentazione formale realizzata attraverso allusioni, giochi di
parole, parodie, allegorie, mises-en-abyme, frammentazione, pastiche e la critica sono
sempre intrecciate. La rottura della nozione di arte come centro autonomo di significazione, la sua dispersione in un campo culturale espanso e di natura ampiamente testuale (Foster The Return 71) e la sua ricombinazione con i segni della cultura di massa hanno contraddistinto lascesa dellestetica postmodernista. in questa prospettiva che dobbiamo contestualizzare loperazione di recupero attraverso cui Andrea Chiurato rilegge la
produzione narrativa di Oreste del Buono degli anni Settanta nel suo saggio
LArcipelago Postmoderno. Oreste del Buono e gli anni Settanta. Analogamente, in
questo stesso orizzonte concettuale che Pamela Mansutti interpreta il romanzo magnum
di Thomas Pynchon, Gravitys Rainbow (1973). Lenciclopedismo e liper-referenzialismo
grottesco che il romanzo mobilita attingendo da ogni zona della cultura di massa, puntano alla critica della sorveglianza e al controllo totale del soggetto cos presenti nella semantica del decennio, ma lo fanno attraverso la farsa, il grottesco, la satira sfrenata e incontenibile.
Il problema dello statuto del linguaggio e il suo valore come strumento di azione sociale e di critica deviato in Pynchon, esposto senza essere risolto dalla consapevolezza
che una volta che il capitale ha colonizzato ogni aspetto dellesperienza sociale, ogni segno intercambiabile con ogni altro segno. Su un piano diverso, che invece ne trattiene
la problematicit, lo statuto semiotico del linguaggio, linstabilit semantica che esso genera e le problematiche che apre alla possibilit di documentare la storia e dare testimonianza del passato, specie del passato che non passa nella storia traumatica del soggetto,
sono al centro del saggio di Cinzia Scarpino, The Implacable I: Joan Didion e la scrittura testimoniale. Il passato che non passa e il problema dellelaborazione del trauma
storico sono i temi su cui si sofferma Federica Colleoni nel suo saggio Spettri della violenza politica: gli anni Settanta in alcuni romanzi del nuovo millennio. Colleoni analizza
il ruolo dellesperienza traumatica del terrorismo nella formazione dellidentit e della
soggettivit collettiva nellItalia di oggi attraverso la lettura di un gruppo di romanzi recenti che ricostruiscono lesperienza della militanza armata negli anni Settanta da una
prospettiva autobiografia o pseudo-autobiografica.
Negli anni Settanta lerosione della compartimentazione degli ambiti di discorso e la
messa in discussione delle gerarchie politiche e culturali promosse un rinnovamento delle
regole della comunicazione artistica e massmediatica. Nelle culture televisive e cinematografiche ma anche nelle culture letterarie lo slancio di rinnovamento gener unaspra
critica alle avanguardie moderniste e lelaborazione di estetiche alternative e avanguardistiche contraddistinte dalla contaminazione tra media diversi, dallerosione dei generi e
dalluso strategico del pastiche e delle citazioni. La trasformazione dei programmi televisivi
dedicati alla cultura libraria in Francia nel corso degli anni Settanta parte di questo processo di fertilizzazione incrociata tra media e discorsi differenti, come spiega Frdric
Delarue nel suo saggio, Les annes 1970 en France au prisme de la mdiation littraire
au petit cran (Gli anni Settanta in Francia attraverso il prisma della mediazione letteraria in televisione). Sul versante cinematografico della discussione, laffievolirsi

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dellimpulso progressista degli anni Sessanta e primi Settanta il punto focale del saggio
di Peter Andrew Novick, Silent Majority, Violent Majority: the Counter-revolution in
Seventies Cinema (Maggioranza silenziosa, maggioranza violenta: la contro-rivoluzione
nel cinema degli anni Settanta). Il saggio evidenzia come la contro-rivoluzione che liber tendenze conservatrici nel cinema americano degli anni Settanta introducendo o intensificando la presenza di temi come violenza e razza nei contesti urbani, vendetta contro le donne emancipate, paura e disprezzo dellomosessualit, non riusc tuttavia a
espellere lo spirito rivoluzionario dellepoca, anche se riusc a disseminare una nuovo
ethos individualista.
Limportanza del linguaggio come sistema di segni e la tensione tra lautonomia del
segno artistico e la sua dispersione in un universo di segni e di forme culturali mediate
dalla comunicazione di massa e dal mercato fu un tema al centro della riflessione estetica
a partire dalla fine degli anni Sessanta e la cui importanza and intensificandosi negli anni
Settanta. La ridefinizione radicale della relazione tra soggetto e oggetto nelle pratiche estetiche e il ripensamento dei ruoli di artista e spettatore o fruitore furono parte di questa
riflessione. Come si detto, allinizio degli anni Settanta, il linguaggio era concepito come
strumento di azione sociale e di sovversione ideologica, soprattutto se usato in associazione alla fotografia, nelle performances, e nelle installazioni per destabilizzare le aspettative
degli spettatori, come evidenziano le scritte stampate sulle sagome bianche usate dal Collettivo Lavoro Uno per linstallazione contro labrogazione della legge che legalizzava il divorzio: Donna non sei un robot (Fedi 58). Lo stesso principio, ancorch speso su pi
piani e su un diverso registro di complessit, struttura la ricerca di unestetica di espressione alternativa nella poetica di Vincenzo Agnetti, come spiega Laura Mouhre Cecchini
nel suo saggio Rage Against the Machine; Vincenzo Agnettis Critique of Industrial Alienation (Rabbia/Arrabbiati contro la macchina: la critica di Vincenzo Agnetti
allalienazione della societ industriale). La fiducia nella funzione militante del linguaggio anche inscritta nei nomi dei collettivi artistici, ad esempio in quello del collettivo
milanese Laboratorio di Comunicazione Militante. Ma la frammentazione, la polverizzazione
dei segni e la loro rianimazione e cooptazione in ogni ambito della societ e del mercato
iniziarono a un certo punto a evidenziare la vulnerabilit delle pratiche critiche, la loro
esposizione totale alle operazioni di un capitalismo che prospera nella reificazione, nella
parcellizzazione e infine pulviscolarizzazione dei beni, delle relazioni, dei segni. Questo
cruccio, che emerge con forza dalle parole di Gino Gini poste in chiusura di questa sezione, era ben presente nella ricerca di Giovanni Anselmo almeno a partire dalla met
degli anni Settanta. Come dimostra Elizabeth Mangini nel suo saggio Form as Social
Commitment: The Art of Giovanni Anselmo during the Anni di Piombo, Anselmo riorient la propria ricerca espressiva in direzione pi rigidamente formale, verso una poetica della forma che potesse offrire un antidoto al potere seduttivo e di cooptazione e alla
forza normalizzante di un mercato onnivoro e insaziabile.
Forse, gli anni Settanta sono molto pi di un universo parallelo

Bibliografia
Bailey, Beth L. and David Farber. Ed. America in the Seventies. Lawrence: University Press
of Kansas, 2004. Stampa.
Baudrillard, Jean. Pour une critique de lconomie politique du signe. Paris: Gallimard, 1972.
Stampa.

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Belpoliti, Marco. Settanta. Torino: Einaudi, 2001. Stampa.


---. e Gianni Canova e Stefano Chiodi, eds. Anni Settanta: il decennio lungo del secolo breve,
Milano: Skira, 2007. Stampa.
Bergamini, Oliviero. Storia degli Stati Uniti. Bari: Laterza, 2010. Stampa.
Calvino, Italo. Cibernetica e fantasmi (Appunti sulla narrativa come processo combinatorio) (1967). Una pietra sopra. Torino: Einaudi, 1980. Reprinted in Calvino, Italo.
Saggi (1945-1985). Ed. M. Barenghi. Milano: Mondadori, 1995, tomo I. 205-225.
Stampa.
Crainz, Guido. Il paese mancato. Dal miracolo economico agli anni Ottanta. Roma: Donzelli,
2003. Stampa.
De Luna, Giovanni. Le ragioni di un decennio. 1969-1979. Militanza, violenza, sconfitta, memoria. Milano: Feltrinelli, 2009. Stampa.
Fedi, Fernanda. Collettivi e gruppi artistici a Milano. Ideologie e percorsi 1968-1985. Milano: Edizioni Endas, 1986. Stampa.
Fochessati, M. e Piazza, M. e Solimano, eds. In Pubblico. Azioni e idee degli anni Settanta.
Catalogo della mostra. Milano: Skira, 2007. Stampa
Foster, Hal. Recodings: Art, Spectacle, Cultural Politics. Washington and Seattle: Bay Press,
1985. Stampa.
---. The Return of the Real. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1996. Stampa.
Jameson, Fredric. The Ideologies of Theory. Essays 1971-1986. Volume 2: Syntax of History.
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988. Stampa.
Miller, Stephen Paul. The Seventies Now: Culture As Surveillance. Durham, N.C.: Duke Univ.
Press. 1999. Stampa.
Moro, Giovanni. Anni Settanta. Torino: Einaudi, 2005. Stampa..
Nicolin, Paola e Mousse, eds. Addio Anni 70. Arte a Milano 1969-1980. Catalogo della
mostra. Piacenza: eds. Nuova lito effe srlr, 2012. Stampa.
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Schulman, Bruce J. The Seventies. The Great Shift in American Culture, Society, and Politics.
Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press. 2001. Stampa.
Suleiman, Susan. 1960. In Denis Hollier, ed. A New History of French Literature. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989. 1011-1018. Stampa.
Unger, Irwin e Debi Unger. Postwar America: the United States Since 1945. New York: St.
Martins Press, 1990. Stampa.
Wolfe, Tom. The New Journalism, with an Anthology. Eds Tom Wolfe and E. W. Johnson.
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320 entry
Didion, Joan

for his son and was neither a critical nor commercial success. His last novel, To the White Sea (1993), the story of a
lone American soldier escaping Japan in the midst of the
war, enjoyed modest success. Early in his career, Dickey
was a frequent essayist (The Suspect in Poetry [1964]) and
reviewer (Babel to Byzantium [1968]).
Sources

Baughman, Judith, ed. James Dickey: An Illustrated Chronicle. Dictionary of Literary Biography, Documentary Series, volume
19. Detroit: Bruccoli Clark Layman/Gale Research, 1999.
Baughman, Ronald. Understanding James Dickey. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1985.
Hart, Henry. James Dickey: The World as a Lie. New York: Picador,
2000.
Kirschten, Robert, ed. Struggling for Wings: The Art of James
Dickey. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press,
1997.
Ward Briggs

Didion, Joan (1934 ) journalist, essayist, novelist,


screenwriter

In many ways writing is the act of saying I, of


imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to
me, see it my way, change your mind.

Why I Write (1975)

Joan Didion was born in Sacramento, California, and attended C. K. McClatchy Senior High School. In 1956 she
graduated from the University of California at Berkeley with
a B.A. in English. She won the Priz de Paris in a competition
sponsored by Vogue magazine for college seniors and moved
to New York where she worked at Vogue in several capacities,
including senior features editor, and wrote movie reviews for
Vogue, Mademoiselle, and other magazines.
Didions traditional novel Run River (1963) was a regionalist interpretation of California and the American West. Didion
married the writer John Gregory Dunne in 1964; the couple
lived in Los Angeles for over two decades before returning
to New York in 1988. Working in concert on many projects,
Didion and Dunne alternated on the writing of a monthly
column called Points West that was published by Esquire in
the 1970s. They also collaborated on several screenplays, most
notably The Panic in Needle Park, a gritty 1971 movie focusing on drug addiction in New Yorks Sherman Park. Didion
and Dunne adopted a daughter, Quintana Roo, named after a
state in Mexico, in 1966; she is featured in both of her parents
journalism of the period, especially in the personal essays in
Didions Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968).
Play It as It Lays (1970) became a minor classic, celebrated for its portrayal of anomie in the self-destructive
lives of a Hollywood starlet and her associates. A deliber-

Joan Didion

ately fast read due to its prominent display of white space


on the page, Play It as It Lays offered its readers a stylish
morality tale narrated by an existentialist heroine. It was
followed by A Book of Common Prayer (1977), a complex
novel inspired by the radical political movements of the
1970s and connected to Didions interest in the abduction
of the heiress Patricia Hearst in 1974 by the Symbionese
Liberation Army. Didion later wrote a sympathetic review
of Hearsts laconic memoir. In an essay called Girl of the
Golden West, Didion writes of Hearst: She was never an
idealist, and this pleased no one. She was tainted by survival. In Didions reading, Hearst becomes a pragmatic
survivor in the frontier mold of pioneers who avoided the
backward glance in their will to surmount hardships encountered in settling the American West.
Didion was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis after experiencing episodes of temporary blindness, a trauma she discusses in the essay The White Album, published in 1979.
After Henry (1992) is dedicated to her longtime literary agent,
Henry Robbins, who died of a heart attack at fifty-one. Didion has written about her own ancestors, some of whom traveled partway with the Donner-Reed party on their ill-fated
overland crossing to California in the 1840s. Her 2003 book,
Where I Was From, draws extensively on family diaries, as do
the personal essays of Slouching Towards Bethlehem.
Didions recent work is framed by a succession of personal
losses. Where I Was From (2003) is dedicated to her parents

Didion, entry
Joan 321

and closes with her poignant memories of her mothers


and fathers deaths. John Gregory Dunne died in December
2003 and Didions daughter died in August 2005 at the age
of thirty-nine. Didion won the National Book Award for
Nonfiction in 2005 for The Year of Magical Thinking, a memoir
examining her grief at her husbands death and her daughters
critical illness. Reviews of The Year of Magical Thinking have
centered on the attending social workers description of Didion as a pretty cool customer in the immediate moments
after her husbands deatha survival mechanism that also
describes the reactions of her heroines Maria Wyeth of Play
It As It Lays, Grace Strasser-Mendana of A Book of Common
Prayer, Inez Victor of Democracy (1984), and Elena McMahon
of The Last Thing He Wanted (1996)suggesting a coherence
and consistency to Joan Didions work and preoccupations
over the past forty years.
Didion is often classed with the New Journalists (see New
Journalism) of the 1960s, a nonaffiliated group of writers
who emphasized the necessary subjectivity of their reporting.
Her first collection of essays, Slouching Towards Bethlehem,
included incisive portraits of the Haight-Ashbury hippies in
San Francisco, an account of a murder trial in San Bernardino
County that seemed to be drawn from the plots of James M.
Cain noir novels, and several personal essays on Didions
relation to her family, her familys frontier history, and her
ambivalent fascination with New York and Sacramento. Her
work is influenced by several writers she admires, among
them Henry James and George Orwell; her stylistic debts to
Ernest Hemingways spare sentence are well known, but her
recent nonfiction owes much to Jamess opaque style in his
later novels. Didions reputation is primarily as the writer of
two important and influential collections of essays, each the
register of a particular decade of American culture: Slouching
Towards Bethelehem reports on the 1960s, The White Album on
the 1970s. She is also a novelist of some repute. Her novels
range from realist to Postmodernist in their technique, and
have become progressively more skeptical in their relation
to narrative. You see the shards of the novel I am no longer writing, the island, the family, the situation. I lost patience with it. I lost nerve, the narrator, Joan Didion, admits
about the book she is struggling to write in Democracy: I
am resisting narrative here. The stance is consistent with
her focus on image rather than on narrative in the collagestyle title essay of The White Album. Her most recent work
has focused on an exploration of the ideological underpinnings of narrative. Where I Was From (2003) is a revisionist
study of the persistent mythologizing of Californias history
by such writers as Jack London, Frank Norris, and Didion
herself, culminating in a skeptical reading of the romantic
narrative of her elegiac first novel, Run River. The author of
five novels and eight nonfiction books, Didion is a frequent
contributor to The New York Review of Books and The New
Yorker.
Jennifer Brady

Dust jacket for Didions second novel, 1970, which earned a


National Book Award nomination

Principal Books by Didion

Run River. New York: Obolensky, 1963.


Slouching Towards Bethlehem. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux,
1968.
Play It As It Lays. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1970.
A Book of Common Prayer. New York: Simon & Schuster,
1977.
Telling Stories. Berkeley, Calif.: Bancroft Library, 1978.
The White Album. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1979.
Salvador. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1982.
Democracy. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984.
Miami. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987.
After Henry. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992.
The Last Thing He Wanted. New York: Knopf, 1996.
Political Fictions. New York: Knopf, 2001.
Where I Was From. New York: Knopf, 2003.

322 Didion,
entry Joan

Working typescript for A Book of Common Prayer (1977)

Diving into the Wreck


entry
323

Fixed Ideas: America since 9.11. New York: New York Review of
Books, 2003.
Vintage Didion. New York: Vintage Books, 2004.
The Year of Magical Thinking. New York: Knopf, 2005.
We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live: Collected Nonfiction. New
York: Knopf, 2006.

Studying Joan Didion


The Everymans Library collection of her nonfiction, We Tell
Ourselves Stories in Order to Live (2006), includes Joan Didions
important early works. Her award-winning The Year of Magical
Thinking (2006), a meditation on the deaths of her husband
and daughter, is not included in the Everyman collection and
is a necessary element in her canon. Her novels are available in
separate editions. No book-length biography of Didion exists;
however, Joan Didion: Essays and Conversations, edited by Ellen
G. Freidman (Princeton, N. J.: Ontario Review Press, 1984),
collects three interviews and an essay by Didion as well as
critical responses from academic scholars. Though it focuses
mainly on Didions fiction, this book provides insight into
Didions creative process and her personal life.
The Critical Response to Joan Didion, edited by Sharon Felton (Westport, Conn: Greenwood, 1994), provides reviews
of her books and offers scholarly examinations of Didions
foundational works including her nonfiction, novels, and
journalism. Katherine Usher Hendersons Joan Didion (New
York: Ungar, 1981) and Mark Roydon Winchells Joan Didion
(Boston: Twayne, 1989) both connect biography to analysis
in order to examine Didions fiction and nonfiction through
critical surveys of her life and career.
Two books that examine Didions work within larger
frameworksthe first, placing her in the tradition of New
Journalism, and the second, examining her place among
British and American women writersinclude Marc Weingartens The Gang that Wouldnt Write Straight: Wolfe, Thompson, Didion, and the New Journalism Revolution (New York:
Crown, 2006) and Janis Stouts Strategies of Reticence: Silence
and Meaning in the Works of Jane Austen, Willa Cather, Katherine Ann Porter, and Joan Didion (Charlottesville: University
Press of Virginia, 1990). Sandra Bramans chapter in A Sourcebook of American Literary Journalism: Representative Writers in
an Emerging Genre, edited by Thomas Connery (New York:
Greenwood, 1992), names Didion as a founder of the New
Journalism movement.
Student Guide by Britt Terry

Dillard, Annie(1945 )essayist, novelist, poet


A child wakes up over and over again, and notices that
shes living . . . bingo, she feels herself alive. . . . And she
notices she is set down here, mysteriously, in a going
world.
To Fashion a Text (1987)

Born Ann Doak in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Annie Dillard


was educated at Hollins College, where she received a B.A. in
1967 and an M.A. in 1968. She won a Pulitzer Prize for Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974), a nonfiction work that evokes the
wonder of nature and has been compared to Henry David
Thoreaus Walden. Like Thoreau, Dillard is a keen observer
of the seasons and natural cycles. Other titles that extend her
view of nature and the act of writing about it are Teaching a
Stone to Talk (1982), Living by Fiction (1982), and Writing Life
(1989). In An American Childhood (1987) she describes her
conventional childhood in middle-class urban America. Her
novel The Living (1992), is characterized by a philosophical
regionalism. She reveals a feeling for the way people interact
with the landin this case, loggers in the Pacific Northwest
at the turn of the nineteenth century. She has also written
two poetry collections, Tickets for a Prayer Wheel (1974) and
Mornings Like This (1995). Her novel The Maytrees was published in 2007.
Source

Johnson, Sandra Humble. The Space Between: Literary Epiphany


in the Work of Annie Dillard. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University
Press, 1992.

The Disenchanted by Budd Schulberg (New York:

Random House, 1950) novel


Budd Schulbergs third novel introduces the novelist Manley Halliday, teamed with junior writer Shep Stearns to
script Love on Ice, a formulaic romantic comedy that is
to be filmed on location at the Dartmouth winter carnival.
The novel is freely based on Schulbergs collaboration with
F. Scott Fitzgerald, in which the two authors shared misadventures at Dartmouth while working on the motion picture
Winter Carnival (1939). The details are accurately drawn from
Schulbergs firsthand knowledge of Hollywood where his father, B. P. Schulberg, was head of Paramount Studios from
1925 to 1932. With celebratory champagne as fuel, Hallidays
comeback from his literary nadir and Stearnss shot at a bright
writing future are derailed. Halliday dies, joining the ghosts
of his past, while young Stearns learns of lifes disenchantment. The novel was adapted into a Broadway play by the author and Harvey Breit in 1958 and ran for 189 performances.
Schulbergs best-seller helped trigger a Fitzgerald revival.

Michael Edelson

Diving into the Wreck by Adrienne Rich (1973)


poem

Taken from her 1973 book of the same title, Diving into the
Wreck is perhaps Adrienne Richs most famous poem. Having abandoned the taut formal work of her first collections,
Rich utilizes a short-lined free-verse structure in this poem
that creates a quick and graceful movement. The poem ar-

Nothingness and Beyond: Joan Didion's Play It As It Lays Geherin, David J Critique; Jan 1, 1974; 16, 1; ProQuest pg. 64

Nothingness and Beyond:


Joan Didion's Play It As It Lays

DAVID J. GEHERIN

What we probably do not need in American fiction is yet


another "Hollywood novel." Hollywood as metaphor for
everything that is tawdry, artificial, and superficial about
America has become a cliche in contemporary fiction. Those
novels about Hollywood which are still read-West's The Day
of the Locust, Mailer's The Deer Park, Fitzgerald's The Last
Tycoon, Schulberg's What Makes Sammy Run? -succeed by
transcending the limitations of their subject matter. Countless
other ones have faded as quickly as the sunset in the West they
describe because their voyeuristic concern was with
Hollywood as Hollywood, their fascination with tinsel as
tinsel.
Joan Didion's Play It As It Lays (1970) belongs to that
former group of novels which enlarges upon the limited nature
of its material. Although its setting is Hollywood, its heroine is
an ac;tress, and movie making figures prominently in its action,
the novel is as much "about" Hollywood as Heart of Darkness
is "about" Africa or The Stranger is "about" Algeria. Like
those novels, Play It As It Lays depends upon an intimate
connection between setting and theme; but also like them, its
overriding thematic concern is man's relationship with himself
and with
in general. Didion's novel is neither
primarily a sociological commentary on the values of
contemporary American society nor a psychological case
study of its heroine. It is, rather, a picture of personal dread
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and anxiety, of alienation and absurdity lurking within and


without. For although Hollywood is her setting, nothingness is
Didion's theme.
The novel presents a harrowing picture of Maria Wyeth, a
thirty-one-year-old actress and former model, and her
encounter with an existential nothingness which envelops her
like a coastal fog. Her marriage to Carter Lang, an egocentric,
ambitious young film director, is breaking up; her four-yearold daughter, Kate, is institutionalized with some sort of brain
damage; her casual affairs are many but mechanical and
lifeless. When Maria discovers she is pregnant, probably not
by her husband, she has an abortion. Her closest friend, BZ, a
homosexual who produces her husband's movies, commits
suicide by taking an overdose of pills while cradled in her arms.
Finally, Maria herself is hospitalized for what is usually
loosely described as a "nervous breakdown."
The facts of Maria's life are the basic material of
thousands of soap opera situations. What saves Play It As It
Lays from degenerating into banality is Didion's control over
her material, her skill in focusing attention not on the events in
Maria's life so much as on her cumulative response to them.
The real action of the novel takes place in the mind and heart
of Maria as she is forced to deal with her experiences. Viewed
from a medical point of view, she might well be classified as a
near schizoid personality whose experiences have precipitated
a severe emotional crisis resulting in the loss of an integrated
personality. In a more profound sense, however, her sickness is
neither emotional nor psychological; it is ontological. She is
suffering not from a nervous breakdown, but from the
breakdown of a world around her which threatens to engulf
her whole being with nothingness.
Although narrated iq third person for the most part, the
novel begins with Maria's first person account of her situation,
written, she tells us, at the urging of the doctor who is treating
her. Her statement is lucid, perceptive, and sensitive. It reyeals
Maria's response to her personal encounter with nothingness,
which the rest of the novel details. Maria says she answers
"Nothing applies" to the battery of psychological tests put
before her, indicating neither evasion nor unwillingness to
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cooperate and nothing less than the naked truth. "What does
apply, they ask later, as if the word 'nothing' were ambiguous,
open to interpretation, a questionable fragment of an
Icelandic rune. " 1 With an arrogance characteristic of the
initiated, Maria displays impatience at the obtuseness of
others because she has "been out there where nothing is" (212),
as BZ puts it. Unlike him, Maria lives on; her encounter with
nothingness does not completely defeat her but forces her into
a new awareness. Her confinement in the sanitarium is not to
be viewed as a solipsistic retreat but as a temporary withdrawal
from the world in preparation for a future re-emergence,
wounded but wiser, with a wisdom born of pain.
In this way, Play It As It Lays is closer in spirit and theme
to the works of Camus and Sartre than to those of Nathanael
West. In The Myth of Sisyphus, for example, Camus writes:
In certain situations, replying "nothing" when asked what one is thinking
about may be pretense in a man. Those who are loved are well a ware of this.
But if that reply is sincere, if it symbolizes that odd state of soul in which the
void becomes eloquent, in which the chain of daily gestures is broken, in
which the heart vainly seeks the link that will connect it again, then it is as it
were the first sign of absurdity. 2

Play It As It Lays testifies on every page to this eloquence of


the void as Didion relentlessly explores the emotional shock of

the encounter with absurdity. The refrain "Maria said


nothing" is repeated with increasing persistence throughout
the novel until it takes on the characteristics of a ritual chant.
In its silence, the statement itself becomes eloquent,
illuminating the almost palpable nature of Maria's dread. That
Maria cannot articulate her experience to others, can say
nothing, only makes more poignant and intense her

experience. To her husband, her friends, her doctor, she


appears vague, evasive, withdrawn; for herself, she sees no
ambiguity whatever. She has heard the silence of the void, has
encountered that absurdity Camus describes, and has learned
the truth of Beckett's observation that there is nothing more
real than nothing.
For the title to her collection of essays, Slouching
Towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion chose the final line of Yeats'
"The Second Coming." Her overriding concern in those essays
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and in her two published novels-the first was Run River


( 1963)-is with the broken center, with things falling apart,
with "anarchy loosed upon the world." However, '.Yhere the
emphasis in the essays is primarily on the sociological impact
of such fragmentation (the title essay, for example, deals with
hippie life styles in San Francisco), Play It As It Lays focuses
on a highly personal and private version of the broken center.
Things are falling apart in Maria's world, the chain of daily
gestures has been irrevocably broken. What results is the main
concern of the novel, Maria's encounter with absurdity and
nothingness.
Maria's painful journey towards perception begins with a
nagging awareness of dread hovering over her. At the
beginning of the novel, her perception has no real focus, no
sharp delineation of its exact nature. Her ultimate fate is
suggested early by a description of a documentary movie of her
life as a model in New York, filmed by her husband. In the final
scene of the movie, Maria's face is shown in negative image,
foreshadowing the nothingness that will soon be her life. To
ward off the increasing anxiety, Maria develops a compulsion
to drive the freeways, to seek order and meaning to counteract
her growing sense of disorder. I'n the hypnotic flow of the
freeways, she is able, temporarily at least, to ignore the outside
world. At night the sense of dread inevitably returns, but each

morning brings the escape of the automobile once again. Only


on the freeways is she able to feel the orderly rhythm of life that
she finds nowhere else. The automobile becomes an
appropriate symbol of her escape: self-contained and womblike. Driving is both .free and tightly ordered; she can flow
along aimlessly but only in the direction the road dictates.
Ironically, the only source of the rhythm of life is mechanical;
nature, the normal source of natural rhythms, is depicted as
polluted, sterile, and lifeless. Maria's compulsion causes her to
drive over seven thousan9 miles in one month. The freeway
runs out in a scrap metal yard in San Pedro, and Maria soon
discovers that driving is ineffective protection agairrst the
"unspeakable peril" she senses about her.
We discover the particular causes of Maria's anxiety only
gradually: her marriage is breaking up; her daughter is

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institutionalized while doctors try to figure out "what went


wrong"; she is haunted more and more by the sudden violence
of her mother's death in an automobile accident in the Nevada
desert some years earlier. Not only the facts distress her:
uneasiness has arisen because she has asked "why" (her name
should probably be taken symbolically; Wyeth: Why is).
Asking questions sometimes prompts answers that the
questioner is not prepared to handle. As Camus writes, "one
day the
arises and everything begins in that weariness
tinged with amazeness." 3 That weariness, which Camus says
comes at the end of a mechanical life, is the beginning of the
impulse of consciousness. In seeking answers to fundamental
questions about her life, for an explanation for the
unaccountable suffering of her child, for a logical reason for
her mother's sudden death, Maria gains a new awareness. She
discovers no answer, that nothing is the answer to all these
questions. She is forced to confront irrationality and silence.
The reader soon recognizes that her opening words in the
novel, "What makes Iago evil? some people ask. I never ask"
(3), are not an evasion; instead, they clearly indicate her
profound awareness that there is no answer. To explain lago's
evil is impossible and futile, since mere explanation cannot
remove it. "To look for
" Maria confesses, "is beside
the point" (3).
Maria's knowledge of evil is symbolized by the frequent
appearance in her dreams of the rattlesnake. As a girl, her
father had warned her against turning over rocks for fear she
might reveal a snake. She was unable to follow the advice, for
the rattlesnake is revealed all too clearly in the harsh light of
her reason. Once released, it never crawls back under the rock.
"A man is always prey to his truths," said Camus. "Once he has
admitted them, he cannot free himself from them. One has to
pay something. A man who has become conscious of the
absurd is forever bound to it."4 Maria can have no turning
back, no retreat to the comforts of innocence or ignorance; the
rattlesnake pursues her everywhere, in her dreams, on the
highways, even in the coiled shape of her food.
What distinguishes Maria's experience from that of most
heroes of existential novels is that hers is uniquely feminine,

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not that Didion has written a blatantly feminist tract, nor that
Maria's encounter with nothingness is ultimately qualitatively
different from a man's. However, one must understand her
experiences as a woman to appreciate fully the nature of her
crisis. When Carter calls Maria to ascertain that she has made
definite arrangements for the abortion, he is totally insensitive
to what she feels emotionally as a woman about to abort her
child: "Sometime in the night she had moved into a realm of
miseries peculiar to women, and she had nothing to say to
Carter" (62). Just as Ellison's hero is shaped by the particular
nature of his experiences as a black man in America, Maria is
shaped by experiences uniquely feminine. Just as the Invisible
Man could say, "Who knows but that, on the lower
frequencies, I speak for you,"s Maria can speak for many who
are neither women, nor actresses, nor residents of Hollywood.
By having a woman protagonist, Didion adds a
heightened sensitivity and emotional impact to the encounter
with nothingness. Maria's role as mother, for example, causes
her to feel so deeply not only about Kate, but also about all the
suffering innocents in the world. Such inescapable realities as
"the four-year-olds in the abandoned refrigerator, the tea
party with Purex, the infant in the driveway, rattlesnake in the
playpen" (99) convince her intuitively of the "unspeakable
peril" in the everyday. That maternal sensitivity is further
emphasized when Maria breaks down into uncontrolled sobs
on the day the aborted baby would have been born; although
she had deliberately avoided keeping track of the days, "she
must have been counting them unawares, must have been
keeping a relentless count somewhere" ( J41). Maria is not
afforded the luxury of deciding whether or not to confront
absurdity; it is thrust upon her as a result of the nature of her
situation. Once begun, the confrontation moves inexorably
toward a crisis. In no way does an intellectual awareness of
absurdity, general disorder, and cruelty debilitate her; her
feminine (and maternal) sensitivity to things such as the
unreasonable suffering of children and the inexplicable
ailment afflicting her daughter leads her to see "the dead still
center of the world, the quintessential intersection of nothing"
(66).

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Maria's visceral awareness is complicated and intensified


by her abortion. Although repelled by the idea, she agrees to
have the operation to satisfy Carter, who threatens to take
Kate away if she refuses. Her guilt, her sense of complicity in
that suffering of the innocents which she detests, only serves
to strengthen her growing awareness of the absurdity. Her
guilt, both moral and psychological in origin, is expressed in a
dream in whi<.:h she acts as an attendant at a gas chamber
where children file by on their way to execution. Her job is to
whisper words of comfort to the reluctant children because
"this was a humane operation" ( 126). Her abortion was to be a
"humane operation" too, but she could not escape persistent
thoughts of the fetus in the garbage. Her inability to deal with
guilt associated with the abortion is perhaps the strongest
single factor in her emotional collapse, the culmination of her
deepening awareness of the irrationality and. absurdity of life .
. Maria may well be compared with Esther Greenwood, the
heroine of Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar ( 1963)-published here
undergo a severe emotional
in 1971 . Both characters
crisis as a result of specifically
feminine problems (for
Maria an abortion, for Esther an attempted rape) and both are
hospitalized as a result. Plath is much more concerned with the
specific details of Esther's crisis and, in fact, wrote the book as
therapy relating to her own psychological problems. Didion,
however, is purposely vague about the exact details of Maria's
breakdown because she is more interested in the metaphysical
rather than the psychological implications of her illness.
Both Maria and Esther suffer from what existential
psychologist R. D. Laing calls "ontological insecurity," a
condition in which the individual lacks a firm sense of his own
identity in a world which seems to be threatening him at all
times.6 Laing suggests that such insecurity can lead to insanity
which, from the point of view of the individual involved, can
be seen as a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world.
Esther exemplifies an extreme form of ontological insecurity
and madness; her emotional problems drive her to several
suicide attempts and eventually to a complete breakdown.
While: Maria exhibits some of the recognizable symptoms of
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schizophrenic behavior, Didion apparently does not want the


reader to dismiss her simply as mentally or emotionally
disturbed. Her sickness Is metaphysical, a manifestation of her
difficulty in adjusting to her newly discovered consciousness of
absurdity.
As Maria's awareness of absurdity deepens, she finds
herself in a desperate search for meaning, for escape, or for
values of some kind. She soon discovers she can find no
relationship between cause and effect, no meaningful
explanation for the way things are, for such things as suffering,
random violence, and death. Although she throws the I Ching
in the sanitarium, she does it only to pass the
she never
bothers to read the coins because she now knows that nothing
can be predjcted, everything is random. Her various attempts
to escape her perceptions also fail. Driving the freeways did
not work. Love as a solution is futile, whether sought for in her
husband, who loves himself, in BZ, who is homosexual, in
casual lovers, who invariably treat her as an object, or in her
daughter, who is emotionally incapable of returning her love.
She gets no pleasure from any of her affairs and is unable to
achieve satisfaction even at the purely physical level.
Religion, a traditional source of consolation in time of
stress, is represented in the landscape of the novel by the giant
red T of the Thriftimart, under which the attendant meets
Maria to take her to the place for her abortion: "For miles
before she reached the Thriftimart she could see the big red T,
a forty-foot cutout letter which seemed peculiarly illuminated
against the harsh unclouded light of the afternoon sky" (76).
The attendant, who unfeelingly tells Maria how nice the
neighborhood they are driving through is for raising children,
ironically describes himself as "a regular missionary" (84).
When she is lonely, Maria turns to Dial-a-Prayer, only to fill
the silence with an available voice. She becomes fascinated
with the story of the man who went out walking in the desert to
find God but finds a rattlesnake that kills him. Religion for
Maria leads to the same dead ends the freeway did.
Most desperate of all is her search for the past. When
memories of the immediate past become unbeLtrable, Maria
turns to thoughts of her childhood and seeks to discover the
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roots which can give her support. Her parents are dead, and
Silver Wells, her homr.! town, no longer exists, replaced by a
missile range. She even goes so far as to attempt to return to
her mother's womb through hypnosis, but to no avail. The
only living link with her past is Benny Austin, an empty failure
pumped full of unrealized dreams, but his memories usually
differ from Maria's. Significantly, Maria's search takes her to
the barren deserts of Nevada, a state whose name suggests
nada itself. In the end, she is forced to admit that the past no
longer exists; she rejects "as it was" and learns instead to play it
as it lays.
The only consistent value Maria retains throughout the
novel is Kate, who represents a kind of talisman against peril;
whenever things get bad, she dreams of Kate. On one occasion,
she goes to Kate's bed, clutches her pillow to her and fights off
"a wave of the dread" (23). When she has been stripped of
everything-her optimism, her humor, her past, her husband,
her illusions, even her emotional stability-she still has Kate:
"Why bother, you might ask. I bother for Kate" (4). More than
simply a mother's stubborn instinct, her concern for Kate is a
positive gesture, a reaching out of love, a celebration of value
in a meaningless world.
Play It As It Lays is not a nihilistic novel. Although Maria
encounters nothingness, she survives: "Now that I have the
answer, my plans for the future are these: (I) get Kate, (2) live
with Kate alone, (3) do some canning. Damson plums, apricot
preserves. Sweet India relish and pickled peaches. Apple
chutney. Summer squash succotash" (210). Not much of a
future, since Kate may not ever be able to live with Maria
outside the institution. But this future and its resolution,
however precarious, are meant to be taken seriously. In
another context, Didion has written: "I know something about
dread myself, and appreciate the elaborate systems with which
some people manage to fill the void, appreciate all the opiates
of the people, whether they are as accessible as alcohol and
heroin and promiscuity or as hard to come by as faith in God
or History. " 7 Maria's system for salvation lies somewhere
between the extremes of heroin and history. Nevertheless, she
has found an answer to nothingness and a reason for
continuing to play the game. The novel ends with Maria

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playing solitaire and looking at the hummingbird, whose


frenetic wing activity allows it to appear motionless, at rest in
the center. After the swirling experiences of the previous
months, Maria has achieved a similar stasis, an inner peace
which enables her to confront existence and prepare for the
future once more.
Maria's encounter with nothingness is contrasted with
BZ's, whose confrontation with the void destroys him. In the
most intensely moving scene in the novel, BZ, having reached
the end of his endurance, commits suicide by taking an
overdose of pills while Maria holds his hand. Unable and
perhaps unwilling to stop him, Maria nonetheless comforts
him maternally as she comforted the doomed children in her
dream. BZ's suicide is shocking but not unexpected, for he has
lost his resilience and desire to continue. Stripped of a name,
reduced almost to a cipher, BZ is never even physically
described in the novel; he exists only as a voice, a presence, a
shadow. He has gone all the way to Z, to the end where there is
nothing more, and he can find no reason to live one moment
longer. BZ and Maria provide alternate answers to the
question raised by Camus in the opening words of The Myth qf'
Sisyphus: "There is but one truly serious philosophical
problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not
worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question
of
BZ tries to convince Maria that nothing
matters, that playing the game has no point any more. His
name also suggests a parallel with Beelzebub, a Satanic
tempter who seeks to corrupt Eve from her innocence. Maria
loses her innocence but ultimately refuses BZ's offered apple,
the Seconal pills which kill him. Through Maria, Didion
endorses Camus' conclusion that living is better than dying,
even if one must live with nothingness. Why? "VVhy not,"
Maria says, in the final words of the novel (214). Humanity is
won by continuing to play in the face of defeat, even if the odds
against the player are overwhelming. Maria understands that
although life may have no meaning, it is still worth living
.
..
If Maria's last name suggests her questioning of existence,
her first- (pronounced, she tells us, Mar-E YE-ah) suggests an
, . enduring self-identity. Despite the numerous threats to her
>'_fundamental existence, her sense of"I" endures. At one point

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in the novel, she confronts non-being and finds herself


threatened with personal annihilation: "By the end of a week
she was thinking constantly about where her body stopped and
the air began, about the exact point in space and time that was
the difference between Maria and other" (I 70). She senses the
same fundamental threat to her existence that Roquentin does
in Sartre's Nausea when he discovers his contingency and his
nothingness in the world of things. (Maria's own personal
version of nausea is graphically illustrated by her constant
vomiting; her physfcal revulsion at the way things are should
be seen as more than a simple case of nerves or a chronically
weak stomach). Although Maria loses selves- Maria as
actress, Maria as Carter Lang's wife, Maria as Francine and
Harry Wyeth's daughter-she never loses her real self, that
enduring sense of "I," the source of all the false selves, whose
continued existence ultimately prevents a. feeling of total
annihilation .
. . Maria's encounter with nothingness is set in a world
which Didion pictures in vivid images as bleak, sterile, and
hostile-where houses fall into canyons, where men seeking
God are killed by rattlesnakes, where towns are replaced by
missile ranges. It is a random world of chance, suggested in the
novel by recurring references to gambling (including the title).
It is a nightmarish burning world, where fire and destruction
always threaten: "In the aftermath of the wind the air was dry,
burning, so clear that she could see the ploughed furrows of
firebreaks on distant mountains. Not even the highest palms
and clarity of the air seemed to rob
moved. The
everything of its pe:rspective, seemed to alter all perception of
depth, and Maria drove as carefully as if she were
reconnoitering an atmosphere without gravity" (76). It is a
world devoid of natural beauty and comfort: "She drove to the
beach, but there was oil scum on the sand and a red tide in the
flaccid surf and mounds of kelp at the waterline. The kelp
hummed with flies. The water lapped warm, forceless" (65). It
is a world inhabited by the dead and the dying:" A woman in a
nurse's uniform wheeled a bundled neuter figure silently past
ahe hedges of dead camellias" ( 130).
As Maria's awareness of nothingness deepens, the action
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of the novel moves from Hollywood to the desert, to a town


"on a dry river bed between Death Valley and the Nevada line"
( 187) where Carter is filming. Here in the desert BZ discovers
absolute zero and kills himself; here Maria has her
"breakdown." Didion describes the town: ''By late day the
thermometer outside the motel office would register between
120 and 130. The old people put aluminum foil in their
trailer windows to reflect the heat. There were two trees in the
town, two cottonwoods in the dry river bed, but one of them
was dead" ( 188).
But all is neither desolate nor hopeless. One tree is dead
(BZ), but one is still alive, even in the inhospitable desert. The
ability to survive is personified by the waitress at the local
diner who invites Maria to her trailer, set on a concrete
foundation, surrounded by a split-rail fence and a hundred
miles of drifting sand. She comforts Maria, who is crying, by
telling her that since she made her "decision in '61 at a meeting
in Barstow" (199), she has not shed a tear. She has found a
reason to go on. Throughout her conversation with Maria, she
continues to sweep the sand: "The woman picked up a broom
and began sweeping the sand into small piles, then edging the
piles back to the fence. New sand blew in as she swept" ( 199).
An endless, frustrating, almost ridiculous gesture, sweeping
back the constantly blowing sand; no more hopeless and
endless than Sisyphus's eternal task of pushing the rock to the
top of the hill. Both activities embody a stubborn refusal to
submit to the way things are, to admit defeat by surrendering
to meaninglessness. Even if she cannot keep the sand away, the
woman refuses to stop trying; even if Maria cannot have Kate,
at least not now, she refuses to stop planning. The ending of
the novel is not optimistic-nor is it nihilistic. For, as Camus
wrote about Sisyphus, "The struggle itself toward the heights
is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus
happy." 9 Similarly, one must imagine Maria happy.
Didion's narrative technique recalls Eliot's line from The
Waste Land, "A heap of broken images," images of alienation
and desolation, fragments of banal conversations, the
minutiae of everyday life joined in a mosaic of nothingness.
Instead of a flowing narrative, a broken and disordered
pattern is brought about by frequentjuxtaposition of past and
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present, important and trivial scenes, and first and third


person narration. What emerges through Didion's careful
selection and rendering is a bleak and haunting picture of
nothingness. Since so many chapters are short, some only a
few lines long, the reader is struck most profoundly by the
empty spaces, the blankness on the pages of the book. These
silences between the chapters become as disturbing and
eloquent as the emptiness of the void itself, as significant as the
refrain of "Maria said nothing" in communicating vacuity.
The novel is an acutely sensitive record of Maria's mind,
moods, and emotions. Although she is the narrator only at the
beginning and end of the novel, she dominates every page.
Everything--events, other characters, objects, even the
weather-is seen from her point of view, measured by her
respon:;e. Even her. abortion is presented not for the objective
details of the operation, but rather for her subjective reactions;
the color of the wallpaper, the noise of the air-conditioner, the
sound of the television set in the next room are the things that
count; her mind records them as she desperately tries to ignore
the reality of the abortion. We share her emotions because we
see them from within her experience.
Although the narrator's gaze at Maria is unflinching, it is
never unfeeling, never completely a detached camera-eye. A
chapter which opens in a clinical manner, "On the tenth day of
Octob(:r at quarter past four in the afternoon with a dry hot
wind blowing through the passes Maria found herself in
Baker (30), soon becomes internalized as the point of view
quickly moves into Maria's mind where she debates whether or
not to call Carter on location. The detached point of view
enables us to focus on Maria, to escape temporarily the
claustrophobic: confines of her mind. We are invariably drawn
back into Maria, forced to share with her those experiences
which she cannot escape. We care about Maria because we are
with her so intimately. We care because the narrator cares.
The character of Maria's mind dictates the structure of
the novel. The lack of continuity between chapters reflects the
randomness and disorder that Maria perceives. Just as she is
unable to discover connections between cause and effect, no
obvious logical connection is often made between one chapter

76
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and the next. Where Maria can make connections, the


structure reflects them; for example, Chapters 27 through 29,
seemingly unrelated on the surface, are closely related by their
concern with motherhood. These chapters follow immediately
after Maria's abortion, when thoughts of motherhood
naturally loom large in her consciousness.
Above all, Didion's laconic prose style communicates
Maria's situation both powerfully and movingly. Her style is
reminiscent of Hemingway's in its surface simplicity, its
concreteness, its avoidance of abstractions and artificiality.
Like Hemingway, Didion understands that less is frequently
more, that understatement can often u>rnmunicate more
emotion than overstatement. A typical f><.tragraph from the
novel will illustrate: .. The heat stuck. The air shimmered. An
underground nuclear device was detonated where Silver Wells
had once been, and Maria got up before dawn to feel the blast.
She felt nothing" (204). With precision and economy (three of
the sentences are only three words long), she subtly
communicates the ennui of Maria's life, her anaesthetized
feelings, the hostility of the world as she perceives it, and her
failure to recapture the past. When Didion writes, u At four
that afternoon, after a day spent looking at the telephone and
lighting cigarettes and putting the cigarettes out and getting
glasses of water and looking at the telephone again, Maria
dialed the number" (56), she vividly illustrates the desperate,
mechanical ways Maria seeks to fill up time-here because of
an unwillingness to make arrangements for the abortion.
Throughout the novel, numerous passages like these resonate
with unstated but nonetheless powerfully wrought emotional
significance.
Another element of that emotional message is the sense of
loss which is so prominent in Play fl As It Lays. The opening
sentence of Chapter One, "In the first hot month of the fall
after the summer she left Carter (the summer Carter left her,
the summer Carter stopped living in the house in Beverly
Hills), Maria drove the freeway" ( 15), introduces the efegiac
tone which encompasses the entire novel and is characteristic
of all of Didion's writing: in the painful regret over a broken
marriage and a lost past in Run River; in the poignant

77
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realization that things are not the way they used to be, or ought
to be, in the essays of Slouching Towards Bethlehem; in

Maria's foss of innocence and naivete as she realizes the high


cost of her encounter with nothingness in Play It As It Lays.
Sadness is as much a part of the novel as silence.
With relentless attention to telling detail, a perceptive eye
for sharply-etched characters, an unerring ear for the
absurdities and non sequiturs that pass for daily conversation,
and a diamond-hard unsentimental style, Joan Didion has

fashioned a remarkable novel which never misses in its


portrayal of a modern woman caught in a mid-twentiethcentury crisis. She has cast anew, in her unique idiom, one of
the prevailing concerns of modern literature: confrontation
with the void. Despite its preoccupation with death, suffering,
boredom, and despair, Play It As It Lays is always fresh and
alive. The novel not only touches the heart of its reader

through its sensitive treatment of Maria Wyeth but also


assaults the mind in its investigation of the heart of darkness
too often discovered lurking behind the fundamental
questions about existence in the modern world.
EASTERN MICHIGAN UNIVERSITY
NOTES
1 Joan Didion, Play It As It Lays (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1970), p. 4.
Subsequent references arc to this edition.
2 Albert Camus, n1e Myth of Sisyphus unci Other Essays, trans. Justin O'Brien (New
York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1955), p. 12.
1 Camus, p. 13.
4 Camus, p. 31.

s Ralph Ellison, lmisible Man (New York: Modern Library, 1952). p. 439.

R. D. Laing, The DMded Se!f(Ncw York: Pantheon Books, 1969), p. 40.


7 Joan Didion, Slouching Tol\'arcls Bethlehem (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
1968). p. 63.
H Camus, p. 3.
Y Camus, p. 123.

78
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The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System

"Play It as It Lays": Didion and the Diver Heroine


Author(s): Cynthia Griffin Wolff
Source: Contemporary Literature, Vol. 24, No. 4 (Winter, 1983), pp. 480-495
Published by: University of Wisconsin Press
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PLA Y IT AS IT LA YS:
DIDION AND THE DIVER HEROINE
Cynthia Griffin Wolff

It is troubling that we have found Joan Didion's fiction so easy to


dismiss. Often it is dismissed with lavish praise: praise for the style,
so idiosyncraticand spare; praise for the sensitive portrayalof neurotic
women whose anarchic interiors seem unable to connect with the outside world. "Play It As It Lays focuses on a highly personal and private version of the broken center," one critic writes. "Things are falling apart in Maria's world, the chain of daily gestures has been irrevocably broken. What results is the main concern of the novel, Maria's
encounter with absurdity and nothingness."' Surely without intending to do so, Didion's champion has concocted a fatal scenario. Didion
is a talented woman writing a nicely turned prose style; her subject
is really an updated version of the passive heroine of the sentimental
novel, interesting because of the tenderness of her sensibilities, but
doomed to destruction because of her inability to translate these feelings into meaningful action. Such a reading of Didion's fiction comes
dangerously close to applauding the author for having produced an
aesthetic/emotional "set piece," artistically effective, perhaps, but not
"significant." And Didion's detractors, most of whom agree with the
"set piece" interpretation of her intentions, pillory her for what they
see as artistic self-indulgence. "Now, unlike the heroines of Didion's
fiction, I do not regard memory as an affliction; I remember. I
remember in part because I have no choice, but also in part because
(unlike Didion's heroines, whose fate depends less upon memory and
volition than upon selective amnesia), I believe that without memory
there is no civilization. . . . Part of Didion's appeal, I am convinced,
IDavid J. Geherin, "Nothingness and Beyond: Joan Didion's Play It As It Lays,"
Critique 16, No. 1 (1974), 67.
0010-7484/83/0004-0480
$1.50/0
ContemporaryLiteratureXXIV, 4
?1983 by the Boardof Regentsof the Universityof WisconsinSystem

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lies in her refusal to forge connections (notably between the personal


and the political or between the personal and the transcendental). In
spite of the sense of dread that suffuses her work, it contains this
implied message of (false) comfort: If Didion - who is so awfully
smart - doesn't trouble to make connections, why should we?"2 The
debators agree on the nature of Didion's work; they disagreeonly about
the value one should set upon such an enterprise.
Ironically, the argument thus waged is itself meaningless: both
sides have entirely missed the deeply moral intention in Didion's novel,
responding to a naive reading- where the heroine's simplest statements
and most negative self-evaluations are taken at face value - ratherthan
to the author's complex artifice. To be sure, Maria Wyeth, the central
figure in Play It As It Lays, rehearsesher faults as if they were a litany
or a Gregorian chant, seeming to confirm her own essential disconnectedness: "I have trouble with as it was," "I try to live in the now,"
"NOTHING
Yet not even Maria can disengage her mind from
APPLIES."3
the past. It crowds upon her in not altogether disconnected fragments.
And the novelist, Didion, has an even larger scheme in mind.
Maria may begin by renouncing the activity of questioning: "What
makes lago evil? some people ask. I never ask" (p. 3). Nonetheless,
she concludes with a question after all, "Why not, I say" (p. 214), the
very last words of the novel. Her very name insists upon the inescapable necessity of this activity- Wyeth(Why is) - and only a very gullible
reader will fail to see that the questing and questioning elements are
at the very core of this fiction. We are not meant to rest satisfied with
the delicate nuances of Maria's emotional life; quite the contrary,
Didion demands that we use Maria'sagonized explorations as a vehicle
for the examination of nothing less than our heritage as Americans.
The tensions in this work, which professes so disingenuously to ignore
temporal connections, are always between past and present - Maria's
past and present, and the past and present of a once-great culture.
Echoes from the past drop in and out of the novel: different literary
and cultural strategies are alluded to and discarded, or perhaps tried
again and again in the stubborn effort to make the present comprehensible in terms of the past. Didion has a ruthless memory, and she
recalls all of the most poignant dreams of the American experiment.
2Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, "Joan Didion: The Courage of Her Afflictions,"
The Nation (September 29, 1979), 277, 279.
3Joan Didion, Play It As It Lays (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1970),
pp. 7, 10, 4. Further references to this edition will be identified parenthetically in
the text.

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481

In the end, she compels us to seek a definition for the chaos of our
society, a cause for the restlessness and despair. Her achievement as
novelist lies in the power with which she summons this modern "wilderness" and in the skill with which she defines its meaning, using as
medium Maria, who professes to know nothing but nothingness itself.
One critic, Katherine Henderson, has been shrewd enough to
understand the extent to which Play It As It Lays is a novel that deals
with our inheritance from the "fathers"; and it is typical of Didion's
compression that this theme embraces both the whole set of ideals that
Americans identify with "Fathers"- Puritan Fathers, founding fathers
- and the literal legacy of Harry Wyeth to his daughter. "My father
advised me that life itself was a crap game: it was one of the two lessons
I learned as a child. The other was that overturning a rock was apt
to reveal a rattlesnake" (p. 200). Henderson writes:
HarryWyeth'sphilosophyis a perversionof the religiousbeliefof earlyAmericans that . . . they wereobjectsof God'sspecialgrace. .... In Wyeth'sversion of this belief God is absent, and the optimisminherentin the belief is
tied to games of chance. . . . The second lesson that Wyethteaches his
daughter,that anyonewho overturnsa rock is "aptto reveala rattlesnake,"
is a secularizationof the dark side of the Americanreligiousheritage,the
Calvinisticsense of lurkingevil.4
The important thing is that the moral concern persists even after it
has become detached from a belief in the Deity. Maria's initial question, which appears to dismiss the question of evil altogether, actually
serves to focus our attention on the "Hawthornian" fascination with
evil that pervadesthis entire work; and on the second page of the novel,
Maria drops unthinkingly back into language that is morally, even
prayerfully framed. These moves are not incidental to the novel's
concern. Didion would claim that no one can speak meaningfullyunless
he employs such categories and language. Any other form of rhetoric
can deal only with instrumental behavior: one thinks of the precise,
merely denotative, nonjudgmentallanguage that rendersCarter'scasual
amorality. Ironically, Didion would agree with her acidulous critic that
we must make connections between the personal and the transcendental; if we altogether relinquish that effort, we might as well choose
BZ's way of death.
4Katherine U. Henderson, Joan Didion (New York: Ungar, 1981), pp. 20-21.
Henderson's first-rate introductory study of Didion and her work is the best comprehensive work on the author now available.

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The mythology of our Puritan Fathers was predicated upon their


certainty that the things of this world will always yield to the combined forces of time and death, the grace of election standing as the
only defense against those twin predators. The godless glitter of
Didion's America still shadowboxes with the same old enemies in its
search for "happiness" or "fulfillment," and Maria's crowd pursues
the apparition of eternal youth- gleaming, unlined bodies "as if they
had an arrangement with mortality" (p. 46). These people are always
in motion, moving from party to party, bed to bed, but theirs is motion
without direction or purpose. Its frenzy recollectsthe haphazardmovement of that earlier "lost" generation, just as the anxious dread of
time's passage summons the ghost of Robert Cohn to bleat: " 'Do you
know that in about thirty-five years more we'll be dead?' " Hemingway's nightmare - values vanishing as time plunges ahead - presides
visibly in Didion's novel, with this important difference: Hemingway
never altogether confronted despair. His heroes could still pray, could
still discover quiet moments of peace that hinted at a "great good
place," could still formulate dreams that suggested the genuine possibility of heroic activity. Didion's fictional world does not offer these
consolations.
So it is with Didion's adaptation of the "Hemingway style."
Hemingway had banished that literary god, the omniscient narrator,
and had pared away the opulence of Victorian sentence structure to
reveal the beautiful bare bones of syntax. It was a verbal loss of sorts,
but it recollected the literal "Puritan"impulse that lay at the heart of
American culture. In Didion, this impulse is no longer purifying. It
is lethal. Hence Didion's redaction of Hemingway prose is no more
than fragments of language, clipped almost beyond recognition and
reduced to the point where coherence itself is nearly lost. This mutilation of verbal structures renders the moral starvation of a society that
has dispensed almost entirely with the freight of ethical intention.
Within the framework of the novel, this same habit of discarding
moral and emotional values is renderedwith a bizarreliteralness.Maria
and her friends equate beauty with "thin," and women starve themselves into grotesquelyskeletal shapes. The horror of modern amorality
is echoed and emphasized, then, in the detachment of the doctor's
coolly clinical appraisalof Maria just before the abortion: " 'You don't
weigh enough' " (p. 82). It is reiterated in self-punishing fetishes
designed to control weight, and it is apotheosized in the other half
of Maria's inheritance, the bones which are all that remain of her
mother. "The night my mother ran the car off the highway outside

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I 483

Tonopah I was with a drunk rich boy at the old Morocco, as close
as I could figure later: I didn't know about it for a couple of weeks
because the coyotes tore her up before anybody found her and my
father couldn't tell me" (p. 8).
Hemingway'slinguistic rites of purification were morally encoded.
The banished omniscient narratorwas the voice of Victorian standards
- that is, the standards of a female ruler- and the "good places" for
Hemingway men resembled the pastoral retreats of Twain's runaway
boys. Both were places from which women, and especially "mothers,"
had been excluded. The strategies for happiness that were invented
by these runaway boys never fully succeeded;nonetheless, the response
to their inadequacies was not a reexamination of the runaway mentality, but rather a conviction that perhaps our failures were due to
the fact that our heroes had not run far enough. Robotlike, Maria
tries to assuage her pain by imitating the American heroes thus formulated. She drives the highway "as a riverman runs a river, every day
more attuned to its currents, its deceptions, and just as a riverman
feels the pull of the rapids in the lull between sleeping and waking,
so Maria ... saw the great signs soar overhead at seventy miles an
hour" (p. 16). But now we have run so far that there is no longer even
a river, just the "flawless burning concrete" of the open road (p. 17).
It is an arid world, bereft specifically of the nurturing element that
had sustained Victorian pieties. Even Maria intuitively understands
the nature of this loss, and she weeps in the dark for her own lost
mother, helpless to repair the desolation.
Maria's mother, Francine, has died before the novel begins, but
the destructionof those nurturingelements that had combined to make
"motherhood"began well before Francine'sbody served as supper for
coyotes. She had been a good cook; cooking had been one of her ways
of giving comfort to her daughter. But the men have other notions
about the use to which Francine'stalents should be put. " 'Franchises,
you rent out your name and your receipt,' " Benny says; " 'Franchised
services, that's where the future lies' " (p. 87). Nourishment, carethese are no longer in the picture. Clipped Hemingway prose becomes
perfect advertising copy in a world where "Francine"can be so quickly
transformed into "Franchise."The mother's moral and emotional concerns must yield to the father'smonied dreams: " 'She can't win if she's
not at the table, Francine.' Harry Wyeth threw down his napkin and
stood up. 'You wouldn't understand that' "(p. 88). The dinner table
does a slow fade into a "craps"table, and food is transformed into
fecal matter without even the intermediary process of digestion.

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Didion repeatedly demonstrates the moral derangements of


modern society by patterns of images, sometimes even by abstract
verbal patternsor by patternsof association, which capturethe inherent
distortion of value. Gold which has given way to silver, silver which
has given way to even baser metals: this ancient pattern is a traditional
way of suggesting that the present has fallen away from the greatness
of the past. Didion deploys this pattern with a wry twist. Even California's past has dubious moral implications, and its future is little short
of apocalyptic. Hence there are echoes in Maria's story of that earlier
gambler, "The Girl of the Golden West." There is even the faint afterimage of some "golden era" in filmdom - Erich von Stroheim's Greed
(to choose the apposite example), which rendered the moral debasement of the gold rush days quite literally, thousands of frames of film
with the "golden" objects in them gilded by hand so that in the otherwise black-and-whitepicture, gold flickeredobscenely across the screen.
Now the corruption has begun to expand and dominate. Maria is a
girl of the silver screen, and she was reared in the town of Silver Wells,
a town where the "wells" have never had water and where the silver
stopped flowing long ago. But silver still drifts in and out of the fiction- in echoes of her mother's longing to cross the ocean in a silver
plane, in the silver vinyl dress that Maria buys to help herself forget
the abortion, in the silverlake home of the charlatan hypnotist. And
just ahead, an even more terrifying moral epoch awaits, for the moral
disease has now apparentlyspread even into the political world beyond
California. The silver age has by and large played itself out. Benny
and Maria's father have begun buying zinc futures, and the town of
Silver Wells has disappeared altogether. " 'There isn't any Silver Wells
today. . . . It's in the middle of a missile range' " (p. 6).
Patterns of this sort run throughout the novel, yet our concern
is less with the patterns themselves than with what Maria makes of
them. Her quest is to comprehend, even though she so often disclaims
that quest.
The novel begins with her assertion that she is telling her story
only to be an agreeable player of the game; yet almost at once, this
mien of good-natured passivity fades before the blaze of genuine
passion. "Why bother, you might ask. I bother for Kate. What I play
for here is Kate" (p. 4). The love for her daughter, like the longing
for her lost mother, comes from the depths of her nature and is
authentic. Carter, who seems by comparison to Maria so patently
normal and efficient, never bothers to keep track of people and their
relationships; "feelings" have no meaning for him. Thus when Maria

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I 485

tells Carter of her unexpected pregnancy, he has only one thought:


"he was going to give her the telephone number of the only man in
Los Angeles County who did clean work" (p. 54). Clean abortions.
Erase the fetus, eliminate the problem; forget it.
Maria cannot take these events with such cold, matter-of-fact
competence. She has trouble with time: she forgets appointments, she
forgets to call the answering service, she forgets to pay her bills. In
all the things that "matter"to Carter, Maria is hopelessly inept. But
in the more vital elements of life, she is the only person in this world
who takes account, the only keeper of the record. She remembers her
mother, even dreams about her. She remembers the daughter whom
Carter has consigned once and for all to the doctors and then forgotten. And after the abortion, she is the only one who remembers
the fetus that was flushed down the drain.
Once in her car she drove as far as Romaineand then pulledover, put her
head on the steeringwheel and cried as she had not cried since she was a
child, cried out loud. She criedbecause she was humiliatedand she cried
for her motherand she criedfor Kateand she criedbecausesomethinghad
just come throughto her, there in the sun on the Westernstreet: she had
deliberatelynot countedthe monthsbut she must have been countingthem
unawares,must have been keepinga relentlesscount somewhere,because
this was the day, the day the baby would have been born. (p. 141)
By the conclusion of the novel, we realize that Maria has lived
in order to tell the tale. At some level, even Maria understands this
role, for she alerts us to it at the very beginning: "My name is Maria
Wyeth. That is pronounced Mar-eye-ah, to get it straight at the outset" (p. 4). If Carter is the camera'seye - clicking neutrally and impartially open and closed, one "take"after another, absorbed only in the
mechanical arrangement of shot after shot - Maria keeps track of the
human relationships. Though the intention is usually expressed in her
sense of "charms"or superstitions, she is also attempting to determine
the moral implications of what she has seen, to find some larger,
transcendent meaning to the memories she cannot forget. It is a mission in which she repeatedly attempts to include Carter, without
success.
"Whatdo you thinkaboutit," MariaaskedCarter... "Aboutthe man
at the trailercamp who told his wife he was going out for a walk in order
to talk with God."
"I wasn'tlistening, Maria. Just give me the punch line."

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"Thereisn't any punch line, the highwaypatroljust found him dead,


bitten by a rattlesnake."
"I'llsay there isn't any punch line."
"Do you think he talked to God?"
Carterlooked at her.
"I mean do you think God answered?Or don't you?"
Carterwalked out of the room. (p. 204)
Like the opening questions which echo that Hawthornian preoccupation with evil, so this passage suggests that insofar as the novel ransacks American culture, searching for some viable moral/aesthetic
strategy, Didion has located a system that will serve.
Maria embraces "nothing." She appears to deny even self itself
in this pursuit, and still she assaults us with the power of her unrelentingly moral vision in "Mar-eye-ah." She is, of course, echoing
Emerson's Nature. "I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I
see all." And as Maria searches with the beacon of her sight, she
responds intuitivelyto another Emersonian maxim. "1. Words are signs
of natural facts. 2. Particular natural facts are symbols of particular
spiritual facts. 3. Nature is the symbol of spirit."
Carter and the rest of the Hollywood crowd use language as no
more than an instrument. Maria cannot always comprehend the moral
implications in the common coinage of California slang, but she reacts
to them. One meaning is already apparent: "silver"and even "gold"
signify fraud and greed. There were "rush"periods for both silver and
gold in the old days in California; and if, as Maria's father advised
her, a snake lurks under the rocks of this area, the poison of the snake
is palpable embodiment of the evil inherent in the hectic fight to gain
silver and gold. The term "rush"has pretty much dropped out of the
mining trade, where great fortunes no longer wait to be captured by
brutalityand greed;nevertheless,the term lives on. It has been absorbed
into the film industry, and with it have come the grinning forms of
deathless evil, brutality, and greed. Such are the transcendent spiritual
"Truths"which the jargon of film language signifies.
"Cut"is one of Carter's words. Technically, it means the piecing
together of scenes in one or another order, no more than a neutral
term, he would say. But Maria knows differently, because she learned
as she watched Carter make that initial, experimental film. "Carter
had simply followed Maria around New York and shot film ... Maria
asleep on the couch at a party, Maria on the telephone arguing with
the billing department at Bloomingdale's, Maria cleaning some marijuana with a kitchen strainer"(p. 20). Eventually, as the single shots

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487

accumulateand "Carterbegan cutting the film" Maria could begin


to understandthe violationthat was takingplace (p. 20). Carterwas
assemblingand reassembling"Maria,"puttinghertogetherso that he
couldexhibither.Not a personanymore,Mariahasbecomea property:
anybodycan look at her wheneverhe wants- speedher up, slow her
down, run herbackwards.Most of all, this notion of "thecut"denies
any intrinsicorderto Maria'sidentity;the film, "Maria,"can be "cut"
many different ways, whatevermakes for good box office, Carter
would say. The girl herselfcounts for nothing. It is a form of rape,
and Mariareactswith increasingmoral horror. "Cartertook her to
BZ and Helene'sone night when BZ was runningthe pictureand she
had to leavethe house after the titles, had to sit outsideon the beach
smokingcigarettesand fightingnauseafor seventy-twoof the seventyfour minutes"(p. 21).
Like Carter,Maria'sfatherhad acceptedthe notion of a "cut,"
but for him it had been a cut of the cards. Mariahad been his ticket
to fortune, and like Carter,he had high expectationsfor the profit
to be made from her. Both Carterand Maria'sfather are reallypart
of some largersocial perversion.The "cut"is a violation of self, and
modernAmericais a societythat dailypermitssuchviolations,having
come to hold humanityin very little regard.Eventuallyin Didion's
fictionalworld,the "cut"is translatedinto the literalwoundof abortion, an acceptable,antisepticnegation of humanity. " 'Hear that
scraping,Maria?'the doctorsaid. 'Thatshouldbe the soundof music
to you. .

. [S]ix weeks from now you'll have a normal period, not

this month,this monthyou just had it, it'sin thatpail' " (p. 83). Maria
in thisvictory
quiteconsciouslyunderstandsthe ominousundercurrent
of expedienceover moralcommitment,comprehendswithouthaving
the meansto redressthe evil. Her languageindicatesthat she understands - less consciously, perhaps- the connection between this viola-

tion and those other forms of "cutting"that had nauseatedher; and


thatleadsto madit is the enragingpowerlessness
of thisunderstanding
ness. "Fuck it, I said to them all, a radical surgeon of my own life.
Never Discuss. Cut. In that way I resemblethe only man in Los Angeles
County who does clean work" (p. 203).

"Scene"is anotherof Carter'swords. The very beginningof his


openingremarkssuggeststhatthis termis centralto his way of ordering not only his workbut his experienceas well:"Herearesomescenes
I haveveryclearin my mind"(p. 13).Theterm"scene"denotesa brief,
often choreographedbit of action betweentwo or more characters;
a single scene is nothing in itself, of course. A single scene tells no

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story. The flexibility of Carter's art, the making of films, resides in


the fact that he can move "scenes"in relation to each other as the final
print is "cut." Yet this way of ordering life has a hidden moral implication. Like the use of the word "cut," the more general use of language, which would define not only the plot in a film but also the
sequence of an individuallife or the coherent moving chronicle of interaction among people as no more than a concatenation of "scenes,"
denies essential meaning to all of these. It is a way of looking at the
world that tacitly asserts there is no inherent meaning in the relationship of the part to the whole. Carter's creation of a series of "scenes"
that can be shifted radically in their relationship to each other does
not have the same kind of unyielding moral significance that the "seen"
world has for the visionary. Carter's camera eye has no power in and
of itself to perceive the relationship between the personal and the
transcendent, and Carter the filmmaker has so thoroughly debased
his capacity for moral insight that he cannot create what his mechanical camera's eye has never recorded. Maria's monitoring eye seeks to
discover precisely the vision that the camera's eye cannot record, yet
at every turn, this essentially moral impulse is thwarted by the destructive conventions of the modern world.
Maria tries over and over again to forge a different kind of "story"
from that offered on the silver screen. When Carter returns to their
home after they have formally separated, Maria is puzzled. She
attempts to dispel the confusion by summoning a plot with a moral
component. "Something real was happening: this was, as it were, her
life. If she could keep that in mind she would be able to play it through,
do the right thing, whatever that meant" (p. 41; my emphasis). But
Maria has fatally little material to work with. In order for Maria to
construct more than a series of essentially separate"scenes"as the story
of her life, society would have to offer support for some sustaining
social ethic, and language would have to contain at least the possibility
of moral implication. "Husband" and "wife" would have to be more
than merely denotative nouns; they would have to indicate as well a
transcendent and ongoing moral commitment. "Mother"would have
to name something that could never be franchised. Hence even Maria's
vision and language are compromised by the abbreviated, free-floating
relationships that modern society breeds. Her summonings of Kate's
memory, for example, are always tainted with the rosy images of advertising copy: they will do some canning in the kitchen and sell the
products of their labor - Maria's way of fulfilling both her mother's
and her father's ambitions for her. And again, when Maria's yearn-

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489

ing for an ordered family with Carter seeks expression, it inevitably


falls into the corrupted, disconnected patterning of the popular media.
"Kate fevered, Carter sponging her back while Maria called the pediatrician. Kate's birthday, Kate laughing, Carter blowing out the candle.
The images would flash at Maria like slides in a dark room. On film
they might have seemed a family" (p. 138). In the end, Maria is not
strong enough to withstand compromise, and she can offer no sustained alternativeto this way of conjuring and naming life's processes.
Thus moral principles are never directly or articulately or forcefully enunciated, and in this absence, widespread corruption occurs.
Poison is in the air, and it infiltrates Maria's relationships with all of
the most important people in her life. It works silently and invisibly,
and Maria's most consistent and powerful recursion to the notion
is made through a series of images of some deadly gas. Her life with
Carter makes her feel like Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight, and her
memories of the abortion- perceivedobliquely, for they are so horrific
that Maria is seldom able to recall the events themselves- fall into
hallucinations of the Nazi holocaust.
"Darling,"they would say, "haveanotherdrink."And she would. She was
drinkinga good deal in the eveningsnow becausewhen she drankshe did
not dream."Thisway to the gas, ladiesandgentlemen,"a loudspeakerkept
repeatingin her dreamsnow, and she would be checkingoff namesas the
childrenfiledpasther,the littlechildrenin the greenantechamber,she would
be collectingtheirlocketsand babyringsin a fine meshbasket.Her instructions wereto whispera few comfortingwordsto those childrenwho cried
or held back, becausethis was a humaneoperation. (p. 126)
An accursed land, and perhaps this is after all no more than a
condemned race to which Maria belongs. The water has gone. Everything that should soothe or refresh or create anew has dried and
blistered in the desert heat. The river to be navigated is a stream of
burningconcrete, the springsand the lake are "silver,"and when Carter
goes on location to shoot, he sets up in a dry river bed between Death
Valley and the Nevada line. Maria searches for healing liquidity, but
she can find it only when it is encased in concrete; thus she creeps
out at night to sleep by the swimming pool, having no other source
of water available.
One heroic vision that comes out of the American past is that
of the diver-hero, Ishmael the wanderer, the man who rides the coffin
up and lives to tell the tale, the man who plunges into the uttermost
recesses of his nature to discover the meaning of "self" and "life."Such

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a form of heroism, growing as it does at least in part from Emersonian


transcendentalism,is congenial to the image of herself that Maria insists
upon so vehemently in her assertion of Mar-eye-ah. Indeed, throughout the novel, Maria gives many indications that she longs for this
kind of heroic possibility, but none exists in the desert wilderness to
which fate and history have consigned her. She struggles valiantly,
nonetheless, and when her life begins to reach that crisis of identity
when she is no longer certain about "where her body stopped and the
air began, about the exact point in space and time that was the difference between Maria and other" (p. 170),5 she makes the only sort of
"heroic dive" available in the aridity that signifies the wilderness of
modern America. She tracks the eerie depths beneath the Hoover Dam.
Shebeganto feelthe pressureof HooverDam, thereon the desert,began
to feel the pressureandpullof the water.Whenthe pressuregot greatenough
she droveout there.All that day she felt the powersurgingthroughherown
body. All day she was faint withvertigo,sunkin a worldwheregreatpower
gridsconverged,throbbinglinesplungedfinallyintothe shallowcanyonbelow
the dam'sface, elevatorslike coffins droppedinto the bowels of the earth
itself. With a guide and a handful of childrenMaria walkedthroughthe
chambers,staredat the turbinesin the vast glitteringgallery,at the deepstill
water with the hidden intakes suckingall the while, even as she watched;
clung to the railings,leanedout, stood finally on a platformover the pipe
that carriedthe river beneath the dam. The platform quivered.Her ears
roared.Shewantedto stayin the dam,lie on the greatpipeitself,but reticence
saved her from asking. (pp. 171-72)
It would be wrong to say that Maria comes away with no answer, for
she lives and she tells us her tale.
As a result, we can understand, as she does not, that the looming
mechanism at the heart of the dam sums and confirms the conflation
of plumbing fixtures with the process of feminine reproduction that
has haunted Maria's thoughts ever since the fetus fell into the drain,
amniotic fluid and incipient life indistinguishable from waste. Thus
this monumental damming of water with its life-giving force stands
5Maria'slast name (Lang) suggests that Didion had the categories of R. D. Laing
in mind when describing the world Maria must live in. Didion's implications are not
entirely clear; however, it seems most probable that the "Laingian" implications of
Maria'shusband's name-which she must take on-direct us to a public world, indeed
a culture, that supports none but vitiated relationships. Thus, although it is of course
Maria who seems to "break down" or become "crazy," Didion wants us to perceive
that Maria's reaction is in some manner a reasonable one - indeed, that it is the only
way to evade the depersonalized relationships that have become the norm.

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491

as emblem for all of those processes that have offered "nothingness"


where vitalizing moral and emotional commitment ought to be. It is
a horrific and compelling confirmation of Henry Adams' vision of
the Dynamo which has replacedthe Virgin. The Virgin is surely goneMaria's namesake utterly without meaning now. This is a new way
of life, as Maria warns us at the beginning of her tale. "Everything
goes. I am working very hard at not thinking about how everything
goes" (p. 8). It is a bitter irony. With the freedom to do "everything,"
"everything of value" entirely disappears.
Maria spends a lot of time riding the freeway. It is an activity
that captures the essence of many American dreams. The open road
has always seemed a "sign" of the opportunity for betterment: for
Puritans, the pathway to paradise, for Alger the road to riches. Rush
hour had been Jay Gatsby's emblem for the magic of the New World,
"thehour of a profound human change, [when]excitementwas generating on the air." And now Maria drifts out and back, going nowhere
in particular, because although her father has told her that she's holding all the aces, he has not told her exactly what she is going to win.
She has no home to signal respite and safety and domestic order, only
that missile range where Silver Wells used to be. Thus the freeway,
with its formless aridity, becomes the definitive sign that when "everything goes," everything of value really disappears.
In America, the notions of "freedom"and "constraint"have always
been precariously balanced. Founded through an act of violent, filial
rebellion, the United States has been in something of a quandary when
it came to delimiting the exact nature of our freedom and the precise
constrictions of our duty. Now Maria Wyeth'sworld has tumbled into
unrestricted chaos. It may be desirable, even necessary, for children
to leave the family and seek their own fortunes, but it is not "free."
The rancor that can come between husband and wife may require the
desperate measure of divorce, but divorce is not "free."Abortion may
be no more than " 'induced menstruation' " or a "humane operation"
(pp. 82, 126), but abortion is far from "free." We have eased the old,
crippling restrictions, and we have introduced flexibility and choice;
we have not, however, expanded our moral categories to include such
comforts. Instead, we have behaved as if moral categories were simply
no longer relevant. The result has been not the utopia we had hoped
for, but rather a nightmare world in which identity itself has been lost
in the shuffle. Such is the burden of Didion's fiction. It seems to be
the case, she argues mordantly, that we need moral categories if we
are really to "be."

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Presented with the bleak message of Didion's analysis of modern


America, we are not left entirely without hope. Ransacking our American heritage finally yields an apposite exemplum for the nothingness
of Maria's life: Hawthorne's Hester Prynne. The ruthless disclosure
of evil that Didion's novel provides is a modern equivalent to Hawthorne's intricate dissection of the many forms malignancy may take.
Hawthorne, who may not have believed in an omniscient divinity, had
nonetheless an unshakable faith in the necessity of understanding the
transcendent meaning of the immanent world. One simplified way of
understanding The Scarlet Letter is to see it as a study of the evil that
results from the iron grip of a dour and inflexible church-state, a portrayal of a society that has lost the balance between freedom and duty.
Heroism in such a society necessarily entailed violation, the breaking
of rigid rules and the exertion of "lawless" freedom. Hawthorne did
not intend for his audience to infer that lawlessness was correct; rather
he wanted us to recognize that Hester's sin had wrought good after
all, that the relationship between freedom and duty is not simple and
may even be paradoxical, that a "fortunate fall" can herald the beginning of a new era of moral endeavor. And the scarlet "A"itself iterates
the paradox: adultery/beginning.
By the time Maria has to attempt heroism, the world of Hester
Prynne has been turned upside-down. Where there was once an iron
rule, there is now license, and where adultery was once branded, marriage and motherhood have become obsolete. Clearly, Maria cannot
adopt Hester's mode of heroism, the heroism of violation. Still, she
is unwilling to consign herself and her daughter to the drifting, amoral
world that Carter navigates so well. Maria has fatal knowledge: "She
could not read newspapers because certain stories leapt at her from
the page: the . . . rattlesnake in the playpen, the peril, unspeakable
peril, in the everyday" (pp. 99-100). Maria does more than take note
of these macabre facts; she understands that they have meaning.
While within the fiction, Maria is the only one to comprehend
that this liberated society is in fact a wasteland, she has few tools to
combat the forces of evil around her. Hence Maria often "sees"something that she cannot precisely interpret. She begins the central episode of the abortion looking for "signs." Soon afterwards, a sign
appears, but like so many things in this desolate world, what was once
endowed with dignity has become vulgar and commercial. " 'Get it
right, Maria,' the voice on the telephone said. 'You got a pencil there?
You writing this down? . . . Maria, I told you, you can't miss it. Under
the big red T' " (p. 76). Thus the quest begins, and Maria scans the

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493

sky: "For miles before she reached the Thriftimart she could see the
big red T, a forty-foot cutout letter which seemed peculiarly illuminated against the harsh unclouded light of the afternoon sky"
(pp. 76-77). Maria cannot read the "meaning"of that giant red letter
scorched against the heavens, but the reader, whose moral intelligence
is less fragmented than Maria's, will recall the relevant scene in Hawthorne'sgreat work. Hester, Dimmesdale, and Pearl mount the scaffold
together at night, the sky suddenly ablaze with a preternaturalillumination, and the letter A appears as a divine sign, "marked out in lines
of dull red light" (The Scarlet Letter, chapter 12).
Maria follows her "sign," and although she seems oblivious to
its implications, she persists restlessly in searching for the meaning
of this nightmare experience. Subtly, the red letter that has guided
her to the place of violation merges with the increasingly portentous
images that suffuse her imagination. She may be undergoing no more
than "inducedmenstruation";however, all of her associationsare dominated by archetypal images of evil and disaster.
She knew a lot of things about disaster.She could manage. Cartercould
nevermanagebut she could. She could not think whereshe had learnedall
thesetricks.Probablyin hermother'sAmericanRed CrossHandbook,gray
with a red cross on the cover ...

If she could concentrate .

. .

for even one

minuteon a pictureof herselfas a ten-year-oldsittingon the front stepsof


the house in SilverWellsreadingthe gray book with the red cross on the
cover (splints,shock, rattlesnakebite, rattlesnakebite was why her mother
made her read it). (pp. 80-81)
The cruciform of the "sign," the red-illuminated T, collapses into this
one living memory of a mother who had tried to nurture, of a mother
who had known of evil and who had offered as defense against it the
gray manual with the red cross on the cover.
Maria cannot parse the meaning of this emblematic red cross,
and Didion declines to explicate it for us. Indeed, she even relinquishes
the authority of giving her fiction a strong closure, judging perhaps
that the evil she has drawn is so pervasive and so powerful that any
reassuring "resolution" would only falsify.
Nonetheless, some things are very clear. The red cross here does
not signify a beginning; it is in general- as it is concretely for Mariathe emblem of some earlier age, an age whose loving mercy had been
founded upon an acknowledgementof suffering, an age when freedom
and duty had been more meaningfully balanced. This is no answer.
It is, instead, the diagram of an answer, the assertion of the need for

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some answer, some alternative to the "free way" that has led to the
nothingness that Maria alone can recognize and understand. And in
such an age, perhaps it is enough merely to keep on playing.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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495

Enthymema

VII 2012

I, the Implacable I:
lopera di Joan Didion negli anni Settanta
Cinzia Scarpino
Universit degli Studi di Milano

Abstract
Questo saggio offre una lettura dellopera di Joan Didion negli anni Settanta (Play It As It Lays,
A Book of Common Prayer e The White Album) che dia ragione di un percorso estetico sempre pi
interessato a interrogare i limiti e le possibilit della letteratura come testimonianza. Rivendicando un atteggiamento scettico nei confronti di ogni ideologia, Didion colloca tanto i propri romanzi quanto la propria non-fiction allinterno di una congiuntura storica filtrata da una prospettiva scopertamente e irrinunciabilmente autobiografica. Di quellimmaginario collettivo e
personale Didion coglie soprattutto un senso di perdita che riversa in personaggi femminili sopravvissuti tanto a un corporeo femmineo connotato dallabiezione quanto allimpoverimento
irreversibile delle frontiere geografiche e metaforiche in cui sono ambientate le loro storie.
Versioni tardo-moderne del narratore-testimone di una lunga tradizione letteraria americana, le
narratrici-personaggio di Play It As It Lays, A Book of Common Prayer e la persona-testimone di
Didion stessa in The White Album rispondono a un interesse dellautrice per il racconto come
testimonianza che indaghi, non diversamente dalle narrazioni postmoderne coeve, i limiti e le
potenzialit estetiche e morfologiche di quella modalit narrativa, muovendo nella direzione di
un dissolvimento e di una ricomposizione delle funzioni di autore, narratore, personaggio e lettore.
This essay attempts to read Joan Didions work in the 1970s (Play It As It Lays, A Book of Common Prayer e The White Album) as resulting from an increasingly sharp aesthetic awareness of the
modes, limits and possibilities of literature as personal and political testimony. Claiming a sceptical attitude towards any given ideology, Didion places her two novels (Play It As It Lays, A
Book of Common Prayer) and non-fiction book (The White Album) within the history of that decade
as filtered through an overtly autobiographical and idiosyncratic story. Out of a personal experience and understanding of that decade of its collective imagination, its shared or unshared
events and symbols as one dominated by a sense of loss Didion creates women characters
who survive both the abject of their female bodies and the irreversible impoverishment of the
last (and lost) frontiers in which their stories are set. Late-modern versions of a long-abiding
and well-established American literary tradition, the character-narrators of Play It As It Lays, A
Book of Common Prayer and the witness-persona of The White Album respond to Didions aesthetic
insight into the testimonial mode, its limits and potentialities, and a narratological strategy
which, not unlike the postmodern narratives of the same decade, moves toward the dissolution,
scattering, and reassembling of narrative functions (author, narrator, character, and reader).

Parole chiave
Joan Didion, anni Settanta, New Journalism,
corporeo femminile, scrittura testimoniale

Contatti
cinzia.scarpino@unimi.it

Enthymema, VII 2012, p. 453


http://riviste.unimi.it/index.php/enthymema

I, the Implacable I
Cinzia Scarpino

1. On the Morning After the Sixties


Nata nel 1934, Didion sente di appartenere allultima generazione di americani capace di
misurarsi con gli adulti e di vivere fuori dalla storia, diffidente di ogni esaltazione
politica, convinta che il cuore di tenebra non alberghi in qualche errore di
organizzazione sociale ma nel sangue stesso delluomo (Didion, We Tell 329-30).
Cresciuta in una famiglia di destra con valori radicati nellindividualismo estremo della
frontiera (Didion, Where I 204-205), Didion il Kafka di Brentwood Park (Kakutani
32) nutre un sospetto insopprimibile nei confronti della possibilit stessa di qualsiasi
tipo di cambiamento sociale e politico, uno scetticismo virato talvolta in cinismo che
si fonda nel dubbio come categoria critica. infatti nella resistenza idiosincratica a ogni
tentativo di incasellamento in movimenti politici e correnti letterarie e, in ultima analisi,
in qualsivoglia griglia interpretativa, che risiede lunicit ostile ma sempre attuale di
Didion e di una scrittura che, tanto nel reportage dautore quanto nei romanzi, proprio a
partire dagli anni Settanta si va configurare sempre pi come una riflessione sulle
modalit di interrogazione dei limiti e della potenzialit delle funzioni narrative e sui
modi in cui queste si intreccino sempre a unanalisi estetica e politica della costruzione
della soggettivit, soprattutto di quella femminile. In una temperie storica e culturale in
cui gli americani, e gli intellettuali, devono registrare, come mai prima, limpossibilit di
credere ai fatti raccontati dalla carta stampata e dalla televisione il 1971 lanno in cui
sono pubblicati i Pentagon Papers 1 al 1972 risale linizio dello scandalo Watergate
lopera di Didion sembra restituire lerosione epistemica e stilistica tra fatti e
narrazione, traducendola nella conseguente dissoluzione del rapporto fiduciario tra
scrittore e lettore.
Cerniera simbolica tra il decennio che lha lanciata nelle lettere americane, gli anni
Sessanta, e quello che ne consolider la statura di intellettuale e romanziere, On the
Morning After the Sixties, articolo-saggio comparso in The White Album (1979), la
seconda raccolta di non-fiction di Didion, offre unimmagine dellartista da giovane
dominata da un io implacabile (Didion, We Tell 331) e consegnata a una condizione di
sopravvissuta non pacificata. Allesordio Parler qui dellessere figlia del mio tempo
(Didion, We Tell 329), ovvero di quelli che definisce i non rivoluzionari anni Cinquanta
corrisponde una chiusa tutta giocata su una concezione scettica dellesperienza storica:2
What I have made for myself is personal, but is not exactly peace. [] Most of us live less
theatrically, but remain the survivors of a peculiar and inward time. If I could believe that
going to a barricade would affect mans fate in the slightest I would go to that barricade,
and quite often I wish that I could, but it would be less than honest to say that I expect to
happen upon such a happy ending. (Didion, We Tell 331)

Quando scrive On the Morning After the Sixties, nel 1970, Joan Didion ha allattivo
un romanzo, Run River (1963), e un libro di non-fiction, Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968),
considerato da molti il suo capolavoro in quel genere; ha inoltre appena dato alle stampe
Play It As It Lays (1970), suo secondo romanzo. Dal 1964 sposata a John Gregory
I cosiddetti Pentagon Papers sono un rapporto ottenuto da Daniel Ellsberg, un collaboratore della
Casa Bianca, e pubblicato dal New York Times, che rivela agli americani numerosi retroscena del
conflitto in Vietnam tra cui leffettiva dinamica dellincidente del Tonchino coperti fino a quel
momento dal segreto di stato.
2 Sempre mie le traduzioni da qui in avanti dove non indicato diversamente.
1

Enthymema, VII 2012, p. 454


http://riviste.unimi.it/index.php/enthymema

I, the Implacable I
Cinzia Scarpino

Dunne giornalista e scrittore, compagno inseparabile nei successivi quarantanni3 con


cui vive tra Malibu, la East Coast, le Hawaii e altri luoghi del paese e del mondo, insieme
alla piccola Quintana Roo Dunne, la loro figlia adottiva. Il decennio che si apre con Play
It As It Lays, prosegue con A Book of Common Prayer (1977), il suo terzo romanzo, e si
chiude con The White Album, rappresenta una sorta di fucina narrativa in cui Didion
prosegue un ostinato lavoro sul s gi avviato negli anni Sessanta: sia nelle pagine
saggistiche della non-fiction sia nei romanzi, lautrice cavalca le proprie ossessioni
misurandosi per scorci e spigolature con un quadro storico e culturale a cui ribadisce, in
parziale sintonia con le teorizzazioni postmoderne coeve, di non saper dare un senso. Se,
per molti versi, da un punto di vista temporale e culturale WA e PIL si collocano ancora
nel decennio precedente e vale la pena di ricordare qui laffermazione di Fredric
Jameson secondo cui i Sessanta continuerebbero fino al 1972-74 (Jameson 1988, 184)
lo fanno nel segno di un progressivo smarrimento di quella possibilit di imporre una
linea narrativa a immagini disparate (Didion 2006, 185) che contraddistingue, scrive
Didion, il ruolo dello scrittore. Nel lungo saggio giornalistico-letterario The White
Album da cui prende avvio la raccolta omonima, Didion insiste infatti sulla propria
incapacit di restituire un ordito dotato di coerenza narrativa ed etica degli eventi che si
aprono, simbolicamente, con i Manson Murders, 4 del 1969, e continuano negli anni
Settanta:
I was meant to know the plot, but all I knew was what I saw: flash pictures in variable sequence
with no meaning beyond their temporary arrangement, not a movie but a cutting-room
experience. In what would probably be the middle of my life I wanted still to believe in
the narrative and in the narratives intelligibility but to know that one could change the
sense with every cut was to begin to perceive the experience as rather more electrical than
ethical. (Didion, We Tell, 186. Miei i corsivi)

Si tratta di una dichiarazione che mette a nudo la problematicit del nesso tra la forma
dellesperienza e quella della rappresentazione interrogando il valore della testimonianza
diretta. Attagliandosi, come vedremo, anche alla scrittura testimoniale di PIL e BCP,
questa riflessione ermeneutica sul valore della testimonianza narrativa particolarmente
esposta nella prosa giornalistico-saggistica di Didion, in una forma-reportage che, dopo
la lezione delle opere documentarie degli anni trenta e la sua trasformazione in un
equivalente letterario dellosservazione partecipata nelletnografia (Rabinowitz 119),
deve misurarsi con il dissolvimento completo della pretesa di obiettivit intellettuale.
Della scomparsa per complicazioni cardiache di Dunne Didion scriver nel memoir che le guadagna il
National Book Award per la non-fiction, The Year of Magical Thinking (2005, Lanno del pensiero magico).
Alla morte prematura della figlia Quintana, che avviene a un anno di distanza da quella di Dunne,
dedicher un altro memoir di compianto, Blue Nights (2011).
4 Si tratta dei tre omicidi losangelini commissionati di Charles Manson (anche noti come Tate
Murders), guru di una comune del quartiere di Haight-Ashbury di San Francisco durante la Summer of
Love (1969): quello dellattrice Sharon Tate (moglie di Roman Polanski) e quelli della coppia Leno e
Rosemary LaBianca. Manson sar processato nel 1970. In WA Didion li chiama i Cielo Drive Murders
(dal luogo in cui sono avvenuti) e la scelta dellalbum dei Beatles del 1968 come titolo del saggioarticolo in cui ne parla che dar poi il nome allintera raccolta ha a che fare con la natura
eterogenea e sperimentale del disco e la sua popolarit allinterno della setta di Manson: sul frigorifero
della casa dei LaBianca, Helter Skelter titolo di una traccia dellalbum sar scritto col sangue dagli
esecutori del duplice omicidio. Cfr. Duffy 131.
3

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Cos, a riprova della perdita di una, seppur illusoria, oggettivit di visione (storica,
politica e culturale) e di una conseguente sovraesposizione autoriale tipica del New
Journalism di cui Didion un esponente di spicco, poco pi avanti nello stesso scritto,
lautrice ammette di aver vissuto tra la fine degli anni Sessanta e linizio dei Settanta
allinsegna di un completo ripiegamento solipsistico, assorta in intellettualizzazioni,
strategie ossessivo-compulsive, proiezioni, formazioni reattive e somatizzazioni
(Didion, We Tell 191). La sua rappresentazione estetica della difficolt di confrontarsi con
il proprio tempo, tanto nel privato quanto nel pubblico, incanalata in due generi, il
reportage dautore a impronta autobiografica e il romanzo, destinati, a partire dalla sua
produzione degli anni Ottanta, a una graduale fusione. In entrambi i canali espressivi
Didion raggiunger una leggibilit icastica (Kazin 190) riversando il proprio nichilismo
nevrastenico (Coale, Paradigms 61) in eroine romanzesche minate dalla malattia mentale
e confessando, in WA, di aver avuto lei stessa un collasso nervoso dovuto, questa la
diagnosi medica, a un esordio di sclerosi multipla another story without a narrative
(Didion, We Tell 211).
Le manifestazioni della visione non pacificata di Didion collassi nervosi, malattie
mentali, ripiegamento solipsistico si fanno pi acute proprio nel decennio in cui,
secondo il recente studio di Bruce J. Schulman The Seventies. The Great Shift in American
Culture, Society and Politics, laccresciuta dimensione partecipativa della politica riflesso o
deriva di dinamiche aperte negli anni Sessanta alimenta, essendone a un tempo
alimentata, la portata trasformativa di alcuni eventi storici sulla cultura e i comportamenti
sociali del paese. Avvantaggiandosi di una prospettiva storiografica necessariamente pi
ampia rispetto a quella della contemporaneit magmatica degli scritti di Tom Wolfe
(The Me Decade and the Third Great Awakening, 1976) e Christopher Lasch (The
Culture of Narcissism American Life in an Age of Diminished Expectations, 1979) che definivano
gli anni Settanta come narcisisti ed egotici, turbati dalla perdita di un senso di continuit
storica (Lasch 1979, 30), Schulman insiste sullavvicendamento, in quel frangente, di
eventi politici nazionali e internazionali e di cambiamenti profondi in ogni aspetto della
vita del paese capaci di rimodellare lo scenario politico pi profondamente degli anni
trenta (Shulman ix). Gli eventi che segnano la storia statunitense tra il 1969 e il 1980
tra cui lo scandalo del Watergate, il ritiro delle truppe americane dal Vietnam, i disastri
ecologici di Three Mile Island e Love Canal ricadono, innescando strategie
partecipative di dissenso, su una societ attraversata da movimenti politici e culturali che
conoscono una stagione di straordinaria fecondit: i rinascimenti etnici, il movimento per
i diritti dei gay, la nascita dellambientalismo e, soprattutto, la seconda ondata del
femminismo americano. proprio alle lotte del Womens Movement che va ricondotta
la realizzazione di una serie di provvedimenti legislativi per molti versi epocali: la legge
sul divorzio no-fault (senza colpa) approvata in California nel 1969, adottata in 9 stati
nel 1977, la sentenza della Corte Suprema sullaborto del 1973 (Roe vs. Wade), e un
insieme di leggi a difesa dellemancipazione femminile in campi quali listruzione, la
salute, le politiche bancarie, la violenza domestica e lo stupro, nonch alla campagna per
lapprovazione dellEqual Rights Amendment (ERA). (Schulman, Bailey, SlocumSchaffer, Stein, Unger).
La risposta di Joan Didion a un quadro cos complesso personale e combattuta.
Non riconoscendosi ufficialmente in nessun movimento di quegli anni, la sua
rielaborazione critica e narrativa di alcuni dei temi che emergono con forza proprio in
seno alle esperienze politiche pi importanti del periodo, su tutte quel Womens
Movement da cui prender nettamente le distanze, si nutre di una consapevolezza poco

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disposta a strumentalizzazioni ideologiche. Cos, la stessa firma che, come vedremo pi


avanti, attacca aspramente gli slogan delle femministe del suo tempo, in PIL e BCP
sviluppa, quasi ossessivamente, il discorso della differenza che passa dalla materialit del
corpo e dalla raffigurazione del corporeo femmineo e materno, dimostrando, a un
tempo, la validit di uno degli assunti del movimento femminista il personale
politico e la sua inservibilit ai fini di motto liberatorio o motore di rivendicazione
politica.
In WA, lopera che si apre in presa diretta agli anni a cavallo tra Sessanta e Settanta, lo
scetticismo storico di Didion si sposa a unincapacit ermeneutica pi volte dichiarata e
riflessa in una cifra stilistica frammentaria. Se non mancano, in The White Album
(WA), riferimenti a figure chiave di quellera quali i Doors, Huey Newton (il fondatore
delle Black Panthers) e Linda Kasabian (membro della Manson Family e testimone al
processo), questi disseminano il resoconto di Didion seguendo un modello a-lineare e agerarchico: non sapendo ricomporre fatti e personaggi in un racconto ordinato, lautrice
abbandona le loro storie prima che raggiungano una qualche conclusione, facendole
sfumare, secondo una modalit cinematografica, una nellaltra (Muggli 414-15). La sua
testimonianza, al pari della sua esperienza di quegli anni, infatti pi elettrica che
etica, pi estetica che morale (Muggli 412).
Di fronte alla frammentariet del decennio lungo del secolo breve (Belpoliti), ci
che rende Didion capace di produrre, secondo James Dickey, the finest woman prose
stylist writing in English today (cit. in Kakutani 30) quindi un gesto estetico che viene
a maturazione negli anni Settanta e, come suggerisce questo passo di In The Islands
(1969, WA), si fonda sulla ricognizione costante dei limiti dello statuto testimoniale della
scrittura nei confronti dellesperienza storica:
You are getting a woman who for some time has felt radically separated from most of the
ideas that seem to interest other people. [] Quite often during the past several years I
have felt myself a sleepwalker, moving through the world unconscious of the moments high issues []
I am not the society in microcosm. I am a thirty-four-year old woman with long straight
hair and an old bikini bathing suit and bad nerves []. (Didion, We Tell 277-78. Miei i
corsivi)

Cardinale al graduale delinearsi del percorso estetico di Didion in WA, PIL e BCP
un lavoro di dissolvimento e ricomposizione attraverso la scrittura di una serie di
funzioni narrative tra cui quella della voce autoriale, del narratore-testimone e del
lettore che contribuiscono a crearne il registro assolutamente singolare pur in sintonia e
in sincronia con le riflessioni di cui si imbevono le coeve narrazioni postmoderne.
Alla messa a punto della firma letteraria di Didion contribuisce lapprendistato
giornalistico per Vogue (Coale, Witnessing 115), una palestra in grado di addestrare un
orecchio-sonar, e un occhio-radar (Leonard, Who Stole) infallibili nella resa del
dettaglio significativo e centrali a tutta la sua produzione. infatti con unopera di nonfiction, STB, che Didion fa il suo ingresso nelle lettere americane, inserendosi cos in un
filone di scrittura, il New Journalism, definito da Morris Dickstein [the] quintessential
literary form of the eruptive 1960s (Dickstein 153). La non-fiction termine coniato da
Tom Wolfe per designare opere scritte tra narrativa e reportage tra i Sessanta e i Settanta
(Wolfe, The New Journalism) che emerge in seno al New Journalism a firma di Truman
Capote, Norman Mailer, Gay Talese, Tom Wolfe e Joan Didion, appunto, introduce
elementi di ibridazione stilistica che mettono in primo piano la soggettivit scoperta
dellautore, liquidando, in un gesto compiaciuto o reticente, la presunta oggettivit della

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forma documentaria e giornalistica (Benotti, Vaughn). Inizialmente, lo stile dei New


Journalists si dispiega nei feature articles pezzi di giornalismo dautore non vincolati
allattualit pubblicati su quotidiani e riviste. Ben presto, tuttavia, quelle matrici
giornalistico-letterarie, debitamente espanse o riprodotte in raccolta, trovano una
collocazione autonoma, con il caso pi noto (premiato con il National Book Award e il
Pulitzer) costituito dalluscita, nel 1968, di The Armies of the Night di Norman Mailer.
Esempio di scrittura assimilabile ai procedimenti metanarrativi strutturalmente
fondanti del testo ed esplicitati come tali al lettore (Hassan, Dismemberment, Postmodern
Turn, Hutcheon Narcissistic, A Poetics, Ironys Edge, McHale, Calabrese, Parrish), lopera di
Mailer, dal sottotitolo History as a Novel/The Novel as History, paradigmatica della
mutazione del racconto della storia in racconto del discorso che organizza la storia,
postulando la presa di distanza dellautore da tutto ci che vi sar enunciato (Calabrese
30; Dickstein 153). In quel distacco, scrive Linda Hutcheon, si crea uno spazio dove
lattualit storica documentaria incontra lautoriflessivit formalista e la parodia
(Hutcheon, The Politics 7). Scopertamente metafictional in Mailer (cos come nel Wolfe
di The Electric Cool-Aid Acid Test, 1968), la fusione dei modi narrativi e del reportage che
pure detta lo stile di STB non riceve una tematizzazione altrettanto insistita da parte di
Didion. Inoltre, sebbene le opere di non-fiction della scrittrice condividano con quelle di
Mailer e Wolfe un interesse eclettico per tutti gli aspetti della vita del paese, la cifra di
STB, nel suo ricorso a silenzi e reticenze autoriali, si allontana dai testi dilatati dei due
autori, avvicinandosi per contro alla prosa cauta e conchiusa del Capote di In Cold Blood
(A sangue freddo, 1965), romanzo-reportage che rappresenta il punto pi alto dellintera
stagione neo-giornalistica (Anderson 144).
Anche in PIL e BCP, romanzi che, vedremo, si configurano come narrative
testimoniali, Didion aderir, con forme scorciate anzich massimaliste, ad alcune delle
dominanti morfologiche di scrittori contemporanei accomunati da una sensibilit
postmodernista quali Thomas Pynchon, Donald Barthelme e John Barth. Oltre alla gi
citata metanarrativit, ci sono infatti, in PIL e soprattutto in BCP, la costante ibridazione
dei codici epistemici, se non proprio il loro dissolvimento in quella che Ihab Hassan ha
definito lincertezza epistemica di Didion (Hassan, Selves 34), la sensazione di
crescente disordine, la debilitazione etica e la vertigine ermeneutica, incipit
folgoranti ed explicit speculari allinizio (Calabrese 28, 31).
In Didion, la ricerca estetica di una forma che dia ragione dei limiti di una narrazione
testimoniale imbastita sul disorientamento storico si sviluppa parallela alla necessit di
raccontare storie di donne che, a loro volta, si raccontano. Scomporre e ricomporre le
funzioni narrative strumentalmente alla presenza di narratrici-testimoni raccontate in
tutta la loro corporeit femminea non si traduce per nel gesto liberatorio che sottende
certa scrittura confessionale femminile (Felski 106-107). Raccontare per Didion non
garantisce la possibilit positiva di una politica sentimentale e femminile che si affranchi
da una disillusione ineluttabile. Di fronte al cuore di tenebra di ieri e di oggi, la scrittura
di Didion sospende la morte per un istante in un atto capace di esorcizzare la farsa
dolente della condizione umana (Hassan, Selves 12) a cui si aggrappano le figure
sommerse di Maria (PIL), Charlotte e Grace (BCP) che sopravvivono alla loro stessa
storia. Daltronde, lincipit di The White Album, We tell ourselves stories in order to
live scelto dalleditore Knopf per la raccolta di tutte le opere di non-fiction di Didion
fino al 2006 ricorda quanto, nel mezzo della frammentariet e dellatomizzazione, della
spirale che sempre pi si allarga, del falcone che non pu udire il falconiere e degli
occhi vuoti e impietosi come il sole parole scelte a premessa di STB (titolo ispirato a

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The Second Coming di William B. Yeats) latto del raccontare sia lunico modo per
scendere a patti con il disordine (STB xi).
In WA, PIL e BCP, le lenti attraverso cui guardare alle cose che cadono a pezzi e
allo smarrimento di senso del tempo e della storia sono rappresentate da figure di donne
che hanno fatto delle perdita la loro condizione esistenziale. Si tratta, oltre che di donne,
di westerners alla ricerca non del tutto consapevole di nuove frontiere fisiche e
metaforiche da cui ricominciare, muovendosi dentro e fuori dal tempo, senza bussola
e, come Didion, senza orologio (Didion, We Tell 203). Ma anzich terre vergini su cui
scrivere un copione di rinascita, le frontiere ritratte in PIL e BCP sono assimilabili a una
tabula rasa che anestetizza i corpi (femminili e materni) e i desideri delle protagoniste.
Persa la spinta pionieristica e, in BCP, coloniale della scoperta e della conquista, le
eroine di Didion finiscono con il proiettare, inalterati, i propri fantasmi personali a
qualsiasi latitudine e temperatura.

2. Where we run out of continent


Che, tanto nella non-fiction quanto nei romanzi, Didion evochi nuove frontiere misurate
sul passato della frontiera as it was (PIL 9) quella mitica dei propri antenati, arrivati in
California a seguito dellattraversamento drammatico del Donner-Reed Party nel 1846-47
(Didion, Where I) sembra ribadire come la sua opera ruoti intorno al tema della perdita.
Sul principio degli anni Settanta, alla trasformazione, consumatasi nel secondo
dopoguerra, della California da frontiera geografica e storica a simulacro di libert
culturale e spirituale Didion ha gi dedicato Run River, STB e molti degli scritti che
andranno a comporre WA (Brady).
Con i due romanzi PIL e BCP la sua narrativa sposter gradualmente le proprie
ambientazioni da ci che resta della frontiera americana (Hollywood e Las Vegas) a un
Centro America (Boca Grande) in cui si replica un copione coloniale che non promette
conquista e scoperta (Merivale 47) e sul quale Didion torner, nel decennio successivo, in
Salvador (1982). A corto di frontiere nazionali (quelle che cerano, i deserti sudoccidentali,
sono diventate aree missilistiche del Pentagono), gli esuli dellOvest americano guardano
altrove arrivando, nel 1984, alle Hawaii e al Sudest asiatico di Democracy. Sono
innocenti allestero incapaci di diventare insider perch convinti, come Charlotte in
BCP, della propria universalit egemonica: [] Charlotte [] insisted that the world
was peopled with others exactly like herself (BCP 230).
Hollywood, Las Vegas e Boca Grande sono dunque frontiere in cui si muovono le
discendenti di pionieri e pioniere pi o meno leggendari: stanche, disilluse, prive di
ancoraggio sociale e storico, queste figure attratte dallidea di rimanere per sempre sulla
strada (Didion, We Tell 309) vengono descritte da Didion come spiritualmente immobili
sullo sfondo di paesaggi imbalsamati e monocromatici che ne alimentano gli stati
allucinatori e la malattia fisica e psichica. Accade cos, nellennesima rifrazione
autobiografica, che, lontani da casa, personaggi femminili apparentemente intenti a
recidere i propri legami con il passato e il presente nazionale si attacchino a quella forma
di comunicazione vicaria costituita dal telefono negli hotel: se in On the Road e In
Bogot (WA) Didion stessa a parlare di direct-dial telephones (Didion, We Tell 309)
e long-distance operators who could get Los Angeles in ten minutes (316) come di
conquiste occidentali acquisite in qualsiasi albergo internazionale, in PIL il telefono a
pagamento regala addirittura preghiere (PIL 165) e in BCP Charlotte continua a
comporre il numero del California Highway Patrol di San Francisco per ascoltare, quasi
fossero una litania, gli aggiornamenti meteorologici:
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She called a number in San Francisco which gave, over and over again [] the taped
road condition report of the California Highway Patrol. Interstate 80 Donner Pass was
open. U.S. 50 Echo Summit was closed. State Route 88 Carson Pass was open []. (BCP
224)

Il telefono dellalbergo, nella sua riproduzione virtuale di una comunicazione sociale e


nel suo annullamento altrettanto virtuale del vuoto sociale in cui vivono i sojourners
visitatori temporanei di frontiere fisiche e mentali compendia la progressiva
scarnificazione simbolica della Frontiera come terra incognita e cuore di tenebra.
Le due immagini che meglio incarnano lerosione della Frontiera sono le stesse a cui
Didion riconduce la genesi di PIL e BCP. In Why I Write, lautrice spiega infatti come
entrambi i romanzi siano nati da due immagini impresse indelebilmente nella sua
memoria: una donna in vestaglia bianca che attraversa la sala di un casin del Sands
Hotel di Las Vegas per rispondere a un telefono, e laeroporto di Panama alle sei di
mattina, in cui la fantasia di Didion proietta la presenza di una donna norteamericana
(Didion, Why I).
In sintonia con lestetica cinematografica di WA, dove i fatti
delle storie sono soppiantati da una serie di immagini trasformando i procedimenti
metonimici tipici del giornalismo in una resa per simboli ed emblemi (Muggli 407), i
fatti del racconto in PIL e BCP sono costantemente subordinati ai fotogrammi a cui
affidata la narrazione, confinati dalla voce narrante in una sorta di riserva non
dereferenzializzata allinterno del testo.
Las Vegas il deserto, i casin, gli hotel e la Diga Hoover da un lato e laeroporto
di Boca Grande (finzione narrativa di un qualsiasi stato caraibico) dallaltro,
compendiano per molti versi gli scenari simbolici di confine attraversati in uno stato di
torpore mentale ed emotivo dalle protagoniste dei romanzi. Sono luoghi liminari tra
outsider e insider (gli hotel), fortuna e rovina (il casin), natura e ingegneria (la
Hoover Dam), forti escursioni termiche e piscine mantenute alla stessa temperatura (il
deserto). E sono, al tempo stesso, neither/nor places in cui Maria Wyeth, Grace
Strasser-Mendana e Charlotte Douglas non riescono n ad abbandonarsi a una qualche
forma di genius loci n a mantenere uninsularit completa.
Nel caso di PIL sono due i neither/nor places in cui si rattrappita la frontiera:
Hollywood e Las Vegas con il suo deserto. La protagonista Maria Wyeth, 31 anni, nata
a Reno, figlia di un giocatore dazzardo (che vincer alle carte una cittadina nel mezzo del
nulla, Silver Wells) e attrice promettente che si sposta, altra inferenza autoriale, tra le due
coste del paese. Alla fine del romanzo, Maria sopravvissuta a una relazione andata
male, un divorzio, una figlia di quattro anni nata con delle patologie cerebrali (Kate) e
chiusa in una clinica, un aborto, il suicidio di un amico omosessuale non dichiarato e,
non ultimo, il proprio internamento in un ospedale psichiatrico. La storia, ci torneremo,
narrata in parte in terza e in parte in prima persona, la prima persona la voce di Maria
che arriva al lettore, per intervalla insaniae, dal sanatorio.
Il fatto che Didion scelga Hollywood come sfondo del romanzo, ricorrendo cos
inevitabilmente a un sottogenere, la Hollywood novel, in cui la rappresentazione del
mondo del cinema allegorizza il destino pessimistico dellillusionismo finzionale
(Calabrese 30, Chipman), sembra poi trovare un suo pendant in unambientazione
speculare, Las Vegas, citt del gioco e del peccato in cui la legge del tavolo verde e del
motto play it as it lays asseconda la trasformazione di Silver Wells in una ghost town
abbandonata e convertita in zona sacrificale di detonazioni nucleari allinterno di un
missile range (PIL 204).
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Nel deserto intorno a Las Vegas Maria si imbatte, in uno stato di narcolessia indotto
dallassunzione di anestetici di ogni tipo, in telefoni fuori servizio, hotel labirintici con
pareti dipinte di viola, casin (il celebre Flamingo) frequentati da squallidi impresari
cinematografici, fino a visitare la Diga Hoover e arrendersi a una presenza sovrumana
che acuisce il suo senso di vertigine (Hinchman 88):
She began to feel the pressure of Hoover Dam, there on the desert, began to feel the pressure and pull of the water. [] All that day she felt the power surging through her own
body. All day she was faint with vertigo, sunk in a world where great power grids converged [...]. (PIL 171)

Si tratta, ancora una volta, di unimmagine attinta da Didion al proprio repertorio


non-fictional di quegli anni. In At the Dam (1970) WA di quel colosso di
ingegneria idraulica eretto, vicino a Las Vegas, negli anni Trenta Didion coglie la natura
eroicamente solipsistica e isolata di un luogo perfettamente congelato nel tempo:
Of course that was the image I had seen always, seen without realizing what I saw, a dynamo finally free of man, splendid at last in its absolute isolation, transmitting power and
releasing water to a world where no one is. (Didion, We Tell 326)

Se per il deserto valgono quindi come metafore i casin, gli hotel di Las Vegas e la
Hoover Dam, luoghi che amplificano il senso di solitudine e sopraffazione della
protagonista, per Hollywood, in cui regna la dissimulazione della vita libera e della felicit
immanente, sgombra di ricordi e di passato, vale invece quella delle freeways (Brady
463). Lunica valvola di sfogo al nada che domina la mondanit hollywoodiana feste,
Ferrari, psicofarmaci di ogni tipo (Seconal, Dexedrine, Librium ecc.) sciolti in coca cola o
gin e alla sensazione di non appartenere fino in fondo a quella consorteria che respinge
fallimento, malattia e paura alla stregua di ruggine infettiva e contagiosa su piante
lucide (Didion, PIL 22), sembrano essere le freeways. Lautostrada, seconda natura
californiana (Banham), unica destinazione e ultima frontiera mobile su cui Maria pu
fuggire dai propri fantasmi, a bordo, proprio come Didion (Kakutani 32), di una
Corvette:
She drove the San Diego to the Harbor, the Harbor up to the Hollywood, the Hollywood
to the Golden State, the Santa Monica, the Santa Ana, the Pasadena, the Ventura. She
drove it as a riverman runs a river, every day more attuned to its currents, its deceptions
[]. (PIL 15-16)

Anche BCP presieduto da una metafora associata, nel dipanarsi della storia, a un
luogo di movimento fittizio. Modellato, si detto, su quello di Panama, laeroporto di
Boca Grande ispirato a unesperienza autobiografica di viaggio in Sud America del
1973 lo stesso anno del colpo di stato cileno di Pinochet in cui Didion contrae il
paratifo perdendo dieci chili e sopravvivendo a settimane di stati febbrili e alterazioni
sensoriali (Kakutani 38). Dedicato a quel viaggio, In Bogot (WA), scritto nel 1974,
costruito, ancora una volta, intorno allopacit e alla frammentariet referenziali:
[] the whole history of the place has been to seem a mirage, a delusion on the high savannah, its gold
and its emeralds unattainable, inaccessible, the isolation so splendid and unthinkable []
Of the time I spent in Bogot I remember mainly images, indelible but difficult to connect. (Didion,
We Tell 316, 320. Miei i corsivi)

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Lincertezza ermeneutica che circonfonde la frontiera sudamericana in In Bogot


aumenta nel romanzo del 1977. In BCP, la narratrice, Grace Strasser-Mendana ne
Tabor, vedova americana del pi ricco imprenditore locale, racconta la storia di unaltra
norteamericana, lamica Charlotte Douglas, approdata a Boca Grande senza motivi precisi
(in seguito a un itinerario che la vede arrivare da New Orleans via Mrida, Antigua e
Guadalupe) e uccisa in una sommossa rivoluzionaria circa due anni dopo il suo arrivo.
Boca Grande descritta quindi dalla prospettiva di Grace, una straniera che, sebbene
naturalizzata, resta de afuera, unoutsider (BCP 56). Agli occhi della narratrice, originaria
di Denver, antropologa che ha perso fede nel proprio stesso metodo (BCP 12) malata
di cancro al pancreas, Boca Grande appare come un luogo in cui, a dispetto dei rovesci
rivoluzionari e dittatoriali, non cambia mai niente; un indistinto avamposto
neoimperialista che vive dellesportazione di olio di cocco e della propria corruzione
politica:
Boca Grande is not a land of contrasts. On the contrary Boca Grande is relentlessly the
same: the cathedral is not Spanish Colonial but corrugated aluminum. There is a local
currency but the American dollar is legal tender. The politics of the country at first appear
to offer contrast, involving as they do colourful Latin juxtaposition of guerrilleros and
colonels, but when the tanks are put away and the airport reopens nothing has actually
changed in Boca Grande. (BCP 13)

Come per tutti gli avamposti, i due luoghi maggiormente connotati nel romanzo sono
lambasciata americana e laeroporto che Charlotte visita periodicamente nella speranza
di incontrarvi Marin, la diciottenne figlia sedicente rivoluzionaria, ricercata per una serie
di attentati, di cui ha perso da tempo le tracce. Il gesto di Charlotte diventa cos un rituale
capace di dare un senso a un soggiorno e una vita dal significato altrimenti elusivo:
She did not go to the airport to catch a plane, nor to meet one. She just went to the airport. She was at the counter of the airport coffee shop the morning I left for Miami, not
sitting at the counter but standing behind it, holding a watch in her hand. []
She had been going to one airport or another for four months, one could see it, looking at
the visas on her passport. [] (BCP 28, 143)

In fondo, i pochi fatti certi che la narrazione ci fornisce circa Charlotte sono quelli
che compaiono sul suo visto, ripetuti quasi liturgicamente dalla voce narrante:
Nationality NORTEMERICANA. Type of Visa: TURISTA. Occupation MADRE
(BCP 22), e la sua educazione westerner, fondata sulla fiducia nelle frontiere del
progresso e della spirale ascendente della storia:
As a child of the western United States she had been provided as well with a faith in the
value of certain frontiers on which her family had lived, in the virtues of cleared and irrigated land, of high-yield crops, of thrift, industry and the judicial system, of progress and
education, and in the generally upward spiral of history. She was a norteamericana (BCP 5960)

La caratteristica che avvicina maggiormente lAmerica Latina di Didion alla (perduta)


frontiera del West un segno di degenerazione anche fisica. Ricalcata sul soggiorno
dellautrice a Bogot e sulla malattia infettiva l contratta, nel racconto di Grace la citt-

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stato di Boca Grande infatti infestata da parassiti animali e umani e contaminata dalla
malattia e dalla morte (le case stesse hanno lodore del cancro):
Fevers relapse here.
Bacteria proliferate.
Termites eat the presidential palace []
The bite of one fly deposits an egg which in its pupal stage causes human flesh to suppurate.
The bite of another deposits a larval worm which three years later surfaces on and roams
the human eyeball. (BCP 155)

Citt che marcisce sullequatore (BCP 219), Boca Grande fa da teatro tanto alla
malattia terminale del primo marito di Charlotte (nonch padre di Marin) e a quella di
Grace, quanto alla morte di Charlotte, arrestata dai ribelli della October Violence e
freddata nellEstadio Nacional.
Nel raccontare la storia di Charlotte come di una nordamericana immaculate of
history, innocent of politics (BCP 60), Grace rivela tra le righe il fallimento del mito
rigenerativo della frontiera e, nellattenta analisi di S. C. Coale, suggerisce che la
blankness di Charlotte potrebbe essere il risultato di quella innocenza, di
quellignoranza di altri posti e di paesaggi pi scuri e pi vuoti (Coale, Witnessing
115). Confessando di essere molto pi simile a Charlotte di quanto pensasse, Grace
ammette quindi, indirettamente, la propria sconfitta. La sua conoscenza di Boca Grande
soltanto una versione pi disillusa e arresa di quellinnocenza. Nellultima pagina del
romanzo, la voce narrante si rivolge cos al lettore usando loverseers we:
In summary.
So you know the story.
Today we are cleaning some coastal groves [] You will notice my use of the colonial pronoun,
the overseers we. I mean it. I see now that I have no business in this place but I have been
here too long to change. I mean we. (BCP 271. Miei i corsivi)

La narratrice-testimone, specchio dellautrice, ricorre allo overseers we delle master


narratives riferendosi a una convenzione letteraria e culturale di cui tuttavia non pu che
riconoscere lusura storica e linservibilit ideologica. In gioco qui c quella possibilit di
dare testimonianza di una diversa esperienza del mondo neocoloniale in una forma che
superi, come scrive Mary Louise Pratt analizzando Salvador resoconto di viaggio
autobiografico pubblicato nel 1983 da Joan Didion le modalit conoscitive e narrative
abbracciate dalla letteratura di viaggio precedente. In Salvador, scrive Pratt, Didion crea
cos il tropo della lady in the airport dismettendo tanto il survey dallalto dei
colonizzatori, quanto quello, dal basso, delle esploratrici e suggerendo non solo la natura
frammentaria, limitata e aporetica della propria comprensione di quel mondo ma anche
limpossibilit di inventare un linguaggio che risponda a quella necessit (Pratt 220). Ci
che in Salvador prender una forma narrativa polifonica in cui lio narrante Joan Didion
erects nothing, paints nothing, masters nothing [] quotes a lot (Pratt 220), si trova
in forma seminale nei cortocircuiti ideologici e narrativi di Grace Strasser-Mendana,
viaggiatrice prudente di Denver, Colorado (BCP 11) che nella neocoloniale di Boca
Grande ricorre meccanicamente a un pronome coloniale, il noi dei supervisori,
svuotato di ogni valore semantico.

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Il gioco di specchi creato nel testo di BCP tra narratrice e protagonista non contempla
soltanto il loro essere geograficamente e storicamente de afuera ma laffinit, intima,
derivante dal loro essere, prima di tutto, donne e madri che hanno perso,
metaforicamente e realmente, i propri figli:
One thing at least I share with Charlotte: I lost my child. Gerardo is lost to me. (BCP 20)

Come donne, Grace e Charlotte e Maria non vivono solo de afuera ma anche
sommerse in uno stato di perdita, fisica e simbolica, permanente.

3. Living ones deepest life underwater


Alla seconda ondata del femminismo che presiede allavvento dellera del divorzio senza
colpa e dellaborto legale, Joan Didion risponde, apparentemente, con tuttaltro tipo di
agenda. Aderente, almeno fino alla prima amministrazione Bush (Leonard, Introduction), a
un conservatorismo politico di cui non far mai mistero, nel 1972, dopo aver pubblicato
PIL, romanzo ambientato nei giorni pre-legali dellaborto, attacca il movimento
femminista in uno scritto corrosivo e sferzante intitolato The Womens Movement
(WA).5 Liquidandolo come una riproposizione, altrettanto fallimentare, dei precedenti
tentativi rivoluzionari e marxisti in America, Didion si scaglia, tra le altre cose, contro
linterpretazione ideologica di alcuni romanzi di Mary McCarthy da parte della seconda
generazione del femminismo, incapace di capire che la narrativa ha certe ambiguit
irriducibili (Didion, We Tell 259). Lessenza del saggio, ispirato ancora una volta a uno
scetticismo anti-rivoluzionario, arriva per verso la fine, quando Didion allude con una
formula fulminante alla propria visione del significato di essere donna:
[] what is like to be a woman, the irreconcilable difference of it that sense of living
ones deepest life underwater, that dark involvement with blood and birth and death []
(Didion, We Tell 262)

Lo scuro coinvolgimento con il sangue, la vita e la morte stato anticipato, nelle


frasi precedenti, da due riferimenti associati a un senso di perdita indicibile: i flussi
mestruali The transient stab of dread and loss which accompanies menstruation
(Didion, We Tell 262) e laborto, evocato come un incubo che non mai finito anche
quando finito.
Le mestruazioni, al pari della placenta, appartengono a quei fluidi corporei espulsi
dalla donna in un gesto che Julia Kristeva fa rientrare nellambito dellabietto; tutto ci
che viene rimosso costantemente dal corpo perch ambiguo e irrispettoso dei confini
(Kristeva). Tuttavia, nellevocare la pugnalata transitoria di terrore e perdita che
accompagna le mestruazioni unimmagine presente sia in PIL sia in BCP al pari di
ogni altro riferimento alla materialit abietta del corporeo femminile (la fertilit,
laborto, la menopausa) Didion condivide un interesse ben presente nei collettivi
femminili a tutela della salute della donne di quegli anni: dal Boston Womens Health
Collective che, nel 1970, pubblica Our Bodies, Ourselves (Noi e il nostro corpo) al
collettivo di Chicago contro laborto illegale, al Los Angeles Feminist Womens Health
Center (Bobel 133). A cambiare , appunto, il linguaggio. In Didion, labietto femminile
Il movimento femminista a sua volta risponder, dalle pagine di MS, con un articolo del 1973 di
Catharine Stimpson, definendo Didion antipolitica, quietistica e patriarcale (Hogeland 291).
5

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che pure costituisce la differenza dellessere donna rappresentato da unangolazione


non solidaristica ma solipsistica, non ha funzione liberatoria ma mortifera. Anche la
rappresentazione dellaborto in PIL e BCP strumentale al senso di colpa delle
protagoniste e alla loro completa estraneit a una rete sociale solidale.
interessante notare come Didion dedichi allaborto e alla sua imagery la parte
centrale di un romanzo pubblicato nel 1970 i giorni in cui la pratica ancora illegale
anche se le leggi anti-aborto sono state liberalizzate in alcuni stati tra cui Alaska, Hawaii,
Colorado, Washington e New York6 per poi tornare su quello snodo tematico nel postRoe vs. Wade (1973) in BCP senza dedicargli tuttavia lo stesso peso narrativo e
iconografico. Tra i motivi di tale scelta, potrebbe esserci infatti un calcolo narrativo: per
Didion, una volta legalizzato, laborto non detiene pi la stessa pregnanza semantica e
simbolica, restando non di meno cruciale alla rappresentazione della condizione
femminile come minata dalla perdita.
Per Maria Wyeth, laborto di un figlio dalla paternit incerta a cui indotta dalle
pressioni dallex marito, diventa levento catalizzatore di una vita scandita da continue
separazioni.
Laborto evocato in relazione diretta al sangue mestruale che Maria attende, invano,
per giorni. Dormire tra lenzuola immacolate, gettare una scatola intera di Tampax nella
spazzatura e corteggiare un aborto naturale ripetendosi Im having a baby non le
bastano a scongiurare una gravidanza da interrompere, condizione che vive, al pari di
tutto ci che le capita, come una punizione:
[] she believed that loveless marriage ended in cancer of the cervix and equivocal adultery in fatal accidents to children. Maria did not particularly believe in rewards, only in punishments, swift and personal. (PIL 73).

Loperazione sar affidata a un abortista di Los Angeles lunico uomo di Los


Angeles che faceva un lavoro pulito (PIL 54) in un luogo imprecisato dove Maria deve
presentarsi munita di un tampone e una cintura e 1000 $ in contanti (PIL 62). Di quel
lavoro pulito vengono descritti solo gli effetti sul suo corpo che, nelle settimane
successive, avr delle emorragie (Wilt 73). Le parole di un medico che la visita
dovrebbero rassicurarla:
Whoever did it did all right. Its clean, no infection, count your blessings. (PIL 90)

Pensare al lato positivo7 di quellazione tuttavia impossibile. Ossessionata dalla


separazione dal feto, the living dead thing, whatever you called it (PIL 115), che ne assedia
linconscio, Maria continua a sognare loperazione e lespulsione della placenta. In un
incubo ricorrente, lintero sistema idraulico della casa in cui vive ingolfato dai tessuti
corporei decomposti:

La stessa Didion ricorder in Blue Nights quando, nel 1958 nel suo periodo a Vogue, preoccupata di
essere incinta si rec da un medico newyorchese che le consigli di andare ad abortire a Cuba (Didion,
Blue Nights 80).
7 Non forse un caso che Didion usi la stessa espressione, I count my blessings, a conclusione di un
pezzo brevissimo dedicato allemicrania di cui soffre cronicamente raccolto in The White Album, In
Bed (1968). Didion 2006, 305.
6

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Of course she could not call a plumber, because she had known all along what would be
found in the pipes, what hacked pieces of human flesh. (PIL 97)

Lossessione non accenna a placarsi e al pensiero di tornare a New York citt con il
pi alto numero di aborti negli anni Sessanta Maria associa tanto i recenti arresti di
alcuni abortisti (PIL 117), quanto limmagine di uno East River su cui galleggiano feti
(PIL 116). tuttavia soltanto in una crisi di pianto arrivata ad alcuni mesi dallaborto che
il dolore della protagonista svelato come sintomo di una coscienza lacerata dalle tante
perdite esistenziali (tra cui la separazione forzata da una figlia affetta da una grave
malattia neurologica) culminate in quella di un figlio mai nato:
[She] cried as she had not cried since she was a child, cried out loud. She cried because she
was humiliated and she cried for her mother and she cried for Kate and she cried because
something had just come through her, there in the sun on the Western street: she had deliberately not counted the months but she must have been counting them unawares, must
have been keeping a relentless count somewhere, because this was the day, the day the
baby would have been born. (PIL 141)

Da qui in avanti, la parabola del personaggio di Maria sar consegnata al niente a cui
la sua voce narrante riconquistata, insieme alla prima persona, nei corsivi delle ultime
pagine del romanzo azzerer ogni tentativo di dar senso al passato e a quelle perdite, in
un anticlimax (Schorer 66) che ribadisce la sua condizione sommersa e la sua incapacit
di tornare in superficie se non per raccontare la propria storia:
I know what nothing means, and keep on playing. (PIL 213)

La vicenda di Charlotte Douglas nome che ricorda, forse non a caso a giudicare
dalle dichiarazioni di Didion in In the Islands, un altro celebre personaggio femminile
alle prese con un aborto, Charlotte Rittenmayer di The Wild Palms di William Faulkner
(Didion, We Tell 728) per molti versi simile a quella di Maria. Assorta in se stessa,
ossessiva, soggetta a sexual dysaesthesia, sloth, flatulence, root canal (BCP 111), alle
maledizioni rituali di mestruazioni e Tampax (BCP 248), anche Charlotte vive
sottacqua (Coale, Paradigms 68):
So entirely under water did Charlotte live her life that she did not recognize her preoccupations as those of a woman about to abandon a temporary rental. (BCP 126)

Pur non rappresentando il simbolo centrale della perdita funzione a cui assolve nel
romanzo il suo rapporto con la figlia Marin la gravidanza indesiderata (BCP 125)
portata avanti da Charlotte sottolinea quanto infauste possano essere le conseguenza
della maternit. Consegnato a una sorta di aborto spontaneo nellerrare inquieto di
Charlotte da un aeroporto allaltro,8 il bambino nascer prematuro e idrocefalo in una
clinica di New Orleans e morir poi di complicazioni a Mrida, nello Yucatan, in the
parking lot of the Coca-Cola bottling plant on the road back into town (BCP 151).
Anche Charlotte, come scrive Wendy Steiner, una donna la cui bellezza e il cui
fascino non bastano a colmare il dolore ineffabile per una figlia fuggiasca, un bambino
Gli itinerari geografici di Charlotte e Warren, il suo amante, ricordano quelli di Charlotte e
Wilbourne in Wild Palms di Faulkner.
8

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nato deforme e morto ancora in fasce, un marito malato incurabile, unamica con il
cancro e, non ultimo, una morte, la sua, che si consuma per caso in una rivoluzione
caraibica nella lotta di qualcun altro per la liberazione (Steiner 519).
Lammissione di Grace, sul finire del libro, di essere pi simile a Charlotte di quanto
avesse creduto (BCP 268) la rende una versione speculare e speculativa della
protagonista esplicitando, se mai ce ne fosse bisogno, linterscambiabilit dei piani
narrativi in questa fase della scrittura di Didion. Tornando alla gestazione di BCP,
lautrice dir, in Why I Write, di aver costruito il personaggio-narratrice di Grace, come
unincognita, allontanandosi quanto pi possibile da un narratore onnisciente. La
narrazione alternata tra terza e prima persona di PIL diventa cos in BCP un racconto di
una narratrice-testimone che affida la propria voce a una prima persona singolare dallo
statuto ambiguo. Dal naufragio di unidentit che ha perso ogni certezza in una possibile
collocazione politica e culturale (come soggetto neocolonizzatore e come donna e
madre), non pu che emergere una testimone poco attendibile sopravvissuta al
dissolvimento della propria storia e di quella di Boca Grande e di Charlotte.

5. I will be her witness


Una delle caratteristiche comuni a PIL e BCP limportanza dei rispettivi patti narrativi
su cui si aprono:
What makes Iago evil? some people ask. I never ask. (PIL 3)
I will be her witness. (BCP 12)

Come in ogni patto narrativo, i due incipit adempiono a una funzione


individualizzante: chiarire la fisionomia di chi racconta (Rosa 31). Ma nella sopraggiunta
decomposizione dellillusione su cui si struttura ogni patto narrativo, nel venir meno
della credibilit del narratore e della conseguente garanzia del valore della narrazione
stessa, i tentativi di Maria e Grace di definire meglio il proprio profilo a beneficio di un
ipotetico lettore sono disseminati sotto forma di richiami a una fattualit che dovrebbe
puntellare unintera impalcatura di garanzie:
So they suggested that I set down the facts, and the facts are these: My name is Maria
Wyeth. []
Let me stick to certain facts. []
Those are the facts. (PIL 4, 8, 10)
Here is what happened: she left one man [].
Call it my witness to Charlotte Douglas.
One or two facts about the place where Charlotte [].
Three or four things I do know about Charlotte. (BCP 11, 16, 59)

Tipico anche della scrittura non-romanzesca di Didion di quello stesso periodo,


lappello ai fatti, non estraneo a una parodia della referenzialit giornalistica e autoriale
riscontrabile in certo New Journalism e in certo postmodernismo, risponde a un
tentativo di autolegittimazione residuale e scettica di una voce narrante fortemente
individualizzata. Basta accostare lincipit e la prima pagina di In the Islands (1969-77):
1969: I had better tell you where I am, and why.

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[] I tell you this not as aimless revelation but because I want you to know, as you read
me, precisely who I am and where I am and what is on my mind. (Didion, We Tell 277)

e un passo tratto da BCP:


I tell you these things about myself only to legitimize my voice. We are uneasy about a
story until we know who is telling it. (BCP 21)

per cogliere lurgenza dichiarata di una scrittura che si fonda tanto sulla centralit di
chi racconta la storia sia esso autore reale (nel caso della non-fiction di In the Islands)
o narratore in prima persona (in BCP) , quanto sulla necessit di dichiarare che quella
voce ha valore di testimonianza personale in un preciso contesto geografico, biografico e
culturale, rinunciando a ogni pretesa di universalit e di oggettivit.
Considerando PIL frutto di una cognizione narrativa meno matura da parte di
Didion,9 non sorprende che nel concepire il suo primo narratore consapevole Grace in
BCP ricorra a una modalit, quella del narratore-testimone, tipica della letteratura
americana Grace star a Charlotte come Ishmael a Ahab, Nick Carraway a Gatsby,
Rosa Coldfield a Sutpen (Coale, Witnessing 115) e votata morfologicamente alla
messa in crisi delle funzioni narrative e della garanzia della veridicit del racconto stesso.
Analogamente ai suoi predecessori, Grace non riesce a risolvere lenigma di Charlotte ma
solo a coglierne un bagliore riflesso (BCP 215). Quando la storia si chiude, Grace, al
pari di Ishmael ma anche di Maria, una sopravvissuta: alla morte di Charlotte e alla
propria morte di personaggio e narratore. In una circolarit negativa rispetto allincipit, la
narratrice-testimone di Didion ammette lincertezza dellenunciato narrativo e dello
statuto della propria voce narrante:
The wind is up and I will die and rather soon and all I know empirically is I am told.
I am told, and so she said.
I heard later.
According to her passport. It was reported.
Apparently.
I have not been the witness I wanted to be. (BCP 272)

All I know empirically is I am told: la narratrice di Didion confessa cos non solo che
tutto ci che sa, empiricamente, quello che le hanno raccontato, ma anche che tutto ci
che sa di essere, lei stessa, raccontata da un autore implicito.
Nel romanzo successivo, Democracy (1984), il passaggio dal narratore allautore
implicito e reale sar consumato e dichiarato in un melvilliano Call Me the author:
Call Me the author.
Let the reader be introduced to Joan Didion, upon whose characters and doings much will depend of whatever interest these pages may have, as she sits at her writing table in her own room in her own house on
Welbeck street.
Al dato cronologico PIL, molto pi di Run River, rappresenta il vero esordio narrativo di Didion
si pu poi aggiungere quanto dice la stessa autrice nellintervista per la Paris Review del 1978, in cui
ammetter di aver scritto PIL senza conoscere i trucchi del mestiere e di non essere riuscita dunque
a mantenere la voce narrante di Maria per lintero romanzo (Kuehl 1998).
9

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So Trollope might begin this novel.


I have no unequivocal way of beginning it, although I do have certain things in my mind.
(Didion, Democracy 16)

Il rapporto tra facts e fiction diventato qui inestricabile (Nadel, Parrish), cos
come lo sdoppiamento dellautore/testimone. Lapprendistato degli anni Settanta la
messa a punto dei trucchi del mestiere porta con s unelaborazione narrativa sempre
pi profonda della riflessione estetica sulle possibilit della testimonianza diretta (nella
non-fiction) e di una narrativa testimoniale (nei romanzi) in funzione di una scrittura che
non si ritragga da un confronto con la storia. La rivendicazione di Didon di non
appartenenza ai movimenti politici, sociali e culturali di un decennio di cui non vuole
rappresentare la societ in microcosmo ma soltanto il proprio io di donna, madre e
intellettuale nordamericana nata in California non la esenta infatti dallo scendere a patti
con lesperienza del proprio tempo attraverso una prosa sempre pi modellata sulla resa
problematica della testimonianza letteraria.
Cos, anche il potenziamento graduale dellequivocit autoriale che parte da PIL e
arriva a Democracy romanzo in cui manca a Didion lautorit di cominciare [] tanto
alla prima quanto alla terza persona (Nadel 104), risponde allurgenza estetica di
costruire personaggi-narratrici che, per quanto minacciati da un senso costante di perdita
personale e di disintegrazione fisica e spirituale, si oppongono alla dissoluzione della
narrazione in quanto tale. Non diversamente, nellulteriore e, a oggi ultima, evoluzione
della sua prosa (The Year of Magical Thinking e Blue Nights), da ci che avviene a Didion
stessa, autrice-narratrice sempre pi testimone e sempre pi sopravvissuta.

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Morrison, entry
Toni 773

which he is still best known, is a lyrical account of Morriss


love-hate relationship with his native South. The book inspired comparisons to William Faulkner and Thomas Wolfe
and was awarded the Houghton Mifflin Prize for nonfiction. In 1973 Morris published his first novel, The Last of
the Southern Girls. In his lifetime he did not publish another
novel, although a late novel, Taps (2001), was published posthumously. Morriss other books include autobiographies,
essay collections, and works addressing political and social
realities in the South. His popular 1995 memoir My Dog Skip
returned Morris to the best-seller list some thirty years after
North toward Home, and the book was later adapted into a
motion picture. Morris died before the movie was released.
Source

Bales, Jack. Conversations with Willie Morris. Jackson: University


Press of Mississippi, 2000.
Marshall Boswell

Morris, Wright (19101998)novelist, short-story writer

Born in Nebraska, Wright Morris set much of his fiction in


the Midwest. He can be defined as a regionalist, and he has
been called the writer of situations around which he builds
perceptive character studies. He has also been referred to as
a writers writer because his novels are crafted so carefully.
Morriss early work includes My Uncle Dudley (1942), The
Man Who Was There (1945), The World in the Attic (1949),
and Man and Boy (1951). The Field of Vision (1956), which
won a National Book Award, is set in Mexico and concerns a group of Americans watching a bullfight. Ceremony
in Lone Tree (1960) deals with a family reunion in Nebraska.
One Day (1965) explores different characters reactions to
the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Plains Song: For Female
Voices (1980) explores the lives of Midwestern women. Collected Stories 19481986 appeared in 1986. His later work
includes Three Easy Pieces (1993) and The Loneliness of the
Long Distance Writer (1995).
Morris published several autobiographical volumes: Wills
Boy (1981), Solo: An American Dreamer in Europe (1983),
and A Cloak of Light: Writing My Life (1985). A distinguished
photographer, he published several books in which prose and
photos are carefully integrated, including: Photographs and
Words (1982) and Wright Morris: Origin of a Species (1992).
Morris wrote extensively about American themes and
issues in The Territory Ahead (1958); A Bill of Rites, a Bill
of Wrongs, a Bill of Goods (1968); About Fiction (1975); and
Earthly Delights, Unearthly Adornments (1978).
Sources

Crump, G. B. The Novels of Wright Morris: A Critical Interpretation. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1978.
Wydeven, Joseph J. Wright Morris Revisited. New York: Twayne,
1998.

Morrison, Toni (1931 )novelist


Dont tell us what to believe, what to fear. Show
us belief s wide skirt and the stitch that unravels
fears caul. . . . Language alone protects us from the
scariness of things with no names. Language alone is
meditation.
Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech (1993)

The daughter of a welder, Toni Morrison was born Chloe


Anthony Wofford in Loraine, Ohio. In the late 1940s she
entered Howard University, where she received her B.A. in
1953. After graduating from Cornell in 1955 with an M.A.,
Morrison spent a decade teaching English, first in Houston,
Texas, and then at Howard. In the mid 1960s she shifted
her focus to editing and became a senior editor at Random
House, where she concentrated on African American authors. In 1970 her employer published The Bluest Eye, a
novel she had begun in the early 1960s. The novels main
character is Pecola Breedlove, an impoverished, unattractive African American girl who tries to escape her plight by
praying for blue eyes.
In her second novel, Sula (1973), Morrison examined
the friendship between two women, the accommodating
Nel and her rebellious counterpart, Sula. Her best-selling
third novel, Song of Solomon (1977), employed the mythic
method associated with such Modernist texts as James
Joyces Ulysses (1922) and D. H. Lawrences Sons and Lovers (1913). Told from the perspective of Milkman Dead, an
irresolute, affluent African American male who unexpectedly undertakes a heroic quest to discover his heritage, the
novel combines African American mythology with biblical
and Greek archetypes.
In many respects, Morrisons fifth novel, Beloved (1987),
reads like a romance as defined by Nathaniel Hawthorne
that is, a more-or-less realistic novel in which the author
has the freedom to bend the truth. The title refers to a ghost
named Beloved, who acts as a symbol for Americas slaveholding past. Beloved won the Pulitzer Prize, and more. In
2006 it was voted as the most important work of fiction of
the last twenty-five years by a group of writers and critics
selected by The New York Times Book Review.
The same year she won the Pulitzer Prize, Morrison also
accepted a position as the Robert Goheen Professor of Humanities at Princeton University. While at Princeton she
completed her sixth novel, Jazz (1992), which is set in the socalled Roaring Twenties. The novel is structured like a jazz
composition, with a group of unnamed narrators taking up
the story one by one like a group of musicians stepping forward to improvise on a basic theme.
The year after Jazz was published Morrison won the Nobel
Prize in literature. Morrison has published two novels since
winning the Nobel Prize, Paradise (1998) and Love (2003),
and both have been best-sellers. Reviewers have begun to

774 Morrison,
entry
Toni

Dust jacket for Morrisons 1987 novel, voted the best work of American fiction in the past twenty-five years in a May 2006 poll
conducted by The New York Times Book Review

complain that Morrisons later work is too political; in her


essays, particularly in Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and
the Literary Imagination (1992), Morrison has analyzed specific literary works and has identified what she sees as coded
forms of racism embedded in American literature. Her essays and novels have been embraced by both African American and feminist theorists, however, and Morrison has not
apologized for her political imperatives, remarking as early
as 1974, I dont believe any real artists have ever been nonpolitical. They may have been insensitive to this particular
plight or insensitive to that, but they were political because
thats what an artist isa politician.
Marshall Boswell

Principal Books by Morrison

The Bluest Eye. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1970.
Sula. New York: Plume, 1973.
Song of Solomon. New York: Knopf, 1977.
Tar Baby. New York: Knopf, 1981.
Beloved. New York: Knopf, 1987.

Jazz. Franklin Center, Pa.: Franklin Library / New York: Knopf,


1992.
Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination.
Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992.
Paradise. New York: Knopf, 1998.
The Big Box, by Morrison and Slade Morrison. New York: Hyperion Books for Children/Jump at the Sun, 1999.
The Book of Mean People, by Morrison and Slade Morrison. New
York: Hyperion Books for Children, 2002.
The Ant or the Grasshopper? by Morrison and Slade Morrison.
New York: Scribner, 2003.
The Lion or the Mouse? by Morrison and Slade Morrison. New
York: Scribner, 2003.
Poppy or the Snake? by Morrison and Slade Morrison. New York:
Scribner, 2003.
Love. New York: Knopf, 2003.
Remember: The Journey to School Integration. Boston: Houghton
Mifflin, 2004.
The Mirror or the Glass? by Morrison and Slade Morrison. New
York: Scribner, 2004.

Morrison,entry
Toni 775

As there is yet to be written a full-length biography on


Morrison, a student interested in Morrisons childhood,
creative processes, and her scholarly interests and theories
should begin with Conversations with Toni Morrison, a book
of interviews with Morrison edited by Danielle Taylor-Guthrie (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1994). In order
to broaden ones knowledge of Morrisons critical perspective, these interviews should be read in conjunction with
Morrisons first work of literary criticism, Playing in the Dark:
Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (Cambridge: Harvard
University Press, 1992), based on a series of lectures delivered
at Harvard University. The standard annotated bibliography
for works is David L. Middletons Toni Morrison: An Annotated Bibliography (New York: Garland, 1987).

Dust jacket for Morrisons second novel, which established her


reputation as a serious novelist

Studying Toni Morrison


Toni Morrisons career includes important work as an editor,
essayist, lecturer, and literary and social criticin addition to
her success as one of Americas most acclaimed novelists and
the first African American Nobel Laureate. The student seeking to understand Morrison should begin with Morrisons
eight novels, including the two trilogies: Sula (1973), Song of
Solomon (1977), and Tar Baby (1981); and Beloved (1987),
Jazz (1992), and Paradise (1998). At the center of Morrisons
success as a novelist is Beloved, which many critics agree is
Morrisons best work to date. For the student unfamiliar with
Beloved, Toni Morrisons Beloved: A Casebook, edited by William L. Andrews and Nellie McKay (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), is the place to start, as it includes essential
critical commentary on the novel as well as Samuel J. Mays
1856 account of Margaret Garners murder of her daughter,
the historical occurrence that inspired Morrisons novel.

Dust jacket for Morrisons 1977 novel, which won both the
National Book Critics Circle Award and the American
Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award

776 Moss,
entry Howard

For important collections of contemporary criticism of


Morrisons major works, the student should begin with the
following: Toni Morrison, edited by Harold Bloom (Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2005), and Toni Morrisons Beloved, also edited by Bloom (Philadelphia: Chelsea House,
2004); Linden Peachs Toni Morrison (New York: St. Martins Press, 2000); David L. Middletons Toni Morrisons Fiction: Contemporary Criticism (New York: Garland, 2000);
and Toni Morrison: Critical and Theoretical Approaches,
edited by Nancy J. Peterson (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins
University Press, 1997).
For additional information regarding Morrisons life and
career, one should see the website of The Toni Morrison
Society (<http://tonimorrisonsociety.org/> viewed July 12,
2007), where memberships are available providing access to
The Toni Morrison Society Newsletter, a semiannual publication that includes an annual Morrison bibliography.
Student Guide by Jeremey Cagle

Moss, Howard (19221987) poet, critic, playwright,


editor

Dust jacket for Morrisons fourth novel, 1981, set in the Caribbean. It deals with tension among and between the races, as
well as social and class conflict.

The critical reception of Morrisons work is as abundant as


it is sophisticated. The Toni Morrison Encyclopedia, edited by
Elizabeth Beaulieu (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2003),
is an essential guide, especially the Approaches to Morrisons
Work entries, which examine the criticism of Ecocritical,
Feminist/Black Feminist, Historical, Pedagogical, Postcolonial,
Psychoanalytic, and Womanist methodologies. Other important book-length studies include J. Brooks Bousons Quiet as Its
Kept: Shame, Trauma, and Race in the Novels of Toni Morrison
(Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1999); John
N. Duvalls The Identifying Fictions of Toni Morrison: Modernist Authenticity and Postmodern Blackness (New York: Palgrave,
2000); Gurleen Grewals Circles of Sorrow, Lines of Struggle: The
Novels of Toni Morrison (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1998); and Jan Furmans Toni Morrisons Fiction (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1996).

A lyric poet devoted to traditional forms, Howard Moss was


also a well-respected playwright, critic, teacher, and, for nearly
forty years, the senior poetry editor for The New Yorker. He
was born in New York City, and he grew up in Queens. After
graduating from the University of Wisconsin at Madison
(1943), he studied American literature at Columbia University. His first poetry collection, The Wound and the Weather,
appeared in 1943. Moss began at The New Yorker in 1948, first
as fiction editor and then as poetry editor, a position he held
until his death in 1987. He also taught at Vassar College, Barnard College, and Columbia University. His major collections
include The Toy Fair (1954), A Swimmer in the Air (1957);
Finding Them Lost and Other Poems (1965); Second Nature
(1968); A Winter Come, A Summer Gone: Poems 19461960
(1960); Buried City (1975); and Rules of Sleep (1982), as well
as two volumes of light verse, A Swim Off the Rocks (1976),
and Tigers and Other Lilies (1977). His two most important
plays are collected in The Palace at 4 A.M. and The Folding
Green (1980). A lifelong critic, Moss also published studies of
Anton Chekhov and Marcel Proust.
Source

Gioia, Dana. The Difficult Case of Howard Moss, Antioch Review, 45 (Winter 1987): 98109.
Marshall Boswell

The Moviegoer by Walker Percy (New York: Knopf,

1961) novel
Walker Percys first novel about a clever, ironic New Orleans
stockbroker on a quest for redemption remains his most fa-

Indiana State University

The Orderliness of Disorder: Madness and Evil in Toni Morrison's Sula


Author(s): Cedric Gael Bryant
Source: Black American Literature Forum, Vol. 24, No. 4, Women Writers Issue (Winter,
1990), pp. 731-745
Published by: St. Louis University
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The Orderliness of Disorder: Madness and


Evil in Toni Morrison's Sula
Cedric Gael Bryant

We are in order when we are most out of order.


-2 Henry VI IV.ii. 175-76
0, matter and impertinency mixed; Reason in madness.
-King Lear V.vi. 171-72
At first the people in the town were frightened; they knew Shadrack was
crazy but that did not mean that he didn't have any sense or, even more
important, that he had no power. . . Once the people understood the
boundaries and nature of his madness, they could fit him, so to speak, into
the scheme of things.
-Sula 15

In Madness and Civilization, Michel Foucault observes that "we


have yet to write the history of that other form of madness, by
which men, in an act of sovereign reason, confine their neighbors, and communicate and recognize each other through the
merciless language of non-madness; to define the moment of this
conspiracy before it was permanently established in the realm of
truth, before it was revived by the lyricism of protest." The historical moment, or "caesura that establishes the distance between reason and non-reason," requires a journey backward
through time to an "uncomfortable region" and a renunciation of
the socially constructed realities we make of madness that
Foucault calls "terminal truths" (ix). For Foucault that time and
place when "the man of madness and the man of reason, moving
apart, are not yet disjunct" (x) is the Enlightenment, the mideighteenth century in Europe.
Cedric Gael Bryant Is Assistant Professor of American and African-American
Literature at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. This essay is dedicated to Sadie
M. Bryant, a sturdy black bridge, and to Betty Jean O'Donnell-for angels in
the snow.
BlackAmerican Literature Forun, Volume 24, Number 4 (Winter 1990)
X 1990 Cedric Gael Bryant

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732

Cedric Gael Bryant

In the fictional world of Toni Morrison's novels, the moment


before the disjunction, or "caesura," when the man of madness
moves apart from the man of reason exists in time always as the
past and is spatially defined by the idea of community, or the
"village." During an interview conducted in 1976, Morrison explored the symbolic significance of the past and the community
in her fiction:
... there was this life-giving, very, very strong sustenance that people
got from the neighborhood. One lives, really, not so much in your house
as you do outside of it, within the 'compounds," within the village ....
And legal responsibilities, all the responsibilities that agencies now
If they were
have, were the responsibilities of the neighborhood....
sick, other people took care of them; if they needed something to eat,
other people took care of them; if they were old, other people took care
of them; if they were mad, other people provided a small space for them,

or related to their madness or tried tofind out the limitsof their madness.
(Stepto 214, emphasis added)

The value Morrison expresses here goes beyond mere tolerance


of socially deviant behavior. Rather, what this observation suggests, in the context of her novels, is essentially the same point
that Foucault makes about history: The community's ability to
integrate those individuals who would in the larger world be
ostracized is a crucial measurement of both humanity and civilization. There is a moral and intellectual responsibility to understand how and why such "disjunctions" take place and how they
may be abolished, a responsibility persistently urged in the writing of Foucault and Morrison.
These values are evident in each of Morrison's five novels, but
are particularly important thematically in her first and second
novels, The Bluest Eye (1970) and Sula (1973), in which the
dramatic tension arises from the community's efforts to coexist
peacefully with the threat posed to its survival by evil and madness. The pattern that madness assumes-as the pathetic plight
of characters such as Shadrack, Paul D, and Pecola Breedlove
illustrates -is a loss of self-identity, a separation of the self from
itself. In Morrison's fiction, order derives from a person's ability
to devise a means of coexisting peacefully with chaos. It is important, therefore, to distinguish between the efforts by
Morrison's characters to make a place for chaos and the attempt
to vanquish it. In their attempts to coexist with evil, Morrison's
characters assume a relationship to the larger world uncharacteristic of the "hero"in Western literature as traditionally
defined by both white and black male writers. The authorial
voice in Sula, acting as standard bearer, makes this idea an
irrevocable article of faith for the black community:

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Madness and Evil in Toni Morrtson's Sula

733

In spite of their fear, they reacted to an oppressive oddity, or what they


called evil days, with an acceptance that bordered on welcome. Such evil
must be avoided, they felt, and precautions must naturally be taken to
protect themselves from it. But they let it run its course, fulfill itself, and
never invented ways either to alter It, to annihilate It or to prevent Its
happening again. (89-90)

The madness that characterizes tragic heroes in Western literature as different as Hamlet, King Lear, Quentin Compson, Ralph
Ellison's invisible man, and Captain Ahab results from a futile
struggle to dominate their environment. These heroic attempts to
destroy the threatening forces are expressed in the ironic terms
of Hamlet's imagery: "to take arms against a sea of troubles /
And by opposing end them" (III.i.59-60). Madness in the context
of the tragic hero is a portent of impending disaster, an unambiguous sign that the individual's efforts to order chaos have
failed. By sharp contrast, in Morrison's novels madness itself is a
survival strategy that empowers individuals with the means to
order chaos in unusual ways. Madness, then, is power to the
black community. Referring to one of the characters in Sula, the
authorial narrator suggests: "Theyknew Shadrack was crazy but
that did not mean that he didn't have any sense or, even more
important, that he had no power" (15).
Frequently in Morrison's fiction evil and madness are obverse
sides of the same phenomenon, threatening the black communities in Sula and The Bluest Eye with chaos by testing tolerance,
compassion, and liberty-values that are the bases for survival
in these novels. Whenever the community fails to manifest these
ideals, it fails as a community, and its own dissolution becomes
fait accompli. In just one of several ways that Morrison uses
inversions, evil and madness become a vital check and balance,
gauging the community's own moral conduct. In Sula, the
community's survival literally depends upon the presence of evil
that forces the community to reexamine its own ideals constantly. So long as the community does so, it avoids self-destruction. The irony of the community's dependence on evil-or chaos
in whatever guise-is the key to the incongruent images which
Sula, shortly before she dies, spits out at her amazed and embarrassed friend Nel. In response to Nel's accusation that Sula
has never loved nor ever been loved by the black community,
Sula sneers:
'Oh, they'll love me all right. It will take time, but they'll love me....
After all the old women have lain with the teen-agers; when all the
young girls have slept with their old drunken uncles; after all the black
men fuck all the white ones; when all the white women kiss all the black
ones; when the guards have raped all the jailbirds and after all the
whores make love to their grannies; after all the faggots get their

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Cedric Gael Bryant

734

mothers' trim; when Lindbergh sleeps with Bessie Smith and Norma
Shearer makes it with Stepin Fetchit; after all the dogs have fucked all
the cats and every weathervane on every barn flies off the roof to mount
the hogs ... then there'll be a little love left over for me. And I know just
what it will feel like." (145-46)

The point that Sula expresses through this disturbing sexual


is, her own unconventional
imagery is that her presence-that
ironically benefited the community in ways that it
sexuality-has
will understand only after far more threatening changes have
taken place. In this way, Sula predicts what the authorial narrator calls "a falling away, a dislocation" that occurs "hard on the
heels" (153) of Sula's death and prefigures the death of the community.
While Sula lives, community members unconsciously use her
to order and improve their relationships to one another. "Their
conviction of Sula's evil changed them in accountable yet mysterious ways" (117), forcing negligent mothers to become as protective as hawks guarding their nestlings, and absentee husbands
and fathers to pay almost fawning attention to wives and children. Inversions of this kind are possible in Morrison's fictional
world because they are predicated on the relativism of such
abstractions as good and evil and madness. The same force,
therefore, that can benefit the community can also deracinate it.
In a 1976 interview, Morrison explained that she
started out by thinking that one can never really define good and evil.
Sometimes good looks like evil; sometimes evil looks like good-you
never really know what it is. It depends on what uses you put it to. Evil
is as useful as good is, although good is generally more interesting; it's
more complicated. I mean, living a good life is more complicated than
living an evil life, I think. (Stepto 216)

Like Sula, Shadrack


a symbol of death
Despite the initially
Shad" and "National

is especially interesting because he is both


and a life-giving force for the community.
disturbing effect the spectre of the "mad
Suicide Day" have on the community,

as time went along, the people took less notice of these January thirds,
rather they thought they did, thought they had no attitudes or feelings
one way or another about Shadrack's annual solitary parade. In fact
they had simply stopped remarking on the holiday because they had
absorbed it into their thoughts, into their language, into their lives. (15)

Because Shadrack's madness involves only a different way of


structuring the community's sense of time and ritual, rather
than an actual disintegration of order, he is assimilated more
easily into the community's life than is Sula, who, in contrast,
challenges the community's collective identity. Shadrack is also
less threatening than Sula because eventually his madness -his
wild exhortation that the community literally act out its most

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Madness and Evil in Toni Morrison's Sula

735

anarchistic, self-destructive fantasies every January third -,


while at first frightening, ceases to be dangerous once he has
been assigned a place in the community's life.
The response that Shadrack generally evokes from the cornmunity wavers between indifference and embarrassment, but Sula
possesses the power to destroy the community's most valuable
assets - deeply rooted familial relationships. Sula, unlike
Shadrack, is therefore connected to, but never a part of, the
community. In quite different ways, both Sula's and Shadrack's
relationships to the community are analogous to Hester Prynne's
relationship to the community in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The
Scarlet Letter. Like Hester's, Sula's relationship to the community is counterposed between attraction and repulsion. The Puritan community ironically depends upon Hester's presence to
confirm its own vaunting sense of moral superiority, yet it is
obligated by the same logic to shun her. And, as a practical
matter, the community also needs Hester to perform the special,
expert labor involved in fine embroidery that it can not provide
for itself. Both Hester and Sula, therefore, ironically benefit and
threaten the communities in which they live.
Shadrack, like Hester, lives on the community's fringe, the
physical equivalent of the symbolic "neutral territory"-what
Hawthorne referred to as the boundaries between civilization and
the wilderness, on the one hand, and reality and the imagination, on the other-, at the farthest physical distance from, but
still within, the community's life. Shadrack's "neutral territory,"
in another way, is delimited by the line between chaos and
madness, reflected in the sharp contrast between his disorderly
physical appearance and behavior and the inner tranquility of
the neatly arranged interior of his house. The orderliness Sula
sees as she opens the door to the house of the "mad Shad"
makes her doubt her own sense of reality and momentarily forget
the fear that has driven her there:
The neatness, the order startled her, but more surprising was the restfulness. Everything was so tiny, so common, so unthreatening. Perhaps
this was not the house of the Shad. The terrible Shad who walked about
with his penis out, who peed in front of ladies and girl-children, the only
black who could curse white people and get away with it, who drank in
the road from the mouth of the bottle, who shouted and shook in the
streets. This cottage? This sweet old cottage? With its made-up bed?
With its rag rug and wooden table? Sula stood in the middle of the little
room and in her wonder forgot what she had come for .... (61-62)

The dramatic tension in this scene, arising from what may be


called a metaphor of interiority, sharply contrasts Shadrack's
private and public selves. In the public and seemingly hopeless

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Cedric Gael Bryant

madness of National Suicide Day, Shadrack has found a survival


strategy that creates an inner peace synonymous with the orderly interior of his little house. Therefore, the metaphor's function, in this instance, is to suggest how order can be derived
from chaos. As a narrative strategy, the metaphor of interiority is
implicit in an argument Morrison makes about sexual difference
and the writing process.
In interviews with Robert Stepto and Claudia Tate, Morrison
is, the imagery of certain
implies that the language-that
scenes-may be especially feminine because it is the product of
"a woman's strong sense of being in a room, a place, or in a
house. Sometimes my relationship to things in a house would be
a little different from, say, my brother's or my father's or my
sons'. I clean them and I move them and I do very intimate
things "in place' . . ." (Stepto 213). What I have chosen to call

metaphors of interiority-metaphors illustrated by the scene


correlate
when Sula bursts into Shadrack's house-textually
Morrison's generalizations. For Morrison this "difference"in the
writing process seems to be the result of a gender-determined
social construction of reality that makes space "specific" for
women, as well as specifically feminine; space, however, is unlimited for men. "Men always want to change things, and women
probably don't," Morrison suggests, because men approach "conflict, dominion, and power" differently (Tate 123, 122). Genderdetermined difference, then, is expressed throughout Morrison's
fiction in the power that men exercise in transcending conflict.
These ideas, accordingly, help to explain the rootlessness, the
perpetual flight acted out by the male characters in each of her
five novels. In Morrison's third novel, Song of Solomon, this specifically male expression of power becomes a thematically central
means of resolving conflict and asserting dominion over the self.
Sula's own rootlessness and disdain for signifiers of stability in
her culture, such as motherhood and marriage, are stolen privileges reserved for men. Sula is, therefore, an anathema to the
community because she threatens traditional gender arrangements which, despite the obvious ways these assigned roles restrict female autonomy, are approved by the general community.
By appropriating male prerogatives, Sula, in effect, abandons
her sex and becomes a man - a monstrous perversion of the
passive "nature" that has been socially constructed for women.
Like the black girl in Gwendolyn Brooks's poem "A Song in the
Front Yard," Sula's rebellious song could be, "I'vestayed in the
front yard all my life / I want a peek at the back / Where it's
rough and untended and hungry weed grows / A girl gets sick of

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Madness and Evil in Toni Morrison's Sula

737

a rose." The black, rose-shaped birthmark above Sula's eye is an


interesting correlative linking these two female voices. For Sula,
the rose's signifiers equate beauty with mystery; for the adventurous girl in Brooks's poem, the rose delimits the line between
the known and the unknown. The rose is a symbol of the unexplored feminine self, a taboo terra incognita that can be reached
only by stepping outside the gender-determined physical and
metaphorical

"frames" -fences,

gates, and front yards -that

stifle

female self-expression. The last stanza of Brooks's poem shows


the quality of intrepid indifference to attempts to restrict female
autonomy that characterizes Sula:
But I say it's fine. Honest, I do
And I'd like to be a bad woman too,
And wear the brave stockings of night-black lace
And strut down the streets with paint on my face.

In one important sense, Sula is linked to the tradition of female


monsters who, in the act of defining-that is, "authoring"-themselves, usurp male power. Like her mythological sister Lilith,
who, according to Hebrew folklore, preferred to lose a hundred of
her children to death daily rather than submit to a patriarchal
marriage, Sula, in her refusal to be passively female, becomes a
female monster feared for her power to create. In The Madwoman
in the Attic, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar argue that "what
[Lilith'sJhistory suggests is that in patriarchal culture, female
speech and female 'presumption'- that is, angry revolt against
male domination-are inextricably linked and inevitably daemonic" (35). Like Lilith, once again, whose "madness, freakishness, [and] monstrosity" is connected to "poetic presumption"
(Gilbert and Gubar 35)-that is, to the wish to "author"oneself-,
Morrison's authorial narrator suggests that Sula's "strangeness"
also results from thwarted creativity:
In a way her strangeness, her naivete, her craving for the other half of
her equation was the consequence of an idle imagination. Had she
paints, or clay, or knew the discipline of the dance, or strings; had she
anything to engage her tremendous curiosity and her gift for metaphor,
she might have exchanged the restlessness and preoccupation with
whim for an activity that provided her with all she yearned for. And like

any artist with no art form, she became dangerous. (121, emphasis
added)

Since Sula's "art"is the power of self-creation, she is her own art
work; moreover, the "danger"she poses to the community lies in
the power to engender chaos by changing the terms that the
community uses to defines itself. Ultimately, it is change that the
black community in this novel most fears. Sula's "gift for metaphor"-which she expresses in her deathbed predictions to Nel

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Cedric Gael Bryant

(145-46)- acknowledges her status as a symbol for the changes


that augur the community's destruction at the novel's close.
The idea of Sula as thief also plays in different ways in the
novel. When Sula "takes" the husbands of the community for her
own pleasure, her masculine kind of sexuality robs men, as well
as women, of their sense of superiority. Sula's adultery, then, is
distinguishable from that of Hannah, Sula's mother:
The men, surprisingly, never gossiped about [Hannah]. She was unquestionably a kind and generous woman and that, coupled with her
extraordinary beauty and funky elegance of manner, made them defend

her and protect herfrom any vitriolthat newcomers or their wives might

splu. (44-45, emphasis added)

Hannah, like her mother Eva and all "the Peace women[,J simply
loved maleness, for its own sake" (41); consequently, they are
protected by the men and tolerated by the women. Sula's "man
love," however, is quite another thing:
Hannah had been a nuisance, but she was complimenting the women,
in a way, by wanting their husbands. Sula was trying them out and
discarding them without any excuse the men could swallow. So the
women, to justify their own judgment, cherished their men more,
soothed the pride and vanity Sula had bruised. (1 15)

As this passage suggests, Sula is mending while in the act of


rending. But the immediate point is that Sula's "evilness" derives
from her role as a thief in several senses: She is an outsider who
steals into the community and takes away its comforting, albeit
chauvinistic, sense of identity; and she robs men of their masculinity while in the act of giving them pleasure.
Throughout Morrison's fiction, male dominion is expressed in
the self-defining liberation universally associated with the myth
of flight.' Ironically, it is "domain" rather than "dominion" with
which women like Helene Wright and her daughter Nel are identified, as in the moment when the child sees her proud mother
turned to "custard" by the white world beyond the safe domain of
the Bottom:
If this tall, proud woman, this woman who was very particular about
her friends, who slipped into church with unequaled elegance, who
could quell a roustabout with a look, If she were really custard, then
there was a chance that Nel was too. (22)

Nel's way of dealing with the profound embarrassment she suffers in the insult her mother receives from a white conductor for
entering a train by a door reserved for whites only is to swear
that no "marbled flesh would ever accost her and turn her into
jelly" (22). To avoid such confrontations in the future, Nel lays
claim to the pathetically small domain of the Bottom and her
own house. In contrast, Sula's concern is with dominion-that is,

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Madness and Evil in Toni Morrison's Sula

739

sovereign authority over the self-which, in effect, makes the


world her domain. Nel does not seem to know what the authorial
narrator clearly intends the reader to understand-that "it was
the last as well as the first time she was ever to leave Medallion"
(29).2 This comment, however, should not be construed as deprecatory, because Nel is one of Morrison's "nurturers," who, in
counterbalancing the rootless men who are perpetually in flight,
make community a reality. The altruistic ways Nel gives herself
to family are prefigured not only in Helene Wright, but also in
Sula's grandmother Eva, who is rumored to have mutilated herself in order to collect insurance money for "accidental" injury.
The different responses that Sula and Nel elicit from the black
community are essential to its survival. As Morrison has pointed
out, Sula is a "rule-breaker, a kind of law-breaker, a lawless
woman"; but "Nel knows and believes in all the laws of that
community. She is the community. She believes in its values"
(Stepto 216).
While Nel and Sula contribute to the "inversion" of good and
evil that are central to Morrison's fiction,3 an equally relevant
position is their obverse relationship. Nel and Sula are, like two
sides of the same coin, two faces turned away from each other,
yet they are inextricably united by their dependence and natural
attraction to qualities that the reader recognizes as deficiencies
in the other. However, because their position is obverse, Sula
and Nel do not always "see" the counterpoise or mirror imagery
in their relationship. The recognition of the complementary nature of their difference is gradual, and for Nel, who seems more
reflective than Sula, her consciousness of their relative strengths
and weaknesses occurs in connection to traumatic events. When
Nel recollects Sula's fear over a child's accidental drowning, she
also remembers the moment Sula cut the tip of her finger off to
avoid a fight with a group of white boys. Sula's method of ordering chaos is simply to exchange one form of chaos and madness
for another:
The situation was clear to [Nell now. Sula, like always, was incapable of
making any but the most trivial decisions. When it came to matters of
grave importance, she behaved emotionally and irresponsibly and left it
to others to straighten out. And whenfear struck her, she did unbelievable things. Like that time with her finger. Whateverthose hunkles did,
it wouldn't have been as bad as what she did to herself. But Sula was so
scared she had mutilated herself, to protect herself (101, emphases
added)

Despite epiphanic moments like this, Sula's and Nel's close bond
of sisterhood is severely strained by the differences in their personalities. Their estrangement and silence, which lasts for a de-

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Cedric Gael Bryant

cade, is less a product of Sula's seduction of Nel's husband Jude


than of Nel's failure to understand that the dualities in Sula's
nature are not moral flaws but complexities in Nature itself.
Indeed, it is not until 1965, some twenty-four years after Sula's
death in 1941 and after the spiritual death of the community,
that Nel understands:
'All that time, all that time, I thought I was missing Jude." And the loss
pressed down on her chest and came up into her throat. "Wewas girls
together,"she said as though explaining something. "O Lord,Sula," she
cried, "girl,girl, girlgirlgirl."(174)
In a 1977 interview with Jane Bakerman,
publication of Song of Solomon, Morrison said:

shortly after the

... I still write about the same thing, which is how people relate to one
another and miss it or hang on to it ... or are tenacious about love.
About love and how to survive-not to make a living-but how to
survive whole in a world where we are all of us, in some measure,
victims of something. Each one of us is in some way at some moment a

victim and in no position to do a thing about it. Some child is always left
unpicked up at some moment. In a world like that, how does one
remain whole-is it just impossible to do that? (Bakerman60)
Throughout Morrison's fiction the principal dramatic tension derives from the effort to find remedies for the pain that makes
simple survival a daily crisis. Despite the nurturing nature of the
traditional black community depicted in her novels, the adjustments that her characters make to the confluence of insidious
natural and supernatural forces are emphatically individualistic,
creative attempts to produce order from chaos. This creative
energy may be expended in a black girl's poignant efforts to
escape the crippling effects of racism and rape by her own father
by devoutly wishing for the blue eyes that will create the delusion of otherness (The Bluest Eye), or in the moral paradoxes
inherent in a mother's killing her own child in order to put her
"safely" beyond the reach of vicious white men who believe "huthe defined" (Beloved
manity" "belonged to the definers-not
a horse's bit in his
or
a
wearing
by
in black man, punished
190),
in
a rusted tin close
too
memories
who
his
painful
keeps
mouth,
to his heart (Beloved). Each is involved in a creative search for a
way to "survive whole in a world where we are all of us, in some
measure, victims of something" (Bakerman 60). Their unusual
survival strategies are desperate remedies that challenge the
conventional social definitions of madness and sanity, humanity
and inhumanity, as well as life and death. In Sula and The
disorderly strategies that indiBluest Eye, the unconventional,
viduals like Shadrack and Pecola Breedlove invent to deal with
the chaos of their lives are a measure of the community's toler-

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Madness and Evil in Toni Morrison's Sula

741

ance, its struggle to fit them into a normative value structure


upon which everyone's survival depends. In this way, the measure of humanity and civilization is, as Michel Foucault suggests, implicit in society's treatment of those marginal
individuals on its fringe, the insane and infirm.4
And yet the black community, despite its stoical attitude toin the form of plagues, droughts,
wards adversity-whether
white folks, or Sula-, does not survive. If, as the authorial voice
suggests in part 2, "the purpose of evil was to survive it" (90),
why does this traditional black community with its strong moral
center collapse? One contributing factor, according to Barbara
Christian, may be the community's "insularity" from the larger
world:
As its conservative element, the women help the community retain its
distinctive traditions. But because they are so insulated, the traditions
of the community are seldom challenged and revitalized and are in
danger of becoming obsolete. Thus, the nature of the land, its vulnerability, its insularity, its distinctiveness, will have untold effects on the
black community

. and on the ways major characters

are perceived

by that community. (50)

The community,

then, is threatened

by its failure to adapt to a

changing world. This view suggests a germ-vaccine metaphor in


which the black community-having failed to immunize itself
against the infectious ways of the world by small injections of
it-is powerless to defend itself against the diseased world when
it mounts a wholesale invasion. By insulating rather than inoculating itself against evil, the community finds an ephemeral escape from evil rather than-as is the goal-a way to survive it.
Sula personifies the strange world beyond Medallion, Ohio, and
is evil, in part, because her values are foreign to the homogeneity
of this black community. Sula embodies a xenophobic anxiety
over otherness and, by her very presence, forces the community
to examine its own self-image constantly. The argument concerning insularity is thus credible, because the community's singular
interest is in protecting-that is, "insulating"-itself from, rather
than understanding, the otherness that Sula represents.
This is a paradox that suggests that the black community's
collapse-its

"dislocation"-is

the sum of more than its insular

traditions.5 By failing to accept change, the community is


doomed to die; however, if it forsakes a traditional "village"world
view for the sterility of the modern world, it dies spiritually. The
problem for the black community in Sula, therefore, becomes
how to retain its vital traditions while adapting itself to the
modern world so as to avoid being ground under by the inexorable pull of "progress." This is a delicate balance, a juggling act

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742

Cedric Gael Bryant

which is apparently doomed because of the incongruity between


"village"values and those of the larger world. How does an insulated community move beyond its xenophobic anxieties and yet
retain its homogeneity? Progress, then, is an ideological paradox
represented by the black community's almost worshipful anticipation of the "New River Road" bridge, which was intended to
promote trade between the cross-river communities. Ten years
after the idea of a bridge was abandoned in favor of a tunnel,
black people were still waiting anxiously for a promise of employment on the project, a promise that went largely unfulfilled. The
tunnel's significance for the black community is implied in its
specific meaning to Jude Green, Nel Wright's husband:
Along with a few other young black men, Jude had gone down to the
shack where they were hiring. Three old colored men had already been
hired, but not for the road work, just to do the picking up, food bringing
and other small errands. These old men were close to feeble, not good
for much else . . ; still it was a shame to see those white men laughing
with the grandfathers but shying away from the young black men who
could tear that road up. The men like Jude who could do real work.
Jude himself longed more than anybody else to be taken. Not just for
the good money, morefor the work Itself. He wanted to swing the pick or
kneel down with the string or shovel the gravel. His arms ached for
something heavier than trays, for something dirtier than peelings; his
feet wanted

the heavy work shoes

....

More than anything

he wanted

the camaraderte of the road men: the lunch buckets, the hollering, the
body movement that in the end produced something real, something he
could point to. (81-82, emphases added)

This passage suggests that, for men like Jude, manhood and
self-worth are inextricably bound with meaningful work and
male bonding, which, as signifiers, have greater meaning than
does mere money. More broadly, the tunnel represents the black
community's hope that the "oppressive oddity, or what they
called evil days," and had conditioned themselves to "with an
acceptance that bordered on welcome" (90), might be permanently altered. The "New River Road" tunnel, then, becomes a
myth of almost Biblical proportions, which-like the River Jordan -has the power to heal those who are sick and reclaim what
is lost.
The collapse of the black community in Sula is tied to a pattern
the
of imagery-a
serious kind of word play-stressing
community's dilemma and its inability to resolve it. The emphasis that the myth of the tunnel places on construction, or new
beginnings, foreshadows the destruction of those insular traditions that have, for a time, sustained the community. The work
done on the tunnel in 1940 is one of several signs that "a falling
away, a dislocation was taking place" (153, emphasis added). It is

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Madness and Evil in Toni Morrison's Sula

743

followed quickly by another: the construction of an old people's


home. Like the tunnel imagery, the convalescent home is a myth
in the act of collapsing because its very presence prefigures the
disintegration of the community's most cherished values. In
1965, almost twenty-five years after the tunnel's collapse, the
erection of a second convalescent home provides ex post facto
confirmation of the erosion of traditional norms signaled years
earlier. Nel is witness to the community's passing in 1965, and
her remarks tie these two events together: "Everytime they built
a road they built a old folks' home. You'd think folks was living
longer, but the fact of it was, they was just being put outfaster
(164, emphasis added).
Nel is not the only witness; she shares that dubious distinction
with Shadrack, the "mad Shad," who from beginning to end
symbolizes the community's subtle, collectively unconscious desire to rebel against the oppressive authority of Nature. The
purpose of evil may be to survive it, but clearly, as time goes on
and the moral center disintegrates, the community is increasingly less tolerant and less able to coexist peacefully with "oppressive oddity" (89). The tragicomic image of Shadrack as the
Grim Reaper-with cowbells and hangman's rope substituted for
the Reaper's hourglass and farmer's scythe-is a sign whose
signifiers change radically as the community's traditional world
view changes. In 1919, and for a time afterwards, Shadrack's
National Suicide Day was a ritual, or myth, "deconstructed" by
the community to fit its self-image. Accordingly, National Suicide
Day and January third were identified with events like births
and marriages. In the end of Sula, however, the closural strategy
is to circle back to the beginning by returning to National Suicide
Day's original significance as an exhortation to chaos and madness.
Finally, the circle is possible because the community's collective effort to "kill"the tunnel for having murdered its hope for a
better life suggests that the community has compromised its
traditional ways in favor of the new world's values, which, in
turn, have forsaken them. Having lost hope, nothing stands between the people who go deliriously into the tunnel except chaos
and madness. Shadrack's amazement as he watches the people
dying in the tunnel's collapse (162) is an appropriate response
since, ironically, he may be the only person left who lives by the
commnunity's traditional world view. Shadrack's energies have
always been directed at coexisting with evil and chaos by using
these qualities creatively, unlike the community's efforts to separate themselves from evil by the false promises of a better life in

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744

Cedric Gael Bryant

the larger world. At the novel's close, it is somehow right that


Shadrack and Nel should pass each other, intersecting the text
as they have touched the lives of the other characters. Nel, who
by dint of time and pain has the greater practical knowledge,
and Shadrack, whose madness permits him to intuit more than
Nel, move "in opposite directions, each thinking separate
thoughts about the past. The distance between them increased
as they both remembered gone things" (174).
Notes
lWhile the cultural contexts for the myth of flight as it functions in Song of
Solomon are, perhaps, most notably African (Yoruba folklore) and AfricanAmerican (especially spirituals like "Steal Away"), the Greek classical story of
Icarus and Daedalus is also relevant in several ways. The Solomon-Jake and
Daedalus-Icarus parallels include a father-son relationship and the pairs'
drops Jake, his only son, when he brushes the tree
separation-Solomon
tops, and Icarus, failing to heed his father's advice about not flying too close
to the sun, plummets when his waxen wings melt-; but the most important
parallel is the creative, self-defining act of "authorship' implicit in the
fathers' and sons' escape from enslavement. Interestingly, flight for men
implies transcendence and progress in a linear fashion, but when fiercely
independent women like Sula attempt the same self-defining act, they make
circles-like Sula's departure and return to Medallion ten years later-and
are perceived by communities like the Bottom as failures who have misspent
their time.
2Throughout Morrison's novels, one of the "constraints' men are freed
from and for which women accept responsibility is child rearing. The evidence of the novels suggests that the perception of child nurturing as a
feminine responsibility is decidedly the result of gender rather than biology.
Both Nel's and Sula's views of motherhood, for example, are shaped by their
environment with different results: Sula's indifference to maternity owes
much to her mother Hannah and her grandmother Eva, neither of whose
survival is dependent upon men. When Sula returns to Medallion after a
ten-year absence, Eva admonishes her: "'You need to have some babies. It'll
settle you.' " Sula's rejoinder is, " 'I don't want to make somebody else. I
want to make myself " (92). Sula's identity, then, is dependent upon her
self-view as unrestrained, free, unattached. Obversely, Nel's identity, inextricably connected to a need for security and a response to fear, depends upon
motherhood. The traumatic experience on the train to New Orleans that
reduces her and her mother to "custard" blots her own identity, forcing her
to define herself exclusively through her children and husband.
31n "Community and Nature," Barbara Christian identifies patterns of
"inversion" which distort, and thus make problematic, the individual's and
community's efforts to maintain a morally correct relationship to Nature.
The first inversion of the truth is, of course, the "nigger joke" involving the
sale of barren top land ironically called the "Bottom" by both duplicitous
white people and naive black folk. Other inversions thematically and structurally central to Morrison's fiction include Sula's perverse (and perversion
of nature, Pecola's penchant for blue eyes, and Milkman's and his father's
ironic search for their family "inheritance."
4The complex issues raised in Beloved (1987) -concerning infanticide, the
presentness of the past, true love, and survival-afford far more strenuous

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Madness and Evil in Toni Morrison's Sula

745

tests of the humanistic principle of tolerance implicit in the idea of civilization than we see presented in the earlier novels. Accordingly, Sethe in Beloved is both sister to Pecola and Sula and brother to Shadrack; each is
engendered by the will to survive, to remain sane in an unspeakably cruel
world where human suffering and indignity have no limits.
50ne example of an 'insular tradition' that contributes greatly to Sula's
anathematization is sending her grandmother Eva away to a convalescent
home rather than caring for her at home, as "village" values dictate. For
failing to nurture, Sula is called a "roach." Putting Eva away is a transgression outweighed only by rumors of Sula's violation of another insular tradition: not sleeping with white men. Fornication among black women and
white men constitutes "the route from which there was no way back, the dirt
that could not ever be washed away' (112).
Works Cited
Bakerman, Jane. SThe Seams Can't Show: An Interview with Toni Morrison."
BlackAmerican Literature Forum 12 (1978): 56-60.
Brooks, Gwendolyn. "A Song in the Front Yard." Selected Poems. New York:
Harper, 1963. 6.
Christian, Barbara. "Community and Nature: The Novels of Toni Morrison."
Black FemLntst CritictsmnPerspectives on Black Women Writers. New York:
Pergamon, 1985.47-63.
Foucault, Michel. Madness and CivilizattonwA Htstory of Insanity In the Age
of Reason. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Vintage, 1965.
Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman In the Attic: The
Woman Wrater and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New
Haven: Yale UP, 1979.
Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Knopf, 1987.
. Sula. New York: Knopf, 1973.

Stepto, Robert B. " 'Intimate Things in Place': A Conversation with Toni


Morrison." Chant of Saints: A Gathering of Afro-American Literature, Art,
and Scholarship. Ed. Michael S. Harper and Stepto. Urbana: U of Illinois
P. 1979. 213-29.
Tate, Claudia. 'Toni Morrison." Black Women Writers at Work. New York:
Continuum, 1983. 117-31.

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Indiana State University

Toni Morrison's Sula: A Satire on Binary Thinking


Author(s): Rita A. Bergenholtz
Source: African American Review, Vol. 30, No. 1 (Spring, 1996), pp. 89-98
Published by: Indiana State University
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Toni Morrison's Sula: A Satire on Binary Thinking


ttempts to define Toni Morrison'snovel Sulaare as
numerous as they are diverse. The text has been read as a
"blackwoman's epic," a study of "femalefriendship,"an "antiwar novel," a "fable,"an explorationof the "femininepsyche,"
and "a prime postmodernisttext."1If one were to single out one
particularinterpretationand argue that it were somehow superior, somehow right while the others were wrong, that person
would fall into the trap of binarythinking which is also what
Morrison'stext is "about."DeborahE. McDowell explains further:
A

The narrative [Sula]insistently blurs and confuses ... binary oppositions. It glories in paradox and ambiguitybeginning with the prologue
that describes the setting, the Bottom,situated spatially in the top. We
enter a new world here, a world where we never get to the "bottom"of
things, a world that demands a shift from an either/or orientation to
one thatis both/and, full of shifts and contradictions.(80)

Rita A. Bergenholtz has


recentlycompleteda dissertationon twentieth-century
satire and holds a Ph.D. from
the Universityof South
Florida.She has published
articleson Swift,Conrad,
Nabokov,and Garcfa
Marquez.She teaches
expositorywritingand literatureat FloridaTech in
Melbourne,Florida.

In my own attempt to describe Sula,I will expand upon


McDowell's thesis and argue that the novel may also be read as
an extended satire on binary(reductive,cliched) thinking.
Becausesatireis a notoriously impreciseterm, a clarificationof its
usage in this essay is appropriate.
The traditionaldefinition of satireas a didactic art form was
articulatedby Horace in the first century B.C.,restatedand amplified by Dryden at the close of the seventeenth century,and
upheld by several prominent theoristsin the first half of the twentieth century.2In fact, as recentlyas 1985LindaHutcheon argued
that parodyshould not be confused with satire,"which is extramural (social, moral) in its ameliorativeaim to hold up to ridicule
the vices and follies of mankind,with an eye to their correction"
(43). Dryden's "Discourseconcerningthe Originaland Progress
of Satire"(1693)has largely been responsiblefor this view of
satire.As Dustin Griffinexplains, "Ourreigning notion of satire
as a moral art and as a carefullyconstructedand unified contrast
between vice and virtue finds its fullest and most influentialpresentation in Dryden's essay" (15). Accordingto Dryden, "Satireis
a kindof Poetry... inventedforthepurgingof ourMinds;in which
HumaneVices,Ignorance,andErrors,andall thingsbesides. . . are
(77). This definition highlights two related
severelyReprehended"
points which deserve attention.First,Dryden's theory of satireas
correctionand reformationclearly fails to describehis own satiric
practice;and, second, it is intended to describeonly formalverse
(or Roman)satire and not Menippean(or Varronian)satire.
Regardingthe first point, EdgarJohnsonaptly notes that "it is
hard to detect any reformatoryzeal in MacFlecknoeand the
booby-trapdenouement of its coronationscene" (4). The same
may be said about the satires of Horace,who argues that his goal
is to laugh men out of their follies-thus drawing attentionto the
moral aspect of his satire-but, as Griffinnotes, "Satire,as Horace
African American Review, Volume 30, Number 1
? 1996 Rita A. Bergenholtz

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89

practicesit, is considerablymore
diverse than laughter at folly" (8). In
fact,contraryto what the satiristmay
claim in defense of his or her work, the
satirist'sprimaryaim has generally
been to upset our conventional literary
and moral expectations-not to validate them. Moreover,as JohnR. Clark
argues, ratherthan attackingfolly and
vice, "Satiricplots regularlydramatize
the triumph of folly or vice" (51). We
need only recall the end of Gulliver's
Travels-where Gulliverconverses
with his horses-or the conclusion of
Pope's "Epilogueto the Satires:
Dialogue I"-where Vice triumphs
with great pageantry-to recognize the
validity of this statement.3
Furthermore,it is significantthat
Dryden's theory is intended to describe
only formalverse satire (as practiced
by Horace,Juvenal,and Persius),and
not Menippean satire. Like Quintillian
before him and many theoristsafter
him, Dryden draws a clear distinction
between the two satirictraditionsprivileging the Roman traditionof
verse satire established by Lucilius
(second century B.C.)and disregarding
the older, more complex Menippean
tradition,named after its founder
Menippus of Gadara(third century
B.C.).In the twentieth century, such
prominent theorists as NorthropFrye

of the world. Narrative satire is .


potentiallymore subversive.(6)

In Satire:A CriticalReintroduction
(1994),Dustin Griffindevelops a more
comprehensiveapproachto the two
majortraditionsof satire,privileging
neither.Indeed, Griffinsuggests that
"to read Menippeanworks alongside
those of Horace,Donne, or Pope is to
see poetic satire,even formalverse
satire,in new light. The moral design is
but one of several elements. Neither
tradition,in Bakhtin'sterms, is 'monological' " (34). Furthermore,instead of
viewing satire merely as a rhetoricof
persuasion,Griffinargues that "we
may arriveat a fuller understandingof
the way satireworks if we think of a
rhetoricof inquiry,a rhetoricof provocation, a rhetoricof display, a rhetoric
of play" (39).Satireas Griffindescribes
it may be found in either verse or narrative;however, since the novel's
"rise"in the eighteenth century, this
genre has proved to be the satirist's
preferredform. As numerous theorists
and criticshave now recognized, the
satiristattacks,indirectly,all kinds of
unexaminedand cliched thinking. In
short, the satirist'sprimarygoal is not
to "teach"us moral lessons or to
reformus, but to entertainus andgive
us food for thought.
This contemporaryview of satire
underscoresone of Toni Morrison's
(Anatomy of Criticism, 1957) and
acknowledged goals as a writer. In an
Mikhail Bakhtin (Problemsof
interview with Nellie McKay,Morrison
Dostoevsky's Poetics, 1929) have
remarks,"Idon't want to give my
attempted to rectify this imbalance.
readerssomething to swallow. I want
However, Bakhtin'stheory-which
to give them something to feel and
reverses the traditionalhierarchyand
think about . . ." (421). Moreover, this
privileges "dialogic"Menippeansatire broaderview of satirealigns itself
instead-also maintains a distinction
closely with the poststructuralistprobetween satirictraditions.Building
ject of invertingand then leveling hierupon Bakhtin'stheory, FrankPalmeri's archies,whether they be moral, philoSatire in Narrative (1990) likewise favors sophical, or linguistic. A closer look at
narrativesatire:
the "niggerjoke"in the first chapterof
Sulawill allow us to recognize how
. . . verse satire does function conservalively to enforce an established culturMorrisonconsistently frustratesany
al code by ridiculing deviations from
attemptto think in strictlybinary
it. However, narrative satire parodies
terms, impelling us to contrastthe valboth the official voice of established
ley with the Bottom,the Bottomwith
beliefs and the discourse of its oppothe suburbs(4). Opposition engenders
nents. In doing so, it interrogatesany
claims to a systematic understanding
competition,hierarchy,and taxonomy.

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Morrison'sview of this process is clear


from Sula'sconcluding sentence:"It
was a fine cry-loud and long-but it
had no bottom and it had no top, just
circles and circles of sorrow"(174).
Morrisonemploys and undermines
binaryopposition with the agricultural
imagery which she evokes at the outset
of Sula.The slave in Morrison's"nigger
joke"knows what bottom land is, but
he is fooled by a "good white farmer"
who convinces him that the fertilebottom land is actually up in the hills,
which he describes as " 'the bottom of
heaven-the best land there is' " (5).
The credulous "nigger,"therefore,
appearsto be the butt (or "bottom")of
the good white farmer'sjoke. But is he
really?If the Bottom'shilly terrainis
unyielding, then why do the white
hunters wonder "in private if maybe
the white farmerwas right afterall.
Maybe it was the bottom of heaven"
(6)?And why do the white folks later
change their minds, move to the
Bottom,and rename it the "suburbs"
(2)?Perhapsthe knavish farmeris really the fool? In any case, the joke does
amuse, for the guileless slave
believes-literally-that heaven has a
top and a bottom. This brief look at the
"niggerjoke"which introduces Sulaand serves as an emblem for it-highlights a number of binary oppositions
that are interrogatedthroughoutthe
text:black/white, good/evil,
tragic/comic, spiritual/material,literal/metaphoric, real/fantastic, and
free/enslaved.
Although the introductoryjoke
hinges, in part, upon a black/white
opposition, white people remain
peripheralfigures in this text.
ApparentlyMorrison,like Sula, is not
merely concernedwith surfacedifferences like color. Plainly, Morrison
wants us to understandhow reductive
and destructive it is to affix antithetical
labels such as goodand evil to entire
races of people, although many of the
charactersin the novel do just that. For
instance,according to the white bargeman who finds ChickenLittle'sbody,
black people are simply "animals,fit

for nothing but substitutes for mules,


only mules didn't kill each other the
way niggers did" (63).Similarly,
accordingto most of the residents of
the Bottom,the worst thing a black
woman like Sula can do is to sleep with
a white man: "Theyinsisted that all
unions between white men and black
women be rape;for a blackwoman to
be willing was literallyunthinkable.In
that way, they regardedintegration
with precisely the same venom that
white people did" (113).The trenchant
irony is not just that both blacks and
whites employ binarythinking, but
that blackwomen attempt to look more
like white women (with all of their
nose pulling and hair straightening)
and black men yearn to do the white
man's work, while both white men and
white women, accordingto Sula,
secretlylust afterblack men and their
legendary penises. The distinction
between blackand white is further
blurredby the marginalcharacterTar
Baby,a man who may be white or may
just be an undefinablemixtureof black
and white.
Binarythinking operateson the
notion that one term of an opposing
pair will be privileged. In the following
excerptfrom an interview, Morrison
suggests a weakness in binaryperspectives which she explores in Sula:"Iwas
interested ... in doing a very old,
worn-out idea, which was to do something with good and evil, but putting it
in differentterms"("Intimate"215).
Morrisoncontinues:"Istartedout by
thinking that one can never really
define good and evil. Sometimes good
looks like evil; sometimes evil looks
like good-you never really know
what it is. It depends on what uses you
put it to" (216).Eva, the matriarchof
the Peace family and a symbol of black
folk wisdom, presents a number of
interpretiveproblemsin this area.
How, for example, are we to respond
to her abandonmentof her children,
her loss of a limb, and her torchingof
Plum?Should we admire her stoutheartednessand her ability to survive,
or should we be horrifiedby her

SULA:A SATIREON BINARYTHINKING


TONIMORRISON'S

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91

actions?What about the deweys?


people. Sula doesn't care that the men
Should we praise Eva's generosity for she sleeps with are married.And Sula
housing these stray boys or censure her especially doesn't care that a "good"
absent-mindedtreatmentof them?
woman, like Nel, would never be on
JoanneV. Gabbinoffers one possible
top of her man during sexual interanswer when she remarksthat
course but beneathhim, not unlike the
hem of his garments.
Morrison"avoids the pitfalls of
attributingall that is good to the tradiTraditionaldefinitions of satire
tion. In Sula proverbial coltend to reduce it to a form
lective wisdom of the folk is
of "romance"which, in its
Morrison
held up to Morrison's spotbroadest sense, may include
wants us to any narrativewhich has a
light and collective ignorance often appears" (256). understand
well-defined "good guy"
Specifically,Eva follows the
who triumphs over a wellhow
folk wisdom which urges a
defined "badguy" in order
mother to treat all her chilreductive
to produce the expected resdren the same. Consequently,
olution: a happy ending
and
the deweys are "bludgeoned
(which is also the moral).
into insipid sameness by
destructive
Such absolutes,however,
folk love and indifference"
it is to affix are uncommon in satiric
(Gabbin257).
In fact, Morrison
Like her grandmother,
antithetical novels.
clearlywants us to recogSula Peace presents a problabels such nize that although Nel and
lem for people who think in
binary terms, people who as good and Sula appear to be quite difinsist that a characterbe dis- evil to entire ferent-one the epitome of
goodness and the other the
creet, consistent, and thus
embodiment of evil-they
races
of
confinable. Should we
are also quite similar.That
admire Sula's courage, her
people,
is, if Sula is evil for watchdeterminationto be free and
ing
Hannah dance in pain as
although
to "make herself" (92)? Or
her lovely skin,
flames
should we loathe her for
many of the then Nelmelt
is
also
evil for
engaging in casual sex with
characters
experiencinga sense of
her best friend's husband?
Our initial response to
in the novel pleasure and tranquility
when ChickenLittle disapSula's act of betrayal is to
side with the people of the do just that. pears beneath the water
Bottom and label Nel the
(170).The "Wright"
approachto moralityjudges an action
"good"woman and Sula the "evil"
one.4 After all, Nel behaves properly; evil only if it is witnessed by others. In
she fits nicely "intothe scheme of
contrast,Morrisonsuggests that the
things," into her society's hierarchical distinctionbetween good and evil is
rarelyso clear-cutas Helen and Nel
structurewhich has a clear moral top
and a definite moral bottom (15).
suppose; consequently,there is some
Indeed, Nel admirablyperformsall of good and some evil in both Sula and in
the obligatory roles:dutiful friend,
Nel. The most significantdifference
respectfuldaughter, loyal wife, and
between the women might be that Sula
nurturingmother. Later,she acts the
accepts the fuzziness of moral catewronged wife and the forgiving
gories with her usual good humor,
Christianwoman. In contrast,Sula dis- whereas Nel refuses to look at the
regards social conventions, following
unacceptableaspects of herself, aspects
only her own heart and conscience.
which confound her cliched thinking.
Sula doesn't care that the definition of In fact, Sula's ability to laugh at herself
a black woman is one who makes other may be her most redeeming quality.

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Like the "niggers"who tell the


"niggerjoke" on themselves, Sula

the grotesque is its most genuine style"


(240-41).
understands that in life ". . . the laughGrotesqueimages are provocative,
ter [ulspart of the pain" (4). So when
for they create "a clash between incomNel asks her if she " 'still expect[s]
patible reactions-laughter on the one
folks to love' " her afterall " 'the dirt
hand and horroror disgust on the
[she] did in this town,' " Sula's creative other"(Thomson2). Such imagery perreply is painfully funny. Instead of
vades Morrison'stext. How else could
responding with a cliched remarklike we characterizethe image of Eva
the townspeople will love her "when
swinging and swooping around her
hell freezes over," Sula imagines new
house on crutches(46), or the image of
ways of inverting the world of the
Hannah "bobbinglike a sprung jackBottom,new metaphors for describing in-the-box"(76),or the three deweys,
what "never"feels like:
who play chain-gangin the intolerable
heat and who dance "a little jig around
"Oh, they'll love me all right. It will
the befuddled Shadrack"before they
take time, but they'll love me.... After
all the old women have lain with the
lead the people of the Bottomon a
teen-agers; when all the young girls
macabredance of death (159)?In fact,
have slept with their old drunken
throughoutSuladeath is repeatedly
uncles; after all the black men fuck all
treatedin a tragicomicmanner.A
the white ones; when all the white
women kiss all the black ones; when
salient example is Sula's demise, which
the guards have raped all the jailbirds
"was the best news folks up in the
and after all the whores make love to
Bottomhad had since the promise of
their grannies;after all the faggots get
work at the tunnel."As the narrator
their mothers' trim; when Lindbergh
informs us, some people came to the
sleeps with Bessie Smith and Norma
Shearer makes it with Stepin Fetchit;
funeral simply to verify Sula's death:
after all the dogs have fucked all the
cats and every weathervane on every
barn flies off the roof to mount the
hogs . . . then there'llbe a little love left
over for me." (145-46)

The tone of this passage, like the tone


of the "niggerjoke,"may be described
as tragicomic.Indeed, tragicomedyhas
much in common with the Negro
blues. As Ralph Ellison explains, "The
blues is an impulse to keep the painful
details and episodes of a brutalexperience alive in one's aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to
transcendit, not by consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a
near-tragic,near-comiclyricism"(78).
In fact, the satiristhas always been
fond of grotesque combinationswhich
confound the ridiculous and the terrifying, the fantasticand the real, the
human and the bestial. In an oft-quoted remark,Thomas Mann predicted,
correctly,that the grotesque would
prove to be the dominant artisticstyle
of the twentieth century:"Thestriking
featureof modern art is that ... it sees
life as tragicomedy,with the result that

Others came to see that nothing went


awry, that the shallow-minded and
small-hearted kept their meanness at
bay, and that the entire event be characterizedby that abiding gentleness of
spirit to which they themselves had
arrived by the simple determination
not to let anything-anything at all:
not failed crops, not rednecks, lost
jobs,sick children,rottenpotatoes,broken pipes, bug-riddenflour, third-class
coal, educated social workers,thieving
insurance men, garlic-riddenhunkies,
corrupt Catholics, racist Protestants,
cowardlyJews, slaveholdingMoslems,
jack-leg nigger preachers, squeamish
Chinamen, cholera, dropsy or the
Black Plague, let alone a strange
woman-keep them from their God.
(150)

Although death permeates this


novel, egregious lists like this one provide a "sense of joy" ("Intimate"225)
which invigoratesMorrison'swriting
and animatesSula's thoughts, a sense
that is absent from the lives of most of
the women up in the Bottom,especially "the churchwomen who frowned on
any bodily expression of joy (except
when the hand of God commanded it)"

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93

(79).5Morrison'ssatire criticizesthese
ostensibly good women who are preoccupied with appearing religious. In
truth,these women are more concerned that "theirstraightenedhair
[will] beat them home" than they are
about Sula (173).Moreover,from their
distorted perspective,nearly everything and everyone is an obstacle on
their righteous path to God. The end
result is that they diminish the spiritual
element of life to the material,just as
the slave in the "niggerjoke"reduces
heaven to some hills overlooking
Medallion,Ohio. As Alvin B. Kernan
explains, pseudo-religious people often
substitute "some objectivething for a
subjectivereality:a pious expression ... folded hands, and frequentreferences to the Deity for true religion"
(52).
This is a ratheraccuratedescription of Helene (or Helen) Wright,a
woman who grew up in a "somber
house that held four Virgin Marys"
(25),a woman whose "darkeyes" are
"archedin a perpetualquery about

look at it anotherway, the comparison


magnifies the secular,thus transforming nose pulling into a kind of religious
ceremony.)
ConfirmingKernan'spoint above,
Palmeriexplains that "the plot and
rhetoricof narrativesatire cohere in
accomplishingthe same movement of
lowering or leveling." He continues:
Narrative satire reduces the spiritual
and abstract to the same level as the
physical and material, concentrating
for this purpose on the natural functions of the body.... With this focus,
narrativesatire reduces all that might
be heroicand noble to a common level
of physical experiencewhich it openly
acknowledges, if it does not always
joyouslycelebrate.(10)

Sulais a novel which does indeed


acknowledge all of the naturalfunctions of the human body, what Bernard
McElroyrefersto as "the four irreducibles of human life ... birth,food,
sex, and death."In fact, McElroysuggests that the "closestlink"between
such writersas Rabelaisand Joycemay
be "theirdepiction of the grotesque
other people's manners.... It was
body.... The celebrationof copulation,
Helene who never turned her head in
birth,devouring, and elimination that
churchwhen latecomersarrived;. . .
Bakhtinfinds in Rabelaisis everywhere
Helene who introduced the giving of
in Joyce,culminatingin Molly's rumibanquetsof welcome to returning
nations in the final chapter"(71).
Negro veterans"(18). In the following Morrisonbelongs to this long satiric
monologue, Morrisonexquisitely cap- tradition,which includes writers as
tures the essence of Helene's superfidiverse as Swift and Sternein the eighcial, automaticreligion:
teenth centuryand Barthand Nabokov
in the twentieth.Unlike romanceor
"Lord, I've never been so glad to see
this place. But look at the dust. Get the
tragedy, satireis a genre in which charrags, Nel. Oh, never mind. Let's
actersfind the time to eat andto
breathe awhile first. Lord, I never
secrete.By developing such scatologithought I'd get back here safe and
cal themes, the satiristis able "to rivet
sound. Whoo. Well, it's over. Good
the attention,to shock, and to move
and over. Praise His name. Look at
that. I told that old fool not to deliver
[her]audience"(Clark118).
any milk and there'sthe can curdledto
The satiristalso entertains.Partof
beat all. What gets into people? I told
absurd humor resides in the fact
Sula's
him not to. Well, I got other things to
that the initialjoke about the "bottom
worry 'bout. Got to get a fire started.I
left it ready so I wouldn't have to do
of heaven" is carriedon throughout the
nothin' but light it. Lord, it's cold.
novel. Thatis to say, in nearly every
Don't just sit there, honey. You could
chapter,a "bottom"-or, if you prefer,
be pulling your nose .. ." (27-28)
an ass, rear-end,derriere,or buttocksThejuxtapositionof religious terminol- makes a literalor metaphoricappearogy-"Praise His name"-with dust,
ance. Such a preposterousnumber of
rags, curdled milk, and nose pulling
bottoms suggests that Morrison-a
tends to diminish the sacred.(Or,to
blackwoman-is able to laugh at one

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of the physical featureswith which


black people (especially black women)
have often been pejorativelyassociated. Firstthere are a number of literal
bottoms to be observed. Thereis Nel's
"wet buttocks"being soaped by her
mother in Cecile Sabat'shouse (27);
poor Plum's exposed buttocks in the
frigid outhouse (34);Nel's and Sula's
"behinds"strolling down the street to
Edna Finch'sMellow House-a "view"
which men both young and old watch
"with interest"(49);Hannah's
"behind,"which "she made men aware
of" (42);and Sula's rear-end"gliding,
with just a hint of a strut,down the
path toward the road.... Even from
the rearNel could tell that it was Sula
and that she was smiling.. ." (85).

Even more significantis the way in


which blacks and whites use the "bottom" synecdochicallyto representthe
whole person. For instance,when
Helene Wright boards the wrong car of
a train,the white conductorbarks,
"'We don't 'low no mistakes on this
train.Now git your butt on in there'
(21).The narratoremploys similar
imagery to describe Nel and Sula as
twelve-year-old girls:They were
"wishbonethin and easy-assed"(52).
Furthermore,when Hannah inquires
whether or not Eva ever loved her, Eva
replies, " 'You settin' here with you
healthy-ass self and ax me did I love
you? Them big old eyes in your head
would a been two holes full of maggots
if I hadn't' "(68). And when Sula
returnsfrom her ten-yearodyssey, Eva
warns, " '. . . don't let your mouth start

nothing that your ass can't stand' "


(92).One final bottom deserves mention. As the narrator explains, ". . . if a

valley man happened to have business


up in those hills-collecting rent or
insurancepayments-he might see a
darkwoman in a flowered dress doing
a bit of cakewalk,a bit of black
bottom. . ." (4).
Like the "niggerjoke,"however,
the identificationof the self-here, the
black self-with the "bottom"or
behind is both comic and tragic.
Focusing on the "bottom"instead of

the whole person results in a demeaning, fragmentedperspective,a way of


seeing people which may degenerate
into the white policeman'sview that, if
TarBaby"didn'tlike to live in shit, he
should come down out of those hills,
and live like a decent white man" (133).
This is not to say that there is anything
wrong with looking at or talkingabout
"bottoms."The problem arises, however, when one particularbody part
becomes a metaphorfor a whole person. Morrisonseems to underscorethis
by populating her novel with fragmented characters,characterslike Nel,
whose sexuality is representedby
"empty,""old thighs"(110-11);
Shadrack,whose monstroushands are
a metaphorfor his inability to reach
out and touch other people (12);and
the deweys, whose "magnificentteeth"
signal their animal rapacity(84).
Perhapsthe most memorablefragmented characterin Sulais the onelegged matriarch,Eva Peace.
Apparentlyshe gives up a leg in order
to survive, in order that her children
may survive. The sacrificeis, of course,
heroic.Survival,it seems, is quite
expensive. Nevertheless, Eva's tragedy
recallsthe cliche "it cost an arm and a
leg," which is, accordingto A
Dictionaryof CatchPhrases,a variantof
an earlierexpression, "even at the cost
of a leg" (159).The dark humor encircling this absent limb becomes plain
once we realize that Eva's condition is
a literalizationof a metaphorical
expression.Palmeriexplains that "the
reductionof the spiritualto physical in
satiricnarrativecorrespondsto the
rhetoricalreductionof metaphorto literal meanings . . . [which] often operates on idioms and cliches ... [and]
works to satirizehidebound characters . . . who live within the confines of
cliches and received ideas" (13). In fact,
this techniqueof reducing the
metaphoricalto the literal is a pervasive source of ironic humor in numerous satiricworks, from Jonathan
Swift's A Taleof a Tubto GabrielGarcia
Marquez'sOneHundredYearsof
Solitude.6

SULA:A SATIREON BINARYTHINKING


TONIMORRISON'S

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95

Similarly,much of Sula'sdark
humor results from this same strategy:
Distortingthe responsibilitiesof motherhood, Eva murdersher son because
she fears that he literallywants " 'to
crawl back in [her]womb' "(71), yet
she literally takes a free fall in an
attempt to save her daughter (76);
exceeding the bounds of curiosity, Sula
concludes that " 'it's just as well [Ajax]
left. Soon I would have torn the flesh
from his face just to see if I was right
about the gold . . .' " (136);parodying
all of the boy/men in the novel, the
three deweys decide to remainliterally
as children in body as well as in mind
(38, 84); spoofing the Trojanmyth, Ajax
(or A. Jacks)is (almost) literallya
Greek"bearinggifts" (125);mocking
the conventions of marriageand the
white world, Jude literallyabandons
his tie (104);and undermining the dignity of Nel's grief and bitterness,a gray
ball literally forms "justto the right of
her, in the air,just out of view" (108).
This final example of Nel's gray
ball is especially significantbecause it
exemplifies Tzvetan "Todorov'snotion
of the supernaturalas literalized trope"
(McHale137).We can believe-perhaps with some difficulty-that Eva
could ignite her own son or that the
deweys could stop growing; however,
the idea of a gray ball's defying the
laws of gravity and following Nel for
some twenty-eight years introducesus
to the realm of the fantastic.We no
longer ask what the ball means, but
whether such a ball-and such a
world-is possible. BrianMcHale
explains that "the 'bottom,'the deep
structureof the fantastic,is ... ontological ratherthan epistemological....
The fantastic,in other words, involves
a face-to-faceconfrontationbetween
the possible (the 'real')and the impossible, the normal and the paranormal"
(75). Moreover,Morrison'suse of the
fantasticlinks her with such celebrated
satiristsas Lucian,Rabelais,Swift, and
GarciaMarquez.According to Bakhtin,
'We could not find a genre more free
than the menippea in its invention and
use of the fantastic"(114).He contin-

96

ues: "Weemphasize that the fantastic


here serves not for the positive embodimentof truth,but as a mode for searching aftertruth,provoking it, and, most
important,testingit" (114).
The satiricstrategyof literalizing
language also reminds us that language is conventional.As Catherine
Belsey explains, language "comes into
being at the same time as society" (42).
The membersof a society implicitly
agree "to attacha specific signified to a
specific signifier"(Belsey41). Through
time and habit, however, we tend to
forget that language is not "a simple
process of naming preexistingobjects
and states but a system through which
we give meaning to the world"
(McLaughlin86). In short, the nomenclatorhas the power. In many mythologies, God gives the right to name to a
privileged individual. In SulaMorrison
bestows this power on Eva. KarenStein
explains:
Eva takes on an important task
which the Biblical Adam performed,
that of giving names. However, these
labels hinder rather than promote the
development of the people she names.
The nicknames she gives to neighbors
and to her real and adopted children
become the ones they are known by.
When she calls each of three very different adopted children Dewey the
similar names create an identical fate
for all of them. (" 'I Didn't' " 227)

Beginningwith the "niggerjoke,"


Morrisonreminds us that there is no
propermeaning inherentin words or
names-just as there is no correct
meaning for Sula's birthmark(114)or
for the plague of robins (89)-only
meanings we assign to people and
events in our attempts to establish the
limits-the top and the bottom, so to
speak-of reality.More so than Eva,
the "good white farmer"uses and
abuses his power to name. Maliciously
invertingthe truth,he calls the top of
the valley the Bottomto maintaincontrol over the black slave as well as the
fertilebottom land. But if the "good
white farmer"controls the language
and the people, then how are we to

AFRICANAMERICAN
REVIEW

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accountfor this most remarkablesentence tucked up in the "niggerjoke":


A good white farmerpromised freedomand a piece of bottom land to his
slave if he would perform some very
difficult chores. When the slave completed the work, he asked the farmerto
keep his end of the bargain. Freedom
was easy-the farmer had no objection
to that. But he didn't want to give up
any land. (5;emphasismine)

"Freedom was easy .. ."? If there is a

message in this novel, it seems to me


that it is precisely the opposite:
Freedomis never easy. However,
Morrisonis more concernedwith posing questions than with delivering
messages. What, we might ask, does

freedom really mean. Like all of the


blackwomen up in the Bottom,Nel is
free. Yet for forty-threeyears she labors
under the burden of assuming that she
must be the good girl and Sula the evil
one. Is this freedom?Nel's husband
Judeis also free. Yet Judewastes his
adult life telling "whiney tale[s],"
mostly about how "a Negro man ha[s]
a hard row to hoe in this world" and
other such comfortingcliches (103).Is
that freedom?Morrisonprovides no
answers;her goal, like that of many a
satirist,is to provoke thought. For only
by frequentlyinquiringwhat it means
to be free, to be in love, to be human, to
be black or white, to be good or evil
can we truly be alive.

1. See, respectively,Stein, "Toni"146; Shannon 10; Reddy30; Christian63; Banyiwa-Home28;


and Grant94.
2. See, for example, Frye223 and Mack85.
3. Ina similarvein, PhilipPinkusargues thatsatire is the "onlyliterarymode thatfaces the consequences of evil in this worldwithoutthe usual anaesthetics. Insatire the dragoncomes intohis own"
(31).
4. Ina 1974 reviewof Sula, Smithemphasizes this response: "Tome the only case of truewickedness is Sula's casually sleeping withNel's husband,who then takes the opportunityto desert his wife
and theirthree children"(23).
5. Morrison's"sense of joy"in writingis nicelyillustratedby her playfulpunningwithnames. For
instance, when Sula was thirteenshe threatenedto give the deweys a muchneeded bath:"The
deweys, who went wildat the thoughtof water,were cryingand thunderingall over the house like
colts. 'We ain'tgot to, do we? Do we got to do whatshe says?' (74; emphasis mine).
6. See, for example, Quinlanon Swift'suse of literalization
and Bergenholtzon Garcia Mdrquez.

Notes

Bakhtin,Mikhail.Problemsof Dostoevsky'sPoetics. Ed. and trans.CarylEmerson.1984.


Minneapolis:U of MinnesotaP, 1993.
Banyiwa-Home,Naana. "TheScary Face of the Self: An Analysisof the Characterof Sula in Toni
Morrson'sSula."Sage 2 (1985):28-31.
Belsey, Catherne. CriticalPractice.London:Routledge, 1988.
Bergenholtz,RitaA. "OneHundredYearsof Solitude:The Finale."International
FictionReview20
(1993): 17-21.
Chdstian,Barbara.BlackFeministCriticism:Perspectives on BlackWomenWriters.New York:
Pergamon,1985.
Clark,John R. The Modem SatiricGrotesqueand its Traditions.Lexington:UP of Kentucky,1991.
Dryden,John. Poems 1693-1696. Vol.4 of The Worksof John Dryden.Ed. A. B. Chambersand
WilliamFrost. Berkeley:U of CalifomiaP, 1974.
Ellison,Ralph."RichardWright'sBlues."1945. ShadowandAct. 1953. New York:Random,1964.
77-94.
Frye,Northrop.Anatomyof Criticism.1957. Princeton:PrincetonUP, 1990.
Gabbin,Joanne V. "ALayingon of Hands."WildWomenin the Whirlwind.
Ed. Joanne Braxtonand
Andr6eNicola McLaughlin.New Brunswick:RutgersUP, 1990. 246-63.
Grant,Robert."Absenceinto Presence: The Thematicsof Memoryand 'Missing'Subjectin Toni
Morrson'sSula."McKay90-103.
Griffin,Dustin. Satire:A CriticalReintroduction.
Lexington:UP of Kentucky,1994.

Works
Cited

TONIMORRISON'S
SULA:A SATIREON BINARYTHINKING

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97

ArtForms.New York:
Hutcheon,Linda.A Theoiyof Parody:The Teachingsof Twentieth-Century
Methuen,1985.
Johnson, Edgar.A Treasuryof Satire.New York:Simon, 1945.
Keman,AlvinB. The Plot of Satire.New Haven:Yale UP, 1965.
Mack,Maynard."TheMuse of Satire."YaleReviewAutumn1951: 80-92.
Mann,Thomas. "Conrad's'Secret Agent.'"Past Mastersand OtherPapers. Trans.H. T. LowePorter.1933. New York:Freeport,1968. 231-47.
McDowell,DeborahE. "'TheSelf and the Other':ReadingToniMorrison'sSula and the Black
Female Text."McKay77-90.
McElroy,Bernard.Fictionof the ModernGrotesque.New York:St. Martin's,1989.
McHale,Brian.PostmodemistFiction.London:Routledge,1987.
McKay,NellieY., ed. CriticalEssays on ToniMorrison.Boston:Hall,1988.
Thomas. "FigurativeLanguage."CriticalTermsforLiteraryStudy.Ed. FrankLentricchia
McLaughlin,
and Thomas McLaughlin.Chicago:U of Chicago P, 1990. 80-90.
WithNellieMcKay.ContemporaryLiterature24
Morrison,Toni."AnInterviewwithToni Morrison."
(1983): 413-29.
WithRobertB. Stepto. Chantof
-. "'IntimateThingsin Place':A ConversationwithToniMorrison."
Literature,Art,and Scholarship.Ed. MichaelS. Harperand
Saints:A Gatheringof Afro-American
Stepto. Urbana:U of IllinoisP, 1979. 213-29.
Sula. 1973. New York: Plume, 1982.
Palmeri, Frank. Satire in Narrative: Petronius, Swift, Gibbon, Melville, and Pynchon. Austin: U of

-.

Texas P, 1990.
Partridge,Eric.A Dictionaiyof CatchPhrases, Americanand British,fromthe SixteenthCentuiyto
the Present. Ed. Paul Beale. New York:Macmillan,1986.
Pinkus,Philip."Satireand St. George."Queen's Quarterly70 (1963): 30-49.
as a RhetoricalDevice."PMLA82 (1967): 516-21.
Quinlan,Maurice."Swift'sUse of Literalization
Reddy, MaureenT. "TheTripledPlotand Centerof Sula."BlackAmericanLiteratureForum22
(1988): 29-45.
Shannon, Anna."'WeWas GirlsTogether':A Studyof Toni Morrison'sSula."MidwesternMiscellany
10 (1982): 9-22.
Smith,Barbara."Beautiful,Needed, Mysterious."Rev. of Sula, by ToniMorrison.1974. McKay21-24.
Stein, KarenF. "'I Didn'tEven KnowHis Name':Names and Namingin ToniMorrison'sSula."
Names 28.3 (1980): 226-29.
. "ToniMorrison'sSula:A BlackWoman'sEpic."BlackAmericanLiteratureForum18 (1984): 14650.
Thomson, Philip.The Grotesque.London:Methuen,1972.

Assistant Professor of English, tenure-track,beginning September,


1996. Ph.D. in English with concentrationin 20th-CenturyBritish
Literature.Strong secondary emphasis in Rhetoric/Linguisticspreferred.Teachingload: 12 hours/semester. Review of applications will
begin January15 and continue until position is filled. Send letter of
application, a currentvita, three letters of reference,and the names,
addresses, and telephone numbers of the three referencesto Dr.
FrankA. Longoria,Chair,TexasWoman'sUniversity,P.O. Box
425829,Denton, TX 76204;(817) 898-2324.AA/EOE.

98

REVIEW
AFRICANAMERICAN

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In Search of Self: Frustration and Denial in Toni Morrison's Sula


Author(s): Marie Nigro
Source: Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 28, No. 6 (Jul., 1998), pp. 724-737
Published by: Sage Publications, Inc.
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IN SEARCH OF SELF
Frustrationand Denial
in ToniMorrison'sSula
MARIENIGRO

LincolnUniversity

AlthoughToni Morrison (1973) may not have intentionally


createda novelto celebratetheworkingclass or to explorethe
consequencesofworkamongAfrican
Americans,
shehas,inSula,
celebratedthelivesof ordinary
peoplewhodailymustworkand
provide.Sula celebrates
manylives:Itis thestoryofthefriendship
oftwoAfrican
American
women;itis thestory
ofgrowing
upBlack
andfemale;butmostofall,itis thestoryofa community.
Events
thatbefallthedenizensoftheBottom,a segregated
of
community
mythical
Medallion,Ohio,can be seenas thosethatmightbefall
residents
ofanyBlackcommunity
in anytownduringtheyearsof
thisnarrative,
1919to 1965.
Historically,
greatliterature
has concerneditselfwithnature,
have been literary
death,and love. Writers
professionals
whose
primary
occupationwas writing
and whoseexperiences
werefar
removedfromthosewhomustworkfora living.Criticssuchas
NicholasColes (1986), TerryEagleton(1986), Louis Kampfand
Paul Lauter(1972), andJohnWayman(1983) haveobjectedto a
historical
canonthatis irrelevant
to "everyman."
Eagleton(1986)
observesthatliterature
has beencreatedfortheculturalelite,and
therestofus havecometoconsiderliterature
as a reflection
ofan
elitistlifestyle
to whichtheordinary
personcannothopetorelate.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: I wishtoacknowledge
theinvaluablehelpofmycolleague
as wellas the
Ropo Sekoniwiththeeditingofthefinalversionofthismanuscript
assistanceofmyfriendSara Ramponwhohelpedwiththeearlyorganization.
JOURNALOF BLACK STUDIES, Vol.28 No. 6, July1998 724-737
Inc.
C 1998Sage Publications,
724

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Nigro/IN SEARCH OF SELF

725

He suggeststhattheliterary
establishment
embraceworksthat
celebratethelivesofordinary
peopleandacknowledge
thestrugglesofrealpeople,forexample,working-class
writing.
as thatwritten
Coles (1986) definesworking-class
literature
by
writers
fromworking-class
working-class
personsorprofessional
He stressestheimportance
of creatingand reading
backgrounds.
textsformostpeople,including
minorities,
women,andworkingclass students.
KampfandLauter(1972) alsoseeliterature
andliterary
criticism
fromlife-as a self-serving
as separated
ideologythatis relatedto
butoffers
establishment
thelivesoftheliterary
toreaders
nothing
familiesorworking-class
whomaybe fromordinary
backgrounds.
ofcontemporary
Wayman(1983) decriestheirrelevancy
imaginawhichhas nothingto offerworking-class
menand
tivewriting,
does notdeal
women.He findsit wrongthata nationalliterature
andsuccessesofthemajority
with"problems,
aspirations,
failures,
thecountry"
ofmenandwomenwhoinhabit
(p. 43). He notesthat
ourculture,by ignoring
realpeopleand realproblems,
is saying
that"weandourproblems
arenotsignificant"
(p. 55). He seeswork
inourlives"(p. 55), an experience
as a "majorshapingexperience
in
thatdeservestobe celebrated literature.
If,as Waymansuggests,
workis themajorshapingfactorin ourlives,whataretheconsea demeaning
quencesof havingno work,of enduring
job, or of
havingno outletforone'screativeenergies?
In an interview
withClaudiaTate(1983), ToniMorrisonnotes
that
It wouldbe interesting
to do a pieceofworkon thekindsofwork
womendo innovelswritten
bywomen.Whatkindsofjobs theydo,
notjust thepayingjobs, buthow theyperceivework.... It's not
kinds
justa questionofbeinginthelaborforceanddoingdomenstic
ofthings;it'sabouthowoneperceiveswork,howitfitsintoone's
life.(p. 123)

is notas newtoBlackwomenas itis towhite


She adds,"Agression
women.Black womenseem able to combinethe nestand the
adventure.... We don'tfindtheseplaces,theseroles,mutually
exclusive"(p. 122).

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726

JOURNALOF BLACK STUDIES /JULY 1998

oftheBottom,survivalis serious
knitcommunity
In thetightly
a meansofexistingina
business,andeachpersonmustdetermine
manageas bestthey
worldthatis alien-Whiteandmale.Residents
and helpingeach otherbut
can,workingmenialjobs, scrimping,
by
prescribed
boundaries
withintheunderstood
alwaysremaining
thehostileWhiteworld.
AlthoughMorrison'snovelis "imbeddedin thecontextof the
Black experiencein America"(Holloway& Demetrakopoulos,
tothereader
1987,p. 149),theauthorofSula succeedsinbringing
and thepainof Eva, Hannah,
of anyrace thejoys,thesuffering,
Sula, Jude,andShadrack.
delineatesSula's familytree,allowMorrison(1973) carefully
youngwoman
theremarkable
ingthereaderto betterunderstand
thatis Sula Peace. Beforewe evermeetMiss Peace, we meether
toBoy-Boy,finds
Eva, whoafter5 yearsofmarriage
grandmother,
herselfabandonedwiththreechildrenand no idea of whatto do
next.Neighborsbringwhatfoodtheycan spare,butEva realizes
to
thatshewillsoonwearoutherwelcome,so sheasksa neighbor
tobe backina fewdays.Eighteen
andpromises
watchherchildren
witha shinynewpurseand
on crutches
monthslater,shereturns
andEva startsbuilding
monthly,
one leg. A checkbeginsarriving
Road.
a houseon Carpenter
Hannah,is widowedwhenheronlychildSula
Eva's daughter,
movein withEva whereHannah
is age 3. Motherand daughter
andhermother.
forherdaughter
a
life
of
caring
settlesintoassume
household.With
Eva andHannahcreatetheirownunconventional
mother
anddaughter
love
ofEva's husbandBoy-Boy,
theexception
playing
all men.Eva expressesherloveformalenessbylaughing,
her
mencallers,anddisplaying
talkingwithherfaithful
checkers,
and shodat all times"
one leg, whichis "stockinged
remaining
1973,p. 31).
(Morrison,
For Hannah,love ofmenandmalenessis physicalbutwithout
guile.She enjoysthecompanyof menand leads themenof the
Bottomto herbed. Her lovingis describedas "sweet,low and
guileless... nobody,butnobodycouldsay 'Hey sugar'likeHannah"(Morrison,
1973,pp.42-43).

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Nigro/IN SEARCH OF SELF

727

The businessof survivalis an everydayconcernforEva and


Hannah,butbecausetheyareBlackwomeninthe1920s,theonly
paid workavailablein Medallionis as domesticsforungrateful
Whitefamiliesor as prostitutes.
And even theprostitutes
have
fallenon hardtimes.So motherand daughter
devisetheirown
meansofcoping.Duringthesummer,
theyjoin theirneighbors
in
canningtheharvestoffruits
andvegetablesin preparation
forthe
hardwinterahead. The mysterious
loss of Eva's leg providesa
much-awaited
monthly
check.In addition,
Eva takesinan arrayof
boardersandstraypeople,someofwhompayandsomeofwhom
do not.It is in thisunconventional
and oftenchaotichousehold,
filledwithboarders,
andgentlemen
adoptedchildren,
callers,that
Sula Mae Peace growsup.
In anotherpartof theBottom,in a houseof suffocating
order
andreallace curtains,
Nel Wright
is growing
up underthecareful
eye of HeleneWright.
Sula and Nel meetin schooland become
friends
whofindineachotherwhateachlacksinherself.
Coming
froman oppressively
Nel relishesthecasual disneathousehold,
orderofSula's household,
wherepeopledropinunannounced,
chat,
and laughand wheredirtydishesor stackednewspapers
pile up.
On theotherhand,Sula enjoysgoingtoNel's housewhereshecan
siton theredvelvetsofain thequietofan afternoon
for10 to 20
minutes-"stillas dawn"(Morrison,
1973,p. 29). The girlsgrow
intowomanhoodclingingto each other,each providing
whatthe
otherlacksinherself.
Morrison
explainstothereaderthatthetwo
"felttheease andcomfort
girlsmetandimmediately
ofoldfriends.
Becauseeachhaddiscovered
thattheywereneither
whitenormale,
andthatall freedom
andtriumph
was forbidden
tothem,theyhave
set aboutcreatingsomething
else to be" (p. 52). Togetherthey
createa singlecompleteindividual:
Sula theimpulsive,
emotional
the
one; Nel
practicalone.
Aftergraduating
fromgeneralschool,Sula goestocollege,and
Nel marriesJudeGreene.Underhermother'swatchful
eye,Nel
andJudehavea "real"weddingina church
followedbya reception
has spentdayspreparing.
thatHeleneWright
Judeis a handsome
in thechurch.He is 20 yearsold
youngmanwhosingsregularly

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728

JOURNALOF BLACK STUDIES /JULY 1998

andworksas a waiterintheHotelMedallion.Judeknowshisjob
could neversupporta wife,but he has plans to move on to
He hashiseyeon theNew RiverRoad.
morelucrative.
something
Medallionhas neededa bridgethatwouldspantheriverand
acrossto thenext
usedto takeresidents
replacetheraftpresently
ofa
theplansarelaterchangedtotheconstruction
town.Although
tunnel,theprojectis stillcalled theNew RiverRoad. Workhas
begunwhenJude,alongwitha fewotheryoungBlack men,go
wantsto be partof
down to thehiringshack.Judedesperately
he couldpointto
thatwouldlast,something
buildingsomething
traysand other
withpride.He longedforrealwork,notcarrying
he wantedthecamarapeople'sdirtydishes."Morethananything
derie of road men .

. thatin the end produced somethingreal,

thathe couldpointto.... 'I builtthatroad,'he could


something
1973,pp. 81-82).
say"(Morrison,
Judestandsin linefor6 daysandsees thegangbossespickout
Whiteboys,Greeks,andItaliansbutnevertheyoungmen
southern
hisjob at thehotel
is offended;
fromtheBottom.His masculinity
tocarrytraysandpickup
butitis demeaning
notonlypayspoorly,
theself-affirming
afterotherpeoplewhenhe wantsso desperately
had
existed
before.Itwas
where
nothing
job ofbuildingsomething
thatshewill
toNel. He determines
thenthathe considersmarriage
hisfortune.
She
whatever
She wouldalwaysbe there,
be hisanchor.
wouldbe someonetowhomhecouldalwayscomehome;hecould
Judeand
careforher.WithNel,he couldbe complete.Together,
Jude
toonce
Nel couldmakea completeperson.So Neljoinswith
again mergeherselfwithanother.She recognizesher role and
herhusband,
raises
She supports
theexpectedfunctions:
performs
andjoinsthechurch.
theirchildren,
Duringan era in whichtheroleoftheBlack womanis clearly
tobe herself.
Sula,unlikeNel,is determined
defined,
andstiflingly
ofherraceand
boundaries
She refusesto accepttheconventional
themoresoftheoutsideworldas wellas
andbyrejecting
gender,
Sula standsalone.Whenshereturns
her
own
community,
thoseof
toMedallionafter10 years,lookingfineandwearingcityclothes,
When
thanherMedallioncounterparts.
sheappearsmuchyounger

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NigroI IN SEARCH OF SELF

729

Eva scowlsather,suggesting
that
hergrandmother,
sheconfronts
andhavesomebabies.
sheneedstogetmarried
Sula replies,"I don'twantto makesomebodyelse. I wantto
thata woman
makemyself'(Morrison,1973,p. 92). Eva retorts
a man.Shortly
(p. 92) aroundwithout
has no business"floating"
a homeforthe
SulaplacesEva inSunnydale,
after
thatconversation,
act.
notesthisas Sula's first
aberrant
Thecommunity
quietly
elderly.
to
to theBottomwithabsolutelynothing do; the
Sula returns
move.All thetownknows
townwatcheshereveryunconventional
thatshe has beento collegeand livedin thebig cities.It is even
andsleptwithWhite
thatshehaddonetheunforgivable
whispered
men.Morrison(1973) explainsSula's dilemma:
toengagehertremenHad shepaints,orclay... hadsheanything
whichmighthave exdous curiosityand hergiftformetaphor,
withwhimforan activandpreoccupation
changedtherestlessness
itythatprovidedherwithall she yearnedfor.And likeanyartist
shebecamedangerous.
(p. 121)
withno artform,

Dangerousindeed.Yet she neverrealizeshow dangerousshe


Duringanafternoon
reallyis becausehersinsareneverintentional.
diapers,sheasksSula aboutlifeinthe
visit,whileNel is sprinkling
bigcity.Sula repliesthattherestoftheworldisjusta biggerversion
ofMedallion.Later,whenNel walksin on Sula andJude,theyare
naked.Jude,stillwaitingtablesatthehotel,and
downon all fours,
else todo,eachneedingtofillup spaceintheir
Sula,withnothing
and in thatone
lives,have foundeach otherforthatmoment,
ordered
domesticlifeceasestoexist.Jude
moment,
Nel's carefully
andNel is leftwithonly
packsup andleaveson a busforDetroit,
hisyellownecktieanda grayfuzzyballthatfollowsherwherever
shegoes.
Nel wonders,
moment
ofdiscovery,
How
Relivingthatdreadful
leave?
The
two
most
couldSula havedonethat?How couldJude
her.Nothingis leftbut
important
peoplein herlifehavebetrayed
aboutherheadandthepressing
need
thatgrayfuzzyballhovering
to carryon forherselfand her children.She takesa job as a
attheHotelMedallion.AndSula, surprised
atNel's
chambermaid

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730

JOURNALOF BLACK STUDIES /JULY 1998

discoversthatNel is one of"them."Now Nel belongsto


reaction,
and actsas she
herthatNel is so offended
thetown.It surprises
is one ofthereasonsSula has returned
toMedaldoes.Herfriend
has
orreform
lion,andnowNel is lost.Sula's refusaltoconform
sheevercraved.Sula cannotundercosthertheonlyrelationship
standthatshehascausedNel intensepain,andthatbya singleact,
is notcontrite
as she
Sula, however,
Nel's lifeis changedforever.
ofthecommunity.
standsalone,outsidetheboundaries
in herlife,Sula uses menmuchas her
To fillup theemptiness
spirit.
mother(now deceased) had done but witha different
WhereasHannahhad been sweetand withoutguileand had reSula goes tobed withmenas
spectedthewaysofthecommunity,
oftenas she can but thencarelesslytossesthemaside. Unlike
Sula regardslovewas comforting,
Hannah,forwhomlovemaking
the
The
Bottom
now
hasevenmore
as wicked. community
of
making
intheir
herpresence
midst.
reasontodespiseSula,yettheytolerate
a devil?Here
ShouldthereaderconsiderSula amoral,a monster,
is a womanwho has ruinedthelifeof heronlyfriendand then
Nel's pain.Hereis a womanwhobedsthemen
cannotunderstand
whoappearstohaveno purposeinher
ofthetownwithbitterness,
lifebutthatofself-gratification.
of Sula,
RenitaWeems(1983) observesthatin thecharacters
Eva, andHannah,
in
tothosewomenwhoaredoingeverything
Morrison
paystribute
lifebutwhattheyaresupposedtobe doing:creativewomen-like
so manyof us andourmamas-withoutoutletsforourcreativity.
withno artform"is howSula Peace is described.
(p. 97)
An "artist

no outletforherenergiesandhercreativity,
Andwithno artform,
self-destructs.
Sula, inherquestto "makeherself,"
intheBottom,
Sula hasbecomea pariah.
To thelittlecommunity
haveeverknown,
fromanyonethetownspeople
Sula is different
and becauseshe is notseekingmoneyor materialgain,shefeels
toexplainheractions.
shehasno obligation
charBarbaraSmith(1983) observesthatSula is a frightening
acterbecausesherefusesto settleforthe"coloredwoman's"lot.
Smithrecallsherownexperience:

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Nigro/IN SEARCH OF SELF

731

Havinggrownup in a familyof talentedwomenwho workedas


in
schoolsoftheSouthandas domestics
inthesegregated
teachers
of theNorth,I saw firsthandthedemoralizing
thewhitekitchens
andcreativity.
(p. 23)
ofstymied
intelligence
effects

Smithadds thatfolksin theBottomhateSula because she is a


(p. 24).
livesofresignation"
oftheirdreadful
"livingcriticism
to
her
understand
her
she
tries
sickbed,
WhenNel visitsSula on
on livingherlifeas shechooses:
insistence
friend's
You can'thaveitall,Sula.
Why?I can do itall,whycan'tI haveitall?
Youcan 'tdo itall.Youa womananda coloredwomanatthat.Youcan't
actlikea man.You can'tbe walkingaroundall independent-like,
youlike,takingwhatyouwant,leavingwhatyou
doingwhatever
1973,p. 142)
don't.(Morrison,

as the
Nel remindsSula of herisolationfromthecommunity
is her
loneliness
that
her
Sula replies
priceof herindependence.
own, of her own making.Nel's, she pointsout is "somebody
1973,p. 143).
lonely"(Morrison,
else's.... A secondhand
Sula Mae Peace diesbeforeher31styear.Whensherealizesthat
pain,shesmiles," 'Well,I'll be damned,'she
thedyingis without
1973,
'it didn'tevenhurt.Wait'llI tellNel' " (Morrison,
thought,
p. 149). Sula diesin 1941.
3, Shadrack,
LifeintheBottomgoeson.Each year,on January
wholivesoutsideoftown,marchesthrough
a crazedarmyveteran
NationalSuicideDay.
hisownholiday,
celebrating
thecommunity
Shadrackbeganthismorbidcustommanyyearsearlieras a means
ofcopingwithhisownfearofdeath.A victimofWorldWarI shell
thesmell
totheBottom,
buthecouldneverforget
shock,hereturned
himoutofhis
of deaththathad beenall aroundhim,frightening
onhisreturn,
soughtnorreceivedcompanionship
mind.He neither
a mysterious
bondwitha veryyoungSula.
hehadformed
although
Whenthepeopleof theBottomrealizethathe is harnless,they
andhiscelebration
hisranting,
drinking,
leavehimalone,tolerating
theholidayis that
behind
idea
Shadrack's
Day.
ofNationalSuicide
andifhecouldsetasideonedaya yearfordeath,
deathis frightful,

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732

JOURNALOF BLACK STUDIES /JULY 1998

peoplecould "getit outoftheway"(Morrison,1973,p. 14) and


nothavetothinkaboutitfortherestoftheyear.Andso,he began
town
hisowncelebration
ofNationalSuicideDay,walkingthrough
carrying
a hangman's
ropeandringing
a bell.A fewotheroutcasts
followhim,butusuallyShadrackmarchesaloneas peoplehustle
andwatchfrombehindtheirwindows.
offthestreet
theirchildren
The marchof 1942 (theyearfollowingthedeathof Sula) is
foryearsto come. This year,
and will be remembered
different
toNationalSuicideDay comesduringan espeShadrack'stribute
in theirpoorly
ciallycrueland bitterwinter;folksare shivering
aresick;andadultsareweary.Shadrackis
heatedhomes;children
theloss ofhis onlyvisitor,
Sula, andhas losthiszeal for
grieving
aboutcallingoffthemarch,butthebrilliant
theholiday.He thinks
ona winter's
himtogo on.To hissurprise,
sunlight
dayencourages
hefindsheis beingfollowedbylaughing
children.
No onehasever
laughedduringhismarches.Soon adultsjoin themarch,laughing
and the
and dancing.Beckonedby the sunshine,the laughter,
dancing,the crowdgrowslargerand largeras they"strutted,
and shuffled
downtheroad"(Morrison,1973,
skipped,marched,
theWhitepartoftownandheadfor
p. 160).Theycontinue
through
site,thebricks,
theNewRiverRoad.As theygaze attheexcavation
and
andtheirongirders,
thetimber,
theysee thebrokenpromises,
thewords"noworktoday."As theygaze onthesite
theyremember
in thebrightwintersun,thedancingturnsto rage;thelaughter
themarchers,
whatishappening,
menand
ceases.Without
realizing
women,jumpoverthegateand pickup thesteelrails,smashing
to
thebricksandtimber,
killingthetunneltheywerenotpermitted
build.
Whathappensnextis talkedaboutforyearstocome.The earth
are lostin a wall ofwater.
shifts,
shoringsslip,and themarchers
Manydie on thatNationalSuicideDay as Shadrackstandsthere
hisbell.
watching,
ringing
shifts
fromthatawfuldayin 1942toa day
narrative
Morrison's
thatthingsare betternow,or at
A
Nel
observes
mature
in 1965.
intheshopsin
Coloredpeopleareworking
least,theyseembetter.
keys.
town,someevenhandling
moneyandwearingcashregister
KarlaF. C. Holloway(Holloway& Demetrakopoulos,
1987) be-

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Nigro/IN SEARCH OF SELF

733

lievesthatthenovelfinally
belongstoNel,thesurvivor,
whois still
pickingup thepiecesofherlife,stillworking,
and stilldoingthe
"right
thing"(p. 167).As partofhercharitable
work,shevisitsthe
aged Eva in Sunnydale.
As Nel introduces
herselftoEva, theold
woman,barelyrational,
rantsabouta longburiedchildhoodincidentinvolving
Nel andSula. She mumblesa question,askingNel
howshekilledthelittleboyso manyyearsago.Nel is quicktosay
thatitwas Sula whothrewtheboyintotheriver.
"You.Sula. What'sthedifference?"
(Morrison,
1973,p. 168).
Nel leaveshurriedly.
Thisis notthevisitsheintended.
Holding
hercoat tightagainstthewinterwind,she beginsherlongwalk
home.Suddenlyshestops.The softgrayballthathasbeenfollowingherforso longbeginsto breakand scatter.
It is notuntilnow
thatthegrayfuzzyball,whichhascoveredNel's heartsinceJude's
departure,
beginstobreakup. It is onlythenthatNel realizesthat
itis notJudesheis missingbutSula.
'All thattimeI thought
I was missingJude.... 0 Lord,Sula,' she
cried'girl,girl,girlgirlgirlgirl.'
It was a finecry-loud andlongbutit had no bottomand it had no top,just circlesand circlesof
sorrow.(Morrison,
1973,p. 174)

So perhaps,
as Holloway(Holloway& Demetrakopoulos,
1987)
has suggested,in the end thenovel is Nel's-Nel Wright,
the
Nel
righteous
theconforming
one,
one.She is,as Hollowaypoints
out,"everywoman":
"She carriestheadditional
burdenofshadow
thatwhiteculture
projectsontoblackpeople.Butsheis stilltypical
of mostwomenin Western
culture"(p. 80). Hollowaycontinues
how sympathetic
thatno matter
one maybe aboutJude'splight,
"thebottomlineis thathe abandonshisfamily.
It is Nel whoends
up as sole parent;shecleanshousesto support
thethreechildren
whoformanyyearsbecameherlife"(p. 71).
Because Sula is the storyof a community,
the lives of its
inhabitants
areinextricably
interwoven.
AfterthedeathofSulathepariah,thedevil,theoutcast-thecommunity's
roleofdefining
itselfthrough
acceptanceand disapprovalof one of itsmembers
shifts.No longeris the she-devilthe focus of theircollective
thatfollowsSula's death
energies.The miseryoftheawfulwinter

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734

JOURNALOF BLACK STUDIES /JULY 1998

andstirsup theragethathas laindormant


deepenstheirdiscontent
and withouta focus.Shadrack'sparadecomes on sucha bright
aredrawnin a spiritofbadly
thatthetownspeople
sunnymorning
needed camaraderieand fun.Somehowthe dancing,laughing
TheyearsoffrustraparadefindsitswaytotheNew Rivertunnel.
wave ofrageas
tion,ofpent-upanger,becomean uncontrollable
to
the
Whiteworld's
at
monument
hack
and
hurl
the
themarchers
at thetunnelare
refusalto letthemin. The violenceand tragedy
a finalactofdefiance
andironicbecausetheragerepresents
fitting
onNationalSuicideDay,a holiday
committed
forpromises
unkept,
to allayfearsof deathso thatpeoplecouldgeton with
intended
theirlives.
that
Earlyin thisarticle,I notedWayman's(1983) observation
workshapesourlives,andI askedwhathappenswhena personhas
no workor whena personis forcedto engagein workthatis
I also notedMorrison'scomment
orunsuitable.
(Tate,
demeaning
is
as
to
black
women
as
it
to
white
is
not
new
1983)that"Agression
thedeadlyconsequences
offers
women"(p. 122).InSula,Morrison
when the naturalfeelingsof aggressionlack a suitableoutlet
Workneed
ourworkthatwe defineourselves.
becauseitis through
to theconceptof earninga living:Workcan also
notbe confined
as thatoutletthatallows ourcreativeenergiesto
be understood
to acceptdemeaning
surface.For Sula, herdefiancein refusing
orto accepta lifeprescribed
byothersmaynothave
employment
had shehadaccessto an artformwithwhich
beensucha tragedy
todefineherself
Sula was stubbornly
unwilling
toexpressherself.
toitsstandards,
andtoconform
as partoftheMedallioncommunity
outsideoftheacceptedboundaplacingherself
andbydeliberately
ries,she stoodalone. In herquestto "makeherself,"Sula was
a paththathadneverbeentrodbefore,a pathforwhich
following
Sula mayhave succeededin
she had no toolsand no directions.
butthemakingprocessinvolvedpainnotonlyfor
makingherself,
herself
butforall thosewhoselivesshetouched.
We granthim
forJude,thebetrayer.
It is hardto feelsympathy
butin
he musthaveenduredin hisjob as a waiter,
thefrustration
he ruinsthelifeofNel,the
seekinga respitefromhisfrustration,

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Nigro/IN SEARCH OF SELF

735

wifewhowas willingto mergeherownselfintohisto allowhim


to feellikea man.
we mustconsiderthecollectiverageunleashedat
Andfinally,
3 onNationalSuicideDay.Morrison
January
thatfateful
thetunnel
Jude'shumiliation
atbeing
notestheangerwhenshedescribes
first
It was his
turnedawayfromthehiringshackfor6 daysrunning.
totakeona man's
needtoassuagetherage;itwashisdetermination
downwithNel.
rolethatpressedhimintosettling
andwillingyoungBlackmenwho
Andwhatoftheotherstrong
thatwouldnotallowthemtodefine
bya system
werealsofrustrated
atthetunnelwas ledby
work?Theoutburst
theirmanhoodthrough
acts emboldenedthe
whose
audacious
men
youngand enraged
smashingthe
othersas theywerejoinedby womenand children,
tunneltheycouldneverbuild.
Morrisonpointsoutthatthereare "severallevelsofthepariah
figure"in herwriting(Tate, 1983,p. 129). She sees theBlack
"Blackpeopleare pariitselfas a pariahcommunity.
community
The civilization
ofBlackpeoplethat
ahs" (p. 129),shecontinues.
is a pariah
toothercivilizations
livesapartfrombutinjuxtaposition
theBlackcommunity
Morrison
explainsthatalthough
relationship.
evilhada
Sula as a pariah,they"thought
ofMedallionrecognized
it.They
theydidnotwishtoeradicate
placeintheuniverse;
natural
themselves
fromit"(Tate,1983,p. 129).The
justwishedtoprotect
ofMedallionallowedSula toexistas partofthe
Blackcommunity
nordiscouraged
encouraged
naturalorderofthings.Theyneither
watched
waited.
her
and
heras shelived life;theysimply
hascreatedanunforgettable
storyofthe
In Sula,ToniMorrison
of two AfricanAmericanwomenand has graciously
friendship
of theBottomin Medallion,
allowedus to enterthecommunity
Morrison
hascreatedindividual
characters
Ohio.Morespecifically,
of characters
whoseconceptof selfhas been
and a community
forrespectable,
gainful
thwarted
by theabsenceof opportunities
Sula's lack of an occupationor theabsenceof clay
employment.
whichshemightexpresshercreativeenergiesdeniesher
through
as Sula desiresto
herself.As desperately
themeansof defining
a racistsocietywillnotallowherthatopportunity.
makeherself,

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736

JOURNALOF BLACK STUDIES /JULY 1998

thedestruction
ofthetunnel
Similarly,
illustrates
bythecommunity
the frustration
inherent
in the consistent
refusalof meaningful
employment
tothosewhoarecapableandwillingworkers
butare
deniedbecauseoftheircolor.Jude'sfeelingthathe is undervalued
leads himto a superficial
sexualepisodewithSula, whoseown
idlenessleadshertoengageinmeaningless
sexualencounters
as a
meansoffillingup spaceinheremptylife.Nel's senseofworthis
madepossiblebyheracceptanceofmenialworkandherchoiceto
rather
thanoutsideitsboundaries
livewithin
thecommunity
as Sula
has chosentodo.
us tothesoulswholivedanddiedintheBottom,
By introducing
of social,psychological,
Morrisonhas givenus an understanding
havebeenevident
andsociologicalissuesthatmight
onlytoAfrican
a mythical
Americans.She has lovinglyportrayed
of
community
nowgoneforever
unforgettable
characters
butnotforgotten.

REFERENCES
literature:
Issues in teachingworking-class
Coles, N. (1986). Democratizing
literature.
CollegeEnglish,48, 664-680.
In R. C. Davis (Ed.), Contemporary
Eagleton,T. (1986). Conclusion:Politicalcriticism.
literary
criticism
(pp. 131-145).New York:Longman.
Holloway,K. F.,& Demetrakopoulos,
S. (1987). Newdimensions
ofspirituality:
A biracial
New York:Greenwood.
and bicultural
readingofthenovelsofToniMorrison.
Kampf,L., & Lauter,P. (Eds.) (1972). Thepoliticsofliterature:
Dissentingessayson the
teachingofEnglish..New York:Pantheon.
Morrison,
T. (1973). Sula. New York:Plume.
New York:KitchenTable:
Smith,B. (Ed.). (1983). Homegirls:A Blackfeminist
anthology.
WomenofColor.
at work.NewYork:Continuum.
Tate,C. (Ed.) (1983). Blackwomenwriters
T. (1983). Insidejob. MadeiraPark,Canada:Harbout.
Wayman,
A lookatonewoman'sworldofunrevered
artform.
without
Black
Weems,R. (1983) Artists
women.In B. Smith(Ed.), Homegirls:A Blackfeminist
anthology
(pp. 94-105).New
York:KitchenTable:WomenofColor.

and modernfictionat
Marie Nigroteachescoursesin composition,
linguistics,
in Pennsylvania.
She coauthored
and has directedtheWriting
LincolnUniversity
In additiontonumerous
AcrosstheCurriculum
programtheresinceitsinception.

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Nigro/IN SEARCH OF SELF

737

articlesandpresentations
onwriting,
andresponses
linguistics,
toreadingliterature,
Dr Nigrohas recently
completedtwoinstructional
videosfor thePBS series,A
Writer's
Exchange.

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1060 Silko,
entry Leslie Marmon

acute observation and crisp dialogue with wry ironic humor


and a trace, even, of surreal absurdity. During this same period, Cheever found his voice with his elegant, gin-soaked
stories about commuting husbands and dissatisfied suburban housewives.
Meanwhile, the great renaissance of the Southern short
story launched in the 1930s by William Faulkner, Thomas
Wolfe, and Katherine Anne Porter continued through to the
postwar period thanks to the work of Eudora Welty, Flannery OConnor, and Carson McCullers. Weltys 1949 story
cycle, The Golden Apples, remains one of the signature
achievements in postwar short fiction, as the books seven
linked pieces, several of them novella length, depict with
lyrical intensity and mythic grandeur the lives of a group of
intertwined small-town Southerners. OConnors famous stories from the decade, including such classics as Good Country People and A Good Man is Hard to Find combine
the dust-caked rural desolation of Faulkners fiction with
a fresh element of religious and philosophical sophistication. OConnor and McCullers also revived and updated the
Gothic strain of Southern literature, as both populated their
work with cripples, amputees, dwarves, hunchbacks, female
giants, and the mentally handicapped.
Jewish writers in the postwar period also made their mark
on the short-story form. Bernard Malamuds fable-like storiesincluding such classics as The Magic Barrel and The
Jewbirdaddress the Jewish immigrant experience in a
manner that mixes realism and magic with comic and redemptive results. Conversely, his younger counterpart, Philip
Roth, depicted newly assimilated Jews with savage irony and
outlandish humor. Although known primarily as a novelist,
Saul Bellow has also produced lasting short fiction, most
notably his classic novella Seize the Day, in which Bellow
captures the desperation and humanity of an American failure on his day of reckoning.
In the 1960s Donald Barthelme and John Barth
emerged as the leading practitioners of the Postmodern
short story. Barthelmes concise self-conscious stories, most
of which first appeared in the otherwise staid New Yorker,
reject plot and character in favor of collage, jarring juxtaposition, verbal play, and parody. Barths 1968 story collection,
Lost in the Funhouse, features an interlocked series of experimental pieces that address their own fictionality while
exploring the possible futility of writing fiction at all.
In the 1970s African American writers such as Toni Cade
Bambara and Alice Walker put their stamp on the shortstory tradition. In addition to publishing two well-received
story collections, Gorilla, My Love (1972) and The Sea Birds
Are Still Alive (1977), Bambara also produced the groundbreaking anthology The Black Woman (1970), which helped
introduce readers to both Paule Marshall and Walker,
whose collection, In Love and Trouble: Stories of Black Women
(1973), includes the classic anthology staple, Everyday Use.
Around the same time, Native American writers Leslie Mar-

mon Silko and Louise Erdrich published such important


depictions of Native American life as Silkos The Man to
Send Rain Clouds (1969) and Erdrichs The Red Convertible (1974).
The 1980s witnessed a revival of sorts in the American short
story, not so much in its commercial popularity as in its visibility and centrality. Newly emergent writers such as Ann Beattie,
Richard Ford, Raymond Carver, and Andre Dubus reintroduced a strain of stark, minimalist realism to the short story
that became the decades signature sensibility. Carver and his
Southern counterpart Bobbie Ann Mason became known as
the leading representatives of the so-called dirty realist school,
in which the lives of inarticulate, down-on-their-luck, workingclass Americans are depicted with a minimalist detachment
reminiscent of the early work of Hemingway.
In more-recent years, younger writers such as David Foster Wallace, George Saunders, Lorrie Moore, and Rick
Moody have rejected the sparseness of 1980s truck-stop
minimalism in order to revive Barthelme and Barths playful spirit of formal self-consciousness. In the stories of these
intrepid young practitioners, real-world public figures such
as John F. Kennedy (in Robert Olen Butlers JFK Secretly Attends Jackie Auction) and television talk-show host David
Letterman (in Wallaces My Appearance) rub shoulders with
more traditionally fictional characters. Meanwhile, contemporary short stories are likely to take many forms, from email exchanges to term papers, from interview transcripts to
customer-complaint letters. Although the audience for short
fiction remains small, the desire on the part of the countrys
top writers to produce innovative short fiction shows no sign
of abating.
Sources

Gelfant, Blanche H., and Lawrence Graver, eds. The Columbia


Companion to the Twentieth-Century American Short Story.
New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.
Peden, William Harwood. The American Short Story: Continuity
and Change, 19401975. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1975.
Winther, Per, Jakob Lothe, and Hans H. Skei, eds. The Art of
Brevity: Excursions in Short Fiction Theory and Analysis. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2004.
Tod Marshall

Silko, Leslie Marmon(1948 )novelist, poet,


playwright, critic

You feel so loved and secure when youre surrounded


with the voice of the storyteller telling you a story. . . .
Its whats always kept me going all these years.
Interview in Short Story, 1992

Born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Leslie Marmon Silko


grew up in a mixed-heritage family (Laguna, Mexican, and

Simon,entry
Neil 1061

white). She absorbed her familys rich tradition of storytelling and tribal leadership. She attended the University of New
Mexico, where she became interested in writing. She received
her B.A. in 1969 and entered law school, but abandoned it
for graduate study in English. After an early marriage and
divorce, she lived in Alaska and wrote poetry and short fiction. Laguna Woman, her first book of poetry, established
her as a major voice in Native American writing. Storyteller
(1981), with its innovative amalgam of short fiction, poetry,
family photographs, commentary, and autobiography, so enhanced her reputation that she won a MacArthur Fellowship
genius grant in 1981. Her stories and poems are frequently
anthologized.
Silkos first novel, Ceremony (1977), winner of the American Book Award, explores the life of a young veteran, part
Laguna and part white, who returns home from Vietnam and
tries to adjust to pueblo life. Almanac of the Dead (1991) is
an epic novel with multiple subplots concerning the uprising
of Americas deracinated indigenous peoples. Gardens in the
Dunes (1999), set in the 1890s, follows the lives of two sisters
who are separated and then reunited, seeking some way to
still live on the land while coping with the encroachment of
the capitalist world. Silko has written several volumes of nonfiction: The Delicacy and Strength of Lace: Letters Between
Leslie Marmon Silko and James Wright (1986); Sacred Water:
Narratives and Pictures (1993); and Yellow Woman and a
Beauty of the Spirit: Essays on Native American Life Today
(1996).

Weigl, Bruce, ed. Charles Simic: Essays on the Poetry. Ann Arbor:
University of Michigan Press, 1996.

Sources

Neil Simon was born in the Bronx and was educated at


New York University, where he participated in the Army Air
Force reserve training program. He served in the army during World War II and attended the University of Denver
while he was stationed in Colorado in 1945. In 1946 he began
working as a comedy writer, and for the next fifteen years
Simon wrote television scripts for CBS. One of his later plays,
Laughter on the 23rd Floor (produced 1993), is based on his
television career.
In 1960 Simon began writing comedies for the stage and
produced a series of commercial successes, including Come
Blow Your Horn (produced 1960), Barefoot in the Park (produced 1963; originally produced in 1962 as Nobody Loves
Me), and The Odd Couple (produced 1965). Beginning with
Plaza Suite (produced 1968), Simons comedies grew darker,
more poignant, and not so easily resolved as the comedic
plots of his earlier work. The Sunshine Boys (produced 1972),
about a vaudeville team of two aging comedians attempting a
reunion, drew on both Simons understanding of show business and on his strength in dramatizing human conflict that
is not easily camouflaged by comedy. Simon is respected for
his examination of the world of show business and for his observations of the role of Jews in the entertainment industry.
Simon has also written the screenplays for the movie adaptations of many of his Broadway plays, and has written

Chavkin, Allan. Leslie Marmon Silkos Ceremony: A Casebook.


Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Fitz, Brewster E. Silko: Writing Storyteller and Medicine Woman.
Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2004.
Salyer, Greg. Leslie Marmon Silko. New York: Twayne, 1997.

Simic, Charles(1938 )poet

Born in Yugoslavia of Serb parents, Charles Simic was


brought to Chicago in 1949. He began writing poetry in high
school. He served in the U.S. Army from 1961 to 1963, and
in 1966 he received a B.A. from New York University. Simics
poems are brief, concentrated mixtures of realism, myth, and
occasionally surrealism. He published his Selected Poems
19631983 in 1985 and won the 1990 Pulitzer Prize for The
World Doesnt End: Prose and Poems (1989). In addition to
producing twenty-five volumes of poetry during his career,
Simic has also been a prolific translator, specializing in Slavic
writers. A Fly in the Soup, his memoirs, was published in
2000.
Sources

Stitt, Peter. Uncertainty & Plenitude: Five Contemporary Poets.


Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1997.

Simon, Kate (19121990) memoirist, travel writer

Born Kaila Grobsmith in Warsaw, Poland, Kate Simon immigrated in 1917 to the United States, where she became a
naturalized citizen and married Robert Simon. She received
her B.A. from Hunter College in 1935 and went to work for
the Book-of-the-Month Club while contributing regularly
to major publications, such as The New York Times, National
Geographic, Harpers, Vogue, New Republic, and The Nation.
Simon was known throughout her life primarily as a travel
and memoir writer. Her first book, New York Places and Pleasures (1959), became a best-seller, and similar guides to Italy,
Mexico, London, and Paris followed. Her travel books have
been characterized as intensely detailed in their prose and
highly entertaining in their wit and sophistication. Toward
the end of her life, Simon turned her attention inward, writing a critically acclaimed three-volume autobiography: Bronx
Primitive: Portraits in a Childhood (1982), A Wider World:
Portraits in an Adolescence (1986), and Etchings in an Hourglass (1990). As with her travel guides, Simon was praised for
her descriptions and straightforwardness.
Marshall Boswell

Simon, Neil (1927 ) playwright, screenwriter,


television writer

The Art of Storytelling in Leslie Silko's "Ceremony"


Author(s): Nancy Gilderhus
Source: The English Journal, Vol. 83, No. 2 (Feb., 1994), pp. 70-72
Published by: National Council of Teachers of English
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The
in

Art

of

Leslie

Storytelling
Silko's

Ceremony
Nancy Gilderhus

As an introduction to Native American culture, I


teach Leslie Marmon Silko's novel, Ceremony
(1986), in my American-novel class for collegebound juniors and seniors. Ceremonyincorporates
the art of storytelling and the myths, rituals, and
ceremonies of the Navajo and Pueblo Indians
in the southwest United States. Silko writes,
"You don't have anything if you don't have the
stories" (Mitchell 1979, 28).
The narrative structure of the novel is a challenge for students because there are no chapter
divisions. Silko uses both prose and poetic forms to
tell the story of Tayo, a young half-breed Laguna
Pueblo Indian who has lost his will to survive after
suffering through the Bataan Death March and a
Japanese prisoner-of-war camp. The prose sections
provide the students with the events of Tayo's life
before, during, and after World War II, while the
poetic structures are the myths, legends, and
chants of the Pueblo and Navajo tribes.
The difficulty in teaching Ceremony,however, is
not in its narrative structure or its readability, but
in students' lack of understanding of the Native
American way of life. Therefore, I begin this unit
with the following assignment. I give each student
copies of the Cheyenne creation myth and the first
three chapters of Genesis from the Bible. I emphasize that the material from Genesis is used as literature in this context. The students read these myths
before the next class period and bring a list of
differences between them using the following
questions:

During the discussion, we develop a chart based


upon the assigned questions on the chalkboard or
overhead and list the differences. (See Figure 1.)
Cheyenne:Native
American
1. Creatorof the Universe:
Maheo

Genesis:Western
Christian
1. Creatorof the Universe:
God

2. Howthe universeis
2. Howthe universeis created?
created?
Allcreaturesshare inthe
God is separateand has no
creativeassistancefromhis
process of creationwhich
makesallthingssacred.
creatures.Godis sacred.
ForNativeAmericans,this
is calledthe SacredHoop
of Being.
3. WorldView
3. WorldView
Creaturesandpeoplealike
The Christianuniverseis
are givenneeds, so they
based uponseparationand
can worktogetherto solve
loss. InParadise,God
commonproblemsor attain createdthe perfect
commongoals.
environment
forhis
creaturesandpeople.When
manand womandisobey
God,theyare exiled.
4. Nature
4. Nature
Thereis no separationof
The universeis dividedinto
the naturalor supernatural. twoparts:the naturaland
AllphenomenaNative
the supernatural.
Humanity
Americanswitnesswithin
has no realpartin either,
or outsideof themselves
animal
nor
neither
being
are intelligent
spirit.
manifestations
of the
universefromwhichthey
arise.
5. Viewof TimeandSpace
Space is viewedas
sphericalandtimeis
cyclical.Allpointswhich
makeupthe sphereof
beinghave significant
identityandfunction.

5. Viewof TimeandSpace
Space is viewedas linear
andtimesas sequential.The
linearmodelassumes that
some pointsare more
significantthanothers.

Who creates the universe?


How is the universecreated?
Howdoes each mythpresentthe worldand its inhabi- Figure 1. The Differencebetween NativeAmerican
and WesternCultures
tantsor the worldview?
70

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I add to the chart the concept of time and space


because my students are often mystified and confused by the movement of time in the novel. They
complain that Silko jumps about from the past to
the present and back again. The literary critic,
Paula Gunn Allen, calls this "ceremonial time" in
which "events are structured in a way that emphasizes the motion inherent in the interplay of person and event" (Allen 1986, 148). By using a circle
and dividing Tayo's life into four time-periods and
by continually reminding students that we are viewing time as cyclical rather than sequential, I help
them comprehend why all the events in Tayo's life
tie together. (See Figure 2).
Throughout the novel, Silko weaves into Tayo's
narrative the ancient myths of the Navajo and
Pueblo tribes, their ceremonies, and rituals. Because Tayo is a half-breed who has neither training
nor education in the Laguna way of life, he experiences profound alienation and despair. For Tayo
and the students, these stories and traditions help
"make the old ways understandable and relevant to
the contemporary situation" (Mitchell 1979, 28).
In the first four pages, Silko presents the Laguna
creation myth, a ceremony, and a ritual. In the
center of these are the myths or sacred narratives.
For Native Americans, these stories concern the
universe and the spiritual domain. They are didactic because they teach the history of the people,
how to live, and how to survive. According to Allen,
"myth is a story of vision;.., .a vehicle of transmission of sharing and renewal." It connects the
past with the present. Silko's myths "show us that it
is possible to relate ourselves to the grand and
mysterious universe that surrounds and informs
our being. ... The mythic heals, it makes us whole"
(Allen 1986, 116-17). Folklorist Carol Mitchell explains that by using the Laguna creation myth at
the beginning of the book "Silko recreates the
power and time of creation. The cosmic creation is
the exemplary model of all life," and Silko hopes
that it will restore the patient, Tayo. Mitchell also
believes that the use of this myth is a "spiritual
means by which the novelist is inspired in her creative work" (Mitchell 1979, 28).
Ceremonies are the ritual enactment of the
myths, that is, the actual telling of the stories by the
shaman or storyteller. Silko states,
I will tell you something about the stories,
[he said]
They aren'tjust entertainment.
Don't be fooled.

THE PRESENT

-HarleyrTayo
rideburro
- curingCeremonywithBetonie

last

and

Josiah

cat le
-

Josiah

Tayo

Emo

with
elders

to

story

with
mother
Sspends

witwith
h
AuAuntie
ntie
yeyears
ars
-

tels

TayofindsJosiah'scattle

childhood

early

Ts'eh

witchery
-

meets

Tayo

Mexican

deal
WWII

- Tayo
summerwithTs'eh

VA

hospital

Ceremony
- -Scalp Scalp
ANCIENTTITIME
Ceremony
ANCIENT
ME
(h

Swan
and
Night
and childhood/teen
Swan
Night Correlater

in

my

hs

WWIIBEFORE
DURING
- on
TAgO'S

on

Tayo

stabs

Emo

AFTER WWII

TadoryO
TIME

at home with Auntie

WWII

DURING
-

s)

Corregidor

- BataanDeathMarch
- Rocky dies

- JapanesePrisonCamp

Figure2. The CyclicalNatureof Time in Ceremony


They are all we have, you see,
all we have to fight off
illness and death.
And in the belly of this story
the ritualsand the ceremony
are still growing.
(qtd. in Mitchell 1979, 28)
Finally, there are the rituals. These are the actual physical doing of what is told in the myths. The
purpose of the procedure is to "transform something (or someone) from one state or condition to
another" (Allen 1986, 103). The novel is a healing
ritual which changes Tayo from a diseased state,
one of isolation and despair, to one of health, encorporation with his people. I use a circle which
places the myths in the center and the ceremonies
and rituals around the edges. (See Figure 3.)
As the students read the novel, they identify
these three traditions and discuss how they are
used within the text. By using the circle, the students begin to see the connections among them
and why they are central to Tayo's story.
Myth, ceremony, and ritual converge at the center of the novel. Tayo is sent by his family and
village elders to Betonie, a Navajo shaman, to help
him recover. Silko, through the character of Betonie, narrates the Coyote Transformation story in
which Coyote steals a son-in-law awayfrom his family. Coyote transforms himself into the son-in-law
while the young man becomes Coyote. The family
February 1994

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71

CO

Thetellingof
the storiesby
the shaman

S orstoryteller

MYTHS
sacrednarratives

storiesofvision

1$,

Thedoingof
procedures C
whichtransform

someone

C,

Figure 3. The Definitions of Myth, Ceremony, and


Ritual
searches for their child, and when they find him,
they must ask the four old bear people for help in
bringing the boy back to normal. The ritual described in this story is the actual procedure that
Betonie uses for Tayo. Betonie creates a sand painting for Tayo's ritual.
He [Tayo] sat in the center of the white corn sand
painting. The rainbows crossed were in the painting
behind him. Betonie's helper scraped the sand away
and buried the bottoms of the hoops in little trenches
so that they were standing up and spaced apart, with
the hard oak closest to him and the wild rose hoop in
front of the door. The old man painted a dark mountain range beside the farthest hoop, the next closer,
he painted blue, and moving toward him, he knelt
and made the yellow mountains; and in front of him,
Betonie painted the white mountain range. (141142)
The hoops "represent a space so narrowed down
that it is under ceremonial control, an area from
which evil has been ritualistically driven and within
which power has been concentrated" (Kingsolver
1990, 299). Tayo re-enacts the mythological events,
and when he is lifted through the hoops, he is
symbolically freed from evil. Tayo then experiences
a cosmic sense of the universe.
He took a deep breath of cold mountain air; there
were no boundaries; the world below and the sand
paintings inside became the same that night. The
mountains from all directions had been gathered
there that night. (145)

72

At the end of the ceremony, Betonie has a vision


for Tayo. "Remember these stars," he said.
"I've seen them and I've seen the spotted cattle;
I've seen a mountain and I've seen a woman"
(152). This concludes the ceremony, and now Tayo
must complete the ritual by seeing the stars, finding the cattle and mountain, and discovering the
woman.
Ceremonyis a complex novel, but its richness and
texture provide students with an accurate depiction of Native American ways of life. Because Silko
is a remarkable and accomplished storyteller, the
students have no difficulty identifying or analyzing
the theme of alienation. When they complete this
unit, they come away with an understanding and
appreciation for this culture. I ask the students to
evaluate the novel.
Aaron: This novel made me think about and question
our Western traditions. This not only made me
realize our wrongdoing but to detest it.
Mary Beth: This is the most spiritual book I have ever
read. What an ending when Tayo refuses to fight
Emo. I know Tayo will be at peace. That's comforting.
Barbara Kingsolver best states my hope for teaching Ceremony as we approach the twenty-first century: "The possibility that kids might one day grow
up to be neither the destroyers nor the destroyed"
(Kingsolver 1990, 299).
ThompsonValleyHigh School
Loveland, Colorado80537

Works Cited
Allen, Paula Gunn. 1986. "The Ceremonial Motion of
Indian Time: Long Ago, So Far." The Sacred Hoop:
Recoveringthe Feminine in AmericanIndian Traditions.
Boston: Beacon. 147-54.
_-

. 1986b. "Something Sacred Going on Out There:

Myth and Vision in American Indian Literature." The


Sacred Hoop: Recoveringthe Feminine in the American
Indian Traditions.Boston: Beacon. 102-17.
as Ritual." AmericanInMitchell, Carol. 1979. "Ceremony
dian Quarterly5 (Feb.): 27-35.
Bell, Robert C. 1979. "Circular Design in Ceremony."
AmericanIndian Quarterly5 (Feb.): 49.
Kingsolver, Barbara. 1990. Animal Dreams. New York:
Harper.
Silko, Leslie Marmon. 1986. Ceremony.New York: Penguin.

English Journal

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So That the Nations May Become Genuine Indian:


Nativism and Leslie Marmon Silkos Ceremony
Dennis Cutchins
sense that Silkos narrative is not chronologically
ordered. Allen, however, suggests a broader meaning
for this term when she argues that Ceremony is ritually structured, and that its internal rules of order
have more to do with the interaction of thoughts, spirits, arcane forces and tradition than with external elements such as personality, politics or history (1059).
Certainly Silko is concerned with spirits, arcane
forces, and tradition, but she is also deeply Concerned
with politics and history, and these aspects of the
novel should not be neglected by scholars.
James Rupperts analysis of Ceremony, and particularly his understanding of the role Betonie plays in
the novel, illustrate the problems inherent in an ahistorical or achronistic reading of this text. In his 1995
Mediation in Contemporary Native American Fiction
he approaches Ceremony as a novel of mediation,
and argues, in short, that it serves as a kind of space
between cultures where both white and Native
American readers can begin to understand and cope
with cultural differences. He suggests, further, that it
represents a kind of Bakhtinian dialogism since it
includes aspects of mainstream Western, Laguna, and
Navajo cultures (78). Rupperts use of dialogism,
however, indicates a real weakness in his approach to
this particular novel. In Discourse in the Novel,
only a few pages from passages Ruppert quotes in
support of his theory, Bakhtin explains how novels are
radically different from other, earlier, literary forms.
They establish the fundamental liberation of culturalsemantic and emotional intentions from the hegemony
of a single and unitary language, and consequently the
simultaneous loss of a feeling for language as myth,
that is, as an absolute form of thought (367).Novels,
at least as far as Bakhtin is concerned, should include
a multiplicity of voices or languages, as Ceremony
does, but they should also avoid the tendency to totalize or mythologize. For Bakhtin, mythological language is antithetical to the idea of a novel since it
tends to destroy dialog. Simply put, how can one
argue with a myth?

Leslie Marmon Silkos (mixed-blood Laguna


Pueblo) Ceremony is a powerful novel that tells the
story of Tayo, a mixed-blood Pueblo war veteran who
returns to Laguna mentally crippled by his wartime
experiences.As Tayo struggles to overcome the alienation his military service has created, he must also
face the shame of his own mixed heritage. His suffering eventually leads him off the pueblo to a Navajo
healer, Betonie, who helps Tayo create a new historical paradigm based on Navajo and Laguna mythology.
Betonies fictional re-vision of history is, perhaps, the
novels most important accomplishment. Through
Betonie, Silko creates an alternative understanding of
history that empowers both the Native American characters in the novel and Native American readers of the
novel. Ceremony becomes, at least potentially, a powerful tool for the revitalization of culture.
What I will term Silkos nativistic restructuring of
history offers Tayo the chance to enter and revitalize
Laguna culture, and simultaneously to interpret and
reject mainstream white culture. It also provides
Silko and her readers the means to do the same thing
outside the novel. Scholarship that ignores Ceremonys historical impact, or that limits interpretation to an
intracultural reading of the novel, strictly as a Laguna
Pueblo artifact, is unlikely to recognize the powerful
cultural and political tool Silko has offered to all
Native Americans. The nativistic reading of Ceremony
proposed here, though problematic in some ways:
does situate the novel historically and politically and
highlights aspects of the work that are obscured when
it is read as an intracultural or ahistorical document.
Ceremony, popular in college classrooms, has
received extensive critical treatment? Much of the
criticism has focused on its mythic, ahistorical qualities. Paula Gunn Allens (Laguna Pueblo/Sioux) comments on the novel in A Literary History of the
American West are somewhat typical in suggesting
that Ceremony, along with other Native American
novels, is achronistic, in that it functions without
regard to chronology (1059). This is true, in the strict
77

78

Journal of American Culture

In Ceremony, on the other hand, Silko is openly


mythic in both her approach and her intention. The
novel incorporates mythic elements as part of the storyline, but it also begins to serve as a new myth illustrating the way mixed-blood Native Americans may
harmonize their lives. Ruppert candidly acknowledges
the mythic nature of much Native American literature:
Much of the work of contemporary Native writers incorporates an overriding metanarrative and often mythic structure
through which the narrative, the characters, and the readers
find meaning. It seems that much of the work is characterized by a historical vision, a sense of social responsibility
and a belief in the efficacy of the word-qualities not to be
found in postmodern literature! From Silko to Vizenor, this
is literature with a purpose. (xii)

Although Rupperts understanding of postmodern literature may be somewhat problematic, his notion
that Silkos novel has definite (historical and political)
purposes is correct. Tayo cuts through that social lie
[of brown-skinned inferiority] so that he can get to a
deeper truth about a mythic relationship between
whites and Indians (77). Unfortunately, despite the
recognition that Ceremony is deeply mythic, Ruppert
fails to deconstruct the novels mythology.
Rupperts failure, as well as Silkos success, is
most clear in terms of Bakhtins dialogism; although
Silko does include a multiplicity of language parodies in the text, they are not all equally or fairly created. They fail, at least in Bakhtins terms, to become
authentic and productive language parodies because
they are not fully developed and therefore fail to recreate the parodied language as an authentic whole,
giving it its due as a language possessing its own
internal logic and one capable of revealing its own
world inextricably bound up with the parodied language (364). The only fully realized language in
Ceremony is that of Betonie. He provides a unified
and unifying (or mythic) vision of the world which,
far from being mediational, comes to dominate both
Tayos consciousness and the novel itself. The novel
becomes, in other words, Silkos very conscious
attempt to create a new mythology capable of subsuming older ones, both Laguna and mainstream
Western. To quote Ruppert, Ceremony is definitely
literature with a purpose (xii). To view the novel
simply as cultural mediation is to obscure the cultural hegemony Silko most assuredly seeks to create.
To understand the intercultural and political
aspects of Ceremony requires a theoretical approach
that will allow us to view the novel as a cultural or

political movement. Though it is in some ways outdated and problematic, Nativism6 provides the necessary theoretical structure. Nativism may be briefly
defined as the attempt to revitalize a given culture by
emphasizing traditional elements of that culture, and
simultaneously removing elements of foreign cultures. Nativistic movements also typically share a
deep concern with witchcraft, and native persons
associated with foreign cultures are often deemed
witches. As a result, witch-hunts are frequently undertaken in support of these movements (Edrnunds 39;
Wallace, Death 254-62). Two of the most important
and well-documented historical nativistic movements
are the Delaware Prophet movement (1762-65) and
the Shawnee Prophet movement ( I 805-14). Both
movements espoused at least a partial return to a traditional way of life and a concomitant rejection of
important aspects of white culture. In addition, both
movements were the result of increasing social, political, and economic pressures as white settlers flooded
into what had previously been Indian lands. With
these settlers, of course, came all the trappings of
Euro-American culture. Education, evangelical religion, trade, and intermarriage all threatened to erase
traditional Native American culture completely.
Nativism, with it twin drives to eliminate foreign culture and revitalize traditional culture, offered at least a
partial answer to these threats. These historical movements, however, must not be considered direct influences on Silkos novel, but rather parallel efforts to
revitalize and re-create culture. Nor should the comparison I propose here between a twentieth-century
novel and two Native American social movements be
taken as a suggestion that I believe all Indians are
alike. Rather, I hope to create a context in which
modern readers may see in Silkos book the re-creation of a more or less successful native response to
cultural imperialism. Nativism thus creates a useful, if
imperfect, context in which to view the novel.
Nativists usually advocate both social and personal renewal through the revitalization of culture.
Revitalization must be understood, though, as more
than simply the preservation of traditional culture; it
is nothing short of the self-conscious creation of culture. Although it is a novel, Silkos Ceremony has
many of the characteristics of a nativistic movement:
the primary conflicts of the novel are the results of
intercultural contact; the characters struggle to abolish
foreign cultural elements and to strengthen, revive,
or restore some aspects of traditional Native American
culture(s); and the true evil of the novel is intracultural witchcraft rather than any extracultural influence. This is not to suggest that Ceremony is simply a

So That the Nations May Become Genuine Indian . 79

fictional account of a nativist movement. It is, rather,


a fictional enactment of nativistic principles. It is, in
other words, nativism in action.
As the central character in the novel, Tayo represents one of the most problematic aspects of intercultural contact; what happens to mixed-blood children?s
He presents a particular problem within a nativistic
paradigm in that he represents both the new and the
old, the native and the foreign. Since his mother was
Pueblo and his father was white, Tayos very existence is the undeniable proof of the threat posed to
Laguna culture by contact with whites: the ultimate
absorption of Native Americans into the larger
American society. Tayo has his fathers green eyes
and light skin, so that his very appearance serves as a
constant reminder of the potential disappearance or
assimilation of the Laguna people. He is thus living
evidence of the damage nativism seeks to repair.
Flashbacks in the novel reveal that Tayo was raised on
the outskirts of Gallup, New Mexico, by his motheran alcoholic, homeless p r o ~ t i t u t e In
. ~ a period of
sobriety, she brings Tayo back to the pueblo to live
with his Aunt Thelma, Uncle Robert, and cousin
Rocky. An unmarried uncle, Josiah, lives nearby and
spends a good deal of time with the boy. Soon after
bringing him back to the pueblo, Tayos mother,
known as little Sister, dies and Tayo is left an
orphan. Although not emotionally close to his aunts
family, Tayo comes to love and respect his Uncle
Josiah, a mixed-blood Indian himself.
Tayos mother had originally left the pueblo
because she was attracted to the white world. Her
absence, however, would have been intolerable from a
nativistic point of view. Various historical nativistic
movements have dealt with this issue, but the instructions of Tenskwatawa, the Shawnee Prophet,O are
quite clear. He
warned against any close association with the Americans. .
. . [He] expressly [forbade] Indian women to have any
sexual contacts with American men, stating All Indian
women who were living with white men was [sic] to be
brought home to their friends and relatives, and their children to be left with their fathers, so that the nations may
become genuine Indian. (Edmunds 39)

Silkos narrator relates that a very similar sentiment


exists within the pueblo community.
The Catholic priest shook his finger at the drunkenness and
lust, but the people felt something deeper: they were losing
her, and they were losing part of themselves. The older
sister had to act; she had to act for the people, to get this
young girl back. (68; emphasis added)

The perceived need for racial and cultural purity is


clearly manifested in this passage. After bringing
Tayo to the pueblo, his mother returns to the white
world and soon dies. Her rejection of Pueblo life is
not simply a personal loss, nor even a familial loss; it
represents a loss to the fabric of Laguna society. Her
death, when it occurs, is barely mentioned in the
novel because it only confirms the more important
cultural death that has already occurred.
In striking contrast to his call for the return of
Indian women are Tenskwatawas instructions for the
treatment of mixed-blood children. He orders that the
children of interracial relationships be left with their
Fathers, so that the Nations might become genuine
Indian (Edmunds 39). Although Tayo is allowed to
return to Laguna, fitting in a matrilineal society, he is
never allowed to forget his status as an outsider.
Auntie argues that the reason she has agreed to care
for Tayo is so that she may conceal the shame of her
younger sister (Silk0 29). This avowed aim, however, is belied by her actions. Not only does Auntie
not conceal the details of Tayos birth, she makes
sure, at every opportunity, to use this knowledge to
perpetuate Tayos status as an outsider. Tayo remembers that when other people mistakenly called [him
and Rocky] brothers, she was quick to correct the
error and remind them that Tayos mother had been a
prostitute (65). This seemingly contradictory behavior
on the part of Auntie is explained within a nativistic
model. Although Auntie does not force Tayo to remain
with his father, as a nativist paradigm might demand,
she does fulfill the spirit of nativism by preventing
Tayo from ever associating unselfconsciously with
other Indians. He is well aware that as far as his aunt
is concerned, he will never be genuine Indian.
Eventually Tayo is sent, along with Rocky, to the
local school, where he is taught to reject further the
traditional Pueblo lifestyle and to become a part of
mainstream American society. In spite of this education, Tayo attempts to cling to traditional beliefs. His
cousin Rocky, on the other hand, deliberately
avoided the old-time ways, and tried desperately to
excel in school and to accept, and be accepted into,
white society (51). Silkos juxtaposition of the two
brothers reactions to the white school invites a
comparison. At one point in the novel the teenaged
Tayo and Rocky manage to kill a deer. Tayo feels both
awed and humbled in the presence of the dead deer.
He recalls that Pueblo traditionalists said the deer
gave itself to them because it loved them (52). As he
looks at the animals body Tayo finds it so beautiful
that he could only stand and feel the presence of the
deer; he knew what they said about the deer was true

80

Journal of American Culture

(50). As a result of his feelings, Tayo treats the sacred


deer in the reverent manner dictated by custom. He
covers its head before he allows Rocky to clean it
(51). When his uncles come they join Tayo in this attitude of reverence. Rocky, on the other hand, was
embarrassed at what [Tayo, Robert, and Josiah] did
to the deers carcass (52). As an A student and an
all-state athlete, Rocky deliberately avoided the oldtime ways, and tried to follow his teachers admonition not to allow the people at home to hold [him]
back (51). Silko clearly shines a more favorable
light on Tayos attempts to preserve tradition, and
readers are meant to sympathize with him rather than
with Rocky.
Despite Tayos attempts to cling to some aspects
of traditional culture, his education in the white-sponsored school has handicapped him. It has jeopardized
both his native language and his cultural knowledge.
His teachers encouraged or forced him to abandon
both.12Rules against the use of traditional language or
the telling of traditional stories are particularly problematic in terms of nativism. The teachers hoped that
by forcing the children to speak English they would
speed the acceptance of Euro-American values and
assimilation into mainstream American culture.
Tayos education all but strips him of his native language. His inability to speak Keresan in turn severely
limits his capacity to cope with the world. This loss
creates one of the most serious obstacles to Tayos
healing, and eventually provides the pivotal point for
Silkos movement beyond a simple return to Laguna
tradition, and toward what must rightly be considered
nativism.
The aspects of traditional culture which are
emphasized in a nativistic movement are those that
have the most potential to highlight the uniqueness of
the culture. These cultural elements are given a symbolic value to represent the whole culture. In fact, as
Ralph Linton writes, The more distinctive such elements are with respect to other cultures with which
the society is in contact, the greater their potential
value as symbols of the societys unique character
(231). He adds,
The elements selected for perpetuation become symbols of
the societys existence as a unique entity. They provide the
societys members with a fund of common knowledge and
experience which is exclusively their own and which sets
them off from the members of other societies. (233)

Thus a particular hairstyle, an article of clothing, or a


traditional folktale can take on a new cultural significance within a nativistic paradigm. These items

become symbolic of the whole culture and of the cultures survival. In Ceremony the traditional narratives
function in this manner in that are woven throughout
the novel and come to represent the whole culture.
As with his native language, though, Tayos education makes his unquestioned acceptance of traditional stories difficult. Silko prefaces Ceremony with
two poems/stories that specifically emphasize the
important role storytelling plays in Laguna culture. In
one of the poems Silko writes:
I will tell you something about stories
[he said]
They arent just entertainment.
Dont be fooled.
They are all we have, you see,
all we have to fight off
illness and death.
You dont have anything
If you dont have the stones. (2)

Silko elegantly illustrates the importance of stories to


Pueblo life in her essay Language and Literature
from a Pueblo Indian Perspective. She maintains that
for Pueblo peoples, language is story, in the sense
that many individual words have their own stories
(50). As a result of this multilayered structure, storytellers may go into these word stories, creating an
elaborate structure of stories within stories (50).
Narratives, she argues, are the way the Pueblo Indians
understand who they are (50-51 ) . Although Tayo
values the stories his Uncle Josiah teaches him, his
school training directly conflicts with the importance
of traditional narratives. The teachers at the school
actively try to convince Tayo that traditional Laguna
stories are of no value. Tayo recalls that he had
believed in the stories for a long time, until the teachers at Indian school taught him not to believe in that
kind of nonsense ( 19).13Silkos preface, on the
other hand, suggests that traditional Pueblo stories are
precisely the opposite of non-sense. They serve,
instead, as a way to make sense of, and to control the
world. Thus to give up the stories, as Tayos teachers
encourage him to do, is not to forego a form of entertainment, but rather to give up ones ability to perceive and to make sense of the world. Tayos retention
of the traditional stories is thus very important. The
stories provide the traditional means of structuring the
world, as well as the means for structuring the world
traditionally. Their preservation thus becomes the
object of nativism, as well as the means for achieving
that object. They constitute, along with native lan-

So That the Nations May Become Genuine Indian . 81

guage, the most important tools of nativism. The fact


that Tayo is ultimately unable to forget the stories he
has learned from Josiah is another indication of
nativistic principles at work in Ceremony.
One tale in particular plays an important role in
the novel. As a counterpoint to the modern story of
Tayos life, Silko includes in Ceremony a traditional
myth about how Hummingbird and Green Bottle Fly
restored water and fertility to the world after a long
drought. Tayos actions throughout the novel are mirrored by this clan talei4about the loss and restoration
of fertility. The tale is set apart from the text of the
novel by its short-lined verse form, distinctly different
from the prose sections of the nove1.I5 In this storywithin-a-story, Pueblo Indians become enthralled with
Ckoyo magic, a kind of evil trickery. The magic is
brought to the pueblo by Pacayanyi, an outsider
from Reedleaf town / up north (46).The outsiders
magic appears to create animals from nothing and to
make water flow freely from stone. The people are
impressed and forget to worship and properly honor
Nautsityi, the Corn Goddess,16 the source of all
good things (48). As a punishment, the Corn Goddess
leaves the fifth world, or the world we live in, and
returns underground to live in an earlier world. On
leaving, she took / the plants and grass from them. /
No baby animals were born. / She took the rainclouds
with her (48-49).
The Pueblo people recognize their mistake too
late, and seek a way to appease Nautsityi and regain
their previous prosperity. In time they notice that the
hummingbird has plenty to eat and drink. He explains
to them that Nautsityi had only descended to an earlier / lower world (54). The people realize that the
way to restore the vitality of their world is to send
messengers to this lower world in order to speak with
the Corn Goddess and convince her to return.
Hummingbirdi8and Fly volunteer to seek out the Corn
Goddess. The two messengers make the difficult
arrangements for a purification ritual to be performed
by the vulture, the eater of the dead. When the land
has been purified, Nautsityi returns and brings fertility back with her.
Silkos inclusion of this myth within the structure
of the narrative reinforces the idea that the events of
the novel should be placed squarely within a nativistic
context. The engines of nativism, the rejection of
witchcraft, the desire to rid the culture of outside elements, and the impulse to preserve, restore, or revitalize selected elements of traditional native culture are
at work in the myth. They are, in fact, its central
themes. Nautsityi tells the people, Stay out of trouble / from now on. / It isnt very easy / to fix things up

again. / Remember that / next time / some ckoyo


magician / comes to town (256). Despite his attempts
to make his life fit the themes of this myth, Tayos
mixed blood and education prevent him from successfully enacting these ideals. He is thus placed in a difficult position. He cannot simply ignore the white
world; it is an important part of his life. At the same
time, he cannot forget Pueblo traditions and stories.
He must, instead, find a way to blend the two worlds
he represents. To exclude either would deny his reality. Laguna traditionalism, however, offers no method
to achieve this blending. Tayo must choose either one
or the other.
Rocky recognizes this dichotomy and chooses to
be an American. In an effort to become a real
American, Rocky eventually makes Tayos already
difficult situation much worse by volunteering both
himself and Tayo for army service in World War 11.
While in the army, Tayo experiences a number of devastating events. At one point his unit captures several
Japanese soldiers. When his sergeant orders the prisoners executed, Tayo refuses to obey, in part because
one of the doomed men reminds him of his Uncle
Josiah. After the men are killed by other soldiers,
Tayo remains convinced that he has allowed his uncle
to be shot. Later Rocky is wounded, and both he and
Tayo are taken prisoner. Rocky begins to suffer from
fever as his wound becomes infected. Tayo, in fear
and frustration, prays for the incessant jungle rain to
end, and for the flies swarming around Rocky to disappear. The rain and flies dont go away, though, and
Rocky eventually dies, despite Tayos efforts to save
him.
When Tayo finally returns to the United States,
his homecoming is an unhappy one. The war has
given him an extreme sensitivity to how his actions
have affected the Pueblo world. He believes his
prayers to end the rain in the jungles, for instance,
have caused a severe drought back on the reservation.
Tayos condition does not get better as time goes by,
and he is eventually sent by his grandmother to
Kuoosh to be healed. Kuoosh recognizes the cultural
pressures faced by the Pueblo and seeks desperately to
preserve elements of traditional Laguna life. His
attempts to heal Tayo using traditional methods, however, further marginalize the mixed-blood. For
Kuoosh, Tayos racial status and his perceived ignorance in matters of language and tradition represent
the potential loss of all traditional things. Tayo neatly
encapsulates many of the main problems faced by
modern Pueblo Indians (Dozier 10-14). The Night
Swan, a mixed-blood Mexican dancer, sums up
Tayos situation as a person caught between cultures

82 . Journal of American Culture

when she says that the Pueblo people fear Tayo and
the potential change he represents. 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 (Silko
99-100). After a moment she adds that Tayo is a part
of it now, an active participant in the changes that are
taking place within Pueblo life (100).
The most damning obstacle to Tayos healing
within the pueblo is his inability to speak Keresan.
When he is first taken to Kuoosh, Tayo is embarrassed because he is unable to converse with the old
man. His language was childish, interspersed with
English words, and he could feel the shame tightening
in his throat (34). Tayo is unable even to communicate his problems with Kuoosh, and this inability preempts any chance that those problems will be solved
within the pueblo. Tayo, acknowledging his own
racial and cultural interposition, suggests to his war
veteran friends that because he is half-Indian and halfwhite he is able to speak for both sides (42). In
truth, however, Tayos liminal existence renders him
unable to speak for either side, and he retreats into
silence.
If Tayos mixed blood and his education in white
schools made a return to traditional life difficult, then
his traumatic exposure to white warfare makes that
return impossible. He cannot forget what he has
learned during the war, any more than he can forget
his white education. He is effectively trapped by his
knowledge of, and exposure to, the white world and to
white warfare. Kuooshs traditionalism simply has no
remedy for Tayos problem. Silkos narrator laments,
In the old way of warfare, you couldnt kill another human
being in battle without knowing i t , without seeing the
result. . . . But the old man [Kuoosh] would not have
believed white warfare- killing across great distances
without knowing who or how many died. It was all too
alien to comprehend, the mortars and big guns; and even if
he could have taken the old man to see the target areas . . .
the old man would not have believed anything so monstrous. . . . Not even oldtime witches killed like that. (3637)

Tayos knowledge of the outside world, and especially


his wartime experiences, have made a traditional healing, and therefore a simple return to tradition, impossible.
Kuoosh recognizes his own inability to help
Tayo, and in turn sends him to Betonie, a Navajo
healer who lives outside Gallup, within sight of the
dry riverbed where Tayo spent his early childhood.

The differences between the approaches of Kuoosh


and Betonie illustrate the differences between
attempting to live a traditional life in the face of
change, and adopting a nativist approach.
Traditionalism simply avoids or ignores change.
Nativism, on the other hand, embraces change; it is
the self-conscious creation of a new culture using
selected cultural elements symbolically. The bulk of
the novel concerns Tayos quest, guided by Betonie,
for a healing ceremony that will somehow reconcile
the white world to which Tayo has been exposed, and
the traditional Pueblo life that seems quite pointless in
the face of atomic warfare. The result is nothing less
than a new culture, a blending of older ones. Silko
makes it clear that Tayos ceremony is performed not
only for himself, but for all the veterans. Before Tayo
leaves for Gallup, old man Kuoosh warns, Im
afraid what will happen to all of us if you and the
others dont get well (38).
Unlike most of the other characters in the novel,
Betonie has learned to cope with the changes caused
by contact with the white world. The key role he plays
in the novel has been recognized by many critics.
Thomas E. Benediktsson, in The Reawakening of the
Gods: Realism and the Supernatural in Silko and
Hulme, argues that Betonie becomes the spokesman
for Silkos critique of both assimilation and of separatism (128). In discussing what he terms Silkos
ethnic nationalism, Benediktsson quotes Larry
Neals description of an ethnic nationalist movement:
A group withdraws into itself and labels the historically

oppressive culture as the enemy. . . . The nation or group


feels that its social oppression is inextricably tied with the
destruction of its traditional culture. . . . To recover any
aspect of the suppressed culture-even in fantasy-can be
an act not only of revival but of subversion, a way of reifying the oppressed groups sense of separateness and entitlement. (127)

Benediktsson believes that Silko, through Betonie,


rejects this ethnic nationalism because the ideological project of the [novel] is not to overturn the white
culture but to transform it (131). Betonies revisionist
history is nothing, however, if not an attempt to overturn white culture. By failing to recognize the more
specific nativism within the general nationalism,
Benediktsson limits his understanding of Ceremony.
He stresses, for instance, that to Betonie, the world
brought by the white people is profoundly evil (128).
This is certainly true, but the ultimate evil in the novel
is not the white race, but Native American witchcraft.
This aspect of the novel, problematic in Benedikts-

So That the Nations May Become Genuine Indian

sons nationalistic context, is, as I will illustrate,


easily explained in a nativistic model. Another limitation inherent in the application of a nationalist model
to Ceremony is Benediktssons struggle to account for
the novels magical elements. He weakly concludes
his discussion of magic by suggesting that realism,
which he views as antithetical to magical realism, is
unhealthy and that Silko and Hulme disrupt this
unhealthy realism in order to heal their characters,
just as they challenge the narrative of colonial oppression in order to offer an alternative of entitlement
(131). Within a nativistic model, the magical elements
of the novel as they relate to witchcraft may be recognized not as supposed reactions to realism, but as integral, necessary parts of a nativist novel.
Betonies powerful response to intercultural contact is clearly nativistic; he literally subsumes all of
white culture within a Native American paradigm. His
ancient hogan, which overlooks the city dump and the
area where homeless Indians camp, is a good example
of this. People ask me why I live here, he explains
to Tayo, I tell them I want to keep track of the
people. . . . Because this is where Gallup keeps
Indians until Ceremonial time (1 17). In reference to
the proximity of the dump, he adds, This hogan was
here first. Built long before the white people ever
came. It is that town down there which is out of
place ( 1 18). Betonies response to the danger of cultural contact is simply to recognize the permanence of
his own beliefs, here represented by his home, and the
transient nature of the foreign white world. The
hogan is important, permanent; the white town is a
matter of little consequence.
The hogans location isnt its only symbolism. It
is filled with artifacts from both the white and the
Native worlds. Old phone books from cities across the
country, out-of-date railroad calendars, and ritual
items from several different tribes are stacked on
shelves, hung from the massive roof beams, and
stuffed into trunks. Betonies explanation for this odd
collection is that all these things have stories alive in
them ( 12I ). He further suggests that they allow him
to keep track of things in the larger world (121).
Betonies healing rituals have also been infiuenced by
white culture. They incorporate innovation and
change as a result of the healers knowledge of the
complex world he observes from his hillside.
If Kuoosh represents the idea that Pueblo culture
should be preserved, then Betonie embodies the
attempt, not to preserve, but to revitaEize Native
American culture. Betonie explains why Kuoosh had
been unable to help Tayo. He notes that at one time,
the ceremonies as they had been performed were

83

enough (126). After the whites came, though, it


became necessary to create new ceremonies (126).
Changing ceremonies or creating new ones was
deeply troubling to traditionalists like Kuoosh.
Edward Dozier notes that Pueblo custom tends to
favor procedures deeply rooted in time and tradition
(139). Anticipating Tayos possible objection to an
adapted ceremony, Betonie adds, Things which dont
shift and grow are dead things. They are things the
witchery people want. Witchery works to scare
people, to make them fear growth (126). Betonies
focus on intracultural witchcraft and his willingness to
change allows him the freedom to adapt traditional
ceremonies to meet the changing needs of the people.
At first glance this notion of change may seem
antithetical to nativism. That is, however, not the case.
In 1807, Handsome Lake, or Neolin, the Seneca
Prophet (Iroquois), introduced changes to Iroquois
society similar in type to the innovations Betonie
advocates. He demanded that medicine societies be
disbanded and instituted the idea of confession of
sins, something he had witnessed in a Christian context, as an innovation in Seneca tradition. Tenskwatawa, the Shawnee Prophet, also demanded a
revision of traditional medicine. He
ordered his followers to throw away their medicine bundles. Although these parcels contained items traditionally
sacred to individual Shawnees, Tenskwatawa declared that
this medicine which had been good in its time, had lost its
efficacy; that i t had become vitiated through age.
(Edmunds 36)

Both examples resonate strongly with Ceremony.


Betonies criticism of Kuooshs method is precisely
that it had been good in its time, but had lost its
efficacy. Betonie opens himself to the white world
not to accept it, but to more fully reject it.
Pekhaps the most interesting nativistic aspect of
Ceremony is its focus on witchcraft. A concern with
witchcraft, so central to nineteenth-century nativistic
movements, is one of the major preoccupations of
Ceremony. It is, in fact, the connection that unites all
the other narrative elements in the novel. Silko finds
the readers knowledge of Native American witchcraft
important enough to include a Note on Bear People
and Witches in the novel (131). Through Betonie,
Tayo learns that the real root of his problem lies not in
the war, nor in the mistreatment he suffered at the
hands of white schoolteachers, nor in his own mixed
blood. Rather Tayos problem is a result of Native
American witchery. Pueblo witches, he learns,
brought whites to the American continent, and caused
the terribly destructive war he has witnessed.

84

Journal of American Culture

In an effort to explain the reasons for Tayos sickness and to connect the various elements of his life
story, Betonie tells Tayo a myth in which witches get
together for a contest / the way people have baseball
tournaments nowadays / except this was a contest / in
dark things (133). The witches come from around the
world; some had slanty eyes / others had black skin
(133). They begin to display various items associated
with witchcraft, including partially eaten babies and
body parts cut from their victims. One particularly
frightening witch tells a story that describes the arrival
of whites on the American continent and details the
destruction of Native American peoples: Entire villages will be wiped out / They will slaughter whole
tribes. / Corpses for us / Blood for us (136).
Although this destruction will provide blood and
bodies for them to practice on, the other witches complain that his story is too frightening, even for them,
and they ask him to take it back. He replies, Its
already turned loose. / Its already coming. / It cant
be called back (138). Betonies story is important to
the novel in that it states explicitly the belief that
whites are the result of Native American witchcraft.
This means that Tayos problems, the results of his
own as well as his mothers contact with whites,
should ultimately be blamed not on the whites, but on
Native American witchcraft.
Betonie warns Tayo that witches want us to
believe all evil resides with white people (132). This,
however, is not the case. White people, he goes on
to explain,
are only the tools that the witchery manipulates; and I tell
you, we can deal with white people, with their machines
and their beliefs. We can because we invented white
people; it was Indian witchery that made white people in
the first place. (132)

The worldview Tayo gains from Betonie gives


him a confidence in dealing with whites that he did
not have before. Soon after leaving Betonies hogan,
Tayo is treated rudely by the white manager of a gas
station. Tayos initial anger at the man is transformed
by the new knowledge Betonie has given him. After
staring at the man for a moment, Tayo realizes that
he had never seen a white person so clearly before. He had
to turn away. All those things old Betonie had told him
were swirling inside his head, doing strange things; he
wanted to laugh. He wanted to laugh at the station man who
did not even know that his existence and the existence of all
white people had been conceived by witchery. (154)

Tayos newfound understanding of Native American


witchcraft also provides the missing link that makes
his cure possible in that it eventually leads him to see
a connection between the persecution of Native
American peoples, the invention and testing of the
atomic bomb in New Mexico, and the wartime use of
the bomb in Japan.
In a single, bold move, Silko subsumes all of
European and Euro-American history and culture
within a nativistic paradigm. Whites, their technology,
and their wars, Betonie teaches, are a result of Native
American witchcraft. This nativism, which allows the
inclusion of elements of white culture within a distinctly Native American paradigm, is quite different
from the failed traditionalism Kuoosh practices.
Unlike Kuoosh, Betonie does not reject the technology, history, or other facets of white society; instead
he appropriates these aspects of culture. This is the
most important benefit of nativism. Because of this,
Betonie does not simply retreat from white culture, he
actually goes on the offensive. His nativist vision of
history is a powerful tool for dealing with the white
world. Without the revised understanding of history
nativism provides Betonie would be no better than the
helpless Kuoosh.
Witchery in the novel is not limited to the mythic
past. Several of Tayos Indian acquaintances have
returned from the war emotionally jaded by the violence in which they have taken part, and impressed by
the affluence of the white world. The unofficial leader
of these modem witches is Emo, a sadistic killer who
enjoyed torturing and mutilating Japanese prisoners.
Significant in terms of nativism is the fact that Emo
keeps his GI haircut even after leaving the army
(229). Emos short hair takes on a symbolic meaning
in that it represents his rejection of Pueblo culture in
favor of what he has learned in the army. He canies a
bag of human teeth as a trophy, and brags to Tayo and
the other veterans that while he was in the army he
could make Japanese prisoners talk fast, die slow
(61). Shortly after their return to the pueblo, Tayo and
the other veterans go to a bar just off the reservation.
Silkos narrator reports that the evening follows a kind
of evil ritual that moves from cursing the barren
dry land the white men had left them, to talking about
San Diego and cities where the white women were
still waiting for them (61). This ritual ends as Emo
describes the torture he inflicted during the war. Cut
off this, he brags, cut off these (61). Some men,
Em0 reminisces, didnt like to feel the quiver of the
men they were killing; some men got sick when they
smelled the blood (62). Emo, however, grew from
each killing. Emo fed off each man he killed (61).

So That the Nations May Become Genuine Indian

T h e most damaging attack on Pueblo customs


found in the novel comes not from a foreigner, but
from Emo. Emos attack on traditional culture is quite
different from the assimilationist ambitions of the
white-sponsored s c h o o l . W h e r e a s t h e school
attempted to replace Pueblo storytelling as a method
of structuring and understanding the world, Em0 preserves the traditional form of storytelling, yet seeks to
replace the content of the stories. In a bar just off the
reservation Emo tells Tayo and the other veterans a
story in which he brags about his sexual exploits with
two white women. In the story he deceives the women
into thinking that he is Italian, in order to gain their
sexual favors. The most striking detail about Emos
story is that it is differentiated from the regular text of
the novel in precisely the same indented verse form as
the traditional story of Hummingbird and Fly (57-59).
Emos story is, however, quite different from the traditional tale. The traditional myth portrays the actions
of heroes for emulation. In Emos story he is the
hero, and the action centers on his own drunken
sexual exploits. The actions he offers for the others to
emulate include disguising his own Native American
heritage and having sex with white women. In telling
his stories, Emo attempts to replace traditional narratives with new tales of deception, conquest, and
accomplishment in the white world. In other words,
Emo offers a new way to understand and control the
world. If the traditional tales embody restraint, respect
for tradition, and independence from outside influences, then Emos stories embrace violence and
sexual exploitation, an utter disregard for tradition,
and adaptation to and dependence on cultures outside
the pueblo. A11 these aspects of Emos story stand in
stark contrast to the nativistic theme of the novel.
Just as Tayo and Rocky exemplify a range of
reaction to white education, so Tayo and Emo portray
a range of reaction to the war. Tayo has transformed
the violence of the war into self-absorbed guilt, while
Emo has turned that violence outward in a combination of destruction, torture, and murder. The end of the
novel is a struggle between Tayo and Emo to see
whose vision will dictate the action that takes place.
In order t o be complete, Tayos healing ceremony
must include a defeat of Emos witchery.
As part of the ceremony, Betonie sends Tayo to
recover Josiahs herd of longhorned Mexican cattle?
turned loose on the range by Josiah before Tayo and
Rocky went away to war. During his quest for the lost
livestock, Tayo encounters Tseh, a Native American
woman living a nomadic existence. Silko hints that
this woman may be a mythical, godlike character
(208).21
She guides him to the place where the cattle

85

can be found and helps him to corral them. After


recovering the cattle, Tayo spends the summer in the
mountains with Tseh. For a few months he manages
to forget about both the white and the Pueblo worlds.
He experiences, at least temporarily, the monocultural
world that had existed before the coming of the
whites. Their days together, the narrator notes, had
a gravity emanating from the mesas and arroyos, and
it replaced the rhythm that had been interrupted so
long ago (227). T h i s Edenic moment, however,
cannot last; at the end of the summer the reality of
Tayos two worlds comes crashing in on him. Robert
visits him and explains that Emo has been accusing
Tayo of witchcraft. You know how the people are
about things like that, Robert notes. White people
are that way too. The army might send someone to
take you back (228). Tayo can n o longer simply
retreat into traditionalism. Instead he must find a way
to defeat the witches and reconcile his fragmented
existence. Tseh warns him, though, that witches will
be waiting f o r him, and she explains their goals:
They destroy the feeling people have for each other. .
. . When they finish, you watch yourself from a distance and you cant even cry-not even for yourself
(229). They are all around now, she continues.
Only destruction is capable of arousing a sensation,
the remains of something alive in them; and each time
they do it the scar thickens, and they feel less and less,
yet still hungering for more (230).22
Tseh essentially confirms the truth of the story
Betonie has earlier told Tayo, and gives him instructions for finishing the ceremony. Her voice, though,
plays a larger role in the novel. In his 1992 Identity,
Voice, and Authority: Artist-Audience Relations in
Native American Literature, Andrew Wiget discusses
the importance of an authors authority when writing about Native Americans. How does an author
authorize himself to represent another cultures discourse to readers to whom it is alien? (258). Echoing
Bakhtins notion of dialogism, Wiget asserts that
artistic authority is an effect produced by the multivocality of some narrative, when the voice of the present narration . . . is located in and made intelligible
by its relationship to another, earlier voice also represented in the narration (258). The essay you hold in
your hand, for instance, only becomes authoritative
as I am able to represent within it earlier voices, such
as Wigets. Wiget argues that this is a problem for
Native American writers writing about tribal cultures
because the voices they must represent are usually
conventionalized Indian discourse, often sarcastically called beads and feathers (259).According to
Wiget, Silko avoids this problem by creating in
Ceremony a decentered, multivocal text (262):

86 . Journal of American Culture


Clearly a gifted writer, in Ceremony Silko has nevertheless
adopted a posture of consciously denying a commanding
narrative voice, in effect sublimating her attachment to an
Anglo notion of authorship which, if anything, presupposes
the freedom to dictate the nature and conditions of storytelling. (261)

Hints of Rupperts idea of mediation are clear in this


statement. Near the end of the article, however, Wiget
is forced to admit that Ceremony, while it is multivocal, is not as decentered, as it first appears:
On the other hand, however apparently benign its consequences, this decentering is accomplished only by assuming a precarious, almost Olympian position from which to
manage both voices. This ultimate assumption of power
satisfies all the expectations for control and demands for
originality that constitute authority in Euro-American literary traditions. (263)

In some ways Wiget undermines his own argument by


correctly noting that the compelling voices in the
novel are anything but decentered. Identifying this
position as Olympian or godlike is fitting since
Silko includes the voice of the mythic, godlike Tseh
in the text. What better authority to represent Laguna
culture than that of a god?
After a final confrontation in which Tayo follows
Tsehs instructions and completely rejects Emos violent, exploitative approach to the world, his cure is
completed. Returning to the pueblo, he is allowed to
enter the kiva and tell his story to Kuoosh and the
other elders. After Tayo tells the story of his cure, the
old men are pleased, noting, We will be blessed /
again (257). The men leave Tayo in the kiva, and
Kuoosh instructs him to begin fasting. The implication here is that Tayo will, himself, soon be initiated
into the kiva society. Tayos nativism, his blending of
the white and Native American worlds, will then be
complete.
While explaining to the members of the kiva society what has happened to him, Tayo is made to sit in a
chair with the words St. Joseph Mission stenciled
on the back. Although strikingly different from the
carved wooden benches and adobe walls and floors of
the ancient kiva, the chair has been appropriated for
use within this sacred room. In a symbolic reference
to Tayos quest to become a fully accepted member of
Pueblo society, Silko has Tayo consciously wonder
how far the chair had gone from the parish hall
before it came to the kiva (256). The fact that the
chair, an item obviously foreign to the kiva, was
appropriated and adapted to kiva use is symbolic of

the idea that Tayo, despite his mixed cultural and


racial heritage, has finally been fully accepted into
Laguna society. Although the hope of the traditionals
for an unmixed culture and a world free of foreign
influence may be impossible, Silko makes it clear that
Laguna Pueblo culture, and by extension all Native
American cultures, may be revitalized and made to
comprehend white culture through nativism.
Ceremony represents a major innovation in twentieth-century Native American literature. On a literarykultural level, Silko takes the nativistic impulse
and uses it to create a novel that is not simply a reactionary retreat from white culture. Nor is it a refutation or reification of Anglo notions of Indianness.
In her hands nativism becomes a proactive means to
appropriate symbols of white culture and to use these
symbols to explain American history in terms of a
Pueblo/Native American worldview. Silko rejects the
simplistic ideal that a return to traditional beliefs is
the only way Native American characters can survive.
Denying both traditionalism and assimilationism, she
proposes that the only way Native American characters, particularly those of mixed racial and cultural
heritage, will be able to survive in the modem world
is to adopt a nativistic paradigm and learn to adapt
and alter ancient traditions to fit modern situations.
This is the only realistic way, Silko might argue, that
the Nations may become genuine Indian.

Notes
It is somewhat ironic that Silko, of all Native
American authors, would have nativism as a central theme.
Scholars do not agree on nativisms historical influence
among the Pueblos, but Edward Dozier, an important twentieth-century researcher of Pueblo cultures, has noted a distinct lack of nativism in Pueblo society. In The Pueblo
Indians of North America (1970),he mentions that
Nativistic or revivalistic reactions have not arisen in the
pueblos (1 18). He suggests that the reason these movements, popular in other areas and among other tribal
groups, never flourished among the Pueblo people has to do
with the relatively stable social and religious organizational aspects of their culture (1 18). He concludes by suggesting that since they were not seriously deprived by
Anglo-American contact, the Pueblos have not needed to
question the basic adequacy or value of their culture (1 18).
I would argue that, though nativistic movements have not
become a large part of the Pueblo social structure, they certainly form the basis for much of the literature about the
Pueblos. Ceremony, published seven years after Dozier
made his assertion, is evidence of nativisms influence.

So That the Nations May Become Genuine Indian

Furthermore, Silkos Pueblo upbringing no doubt gives her


insights into Pueblo life and the changes and deprivations
brought about by contact with whites that Dozier, despite
his years of study, may not recognize.
2Because nativism is, by definition, a reaction to colonialism, it constantly re-creates the destructive moment of
colonial contact, and thus imposes a strict handicap on
interpretations of Silkos novel. Nativist movements can
only occur when two cultures come into contact and one
begins to extinguish the other. Ralph Linton explains that
Conscious, organized efforts to perpetuate a culture can only arise when a society becomes conscious that there are cultures other than its own
and that the existence of its own culture is threatened. Such consciousness, in turn, is a by-product
of close and continuous contact with other societies. (230, emphasis added)
A bipolar dynamic-new versus old, foreign versus
native- thus fuels nativistic movements.
)See William Dinomes 1997 Laguna Woman: An
Annotated Leslie Silko Bibliography.
ZRuppertsdefinition of postmodern literature as literature which is de fact0 purposeless suggests a narrow understanding of postmodernism.
T o view Ceremony only as a nativistic act, however, is
as limiting as any other approach. Though a context of
nativism foregrounds Ceremonys political and historical
aspects, it also minimizes the importance of tribal and culture-specific details. Nonetheless, all critical approaches
have blind spots, and these ideas should be understood in
the context of the work of James Ruppert, Arnold Krupat,
and others.
6This term, though unfortunate in its connotation of
going native, is still productive and useful. Nativism typically occurs when one culture is threatened by contact with
another. Colonial settlement, for example, has often
resulted in a subsequent nativistic movement. Anthony F.
C. Wallace, who has written extensively about North
American nativism, points out i n his 1956 article
Revitalization Movements that nativism is characterized
by a strong emphasis on the elimination of alien persons,
customs, values, and/or material from the worldview of
those involved (267). Ralph Linton, in one of the first serious treatments of nativism, his 1943 article entitled
Nativistic Movements, defined nativism as Any conscious organized attempt on the part of a societys members
to revive or perpetuate selected aspects of its culture
(230).
T h e teachings of the Delaware Prophet were originally
inscribed as a series of hieroglyphics on a piece of buckskin. The pictures represented, in short, Native American

87

peoples prevented from living happy lives by the influence


of white culture. This simple theme is the most basic message of all North American nativistic movements. James
Kenny, a young Quaker present at a display of these drawings, recorded in a diary his reaction to the idea that white
cultural influence had hurt Native Americans: the doctrine
issued on this and the way to help it is said to be to learn to
live without any trade or connections with the white people,
[or their] clothing supporting themselves as their forefathers did (as found in Peckham 100).
This question is especially important i n light of
Silkos own mixed heritage. Like Tayo, Silkos own personal experiences include living as a mixed blood caught
between two societies, neither of which is particularly
racially tolerant. Though she considers herself Native
American, Silkos heritage is mixed. Her great-grandfather,
Robert G . Marmon, was a white man from Ohio who came
to Laguna Pueblo in the late nineteenth century as a
teacher. He married Maria Anaya, a Pueblo woman, and
spent the rest of his life on or near the Laguna reservation.
Silkos mother, Mary Virginia Leslie, was at least part
Cherokee (Laguna Woman 42-43), and her father, Leland
Howard Marmon, was a mixed-blood Laguna Pueblo
Indian. In her writing and speaking Silko has chosen to
focus on her Native American ancestors and seldom, if
ever, mentions non-Indian relatives. She was raised near
the Old Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico, just northwest of
Albuquerque, but because of her mixed cultural and racial
heritage she often found herself on the fringe of Pueblo life.
In Rain (1996), Silko observes that she grew up in an old
house at the foot of the village where the people put
Presbyterians and mixed bloods like the Marmons (not
paginated). Per Seyersted, in his 1980 biography of Silko,
points out that the family was included in clan activities,
but not to the same extent as full bloods, and that the young
Leslie helped out at ceremonial dances, but did not dance
herself ( 1 3).
Although Tayos mother appears in the novel only
briefly, and then, only in flashbacks, Silko suggested in an
interview with Laura Coltelli that Helen Jean, another character in the novel, represents Silkos attempt to show what
Tayos mothers life would have been like (Coltelli 140).
Helen Jean is a Ute woman who leaves the reservation
seeking a better life. After losing her job in the city she
turns to prostitution. Her pride prevents her from returning
home empty handed (Silko 155-66).
OThe Shawnee Prophet, associated with Chief
Tecumseh, encouraged his followers to renounce their
desire to accumulate property and to return to the communal life of the past (Edmunds 37). They were further
admonished to return to the food, implements and dress of
their ancestors (37). Tenskwatawa,

88

Journal of American Culture

instructed his followers to relinquish the white


mans technology. . . . Stone or wood implements
should replace metal ones and the tribesmen were
to discard all items of European or American
clothing. . . . Tenskwatawa warned against any
close association with the Americans.
The reward promised for adherence to these strictures, and
for a return to racial and cultural purity, was the eventual
expulsion of the Europeans and Euro-Americans from
Indian lands. Certainly this promise, common to many
nativistic movements, indicates both the ultimate goal of
nativism as well as its serious nature; nativists are involved
in the important business of survival.
This scene is strikingly similar to the title scene of
Frank Waterss The Man Who Killed the Deer. Compare
chapter 1 .
Tayos fictional experiences have a strong foundation
in historical reality. The school at Laguna was founded in
the 1870s to provide children with a basic education. In the
1880s a secondary boarding school was established in
Albuquerque (Dozier 14). Pueblo schools have a particular
reputation for vigorous attempts to acculturate Indian children to white society. Frank Clarence Spencer set the tone
for public education in the Pueblo reservation schools at the
turn of the century in his Education of the Pueblo Child, in
which he suggested that the environmental and social conditions at the pueblos, as compared to conditions at other
reservations, somehow blocked the cultural and intellectual
development of the Pueblo Indians and accounted for the
arrested development of the Pueblos (92-93). The goals of
white educators are, of course, antithetical to nativism.
Silko describes her own ordeal in the Laguna Indian school
as a hideous, traumatic experience (Perry 316).
I3Inan interview with Donna Perry, Silko mentions that
she was acutely aware of how the teachers made fun of
Pueblo beliefs about animals and plants. She remembers,
It was really shoved i n the faces of Native American
people how backward they were and how white mans science was just so great and so wonderful (317-18).
I4PaulaGunn Allen (Laguna Pueblo/Sioux)has noted in
Special Problems in Teaching Leslie Marmon Silkos
Ceremony that the myth Silko uses to structure Ceremony
is a clan story, and not to be told outside of the clan
(383). She suggests that Silkos use of that particular story
is, at the very least, a violation of Pueblo expectations of
privacy and modesty (379), and that its use could potentially lead to disaster (384).
Hamilton Tyler records two versions of this story in
his Pueblo Birds and Myths ( 1 19-21).
I6Elsie Clews Parsons, in her 1920 anthropological
study Notes on Ceremonialism at Laguna, observed that
the Corn Goddess was the central or most authentic of all

the Laguna deities. She is the deepest in the heart and,


through her, religious feeling is most fully expressed (95).
This note, however, must be understood in a historical context. Parsonss connection to Laguna Pueblo is problematic
to say the least. Her expos6 of sacred knowledge was seen
as a cultural disaster in the pueblo. It was viewed as one of
the possible causes of the drought which figures prominently in the novel.
Although the myth shares many motifs with the
Greek and Roman Persephone/Proserpinamyths, the loss of
water described in the myth may be even more important to
Pueblo Indians. In the dry lands around most pueblos a
good yearly rainfall is essential to life. Edward Dozier
notes that in many pueblos rainmaking ceremonies are
some of the most frequently performed rituals (141). The
loss of rainclouds would thus have had both a physical and
a spiritual significance.
*HamiltonTyler notes that Pueblo mythology generally associates hummingbirds with rain and rainbows (107).
He further points out that they have both great speed and
endurance, which fits them to be messengers to the spirits
who send rain (108).
T h e medicine societies were small, private groups
which primarily practiced healing rituals. Sam Gill and
Irene Sullivan i n t h e Dictionary of Native American
Mythology note that often they have esoteric knowledge
and perform secret rites (187). Wallace hints that
Handsome Lake may have been concerned about the secret
nature of the societies. They represented an authority completely separate from his own (Death 252). Many of his followers objected to this demand and Handsome Lake later
compromised and allowed the societies to continue practicing within some general guidelines. Perhaps the most
important of these guidelines in the context of literary
nativism is his demand that medicine societies stop consuming alcohol as a part of their rituals (Wallace, Death
252).
Susan Blumenthals Spotted Cattle and Deer: Spirit
Guides and Symbols of Endurance and Healing i n
Ceremony is a solid treatment of the symbolic healing
power of these cattle.
Evidence of Tsehs godlike status includes her magical control of the weather (208). She seems to be involved
in restoring the unbalanced natural ecology. After collecting a number of plants she explains to Tayo, This one contains the color of the sky after a summer rainstorm. Ill take
it from here and plant it in another place, a canyon where it
hasnt rained for a while (224).
2ZSilkosnote about witches states, among other things,
that witches are generally involved with death and destruction and that they play around with objects and bodies
(131). This short description certainly fits the veteran Emo,
but it also begins to account for Tayos other problems. His

So That the Nations May Become Genuine Indian

experiences during the war brought him into unavoidable


contact w i t h death, destruction, and bodies, and thus
exposed him to the power of witchcraft. Contact with dead
bodies is expressly forbidden by Pueblo religious and social
codes. Anyone coming into unavoidable contact with a
dead body would have to undergo a purification ritual
before coming into contact with other people.

Works Cited
Allen, Paula Gunn. Special Problems in Teaching Leslie
Marmon Silkos Ceremony. American Indian
Quarterl-y 14 (1990): 379-86.
-. American Indian Fiction. A Literary History of the
American W e s t . Ed. J. Golden Taylor, et al. Fort
Worth: Texas Christian UP, 1987. 1058-66.
Bakhtin, Mikhail Mikhailovich. The Dialogic Imagination.
Ed. Michael Holquist. Trans. Caryl Emerson and
Michael Holquist. Austin: U of Texas P, 1981.
Benediktsson, Thomas E. The Reawakening of the Gods:
Realism and the Supernatural in Silko and Hulme.
Critique 33 (1992): 121-32.
Blumenthal, Susan. Spotted Cattle and Deer: Spirit Guides
and Symbols of Endurance and Healing in Ceremony.
American Indian Quarterly 14 (1990): 367-78.
Coltelli, Laura. Leslie Marmon Silko. Winged Words.
Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1990. 135-53.
Dinome, William. Laguna Woman: An Annotated Leslie
Silko Bibliography. American Indian Culture and
Research Journal 21 (1997):207-80.
Dozier, Edward. The Pueblo Indians of North America.
New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1970.
Edmunds, R. David. The Shawnee Prophet. Lincoln: U of
Nebraska P, 1983.
Gill, Sam D., and Irene F. Sullivan. Dictionary of Native
American Mythology. New York: Oxford UP, 1992.
Linton, Ralph. Nativistic Movements. American
Anthropologist 45 (1943):230-43.
Parsons, Elsie Clews. Notes on Ceremonialism at Laguna.
Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of
Natural History, 19.4. New York: American Museum
of Natural History, 1920.

89

Peckham, Howard. Pontiac and the Indian Uprising.


Princeton: Princeton UP, 1947.
Perry, Donna. Backtalk: Women Writers Speak Out. New
Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1993.
Ruppert, James. Mediation in Contemporary Native
American Fiction. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1995.
Seyersted, Per. Leslie Marmon Silko. Boise, ID: Boise State
UP, 1980.
Silko, Leslie Marmon. Ceremony. New York: Viking
Penguin, 1977.
-. Laguna Woman: Poems by Leslie Silko. 1974. New
York: Greenfield Review, 1994.
-. Language and Literature from a Pueblo Indian
Perspective. Yellow Woman and a Beauty of the
Spirit. New York Simon & Schuster, 1996.48-59.
-. Rain. Library Fellows of the Whitney Museum of
American Art, 1996.
Spencer, Frank Clarence. Education of the Pueblo Child: A
Study i n Arrested D e v e l o p m e n t . New York:
Macmillan, 1899.
Tyler, Hamilton. Pueblo Birds and Myths. Norman: U of
Oklahoma P, 1979.
Wallace, Anthony F. C. The Death and Rebirth of the
Seneca. New York: Knopf, 1970.
-. Revitalization Movements. American Anthropologist 58 (1956): 264-81.
Waters, Frank. The Man Who Killed the Deer. New York:
Washington Square, 1970.
Wiget, Andrew. Identity, Voice, and Authority: ArtistAudience Relations in Native American Literature.
World Literature Today 66.2 (1992):258-63.

Dennis Cutchins is an associate professor of English at


Brigham Young University where he teaches American and
Western literature as well as film and literature. He earned
a Ph.D. in American literature, specializing in contemporary Native American novels from the Florida State
University in 1997. He has published articles on Louise
Erdrich and Leslie Silko, as well as an essay on Utah folklore, and is currently working on articles concerning
Bernard Malamud and J. D. Salinger.

AARON DEROSA

Cultural Trauma, Evolution, and Americas Atomic Legacy


in Silkos Ceremony
The bomb that fell on Hiroshima fell on America too.
It fell on no city, no munition plants, no docks.
It erased no church, vaporized no public building,
reduced no man to his atomic elements.
But it fell, it fell.
It burst. It shook the land.
(Hermann Hagedorn, The Bomb That Fell on America)
I will tell you something about stories,
[he said]
They arent just entertainment.
Dont be fooled.
They are all we have, you see,
All we have to fight off
Illness and death.
(Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony)

In early August, 1945, fighting in the Pacific Theater of World War II came to a
resounding close after the US dropped two nuclear bombs on the Japanese cities of
Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Although the losses from these blasts were not as extensive as those from the firebombing campaigns that preceded them, they represented a wholly unique type of warfare: a nation only needed one bomb to do the work
of an entire air force. The devastating effects of the bomb were profoundly felt
throughout Japan, meticulously documented in Robert Jay Liftons seminal
Death in Life. Curiously, thousands of miles away in the United States, the repercussions were also significant, though different. Despite the promise of clean, unlimited energy, a new world order of peace and prosperity, and an end to the war
prompted by American ingenuity and firepower, the detonations spawned a deep
and enduring apocalyptic anxiety within the nation.
Cultural and literary theorists usually refer to such conditions as cultural traumas, but this designation is exceedingly problematic as its theoretical reliance on
psychological metaphors often results in blanket diagnoses. Even more thoughtful
applications of psychological trauma theory to culture fall victim to the troubling
personification of culture as an individual with a collective memory, and thus
JLT 6:1 (2012), 4164

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42

Aaron DeRosa

flashbacks and repetition compulsions. It is inaccurate to suggest the atomic bomb


traumatized every individual psyche from 1945 onward. Nor would it do to qualify this to say writers who wrote about the atomic bomb experienced the type of
trauma felt by the hibakusha. To do so would undermine the Japanese experience
of the bomb, inappropriately equate a cultural condition with an individual one,
essentialize the post-World War II American experience, and do little to help us
understand the specific manifestations of nuclear anxiety in American cultural
productions. Yet this is the dominant lens through which cultural and literary theorists have approached the trauma of events like the atomic bomb, the Holocaust,
slavery, or the postcolonial condition.
In this essay I argue for the need to significantly differentiate cultural and psychological trauma to more productively diagnose the genesis, symptoms, and patterns of the former, particularly in literary studies. I rethink cultural trauma theory
through the lens of contemporary research in cultural evolution to generate a more
salient and robust definition that eschews an anthropomorphizing impulse. Instead, I define culture as information capable of affecting individuals behavior
where information is defined as an individuals skills, practices, and beliefs (Richerson/Boyd 2009, 5). Doing so more accurately describes the patterns of behavior that develop after major, trauma-inducing historical events like the atomic
bomb. At the same time, cultural evolution theory prompts more productive interrogations of the complex, subtle, and unrecognized ways that the atomic detonations in Japan sparked the inheritance of particular behaviors and beliefs in the
US after 1945.
Literature is heavily implicated in this transmission process as a primary source
through which we pass on information, as this studys analysis of Leslie Marmon
Silkos Ceremony illustrates. Indeed, Silko thematically interweaves the distinction
between public and private trauma into her text through the lens of an atomic
ennui within American culture. The American response to the atomic bomb is
particularly well suited to this initial inquiry into an evolution-based model for
cultural trauma. When we consider the United States deep and enduring atomic
anxiety in light of the absence of any atomic victims in 1945,1 we can plainly see
what a traumatized culture looks like outside of individual peoples minds that, by
1

While I am fully aware of the American P. O. W.s who died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the longignored Downwinder population in the Atomic Southwest, and the radioactive colonialism addressed by LaDuke and Churchill three groups that could claim to be American hibakusha these
populations do not fit the definition I define in a number of ways. For one, these populations would
only gain significant attention much later, far after the cultural trauma and sense of victimhood had
already set in to the American cultural landscape. Additionally, and perhaps most tragically, these
populations have been erased from Americas atomic legacy, as they do not fit neatly into the quasiofficial narrative proposed by Secretary of War Henry Stimson. That said, they are populations
worthy of significant attention as a counternarrative to the dominant sense of victimization that
ignores real victims in favor of imagined ones.

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Cultural Trauma

43

their very nature, inspire deep empathic responses. At heart, then, this study seeks
to redefine cultural trauma and illuminate a new trajectory for its study using
Americas atomic legacy as a case study and Silkos Ceremony as an exemplary
model.

The Need for Differentiation


Before we can redefine cultural trauma, though, it is necessary to historicize it as its
own object of study rather than as a subset of a psychological problem. Trauma as
a classificatory term has had a long and contentious history. Etymologically rooted
in the Greek word for wound, its earliest and most common associations referred
to a biological condition. In the nineteenth century, a new set of conditions arose as
a result of increasing accidents prompted by the expanding British rail network.
The effects were described as traumatic but were not classifiable under the rubric
set forth by the medical community: no physical wounds could be found. The
response was a diagnostic schism; indeed, it was a schism of disciplines as the burgeoning field of psychology proposed mental explanations for the conditions.2 It
was not until the work of J. M. Charcot, Pierre Janet, and Sigmund Freud that a
concerted effort began to define trauma as the wounding of the mind brought
about by sudden, unexpected, emotional shock (Leys 2000, 4). They argued
that, unlike blunt-force trauma, the pain of a psychological wound was experienced in its delayed revival as a memory (Leys 2000, 20). In the 1980s, this definition was codified as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in the Diagnostic
and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.3
Psychological definitions, however, have their own limitations, ones made apparent in the mid-twentieth century as two world wars, the Holocaust, and the
atomic age came to dominate global affairs. In conjunction with the growing availability of new forms of transportation and communication technologies in the
postwar period, information about these events spread rapidly across the globe.
One need not have lived in London to hear the terrible scream of the V2 rocket,
Auschwitz to fathom the horrors of the gas chamber, or Hiroshima to see the atom2

For more information about the medical origins and processes of trauma see Ernest Moores Trauma
(2000). For a history of the transition into psychology, see Ruth Leys Trauma: A Geneaology (2000)
and Roger Luckhursts The Trauma Question (2008).
PTSD is now defined by the delayed response to a shock or injury, manifesting via compulsive
repetition of the traumatic event (as in flashbacks, nightmares, and hallucinations) or avoidance of
stimuli associated with it (amnesia, psychic numbing, detachment from others, and the sense of a
foreshortened future) (DSM IV, 464). The psychological condition of trauma is not entirely an
exact category to begin with. Symptoms may begin anywhere from hours to years after the offending event and may manifest in any loose constellation of indicators to warrant a PTSD
diagnosis. And, if a patient should recover too quickly, the differential diagnoses tell us that the
condition may not be PTSD, but rather a different type of stress disorder. At the very least, this
definition provides a rough outline of what is meant by psychological trauma.

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ic heat shadows. Stories of these nightmares proliferated, spawning symptoms that


PTSD-equivalent diagnoses could not quite explain. Although explored in certain
limited capacities secondary traumatic stress (STS), for instance, was the condition identified among therapists or family members who vicariously adopted the
responses of traumatized individuals the field of psychology has had difficulty
explaining the socio-cultural consequences of these horrors.
In part this problem is attributable to categorization. Dominick LaCapra, for
instance, is careful in differentiating groups of primary and secondary witnesses;
the latter defined as those affected by survivors or stories of tragedy without being
participants in the traumatic event. Indeed, for LaCapra, secondary witnesses, in
their confusion of empathy or compassion with identification, fail to recognize
the difference or alterity of the other and the distinctiveness of his or her experience (LaCapra 2009, 65). This collapsing of subject-positions between primary
and secondary witnesses is problematic and should not be glorified or fixated
upon but addressed in a manner that strives to be cognitively and ethically responsible (LaCapra 2001, 42). The best LaCapra offers secondary witnesses is a condition he calls empathic unsettlement where subjects feel compassion for a victim but cannot (should not) assume their victimhood. Increasingly, it is in the
realm of literary theory where the boundaries between victim and secondary witness become confused. As Michelle Balaev argues, scholars tend to conflate the
distinctions between personal loss actually experienced by an individual and a historical absence found in ones ancestral lineage (2008, 152).
Translating psychological terminology and methodology to the cultural sphere
undermines both psychology and the social sciences; the former by equating the
experiences of primary victims and secondary witnesses, the latter by essentializing
and misrepresenting the relationship between individuals and culture. LaCapra
and Baleav, for instance, are interested in distinguishing these two, but are primarily concerned with the psychological aspects. Sociologists like Jeffrey Alexander, et
al., highlight this distinction on the other side in their edited collection Cultural
Trauma and Collective Identity. The contributors eschew lay definitions of trauma
that attempt to impute flashbacks and hallucinations to cultures. Instead they employ speech act theory to outline a process by which carrier groups lay claim to a
particular event as traumatic, initiating a negotiation process over its representation to determine the ideal and material consequences of an event for the culture
(2004, 22).4
Understanding that the distinction between psychology and culture is as important as the distinction between the fields of physiology and psychology is an
4

Notably, the collections emphasis on late-twentieth century examples including two chapters on
the Holocaust, one on the Polish postcommunist revolution, one on the Civil Rights movement,
and another on September 11 indicates the mid-twentieth century as an initiatory moment for
cultural trauma studies.

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45

important first step in evaluating definitions of cultural trauma: that is to say psychology and culture are linked, but measured, addressed, and studied quite differently. Cultural trauma might be better metaphorized not as a contagion of psychological neuroses, but rather a change in the cultural practices, behaviors, and beliefs
brought about by traumatogenic catalysts, terms I will refine further in a moment.
When we refine cultural trauma as such, we avoid the totalizing PTSD diagnoses
and respect individuals suffering from PTSD while at the same time explaining
how catalysts like the bombing of Hiroshima cause widely-felt anxieties in communities miles away and decades removed from the traumatogenic event. Additionally, considering cultural trauma as a change in cultural practices rather
than a mental condition allows researchers to uncover previously unrecognized
cultural connections without borrowing the language and methodology of psychology through which we rhetorically and structurally flatten the two conditions.5 To this end I define cultural trauma as the disruptive and persistent changes
a community undergoes as a result of some traumatogenic, catalyzing event, and we can
now turn toward refining this definition.6

Cultural Trauma, Evolution, and the Atomic Age


I regard cultural trauma as deleterious changes to the information within a community. What generates such changes can be virtually anything. As Neil Smelser
insists, No discrete historical event or situation automatically or necessarily qualifies in itself as a cultural trauma, and the range of events or situations that may
become cultural traumas is enormous (2004, 35). These can include punctuated
historical moments like the firebombing of Dresden, prolonged but limited circumstances like the influenza outbreak, or an intergenerational condition like slavery. Indeed, the imagined sense of victimhood in the American response to the
5

Kai Erikson is one early theorists of the subject whose erudite and groundbreaking Everything in its
Path (1976) collapses the distinction between psychology and culture, essentially positing a collective mind that was affected by a traumatic flood. While Erikson was concerned with how this
trauma seemed to affect an entire community, his research was heavily psychological and indeed
focused on primary victims, not secondary witnesses.
The American response to the atomic threat presents a unique opportunity to study a community
experiencing deep anxiety over a traumatogenic event because of the absence of physical casualties
or witnesses. This absence is highly suggestive of an evolutionary model, as Americans responded
not as secondary witnesses to a horrific event, but as a community inheriting (and manipulating) a
narrative. As such, this is a very different type of analysis from projects like Liftons testimonial
approach to Japanese hibakusha (explosion-affected people) or John Herseys journalistic approach
in Hiroshima. It is also distinct from studies done on the Holocaust like David Boders I Did Not
Interview the Dead, natural disasters like Kai Eriksons Everything in its Path, and literary scholarship
like Anne Whiteheads Trauma Fiction. Rather, this study recognizes cultural trauma not in terms of
individual responses to traumatic events, but as a measure of change in a community.

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atomic bomb suggests the catalyzing event need not be directly experienced at all.7
What is clear is that whatever form the catalyst takes, its effect is some type of lasting, intergenerational change. That is, its effects must be felt across a wide enough
percentage of a community (horizontal evolution) and transmitted to subsequent
generations (vertical evolution). Without the former, as we will see, the frequency
of the trauma variant wont be prevalent enough to generate change, and without
the latter, it wont be persistent enough to be considered traumatic.8 Ergo, no cultural trauma. Importantly, though, not all of these manifestations are clearly identifiable. While the atomic bomb spawned a golden age of science fiction (SF) that
spoke to Americas apocalyptic sentiment, more subtle traces of this atomic trauma
can be sussed out through cultural evolutionary models.
Before identifying these models, though, it behooves us to contextualize this
research as we did with trauma theory. Although Darwin and Jean Baptiste Lamarck had proposed their own theories of cultural evolution, it wasnt until the
1970s that evolutions role in cultural change was more seriously considered.
Around this time, a number of scientists cultural evolutionary theorists theorized that in some capacity, the laws of evolution govern the various manifestations of human cultural practices.9 These studies range from why we crave sweets
to the development of tools to why we are so artistically inclined as a species. Culture here is not defined generically, but as information capable of affecting individuals behavior that they acquire from other members of their species through
7

Particularly in the 1950s, as images of nuclear holocaust in science fiction (SF) took the country by
storm, Americans increasingly seemed to view themselves as victims. Physically untouched by the
war, the United States at the moment of victory perceived itself as naked and vulnerable. Sole
possessors and users of a devastating new instrument of mass destruction, Americans envisioned
themselves not as a potential threat to other peoples, but as potential victim (Boyer 1998, 14).
From the psychoanalytic perspective, we must acknowledge Caruths emphasis on delay. For Caruth, trauma is not fully perceived as it occurs, rather, it is only understood in the very inaccessibility of its occurrence (1996, 18). She tells us that it is only in and through its inherent
forgetting that [trauma] is first experienced at all (ibid., 17). From the biological perspective that
trauma generates maladaptive conditions, we are confronted with the notion of atavism: the
persistence of involuntary responses in inappropriate situations. A cultural variant can only grow
maladaptive when the environment has been altered beyond the original conditions that prompted
the adaptation. Once again, we find ourselves exploring vertical inheritances rather than horizontal
ones.
The sociobiologist, E. O. Wilson was an early, and controversial, figure in cultural evolutionary
theory. But sociobiology is merely one strand of theory on the subject; others include Evolutionary
Psychology and Dual Inheritance Theorists. At their core, all these movements challenged what
Leda Cosmides and John Tooby (1997) called the Standard Social Science Model (SSSM) where
scholars argued the human mind resembles a blank slate, virtually free of content until written on
by the hand of experience. The models of cultural evolution have, to varying degrees, offered some
explanatory power for human behavior. For a comprehensive survey of different positions within
the cultural evolutionary debate, see Stephen Shennans Pattern and Process in Cultural Evolution
(2009), Alex Mesoudis Towards a Unified Science of Cultural Evolution (2006), or Richerson
and Boyds Not by Genes Alone (2005).

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teaching, imitation, and other forms of social transmission (Richerson/Boyd


2009, 5). By information, Peter J. Richerson and Robert Boyd continue, we
mean any kind of mental state, conscious or not, that is acquired or modified
by social learning and affects behavior (ibid.), or simply our skills, beliefs, practices, and emotional states. Cultural evolution theorists research the prevalence of
cultural variants, individual beliefs or practices, within particular communities
in an effort to understand how and why some ideas thrive while others vanish. Or,
in trauma studies, why some practices or emotional states arise miles and decades
removed from the initiating event.
Of course in making this disciplinary turn it should be noted that historically,
evolutionary studies, like scientific approaches generally, have met resistance in the
humanities and social sciences.10 This resistance is justifiable to some degree. Evolution has been co-opted in the past to justify and perpetuate deleterious power
relations in the works of Louis Agassiz and Herbert Spencer. While this is not
unique to evolution or science, we must recognize these historical mistakes so
that we can refine and strengthen our research methods and the analyses they inspire. Indeed, turning to the natural sciences should not be an altogether surprising
move, as trauma studies has dipped from this well before. The plethora of research
spawned in the resurgence of trauma studies in the 1990s turned to the work of
neurologist Bessel Van der Kolk who argued that the condition was attributable to
improperly coded memory, memory that bypassed the narrative centers of the
brain, grounding psychoanalytic theory within neuroscientific research.11
In the same spirit, literary cultural trauma theory profits from incorporating
evolution on a number of levels. For one, it more clearly draws a distinction between the anthropomorphizing metaphor currently in use for one more salient to
the conditions scholars have been identifying for years. Here I regard metaphor in
the terms posited by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. For them, human thought
processes are largely metaphorical and fundamentally shape our perception of the
world (1980, 3). Metaphors pressure us to see one thing in terms of another, highlighting certain features of the object of study while hiding others. Literary scholars
and trauma theorists in particular readily adopt a culture is a person metaphor to
describe and ultimately explain social operations (collective memory, cultural flash10

11

Those interested in reading a more general defense of cognitive studies, a topic outside the scope of
this essay but important for understanding the resistance and the value of such research, see Lisa
Zunshines Introduction to Cognitive Cultural Studies, David Mialls Literary Reading: Empirical and
Theoretical Studies, or Jonathan Gottschalls Literature, Science and the New Humanities.
These studies have made remarkable preliminary findings regarding the physical manifestation of
trauma in the brain reduced hippocampi and lowered cortisol levels as well as inventive and
unconventional ways of preventing certain symptoms such as flashbacks. For more, see Babette
Rothschild and Emily Holmes. Beyond this, studies have suggested that second-generation
Holocaust survivors possess higher susceptibility to PTSD and psychological distress than the
general population. See Lea Baider, et al. 2000; Rachel Yehuda/Sarah L. Halligan/Robert Grossman
2001; Z. Solomon/M. Kotler/M. Mikulincer 1988.

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backs, and cultural witnessing).12 Literary trauma theorists tend to view the study of
cultural trauma, then, as an attempt to isolate a cultural memory buried within the
psyche of individual members of the community the type of equation Balaev
rightly critiques. She challenges literary scholars who argue the historical event
is the sole defining feature of a collective or cultural identity or every person associated with that historical group has experienced trauma (2008, 155).
Unfortunately, this anthropomorphizing metaphor falls short of explaining the
phenomena evident in the American response to the atomic bomb and indeed has
ethical implications when we ignore the real Japanese victims in favor of the imagined terror of Americans. (Here we also see how quickly communal responses
are dismissed for the private through such ethical imperatives. The result of this
turn is that scholars must either imagine the nation as an individual similarly
wounded or risk doing rhetorical violence to the tangible victims.) This metaphor
posits culture as an individual and trauma as a pathogen, which results in the inappropriate identification of the host the writer, for instance as a carrier of a
traumatic memory.
But for all the reasons Ive already addressed and as we will see with Leslie Marmon Silko, this is an untenable claim. Born in 1948, three years after the atomic
detonations, Silkos condition (writing about the bomb) is different from Sadako
Sasakis, or even John Herseys one a primary victim, the other a secondary witness. Silko acknowledges inheriting war stories and incorporating them into her
novel Ceremony when she began writing in the 1970s: My dad and uncle were
in the war and they did okay, she tells us, but some didnt. A lot of my cousins,
a lot of people from this area, had similar experiences to her protagonist Tayo, a
World War II veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder (Silko 1977, 24). Indeed,
Silko confesses that Tayo is partly autobiographical, drawing inspiration from her
own depression for the character. But her depression is not related to any World
War II experience or atomic anxiety. And yet the impulse among literary trauma
theorists is to conflate her experience with her ancestors. Doing so, however, flattens this relationship and has the unfortunate side effect of reducing Silkos artistry
to the product of an ailing mind. Rather than claiming Silko suffers from an atomic-inspired post-traumatic stress disorder, it may be more productive to say that the
social environment in which Silko composed Ceremony was heavily scarred by the
traumatogenic event of the atomic bomb, a scarring that invariably had an effect
on her own literary production.
12

Contemporary theorists tend to posit some type of cultural brain, cultural unconscious, or
collective memory that analogizes the individual and the community, notably Maurice Halbwachs
or Alan Palmer. This has filtered into cultural trauma theory as well. Ron Eyerman, for instance,
discusses the trauma of slavery not as institution or even experience, but as collective memory, a
form of remembrance that grounded the identity-formation of a people (2004, 60). This has led to
the type of slippery definitional problems LaCapra and others have identified with claims regarding
secondary witnessing.

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The composition of that social environment, then, or the deleterious information in a community, should be the object of study for cultural trauma theorists.
Rather than attempting to heal a community through the application of psychological methodology to authors a goal of many trauma theorists who seek to represent how, for instance, W. G. Sebalds Austerlitz may or may not work through
the trauma of the Holocaust for the global Jewish population I propose tracking
institutionalized associations, behaviors, and narratives that create pressure on
community members to respond in particular ways. Why, for instance, does
Silko use the atomic variant for her narrative as opposed to other variants?
Cultural evolution provides some insight by drawing on Darwins theory of natural selection, which stipulates that certain heritable traits make animals more likely to survive and reproduce in the next generation. Similarly, cultural evolutionary
theorists argue that certain cultural variants are more likely to survive into the next
generation than others. What makes one idea fitter than another is influenced by
evolutionary pressures, pressures unique to cultural evolution, and thus distinct
from those in the natural sciences. Richerson and Boyd (2005) propose a number
of forces that drive the evolution of culture (see table 1). Most importantly, they
posit uniquely cultural decision-making forces that pressure individuals to behave in particular ways. Of course it bears repeating that this is not a mechanistic
process. Culture is information capable of affecting behavior, not determinant of
it, and these are decision-making forces; there is agency here. But the pressures help
explain why certain variants like traumatogenic events survive better than others.
This table illuminates why Americans may have perceived themselves as victims
of the atomic devastation when the frequency of images of decimated American
cities became commonplace. Fueled by censorship of actual imagery from Japan,
the American press felt compelled to draw comparisons between Hiroshima and
American cities. This made the content far easier for Americans to wrap their heads
around. It also provided a concrete image for those baffled by descriptions such as
President Trumans immediate press release that described the bomb in mythological terms: the bomb, they were told, harnessed the basic power of the universe.
The force from which the sun draws its power has been loosed against those who
brought war to the Far East (Truman 1945). The transmuting of American and
Japanese cities became commonplace with the result being that Americans felt they
had indeed been attacked (see Figure 1). This sense of victimization would be exacerbated shortly thereafter as the increasingly aggressive Soviet Union threatened
to replace the reality of what did happen (the USA bombed Japan) with an imagined vision of what would inevitably happen (the USSR bombing the USA).
The result of this conceptual blend is the formation of a series of institutionalized responses that privileged the atomic narrative. This is directly evident in the
apocalyptic SF stories so prevalent in the period, from Isaac Asimovs Foundation
series to Kurt Vonneguts Cats Cradle. The prolific nature of these products in literature, film, and art represent a frequency-based bias toward atomic anxiety in

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Table 1: A List of Cultural Evolutionary Forces (cf. Richerson/Boyd 2005, 69)


Random forces
Cultural mutation. Effects due to random individual-level processes, such as
misremembering an item of culture.
Cultural drift. Effects caused by statistical anomalies in small populations. For example, in
simple societies some skills, such as boat-building, may be practiced by a few specialists. If all
the specialists in a particular generation happen, by chance, to die young or to have
personalities that discourage apprentices, boat-building will die out.
Decision-making forces
Guided Variation. Nonrandom changes in cultural variants by individuals that are
subsequently transmitted. This force results from transformations during social learning, or
the learning, invention, or adaptive modification of cultural variants.
Biased Transmission
Content-based (or direct) bias. Individuals are more likely to learn or remember some
cultural variants based on their content. Content-based bias can result from
calculation of costs and benefits associated with alternative variants, or because the
structure of cognition makes some variants easier to learn or to remember.
Frequency-based bias. The use of the commonness or rarity of a cultural variant as a
basis for choice. For example, the most advantageous variant is often likely to be the
commonest. If so, a conformity bias is an easy way to acquire the correct variant.
Model-based bias. Choice of trait based on the observable attributes of the individuals
who exhibit the trait. Plausible model-based biases include a predisposition to imitate
successful or prestigious individuals, and a predisposition to imitate individuals
similar to oneself.
Natural selection
Changes in the cultural composition of a population caused by the effects of holding one
cultural variant rather than others. The natural selection of cultural variants can occur at
individual or group levels.

American culture. But more subtle instantiations exist as well. For instance, the
atomic bomb spurred the passage of the National Interstate Highway and Defense
Act of 1956, the bill that put in place Americas modern interstate highway system.
Couched in fears of urban destruction and the need for adequate roads for military
transport in case of a Soviet invasion, President Eisenhower pushed through legislation that would change the face of American communities.13 Similarly, the Civil
Rights movement found the atomic bomb a tremendous boon in making its case
for equality in the international community.14 And although the atomic inspiration for these changes faded from sight, the lasting changes to the social environment privileged an atomic era content-based bias. These types of institutionalized
changes are also the lasting repercussions of a cultural trauma.
13

14

These new roads would enable a mass evacuation in case of attack as well as provide roads around
the perimeter of urban areas allowing people to bypass cities on a route that had suffered a direct
A-Bomb hit (Lewis 1997, 108).
For more, see Mary Duziaks Cold War Civil Rights (2000) or Thomas Borstelmanns The Cold War
and the Color Line (2003).

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Fig. 1: August 5 1950, cover to Colliers. The cover story of this edition of Colliers imagines what
an atomic detonation in the heart of Manhattan would look like, including art of the Brooklyn
Bridge and the arch at Washington Square Park decimated by the blast.

Leslie Marmon Silko is a product of this social environment. In a beautiful


essay on the relationship between landscape, identity, and narrative, Silko recounts
how her great grandmother, prior to telling her grandchildren stories, asked them
to open the doors to let their ancestors in. This was not only an invocation of a
cultural heritage, a repository of knowledge, but a link to the land itself that shapes
our decisions. This sense of identity, Silko tells us, was intimately linked with
the surrounding terrain, to the landscape that has often played a significant role in
the outcome of a conflict (Silko 1996, 44). One of those conflicts for the Laguna
Pueblo community situated only a hundred miles or so from the Trinity nuclear
test site at Alamagordo, New Mexico, Silko writes, was the decision to begin mining uranium at the Jackpile Mine. By its very ugliness and by the violence it does
to the land, the Jackpile Mine insures that, from now on, it, too, will be included in
the vast body of narratives that makes up the history of the Laguna people and the

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Pueblo landscape (ibid.).15 The decision to allow the mine had a powerful psychological impact upon the Laguna people. Already a large body of stories has
grown up around the subject of what happens to people who disturb or destroy the
earth. I was a child when the mining began and the apocalyptic warning stories
were being told. Pointing both to a frequency bias (a large body of stories) and a
content-based bias (by its very ugliness and by the violence it does to the land),
Ceremony is positioned alongside both the apocalyptic tales of the Laguna community and the types of cultural changes a trauma induces (ibid.).16
Cultural evolution theory thus not only provides scholars with a different
methodological approach to cultural trauma, but also demands the adoption of
a new vocabulary adaptations/maladaptations instead of the psychological rhetoric of working through/acting out to more accurately describe and differentiate
the unique conditions of cultural trauma. Using this vocabulary promotes study of
the material consequences of cultural change in history and narrative, allowing
scholars to eschew the perceived conditions in an imagined cultural brain. By maladaptive variants I refer to things like the return of atavistic traditions (such as the
push for women to move from the workplace back into their homes in the 1940s
and 1950s), inappropriate responses to external stimuli (like the war in Vietnam to
combat the Soviet Union), or involuntary, seemingly subconscious fixations (like
the historical resistance to the nuclear power industry).
One compelling argument about cultural maladaptation, specifically in reference to atomic weapons, was made by David P. Barash and Judith Eve Lipton in
the 1980s. They claimed the USs militaristic stance and lack of forward thinking
made the population less fit in an age where the threat of total nuclear annihilation
was real. They claimed this atavistic mentality within us approaches a world of
nuclear weapons unprepared for the encounter, even though these weapons are
of his (our) own creation. Worse yet, [a human with this atavistic mentality]
isnt simply unprepared, he is ill prepared. He is equipped with cognitive and emotional baggage appropriate to a prenuclear world, which not only slows him down,
15

16

Indeed in the years after Silko published her novel, the Laguna community would come to understand just how damaging the uranium mine was. One of the largest open-pit uranium mines in
the world, the operation led not just to the contamination of the Rio Paguate River but the ground
water as well. In 1978, the EPA informed the tribe not only that all their available water sources
had been dangerously contaminated by radioactivity, but that the tribal council building, community center and newly constructed Jackpile housing [] were radioactive as well. Additionally,
[the uranium mining company] Anaconda had used low grade uranium ore to improve the road
system leading to the mine and the village (LaDuke/Churchill 1985, 125).
Importantly, Silko reimagines the history of the mine. Although it operated from 1952 to 1981,
Ceremony posits an alternate history of the mine in which it was acquired in 1943 and abandoned in
1945 due to flooding (Ceremony 243). Silkos imagined history depicts a mine closed not by
economic forces (plummeting uranium prices) but the result of natural intervention specifically
flooding in an otherwise arid region and reinforces the connections Silko makes between environment, cultural information, and narrative reinvention.

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but often points him in the wrong direction (Barash/Lipton 1985, 6). It is precisely this failure to adequately address the threat of the atomic bomb that lies at
the heart of Silkos Ceremony. Indeed, narrative itself, as Silko suggests, is vital to
cultural transmission.

Narrative and Cultural Trauma


From the ceremonial invocation that opens the novel (excerpted in this essays epigraph), Silkos Ceremony privileges the role of storytelling in healing trauma, both
for Tayo as well as the Laguna community. When Tayo returns home from the war
with nightmares, fatigue, intrusive memories, and vomiting, he comes to recognize
his recovery is contingent on successfully completing a ceremony. Knowing the
right ceremony, however, is paramount. If a person wanted to get to the
moon, there was a way, Tayo tells us. [I]t all depended on whether you knew
the directions exactly which way to go and what to do to get there; it depended
on whether you knew the story of how others before you had gone (18). Curiously, Tayos statement regarding his healing process is not an isolated affair: narrative connects the individual to the broader cultural network. Silko states that
stories serve to help the individual feel constantly a part of the group so that a
person will never feel remote or lost no matter the time or situation (Arnold
2000, 31). Narrative facilitates the normalizing of individual and communal experience because with stories you begin to realize that what has just happened to
you has happened before to different people []. You have this sense that theres
this ongoing story and your story has become part of it (ibid., 32). Narrative is
understood as communal, generational, and therapeutic. At the same time, we will
see, Silko recognizes the adaptive capacity of ceremony.
Stories are historically privileged in psychological trauma studies. From Freuds
talking cure to Kitty Kleins cognitive models that confirm the value of narrative
accounts of traumatic events as aids to the healing process (Klein 2003, 56),
trauma seemingly requires what LaCapra calls an articulatory practice. Roger
Luckhurst reasons that a cultural artifact rehearses or restages narratives that attempt to animate and explicate trauma (Luckhurst 2008, 79). Narratives dont
just aid in normalization of individual trauma but help foster support communities and distribute the traumatic effects over a group. So too is narrative essential
in an evolution-oriented model of cultural trauma. Robert Aunger theorizes that
cultural artifacts, including narratives, are becoming increasingly like agents
themselves, playing significant roles in determining who knows what. This
means that their influence must be taken into account when attempting to explain
or predict cultural change (Aunger 2009, 39). That is, stories are eminently important for the transmission of cultural information. And, importantly, narrative
can be a form of guided variation, as individuals seek to shape a particular vision of
the world, or the result of a biased transmission, as seems to be the case with Silko.

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Literatures success in influencing cultural transmission comes from its ability


to be used analogically and in terms of shared and differentiated features to make
sense of new situations and to interpret past experience (Dutton 2009, 113). Art,
for Dennis Dutton, can help construct pattern and meaning without the expense
of trial and error (ibid.). This does not mean that the individual details of artifactual productions are applicable to our daily lives, but the general patterns provide
us with mental maps for navigating future conditions. One doesnt read Ceremony
as an instruction manual for treating PTSD patients, yet it still provides valuable
models for understanding the psychological effects of war, the long-term consequences of militarism in the age of nuclear weapons, the problematic construction
of in-group/out-group categories, and the need for traditions to be adaptable.17
This mapping function is particularly noticeable in fictional works where, studies show, our encounters with invented characters in imagined situations can influence our decisions about real-world policy concerns. They can influence what
we think causes these problems, how we think such problems should be solved,
and which of the myriad problems we face warrant our attention (Strange
2002, 279). Similarly, following Richard Gerrigs influential work on fictional
narrative worlds, Appel and Richter show how fictional stories provide effective
means for long-term shifts in peoples real-world beliefs (2007, 128). For Appel
and Richter, this happens because when people read they enter a mental state that
partially prevent[s] disbelief (ibid., 128). Indeed, humans seem adept at ignoring the fictionality of what they read (Gerrig 1993, 102). Readers approach fictional texts searching for similar felicity claims as they do with nonfiction. This
implies that visions of nuclear war are not only intimately bound to their fictional
representations but also partly determined by them.
Analyzing polling data in the aftermath of the atomic detonations, Leonard S.
Cottrell Jr. and Sylvia Eberhart noticed that, although pessimism toward the bomb
was general overall, those who were most pessimistic came preponderantly from
the least well-informed segment of the population people who gave evidence of
having little to no acquaintance with news of international significance (1969,
23). In other words, when specific details wane, imagination kicks in and drives
narrative to a greater extent than those rooted more clearly in, say, journalism. As
censorship and anti-Communist pressure silenced dialogue regarding Americas
atomic legacy, the decline in facts seemingly prompted subsequent generations
to turn to fiction to conceptualize the threat. Historian Paul Boyer termed the period between 1963 and 1978 the Big Sleep because of a sharp decline in acti-

17

The maps need not be direct either: the discordant metaphors of Shakespeare or the flattening of
portraits by Picasso tantalize us by defamiliarizing the world and providing new lenses through
which to approach it. For a broad overview of the various theories about the evolutionary function
of art, see Ellen Dissanayakes What Art Is and What Art Does (2007).

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vism, public discussion, mainstream media attention, and cultural expression focused on the nuclear-weapons issue (Boyer 1998, 112).
But if the bomb vanished from the newspaper headlines, fiction did not follow
suit. Rather the period might more aptly be dubbed a Great Awakening in fictional productions of nuclear anxiety. These new narratives depicted Americans as
vulnerable victims and American culture as deeply changed by the bomb. Insofar
as novels like Ceremony imagine what cannot be witnessed, they help generate and
perpetuate the lasting impression Americans have of the atomic bomb.18 They reveal, and often challenge, the evolved variants resulting from traumatogenic catalysts. Put another way, if Silko is a product of a particular social environment that
privileges the atomic narrative, she is keenly aware of her position and uses it to
adeptly dramatize the distinction between private and public trauma on the local
scale of the Laguna Pueblo community.

An Atomic Ceremony
Tayo, a World War II veteran who has returned home to the Laguna reservation,
suffers from crippling bouts of vomiting, intrusive flashbacks, and depression. He
is plagued by two dominant images from his time in the Pacific Theater: the first is
the execution of a Japanese soldier whom Tayo is (wrongly) convinced is his Uncle
Josiah, and the second is the death of his cousin Rocky. Silkos literary technique is
standard fare in terms of strategies for psychological trauma narratives like fragmented subjectivity, temporal displacement, and a resistance to narrative (standard
now, but innovative at the time). Tayo certainly feels like his trauma is unnarratable, too alien to comprehend (Silko 1977, 36). He shies away from explaining
the horrors he witnessed to the traditional tribal medicine man, Kuoosh, because:
Even if he could have taken the old man to see the target areas, even if he could have led him
through the fallen jungle trees and muddy craters of torn earth to show him the dead, the old
man would not have believed anything so monstrous. Kuoosh would have looked at the dis18

Of course, as a Laguna Pueblo, Silko does not fit neatly into an essentialized category of American
(generally considered white and middle-class). Yet she resists being read simply as a representative of
Laguna culture, dismissing these generic categories as the subject of Ceremony. In the novel its the
struggle between the force and the counter-force. I try to take it beyond any particular culture or
continent because thats such a bullshit thing. Its all Whiteys fault, thats too simplistic, mind-less.
In fact, Tayo is warned in the novel that they try to encourage people to blame just certain groups, to
focus in on just certain people and blame them for everything. Then you cant see what the counter
people or the counter forces are really doing []. I go way beyond any kind of local experience I
might have had. (Arnold 2000, 19). Silkos own mixed racial (Laguna, Mexican, and white) and
cultural (she lived on the outskirts of the Laguna community and attended both catholic and BIA
(Bureau of Indian Affairs) schools) heritage is dramatized in the character of Tayo and, as we will see
shortly, one of Silkos themes is to collapse traditional in-group/out-group categories of racial
demarcation in favor of ideological groupings.

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membered corpses and the atomic heat-flash outlines, where human bodies had evaporated,
and the old man would have said something close and terrible had killed these people.
(3637)

Kuooshs turn to the imagined is, as suggested above, fairly common when confronted with the unnarratable. The other members of the tribe follow suit as well:
They all had explanations; the police, the doctors at the psychiatric ward, even
Auntie and old Grandma; they blamed liquor and they blamed the war (53).
But these stories are insufficient because they are only part of the traumatic
equation. Michelle Satterlee rightly points out, Tayos fever and hallucinations
began before his capture and brothers death. This suggests that Tayos trauma
comes from sources other than war, including society, family, and culture
(2006, 76). Some critics situate these other sources in his racial identity as halfwhite, half-Laguna. Others tie it to his mothers abandonment of him as a
child or the quasi-abusive way his Aunt (and caretaker) reminds him of his illicit
conception and questionable place within the community. Still others situate the
trauma within the larger historical and contemporary oppression of Native Americans in the US. But Silko is careful not to stipulate a single experience as the trauma. Tayos pain cannot be understood in terms of individual psychological experience alone, but rather the way in which ones own trauma is tied up with the
trauma of another (Caruth 1996, 8). We get a sense of Tayo making this connection when he blames himself for the drought conditions on the reservation because
he wished away the rain while marching through the Philippine jungles. But selfflagellation is not the answer; the solution lies in Tayos link to the community. As
Kuoosh tells Tayo It is important to all of [the Laguna] that he heals, Not only
for his sake, but for this fragile world (36). In other words, the community itself
has been traumatized.
The community Silko describes, however, is not depicted as an individual with
a troubled collective memory. Rather, Silko imagines the trauma in terms of inheritable information as stories and ceremonies. Although Silko doesnt totalize the
communitys pain under a single catalyst (there are others such as the drought or
the communitys disaffected youth), the novel is particularly concerned with the
threat of the bomb and those who wield it: destroyers. Stationed in the Pacific,
Tayo speaks as if he were a part of the post-Hiroshima occupation in that he claims
to have borne witness to the atomic heat flash outlines, where human bodies had
evaporated (37). Echoing Kuooshs fears, Tayo muses, I wonder what good Indian ceremonies can do against the sickness which comes from their wars, their
bombs, their lies (132). The sickness Tayo invokes is not just his own PTSD,
but also the radiation sickness of the atomic bomb and the cultural maladies
prompted by the destroyers.
Betonie, a more unconventional medicine man, suggests that this threat has
been growing for a long time; he tells the story of a competition among witches

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in which one invokes the apocalypse growing out of the uranium in the Laguna
hills.
Up here
in these hills
they will find the rocks,
rocks with veins of green and yellow and black.
They will lay the final pattern with these rocks
they will lay it across the world
and explode everything.
(137)

The bomb is the culmination of all the injustice, the witchery, in the world. Indeed the climactic scene of violence in the novel takes place in the cordoned off
area of the Jackpile mine where, in its real-life model, approximately 24 million
tons of ore were dug out of the largest open pit uranium mine in the world
(Jacobs 2004, 42). Tayo describes the location as a point of convergence
where the fate of all living things, and even the earth, had been laid (246), suggesting it is here that Silko identifies the traumatogenic catalyst for the
community. While there are many institutional mal/adaptations that arise from
the atomic catalyst, I want to focus on Silkos depiction of the bombs exacerbation
of a conservative tradition resistant to change and the need to evolve new narratives, specifically as they pertain to in-group/out-group categorizations.

Adapting Tradition
The Laguna Pueblo community Silko describes is incredibly rigid. As Tayo describes his Aunt: An old sensitivity had descended in her, surviving thousands
of years from the oldest times []; from before they were born and long after
they died, the people had known, with the simple certainty of the world they
saw, how everything should be (68). This is Tayos justification for why she resists
contacting Kuoosh to perform a healing ceremony for Tayo. At the outset, however, this model is rendered inadequate and static, unable to respond to the
changes in the community: But the fifth world had become entangled with European names: [] all of creation suddenly had two names (68). These split identities do not abide by the previous certainties, and the traditional ceremonies do
not function as they once did. As Tayo points out, Kuoosh and the rest in the tribe
simply cant understand the new mode of warring displayed so ferociously in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. When Kuoosh is finally called on to help Tayo, his ceremonies are ineffective.
Instead, Tayo seeks help from the unconventional Betonie, who, half-blooded
like Tayo, lives on the outskirts of town as a geographical and spiritual outsider.
Betonies rituals are not wholly dissimilar from Kuooshs, but they are adapted to

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suit the cultural and environmental changes. His home is lined with both a traditional medicine mans paraphernalia as well as stacks of telephone books, calendars, and bundles of newspapers (120). In the old days it was simple, Betonie
exclaims. A medicine person could get by without all these things. But nowadays
(121). Betonie grasps that the threat has changed and that the medicinal ceremonies must change as well. Although Betonie is ostracized for these views, he
rationalizes it as inevitable and welcomed: long ago when the people were
given these ceremonies, the changing began, if only in the aging of the yellow
gourd rattle or the shrinking of the skin around the eagles claw, if only in the different voices from generation to generation, singing the chants. You see, in many
ways, the ceremonies have always been changing (126). Betonies comments affirm the difficulty in maintaining a staunch conservatism and the need for traditional rituals to adapt.
The distinction between these two medicine men is clear in the ceremonies they
perform: whereas Kuooshs comes across as a facile prescription, Betonies is participatory. Tayo says of Kuoosh: He spoke softly, using the old dialect full of sentences that were involuted with explanations of their own origins, as if nothing the
old man said were his own but all had been said before and he was only there to
repeat it (34). Tayo doesnt recognize the place names invoked through the ceremony; he is too far removed. This distance partly explains why Tayo is not anxious
about the ceremony: only his memory will be taxed. The same cannot be said
when Tayo goes to Betonie. Although Tayo inherits a ceremony Betonie inherited
from his own grandfather, Descheeny, it has evolved over time and forces Tayo to
be an active participant. This newness is unsettling for Tayo who is uneasy about
the process and nearly flees.
Curiously, the atomic bomb does not promote change among the Laguna but
rather prompts the community to more tightly cling to its traditions, specifically in
terms of how they subconsciously construct their in-group/out-group categories.
Throughout the novel, Tayo has been considered an outsider as a veteran violent,
drunk, and listless and as a racial other. Half-white, he is ostracized by his family
and his peers alike. Indeed, the reason Auntie resists sending for Kuoosh in the
first place is on account of Tayos race: You know what people will say if we
ask for a medicine man to help him, she complains. Someone will say its not
right. Theyll say, Dont do it. Hes not full blood anyway (33). But racial identity
is a poor marker of value in Ceremony. Betonie reminds us that Nothing is that
simple [] you dont write off all the white people, just like you dont trust all the
Indians (128). Rocky is full-blooded but rejects reservation culture as silly superstition and escapes via military enlistment. Similarly, Emo is full-blooded but is the
most violent and destructive character of all, ultimately kicked off the reservation
after Harley, Pinkie, and Leroy die by his hands.
But the stricter alignment of in-group/out-group categories via race is maladapted to the atomic era in that it misidentifies the location of the threat to the

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Laguna community and, as a result, prompts solutions to the wrong problems.


Tayo has already dismissed the tribes explanations for the violence among returning veterans as inappropriate. But rather than adapt to the change, the atomic
bomb generates an untenable alignment where the out-group is identified as
white culture those in control of the bomb and the in-group as pureblood Lagunas those victimized by white aggression.19 Yet through the juxtaposition of
Tayos allegiance against Emo and Rockys rejection of the community, Silko challenges these categories as inadequate. Instead Silko suggests the out-group is more
appropriately aligned in terms of ideological position: those alienated from the
earth destroyer culture that seeks apocalyptic violence and those bound to it.
The atomic bomb, then, generates a maladapted institutional resistance to
change that ostracizes Tayo as a racial Other. Tayo balks at this construction
and recognizes the pattern as unfair and ill informed. He predicts what would
have happened had he committed an act of violence: At home the people
would blame liquor, the Army, and the war, but the blame on the whites
would never match the vehemence the people would keep in their own bellies, reserving the greatest bitterness and blame for themselves, for one of themselves they
could not save (235). That is, such a construction would have prompted the misidentification of the problem and thus the wrong set of solutions. But Tayo recognizes this pattern at just the right time and, symbolically, at just the right place:
the Jackpile uranium mine. Chased by Emo whose anger resonates with the location when he suggested earlier of the Japanese: we shouldve dropped bombs on
all the rest and blown them off the face of the earth (61) Tayo arrives at the mine
and recognizes its importance as the point of convergence where human beings
were one clan again, united by the fate the destroyers planned for all of them, for all
living things; united by a circle of death that devoured people in cities twelve thousand miles away (246). Recognized as such, Silko directly links the traumatic impact of the bomb to the inappropriate traditionalism of racial group-identity formations.
Indeed, Silko has been suggesting this connection throughout the novel. Arriving at the mine, Tayo tells us From the jungles of his dreaming he recognized why
the Japanese voices had merged with Laguna voices, with Josiahs and Rockys
voice (246). Silko connects the non-destroyers to the Japanese as victims of
the atomic blast. She acknowledges the complicated associations she makes between these two cultures (Arnold 2000, 20). Serving in the Pacific Theater,
Tayo struggles with how similar his skin color is to the Japanese: it looked too
familiar (7), and he conflates his uncle with a Japanese soldier: it wasnt a
Jap, it was Josiah (8). After being released from the veterans hospital, Tayo experiences a traumatic flashback at the train station when he overhears a woman
19

Notably Tayo doesnt realize this until later. He, like his peers, thinks to blame white culture until
his interaction with Betonie realigns his logic.

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speaking Japanese; he comments that he thought the government had locked


them up (18). The statement is laden with irony, echoing Tayo and his fellow
survivors barroom resentment of their virtual imprisonment on the reservation.20
And Tayos physical response to trauma manifests in uncontrollable vomiting, a
principle sign of radiation sickness that may suggest Silkos equating Tayo with
the victims of Hiroshima. Even before the war, Tayo describes that American Indians walked like survivors, with dull vacant eyes (115).
Of course, this is not a simple conflation of Tayos individual PTSD with the
violence visited on the Japanese. Silko is very careful to draw these connections
without collapsing the distinction between Tayos PTSD, the Japanese victims,
and the Laguna communitys cultural trauma. We recognize in Tayos healing ceremony a ritual unique to Tayo. Betonies ceremony demands Tayo retrieve his uncles stolen, spotted, half-breed cattle: a new breed of cattle that could live in spite
of the drought and hard weather (187). Breaking fences and seeking their own
paths, the cattle are hardy and resilient and built to survive the long drought of
the Southwestern desert. The quest to retrieve the cattle is symbolic on a number
of levels for Laguna culture the importance of being rooted to the earth, the value
of adaptability, and the failures of following a model-based bias of white ranchers21
but resonates with Tayos early resistance to enlist in the military because he felt
he was needed at home. Their recovery suggests continuity with a personal past
distinct from the broader Laguna community.
Beyond this, the disturbing violence committed at the Jackpile mine where
Harley is stripped naked, strung to the barbed wire fence that guards the mine,
tortured, and killed is also targeted at Tayos unique experiences. Emo holds
a special grudge against Tayo who attacked him earlier in the novel and resents
Tayos half-white heritage. Torturing Harley, Emo intends to prompt Tayos retaliation, but Tayo resists, recognizing the ritualistic nature of this violence and his
role in that ritual. Tayo lays bare the problem: the witchery would work so that
people would be fooled into blaming only the whites and not the witchery. It
would work to make the people forget the stories of the creation and continuation
of the five worlds; the old priests would be afraid too, and cling to ritual without
making new ceremonies as they always had before (249). By acknowledging Harley had made his choice, Tayo can adapt the ceremony by changing the in-group/
20

21

A similar connection might be drawn between Tayo and Rockys participation in the Bataan Death
March that moved tens of thousands of American and Filipino prisoners of war to prison camps and
the many similar marches American Indians endured as the US frontier was squeezed shut.
A model-based bias is a situation where an individual makes a decision based on the strategies they
identify as successful elsewhere, often without understanding the actual reasons behind that success.
Josiah critiques Native Americans who emulate white ranchers and seek plump, docile cattle. While
they are easier to control, the Laguna simply dont have the resources to supply such cattle. The
success of white ranchers, then, is not tied to the cattles body-type, but the natural resources at their
disposal.

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61

out-group alignment from racially to ideologically designated. In doing so, Tayo


adapts the cultural ceremony for Laguna survival in the atomic era, one less beholden to tradition and the ritual of violence dictated by destroyer culture.
In the end, Kuooshs ceremonies fail to heal Tayo and the other returning veterans (three wind up dead and one is exiled from the reservation), suggesting that
the persistence of a staunch traditionalism is maladaptive to the community. Conversely, Betonies success Tayo is ultimately assimilated into the community
provides an attractive alternative. Indeed, considering the flexibility and participatory nature of Betonies ceremonies, which draw on personal experiences, suggests
his results will be far more salient to participants and more enduring in the long
run. Thus while Kuooshs approach may be more frequent in the community, Betonies promises to supplant it. Silko, of course, does not dismiss Kuoosh or tradition outright, but imputes a need for cultural adaptation in the wake of traumatogenic events.22

Persistent Cultural Trauma


While Ceremony was written thirty years removed from the atomic detonation, its
canonical status still transmits the cultural trauma of the atomic bomb in American culture. But as suggested earlier, Silko does so self-consciously. Ceremony certainly asks to be taken as an adaptive working through of the cultural trauma.
Despite the gloominess of the subject matter, Silko rejects the death of Harley
at the mine as an end point for her novel. Just as Silko finds resolution for her
own depression through ceremony, so too does Tayo, who completes Betonies ritual and offers hope for those aligned against the destroyers. Reporting that Emo
had been exiled from the reservation, Old Grandma reinforces the notion that
Tayo has been incorporated into the community: It seems like I already heard
these stories before [] only thing is, the names sound different (260). In
turn, the Laguna communitys acceptance of Tayo implies a new willingness
and openness to change unheralded at the beginning of the novel. That the elders
follow Tayos model in not seeking revenge on Emo, instead excommunicating
him from the reservation, holds the promise of healing and the rejection of the
destroyers violent ceremony that marks the dawn of the Atomic Age. In doing
so, Silko implies the intergenerational inheritance that she cannot depict in her
storyworld, situated as it is in the immediate postwar period.
Tayos personal traumatic healing is inextricably woven with the health of the
Laguna who must evolve their ceremonies or risk cultural extinction. The ceremony necessary for traumatic healing involves situating the individual and the com22

Responding to a question about rescuing traditional songs in her fiction, Silko comments that she
was never tempted to muddle through anthropological reports but rather was more interested in
combining new stories with those she heard as a child (Arnold 2000, 19).

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munity within a larger global network. Not coincidentally, the threat that Silko
identifies is not the threat of whites, who are all but absent from the novel, but
the threat of maladaptive cultural constructions such as those adopted by Emo
and the linkage of these behaviors to the larger threat of the atomic bomb. By juxtaposing the image of the uranium mine with Betonies ceremony, and the Laguna
with the Japanese, Silko enacts a vision of Americas cultural trauma thirty years
removed from its inception.
Sparked by a wave of proposed nuclear power plants, nuclear protests across
Europe, and Indias successful nuclear test in 1974, Americans awoke from the
Big Sleep of nuclear anxiety just in time to watch the Soviet Union invade Afghanistan in 1979, raising the specter of nuclear war once again. Of course, Silkos
text predates these events, as she began writing Ceremony in 1973. But what is notable is that, prior to the resurgence of anxiety, Silko was already working with and
through the threat of the atomic bomb, exploring its unseen cultural fallout. It is
literatures capacity to plumb these depths that makes it so valuable in cultural evolution by generating mental models of the world. Put another way, we might consider the intense popularity of Silkos novel in part because of its resonance with
the broader nuclear anxiety that so frequently beset Americans in the late twentieth
and early twenty-first centuries.
Aaron DeRosa
Department of English
Purdue University

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LESLIE MARMON SILKO'S


Ceremony

CASEBOOK

Edited by
Allan Chavkin

OXFORD
UNIVERSITY PRESS
2002

OXFORD
UNIVERSITY PRESS

Oxford New York


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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony : a casebook / edited by Allan Chavkin.
p. cm. (Casebooks in criticism)
Includes bibliographical references.
ISBN 0-19-514283-7; ISBN 0-19-514284-5 (pbk.)
1.Silko, Leslie, 1948 Ceremony. 2. Indians in literature.
I. Chavkin, Allan Richard, 1950- II. Series.
PS3569.I44 C45 2002
813'.54dc21
2001033835

1 3 5 7 9 8 6 4 2
Printed in the United States of America
on acid-free paper

Leslie Marmon Silko


LAURA COLTELLI

Laura Coltelli (LC): In Ceremony, Thought-Woman thinks and creates a story;


you are only the teller of that story. Oral tradition, then: a tribal storyteller, past and present, no linear time but circular time. Would you comment on that?
Silko: The way I experienced storytelling as a young child, I sensed that
peoplethe person you know or loved, your grandma or uncle or neighboras they were telling you the story, you could watch them, and you
could see that they were concentrating very intently on something. What I
thought they were concentrating on was they were trying to put themselves in that place and dramatize it. So I guess as I wrote those words,
Ts'its'nako, Thought-Woman, and then Spider, I did not exactly mean in
the sense of the Muse, at least as I understand the Muse with a capital "M."
What was happening was I had lived, grown up around, people who would
never say they knew exactly, or could imagine exactly, because that's an
extremely prideful assertion; they knew what they felt, but you could try
those words and all that follows about Thought-Woman, the Spider, as
being a storyteller's most valiantand probably falling short at the same
timeattempt to imagine what a character in a story would be like, and
what she would see, and how in the logic of that old belief system, then,
things would come into creation.
241

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Laura Coltelli

LC: As is said of some archaic societies, there is a revolt against historical time? What about the concept of time?
Silko: I just grew up with people who followed, or whose world vision
was based on a different way of organizing human experience, natural cycles. But I didn't know it, because when you grow up in it, that's just how
it is, and then you have to move away and learn. I think that one of the
things that most intrigued me in Ceremony was time. I was trying to reconcile Western European ideas of linear timeyou know, someone's here
right now, but when she's gone, she's gone forever, she's vaporizedand
the older belief which Aunt Susie talked about, and the old folks talked
about, which is: there is a place, a space-time for the older folks. I started to
read about space-time in physics and some of the post-Einsteinian works.
I've just read these things lately, I should tell you, because in Indian school,
in elementary school, I got a very poor background in mathematics and
science. So it has only been recently that I've ventured, because I'm so curious. And why am I interested suddenly in the hard, hard cold, cold (something I thought I would never be) so-called sciences? Because I am most
intrigued with how, in many ways, there are many similarities in the effect
of the so-called post-Einsteinian view of time and space and the way the
old people looked at energy and being and space-time. So now I am doing
reading and what I am finding is that if the particular person, the scientist,
is a good writercan write in an expository manner clearlythen I'm
finding if I read along doggedly, reading it as you would poetry, not trying
to worry if you're following every single line, I'm starting to have a wonderful time reading about different theories of space and distance and time.
To me physics and mathematics read like poetry, and I'm learning what
I try to tell people from the sciences: you know, don't get upset, don't
demand to follow it in a logical step-by-step [fashion]. Just keep reading
it. Relax. And that's what I did. I just went with it. I would get little glimmers of wonderful, wonderful points that were being made. I got so excited. I told somebody: "I'm only understanding a fifth of it, because
I never had very good mathematics or physics or anything. But, you know,
I really like to keep on learning." That's what I'm doing right now. In
some ways you would say what I'm reading and thinking about and working on is many light-years away from the old folks I grew up with, and how
they looked at time. But not really. Really what I'm doing now is just getting other ideas about it. Although you might not notice it from the books
you would see around, I am working on just that right now. And of course
this new book I'm working on is also about time, so it's very important
to me.

Leslie Marmon silko 243


LC: Ceremony has a male protagonist, but it is a story created by a
woman, told by a woman [but a story] already known by another woman,
Tayo's grandmother, whose words conclude the novel. Does it stress
women's role and importance in the Pueblo society?
Silko: Certainly, that's part of it, just because women hold such an
important position in temporal mattersthe land-title, the house, the
lineage of the children; the children belong to the mother's line first, and
secondarily of course to the father. There is not any of this peculiar Christian, Puritan segregation of the sexes. So there is very much wholeness
there. Women remembering listening, hearing the things that are said and
done. There's no prohibition against a woman repeating a funny story
that's basically about the copulation of say, two coyotes, any more than a
man. There's no difference, but you do find that in different cultures.
Therefore, a girl has as much of a chance, as she grows up, to be a teller, to
be a storyteller, as a boy-child. And as we always like to say, the women are
tougher and rougher and live longer, so chances are we'll live to tell our
version last, because of course we all know that there are different versions. I can say I will outlive so-and-so and then tell that story one time
when she cannot be around, or later whisper it to somebody. But the viewpoint in the novel wasn't intentional; I mean, I didn't sit down and say,
"This is what I'm going to do." About two-thirds of the way through I was
pleased for what I knew then; I was pleased with those characters. I'm not
really pleased with some of them now, especially the women. I think I understand why they're not as fully realized as the men.
LC: There are three women who play a very important role in the
novel: Night Swan, Ts'eh, Betonie's grandmother; all associated with the
color blue, the color, by the way, which is associated also with the West, yet
their relationship with each other is somehow mysterious, even if Night
Swan seems to be an anticipation of Ts'eh. Is that correct?
Silko: I am interested in certain convergences and configurations, where
many times the real focal point is the time. I'm interested in these things
that aren't all linked together in some kind of easy system. For example,
the Ute woman, Helen-Jean, appears very briefly. She's in the bar when
Rocky's friends, the drunks he hangs around with, Harley and Emo, are
there. She is telling herself, "pretty soon I'm going to go home" and she
does try to send money back to this poor, poor reservation. She's just
there, and she goes. In one way, if you were judging her by more coventional structural elements of a novel, she just sort of comes and goes. But I
would rather have you look at her, and get a feeling for her, so that when
we make a brief reference to Tayo's mother, the one who dies early and is

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disgraced and so on, then I don't have to tell you that story. I'm trying to
say that basically what happened to Tayo's mother is what happened to
Helen-Jean, is what happened toon and on down the line. These things
try to foreshadow, or resonate on each other.
LC: Actually, the Gallup story and the Helen-Jean story at first seem to
be separate stories within the main plot. Do you relate them to the storywithin-a-story technique of the old storytellers?
Silko: When I was writing Ceremony, I just had this compulsion to do
Helen-Jean. But the other part, about Gallup, is the only surviving part of
what I call stillborn novels; and the Gallup section is from one of the stillborns. And you remember that when I was writing Ceremony I was twentythree, maybe twenty-four, years old; I really didn't expect anything to happen. So I figured nothing's going to happen with this anyway, and I really
like the Gallup section, and in a strict sense it sort of hangs off like feathers
or something. It's tied to it, and it belongs there, but its relationship is different. I put that in for exactly the same reason, vis-a-vis structure, as I did
the Helen-Jean part. Again, it was important to see a woman caught somewhereI wouldn't even say between two culturesshe was just caught
in hell, that would be the woman who was Tayo's mother, or the woman
who is Helen-Jean, or the woman who was down in the arroyo with the
narrator of the Gallup section. And the reason I did thiswhich in a way
only storytellers can get away with, narratives within narratives within
narrativesis that [the stories] are in the ultimate control of the narrator.
But for me there was something necessary about taking a perspective
which pulled me and the listener-reader back always. It's tough to write
about humans living under inhuman conditions; it's extremely difficult
just to report it; one gets caught up in one's own values, and politics, and
so forth. And I think I fear too much a kind of uncontrolled emotion. And
so it had to be done like that. But it's the old theme, which the old lady at
the end articulates: "Seems like I've heard these stories before."
One of the things that I was taught to do from the time I was a little
child was to listen to the story about you personally right now. To take all
of that in for what it means right now, and for what it means for the future. But at the same time to appreciate how it fits in with what you did
yesterday, last week, maybe ironically, you know, drastically different. And
then ultimately I think we make a judgment almost as soon as we store
knowledge. A judgment that somehow says, "I've heard stories like that"
or "I would tend to judge her harshly except I remember now . . ." All
of this happens simultaneously. When I was working on Ceremony, these
were deliberate breaks with point of view. And I agonized over them, be-

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245

cause after all I knew that those kinds of shifts are disturbing. But ultimately the whole novel is a bundle of stories.
LC: In a story there are many stories.
Silko: Right. You can get away with it. I was aware of that. What caused
those first two attempts at the novel to be stillborn was that I had a narrator who was a young woman, about my own age. And it just did not work.
It just becomes yourself. And then you have to look at how limited you
are, and so the only way you can break out of your personal limitations is
to deal with a fictional character. Fictional characters are very wonderful.
They are parts of ourselves, but then you get to fix up the parts that don't
work so well for you in your mind.
LC: A young man named Tayo is the main character of a legend transcribed by Franz Boas. Is it still a Laguna or Pueblo name?
Silko: I don't know for sure, but I think it probably is. The sound of it
was on my mind. I guess in Spanish, Tayo Dolores is like Theodore, or
something, but I didn't even think of that. I just liked the sound of it.
LC: It's a familiar name.
Silko: It's a familiar sound. When I say I liked the way it sounded, I mean
comfortable, intimate, the person you're going to travel with. As a writer
you're going to have to follow this character. You'd better really feel comfortable with him.
LC: In "Storyteller" there is an intriguing association concerning the
red and the white colors. The color yellow is very often associated with
something connected with the whites: "yellow machines"; "yellow stains
melted in the snow where men had urinated"; "the yellow stuffing that
held off the coat"; "the yellow flame of the oil stove." What's the meaning
of all that?
Silko: First of all, of course, yellow in the Pueblo culture is an important
color. It's a color connected with the East, and corn, and corn pollen, and
dawn, and Yellow Woman [the heroine of the abduction myths]. So I don't
think we can go too far in a traditional direction, with what yellow means.
It's one of my favorite stories, because it's outside of the Southwest. And it's
taking myself as a writer, and working with stories, and making radical
changes. To tell you the truth, in that particular arctic landscape I suppose
to hunters, anywhere except in the town, yellow could be a sign that a
herd that freshly been by. In other words, I guess what I'm trying to say is
maybe in this particular piece it's fairly insular; how the color works isn't
so easily tied to any particular belief system. But certainly up there, just an
endless field of white, and that cold pure yellow is kind of an extreme, and
when it appears, it's intrusive.

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Laura Coltelli

LC: That's the word.


Silko: And it stops things. The rising of the moon, and the way the stars
look up there is wonderful, part of that is the color. And certain colors
which you can find in the sky, for example, with the aurora, mean more.
The key figure I guess is the field of white, if you want to talk about the
field of white like a painter, the blank or whatever. Generally yellow, on
that field of white, is, in the winter, abnormalit's just within that story
that yellow works like that. It's very much the context of the northern
landscape.
LC: How does the oral tradition go on?
Silko: By that you mean at Laguna or any given place?
1C: Among Indian people.
Silko: That's a very difficult question really. One day it dawned on me. I
had this sudden recognition that already there were things that I had seen
and done, and people that I had been with at home, who had taught me
things, that had been gone a long time. What I see is astonishing, on one
hand, very exhilarating, and on the other hand very frightening, the rapid
change. I was born in 1948; I'm talking about things I saw in 1954 done on
the reservation, vis-a-vis the Pueblo people, or maybe some of the Navajo,
or even some of the white people that lived on ranches nearby. That part
of America, the small rancher, the Pueblo people, the Navajos and the
Spanish-speaking land-grant people. It's been such a change, that I would
have to be a terrible, pompous liar to sit here and tell you that it's just in
my area that I see it. The change in outlook and how the people live in
these very distinct racial and cultural communities in New Mexico, and
in America, since the middle fifties, is just amazing. It makes me want to
laugh at some of the older ethnologists and ethnographers. I would say
that most of the materialnot most; now I'm starting to use words that
are a little too far-spreadingbut I think that many of the models that
were constructed in the late fifties and early sixties by so-called social scientists, ethnologists, ethnographers, about acculturation, social changes,
how humans learn language, how language affects the way you think, and
so on, were so incomplete that those models have to be overturned. Not
just for Indian people in New Mexico or Arizona, but African tribal people,
all of the people who have gone through this period of colonialism. That
is, in a sense, what I am concerned with writing about, what I'm working
with right now. It goes on.
LC: You said once that we should make English speak for us.
Silko: At that time it hadn't really occurred to me that people who are
born English speakers are trying to make English speak for them too. What

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247

I was saying was a little naive. The great struggle is to make whatever language you have really to speak for you. But I won't back down from it, in
the sense that I like to take something that is a given, a given medium or a
given mode, and then treat it as if it were a fantastical contest or trick. Here
are the givens; you only have this and this; this is what you are trying to
describe; these are the persons you are trying to describe this to; we don't
want them to just see it and hear it; we want them to be it and know it.
This is language and you deal in it. That's the most intriguing thing of all.
And of course all artists to one degree or another, whether it's with sculpture or music or whatever, are working with that. And I stand by that. And
there are certain things, for example, when you talk about space-time, and
all kinds of little insoluble puzzles about time-space, and how it is that we
can use language to define language. We have to use language in order to
define language. I'm getting more and more humbled, to the point where I
think it's a wonder we can express the most simple desire in our given
tongue, clearly. And sometimes I wonder if we can even hope for that.
LC: What's the process by which you move from the oral tradition to
the written page? How does it work?
Silko: It just happens. From the time I could hear and understand language, I have been hearing all these stories, and actually I have been involved in this whole way of seeing what happenedit's some kind of
story. But when it finally happened, I wasn't conscious about mixing the
two. I was exposed [to stories] before school, and then I went to school and
read what you read in America for literature and history and geography
and so on. And then at the age of nineteen, I was at the University of New
Mexico. And I had just had a babyRobert, who's now nineteenand
Robert's father, my first husband, said how would you like to take a class
where you could get an easy A? And I said, well, I would like that, you
know, because having this baby and all, it would be nice to bring up my
grade-point average. So I took a creative-writing class. The professor gave
us little exercises. Then he said one day, "We want a character sketch," even
a character, and I thought, oh no! I had thousands. And so I did it. And
then he said, "We want a story," I thought, Is he serious? Is this all it is? I just
cashed in on all those things I'd heard.
But a more important, fundamental thing happened, probably in the
very beginning, which was in the first grade. I learned to love reading, and
love books, and the printed page and therefore was motivated to learn to
write. The best thing, I learned, the best thing you can have in life is to
have someone tell you a story; they are physically with you, but in lieu of
that, since at age five or six you get separated from all of those people who

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hold you and talk to you, I learned at an early age to find comfort in a
book, that a book would talk to me when no one else would. Or a book
would say things that would soothe in a way that no person could.
So the fifth grade is when I really started actually writing secretly; but it
wasn't until I was nineteen and got to the university, that the two things
just fell into place, which was all of my early attitudes and things I'd heard;
plus, I'd read Faulkner, I'd read Flannery O'Connor, Henry James, Kate
Chopin, Isak Dinesen. And then this guy says, "Write a story." A lot of people were saying, "I don't know what I'm going to write about." And I
thought, I don't know what I'm going to start writing about first. And so
the two things just kind of crashed together. What I learned from all the
years of reading Thomas Hardy and reading Julius Caesar were little mundane things, because Shakespeare has all these clowns and these little underlings who have funny little squabbles but have their little moment
when they pipe up and say something that makes the bigger story roll
around. That experience from reading helped me realize what a rich storehouse I had. And then, I like to get A's, and I like to have people pat me on
the head. So I could just do it. But that's how come I could, because I'd had
a rich oral tradition for quite a long time; I mean even now if I go home I
can hear all these wild stories about what my family's done, and my
cousins and stuff. But also I was encouraged to read. I loved books. And
when things were rough, when I was in a bad situation, I could read a book.
It wasn't conscious, but it just happened in my life.
LC: Do you feel that as in the oral tradition, the relationship between
the storyteller and his and her audience, must be a dynamic one?
Silko: It would be easier on me, in what I have to do in order to satisfy
these urges, if there were a place. I really think that it was wonderful during the time when the storyteller could practice her or his art. I went to
China for three weeks; the Chinese Writers Association invited a group of
American writers. They showed us this teahouse, and there were these two
seats, with little wooden chairs with nice little pillows, and they said every
night of the week, except Friday and Sunday or something, storytellers
come. People buy their tea from us [the writers] and they sit in there, and
these two storytellers sit across from themsometimes it's two old men
and sometimes it's two old womenand the teahouse people. This was in
Sh'eie, near where all the terracotta warriors were dug up. Anyway, they
showed us this room because one of our interpreters said, "Hey look, this is
what still goes on in China." And all these people are sitting there listening
and drinking their tea. And there's another storyteller there so you can
say, "Well, isn't that what you think?" Or you can do routines like, "Oh,

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249

you always tell it like that!" I really think that that's wonderful, interacting
directly like that, even having another storyteller there who might be trying to catch you on something, which of course means you get to catch
them, if you can, with the people there. A wonderful kind of positive energy is generated which you can partake in, and you can get more; I'm not
saying I don't get any when I write, or I wouldn't be sitting here a lot. I
really think that to me the real, the ultimate moment, is when you have a
couple of storytellers and a really engaged, respectful audience. So that I
guess in a strange sort of way I'm saying that in Western European culture,
the theater, drama, and/or what we have in the United States, mostly it's
kind of declined now. The stand-up comedians, someone like Lenny
Bruce, that play an older kind of role of the traveling teller or the troubadour, are the storytelling experience.
LC: How do you try to achieve it in your works?
Silko: I'm very aware of a physical audience, whether I'm reading at
some distant place, or whether I'm sitting with people. I'm so aware of it,
that when I sit down at the typewriter, there's only me. I feel the distance
dramatically. Do you see what I mean? At Laguna I have an uncle who's
very young; he's only ten years older, he's just like a brother, and his wife
and his sisters are very brilliant. They've traveled and gone places to school.
They've all come back. The have funny ways of saying things; they like to
laugh and tell horrifying stories, but the way they tell them is really funny,
and you're laughing. But when I'm writing I have to go into that room, I
have to go in there alone, and I'm the one who makes me go in there, day
after day. And I'm the one that has to put up with the days when it looks
really badthe words that I write. Then in that area I am just doing what I
do, and I have no thought of anyone ever reading it, because I can only relate to someone who's sitting there. I really don't consciously think that
much about an audience. I'm telling the story, I'm trying to tell it the best
way I can, in writing, but I'm not thinking, Maybe we better have him do
this, or Maybe we better not have her do that. I don't think that way.
LC: Humor is one of the main features of modern American Indian literature, central to the real meaning of the story itself. Is there a difference
between the use of humor in the old Indian stories and in the contemporary ones?
Silko: You know I haven't really thought about whether there's a difference. I'm so attuned to seeing the many similarities. Same thing, referring
to the same incident, especially areas in justice, loss of land, discrimination,
racism, and so on, that there's a way of saying it so people can kind of
laugh or smile. I mean, I'm really aware of the ways of saying things so you

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Laura Coltelli

don't offend somebody, so you can keep their interest, so you can keep
talking to them. Oftentimes these things are told in a humorous way. Even
punningyou know, the people at Laguna have such a delight with language, going back to how the Korean people loved language and words. So
that in English they like to make puns, and they know a little Spanish, or a
little Navajo, or a little anything. So their sheer delight in such things, that
goes on and always hasthat's an area where I can't see that there's been
any big shift.
LC: In an interview in 1976 with Per Seyersted about the American Indian Movement, you said, "It is more effective to write a story like 'Lullaby'
than to rant and rave."
Silko: Certainly for me the most effective political statement I could
make is in my art work. I believe in subversion rather than straight-out
confrontation. I believe in the sands of time, so to speak. Especially in
America, when you confront the so-called mainstream, it's very inefficient,
and in every way possible destroys you and disarms you. I'm still a believer
in subversion. I don't think we're numerous enough, whoever "we" are, to
take them by storm.
LC: So is it a matter of how to awaken public opinion to Indian problems, or is it just a matter concerning the very nature of the American Indian Movement?
Silko: No, I think it's more a question of how. You know, I understand
the tactics, every step of the way. In a way I'm not even critical of anything
particularly that the American Indian Movement has done. I'm just saying
that with the givens that I have, with what I do best, and sort of where I
found myself, that that isn't where I can do the best work. I certainly understand and a lot of times share the anger and bitterness, and the confusion over certain kinds of policies and attitudes. America is strange; it's
very strange for Americans to have to confront whatever color you are.
You can be a black American, a Native American, or an Asian American. If
you're very upper-middle class and extremely comfortable, you can drive
through any city or town home from your job, and if you have a brain that
half-way works at all, just driving home you will see things. We can drive
from where I drove today up here, and you can see where the distribution
method is pretty much unfair toward people with lesser opportunities,
and so on. If you're a very sensitive person, it can be real disturbing, just to
be around at any time. I understand it, though I also understand, maybe in
a more practical way, the conservatism, and the kind of respect yet for
order and law that Americans have. And I don't care what color they are.
It's kind of heartbreaking, in South Africa, some of the interviews with

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251

South African blacks and colored people, these old folks who are in their
sixties. My heart breaks. I think about them like the old folks that were
around at Wounded Knee, and when that stuff was going on. That isn't the
kind of world they saw. And some of their children, and almost all their
grandchildren are doing things, saying things, and having things done to
them, and I would say that is not a unique or peculiar experience to those
little old people in South Africa. You could have gone to Belfast ten years
ago; I mean, fill in the blanks. And that moves me, that moves me. Therefore, I was born in the in-between. I understand why the old folks cry, and
don't understand why they have to keep burying. You know, I'm in a
strange place. And I don't condemn one or the other. I do understand
where I am most effective, if you want to call yourself a tool, which I don't
really call myself. I'm better off doing what I do. As a terrorist or militant
I'd be good for like one suicide raid, and then that'd be the end of me. Now,
you know, if you want to use me like thatand I'm not a good spy.
LC: Could you describe your creative process?
Silko: Well, when I was younger, I figured it was just that certain things
that I heard I didn't forget. And then I would have a professor or somebody
tell me I had an assignment. So I would just go and I would pull it out, and
what I would pull out, of course I would always work on. And sometimes I
would just take bits and pieces and make it up, because even when I was a little girl I had sort of a wild imagination. Now I'm beginning to realize that almost everything that happens to me is interesting, and I make notes but I
don't really have to make notes. I started just recently though to keep notes
and little scribbles here and there, and I do it to laugh at what I thought was
important, and what I thought I should remember writing, and then how I
feel about it six or eight months later. And what's really, really going to be
an important image or theme or character trait stays with me.
And I can remember what some of the old folks said. Years ago these
[recording] machines were new, and dad believed in technology. And he'd
go to the old-timers and say, "just go ahead and tell it, and that way if all
these kids around here don't remember . . ." And you know, he'd count
himself in, "I never listen, better tell it to a machine; you can't trust all of
us, we might not remember." And some of the old folks agreed, and did it,
archival stuff. But a lot said, "If what I have to say, if my story is really important and has"they wouldn't say relevance, but that's what it is
"relevance to people, then they'll remember it, and they will say it again,
and if it doesn't then it's gone, and it dies out." That's a very harsh point of
view, but the older I get, the more I come around to it. And in writing I've
discovered that that's how my brain works.

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What happened with this novel [Almanac of the Dead] now around about
September 1980,1 just started feeling parts and places and characters; it was
as if you had shattered a two-hour movie. Some of it didn't have dialogue.
Like if you took two hours of a feature film and tore it or chopped it up and
mixed it all up. These things started coming to me. I began making notes,
and I did other things. I finished The Arrow Boy and the Witches movie, and still
these things came, and they came and they came. I would do extended
work on sections, and finally in the summer of 1983, I figured I'd better
start. I'd be with people. We'd be at a restaurant, nice people, people I basically liked, or [I'd be] talking to someone and having a fine conversation,
and then I would think of something, and I'd have to start saying, "Oh, excuse me," and then I would scribble a note. And so I knew it was there. It
was as if I would see things. I have many, many boxes of newspaper clippings, especially about Central America, Nicaragua, politically the rightwing shift in America. It was as if somewhere else something was going on,
and every now and then some would float up to the top. And I'd have to
write it down. Then I knew I had to start. By then I even had characters; I
didn't have all of them, and I didn't know everything. But, it's a very big
book and it has very many characters. It literally just imposes itself upon
me. I find that it's predictablepredictably, there's certain interest and
areas. It has a lot to do with where Tucson is, because the U.S. military is
very nervous about instability in Central America, and of course Mexico.
The day of the earthquake, the bankers who were so glad to lend them
money, the serious American bankers who wanted to make money off
those people, found out that the International Monetary Fund said no to
Mexico, and then the earthquake came. Anyway there's a bunch of military generals all along this border, who full-well believe that the economic
situation in Central America and Mexico can only get worse, that it will be
destabilized; there will be basically a kind of movement to try to shift
around. Whether we can dare call it a revolution, I don't want to say. This
is the first place and the only place I've lived in six yearsbut the CIA base
for helicopters and training is right over there. That is a part of right now
and my life and what's happening right now. And also I find very much has
blossomed out in this novel. But my process is mostly, not totally, subconscious, not conscious. The reason I write is to find out what I mean. I know
some of the things I mean, I couldn't tell you the best things I know. And I
can't know the best thing I know until I write.
LC: Could you speak a little bit more of your new novel [Almanac of the
Dead], still in progress?
Silko: Well, you know it's about time, and what's called history, and

Leslie Marmon Silko

253

story, and who makes the story, and who remembers. And it's about the
Southwest. But this time I have purposely, deliberately, taken Indian characters, one in particular, and I've dumped him off the reservation early.
He's an older man, too; he's a man and he retired. He spent years working
on the railroad in California; he was away from the reservation. But many
people of my grandfather's and even of my father's generation, when the
time comes, they're going to retire back home. Well, he does. And he's
quite a lady's man and a little bit of a show-off. He gets into some trouble,
and he's told he has to leave. And he intends to go to Phoenix, but he accidentally ends up in Tucson. And who he meets up with are Mexican Indians, some of whom are Yaquis from the mountains. But others are remnants of other entire cultures and tribes that were destroyed, early on,
after the Europeans came in. And it [the novel] is ambitious because it's
saying, "Well, suppose we get rid of the reservation; let's even get you from
any of that when you're seven, let's do that." And different groups: "Let's
tear you from Yaqui history, and let's form something more indefinite, you
now, and let's add this guy who got kicked out. So then, should we say
these people aren't living on the reservation, or never had a reservation, or
were there but never really believed?" So what does that mean? And to
watch them as characters, and see how they behave, and that's where we
pick up. So that's what it's about. So it's really ambitious. It goes back in
time.
It's called Almanac of the Dead, which is a reference to the Mayan almanacs which are not only used for planting, not just for auspicious planting, but it would also tell you about famine and death, revolution and conquest. They are fragmentary manuscripts, and of course what have I done?
I have created a character who has a fragment that nobody else has. So I get
to say what it is. So there's only four Mayan codexes. There's the Madrid,
the Paris, the Mexico City, and the Dresden copies of Mayan almanacs.
And they're just fragments. They're written in Latin or Spanish by Indians,
Mayans, full-bloods. They are the first generation of young children, Indian children, young boys that the priests put in schools. And they could
read and write. When they went home, the elders saw that the oral tradition could not be maintained, where you have genocide on this scale. We
have no guarantee in this new world of the European conquest, we have
no guarantee that the three of us [my two sons and I] will still live.
The old folks thought about it, had people explain to them what writing was. It dawned on them; it's a tool. It's a tool. So in my novel, they call
in a person who is trained in the omens, and the old people, men and
women, sit down and say, this is how we see it: we've got to start writing.

254

Laura Coltelli

In fact, they theorize something similar to what actually happened, except


that my characters have a fragment that no one else has.
Another thing that happens is, I have caretakers of these few pages. At
different times they've had to change them around, so they won't be
found. Because you do know that the priests would destroy those materials. Some of the keepers have been well-meaning, but they have encoded,
they have made a narrative that isn't really the entire narrative. They
made a narrative that's a code narrative. And so it makes it extremely
strange. What the characters end up with in the contemporary times is a
strange bundle, a few fragments of which are originals, but many have
traveled and been hidden and stolen and lost. In the novel, there's not that
many pages where you actually get to see much of that. But that's in there
too.
So I can do anything I want in pre-Columbian times. I'm not even
going to call it Mayan. And then because the people believe that these almanacs projected into the future, I can write about a dream I had, which is
that the helicopters come from Mexico en route to Tucson, full of American soldiers; that a great battle in this hemisphere will come down. But I
connect it to hundreds of years of exploitation of the Native American
people here. And I see Marxism as being here, but no better than Christianity. Certainly there are some Marxists, as there are some Catholic nuns
and priests, who do some very good things. And I even have a character
who actually assassinatesI haven't done it yetbut he's going to assassinate a sort of intellectual Marxist. He's an Indian, and he's very primitive,
sort of wonderful, because he just says, "These guys don't want to listen to
those guys." Back to the old thing, which is very simple-minded in a way,
that it's "our land." And of course, he's a politician; his name is the Ugly
One. He says, "We're not interested in any fucking ideology that these outsiders have, we're interested in love." And I don't know about the rest of it,
but I'm working hard.
I definitely identify much more with that older generationso maybe I
am a leftover. In terms of the evolution of an ideology, if you want to look
at political ideology, I have an awful lot of the old folks' point of view left
in me. And I find that in my attraction for the stories, and places, and
things I read. There's a lot I don't know. But as a writer and as a person, I
like to think of myself in a more old-fashioned sense, the way the old folks
felt, which was, first of all, you're a human being; secondly, you originate
from somewhere, and from a family, and a culture. But first of all, human
beings. And in order to realize the wonder and power of what we share, we
must understand how different we are too, how different things are. I'm

Leslie Marmon Silko

255

really intrigued with finding out similarities in conditions, and yet divergences in responses, of human beings. I'm really interested in that. Without forgetting that first of all, before we can ever appreciate what's the
same, we have really to love and respect and be able to internalize freedom
of expression.

HRS 151
Study Guide for
Ceremony
GENERAL NOTE: the novel is composed not of chapters but of fifty-three long indents at the
beginnings of paragraphs that suggest distinct though unnumbered sections. Interspersed with
these sections at irregular intervals are poem-like stories, marked by lines centered on the page.
Rather than summarizing the plot according to this multitude of sections, this study guide outlines
characters, plot, and the different threads of stories woven throughout the book.
Characters:
Laguna Pueblo Natives
Grandma ==> "Auntie" Robert ==> Rocky
(the stable part of the family, though Rockie dies during WWII)
==> Laura [unknown Mexican] ==> Tayo
(the outcaste of the family, regularly away at night sleeping with men)
==> Josiah (dies while Tayo & Rockie are away at war)
(no offspring, though he courts the "Night Swan," a mysterious Mexican)
"Old Ku'oosh:" a traditional Laguna medicine man who sends Tayo to Betonie
Tayo's war buddies: Harley & Leroy (mostly friendly towards Tayo)
Pinkie & Emo (generally hostile toward Tayo)
Natives of Other Tribes
Betonie: the Navajo medicine man who, with his mute assistant Shush, conducts the Ceremony that
is the heart of the novel.
Ts'eh: the mysterious young woman who, along with her brother, a hunter, helps Tayo corral his
uncle's cattle; she appears also later in the novel to help him evade his enemies.
Threads of Stories, Prayers & Plot
Stories & Prayers
(centered on each page)

Prose Sections
(first line indented half way across the page)

Though Woman, the power of stories &


"Sunrise" prayer (p.1-4)

Tayo, out on a desert ranch, remembers the death of


his cousin Rocky in the rain-drenched jungles of
Japan during WWII, from which he recently
Reed Woman goes "down below" after
returned. (p.5-12)
being neglected by Corn Woman (p.13-14) Tayo cursed the rain in Japan; now there has been a
drought for six years. (p.14)
the Scalp Society (p.37-38)

Harley comes by & they go off to find a bar; Tayo


remembers a mental hospital & meeting Old Ku'oosh
after coming home. (p.14-37)

People learn tricks from Pa'caya'nyi the


Ck'o'yo medicine man & neglect their
corn altars; Nau'ts'ity'i takes away the
plants & rainclouds. (p.46-49, 53-54)
WWII "heroes" (p.57-59)

Hummingbird & Fly go "down below" to


bring Mother Nau'ts'ity'i back (p. 71-72,
82, 105-6--> cont'd on p.113, 151, 180)

abducted by a bear
(Shush's story, p.128-30)
the origin of Witchery (p.132-38);
the young man captured by Coyote
(p.139-41, 153)--> prototype for Tayo's
ceremony (resolved only on p.258).
script for Tayo's ceremony (p.142-44)

Tayo remembers going drinking with Emo, Harley &


other veterans, more about Rocky's death, & Josiah's
advice during another drought when Tayo was
younger. (p.38-46)
Tayo & Harley reach the bar; Tayo remembers the
time he almost killed Emo there (p.49-63).
He recalls enlisting in the Army with Rocky, & all the
differences between them. (p. 64-71, 73)
Before the war, Josiah obtained a sturdy breed of
cattle to survive the drought. He often visited his
girlfriend, the "Night Swan," who used to live nearby
the bar where Tayo drinks. (p.74-93)
Still at the bar, Tayo recalls the end of the drought
before the war, after he offered prayers at the spring
Josiah had told him about, and also his visit to see
"Night Swan." He goes to see the deserted room
where she once lived & where he met her. (p.93-105)
Tayo still feels haunted by his memories. Robert takes
him to see Betonie, who explains the origin of the
"witchery" that plagues Tayo. He performs a
ceremony for him. Later, Betonie tells the story of his
lineage, & how the ceremonies have to change to stay
alive. He explains to Tayo that his ceremony isn't over
yet. (p.107-52)

Tayo meets Harley & Leroy and begins to drink again,


the Sun goes to find his children the
but then remembers Betonie's words. (p.153-69)
rainclouds, who have been captured by
Kaup'a'ta the Ck'o'yo magician in his house Tayo tracks down and corrals Josiah's lost herd of
in the Zuni mountains (p.170-76)
cattle, with the help of the stars, Ts'eh, snow, a
mountain lion, and an unnamed hunter. (p.169-213)
traditional prayers:
Ka't'sina singing to Sunrise (p.182)
Tayo brings the cattle back and goes out to the desert
hunter's prayer (p.206)
ranch again, where he finds Ts'eh again; she warns
him that Emo and the others are after him. (p.214-35)
Arrowboy catches sight of a Ck'o'yo
witchman changing into a wolf (p.247)
Hummingbird & Fly bring Mother
Nau'ts'ity'i back to earth (p. 255-56);
song to Amoo'ooh (p.257)
the "Whirling darkness" of witchery dying
out & Sunrise prayer (p.260-62)

Fleeing, Tayo wanders onto the uranium mines at


Cebolleta; hidden, he witnesses Emo & Pinky
torturing Harley to death, but resists the impulse to
get involved & so completes his ceremony. (p. 235-54)
Tayo is welcomed back home by Old Ku'oosh. Pinkie
dies in a rifle accident; Emo goes of to CA. (p. 256-60)

"The lack of easily identifiable section divisions in the story is a physical, formal (in form) reflection
of the themes of interconnection between all things, repetition, and of the unclear lines between
dream, myth, memory, and reality. As Silko refuses to conform to the standard presentation of a
novel, in chapter form, she refuses to make her story conform exactly to traditional American
standards. Similarly, as she seamlessly combines prose and poetry, she ignores standard generic (of
genre) divisions. Ceremony is not only a story about Native Americans, it is a Native American story"
Keja Valens, plot summary of the novel for SparkNotes
(http://www.sparknotes.com/lit)

CEREMONYS MAP
I.

Overview
A.
Layers
1.
Traditional Laguna stories and poems
2.
Nature narrativedrought to rain, seasons, day and night, sunrise-sunset, moon
and stars
3.
Novel of contemporary events
B.

C.

II.

Tangles vs. web


1.
Tangled, knotty narrative eventually leading to characters and readers illumination;
the web eventually laid out as pattern--the endeavor of understanding a pattern.

Themes
1.
Polarities
a.
Web of nature and gods and goddesses vs. witchery
b.
Ritual and story and ceremony and meaning vs. loss of faith and pervasive
meaninglessness
c.
Social/Ethical:
1.
Drunkenness, poverty, mental illness, injustice, genocide, war,
atomic bombs, racism, sexism, greed
2.
vs. love, sex, fertility, community, environmentalism, non-violence,
female power
2.
Didactic and political mission: story still being told
a.
nuclear holocaust, etc. vs. environmentalist celebration of nature and
natives
Ceremony in parts
A.
Thought Womanframing the whole book in Laguna discoursetalk-storyemphasis and
value of story and ceremony/ritual
1.
Mythology, story telling
a.
Woman
b.
Spider and webpositive and negative webs of good and evil
c.
Thinking and telling; I and creator; tradition and invention
2.
Four worlds below
3.
He said
a.
Importance of storiesnot entertainment; all we have to fight illness and
death
b.
Moving in bellyas if hes pregnant
c.
The evil ones try to destroy our stories
d.
Ritual and ceremony in stories
e.
[Bible stories; stories of progress; of immigration; of gender]
4.
Only cure is a good ceremonycommunity participation in conferral of meaning and
solemnity
5.
Disclose some things and not otherswhats in boxes; details of ceremony; Tsehs
indian name 223
B.
Present--Tayo at Auntie's house 5-18
1.
insomniac reveries
a.
The window in Aunties house; hes been released from mental hospital
after war, but still sick
b.
"language he couldnt understand" 6
c.
The warhe couldnt pull trigger; couldnt hate Japanese 7
d.
Confusing death of Uncle Josiah with Japanese casualty
e.
Battle fatigue, malaria[but Tayo had intuited Josiahs death]
2.
Present event--nursing goats--lyrical moment 9
a.
droughtthe barrels dried out and collapsedsix years; now late May
3.
Back to Phillipine jungle; cursing the rain 11
a.
Cant keep Rockys stretcher up in the mudpraying against rain 12
b.
Reed woman vs. Corn womanstory of why theres droughtmythological
and animistic thinking

c.

C.

D.

E.

F.

G.

He feels responsible, following this kind of thinking, for the drought, because
he cursed rain
4.
Dissolved identity in L.A. 15
a.
white drugs and doctors; constant grief
b.
Falling on pavement in railroad station and Japanese woman and child
coming back from internment camps in desert 17
c.
Vomiting everywhere; world come undone
Present--Going "Up the Line" with Harley 19-44
1.
Teachers at Indian school had undermined his stories.19
2.
Harley enters drunk and convinces him to go on burro and blind horse
3.
Harley couldnt do the job of sheepherding after the war. Ended up in jail. Theyre all
on disability for battle fatigue 23
4.
Tayo got into drunk fight with Emo
5.
Families trying to keep veterans out of trouble
6.
Emo profanes Indians mother earth 25
7.
On the blind mule, remembering Josiahs wisdom about animalsdrifting with the
wind, "animals did not resist"grandma and the mule. 27
8.
Terrible loss of Rocky rememberedcrushed skull; and Tayo falls off horse with
sunstroke 28
After the war--Return to Laguna 29-44
1.
Auntie takes care of him disapprovinglyshame and Christianity; worry about
gossip; her prejudice against half-breedstarched pillowcases
2.
Robert married to Auntiesupportive of Tayo 32
3.
Grandma is supportive; boy needs a medicine man
a.
She brings in old KuooshArmy doctors say no medicine man
1.
Kuoosh discourse on the fragility and web of the world 35
2.
Evils of white warfare 36dismembered corpses and atomic heat
flash 37
3.
Song about ritual cleansing after killing or touching dead enemies
otherwise be haunted
4.
Tayos even more miserable; wants to die
4.
Leads to first incident with Emo 39-43
a.
Liquor was medicine 40
b.
Indians in bars reminiscing about army and white women after them during
the warthe good times
c.
Back to the Japanese soldier killing Rocky 43-4
Present--Going up the line againthe spring still wet 44-64
1.
earlier memory of finding Spring with Josiah 45
2.
drinking the water
3.
story about Goddess angrily removing water from the people
4.
hitchhike and sit in bar..
5.
Remembering a sacred hunt with Rocky 50-52ideal of Indian life; ritual of deer;
gave itself because it loved them.
6.
Contrast to recollection of fight with Emoopposite of Rockypattern of drinking
and violence 52-63
a.
Emos evil
1.
Attitude toward women
2.
Torturing japaneseteeth in bag
3.
Emo grew from each killing61; Tayo screams "killer" at him
Before the war --Tayo and Rocky and Auntie and Little Sister 64
1.
Signing up for the Armyway to get respect from whites
2.
Remembering his abandonment by his mother to become half brother to Rocky
3.
Undertones in Aunties voice 67
a.
Excursus on Xty vs. Mother Earth religion 68
4.
Little SisterTayos motherdisgrace
5.
Army recruiter 72
Before the war --The five hundred dollar cattle deal 73-81
1.
Set up by the Mexican woman
2.
Josiahs buying cheap
3.
Mexican cattle vs. Herefordsbetter breed of cattle 74-5; little regard for fences 789
4.
Rocky growing towards the white world; also his mother, Auntie

H.

I.

J.

K.

5.
Branding the cattle
Before the war -- Night Swan--the Mexican woman, Josiah's mistress 81-93
1.
Hummingbird and fly go to the underworld to get something to end the drought 82
2.
Narrative switches to Mexican woman's relationship with Josiah and his perspective.
power of the dance
3.
She remembers her youthful relationships--the man in whom she liberates too
strong a power--killed by his own horses 85
4.
His relationship with her continues to 93
Before the war --Water 93-100
1.
Tayo prays for rain at the spring and gathers pollenfine description of springs 94
2.
Spider comes out; spider woman story; white people call superstitionanimism
3.
Frogs, dragonflies; world made of stories; hummingbird had not abandoned the land
4.
Tayo takes Josiahs note to NightSwan; spiral staircase; smellnature, goddess,
woman, music, not old or young 98
5.
He dreamed it, she whispered in Spanish; talks with her about his mother; she is
also different, different eyes 100 They make lovehigh point
Back "on the line" [narrative less disturbed]--100-107
1.
Harley goneMt Taylor sacred Mountainan important character
2.
Flies on flypaper; recollection of flies and Josiahs story about greenbottle fly
3.
Place felt goodwhere Night Swan lived over the store; smells the perfume; sleeps
without dreams 104
4.
StoryFly and humingbird go down to mother earth for water; she tells them to get
buzzard to purify town first
5.
Corresponds to feeling better and prepares for Betonie 106
6.
Robert tells him to get ceremony; he gets worse
Trip to Gallup to see Betonie 107-152
1.
Drunks and losers"This is us toolike cold flies stuck to the wall [cf. Previous
image] Robert talking 107
2.
Homeless childrenharrowing section 108-113Tayos early childhoodgarbage
and shit
3.
Hummingbird and Fly go to buzzard for purification but he demands tobacco
offeringit wasnt easy
4.
Gallup Ceremonialfor the tourists 114-116
5.
Betonie
a.
Mother was mexican-another half-breed
b.
Lots of stuff in the hoganpart of the pattern
c.
Calendars herbs, strands of hair, fingernails
d.
Laughing old man; tobacco
e.
Tayo tells all to Betonie
f.
B. tells him he has mission for the peoplewhite doctors say think only for
yourself 125
g.
Cure in something great and inclusive of everything
h.
Lecture on ceremonies
i.
Witchery introducedit needs no change in ceremoniesthey need to
change
j.
Indian outlookdeeds and papers dont mean anything
k.
Dont write off all the white people, dont trust all Indians
l.
Shush is assistant
m.
Song about rescuing child from the bear people
n.
Witches crawl into skins of dead animals 131
o.
White people are tools that witchery manipulateswe invented white
people; indian witchery made white people 132
1.
Long Poem about witches making white people 133
2.
Evil witches sabbath
3.
One witch tells a story about white people who "see no life/when
they look they see only objects./the world is a dead thing for
them/the trees and rivers are not alive" 135
4.
They fear; they destroy what they fear
5.
They poison the water; the people will starve; bring terrible diseases
6.
They will find rocks explode everything [Uranium]
7.
Other witches were scared by storytoo late to take it back 138
p.
They go camping up in mountainsstory and ritual

1.
2.
3.
4.

L.

M.

N.
O.

Another long poem about Pollen boy finding a curecf. Kingston


Sits in center of white corn sand painting 141
Whirling darkness, bear chants and songs
Cut Tayo across top of head; feet guided into bear footprints; bring
you through hoop.walk home. 143
5.
Last hoop through doorway
q.
After ritual he wants to go home to find speckled cattle; there were no
boundariesworld below and sand paintings inside became the same 145
r.
Story about his grandfather Descheeny finding girl in treehazel green
eyes, blue silk shawl 147
1.
He slept with the outcast girl and did ceremonies to cure victims
tainted by Xty or liquor
s.
Ceremony not complete, but he feels better
Back to reservationwitchery friends 153-169
1.
Tayo laughs at whites who had been conceived by witchery
2.
Harley and Leroy pick him up with Helen Jeanfound in Gallup
3.
Truck is stolen; theyre stupid drunk; insist booze is cure
4.
Her pathetic storyliving off guys disability checks in Gallup 158-167
5.
Piss and vomitIndians curse through Betonies eyes 169
Poem -Story of Sunman overcoming the Gambler, Kaupata 170-176
1.
Evil magicianmixed human blood in cornmeal
2.
Land drying up because he captured the stormclouds
3.
Spiderwoman advises grandson, Sunman, to trick himgives him answer to riddle;
Orion and the Pleides captured in bags
4.
Sunman cuts out Ks eyes and releases stormclouds, his children, from captivity
The lady of the apricot tree 176-184
1.
Searching for cattle
2.
Picture of the stars 179link to Betonies sand drawing
Chasing the cattle 184-214
1.
Going up the holy mountainstill Indian landsolid pine forest
a.
Indian hunting grounds; story of mountain lion 185
2.
Whites ripped off land
a.
Taken by National Forest and the state, sold to Texans
b.
Loggersanimal destroyers 186
c.
World disturbed
d.
Fencing and patrolling land.
3.
Betonies vision was a story he could feel happening
4.
Cutting the fencethousand dollars a mile 188
5.
His cattle ripped off 191 on stealing
a.
Theirs was a nation built on stolen land
b.
They had been used by witchery
c.
White thjievery and injustice boiling up the anger and hatred that would
finally destroy the world: the starving against the fat, the colored against the
white
d.
Lies devoured white heartsthey tried to glut the hollowness with patrioteic
wars anhd with greart technology and the wealth it brought
6.
Hunting the cattle was a cure 192
7.
Mountain lion incident
a.
Backsliding
1.
Anger at horse
2.
Fear and loss of faithwants to go back and repair fence; lose faith
in the healing
3.
Body became insubstantial
b.
Mountain lion encounteradmiration and learning from the animal 196
1.
Pours yellow pollen in mountain lion track and prays to itthe
hunters helper
c.
The memory of the cattleheaded for home, more like deer than cattle 197
8.
Patrol incident 197-204
a.
Running from them, spilled by mare [which hed gotten angry at]
b.
They take him in truck
c.
They are distracted by mountain lion tracks; he sleeps and wakes in pile of
leaves

d.

P.

Q.

More thoughts about whites and indians; snow falls; hes happy again; eats
pine nuts
9.
Meeting the hunter and womanfinding the cattle 204-213
a.
hears chant 206 sees Indian hunter carrying buckmountain lion skin; ties
blue feathers to antler tips
b.
leads him back to apricot tree farmwoman is there
1.
reconciles with his mare
2.
Scratches mares neck, watches lady comb her hair 209
a.
Things fading into one anotherbut coherently; contrast to
seeing Josiah in the Japanese soldier
b.
Horse came back to her corral
3.
Dialogue about her catching his cattle; twisting her hairthe trap
deep canyon orifice 210
4.
Early snow sign of wet winter no drought
c.
Cattle found 212
1.
Cattle that could survive drought and hard years
2.
Perverse sport of Texas ropingtorment cattlerodeo 213
Coming home 214227 Alone with nature and Tseh
1.
Comes back with Robert and truck to bring home cattle
2.
Cabin is deserted. Shield with Star map with Big Star constellation Betonie had
drawn is left on wall 214
3.
Cattle well taken care of
4.
Im Okay now to GrandmaBetonie did some good
5.
Dreams of Woman; sees her in sunrise; love passages 216
6.
Goes to ranch alone to take care of cattle
a.
lone happiness in nature
1.
Valley was green; he had lost nothing; mountain remains; Josiah
and Rocky are close 219 Love remains
2.
Flowers are yellow, gathering pollen 220
3.
World is alive; pollen in snake trackshappiness in nature 221
completing a ritual
b.
meeting the goddess 221
1.
walking through he sunflowers; sitting at the water by the pool;
place of beauty
2.
Lies down across from pool and dreams he makes love with her
therewas she there or notepiphanies of goddess 222
3.
Climb to top of Mesa"as if he had stepped from the earth into the
sky" 223
4.
She discloses her name to him here: Tseh MontanoIndian name
is too long[dont disclose all]
c.
Cattle stable; found their place 225
1.
Romeros doctored bullabandoned by rodeo 225
2.
Josiahs dream emergingbreeding cattle 226
d.
Goes with her to learn about roots and plants gathered
1.
Promises to gather her the plant when its ripened and dried in fall
227
2.
Their loving "replaced the rhythm that had been interrupted so long
ago" 227
The final challenge 227--262
1.
Robert tells Tayo to come back
a.
Elders want report
b.
Emo and white people think hes crazy
1.
Emos crew cut; Tayos hair growing long
2.
Tseh coaches him about coming showdowndeath isnt much; the evil of the
destroyers
a.
Transitional place in the season 230position of sun was transitional
b.
She-elk painting in the sandstone almost rubbed away, not renewed since
the war. 231
1.
Doing ritualshe cries
c.
The struggle for the ending of the story 232
1.
Environmental apocalypse
2.
Gospel story: final battle is coming.

3.
4.

3.

4.

5.

6.

Only ending they understand is to lock you up and take you away
Its almost completedwe are coming to the end soon 233about
the story tellingframe intrudesmetanarrative
d.
Her departure with bundle on her head 235
He runs like a hunted animalalong wood hauling road and fence
a.
"He had to bring it back on them"has to make evil destroy itself 236
b.
All things convergingspatial structure 237day and night; good and evil
Enchanted Mesa
c.
Sun nearing its autumn place in thenature narrative 238
Harley and Leroy follow him on road
a.
celebrate enlistment daydead drunk 239
b.
Tayo disguised as one of them 241 to allay suspicionrides with them in
pickup
c.
He needs friends to complete the ceremony 241 Why?
d.
Country is dry up north
e.
He realizes they turned against himhis friends are betrayers or lost
The Uranium mineapocalyptic climax [Y2K] 243-255
a.
Land overgrazed; people sold it for five thousand dollars to Government
1.
Another Flashback to 1943 p.243
b.
Barbed wire fences remain; he crawls throughanother fence--Dark mine
shaft
c.
Grandmas recollection of atomic teststrongest thing on this earth 245
1.
Trinity site; Los Alamos
d.
Point of convergencewhere fate of all living things, and even the earth
had been laidthe middle of witcherys final ceremonial sand painting all
human beings united by a circle of death. 246
1.
Powdery yellow uranium is witcherys pollen
2.
Seeing the pattern; the way all stories fit together 246story still
being told
3.
Cosmic storyonly a few more hours of this nightkeep the story
out of the reach of the destroyersEquinox balance
a.
Prayers of long winter nights would call out the long
summer days of new growth. Tonight the old priests would
be praying for the force to contiue the relentless motion of
the stars. But there were others 247
e.
Emo and the destroyers
1.
The evil working herepeople fooled into blaming only the whites
and not the witcheryforget the storyold priests cling to ritual
iwthout making new ceremonies" 249
f.
Tayo getting weak again
1.
Watches them torture Harley; hanging him on fencescene of
horror 251trying to make him come to rescuetrying to lure him
out; imagines killing Emo; Leroy and Pinkie fighting
g.
Success
1.
"Their deadly ritual for the autumn solstice would have been
completed by him" 253 Witchery breeds by intraIndian violence
2.
His restraint confirmed by the stars
3.
He gathers seeds for Tsenplants will grow 254transition
completed
Conclusion 255-262
a.
Hummingbird and Fly take tobacco to Buzzard who will purify the
townthere was food
1.
It isnt very easy to fix things up again 256
b.
Ritual in the Kiva now being refurbished, with Kuoosh
1.
Tayo tells them the story
2.
Chant of optimistic blessing
c.
Death of Harley and Leroy in traffic accident 258; Emo killed Pinkie while
fooling around with rifle
d.
Witchery is dead chant and offering to sunrise ends the booklike a
dedication