House Made of Dawn | Critical Essay by Linda Hogan

This literature criticism consists of approximately 16 pages of analysis & critique of House Made of Dawn.
This section contains 4,560 words
(approx. 16 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Linda Hogan

SOURCE: "Who Puts Together," in Studies in American Indian Literature: Critical Essays and Course Designs, edited by Paula Gunn Allen, Modern Language Association of America, 1983, pp. 169-77.

Hogan is a Chickasaw poet, short story writer, novelist, playwright, and essayist. In the following essay, she relates Momaday's focus on healing and his incorporation of Native American chants in House Made of Dawn.

N. Scott Momaday, in his novel House Made of Dawn, draws on the American Indian oral tradition in which words function as part of the poetic processes of creation, transformation, and restoration. Much of the material in the novel derives from the Navajo Night Chant ceremony and its oral use of poetic language as a healing power. The author, like the oral poet/singer, is "he who puts together" a disconnected life through a step-by-step process of visualization. This visualization, this seeing, enables both the reader and Abel, the main character, to understand the dynamic interrelatedness in which all things exist and which heals. By combining the form of the Navajo healing ceremony with Abel's experience, Momaday creates harmony out of alienation and chaos, linking the world into one fluid working system.

Momaday is able to achieve this harmony because of his awareness of the language and poesis used in Navajo Chantway practice. The Night Chant is a complex ceremony for healing patients who are out of balance with the world. Its purpose is to cure blindness, paralysis, deafness, and mental disorders by restoring the patient to a balance with the universe, through symbolic actions and through language in the form of song or prayer. Words used to paint images and symbols in the minds of participants evoke visual and imaginative responses from and in the hearer. By multiplying, through speech, the number of visual images in the mind of the hearer, the ceremony builds momentum. Language takes on the power of generation. Various forms of verbal repetition intensify the rhythm, and as description and rhythm build, words become a form of internal energy for the listener.

With knowledge of how language and creative visualization work, a capable singer or writer is able to intensify and channel this energy that derives from words. Sound, rhythm, imagery, and symbolic action all combine so that the language builds and releases, creating stability and equilibrium. [In his 1974 Four Masterworks of American Indian Literature] John Bierhorst regards this buildup and release of tension as a form of charged energy: words are positively and negatively charged and resemble electricity. The plus and minus charges allow a transmission of force: "Their ceremonial method is twofold; on one hand the ritual repulses 'evil,' on the other it attracts 'holiness.' Accordingly, each of its separate rites may be categorized as either repulsive or attractive, as either purgative or additory."

An Excerpt from House Made of Dawn

He had killed the white man. It was not a complicated thing, after all; it was very simple. It was the most natural thing in the world. Surely they could see that, these men who meant to dispose of him in words. They must know that he would kill the white man again, if he had the chance, that there could be no hesitation whatsoever. For he would know what the white man was, and he would kill him if he could. A man kills such an enemy if he can.

He awoke coughing; there was blood in his throat and mouth. He was shuddering with cold and pain. He had been moaning softly until he choked; now he was gasping for breath. There was a faint vibration under him. Be quiet! He had to be quiet; something was going on. He peered into the night: all around the black land against the star-bright, moon-bright sky. So far had his vision reached that the owl, when he saw it, seemed to fly in his face and break apart, torrential, ghostly, silent as a dream. He was delirious now and gasping for breath; he hurried on in his mind, holding the owl away in the corner of his eye. The owl watched him without meaning, and something was going on. There was the faintest tremor at his feet. The night was infinite and serene, and there was an owl in the darkness and a tremor in the earth. He got down on his knees and put his ear to the ground. Men were running toward him. He left the road and hid away in the brush, and soon he could see them in the distance, the old men running after evil, their white leggings holding in motion like smoke above the ground. They passed in the night, full of tranquillity, certitude. There was no sound of breathing or sign of effort about them. They ran as water runs.

There was a burning at his eyes.

The runners after evil ran as water runs, deep in the channel, in the way of least resistance, no resistance. His skin crawled with excitement; he was overcome with longing and loneliness, for suddenly he saw the crucial sense in their going, of old men in white leggings running after evil in the night. They were whole and indispensable in what they did; everything in creation referred to them. Because of them, perspective, proportion, design in the universe. Meaning because of them. They ran with great dignity and calm, not in the hope of anything, but hopelessly; neither in fear nor hatred nor despair of evil, but simply in recognition and with respect. Evil was. Evil was abroad in the night; they must venture out to the confrontation; they must reckon dues and divide the world.

Now, here, the world was open at his back. He had lost his place. He had been long ago at the center, had known where he was, had lost his way, had wandered to the end of the earth, was even now reeling on the edge of the void. The sea reached and leaned, licked after him and withdrew, falling off forever in the abyss. And the fishes …

N. Scott Momaday, in his House Made of Dawn, Harper & Row, 1968.

This verbal and symbolic accumulation and exorcism have a parallel effect on the body. The mind produces sympathetic responses within the organism. In The Seamless Web, Stanley Burnshaw discusses the physiological effects of language. He claims that "the sources of an artist's vision involve aspects of biological responses and processes of accumulation and release to which no investigation has yet found access." Although Burnshaw is concerned more with the creative act as a release, he finds that the biological organism responds to the suggestion of words and images. In this way, healing can occur as a result of the proper use of language—language as a vehicle for vision, as a means of imagination.

Momaday makes use of accumulation and release in various sections of House Made of Dawn. Before Abel can be returned to balance, he is undone in many ways by language. In the exorcistic sections, Abel is broken down by language, his own as well as that of others. We see him taken apart by the words of those who rely on the destructive rather than on the creative capabilities of language: "Word by word by word these men were disposing of him in language, their language."

The word stands for what it signifies. It has both the power of creation and the power of destruction. For those who do not understand this potential of language, words lack power. Words degraded and overused are capable of destruction. Using language without knowledge of its functions diminishes its creative power. And there is a difference between the understanding that Navajos and other Indian people have of language and the way in which white people use language:

The white man takes such things as words and literatures for granted…. He has diluted and multiplied the word, and words have begun to close in upon him. He is sated and insensitive; his regard for language—for the Word itself—as an instrument of creation has nearly diminished to the point of no return. It may be that he will perish by the Word.

Abel's muteness is a form of paralysis. He is unable to put the past together in his mind, to make use of his own language to make himself whole:

He had tried in the days that followed to speak to his grandfather, but he could not say the things he wanted; he had tried to pray, to sing, to enter into the old rhythm of the longue, but he was no longer attuned to it. And yet it was there still, like memory, in the reach of his hearing…. Had he been able to say it, anything of his own language—even the commonplace formula of greeting "Where are you going"—which had no being beyond sound, no visible substance, would once again have shown him whole to himself; but he was dumb. Not dumb—silence was the older and better part of the custom still—but inarticulate.

Abel's inability to articulate, to form a song or prayer, keeps him from achieving wholeness. Without language, his own or that of others, he is unable to visualize. Remembering imprisonment, he realizes the need for imaginative vision and knows that his own lack of seeing narrows the world even more than did the walls of his cell: "After a while he could not imagine anything beyond the walls except the yard outside, the lavatory, and the dining hall—or even the walls really." But after he gains a full awareness of language, vision opens up to him. In "The Priest of the Sun" section, Abel recalls several incidents that reveal the importance of language. He remembers Tosamah's sermon on the Word, Benally's recitation of the Night Chant, Francisco's chanting and praying, and Olguin's discussion of "acts of the imagination" and legal terminology. After this awareness, this memory of language, occurs, Abel's vision takes place. It descends on him like a miracle of health. He sees the runners, "the crucial sense in their going, of old men in white leggings running after evil in the night. They were whole and indispensable in what they did; everything in creation referred to them…." And Abel, at this turning point where memories begin to piece together, sees the division and loss of balance that have affected him:

Now, here, the world was open at his back. He had lost his place. He had been long ago at the center, had known where he was, had lost his way, had wandered to the end of the earth, was even now reeling on the edge of the void.

Imagination and vision follow language. Description allows seeing. The potential of language to heal and restore lies in its ability to open the mind and to make the world visible, uniting all things into wholeness just as the runners are whole and indispensable.

That Abel is divided is obvious. He is a person incapable of speech, one who "could not put together in his mind," or imagine. Momaday, in his essay "The Man Made of Words," addresses this contemporary division of self from the world and the problem of how the inability to visualize, to imagine, keeps us from harmony with the rest of creation:

We have become disoriented, I believe; we have suffered a kind of psychic dislocation of ourselves in time and space…. I doubt that any of us knows where he is in relation to the stars and to the solstices. Our sense of the natural order has become dull and unreliable. Like the wilderness itself, our sphere of instinct has diminished in proportion as we have failed to imagine truly what it is.

The imaginative experience, inspired by the images and symbols of language, becomes a form of salvation. Just as language takes apart and distances, it can also put together. When this crisis of imagination is healed, restoration takes place. Those who understand the potential of words as accumulated energy, as visualization of the physical, can find balance and wholeness. Words used properly and in context, whether in written prose or in the oral form of prayer and incantation, return us to ourselves and to our place in the world. They unify the inner and outer. In this respect, for Abel and for the reader, House Made of Dawn works much like the Night Chant. It focuses the imagination, creates a one-pointedness of mind through concrete images. It breaks down and then builds momentum, using the two forces to restore balance.

Language as accumulation is a means of intensifying the power of words. This accumulation combined with the exorcistic, or release, sections of the book takes Abel on a journey of healing, a return to the sacred and to the traditional. When words take on these powers, one is careful with them, careful not to dilute and diminish their meanings as white people have done. Each word needs to carry weight, and this is central to Momaday's understanding of language as a distillation where meaning is intensified by careful use of words. When Tosamah speaks of his grandmother, he shows an understanding of both the healing function of condensed language and the importance of the imaginative journey, guided by words:

She was asking me to go with her to the confrontation of something that was sacred and eternal. It was a timeless, timeless thing…. You see, for her words were medicine; they were magic and invisible…. And she never threw words away.

Tosamah is able through language to reach some "strange potential of Himself." The ability to say, in poetic form, that which is unspeakable, to create and hold an image in the mind, gives language its power. What is spoken is seen. Words draw images and symbols out of the mind. They take hold of the moment and make it eternal. Tosamah, who in a sense speaks for Momaday, reaches that "strange potential" by experiencing the language he has spoken. He speaks as an inspired poet. As mythically the word created the earth, Tosamah's language creates vision. He is inspired by the language that speaks through him and by its capacity to recover, mentally, the world from which people have become divided. As Octavio Paz says of the poet, [in Alternating Current], "Through the word we may regain the lost kingdom and recover powers we possessed in the far-distant past. These powers are not ours. The man inspired, the man who really speaks, does not say anything personal; language speaks through his mouth."

Language, speaking through Tosamah, restores him to unity with the world. After his speech, he steps back from the lectern, and "In his mind the earth was spinning and the stars rattled around in the heavens. The sun shone, and the moon." He recognizes that a single star is enough to fill the mind and that the value of language lies in its ability to operate on the mind.

Abel also realizes his potential through language, through Benally's recitation of the Night Chant and through Francisco's memories that are "whole." As in the Night Chant, order is achieved through an imaginative journey: Benally takes Abel through this step-by-step process of visualization, singing parts of the Night Chant ceremony. Understanding the power words hold and the sacred action they contain, he sings quietly:

       Restore my feet for me;
       Restore my legs for me,
       Restore my body for me,
       Restore my mind for me,
       Restore my voice for me.

This excerpt from the Night Chant allows the hearer to visualize each part of the body being healed, from the feet up to the voice. The purpose of describing health is to obtain health. This purpose is furthered by taking the patient on an imaginative journey and returning him, restored to himself. Sam Gill, talking about the nature of Navajo ceremonials [in his "Prayer as Person," History of Religions 17, No. 2 (1977)], points out that "The semantic structure of the prayer is identical to the effect the prayer seeks, the restoration of health." Benally continues, and his singing returns Abel home to his grandfather, Francisco:

       Happily I go forth.
       My interior feeling cool, may I walk.
       No longer sore, may I walk.
       Impervious to pain, may I walk.
       With lively feelings, may I walk.
       As it used to be long ago, may I walk.
       Happily may I walk.

Francisco's dying memories continue the journey, completing the ceremony for Abel. The memories are similar to those Abel experiences in the first section of the book, and they symbolically connect the two men, using identification, which is also an important function of the language in the Night Chant, where the patient and singer identify with the holy ones. Because "the voice of his memory was whole and clear and growing like the dawn," Francisco's words finally restore Abel. Abel, running, at the end of the book, is finally able to sing, and the words he hears are from the Night Chant: "House made of pollen, house made of dawn."

Momaday's use of the journey derives from oral tradition, in which the journey is used as a symbolic act that takes the hearer out of his or her body. The journey is an "act of the imagination" fired by language. In The Way to Rainy Mountain, Momaday defines the psychic potential of the mental, or symbolic, journey as a miracle of imagination made up of mythology and legend, an idea in itself:

It is a whole journey, intricate with motion and meaning; and it is made with the whole memory, that experience of the mind which is legendary as well as historical, personal as well as cultural.

He says that the imaginative recalling of the journey reveals the way in which "these traditions are conceived, developed, and interfused in the mind." It is this interfusion with which we are concerned. The interfusion of things in the mind acts as a catalyst, merging myth, history, and personal experience into one shape, to reassemble the divisions of the self.

Healers and singers from other nations or tribes are also familiar with this traditional use of language as journey, as interfusion. The Mazatec Indians in Mexico use a similar oral technique to cure disease. [Henry Munn notes in his "The Mushrooms of Language," an essay appearing in Michael Harner's 1973 Hallucinogens and Shamanism that a] medicine woman says of the patient, "Let us go searching for the tracks of her feet to encounter the sickness that she is suffering from." And the healer goes, imaginatively, out of her own body:

She is going on a journey, for there is distanciation and going there, somewhere without her even moving from the spot where she sits and speaks … and the pulsation of her being like the rhythm of walking.

The healer follows the footprints of the patient, looking for clues to the cause of disease in order to return the patient to balance.

Just as the symbolic journey in the Night Chant and the journey in House Made of Dawn have their physiological components, so the Mazatec healing ritual [according to Munn] has an organic, biological parallel: "it is as if the system were projected before one into a vision of the heart, the liver, lungs, genitals and stomach." Through seeing, through visualizing, the words interact with the nervous system. In traditional oral literature as well as in House Made of Dawn, speaking is healing.

Momaday's imaginative, visual creation and fusion of myth and history with the present returns us to the idea of positively and negatively charged language. For what takes place within the mind, acted on by language, also takes place within the body. Language conceived as accumulation and release is language that can pass the reader/hearer across a threshold into equilibrium. Burnshaw, in a discussion of creativity, focuses on the transformational qualities of words used in this capacity:

… a creative artist inhales the surrounding world and exhales it. Whatever is taken in is given back in altered condition or transformed into matter, action, feeling, thought. And in the cases of creative persons, an additional exhalation: in the form of words or sounds or shapes capable of acting upon others with the force of an object alive in their surrounding worlds.

Such an object arises out of characteristic cycles of accumulation and release….

A singer, writer, or healer is able to unite the internal with the external. This unity of word with the force of an object is the theoretical framework for House Made of Dawn. The structure of the book replicate the progression of the Night Chant, making use of mythology, history, symbolism, and creation to stimulate response in the reader. Just as the Night Chant ceremony seeks to duplicate the universe in the mind of the hearer, Momaday creates a model of the universe in the book. Each section contains repetitions of images and symbols of the universe that are fragmented and need to be united again into one dynamic system.

These repetitions are important in channeling the energy of language. In Navajo Chantway practice, according to Gladys Reichard, the more often something is repeated, the more power it has to concentrate the mind and focus attention. Through this concentration, through a balance brought about by accumulation and release, the union of time, space, and object takes place within the imagination. The words of prose or poetry function like an opening of the self into the universe and the reciprocal funneling of the universe into the self.

This repetition and the replication of the universe assist seeing, or vision. [According to Elizabeth Sewell in her 1971 The Orphic Voice, language] in this poetic function, which resembles the oral traditions, "provides a double system of images and forms for the body and mind to work with in seeking to understand one system by another." It is as though two universes, or systems, one internal and the other external, act simultaneously upon the hearer and fuse together. Inner and outer merge and become the same. Words are linked with the objects they designate. Past and present merge. This comes about through the circular organization of the book, the expansion and contraction and the order that give the book its sense of poetic presence and immediacy.

These methods are characteristic of oral tradition, in which the word and the object are equal and in which all things are united and in flux. The distinctions between inner and outer break down. Momaday, making use of these oral techniques in his poetic language, returns Abel, along with the reader, to an earlier time "before an abyss had opened between things and their names" [Octavio Paz, The Bow and the Lyre, 1973].

This return gives to words a new substance and power not unlike that of oral ritual. The life of the word and the fusion of word and object, by means of the visual imagination, return the participant or reader to an original source that is mythic, where something spoken stands for what is spoken about and there is [according to Momaday in his "Man Made of Words"] "no difference between the telling and that which is told." It is a form of dynamic equilibrium in which all things are assembled into wholeness and integrated and in which persons can "name and assimilate."

Speaking or hearing becomes a form of action. Reichard comments [in her 1944 Prayer: The Compulsive Word], "The Navajo believe, in common with many American Indians, that thought is the same or has the same potentiality as word. To thought and words they add deed, so that there is no use trying to differentiate." Words are actions that have the ability to align and heal. This concept is the basis for the Night Chant, in which the patient identifies with the gods, goes on a symbolic journey, and is made holy. By the patient's visualizing the action, the action takes place and the patient is restored. [According to Gill, the] ceremony consists of "words the utterance of which is actually the doing of an action." Abel's ability to see, to concentrate his being, at the end of the book is the result of language.

Words, therefore, are a materialization of consciousness. And deeds are the manifestation of words. By evoking in the hearer or reader a one-pointedness of mind, the poem, song, or prayer becomes more than just expression. It is a form of divine utterance that moves us to action, that is action itself. It is an extension of the internal into the external.

Language used in this way becomes a form of dynamic energy, able to generate and regenerate. Attention, focused by language, has the power to give existence to something imagined. Words, sung or written, cast off their ordinary use and become charged with a luminous new energy. They accumulate the power to return us to a unity of word and being, linking the internal with the external. As in the Orphic tradition, language creates the world and lets the world return through the song or the word.

The song or word in oral tradition is responsible for all things, all actions. According to Navajo accounts, the universe was created by the word. According to Reichard, the Navajo say that in prehuman times the original state of the universe was one word. Tosamah, a Kiowa, also acknowledges this creative ability of the word and understands that through this creation (which was the word) all things begin and are ordered:

Do you see? There, far off in the darkness, something happened. Do you see? Far, far away, in the nothingness something happened. There was a voice, a sound, a word, and everything began.

Language perceived as creation and as a unity of word and being has the power to heal. Combining the oral elements of word energy created by accumulation and release, imaginative journey and visualization, Momaday restores Abel to his place within the equilibrium of the universe. Momaday assumes the traditional role of speaker as healer by permitting Abel and the reader to see the order of the universe. He speaks as a poet, combining the verbal and the visual. Language restores the poet to this role as the primordial speaker "whose power of language undergirds the word, thus to provide man with a dwelling place." [Gerald L. Bruns, Modern Poetry and the Idea of Language: A Critical and Historical Study, 1974]. When the world is engaged and all things are seen and understood as one great working system, balance and healing take place, and this is beyond language.

The ability of the word to control visualization and therefore unite all things is the concept behind House Made of Dawn and the Navajo Night Chant. [According to Sam Gill, in his "The Trees Stood Rooted," Parabola 2, No. 2 (1977) the] speaker understands that the "Magic of the Word lies in the fact that it is capable through image and symbol of placing the speaker in communion with his own language and with the entire world." The healing that takes place beyond language comes of the resonance, the after-image of speech in the imagination. The visual energy remains, having been sparked by words. In literature, whether oral or written, it is that which allows us to "put together" in the mind. Restoration follows language and results from the figurative aspects of words and their ability to open out the imagination and thereby affect the physiological. As energy, language contains the potential to restore us to a unity with earth and the rest of the universe. Accumulation, repetition, and resonance all unite to tie us, seamlessly, to the world.

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