Sunday, April 8, 2018

Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko

He could get no rest as long as the memories were tangled with the present, tangled up like colored threads from Grandma's wicker sewing basket when he was a child, and he had carried them outside to play and they had spilled out of his arms into the summer weeds and rolled away in all directions, and then he had hurried to pick them up before Auntie found him.  He could feel it inside his skull--the tension of little threads being pulled and how it was with tangled things, things tied together, and as he tried to pull them apart and rewind them into their places, they snagged and tangled even more.  So Tayo had to sweat through those nights then thoughts became entangled; he had to sweat to think of something that wasn't unraveled or tied in knots to the past--something that existed by itself, standing alone like a deer.

One thing I learned on my recent trip to New Mexico is that the Bataan Death March--the deadly forced evacuation of American and Filipino prisoners of war from a Japanese camp in the Philippines--was disproportionately suffered by soldiers from New Mexico.  There are Bataan memorials in Santa Fe and Las Cruces.  Consequently, the veterans of Bataan include a disproportionate number of Native Americans, since New Mexico has the largest population of indigenous persons per capita in the U.S. outside of Alaska.

Ceremony is about the experience of Tayo, a man of white, Hispanic, and Laguna Pueblo ancestry who returns to New Mexico from Bataan with a severe case of PTSD.  Army hospitals and psychiatrist have done nothing to chase away the demons of guilt: watching his half-brother Rocky die in the jungle, or being absent for the death of his beloved uncle Josiah.  At home, Tayo is scorned by his Aunt, who loved the full-blooded Laguna Rocky more, and codependent in his alcoholism with a group of down-and-out vets, some white, some Native.  Tayo turns to traditional Laguna practices--or rather, his family turns hmi toward them--in order to do what Western medicine cannot.  One medicine man fails, but another, who has adapted his practices in the face of the cruelty of the 21st century, takes Tayo through a ceremony which offers the possibility of returning to Tayo a sense of wholeness.

Why does the traditional ceremony work when Western medicine does not?  Because what ails Tayo is not, as the Army doctors maintain, a problem within Tayo, but a problem with the world as a whole.  As Silko writes, "His sickness was only part of something larger, and his cure would be found only in something great and inclusive of everything."  Silko argues that it's impossible to treat Tayo's PTSD without treating the historical and cultural pressures that force a Native man into fighting for a nation that has abused and deprived him in the first places.  The traditional ceremony, on the other hand, offers promise because it promises to integrate Tayo with a life he has been cut off from.

Silko blames the war on an impersonal force called "witchery," a malevolent force that seeks to destroy the world.  Whites are implicated in witchery, though they are variously depicted as its dupes and its victims:

If the white people never looked beyond the lie, then they would never be able to understand how they had been used by the witchery; they would never know that they were still being manipulated by those who knew how to stir the ingredients together: white thievery and injustice boiling up the anger and hatred that would finally destroy the world: the starving against the fat, the colored against the white.  The destroyers had only to set in into motion, and sit back to count the casualties.  But it was more than a body count; the lies devoured white hearts, and for more than two hundred years white people had worked to fill their emptiness; they tried to glut the hollowness with patriotic wars and with great technology and the wealth it bought.  And always they had been fooling themselves, and they knew it.

There's a lot that's sobering here, like the reminder that to be white is to be implicated, not necessarily by choice, in the historical theft of native lands and lives.  It doesn't feel good to think that one is or has been the tool of an evil spanning centuries.  But--and I am aware of the need to choose my words carefully here--is it helpful to deny the agency of political leaders by diverting blame from individual people to "witchery?"  How can that help us grapple with, for instance, Truman's decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?  And how does it help us to balance the exploitation of young men of color, Native Americans included, in the armed forces with the moral imperative to resist imperialism in Germany and Japan?  How does it help us understand the Death March, which was perpetrated by the Japanese?  Silko's articulation of witchery presents a problem for me because it seems to paradoxically implicate whiteness in historical evil while denying that evil operates through the conscious choices of specific (yes, white) people.  Yet it also seems to capture the way in which whites become victim of their own dominant narratives.

Sometimes I think Silko lets this idea lead her into facile places:

...only a few people knew that the lie was destroying the white people faster than it was destroying the Indian people.  But the effects were hidden, evident only in the sterility of their art, which continued to feed off the vitality of other cultures, and in the dissolution of their consciousness into dead objects: the plastic and neon, the concrete and steel.  Hollow and lifeless as a witchery clay figure.

The "plastic and neon, the concrete and steel": this critique rings particularly hollow to me.  It sounds too much like conservative fuddy-duddyism.  The references to Tayo's high school science teacher who openly mocks Native religion seem like they're imported from God's Not Dead 3.  And I rolled my eyes when I read: "White people selling Indians junk cars and trucks reminded Tayo of the Army captain in the 1860s who made a gift of wool blankets to the Apaches: the entire stack of blankets was infected with smallpox."  Maybe this reference point seemed more fresh or shocking in 1977, but here it sounds like a schoolteachery intrusion of the author's voice into Tayo's consciousness.

Obviously, I read Ceremony like a white person: its ideas about whiteness stand out to me because they are about me.  I have to force myself to read it another way.  It discomfits me to think that part of Tayo's ceremony necessitates the suppression of his "white side," but of course it's the Laguna side of his identity that's been suppressed by whiteness and is need of recovery.  This is the heart of the ceremony: these traditional practices reconnect Tayo to his Laguna heritage but they are oriented toward a wholeness that encompasses all people against the anti-human forces of witchery.

The avatar of witchery in the novel is a white vet named Emo who hangs out in the same circles as Tayo.  At one point Tayo, enraged by something Emo says, stabs him in the stomach.  The climax--spoiler alert--comes when Emo, trying to find and fight Tayo, tortures and kills Tayo's friends.  Tayo's choice not to emerge and fight is both fascinating and troubling.  It's certainly contrary to what we expect from the narrative of a literary hero; what Tayo must find is the courage and confidence that lead to inaction, to rejecting the call of witchery to fight Emo.  But then again... he just lets those guys die.  I don't know how to account for that as a moral act.  Is that an aspect of the novel's radicalism, or an artistic failure?  If Ceremony is difficult to figure out, how much of that is the novel itself and how much of it is me?

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