This section contains 5,331 words
(approx. 18 pages at 300 words per page)
Critical Essay by Bernard A. Hirsch
SOURCE: "Self-Hatred and Spiritual Corruption in House Made of Dawn," in Western American Literature, Vol. XVII, No. 4, Winter, 1983, pp. 307-20.
In the following essay, Hirsch analyzes the characters of Martinez, Tosamaah, and Benally and their relationships with the protagonist, noting that for these characters Abel is a symbol of contempt and a reminder of their Native selves.
N. Scott Momaday, referring to his protagonist Abel, has said, "None but an Indian, I think, knows so much what it is like to have existence in two worlds and security in neither." True as this is of Abel in House Made of Dawn, it is truer still of Martinez, Tosamah, and Benally because they, unlike Abel, try earnestly to conform to Euro-American social values. Indeed, the strong responses Abel generates in each of these characters indicate their perception of something unyielding and incorruptible in him, something which throws into stark relief the humiliating spiritual compromises they have felt compelled to make. In his suffering Abel is both a sorry example and stinging rebuke to them, a warning and a goad, someone both to fear and reverence, for he reminds them of who and what they are—of what they find most contemptible in themselves and most holy. Martinez, Tosamah, and Benally have been spiritually corrupted to varying degrees by the white world, and to the extent that they have, they make Abel their scapegoat and regard him as an evil to be exorcised.
This scapegoating is most apparent in the case of Martinez who, Ben tells us, is "a cop and a bad one." [The critic adds in a footnote: "Most readers assume that Martinez is white, but given his name and the fact that a number of the novel's Indian characters have Spanish names and/or surnames, it seems more likely that he is at least part Indian or Chicano—if the latter, his situation would nonetheless parallel to a significant extent that of the urban Indians. Moreover, to regard Martinez as white is to reduce him to an overworked stereotype—the sadistic white cop—of the sort that Momaday, in his portrayal of every other white character in the novel, has scrupulously avoided."] He derives his sense of self from the power and authority vested in him by white society. That power, in his eyes, makes him superior to his "brothers" in the street by enabling him to identify with the oppressor and victimize them at will. He acts out his own version of the American Dream with every Indian he extorts, yet his violent response to Abel's slight resistance suggests that he has paid a price for the power he enjoys.
Martinez emerges, appropriately enough, from a dark alley as Ben and Abel are returning home from Henry's bar. Ben meekly complies with Martinez' order to hold out his hands, and he recalls that his hands "were shaking bad and I couldn't hold them still." He had just been paid and he gives Martinez "all I had left." Martinez then notices Abel:
Martinez told him to hold out his hands, and he did, slowly, like maybe he wasn't going to at first, with the palms up. I could see his hands in the light and they were open and almost steady. "Turn them over," Martinez said, and he was looking at them and they were almost steady.
Enraged, Martinez smashes Abel's hands with his nightstick, but Abel "didn't cry out or make a sound." From Benally's description, we can see that it is Abel's attitude rather than his actions that engenders Martinez' wrath. Martinez could not help but notice the contrast between Ben's involuntary shaking and Abel's relative steadiness, and this implied slight to his authority threatens him. His response to it indicates just how precarious his sense of self is, and the extreme viciousness of his later beating of Abel further reveals the self-hatred that is the price of the Anglo authority he covets.
By his mere presence Abel threatens the protective illusions so necessary to Martinez' emotional and psychological survival, and he poses the same threat to Tosamah and Benally. Martha Scott Trimble maintains [in her 1973 N. Scott Momaday] that "the suffering of the urban Indians is … rendered painful to watch because of their reluctance to admit to themselves that they suffer." They are so reluctant because they have been conditioned by the dominant white culture to regard their very suffering as evidence of their own inferiority. Their suffering is at least as productive of guilt as of rage and therefore they have devised what Trimble calls "strategies" to avoid acknowledging that suffering to themselves. By means of these strategies, they seek not only to adapt to white society but to retain while doing so a sense of themselves as free agents making intelligent decisions. They have chosen, in Ben's words, to "go along with it" not out of fear or because they have been seduced by the false promise of the white world, but because, they would believe, it makes sense. And as regards Tosamah and Benally, it is indeed painful to watch them disparage that which they most love and most need—their Indianness.
Tosamah, for instance, tries to better his situation by assuming a superior posture toward it—as is apparent in his use of language. In his first sermon, "The Gospel According to John," Tosamah tries to convince both himself and his congregation that he understands the white man by telling them how the white man conceives of and manipulates language. He says that "the white man deals in words, and he deals easily, with grace and sleight of hand. And in his presence, here on his own ground, you are as children…." Tosamah knows what he is talking about; his assertions are verified by Abel's experience in Los Angeles and Benally's explanation of Abel's language problems. But ironically, Tosamah uses language much as the white man does, and to much the same purpose. In fact, he uses it as Martinez uses fear and violence. Like Martinez, he has carved out a little fiefdom of sorts in the Los Angeles ghetto, and language is his means of controlling it.
By manipulating a variety of verbal styles in "The Gospel According to John," Tosamah keeps his parishioners off balance, dazzling as much as enlightening them. Through an ever-shifting combination of biblical oratory, street talk, exposition, and the simple, direct narrative style of the storyteller, Tosamah tries to relate to his audience on several levels simultaneously, to establish at once his oneness with and superiority to them. He wants to be perceived as a follow Indian sharing a similar culture and values, as a ghetto brother sharing the hardship of the streets, and as a teacher in both the shamanistic and professorial senses. The sermon is full of insight, but it is a masterpiece of verbal gymnastics as well.
Tosamah is perceptive enough to know that the agonizing conflict within himself also exists to varying degrees in the other urban Indians, and he exploits their insecurity and self-doubt to shore up his own tenuous conception of self. Indeed, his need continually to assert himself over the others is one indication of his sense of inadequacy. Like them, he both loves and fears his Indianness, and this entails a roughly similar ambivalence toward the white man. Tosamah sees through the white man to a significant extent and pointedly ridicules his blindness, but like Martinez he also feels a troubling yet insistent need to identify with his oppressor. This need underlies his use of language to intimidate and manipulate the other urban Indians. But he also feels the same need with regard to his heritage and his people. When Tosamah speaks so lovingly, so evocatively in his second sermon, "The Way to Rainy Mountain," of his journey to rediscover his Indian self, we cannot doubt his sincerity. This sermon is longer than his first, and it is free of the verbal gamesmanship that characterizes much of "The Gospel." Still, he needs to be a winner. He sees in his parishioners, and even more clearly in Abel, the fate of Indians in a white world, and he cannot accept such a density. If white society has consigned him, despite his education, intelligence, and talent, to a small, severely limited space, it has at least taught him how to control that space. Like Martinez, he has learned to exalt himself by undermining others. Oppressed, he becomes an oppressor victimizing, as Martinez does, the only people he can—his own.
As Martinez batters Abel's body, so Tosamah batters his spirit, and Momaday, through his use of narrative structure, stresses the parallel between them. The novel's second chapter, "The Priest of the Sun," in effect begins and ends with a sermon by Tosamah. These sermons frame a badly beaten, semiconscious Abel whose murder trial and life in Los Angeles pass in fragments before him. Ironically, Tosamah's second sermon, which recounts his journey to the land of his people, the Kiowa, to visit his grandmother's grave, reveals the path to salvation for Abel, tells how he might be made whole again. But Abel is not there to hear the sermon. Indeed, as we later learn from Benally, it was after Tosamah had earlier humiliated Abel that, in Ben's words, "He went downhill pretty fast …," decided "to get even with" Martinez, and was beaten half to death by him. Tosamah calls himself "Priest of the Sun," and he is sufficiently imaginative, sensitive, understanding, and articulate to be that. But he lives his day-to-day life as Coyote, the trickster who is both culture hero and buffoon. Like Coyote, Tosamah has the capacity to bring spiritual gifts to his people, to be a savior of sorts, but his actions are generally self-centered and done in ignorance—in Tosamah's case, a self-imposed ignorance—of their consequences for the world, his people, and himself. Tosamah is quick to take advantage of others to satisfy his own needs, but because he is himself a slave to those needs (emotional and psychological needs as opposed to Coyote's purely physical ones), he is at times the victim of his own tricks. Coyote is a master of self-deception and, as his own ambivalence toward and treatment of Abel indicates, so is John Big Bluff Tosamah.
Despite his awareness of the beauty and value of his native culture, despite his profound understanding of the nearly overwhelming spiritual problems modern America has created for his people, Tosamah is himself tormented by his Indianness. Abel, in his view, is the incarnation of that Indianness, and as such he fills Tosamah with shame and guilt and reverence. Tosamah, for all his insight into its workings, has been conditioned by the white world and by himself in response to that world to see with two pairs of eyes and the result, at least as regards Abel, is a mélange of contradictory impressions and impulses. For example, Ben remembers Tosamah's warning him about Abel: "He was going to get us all in trouble, Tosamah said. Tosamah sized him up right away…." Perceptive as he is, Tosamah can sense in Abel the unyielding integrity that will make him especially vulnerable in urban Los Angeles, that will keep him from "fitting in"; and that integrity implicitly confronts Tosamah with his own compromising and compromised self.
When Tosamah speaks of Abel's trial, he is both ironic and envious. True, the white society that is puzzled by Abel is the target of his irony, and he ostensibly mocks its view of Abel as "a real primitive sonuvabitch" and a "poor degenerate Indian"; but his own view of Abel, as his warning to Benally and his later psychological attack on Abel make clear, parallels to some extent that of the society he ridicules. Consider in this regard his impression of how Abel's testimony must have sounded to the court:
"'Well, you honors, it was this way, see? I cut me up a little snake meat out there in the sand.' Christ, man, that must have been our finest hour, better than Little Bighorn. That little nocount cat must have had the whole Jesus scheme right in the palm of his hand."
Tosamah's tone conveys both embarrassment and admiration here, but alone with Ben in the privacy of Ben's apartment he lets his admiration show. Of the court's verdict, he says:
"They put that cat away, man. They had to. It's part of the Jesus scheme. They, man. They put all of us renegades, us diehards, away sooner or later…. Listen here, Benally, one of these nights there's going to be a full red moon, a hunter's moon, and we're going to find us a wagon train full of women and children. Now you won't believe this, but I drink to that now and then."
If Ben "won't believe this" it is because the sentiments Tosamah here expresses hardly parallel his actions, and Tosamah knows it. He seeks to identify with Abel, referring to "us renegades, us diehards," and to the white man as "they," but merely to wish now and again for vengeance is an empty gesture. No doubt Tosamah's desire to avenge himself on those who have poisoned his spirit is sincere, but the courage, the spirit of defiance he recognizes in Abel, lies dormant within his own heart. Ben, as he does throughout the novel, undercuts Tosamah's pretentiousness, telling us that "He's always going on like that, Tosamah, talking crazy and showing off…."
Seeing Abel through white eyes, Tosamah finds him embarrassing. Though Tosamah ridicules Anglo cultural arrogance and the stereotypes that feed it, Abel—alcoholic, at times violent, and inarticulate—seems to him to lend credence to the stereotypes; thus Tosamah, educated and articulate as he is, feels misrepresented, degraded by association. This is the "trouble" of which he warns Benally. Seeing Abel through Indian eyes, Tosamah cannot help but admire him as a kind of modern-day warrior who refuses to give in meekly to the torment and tribulations of urban Indian life. But if Tosamah as an Indian is vicariously elevated by Abel's integrity, he is at the same time humbled by the lack of his own. Viewed from either perspective, then, white or Indian, Abel engenders in Tosamah self-contempt so strong that it is beyond enduring; he is anathema to the illusory conception of his own superiority that is Tosamah's primary means of emotional and psychological survival. Therefore, because of the guilt he feels, a guilt stemming from a profound sense of his own inadequacy, he projects upon Abel his own diminished sense of self.
Tosamah needs to tear Abel down and one evening, during a poker game at his place, the opportunity presents itself. In a seemingly expansive mood Tosamah, Ben tells us, was "going on about everything … and talking big." Ben, seeing that this talk bothers Abel, wants to leave, but Abel, already drunk and becoming more so, ignores him. Ben recalls,
I guess Tosamah knew what he was thinking too, because pretty soon he started in on him, not directly, you know, but he started talking about longhairs and the reservation and all. I kept wishing he would shut up, and I guess the others did, too … because right away they got quiet and just started looking down at their hands, you know—like they were trying to decide what to do. I knew that something bad was going to happen.
Abel, too drunk to seriously threaten Tosamah, lunges impotently toward him, and the others, to relieve their own discomfort, laugh at his futility.
Ben tells us that the laughter "seemed to take all the fight out of him. It was like he had to give up when they laughed; it was like all of a sudden he didn't care about anything anymore." Abel's response to the laughter indicates that, though perhaps not consciously aware of it, he attacked Tosamah not merely to avenge a personal insult but to avenge all the Indians at the table and back home, to avenge the honor of his people. Tosamah, who "doesn't come from the reservation" himself, has made the others ashamed of what they are, and when they try to dispel their shame by projecting it onto Abel, Abel's rage loses its foundation and he feels empty and alone. Ben remembers "that he was hurt by what had happened; he was hurt inside somehow, and pretty bad." Tosamah, the Priest of the Sun of the Holiness Pan-Indian Rescue Mission, has lost sight of the needs of his people in pursuit of his own isolated ends and in so doing, as his attack on Abel symbolically suggests, he has violated the very essence of his own Indianness. By shaming his people he has done the white man's work.
Unlike Tosamah, Benally is compassionate towards Abel; he is, from the time of their first meeting, instinctively protective of him. He trains Abel for his new job, introduces him around, and though he has very little himself, readily shares his home, his food, and his clothing. Most important of all, he shares with Abel, and Abel alone, his dearest possession—his native religion. It is Ben's honest, profound spirituality that sets him apart from the other urban Indians. As has often been noted, Ben is the one who has the vision during the peyote ceremony, and whereas Tosamah's understanding of his native culture seems at times largely intellectual, Ben "lives his religion on a level deeper than the intellect, the level of spirit and emotion" [Carole Oleson, "The Remembered Earth: Momaday's House Made of Dawn," South Dakota Review II, No. 1 (Spring 1973)]. Yet there are definite similarities between Ben and Tosamah as well, and to ignore them is to obscure considerably the scope and horror of the spiritual compromises white society, for its own material and psychological convenience, requires of Indians.
Sincere as his religious beliefs are and sensitive as he is, Benally has compromised himself almost as severely as Tosamah has, and this is most apparent from the contradictions in his narrative. Ben is trying earnestly to sell himself on the American Dream in a vain effort to convince himself that the life he feels compelled to live is in fact better and ultimately more fulfilling that the life he knew on the reservation. His pathetic monologue on the wonders of Los Angeles is a case in point:
It's good place to live…. Once you find your way around and get used to everything, you wonder how you ever got along out there where you came from. There's nothing there, you know, but the land, and the land is empty and dead. Everything is here, everything you could ever want. You never have to be alone.
But for all practical purposes Ben, until Abel comes, is alone. He has drinking buddies, true, but no one with whom he can share what is most important to him. Moreover, the "radios and cars and clothes and big houses" which, Ben says, "you'd be crazy not to want" and which are "so easy to have" have managed to elude him. He lives in a leaky, dilapidated slum tenement, gets his clothes second-hand, and is a cipher in the plant where he works. He willfully mistakes the racist ridicule of his co-workers for good-natured kidding and the pseudo-amiable hustle of the salespeople in the stores for friendliness. The extent and cost of his self-deception, however, are most painfully revealed in his comments about the land.
Ben's narrative is punctuated at several points by contrapuntal remembrances which rise unbidden in his mind, memories of growing up on the reservation, on "the land south of Wide Ruins where I come from," on the land he still loves. These recollections are full of precise, beautiful, and evocative details which belie his remark that "the land is empty and dead." The land he recalls is rich with vitality and meaning; it is the sacred center of all life and being. He remembers childhood on the land:
And you were little and right there in the center of everything, the sacred mountains, the snow-covered mountains and the hills, the gullies and the flats, the sundown and the night, everything—where you were little, where you were and had to be.
The vision of the land inherent in his memories is that which contemporary America requires him to abandon, and he tries to do just that. After all, "That's the only way you can live in a place like this [Los Angeles]. You have to forget about the way it was, how you grew up and all." The need to "go along with it" is a recurrent motif in Ben's narrative, and all that gives his life meaning must be subordinated to it:
If you come from the reservation, you don't talk about it much; I don't know why. I guess you figure that it won't do you much good, so you just forget about it. You think about it sometimes, you can't help it, but then you just try to put it out of your mind … it mixes you up sometimes….
But Abel does not let Ben "forget about it." He is to Ben what he is to Tosamah, the incarnation of all that is Indian within him, and Ben intuitively apprehends this. He remarks,
We were kind of alike, though, him and me. After a while he told me where he was from, and right away I knew we were going to be friends. We're related somehow, I think.
Abel's mere presence evokes his memories of home, and the first of Ben's "flashbacks" occurs as he recalls their first real conversation. Ben's history resembles Abel's in certain respects, and his memories [according to Lawrence J. Evers in his "Words and Place: A Reading of House Made of Dawn," Western American Literature XI, No. 4 (February 1977)] "reveal a sense of place very like that Abel groped for on his return to Walatowa." What is especially sad about these memories is that they convey a sense of wholeness and security that contrasts sharply with the fragmented, fear-ridden, tenuous existence Ben now endures. He appears to regain a modicum of that sense with Abel, however; Ben knows that his most precious treasures are safe with him:
"House made of dawn." I used to tell him about those old ways, the stories and the signs, Beauty-way and Night Chant. I sang some of those things and told him what they meant, what I thought they were about.
Abel is wonderfully receptive, as Ben knew he would be, and "would want me to sing like that."
And Abel, Ben fears, is the only one who would. Just as Tosamah finds "longhairs" like Abel an embarrassment to him in the white world, so is Benally, within the context of that world, embarrassed by his own best impulses—and that world includes the other urban Indians. He tells of a night when he and Abel, along with the others, are drinking and having fun on a hill overlooking the city:
… I started to sing all by myself. The others were singing, too, but it was the wrong kind of thing, and I wanted to pray. I didn't want them to hear me, because they were having a good time, and I was ashamed, I guess. I kept down because I didn't want anybody but him to hear.
Only with Abel does Benally feel good about being an Indian; only with Abel can he free his spirit in song and prayer, and see past and future merge into an all-inclusive present. When Abel is in the hospital recovering from his beating, Ben, to comfort him, makes up a plan about going home, about "going out into the hills on horses and alone. It was going to be early in the morning, and we were going to see the sun coming up." There, they would "sing the old songs," sing "about the way it used to be, how there was nothing all around but the hills and the sunrise and the clouds." Ben at first did not take his plan seriously, but Abel "believed in it" and "I guess I started to believe in it, too." Dream and waking reality come together for Ben in Abel's presence, albeit briefly, and the deepest impulses of his spirit are vindicated in Abel's existence. In that respect Abel is truly a blessing for Benally. But they live in a world uncongenial to these impulses, a world contemptuous of vision and song, and in that world Abel also becomes an agonizing problem for Ben.
Ben's Indianness can find expression only through his religion and his friendship with Abel, and in a world hostile to Indians both, Ben feels, must be sheltered and protected. This is one reason why he tries to shepherd Abel as he does at the factory and why he takes him into his home. That Ben truly believes he is acting in Abel's best interest is undeniable, and in a very real sense he is. Abel sorely needs the kind of support Ben provides, and if Tosamah's attempt to isolate Abel is a denial of his own Indianness, Ben's generous inclusion of Abel in his own life is a wonderfully rich expression of his. Moreover, by telling Abel of the old traditions and teaching him the old songs, Ben not only provides him with necessary spiritual sustenance in a world unresponsive to spiritual need, but prepares him for his return to Walatowa to try again, this time more successfully, to find himself in the life of his people. But Ben's concern for Abel is motivated by fear as well as by compassion. Tosamah feared that Abel "was going to get us all in trouble," and so does Ben. He speaks to Abel of things Indian, for, as we have seen, his own spirit requires as much, but throughout his narrative he emphasizes repeatedly Abel's inability to "get along." He understands why Abel has difficulty adjusting and implies that he himself has faced similar obstacles, but he never questions the need to accommodate oneself to the white man's world, and that is why he eventually loses patience with Abel. Abel's problems, in Ben's view, go beyond those which confront every relocated Indian, severe as these problems may be. What Tosamah recognizes as Abel's unyielding integrity Benally sees as sheer obstinacy; or rather, the sustaining illusion he has constructed about the "good life" in Los Angeles demands that he see it as such. After all, Abel has a steady job, a place to live, drinking buddies—everything he needs, Ben would believe, to make it in urban America. Yet despite these advantages, he persists in being a trial to those who care for him.
Abel scares Ben. He scares him when he subtly defies Martinez in the alley and he scares him during Tosamah's harangue about "longhairs and the reservation." In both instances his actions threaten to undermine Ben's illusions by confronting him with the truth that life in urban America is incompatible with his identity as an Indian. Benally, as Carole Oleson has said, has whitened himself considerably by removing his religion from his daily life. He retains the songs and traditions within himself, and that is good, but he also compromises the old religion by confining it like a retarded child whom the family loves but of whom they are ashamed. Like Angela St. John, whose affair with Abel in Walatowa puts her in touch, if only temporarily, with her body's potential for joy and wonder, he turns off his own light, as it were, denies his own intuitive wisdom in a futile attempt to avoid emotional and psychological conflicts which might prove irreconcilable. And like Father Olguin, Benally also preaches the white man's religion—not in the form of Christianity, as Olguin does, but in its true aspects of materialism and conformity; like both Olguin and his predecessor, Fray Nicolás, he would convert the Indian to a new and alien faith for, like them, he needs converts to vindicate his own. Thus it is that when Abel ultimately proves "unregenerate," the usually mild Benally, possessed by anger but more by fear, loses patience:
He wouldn't let anybody help him, and I guess I got mad, too, and one day we had a fight … he was just sitting there and saying the worst thing he could think of, over and over. I didn't like to hear that kind of talk, you know; it made me kind of scared, and I told him to cut it out. I guess I was more scared than mad; anyway I had had about all I could take.
As with Martinez and Tosamah earlier, Ben knew "something bad was going to happen and … didn't want any part of it." At this point Abel goes to look for Martinez, but even after he is gone and Ben cools off, Ben nonetheless maintains that "It had to stop, you know; something had to happen."
Benally, then, like Tosamah, is a priest whose saving message, because he has divorced his religion from his everyday life, has an ironic as well as a revelatory dimension. It is especially ironic that despite his deeper, more sincere spirituality, Ben lacks Tosamah's awareness of the redemptive potential of the old ways of seeing and knowing. As the "Night Chanter," Ben, as we have seen, is essential to any hope Abel has for recovery, but Ben himself does not see the sharing of himself and his religion in this way. The road to recovery he consciously charts, as we have also seen, involves passively assimilating the values and accommodating oneself to the demands of white America, even at the cost of one's heritage and identity. Thus the role of "Night Chanter" assumes a second, and contrary, meaning. Though with the best intentions, Benally also, and quite unknowingly, chants the dark night of the soul, the tortured, fragmented, solipsistic state of being that Los Angeles comes to symbolize in the novel. Through the distorting lens of his own desperate need for some sense of meaning to his life, Ben sees an urban paradise, and it is this vision that he consciously advances as salvation.
Though it exists to differing degrees in each of them and, given their enormously diverse natures, manifests itself in various ways, Martinez, Tosamah, and Benally all share a single quality: self-contempt. Each is ashamed of being what he is, of being an Indian, and that is why Abel, when he is relocated in Los Angeles, becomes a kind of sacrifice to their fear and desperation. A "longhair" from the reservation, he is, among other things, a constant reminder to them of how they are perceived by the dominant culture and of that which has made them wretched. They have been made to feel, against all logic and common sense, that their suffering is somehow deserved because of what they are; thus each of them projects his own diminished sense of self upon Abel and responds to that self in his own way. Martinez tries to obliterate it through violence, Tosamah tries to disassociate himself from it, and Benally tries to remake it to fit the white world he inhabits. The issue is agonizingly complicated, however, because the very Indianness within them which they have been taught to hate is that which they intuitively love. Tosamah and Benally especially know in their very depths that fulfillment and wholeness lie in the realization and free expression of their Indian selves. Tosamah has made a long journey to the land of his people to rediscover his Indianness, and Ben hoards the old songs like treasure within his heart. Therefore, their self-contempt is further intensified by a profound sense of guilt stemming from their perceived inability to live their Indianness, by what they themselves see as a personal betrayal of their heritage and of themselves. However, though it saddens him, Momaday does not condemn the urban Indians for feeling as they do. Their self-hatred is in fact his most telling indictment of a modern America which relentlessly tries to compel its native peoples to barter dignity and self-respect for material, emotional, and psychological survival.
This section contains 5,331 words
(approx. 18 pages at 300 words per page)