House Made of Dawn | Critical Essay by Baine Kerr

This literature criticism consists of approximately 11 pages of analysis & critique of House Made of Dawn.
This section contains 3,249 words
(approx. 11 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Baine Kerr

SOURCE: "The Novel as Sacred Text: N. Scott Momaday's Myth-Making Ethic," in Southwest Review, Vol. 63, No. 2, Spring, 1978, pp. 172-79.

In the following essay, Kerr examines Momaday's ability to render Native American culture and beliefs within the Western literary construct of the novel.

Recently I sat through a noisy, irreconcilable argument between two Anglos about Indians. An Irish lawyer for the Navajos from Chinle, Arizona, accused an anthropologist friend of blind sacrilege in the Southwest. The anthropologist, who was not present, was defended as an ally of Indians and preserver of culture. The specific issue concerned the unearthing of Anasazi pueblos and especially gravesites in New Mexico's Chaco Canyon, and the withering fear of the Navajo crews once within the Old Ones' middens. The most unholy of trespasses, the lawyer called it, and one likely to bring charges that the crew were brujos. Help the Indians, he said, but don't transgress the sacred charnel.

The larger issue, of course, is the dilemma not only of anthropologists but of any investigator, interpreter, even traveler, and perhaps especially writer, dealing with another people. To what degree is it possible to shed one's civilization and descend (to use William Carlos Williams's phrase, applied to Sam Houston) into a different culture? To what degree is it possible to bring forth honestly and intact the findings of the descent? Should the transcultural leap be attempted at all? Is it sacrilege, another form of feckless Anglo plunder? Can the imagination ever really presume to transcend cultural borders?

Near the end of N. Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn the old man, Francisco, in the fever of dying, recalls a solitary bear hunt from his youth. A preliminary and, it seems, self-imposed ritual to the hunt was a visit to a cave of the Old Ones. He climbed the face of a cliff where the "ancient handholds were worn away to shadows … pressing with no force at all his whole mind and weight upon the sheer ascent." He entered a cave, stood among mounded dead embers, earthen bowls, a black metate, charred corn cobs. An eagle rushed across the mouth of the cave, struck a rodent, and rose, and Francisco, we assume, went on. The bear hunt which follows is a central tale in the novel, in the same way that Francisco, the protagonist's grandfather, is a central cohering character. The hunt was an occasion of great, self-conscious manliness, carried off through conscientious application of racial skills and virtues, and accorded, in the pueblo, well-earned esteem. But most interesting, I think, is the quiet trespass in the Anasazi cave—a terrifying sin of commission, according to the lawyer. A sacrilege, and therefore the height of bravery.

Francisco works as a structuring principle in House Made of Dawn. His lime-twig trap, his hope to snare the sacred, frames the eighty pages and thirteen days of Part One. His inexpressible grief sets the tone that broods behind every page. Until the last part, Francisco is inarticulate and peripheral, a still point against whom the story's violence brushes and whom it then leaves alone. But in this book peripheries are profound, delineating limbuses. Francisco—heroic, crippled, resonant with the old ways, impotent in the new—acts as a lodestone to the novel's conflicting energies. His incantatory dying delirium in Spanish fixes Momaday's symbolic compass: Porcingula, the white devil, the black runners. The commotions of the narrative gather and cool around the old man, and around his dying the book shapes its proportions. Francisco becomes at the end the lens for the single sharp image the novel has been struggling to focus on: Abel's convalescent, redemptive participation in the running. The direction, the structure of House Made of Dawn is toward proportion, toward a falling into place. The novel resolves into Francisco's recollections and is driven by tensions revealed to be his: sacrilege and sacredness, fear and courage.

It is a brave book. Momaday's ambition is enormous and untried; he is attempting to transliterate Indian culture, myth, and sensibility into an alien art form, without loss. He may in fact be seeking to make the modern Anglo novel a vehicle for a sacred text.

In the effort massive obstacles are met by author and reader, and one should perhaps catalog Momaday's literary offenses. Style must be attended to, as it demands attention. The first paragraph—six quite short sentences—is a composite of quiet, weak constructions: only one active verb (grazed), eight uses of the verb to be (primarily in the verbals there was or it was), and repeated nine times. Repetition, polysyndeton, and there as subject continue to deaden the narrative's force well into the book. Happily, the style crisps a good deal after the first twenty-eight pages, when the story finally begins. But what are we to do with, for example, "There is a town and there are ruins of other towns," or "The rooms were small and bare, and the walls were bare and clean and white"? The reader (this reader, at any rate) is tempted to shelve the book instantly; it seems spackled with pretentious, demipoetic cheap shots intended to solemnify, without justification, simple declarative statements.

The language in the first part vacillates between lugubrious flatness of this sort and fascinating thought, as in "the eagle ranges far and wide over the land, farther than any other creature, and all things there are related simply by having existence in the perfect vision of a bird," or precision of imagery:

She could see only the flashes of lightning and the awful grey slant of the flood, pale and impenetrable, splintering upon itself and cleaving her vision like pain. The first fast wave of the storm passed with scarcely any abatement of sound; the troughs at the eaves filled and flowed, and the thick ropes of water hung down among the hollyhocks and mint and ate away at the earth at their roots; the glaze of rainwater rose up among the clean white stones and ran in panels on the road; and across the road the rumble and rush of the river.

But, whether fascinating or irritating, the language, especially in Part One, is disconcerting. We have all been told that when language distracts from character or story or sense the author is sliding into unforgivable error. It is the sin of poets writing fiction, and unacceptable in a conventional novel.

Even more blameworthy, or brave, is Momaday's mutilation of narrative. The story does not begin until page 29, when Abel meets Angela Grace St. John (a rather heavy-handedly significant series of names). No writer, we feel, can expect his audience to dally undirected that long. Moreover, once the story begins, it diffuses, delays, fades in and out. We muddle back and forth from ceremony, through seemingly arbitrarily introduced material such as an antique diary; to beautifully evoked place information and history; to ceremony again; through powerful but incompletely explained passion in the priest and white Angela; to Abel's surreal and inscrutable murder of the albino; then back to the old man, his lime-twig, and his inchoate loneliness. And that is Part One—a staggeringly difficult interrupted narrative.

But the fact is that it works. Something is going on here. Momaday, one realizes, is adhering to the perception of one of his characters, Father Olguin, of "an instinctive demand upon all histories to be fabulous." Halfway through the novel one forgets aggravations and begins to hope that he can pull it off.

The plot of House Made of Dawn actually seems propelled by withheld information, that besetting literary error. We know virtually nothing of Abel's brother Vidal until a flashback on page 109, and never learn about his death, clearly a crucial tragedy for the family. The critical character of Francisco builds only in slow accretions, not complete until a few pages before the end when we discover that he was "sired by the old consumptive priest." That bit of suppressed information cannot be excused. We cannot be expected to recognize the meaning of the old priest's diary, 138 pages back, only then. And the revelation of Francisco's cross-cultural mestizo blood, his sacrilegious parturition, is too vital to have been procrastinated.

But Momaday very effectively adumbrates the identity of Porcingula. She is characterized partially, vaguely, and as different figures in different places; she emerges as a fleshed-out, dramatic character only at the end—here again providing a gloss to the old priest's diary. But the author is not confused or contemptuously confusing us with this masquerade. Porcingula is many things: the totem of the Bahkyush; a Christian saint (Maria de los Angeles); a whore; Francisco's lover; and, in remote yet richly possible connections, Pony, Angela, and most importantly Tai-me, Momaday's heartfelt creation deity. Porcingula is a spirit drifting through the book, and, by its end, credible in any guise. The same holds for the novel's figures of evil. Not conventional three dimensional villains, they remain shadowy and unknown—as evil is to Indians—and should not be expounded. We don't need to know who the albino was or what became of Martinez the culebra, the bad cop. In this sense of the art's springing from within Indian experience, the distractions of language are likewise appropriate. Image can be more important than story or sense because in Momaday's, the Pueblos', the Kiowas' social reality, image is.

But Momaday has to give a little. Part One—the story of Abel's return from the war, his brief affair with Angela St. John, his weird murder of the ophidian albino—might stand alone as a portrait of reservation life and anxiety, but as narrative it remains a farrago riddled with half-developed possibilities. Consequently the book is structured in form, not function, as is Nabokov's Pale Fire: introductory poetics followed by commentary. Parts Two, Three, and Four are each dominated by a new voice supplanting Momaday's coy omniscience in Part One, supplying fact and context which the novel could not have done without.

The first of these voices is "Big Bluff" Tosamah, the prolix, brilliant "Priest of the Sun." Tosamah, in his two magnificent "sermons," is really an incarnation of the author, Momaday's mouthpiece, giving us what we've been denied: interpretation of Indian consciousness, expatiation on themes. In the first sermon, "The Gospel According to St. John," Tosamah perceives the Book of John as an over-wrought creation myth, applies the lightning bolt concept of the Word to the Kiowa myth of Tai-me, and apotheosizes the Indian gift of the human need for a felt awe of creation: "There was only the dark infinity in which nothing was. And something happened. At the distance of a star something happened, and everything began. The Word did not come into being, but it was. It did not break up the silence, but it was older than the silence and the silence was made of it."

At the same time the sermon precisely elucidates aspects of Part One. St. John refers specifically back to Angela St. John, her half-understood awareness of the need "To see nothing, slowly and by degrees." Angela, like John, did glimpse it, "the last reality," but, we may assume, also like John "had to account for it … not in terms of his imagination but only in terms of his prejudice." Tosamah is providing an exegesis of Part One, formulating what Angela's and Anglos' limitations are, what Abel and Indians are losing, and buttressing Momaday's themes of the importance of myth ("the oldest and best idea man has of himself") and mystical vision.

The point is that Momaday had to root his story in sense and significance here, had to help us mystified Anglos out. Tosamah is an intriguing, well-crafted interlocutor, but also a slightly caricatured self-portrait—like Momaday a Kiowa, a man of words, an interpreter of Indian sensibility. "He doesn't understand," we are informed later through Ben Benally, "he's educated." It is as if, by speaking through the voluble megaphone of Tosamah, Momaday is apologizing for having to stoop to words to convey the obvious. To be sure, it is an oblique approach to a necessary literary office—the clear explication of mythic and intellectual context—but right on the mark.

Tosamah's next sermon leaves the web of the novel entirely and expands a personal journey into an elegiac history of the Kiowa. This is so much the author speaking, and speaking, he must have felt, correctly, so well, that Momaday lifted this chapter straight (except for a few inexplicable alterations and deletions) into his next book, titled, as is the sermon, The Way to Rainy Mountain. This monumental instance of self-plagiarism illustrates, I suppose, that Momaday fears no literary taboo. Unfortunately, The Way to Rainy Mountain does not much profit from a reworking and distension of Tosamah's sermon and Tai-me story.

The book recounts the Kiowa's pilgrimage in a conversation of sorts between three distinct voices seriatim: a teller of legends, a historian/anthropologist, and the first-person author connecting memory to myth. Each of the three interpreters is a representative facet of Momaday's imagination, and their counterpoint is a self-conscious exercise in salvaging both the letter and spirit of the Kiowa's epic quest. Momaday is indulging his ethic of myth-making, is gunning for the sacred text. He was more on target in House Made of Dawn.

Both books develop from within the culture, but the perspective of The Way to Rainy Mountain is wholly locked inside Indian sensibility, focusing on itself. The novelist's hand is not in evidence contriving character or tale. It appears that the more successful House Made of Dawn owes its strength partly to the distancing and emotional content that a novel can bear. Momaday's ambition—the transfiguration of culture through art—seems to require a fictional imagination.

Ben Benally, the interpretative voice following Tosamah in House Made of Dawn, was, like Tosamah, pressed again into service in The Way to Rainy Mountain, though not identified by name. Here Benally's conversational argot records antique times and tales: "You know, everything had to begin, and this is how it was." In House Made of Dawn, however, Benally complements Tosamah's exposition of history, myth, and theme by setting forth contemporary Indian ways. For example, speaking directly to the reader, he explains, "You know, you have to change. That's the only way you can live in a place like this [Los Angeles]." Once more Momaday is responding to the need to inform, to keep us with him, and the response is excellent. Benally's sane, quiet voice applies a leavening perspective to the book's turbid events. With him Momaday has begun fashioning the proportions vented in the voice of the third and last interpreter to speak—Francisco.

Abel's grandfather acts as the alembic that transmutes the novel's confusions; his retrospection marks off the book's boundaries, points of reference, and focal themes: the great organic calendar of the black mesa—the house of the sun (which locates the title)—as a central Rosetta stone integrating the ceremonies rendered in Part One, and the source place by which Abel and Vidal could "reckon where they were, where all things were, in time." The summoning of the highest of Indian graces and abilities in Francisco's initiatory bear hunt. His passion for the wild witch spirit Porcingula; his fear and loss with their still-born child. His participation in ritual, "his perfect act" in drumming for the dancers, which determined his stature and enabled him to heal. Then, his running "beyond pain" in the race of the dead.

The dawn runners, the runners after evil, compose the central, framing image of the novel: "They were whole and indispensible in what they did; everything in creation referred to them. Because of them, perspective, proportion, design in the universe." Similarly, the method of the last part, "The Dawn Runner," is to arrange perspective, proportion, design in the novel. Francisco's voice, which had "failed each day only to rise up again in the dawn," parallels the running. His memories, "whole and clear and growing like the dawn," infuse the book with sense and order. And his death urges Abel's stumbling regeneration through joining the race at dawn.

In Los Angeles Benally and Abel dreamt of a "plan" to go home together and ride out to the hills alone: "We were going to get drunk for the last time, and we were going to sing the old songs." Their plan, in other words, was to hold a valedictory for their heritage. But Momaday eschews this highly exploitable scene and leaves us with Abel running, an image that argues perfectly against a valediction for the Indians. "All of his [Abel's] being was concentrated in the sheer motion of running on, and he was past caring about the pain … he could see at last without having to think." In this ability is Abel's survival and that of his people.

The novel concerns survival, not salvation, enduring rather than Faulkner's sense of prevailing. The dawn runners physically manifest the Indian strength—they abide, "and in this there is a resistance and an overcoming, a long out-waiting." And Momaday is proposing not only a qualified hope for cultural continuity, but a holy endurance. The running is a sacred rite and an act of courage, thus a warding off of fear and evil, the specters (consolidated in such demons as Martinez and wine) that gnaw at Indian probity throughout the book. The race at dawn is additionally a sacrament of creation. As such it outlines the novel's purpose and achievement.

House Made of Dawn. Its subject is creation myth, the antithesis of Benally's "plan." The book's metaphysics build from a sequence of creation schemata: the diaspora of the Bahkyush, the feast of Santiago, St. John's Word, Tai-me, Benally's songs, his grandfather's story of the Bear Maiden. The book is a creation myth—rife with fabulous imagery, ending with Abel's rebirth in the old ways at the old man's death—but an ironic one, suffused with violence and telling a story of culture loss. Sacrilege repeatedly undercuts sacredness. Father Olguin constantly faces the corruption of his faith, from Angela's mockery, from the perverse vision of a Pueblo Christ child. The vitality of ceremony is juxtaposed to the helplessness of drunks. The peyote service is sullied, almost bathetic. But sacrilege impels sacredness here, as fear does courage, and loss survival. The series of myths, each variously imperfect, each with common corruptions and shared strengths, overlap, blend, and fuse as this novel.

The word Zei-dl-bei or "frightful," Momaday tells us in The Way to Rainy Mountain, was his grandmother's response to evil. "It was not an exclamation so much, I think, as it was a warding off, an exertion of language upon ignorance and disorder." Language, then, can be a fundamental cultural defense. And as the expression of the imagination, language defines culture. Culture, Momaday writes, "has old and essential being in language." A people come of age by "daring to imagine who they are." Such mythifying, "peculiarly the right and responsibility of the imagination," is clearly Momaday's literary ethic and the one process on which he places a sort of moral value. The imagination that transfigures reality is the source of cultural identity.

Momaday has ur-Anglo Angela St. John compose a creation myth honoring Abel, her Indian lover. It is her son's favorite story—a young Indian brave, noble and wise, born of a bear and a maiden. Her tale astounds Ben Benally: Angela has become a myth-maker, has transcended cultural boundaries with her imagination, has preserved what was holy in Abel. Likewise Momaday is a preserver of holiness in House Made of Dawn. He has transported his heritage across the border; in a narrative and style true to their own laws, he has mythified Indian consciousness into a modern novel.

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This section contains 3,249 words
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Critical Essay by Baine Kerr from Literature Criticism Series. ©2005-2006 Thomson Gale, a part of the Thomson Corporation. All rights reserved.