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Ceremony: Entanglement

November 21, 2018

Entangled Bank

Silko’s Ceremony is not an easy read. The uneasiness of the reading, I have been suggesting, has something to do with cultural difference we can associate with Native American perspectives. One version of this is the blending of myth (in the poetic sections) and realistic narrative (in the novel’s prose); such that we can loose focus on what we take to be the novel proper: Tayo, his story, our protagonist, the plot. In discussions, we have begun to explore ways that this confusion (or blending, hybridity) of poetry and prose and oral and literate tradition, of white/Christian and Native is important to the focus of the novel. Call it interconnectedness, as some have suggested on their blogs. The novel, ironically, offers its focus through our own inability to focus on it. The reader is something like Tayo, in this regard, entangled in the story.

But what if the uneasiness of the reading is not just a problem of our focus, a problem of our cultural difference or distance that we bring to the novel? What if it is also a mark of its environmental orientation? In other words, what if a lesson of this novel’s environmental perspective–what makes it ‘green’–is the loss of our own perspective? Silko uses the word entanglement to describe the struggle Auntie has in reconciling the old instincts of family and native tradition, and particularly, of “sensitivity” with the world, with Christian traditions and English words separating her from that older world :

But now the feelings were twisted, tangled roots, and all the names for the source of this growth were buried under English words, out of reach. And there would be no peace and the people would have no rest until the entanglement had been unwound to the source. [64]

Reading this passage, I think of the ways we as readers are entangled in the twisted, tangled feelings of Tayo, the novel’s protagonist, making his way through the story. I am reminded of the literary idea of “radical empathy” promoted by the novelist Colum McCann: how storytelling crosses borders, boundaries, cultures, genders, races.

Reading this passage, I also think of the famous concluding paragraph of Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859), where he turns to the image of entanglement to reiterate his vision of nature’s biodiversity and its developmental difference from the prevailing view of separate, individual creation of species.

It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the conditions of life, and from use and disuse: a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, while this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been and are being evolved.

Entanglement, from the evolutionary or ecological perspective, is necessary, fundamental. And note that with Darwin, we have a vision of natural development that is also spiritual, creative. Entanglement in fiction, or more broadly in literature and the arts, is also fundamental: we cross into different places and people; we become “beside ourselves in a sane sense,” to cite Thoreau. In fact, reading this passage at this point in the course, you might well hear and see the likes of Thoreau, of Dillard, of Berry, of Leopold. I think of Thoreau looking at the sandbank, seeing in the thaw a prototype for nature’s entanglement of life and death, bowels and beauty: Walden was dead and is alive again. Leopold: thinking like a mountain, or rethinking (human) history as a simply a vehicle for atoms. I hear Dillard, thinking about all that intricacy and fecundity, on the tangled fringe of creation. What else might you hear or see in this notion of entanglement?

And if we hear Silko as well, hear the problem of Tayo’s entanglement in the context of nature’s entanglement, that suggests to me that a lesson of the novel is that we need to understand the entanglement of roots, but not solve it. In some sense, I think we see that Auntie’s desire to untangle things is as problematic as the desire to destroy. Entanglement is a form of intricacy. And intricacy in the imaginative world of story, as in the natural world, dies when it stops shifting. “Things which don’t shift and grow are dead things,” Betonie tells Tayo (116).

Isn’t that kind of entanglement, call it weaving, the heart of a good story? But story also requires some sort of resolution. What does Silko’s story resolve or where does it leave us?

Is the novel an earlier version of environmental apocalypse, a vision that has become more pressing in recent days in both film and in current events? Consider this recent report from the Times, “Like a Terror Movie: How Climate Change Will Cause More Simultaneous Disasters.”

For a related perspective, consider this poem by the Native American poet Joy Harjo, “A Map to the Next World.”

One Comment leave one →
  1. November 22, 2018 2:43 am

    Nicely done. I always look at whom one gravitates towards as an indication of there disposition. As a theology major, i found the degree hopelessly worthless in the application to the bible, but a fantastic psyche tool of the development of the intellect over the last couple thousand years. Its self determined primacy is on sand of its own creation.

    That said i am more of a john muir fan, i spend as much time as possible exploring the oregon coast range and his style fits this landscape very well. A sharp eyed scientist with a poetic heart, with a bit of sensitivity to that distinctly folk american voice, also articulated by MLK in his i have a dream speech is invisible today. Muir had it in spades. I appreciated your own caution in approaching the “christian” thing. Cant have Muir without it. And mlk doesnt give that speech without it.

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