This section contains 3,454 words
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Critical Essay by Marion Willard Hylton
SOURCE: "On a Trail of Pollen: Momaday's House Made of Dawn," in Critique, Vol. XIV, No. 2, 1972, pp. 60-9.
In the following essay, Hylton presents a thematic analysis of House Made of Dawn, relating "the tragic odyssey of a man forcibly removed from [the Native American psychic environment and placed within a culture light-years away from the attitudes, values, and goals of his former life."]
Abel was the land and he was of the land; he was a long-hair and from that single fact stemmed the fearsome modern dilemma explored by N. Scott Momaday in House Made of Dawn. Abel is an Indian of the American Southwest, a member of a culture for whom Nature is the one great reality to which men's lives are pegged, the only verity upon which men may rely. Within this massive concept lie all the religion, all the mores and ethics, all the spiritual truth any man may require. To shatter the concept is to shatter the man. Momaday describes the tragic odyssey of a man forcibly removed from this psychic environment and placed within a culture light-years away from the attitudes, values, and goals of his former life. His anguished ordeal, heightened by his encounter with a white woman, endows him at last with courage and wisdom; he comes to know who he is and what he must do to maintain that identity.
In the Indian view, the universe or Nature is a great cosmological unity characterized by a harmony and oneness of all living things. Religion is not a thing apart from life, it is life itself. Oral communication is minimal; words are not needed between people sharing a common culture whose limitations and capabilities are known to all. Abel growing up in this timeless tradition is endowed with an understanding that transcends the ordinary limits of the word: "the boy could sense his grandfather's age, just as he knew somehow that his mother was soon going to die of her illness. It was nothing he was told, but he knew it anyway and without understanding, as he knew already the motion of the sun and the seasons."
After four centuries of Christianity, the essential way of life is unchanged. The people still pray to the old deities in their own language. They have assumed the names and some of the habits of their enemies but have kept their own souls and their own secrets: "in this there is a resistance and an overcoming, a long outwaiting." Evil spirits as well as good are a part of the pantheon, and Momaday uses both in the unfolding of his remarkable novel. Slowly, by means of fragmentary glimpses into the lives of Abel, Ben, Francisco, and others, Momaday leads to an understanding not only of the Indian's dilemma in the modern world, but of Abel's particular torment and what brought it about.
Francisco, Abel's grandfather, has lived all his life on the reservation, within and a part of this culture. The important events of his life are totally alien to outsiders: the ritual killing of the bear to symbolize the coming of age, the marks of pollen made above the eyes of the bear, the arduous period of instruction preliminary to his participation in a sacred ceremony, and the healing powers he later acquires as a result of his growing "understanding." In many ways, Abel and his grandfather are much alike and only a very careful reading of some passages will make clear which of them is being referred to.
One is reminded that the diminutive of Abel, "Abelito", is much like "Abuelito", the affectionate term for grandfather. The resemblance is not accidental, of course; in a sense, his close attachment to his grandfather and the old ways is the burden Abel must struggle with during the course of the novel.
Abel is not a superficial human being. His suffering is profound and moving, as is the catharsis wrought by that suffering. In a striking passage describing the shoes Abel wears when he leaves the reservation, Momaday points up the differences in attitude: "they squeaked when he walked. In the only frame of reference he had ever known, they called attention to themselves, simply, honestly … but now and beyond his former frame of reference, the shoes called attention to Abel. They were brown and white and they were conspicuously new and too large … they shone; they clattered and creaked … and they were nailed to his feet. There were enemies all around, and he knew that he was ridiculous in their eyes." Years later, after a stint in the army, he returns, reeling drunkenly from the steps of the noisy bus into the arms of his weeping grandfather: "everything in advance of his going—he could remember whole and in detail. It was the recent past, the intervention of days and years without meaning, of awful calm and collision, time always immediate and confused, that he could not put together in his mind." Fully twenty-four hours elapse before Abel begins to realize where he is, both geographically and culturally. Not until he walks out, just before dawn, to a high and distant hill where he sees the vast beauty of the valleys and remembers incidents from his youth, does a kind of peace come to him. But it does not last. Less than two weeks later, during the feast of Santiago, an evil spirit reveals himself to Abel, who, acting entirely within the Indian tradition, kills him.
The albino or, significantly, the white man, has been seen earlier as a figure of evil when Francisco heard whisperings from the corn and was afraid; after he left, the albino emerged or rather seemed to materialize from the green leaves. Since corn is life itself to the Indian, to hear an evil spirit breathing in the corn is a dangerous thing. A snake, or culebra, is likewise a symbol of evil, and when the albino threatens to turn into a snake, Abel's course is clear. Significantly, after his years in prison his attitude is unchanged. "They must know," Ben says, "that he would kill the white man again, if he had the chance … 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."
Abel's real suffering and purgation begin after he leaves prison and wanders to Los Angeles. There he meets Ben, Milly, and Tosamah. Ben, like Abel, has been raised on the reservation but has managed to make an adjustment of sorts. Ben can compromise; he is willing to overlook evil or unkindness and is able to see good in most situations: "You know, you have to change. That's the only way you can live in a place like this. You have to forget about the way it was, how you grew up and all … You wonder how you can get yourself into the swing of it, you know?… And you want to do it, because you can see how good it is … it's money and clothes and having plans and going someplace fast." Because Ben wants to be a part of it, he is willing to live on the fringe of white society, like a child outside a candy store window. When he speaks, one can clearly hear the voice of a lonely man: "this place is always cold and kind of empty when it rains," "you never have to be alone. You go downtown and there are a lot of people all around and they're having a good time." Ben has not yet admitted to himself that he is only an outsider; he feels the American Dream is his, too, and he is committed to pursuing it. "I could find someplace with a private bathroom if I wanted to, easy. A man with a good job can do just about anything he wants."
Tosamah (John Big Bluff Tosamah) is a very different sort of man. Like Ben he acknowledges his heritage but is not chained to it like Abel. "Priest of the Sun" is a key section for understanding the Indian concept of "The Word" as opposed to the Christian. Tosamah begins by stating in Latin, "In Principio erat Verbum." Caught up in the mystery of the words, he continues, "in the darkness … the smallest seed of sound … took hold of the darkness and there was light; it took hold out of the stillness and there was motion forever … it scarcely was; but it was and everything began." But at this point, his voice and attitude abruptly switch from that of a priest to that of a huckster, as he tells how this mystery was corrupted by a Christian interpretation: "But it was more than the Truth. The Truth was overgrown with fat; the fat was John's god and God stood between John and the Truth … and he said, 'In the Beginning was the Word …' and man, right then and there he should have stopped … Old John was a white man and the white man builds upon [the word], he adds and divides and multiplies the Word and in all of this he subtracts the Truth." Tosamah's bitterness can be heard in his parting words to his "parishoners": "Good night and get yours."
Tosamah, the Priest of the Sun, is as much an outsider in white society as Father Olguin is in Indian society. The dry, mechanical Mass which Father Olguin conducts contrasts interestingly with the peyote ritual at which Tosamah presides, where the mysticism each participant comes to feel is translated into a moving and spontaneous prayer without the embarrassment of spoken prayer; it is part of the old tradition. The tears of one of the participants are not despised, they are accepted; weeping is no disgrace if the occasion calls for weeping. The Mass has the bread, the wine, the incense, the bell; the peyote ritual has the peyote buttons, the prayer sticks, the "makings," and the drummer. The Indian's ritual marking is with pollen, and the priest's with ashes. Tosamah reverts to a caricature of American speech in explaining the impact of peyote: "that little old woolly booger turns you on like a light, man. Daddy peyote is the vegetal representation of the sun," recalling the transformation of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ.
Where the Indian view is at one with Nature, one might say the Catholic view, as typified by Father Olguin and Angela Grace St. John, exists in spite of Nature; the basic difference would seem to doom in advance any hope of accord. Reflecting the missionary zeal which is characteristic of his faith, Father Olguin tries over the years to enlarge his small flock and to urge his parishoners away from the old ways. In the end, he comes to recognize tacitly that some old and final cleavage still exists which he can never bridge. He tries, however, to make the legal authorities understand, as best he can, what prompted Abel to kill the albino. Once again we see the clash of the two cultures: "I believe that this man was moved to do what he did by an act of imagination so compelling as to be inconceivable to us…. Yes, yes, yes. But these are the facts: he killed a man—took the life of another human being…. Homicide is a legal term, but the law is not my context; and certainly it isn't his…. Murder is a moral term. Death is a universal human term."
Both the parole officer and the Relocation people attempt to keep Abel out of trouble, but his problems only deepen. "They have a lot of words," as Ben says, "and you know they mean something but you don't know what … Everything is different and you don't know how to get used to it." Ben understands Abel's plight, and is compassionate. Tosamah understands and is contemptuous.
Ben and Milly literally keep Abel alive in his darkest hours. Where he has understanding based on knowledge, she has understanding based on love. "She was a lot like Ben. She believed in Honor, Industry, the Second Chance, the Brotherhood of Man, the American Dream and him—Abel; she believed in him." She also loved him; she gave him money, a place to stay, and ministered to his needs out of love. On a few rare occasions, she could even make him laugh. But Milly is gentle and vulnerable. And Abel is possessed by an evil spirit. They are drawn together by their awful loneliness, but it is not enough. All her experience had been a getting away from the land where his had been a returning. At the height of his suffering, her name echoes through his mind; only her name, and a question mark. Sadly, the name is remembered, but not the identity.
Abel sinks ever deeper in the white world's web. One night, too drunk and helpless to answer Tosamah's taunts, he sets out to seek some kind of release, to kill the evil spirit, the culebra, that has brought about his misery. Instead of exorcising the evil, he undergoes a mortal combat (presumably at the hands of Martinze, the sadistic cop) that leaves him broken and near death. "He had lost his place. He had long ago been 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 waned, licked after him and with-drew, falling off forever in the abyss."
Abel, badly beaten and lying on the beach, is unable to see because of his swollen eyes. We remember that Father Olguin's vision is also poor and that the albino masks his weak sight with small dark glasses. All, in one way or another, "see" with difficulty. The albino's vision is clouded by evil, Father Olguin's by his Christian beliefs, and Abel's by not accepting his birthright. If Abel's suffering suggests that of Oedipus, then we might say that the grunion form a chorus, and it is no mean comparison. Momaday's evocation of the grunion metaphor seems singularly appropriate for the situation. They, like Abel, belong to the natural order of things; they respond from the tradition of centuries, only to fall victim to the wanton ways of the white man. Abel, too, has been beaten by an evil spirit of the white world and must somehow get back to his own environment in order to survive. "His body was mangled and racked with pain. His body, like his mind, had turned on him; it was his enemy." He has tried to do what seemed to him must be done: extirpate evil. But he has failed; in the white man's world, right and wrong are not the same, and the old values somehow do not apply. He remembers seeing, in his youth, the old men running after evil. Here, it is not the same. He knows at last that he must survive beyond his pain, and return to the life he understands.
Abel has indeed, "lost his place." A reason for his particular suffering lies in the ancient Indian belief that all secrets, even those of sorcery and evil, are divulged during sexual intercourse. Abel had lain with a woman, Angela Grace St. John, and both were altered by the experience.
When Angela comes to live at Los Ojos (The Eyes), she is a distant, disturbed woman. Her attitudes are as far as possible from the Indian's. She keeps herself coldly apart from human contact and "would have her bath and read from the lives of the saints." She despises her body and the child growing within her: "She could think of nothing more vile and obscene than the raw flesh and blood of her body, the ravelled veins and gore upon her bones. And now the monstrous fetal form, the blue, blind, great headed thing growing within and feeding upon her … at odd moments she wished with all her heart to die by fire, fire of such intense heat that her body should dissolve in it all at once." To the suggestion of disharmony is added the hint of evil: Abel would not bargain, hence, "it remained for her to bring about a vengeance."
Their coming together is an epiphany for each of them; she draws from him a kind of vision she has never experienced before, a "knowingness" of who she is, and of her relationship to other living things and to life itself. But the evil spirit which has hitherto clouded her days now descends upon him. "Angela put her white hands to his body. Abel put his hands to her white body."
Father Olguin is the first to sense the change in her. He has seen her as an ally with whom he can share his world of words; a fellow outsider in the Indian world. But "she listened through him to the sound of thunder and of rain that fell upon the mountains miles away,… she had a craving for the rain … 'Oh, my God' she said, laughing, 'I am heartily sorry … for having offended Thee.'" Her laughter horrifies him almost as much as her confession.
When the sky darkens and the storm breaks, Angela no longer fears nor shrinks from Nature: she "stood transfixed in the open door and breathed deep into her lungs the purest electric scent of the air. She closed her eyes, and the clear aftervision of the rain, which she could still hear and feel so perfectly as to conceive of nothing else, obliterated all the mean and myriad fears that had laid hold of her in the past." From that moment on, evil stalks Abel's steps; the disharmony and alienation that had characterized Angela's life now infects his.
Not until years later, when she visits Abel in the hospital and, in effect, releases him, does the evil finally begin to ebb. As she speaks of her son, Peter, and the Indian tales he loves to hear, Ben remembers the stories told by his grandfather who spoke from the legends of his heritage. Abel understands; he does not speak, nor refer to her visit afterwards. Hearing Angela and seeing how she has changed has at last made clear to him just how and why he has lost his way.
House Made of Dawn is an intricately structured novel, and difficult to analyze. Time, for the Indian, is conceived not as a rigidly divided set of days, months, and years, but as experience and wisdom and knowledge, occurring today or yesterday or many yesterdays ago. Memory is the only immortality. Through memory history is transmitted from generation to generation. Memory, too, presents the novel; events from Francisco's past, or from Abel's, Ben's, or Tosamah's, are juxtaposed with events of the present moment, giving the reader a dimensional montage of thought and attitude.
Few of us suffer from our pasts as Abel must suffer. The Abel who comes back to the reservation to tend his dying grandfather is broken in body but healed in spirit. Wordlessly, he attends the last hours until death, then dresses the body according to the ancient ways. Summoned at night, the priest, significantly, is indignant over the time: "Good Heavens, couldn't you have waited until—Do you know what time it is?" By then, Abel indeed knows what time it is as far as his life is concerned, and he knows, too, that the particular hour of the day or night is of no consequence. Father Olguin, for all his good intentions, understands the Indian no better than his late nineteenth-century predecessor, Fray Nicholas, who, we learn from the old journal, was called on a similar occasion only after the Indian rites had been performed on a body.
After a long and bitter odyssey and much suffering, Abel has come home. He knows at last where he belongs in the scheme of things. During the long vigil before Francisco's death, he begins once again to feel a peace and a kinship with his heritage: "it was the room in which he was born, in which his mother and his brother died. Just then, and for moments and hours and days, he had no memory of being outside of it." When Abel leaves the mission, rubs himself with ashes, and goes on to join the other dawn runners, he is not only assuming his role as male survivor of his family, but also completing the final phase of his own spiritual healing. As he runs, as he becomes a part of the orderly continuum of interrelated events that constitute the Indian universe, Abel is the land, and he is of the land once more.
This section contains 3,454 words
(approx. 12 pages at 300 words per page)