Friday

Landscape as Redemption in Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony

Ceremony is an ambitious, wise, and highly recommended novel by Native American writer Leslie Marmon Silko. The novel’s theme is redemption — of one man, and of an entire people — by way of a quest for a lost spiritual center. 

The protagonist, Tayo, is a Laguna Pueblo Indian who returns traumatized from the Pacific theater of WWII.  He has spells of extreme dizziness and confusion. His internal pain causes him to vomit repeatedly.  His affliction is rooted in the violence of war, which has provided the culminating blow in a lifelong process of self-estrangement. He has been profoundly damaged by exposure to evil. 

The book abounds with beautiful description, as it must, because the journey of redemption driving the plot depends in large part on Tayo’s interaction with place: with the soil, the wind, the weather, and the sacred topography of the northern New Mexico desert. It’s a solid, tangible landscape, one that Tayo can touch and feel. Yet it is a landscape charged with a peculiar, bittersweet magic. 

This highly charged physical setting plays a crucial role in the novel.  You could almost call it a character, though it is in truth both less than that and much more, taking on grander dimensions than any fictional character ever could:
There was a peaceful silence beneath the sound of the wind.  It was the silence of hard dry clay and old juniper wood bleached white. 
The desert landscape possesses a strongly redemptive quality. Tayo imbibes it with some regularity, like dosing himself with medicine, to get through moments of extreme stress and despair:

The sand felt cool.  He squeezed it in both fists until it made little rivulets between his fingers.

The tea was mild, tasting like the air after a rainstorm, when all the grass and plants smell green and earth is damp.

Place is also the staging ground for an ongoing symbolic polarity: the rotten humidity of the South Pacific jungle versus the dry earthy purity of the New Mexico desert.  Memories of the hell of battle contrast with the consoling aspects of the desert.  As the novel goes on, the setting's dark flip-side emerges with greater clarity and force, extending beyond the bloody battlefields of the Pacific to the broad and pervasive evil known as “the witchery”:
If the white people never looked beyond the lie, to see that theirs was a nation built on stolen land, then they would never be able to understand how they had been used by the witchery; they would never know that they were still being manipulated by those who knew how to stir the ingredients together: white thievery and injustice boiling up the anger that would finally destroy the world . . . 
The witchery would be at work all night so that the people would see only the losses—the land and the lives lost—since the whites came; the witchery would work so that the people would be fooled into blaming only the whites and not the witchery. It would work to make the people forget the stories of the creation and the continuation of the five worlds; the old priests would be afraid too, and cling to ritual without making new ceremonies as they always had before . . .
The witchery is a spreading shadow, much like the dark smog of evil issuing from Mordor in Lord of the Rings.  But Silko adds a third dimension as well: the absence of either pain or joy, embodied by the retreat into numbing alcoholic stupor:
Every day they had to look at the land, from horizon to horizon, and every day the loss was with them; it was the dead unburied, and the mourning of the lost going on forever.  So they tried to sink the loss in booze, and silence their grief with war stories about their courage, defending the land they had already lost. 
The numbing haze of booze is the temptation that continually threatens to derail Tayo’s quest.  But in the end, for Tayo, the force of the desert landscape proves stronger:
He was aware of the center beneath him; it soaked into his body from the ground through the torn skin on his hands, covered with powdery black dirt . . . It was pulling him back, close to the earth, where the core was cool and silent as mountain stone, and even with the noise and pain in his head he knew how it would be: a returning rather than a separation. 
Silko’s New Mexico is an active force for redemption that is at the very core of the novel.  And it is not only a healing force, but an eternal one:
The dreams had been terror at loss, at something lost forever; but nothing was lost; all was retained between the sky and the earth . . . The snow-covered mountain remained, without regard to the titles of ownership of the white ranchers who thought they possessed it.  They logged the trees, they killed the deer, bear, and mountain lions, they built their fences high; but the mountain was far greater than any or all of these things.  The mountain outdistanced their destruction, just as love had outdistanced death.