This section contains 7,254 words
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Critical Essay by Carole Oleson
SOURCE: "The Remembered Earth: Momaday's House Made of Dawn," in South Dakota Review, Vol. 11, No. 1, Spring, 1973, pp. 59-78.
In the following essay, Oleson analyzes the structure and symbolism of House Made of Dawn, paying close attention to the symbol of the earth.
Once in his life a man ought to concentrate his mind upon the remembered earth, I believe. He ought to give himself up to a particular landscape in his experience, to look at it from as many angles as he can, to wonder about it, to dwell upon it. He ought to imagine the creatures there and all the faintest motions of the wind. He ought to recollect the glare of noon and all the colors of the dawn and dusk.
The landscape is of central importance, holy in itself, and closely associated with Momaday's theme in House Made of Dawn, as it is in The Way to Rainy Mountain, from which the above quotation was taken. The two books are complementary; taken together they each contribute to the meaning of the other. The leisurely contemplation that Momaday asks a man to give to the earth, he asks his reader to give to House Made of Dawn. A single reading of a book as richly layered in meaning, as intricately structured, as forcefully compressed through the poetic device of abrupt juxtaposition without transition as this one is, leaves one with a vague impression of emptiness. One must look for a long time to appreciate fully the subtleties of its form.
Some of Momaday's reviewers have commented on the lack of plot line, the indistinctness of the characters, the mistiness of the novel as a whole. Plot and character development are insignificant compared to the wealth of patterns woven into the narrative, the power of the meaning carried in the unifying symbol of the everlasting earth. It is appropriate to judge the book by the conventional standards of plot and character development only if in fact it is a novel in the conventional sense. The difficulty is in classification; House Made of Dawn is not a short novel about Abel, but a long prose poem about the earth, about the people who have long known how to love it, and who can survive as a people if they will cling to that knowledge. This can be made more clear through a detailed examination of the structure and use of symbolism in each section.
In the prologue the book begins where it ends, with Abel on February 28, 1952, naked to the waist and smeared with ashes, running in the annual long race of the black men at dawn. The prologue is thus a flash-forward to the final scene of the book. All that Momaday will tell us of the human condition is summarized on that one page of prologue, but we must go on to the beginning of the story and curve around to the end, then read again the prologue in order to understand what he is saying here. More exactly, there is neither beginning nor end, for like the circle of the horizon on the open plain, the narrative moves around without break as the reader turns naturally from [the last page back to the beginning] and the eye begins a second sweep of the horizon, this time with more awareness of what it sees.
At first we view from a distance the large expanse of land under the light of dawn. "Still and strong" are key words striking the theme that will be repeated and developed throughout the book of the everlastingness of the earth, the strength that comes precisely from changeless change, the unending repetition of the seasonal cycle.
Then, we move in closer to focus on Abel running, also a key symbol. Here we have not only the cycle of seasons (the traditional race is annual on the day when the sun rises from the "saddle" of the mesa), but also the cycle of generations, for the most important event of Abel's grandfather's life was his victory over Mariano in this race in 1889. Continuity with a culture 25,000 years old is precariously maintained as each generation teaches the following one the old way. Abel, running as Francisco ran, does not break the chain of his fathers, a chain which is his strength, not his bond.
Finally, Momaday deals more explicitly with the themes of hope and despair implied in such symbols as dawn, land, and the running figure, now small in the distance.
For a time the sun was whole beneath the cloud; then it rose into eclipse, and a dark and certain shadow came upon the land.
When the sun is hidden by a cloud, Abel becomes at first glance a pitiable figure running through vastness that makes it seem as if he were making no progress out of the shadow, seeming "very little and alone." Yet a cloud is not so big compared to the whole sky; nor will it cover the sun forever.
This is no "heartbreaking novel" as the blurb on the paperback cover states; its major symbols are dawn, everlasting earth, and runners able to outlast their pain—all symbols of hope which contain a prophecy of the Indian culture's prevailing ultimately. Nor is it the proud natives who are strangers in their land, but the latecomers who have never known it intimately.
The seven chapters of Part 1 are the first of several groups of seven. Seven is a sacred number: the four directions plus the two of the vertical axis (up and down) plus the center. Its repetition makes a pattern, particularly in the similarity and spacing of Abel's reveries in the second chapter and Francisco's in the second from the last chapter. Such precision reminds one of the geometric design woven into cloth.
Part 1's title, "The Longhair," refers to the reservation Indian; the term is used pejoratively by Tosamah chiding Abel for his reluctance to adapt to urban industrial life. Momaday plays with the word in Part 1 by means of a snare made from a long horse hair attached to a bent reed in the river. The bird snare is introduced in the first chapter as Francisco checks it to see if he has caught a brightly colored bird for his prayer plume. "The Longhair" closes with a short chapter in which Francisco, riding out to his fields, mourns Abel's arrest. By habit, he looks for the bird snare as he drives his mares by the river; it is sprung. Through position in the story, the snare becomes a symbol of the trap set for Abel. Abel has killed the albino because he almost mystically perceived him as an enemy. The context of his thought and action here is "longhair," for Abel refuses to recognize the Euro-American legal structure in which killing such an enemy is not encouraged. To act upon the traditional values is to suffer at the hands of the invader.
Enclosed between the two references to the snare which are about equidistant from the beginning and ending of Part 1 are, among other things, (1) Abel's reminiscences, (2) the story of Abel's affair with a bored young matron, Angela St. Martin, (3) a perceptive picture of the priest, and through an old journal, of his predecessor, (4) the drama of Abel and the albino, and (5) the clearest and most complete statement of the theme in the book. I will briefly discuss each part in that order, although (2), (3), and (4) are interwoven in the narrative.
(1) Abel's memories give us essential details about his life that help us understand how he feels about his family, the traditions of his people, the land and the creatures upon it. Particularly significant are the related tales of the Bahkyush people and Abel's mercy killing of an eagle.
About a century before, twenty Bahkyush survivors of persecution and plague had joined their distant kin, bringing with them four sacred and ceremonial objects which helped them remember that they were a people. Those Euro-Americans who think of Native Americans as an anachronistic people who belong nostalgically and safely to the past will probably take this tale as mere sentimentality—the heartbreak of being a proud stranger in one's own land again. But, taken in context with other portions of the book, the message is clear: Native Americans must cherish the concept of being a people, cherish the ageless traditions. Pride and faith in their heritage will bring a destitute people out of misery into a better age. A parallel scarcely needs to be drawn between the Bahkyush and all other tribes threatened with cultural extinction by the European invaders.
The Eagle Watchers Society, the principal ceremonial organization of the Bahkyush, takes Abel on an eagle hunt. When Abel strangles a captive eagle, we sense with a jolt the unacceptable difference to him between the mighty bird in flight (described in one of the most beautiful passages in the book) and the "drab," "shapeless," "ungainly" bird in the sack.
The sight of it filled him with shame and disgust. He took hold of its throat in the darkness and cut off its breath.
Those two abrupt sentences may give us some insight into the high suicide rate among young Native Americans today and also why we are never given more than a flickering image from Abel's memory of the six years he spent in prison. The years of his captivity are evidently almost cut off from his consciousness.
(2) As ironic as Abel's encounter with obtuseness and brutality in The City of the Angels is the name of the adulterous Angela St. Martin, containing both angel and saint. She is in the early stages of sacred motherhood, piously attends mass, and reads the lives of the saints. Yet there is no sting in the irony, for Momaday draws her with sympathetic, if slightly amused, understanding. Though certainly no intellectual—her reading is apparently limited to the lives of the saints—she has the gift of poetic vision.
He leaned into the swing and drove; the blade flashed and struck, and the wood gaped open. Angela caught her breath and said, "I see."
The episode with Angela is an exquisitely-drawn picture of war between the sexes, and also between the races, in which no one really loses anything worth keeping, unless the reader interjects a moralism that is not in the narrative. Angela's loss of face is only funny, not dramatic or pathetic, because she had planned to amuse herself at his expense and was caught, defeated by his patience, his long waiting without concession. There is probably a lesson behind the fun which corresponds to that in other more edifying examples of perseverance.
(3) Father Olguin fits no simple stereotype; he can neither be admired as a blessing to the people he serves—though he sincerely tries to be good to them—nor condemned as a curse, though he fails to appreciate the value of their culture. Because Father Olguin identifies with Fray Nicolás, we may assume that he shares the former priest's attitudes revealed in such journal entries as the following:
Tomacita Fragua died this late morning & again I was not called to it. But the son-in-law Diego came in the afternoon & gave me leave to make the burial. I saw they had finished with her according to their dark custom & there was blue & yellow meal about on the floor.
and in a letter:
[Francisco] is evil…. He is one of them & goes often in the kiva & puts on their horns & hides & does worship that Serpent which even is the One our most ancient enemy. Yet he is unashamed to make one of my sacristans & brother I am most fearful to forbid it … Where is the Most Holy Spirit that he is not struck down at that moment? I have some expectations of it always & am disappointed. Why am I betrayed who cannot desire to betray? I am not deceived that he has been with Porcingula Pecos a vile one I assure you & she is already swoln up with it & likely diseased too God grant it.
Neither priest is conscious of the unholy spite and narrow prejudice in his attitude toward the people of Walatowa. The priests are more pitiable than reprehensible, for they are outsiders in the village, feeling rebuff but never understanding it, humiliated by the small role they play in the village life, hurt and bewildered by the people's unwillingness to reject their own religion in order to embrace Christianity more completely. The priests see themselves as models for the heathen, but the villagers relegate to them only a part of their religious traditions, adding Catholic mass to their ceremonial life while subtracting nothing of their own.
Father Olguin is also humorously out of touch with reality in his relationship with Angela. Proud of his ability to resist her strong attraction, he is reduced to childish fury when he realizes how easily she resists him. His celibacy is an almost-safe retreat like the safety of his bargain with the world to make a little place for himself in the Indian mission. Father Olguin is only half-blind, but then only half-seeing.
(4) If there is a mistiness in House Made of Dawn, the albino Indian is surely the center of the mist. Momaday refers to him as "the white man" in small letters, as if he were an ordinary, if striking, character. But there are signs that he stands for White Man: he is large, powerful, very skillful and brutal in contest; there is something unnatural about him, something repulsive to the point of horror in his huge face and lax lips. He wears dark-colored glasses as if his eyes were weak. An albino often has poor vision, making this an apt choice as symbol for hordes of white men who poured over the land, proving themselves insensitive and unseeing even when they were trying to be fair, which was not often. A sentence like:
Abel was not used to the game, and the white man was too strong and quick for him.
is heavy with double and even triple meaning, alluding possibly in a large historic sense to the land grab game played for centuries and still being played; or in a more immediate sense, perhaps to the game of making one's way in twentieth century America which Abel will play and lose in Walatowa, then in Los Angeles.
Mystery completely envelops the white man when in the first darkness of evening on July 28 he appears in the corn field, ominously watching Francisco finish a long day's hoeing. Francisco doesn't quite hear him, but he senses an "alien presence" which has been there a long time, recognized as evil.
(5) The chapter labeled July 28 begins with one of those passages of description that the hurried reader skips in his impatience to get on with the plot and character development. Yet nothing in the book is more vital to its theme than this passage. Momaday contrasts the wild animals that "have tenure in the land" and the "late-coming things"—the domestic animals. There is an implied analogy with Native Americans and Euro-Americans…. Domestic animals have a "poverty of vision and instinct" like Father Olguin's blind eye and the white man's weak eyes. They are "estranged from the wild land" like Milly's father (Part 3) in his war with the land he has come to hate.
The paragraph beginning, "Man came down the ladder" could serve as a thesis statement for the book. It says in part:
… as if the prehistoric civilization has gone out among the hills for a little while and would return; and then everything would be restored to an older age, and time would have returned upon itself and a bad dream of invasion and change would have been dissolved in an hour before the dawn. For man, too, has tenure in the land; he dwelt upon the land twenty-five thousand years ago, and his gods before him.
Four hundred years is to twenty-five thousand years as a single cloud over the sun is to the vast dome of the sky. It will pass; the sun will shine through again. Momaday makes his intention clear in the next paragraph when he points out that the people of Walatowa have chosen carefully what they wanted to borrow from their conquerors, but haven't forgotten that they are enemies:
They have assumed the names and gestures of their enemies, but have held on to their own, secret souls; and in this there is a resistance and an overcoming, a long outwaiting.
The theme is made still more concrete as Abel sheds the stress of his sojourn in the white man's world and once again finds himself attuned to his own. This harmonious state will soon be broken by the prison term, but he is destined to regain it in the last pages of the book.
Of the four parts, Part 2, "The Priest of the Sun" is the most like poetry in structure, requiring the reader's patience with a train of seemingly unrelated elements. For instance, it opens with a description of small fish having no first-level connection with the action of the book. The reader is forced to go to second level to understand what those fish have to do with what was a relatively straightforward narrative. If not already unbalanced, the reader will surely lose his footing when he comes to the sentence:
They hurl themselves upon the land and writhe in the light of the moon, the moon, the moon; they writhe in the light of the moon.
There is no precedent in the book for a comic rhythm like that; it is a freak even in its own paragraph in which the other sentences are as factual as a biology text. There is a precedent for the rhythm of that sentence, however, in our English heritage of nursery rhymes: the owl and the pussycat "dance by the light of the moon, the moon, the moon; they dance by the light of the moon."…
[The] fish reappear as suddenly as they were dropped, this time explained as a thought occurring to Abel. Abel's thoughts do not enlighten the reader at this point, however, for he is just regaining consciousness and we must wait for bits of information about where he is and what has happened to him as he gets things sorted out in his pain-crazed mind. Once we understand that he is lying on a beach with both hands broken, then we can see that the fish symbolize Abel, for "they are among the most helpless creatures on the face of the earth." Abel at the moment is in the very posture of the fish who spawn upon the beach; he is prone on the dark, foggy beach with hands as useless to him as fins on land. Unable at first to stand up, he is defenseless and surrounded by enemies, the city dwellers who, except for two friends, range from indifference to savage hostility.
It may not be until after Part 3 that we fully understand the symbol in its larger sense. When Abel, or any other "longhair," leaves the reservation and migrates to the city, he is leaving his element to venture into a hostile environment very much as the fish leave their home in the sea to flop awkwardly on the beach, easy prey for anyone. With this in mind, the nursery rhyme sentence changes its comic quality to irony; those are Native Americans writhing in Anglo rhythms, but they are not mindless like the fish; they understand what is being done to them, therefore suffering more.
Structurally, this section, and indeed all of this chapter, is within the boundaries of poetry, outside the usual requirements of fiction. Its elements are juxtaposed like the blocks of a dry wall, without transitional mortar. Superficially there seems to be no connection at all between one passage and the next, but from a deeper perspective, there is nothing random about the order. This chapter has the power that can be compressed into two- or three-level poetry through vibrations created by the interaction of images jammed together as in (1) the fish, (2) Tosamah on the Word and (3) Abel lying unconscious, lost in a world of strange words. Another example is … where this poetic structure allows Momaday to get "He was afraid," and "He was not afraid, no, sir," close enough together to set up ironic vibrations.
The chapter is not merely a string of images that act upon each other, however; its unity comes from a theme of conflict between the Native and European Americans and from a pattern of repetition. The fish, the moon, the sea, and the Word run through the chapter like threads holding it together.
Abel's mental condition after being first inebriated and then severely beaten justifies the apparent fragmentation of the information, but I am inclined to believe that Momaday selected the time of Abel's regaining consciousness because it provided a rationale for hurling the assorted vignettes together, freed from the logic of fiction, bound by the very different and perhaps more demanding logic of poetry.
When the Priest of the Sun is introduced suddenly, he has no yet-known relationship to the characters we have met in Part 1. As in a symbolic poem, we must hold the elements in mind and wait for the whole of the poem to reveal the connections. The names are fascinating: John Big Bluff with its double reference to topography and deception, and Cristóbal Cruz with its pun on crystal ball, containing also the Spanish spelling of Christ and of cross. The two men make an entrance rather like the Duke and Prince of Huckleberry Finn with their shabby theatricals.
And yet the sermon on the Word is beautifully, powerfully, and for the most part, earnestly done. In character with the opposing elements bouncing off each other within Tosamah, the sermon goes from the drama of
It rose up in the darkness, little and still, almost nothing in itself—like a single soft breath, like the wind arising; yes, like the whisper of the wind rising slowly and going out into the early morning.
to the comedy of
Gracious me, I see lots of new faces out there tonight. Gracious me! May the Great Spirit—can we knock off that talking in the back there?—be with you always.
to the informality of
Now, brothers and sisters, old John was a white man, and the white man has his ways. Oh gracious me, he has his ways. He talks about the Word. He talks through it and around it. He builds upon it with syllables, prefixes and suffixes, and hyphens and accents. He adds and divides and multiplies the Word. And in all of this he subtracts the Truth. And, brothers and sisters, you have come here to live in the white man's world. Now the white man deals in words and he deals easily, with grace and sleight of hand. And in his presence, here on his ground, you are as children, mere babes in the woods.
Here we have the connection between the Word, Abel, and the fish. The Native American's respect for the sacredness of language—as Tosamah explains next with the tale of his grandmother—is so unlike the Euro-American's adroit manipulation of language (exactly like their contrasting attitudes toward land), that the Native American in the city is at the mercy of the Euro-American, as the fish on the beach are at the mercy of passersby. Much later, in Part 3, Ben will dovetail into this presentation of the Word when he discusses the newly relocated Indian's sense of loss at discovering:
They have a lot of words, and you know they mean something, but you don't know what, and your own words are no good because they're not the same; they're different, and they're the only words you've got.
Again, the sermon on the Word is echoed in the passage describing Abel's trial six years before:
When he had told his story once, simply, Abel refused to speak…. Word by word by word these men were disposing of him in language, their language, and they were making a bad job of it.
Powerless in a world of someone else's words, someone else's rule, Abel's holy vision comes to him as he lies delirious on the beach. He sees himself getting down to his knees to put his ear on the ground and listen to the mystic race of the "old men running after evil."
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.
Momaday uses this vision to exhort the people to remain faithful to the old ways and outlast invaders' temporary dominance, saying here that one must recognize evil, not pretend that evil is either neutral or good (as Ben does), but one cannot clear the world of it. One must give way to its power as water gives way to force, but never lose a sense of the difference between good and evil. And outlast evil.
Abel is on the edge of this awareness that will make him spiritually whole and strong again. But in the meantime he is also "on the edge of the void." He has lost "perspective, proportion, design in the universe"; he has lost meaning, dignity and calm; "the world [is] open at his back." Described earlier as an alien world, the sea is here the void, not a passive void waiting disinterestedly for him to fall into it, but an active void seeking to pull him in.
In Part 2 basic information is sparingly slipped in through seemingly insignificant statements; consequently, the reader is quite likely to feel disoriented throughout "The Priest of the Sun" the first time through. Most readers have to wait until Part 3 to get relationships straightened out. For instance, with jarring poetic juxtaposition, Milly's questionnaire is inserted as if in a word association test. Abel thinks of the sea, the abyss, the helpless fish and the prying social workers in one logical train of thought. But the reader does not know that it is Milly's questionnaire yet, or even suspect the existence of Milly at this point. Later, she herself is thrown into the story via Abel's erratic memory. First we learn that she is an Idealist and then we learn that Abel made love to her. We must accustom ourselves to the flight pattern of a mosquito as one paragraph ends with a remembered sexual orgasm and the next begins with an awareness of the sea and his pain as Abel comes around again.
Perhaps the most significant part of the peyote prayer service inserted in Part 2 is Ben Benally's vision of blue and purple horses and a house made of dawn. Also tending toward hope for the restoration of meaningful existence is Tosamah's going out into the street to blow the eagle whistle in the four directions, serving notice "that something holy was going on in the universe."
Another significant passage in this part is Milly's story of her childhood. Because Milly's father is presented through the eyes of a loving daughter, he is handled with compassion and understanding. Yet he stands in stark contrast to Francisco to the disadvantage of the former.
The earth where we lived was hard and dry and brick red … and at last Daddy began to hate the land, began to think of it as some kind of enemy, his own very personal and deadly enemy.
He expressed his love for Milly by going out daily to fight the barren land and by giving everything he had to get her away from it even at the cost of being separated from her. Francisco, on the other hand, taught his grandsons to study and revere the land. He did not consider himself pitted against it, but in partnership with it. He laid a blessing on the corn as he left in the evening; he lived by the great organic calendar. Without rancor or unfair method, Momaday illustrates these contrasting attitudes in a way that indicates the superiority of the Native American's relationship with earth and the pathetic state of the Euro-American, alienated from earth.
The last of this long, difficult chapter is the story of Abel's torturous journey back to Ben's apartment, although, of course, we do not know at this point his destination or whether or not he makes it. Moon, beach, and the fish back in the depths of the sea are the final image.
The second chapter of "The Priest of the Sun" is much more simply structured and needs little analysis for my purposes. The entire chapter is a quoted sermon by Tosamah which, while valuable to our understanding of Kiowa thought, is not difficult to follow; we can see clearly the philosophy of man's sacred bond to the land, his place in the pattern of the universe that includes the other creatures and establishes his kinship even with the stars of the sky. Interestingly, this chapter appears as the introduction of The Way to Rainy Mountain. Different as the two books are in structure, they meet in this chapter which they share.
In summary, "The Priest of the Sun" is a title charged with the positive force associated with the source of all life and yet this is the section which depicts Abel at his most sunless moment. Literally, his chances of ever seeing another sunrise are very slight. Figuratively, he is at his low point physically, mentally, emotionally. Nevertheless, a new dawn is coming.
But before the dawn runner, the night chanter. The Night Chant, a major Navajo ceremony of nine days' duration, is performed only after the first killing frost. Abel's spirit has been severely "frostbitten" twice since coming to Los Angeles: the humiliation suffered at the hands of Tosamah and that inflicted by Martinez in Abel's first encounter with him. But the second encounter with Martinez is the killing frost leaving him broken in body and soul, the life drawn back into the roots of his being for safekeeping until the warmth of spring lets him live again. The Night Chant is a healing ceremony, arranged and paid for by the friends and family of the person who is ill.
Part 3, "The Night Chanter" is one long chapter, broken several times by Ben's interior monologues, the three lengthier ones in second person as if he were talking to himself. The rest of the chapter is Ben speaking directly to the readers, blessing us with details which clear up the confusion of Part 2.
Ben is the night chanter, the Singer, in the sense that he sings the sacred songs to Abel and interprets their meaning to him, thus performing in his modest way the function of priest, preserver of the sacred ceremonials. Ben as priest or Singer contrasts sharply with both Tosamah and Father Olguin (and Fray Nicolás). In the sermons quoted, Momaday gives Tosamah credit for his own fine artistry and even loans him his own grandmother, yet Tosamah as a character is not entirely admirable. He enjoys verbally tormenting his flock. Abel needs help, but the Priest of the Sun is among the pack nipping at his heels. Father Olguin probably does less harm and also less good than Tosamah because the priest does not understand Abel's situation well enough either to help or hurt him. Tosamah knows how to explain the religious dilemma of the twentieth century Native American as well as he knows how to "get under the skin" of a relocated reservation Indian. He does both. Ben, on the other hand, does not have claim to the titles and honors of the priesthood. Because he is concerned about his distant kin and best friend, Abel as a person, he shares with him the comforts of their ancient religion as naturally as he shares his home, food, and overcoat.
He is not an intellectual like Tosamah; he does not think about how Navajo or Kiowa philosophy can speak to industrial civilization. Instead, he tries not to think about it because it mixes him up. It is Ben who has the vision at the peyote ceremony; he lives his religion on a level deeper than the intellect, the level of spirit and emotion. And in the spiritual poverty of the City of the Angels, Abel's need for the precious traditions and songs is great. Ben apparently has made his place in the white man's world in the white man's way—by keeping his religion tightly locked up in its compartment, away from his work-a-day life:
And you want to do it [get yourself into the swing of city life] because you can see how good it is. It's better than anything you've ever had; it's money and clothes and having plans and going someplace fast…. You go up there on the hill and you hear the singing and the talk and you think about going home. But the next day you know it's no use; you know that if you went home there would be nothing there, just the empty land and a lot of old people, going no place and dying off.
It's a good place; you could fix it up real nice. There are a lot of good places around here. 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.
and yet again he lectures himself:
It's a good place to live. There's always a lot going on, a lot of things to do and see once you find your way around. 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, just the land, and the land is empty and dead. Everything is here, everything you could ever want.
Sensitive to the feelings and needs of others as he is, responsive as he is to the rhythms and images of the old songs, Ben deadens his mind and violates his soul trying so desperately to convince himself that the material values of industrial society are worth dedicating one's life to. His rewards for industry and dependability are an airless room, an occasional escape in alcohol from the meaninglessness of being a replaceable bolt in a huge machine, and police protection in the person of Martinez, who can rob or beat him for amusement whenever he likes. Ben can watch other people having fun if he gets lonely; he can pretend that his longings are only a sensible desire for things that he can buy on credit; he can tell himself over and over that the sacred land is dead and the old way gone forever. Momaday, on the other hand, has been saying that the old way is not dead, but sleeping, and soon it will emerge to continue its development.
The prayer song, "House made of dawn" is another key to our understanding of the theme of the book, but a key that is probably in the hands of only its Navajo readers. The rest of us can do some speculating, keeping in mind that our errors may be gross. The song is a prayer to a male deity for recovery from a "spell" which would seem to be anxiety, depression, mental pain. It has on the believer who sings it roughly the effect that the twenty-third psalm has on the devout Christian:
I fear no evil; / for thou art with me,
Thy rod and thy staff, / they comfort me.
You have taken it away for me;
Happily I recover.
Happily my interior becomes cool.
Surely the song loses much of the subtle turn of language in translation, but still it carries something of the feeling for order in its pattern of repetition and variation that may be the model for Momaday in his use of repeated phrases.
"Happily my interior becomes cool…. May it be beautiful all around me. / In beauty it is finished." Abel is at the low point of his illness, but close now to recovery; his memories are of home. He will begin again on the land that goes on forever, where nothing really changes.
The first chapter of Part 4 is largely devoted to the six memories of Francisco as his mind clears each dawn. In the first we may get some help with the difficult concept of a house made of dawn. Rather than dismissing it with a snort as a "broken-backed title" [as William James Smith did in Commonweal LXXXVIII (20 September 1968)] we can begin with the skyline of the black mesa as the house of the sun. From there it is easy to see the sun's house as made of dawn when the sun rises over the mesa's edge, as made of evening light, dark cloud, male rain, dark mist, female rain, pollen, and grasshoppers at appropriate times. The associations of each word would greatly increase our understanding of the symbolism, but that kind of analysis should be done by a Navajo scholar, or at least by a student of Navajo culture. There is, I believe, an entire level of the book that remains unseen by those of us who do not know the languages and legends of the people depicted. Mr. Momaday has given us some help in both his books, but much more is needed before outsiders can fully appreciate all the subtleties of House Made of Dawn. We can find the symbols by the emphasis given them, but we cannot read all the levels of their meaning once we have found them.
The importance of the house of the sun is indicated as Francisco tells the little boys to learn the contour of the mesa as they know the shape of their hands:
… and they must live according to the sun appearing, for only then could they reckon where they were, where all things were, in time….
But his grandsons knew already; not the names or the strict position of the sun each day in relation to its house, but the larger motion and meaning of the great organic calendar itself, the emergency of dawn and dusk, summer and winter, the very cycle of the sun and of all the suns that were and were to come.
House Made of Dawn is a story of human thought, action and emotion placed in the organic patterns of the earth, sun, and moon. Man is not a self-contained whole whom the universe serves, but a part of a larger whole. He finds himself only by relating to the universal scheme. He loses himself by boxing himself up in the city ("The Kiowas reckoned their stature by the distance they could see, and they were bent and blind in the wilderness.") and dedicating his life to obtaining things. A luxury apartment and an executive position are but a larger-scale version of Ben's pitiable existence.
In the second memory, the story of Francisco's (and the colt's and half-grown bear's) coming of age illustrates the sacredness of man's proper relationship to earth's creatures.
And he did not want to break the stillness of the night, for it was holy and profound; it was rest and restoration, the hunter's offering of death and the sad watch of the hunted, waiting somewhere away in the cold darkness and breathing easily of its life, brooding around at last to forgiveness and consent; the silence was essential to them both, and it lay out like a bond between them, ancient and inviolable.
There is a vast difference between this "ancient and inviolable bond" and the impersonal relationship between the man behind the air hammer and his hundreds of victims each day in the assembly line of the slaughter house.
In the third memory, the strangeness of Porcingula and her mother, Nicolás teah-whau, is compounded by the enigma of their names. Porcingula is also the name of the wooden statue of Maria de los Angeles, patroness of the Bahkyush; Nicolás is also the name of the priest of the mission at the time of Francisco's youth. The fourth memory is of the mystic race of the dead that Francisco takes his grandsons to hear. In the fifth memory, Francisco becomes a respected member of the clan as he plays the drums well. As the dancers move out they are so attuned to each other and the beat that there is a perfect chain of motion. When Francisco changes drums, there is no minute loss of timing. Both are demonstrations of the values of cooperation and harmony.
The sixth memory, of Francisco's moment of glory in the race, is Momaday's primary symbol after dawn itself, related to it since the race is run at dawn. Francisco has made a misjudgment which should have finished him, but instead of collapsing, he runs "beyond his pain" to win.
The final chapter is a packed three pages. Francisco dies just before the seventh dawn. There is a vague likeness between God's creating the world in six days and resting on the seventh and Francisco's articulating the high points of his life for six dawns and expiring on the seventh.
Our last glimpse of Father Olguin is of his "peering out into the darkness" shouting, "I understand! Oh God! I understand—I understand!" And he really tried.
The climax of the book is a paragraph of incomparable beauty, beginning without emotion in very simple language, ending in the poetry of sound, color and motion that gives form and meaning to life.
He came among them, and they huddled in the cold together, waiting, and the pale light before the dawn rose up in the valley. A single cloud lay over the world, heavy and still. It lay out upon the black mesa, smudging out the margin and spilling over the lee. But at the saddle there was nothing. There was only the clear pool of eternity. They held their eyes upon it, waiting, and, too slow and various to see, the void began to deepen and to change: pumice, and pearl, and mother-of-pearl, and the pale and brilliant blush of orange and of rose. And then the deep hanging rim ran with fire and the sudden cold flare of the dawn struck upon the arc, and the runners sprang away.
In the last long paragraph Abel re-enacts Francisco's race, running in spite of soreness from the near-fatal beating not quite a month before. Derivatives of "run" appear more than a dozen times in the passage, giving the sense of an endless drum beat, an eternal continuum of ash-blackened men running, rather than a single act with a beginning and end. Singing under his breath, "he went running on the rise of the song." House Made of Dawn is a book of courage, faith, and hope for a "new world coming" which will be a dynamic, not static, continuation of an old world's wisdom and order. "In beauty it is finished."
This section contains 7,254 words
(approx. 25 pages at 300 words per page)