Is the apocalyptic mindset somehow a “white thing”? Is that why anti-nuclear demonstrations usually look so pale? Could it be that the “most oppressed” have more urgent things to worry them, that concern for the fate of the Earth is a bourgeois luxury? And could it be, furthermore, that there’s something secretly flattering about seeing oneself, one’s nation, one’s race, one’s civilization as uniquely responsible for whether Earth lives or dies? The universalism that easily imagines the whole–the planet as seen from outer space–is in some sense the result of an imperial projection, given that this distant photographic view is the byproduct of a Space Race engendered by competition for political control. We see the logical extension of this imperial worldview in hypocritical U.S. indignation over the prospect of various Third World countries acquiring nuclear weapons—though of course the lone superpower would never dream of giving up its own WMD.
The thought that ostensibly universal fears for the planet may actually represent nothing more than a very specific concern for a kind of imaginary extension of the white self and its assumed place in the world has bothered me at least since the earliest years of the Reagan administration. In those days, I was learning crucial lessons about race from feminists and lesbian-feminists of color, among them the editors of the indispensable collections This Bridge Called My Back and Homegirls: A Black Feminist Anthology. At the same time, I was deeply involved in the overwhelmingly white feminist anti-militarist movement that, at the time of the women’s encampment at Greenham Common in England, took shape in this country around a protest called the Women’s Pentagon Action. In those days (and since), many white activists have been all too ready to judge the failure of large numbers of people of color to show up for white-organized anti-nuclear and anti-war events as indicative of apathy or short-sightedness.
Those who adopt this condescending attitude have, however, conveniently forgotten the fact that the assault on the world did not begin with the sort of threats that have the potential to jolt even “mainstream” Americans out of their consumerist cocoon. There’s an argument to be made here analogous to the one set forth by Aimée Césaire in his Discourse on Colonialism, which recognizes the atrocities committed by European powers in Africa as part of a seamless whole that also takes in the Holocaust. Maybe the death of the world didn’t start with the superpowers’ suicidal nuclear enterprise, but with an assault on nature and indigenous populations that dates back at least to 1492.
Leslie Marmon Silko’s classic novel Ceremony explores this connection with an eloquence unmatched by any other fictional work I know. Its hero is Tayo, a young American Indian World War II veteran who returns home to Laguna Pueblo with a shattered mind. The army psychiatrists understand this as combat fatigue, but Tayo’s problems hint at more systemic wounds, wounds inevitable in the life of a colonized people. While I’m stunned by many dimensions of Silko’s accomplishment, a couple of things stand out when I read the text as a model of how fiction might confront the “futureless” condition I wrote of in my last post.
First off, Ceremony locates concern for “the world” in very particular, local facts of environment and culture. “The planet” is not represented by a view from outer space, but by the details of how spring water trickles out of standstone cliffs, how cottonwood blossoms smell, how the people of Laguna regard as their companions the intimately known land formations that surround their homes. The poet James Wright, whose correspondence with Silko is published in The Delicacy and Strength of Lace, once wrote to her that he felt as if the land were speaking the story. This identification with the land, which Tayo experiences through the memory of traditional stories told to him in childhood, is challenged by the values of the dominant society, with its competing stories of material abundance, mechanistic causation, and white cultural superiority.
Making use of her firm grounding in Laguna Pueblo and Navajo oral tradition, Silko evokes “the fate of the Earth” without resorting to the usual (implicitly Christian and Eurocentric) templates. She shows the battle for the whole through the struggle for survival of an indigenous community, a struggle that depends heavily on remembering stories about the identity between people and land. That struggle, she suggests, must call on local knowledge, homemade rituals, specific and painstaking understandings of how an intricate world is structured: “It took only one person to tear away the delicate strands of the web, spilling the rays of the sun into the sand, and the fragile world would be injured” (Ceremony, Penguin Books, p. 38).
Silko makes another subversive move when she de-centers the destructive power of Euro-American culture via the inclusion of a story—one of many set off from the central narrative of Tayo’s attempted healing—that actually posits a non-Caucasian evildoer as the originator of the “witchery” that now threatens everyone. In this narrative, which mimics the form of a traditional oral narrative (although Silko has specified that it is her own invention, unlike many of the stories that frame Tayo’s experiences), the winner of a witches’ competition in evil prevails by telling a simple but terrible tale. It is a “destruction story” (a parody of creation stories), and it sets in motion the events of the Conquest and all the ensuing mayhem:
in caves of dark hills
white skin people
like the belly of a fish
covered with hair.
Then they grow away from the earth
then they grow away from the sun
then they grow away from the plants and animals.
They see no life
When they look
they see only objects.
The world is a dead thing for them
the trees and rivers are not alive
the mountains and stones are not alive.
The deer and bear are objects
They see no life.
(Ceremony, p. 135)
When Silko gets around to addressing nuclear weapons directly, it’s once again in a local context, for Laguna Pueblo has the misfortune to be located not far from the Trinity Site, where the first atomic bomb was tested. The climax of Tayo’s quest takes place near an abandoned uranium mine, where he realizes that “he had arrived at the point of convergence where the fate of all living things, and even the earth, had been laid….From that time on, human beings were one clan again, united by the fate the destroyers planned for all of them, for all living things….” (Ceremony, p. 246). The traditional knowledge passed on by the old stories—the ones that express the world’s fragility—must be transformed into new healing ceremonies to match the new circumstances.
Keeping the world alive, Silko’s novel tells us, is not the work of a lone superhero, but a never-ending collective project. The novel concludes with a chant celebrating the temporary defeat of the powerful forces that tear at the fragile web: “Whirling darkness has come back on itself…It is dead for now” (Ceremony, p. 261).
Maxine Hong Kingston once suggested to an interviewer that peacemaking requires new narrative forms, alternatives to our culture’s fascination with escalating conflict and climactic explosions. She argued that we need to let go of our ingrained belief that peace is boring. It’s a provocative suggestion, the implications of which Kingston herself has begun to explore in a daringly structured cross-genre work, The Fifth Book of Peace. Along similar lines, I would like to suggest that we need alternatives to the world-ending story, the Armageddon tale, that has most often been imagined as the appropriate novelistic response to the planetary fix we’re in (if and when writers bother to acknowledge said fix at all). Ceremony offers a highly inspiring example of what such alternatives might look like. It denies us the gratification of the spectacle of doom, instead directing our attention to small ritual gestures that take on world-sustaining significance. For Tayo, healing means embracing the fragile enterprise of helping the world continue “for now,” despite the dreadful lure of witchery’s world-ending story.
Note: The title of this post is taken from a poem by Linda Hogan, “Disappearances,” from a chapbook entitled Daughters, I Love You, published in 1981 by Loretto Heights College.
5/1/05: According to a New York Times editorial page column by Brent Staples, the original Japanese film “Gojira” (“Godzilla” to English speakers) included an explicitly anti-nuclear message that was cut out when the film was released in the U.S. Director Ishiro Honda later said, “Believe it or not, we naively hoped that the end of Godzilla was going to coincide with the end of nuclear testing.”
5/1/05: Winston and I march in the anti-Iraq war, anti-nuclear weapons demonstration called to coincide with the start of the U.N. conference on the future of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. We walk across 42nd Street and up Sixth Avenue behind a large contingent of middle-aged Japanese people carrying a street-wide banner, their clothes pinned with messages about the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I’m buoyed by their presence, which renders this demo blessedly devoid of the “usual suspects” atmosphere of recent demonstrations. I’m moved by the persistence of people who will not be diverted from harping on a single awful moment in history that most of the world seems happy to let go of.