Search Results

Keyword: ‘The Golden Bough’

Palin and Fefu: a male-associated strategy of domination

September 7th, 2009 No comments

One of the more intriguing elements of Fefu is the relationship of certain actions against animals and Julia.

Taking up the Rifle

Taking up the Rifle

In Part 1 there is a conversation between Christina and Cindy in which Cindy relates the tale of Julia’s paralysis.  A hunter aimed at a deer and then shot it. Julia and the deer fell.  The deer was dead, but Julia had convulsions.  Julia was bleeding from her forehead, but it was not a bullet wound, and there was no other visible evidence of injury.  Julia rants in delirium. The paralysis is blamed on scar tissue on the brain from the fall: a petit mal.


Cindy relates what Julia said in her delirium:

“…she was persecuted.–That they tortured her…That they had tried her and that the shot was her execution. That she recanted because she wanted to live….That if she talked about it….to anyone…she would be tortured further and killed.” p18

The delirious statement by Julia above corresponds to her hallucinations later in The Bedroom, which serves as a fuller explanation of what Cindy relates.

At the end of the play, Fefu shoots and kills a rabbit.  This action again results in a wound on Julia’s forehead, but this time it seems as though Julia is finished, as her head “falls back.”  Just prior to the gun shot, Julia says, “I didn’t tell [Fefu] anything.  Did I?  I didn’t.”  Implying, per the quote above, that Julia was bound to silence about what she knew, punishable by death.

The question of interest for me here, though is that of the animals being shot and Julia being injured.

For the first part of my response to it, I’m going to point to Sir James G. Frazer1 and his work The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion.  In that work there are several stories that are recounted which have events that are similar, under a section entitled “The External Soul.”

Once, a warlock called Koshchei the Deathless carried off a princess and kept her prisoner in his golden castle. However, a prince made up to her one day as she was walking alone and disconsolate in the castle garden, and cheered by the prospect of escaping with him she went to the warlock and coaxed him with false and flattering words, saying:

“My dearest friend, tell me, I pray you, will you never die?”

“Certainly not,” says he.

“Well,” says she, “and where is your death? Is it in your dwelling?”

“To be sure it is,” says he, “it is in the broom under the threshold.”

Thereupon the princess seized the broom and threw it on the fire, but although the broom burned, the deathless warlock Koshchei remained alive; indeed not so much as a hair of him was singed.

Balked in her first attempt, the artful hussy pouted and said, “You do not love me true, for you have not told me where your death is; yet I am not angry, but love you with all my heart.”

With these fawning words she besought the warlock to tell her truly where his death was.

So he laughed and said, “Why do you wish to know? Well then, out of love I will tell you where it lies. In a certain field there stand three green oaks, and under the roots of the largest oak is a worm, and if ever this worm is found and crushed, that instant I shall die.”

When the princess heard these words, she went straight to her lover and told him all; and he searched till he found the oaks and dug up the worm and crushed it. Then he hurried to the warlock’s castle, but only to learn from the princess that the warlock was still alive. Then she fell to wheedling and coaxing Koshchei once more, and this time, overcome by her wiles, he opened his heart to her and told her the truth.

“My death,” said he, “is far from here and hard to find, on the wide ocean.  In that sea is an island, and on the island there grows a green oak, and beneath the oak is an iron chest, and in the chest is a small basket, and in the basket is a hare, and in the hare is a duck, and in the duck is an egg; and he who finds the egg and breaks it, kills me at the same time.”

The prince naturally procured the fateful egg and with it in his hands he confronted the deathless warlock. The monster would have killed him, but the prince began to squeeze the egg. At that the warlock shrieked with pain, and turning to the false princess, who stood by smirking and smiling,

“Was it not out of love for you,” said he, “that I told you where my death was? And is this the return you make to me?”

With that he grabbed at his sword, which hung from a peg on the wall; but before he could reach it, the prince had crushed the egg, and sure enough the deathless warlock found his death at the same moment.

There are many other stories of a similar sort which I will not repeat here, but the similarity is the nature of the soul being external to the person and that person’s existence being tied to the animal or object containing the soul.  Similar relationships are drawn between a witch/warlock and her/his familiar; and it should be noted that references to witchcraft are peppered amongst Fefu, the most obvious of which is Fefu’s story of the black cat that she feeds.  As a play with very strong feminist overtones, it is certain that the references to witches are there to point to men’s latent fears regarding the mystery and power of the female body.

With the above in mind, it is clear that the animals and Julia are connected.  We also know that there are two types of animals killed (a deer and rabbit) so there is no one type of animal with which Julia is associated–it would seem to be animals in general.  Although, there is no monopoly one the relationship between animals and people, the scene “In the Study” has Cindy reading from a magazine: “A lady in Africa divorced her husband because he was a cheetah.” p30. However, I will note that the animal in question here is a hunting animal, not a grazing animal.  So, the main question is, how is Julia related to animals or what does this connection mean?

For the second part of my response, a key comes from an article by Penny Faran2, who writes of Fornes:

By her own account, she began writing the play with two “fantasy” images in mind.  The first was of a “woman…who was talking to some friends [and then] took her rifle and shot her husband”; the second was a joke involving “two Mexicans speaking at a bullfight. One says to the other, ‘She is pretty, that one over there.’ The other says, ‘Which one?’ So the first one takes his rifle and shoots her.  He says, ‘That one, the one that falls.’” In the completed play, Fornes has brought these two startling premises together so that, however indirectly, Fefu shoots Julia rather than her husband Phillip and, in doing so, takes the place of the men in the “joke” who objectify women to the point of annihilation. p446

Faran goes on to point out that “taking up the gun is a male-associated strategy of domination” and that Julia’s observation that Fefu is hurting herself by firing the gun (in Part 1 of Fefu) is correct.

But the notion of the “objectification of women” and the notion that women have traditionally been viewed as passive creatures to men’s more active principle suggests that women, as are the deer and rabbit, subject to being acted upon and are defenseless against the male urge toward domination.  Julia is thus representative of this feminine principle and receives the action of the masculine principle against her.

This again highlights what may be a fundamental assertion that both Fefu and Julia are not only threatened by the male principle, but have harmed themselves, albeit in different ways: Fefu, by constantly acting the part of a man; Julia but allowing herself to become passive.  Again, this raises the notion of to what extent in the play that Emma offers an alternative vision of how women can succeed by redefining the terms of the conversation.

  1. Frazer, Sir James G. The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion
  2. Farfan, Penelope. Feminism, Metatheatricality, and Mise en Scène in Maria Irene Fornes’s Fefu and Her Friends. Modern Drama 40 (1997): 442-453
  3. Previous Fefu post

Betonie the Shaman as a Chronotopic, Heterochronous Healer

June 16th, 2009 No comments

In Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony, the encounter of the protagonist, Tayo, with the old shaman, Betonie, is arguably the most important section of the book. Besides the section’s physical placement at the book’s center, the Betonie section marks a major transformation in Tayo’s perception of the world and marks a point of positive behavioral change—in contrast with his behavior in the book to this point.



Tayo’s psychology and behavior in the first half of the book is marred by bouts of alcoholism, fighting, and sickness of soul, mind, and body. There are several etiologies for Tayo’s behavior and psychological sickness. The first source is strained family relations, most painfully embodied in Tayo’s relationship with his aunt—a relationship that is much like the fairy tale relationship of Cinderella to her stepmother: more specifically, the aunt is subtly abusive, emotionally distant, and has no qualms about demonstrating her belief that Tayo is inferior to her and her own son, Rocky. The second source of Tayo’s sickness is the death of Rocky during World War II (despite his mother’s attitude, Rocky and Tayo were as close as brothers). A third source of sickness in Tayo can be found in the conflict between the white world and "his own" Pueblo world—that is, his inability to fit into either: the former not wanting him because of who he is, i.e., Indian; the later to which Tayo cannot relate by merit of its lack of evolution. Finally, Tayo suffers from an inability to determine what his expectations of and prospects in both the white and Pueblo world should rightly be.

It is against the backdrop of Tayo’s self-abuse and self-destruction that Betonie appears. Betonie is a shaman to whom Tayo has been referred by Ku’oosh, a local medicine man who has failed an initial attempt at curing Tayo by means of a traditionally performed scalp ceremony—a ceremony designed to remove from the recipient the psychological burden of having killed other people. While there are two high points in the Betonie section: the story of a witches’ contest that marks out the disastrous future for Native American Indians; and a healing ritual performed by Betonie on Tayo; it is, perhaps, merely the fact that Tayo spends several days with the old shaman, simply listening to him and being present with him, that ultimately proves to be of most benefit to Tayo. This is precisely because of Betonie’s heteroglossia, and the fact that he is a chronotopic, heterochronous healer.

In her essay (Burton 199), “Bakhtin, Temporality, and Modern Narrative: Writing ‘the Whole Triumphant Murderous Unstoppable Chute’,” Stacy Burton considers three lesser-explored concepts of M. M. Bakhtin’s critical theory: the chronotope, heterochrony, and heteroglossia; and the significance these concepts have to the critical understanding of modern fiction. Chronotopes are "conceptions of time and space… [that] determine ‘to a significant degree the image of a person in literature.’” (Burton 1996, 45) The chronotope is also understood to be "the key term in [Bakhtin’s] discussion of time and narrative." (Burton 1996, 43) The essence of the chronotope is twofold: it contains a temporal component and a spatial component, both of which defines a character within a novel and impacts the narrative. The temporal component can loosely be defined as the placement of the character within time, and the spatial component can be understood to be the physical placement of the character within space—also known as "framing" or "viewpoint." Thus, within a novel whose attached narration is concerned with a character’s action in the present tense, the character’s chronotope can be understood to be the "now" and "here”—that is, current time and current physical space. This, however, is a simplistic representation of a chronotope, as within a novel multiple chronotopes can be present at one time. Each character in a novel will manifest his or her own chronotope and each narrative strand will manifest its own distinct viewpoint. It is this aspect of the novel that greatly increases its complexity, for as M. M. Bakhtin notes:

". . .the modern novel, sensing itself on the border between two languages, one literary, the other extraliterary, each of which now knows heteroglossia, also senses itself on the border of time: it is extraordinarily sensitive to time in language, it senses time’s shifts, the aging and renewing of language, the past and the future—and all in language.” (Bakhtin et al. 1988, 67)

What is true of the novel is also true of chronotopes—as the first-person, attached narrative viewpoint of a character reading the diary of a person alive several hundred years before, suddenly makes manifest several chronotopes—not including that of the reader. Added to this is the presence within a narrative viewpoint of multiple expressions of time: "Bakhtin amplifies these early hints about multiple chronotopes and proposes the outlines of a more complex theory of narrative temporality. Here he describes the world as fundamentally multitemporal, or ‘heterochronous.’ Within any narrative, he explains in a crucial passage, several chronotopes may be at work:

Chronotopes are mutually inclusive, they co-exist, they may be interwoven with, replace or oppose one another, contradict one another or find themselves in ever more complex interrelationships. . . The general characteristic of these interactions is that they are dialogical (in the broadest sense of the word)… (this dialogue) enters the world of the author, of the performer, and the world of the listeners and readers. And all these worlds are chronotopic as well." (Burton 1996, 47)

Plainly put, within any narrative moment, multiple time references may be present, as well as multiple points of view and conceptions of time. A simple instance of this is a character in the present tense who is remembering an incident from his past—thus, the character is at one moment experiencing two distinct time events. As if this weren’t enough, per what is mentioned in the quoted section above, the presence of a character, an author, and a reader introduces one of many possible dialogues that can exist in a narrative—that is, instances of multiple voices speaking to one another. This possibility extends equally to characters within a novel, and introduces the concept of heteroglossia. With these three conceptual tools: the chronotope, heterochrony, and heteroglossia, the importance of the Betonie section of Ceremony can be more fully understood: in terms of the images present within the section, the language that is used by Betonie, and the narrative strands that are interwoven.

As Betonie’s section opens, Tayo and readers are confronted first by visual images that construct a heterochronous dialogue that blurs the temporal position of Betonie within the narrative. Betonie’s hogan is in opposition, both imagistically and dialogically, to the town of Gallup, and there is a chronotopic contrast between the two: Gallup the new town sits by a junkyard in the valley, while Betonie’s hogan sits atop the side of a mountain—spatially, the two are in a dialogue of position. This dialogue of position recurs, as Tayo later contrasts the artificial lights of the city at night, with the natural light of the stars. In addition, Betonie’s hogan and Gallup are in a dialogue of time:

"It strikes me funny," the medicine man said, shaking his head, "people wondering why I live so close to this filthy town. But see, this hogan was here first. Built long before the white people ever came. It is that town down there which is out of place. Not this old medicine man.” (Silko 1986, 118)

Deepening this dialogue is the town of Gallup’s dependence on Native Americans to bolster its economic base during the annual tourist season, known as "Ceremonial time," a time in which, in the middle of the present, the "old time" rituals of the past are enacted. The physical appearance of Betonie is also a dialogue of time: "He kept his hair tied back neatly with red yarn in a chongo knot, like the oldtimers wore." (Silko 1986, 117) And yet, "his motions were strong and unhesitating, as if they belonged to a younger man.” (Silko 1986, 117) In fact, the mix of old and new confuses Tayo at first and immediately constructs a dialogue between Tayo’s expectations of what a medicine man should be, and what he actually sees and hears: "This Betonie didn’t talk the way Tayo expected a medicine man to talk. He didn’t act like a medicine man at all.” (Silko 1986, 118) As if this weren’t enough, Betonie has the uncanny ability of reading Tayo’s thoughts, and entering a dialogue with Tayo even when he doesn’t speak. Then, when Tayo enters the old man’s hogan, the heterochrony explodes:

[Tayo] could see bundles of newspapers, their edges curled stiff and brown, barricading piles of telephone books with the years scattered among cities—St. Louis, Seattle, New York, Oakland—and he began to feel another dimension to the old man’s room. His heart beat faster, and he felt the blood draining from his legs. He knew the answer before he could shape the question. Light from the door worked paths through the thick bluish green glass of the Coke bottles; his eyes followed the light until he was dizzy and sick. He wanted to dismiss all of it as an old man’s rubbish, debris that had fallen out of the years, but the boxes and trunks, the bundles and stacks were plainly part of the pattern: they followed the concentric shadows of the room.

The old man smiled. His teeth were big and white. "Take it easy," he said, "don’t try to see everything all at once." He laughed. "We’ve been gathering these things for a long time—hundreds of years. She was doing it before I was born, and he was working before she came. And on and on back down in time." (Silko 1986, 120)

It is the presence of "modern" things in a traditional setting that allows them to be viewed differently—as almost foreign. The datedness of the things gives a history to them as well. This view of their datedness allows Tayo to see their nature, a fundamental insight: that modem things perish, too—fade away. And yet, in Betonie’s hogan, an eternity is established, a timelessness—in fact, the hogan itself is a multitemporal vehicle extending back through generations, standing in stark contrast to the all-too temporal junkyard of ephemeral things that are rusting away below. In addition, the presence of the things in the hogan, and the description by Betonie of how they have come to be there, slowly introduces other voices to the hogan, and to the conversation.

In terms of time, it is critical to understanding Tayo’s character to note that up to this point in the novel, Tayo’s sense of time and history has been extremely myopic and self-referential: he is consumed by his own past and his own personal history. In terms of voice, Tayo has precisely the same problem: the voices he hears in the first half of Ceremony are the voices of personal reference: Rocky’s, Josiah’s (Tayo’s uncle), Old Grandma’s, the extraordinarily critical voice of his aunt, and the destructive and equally confused voices of those he considers friends: Harley, Pinkie, Emo, and Leroy. And, in fact, it is precisely this intrusion of both time and voice that ails Tayo:

He had not been able to sleep for a long time—for as long as all things had become tied together like colts in single file when he and Josiah had taken them into the mountain… He could get no rest as long as the memories were tangled with the present, tangled up like colored threads from old Grandma’s wicker sewing basket… He could feel it inside his skull—the tension of little threads being pulled and how it was with tangled things, things tied together, and as he tried to pull them apart and rewind them into their places, they snagged and tangled even more. So Tayo had to sweat through those nights when thoughts became entangled; he had to sweat to think of something that wasn’t unraveled or tied in knots to the past—something that existed by itself, standing alone like a deer." (Silko 1986, 6-7)

Betonie, as it were, begins clearing the air, straightening the threads and rewinding them into their places. To do this, Betonie has a two-pronged approach: to give Tayo a broader sense of time and history (heterochrony), and to introduce more voices into Tayo’s conversations (heteroglossia). This notion is supported by at least two of Betonie’s comments: “’In the old days it was simple. A medicine person could get by without all these things. But nowadays…’

He let his voice trail off and nodded to let Tayo complete the thought for him." (Silko 1986, 121) And in a discussion about his first train ride, Betonie remarks: “She sent me to school. Sherman Institute, Riverside, California. That was the first train I ever rode. I had been watching them from the hills up here all my life. I told her it looked like a snake crawling along the red-rock mesas. I told her I didn’t want to go. I was already a big kid then. Bigger than the rest. But she said "It is carried on in all languages now, so you have to know English too." (Silko 1986, 122)

The first comment is suggestive as to the reason for the junk in the hogan, and it is in the context of Tayo’s arrival that we see the effect. Spatially speaking, Tayo is at the very center of the hogan, standing in a circle of sunlight—in effect, standing literally in the present. Spiraling out, that is, away from the center, falling farther and farther into darkness and oblivion, is an ever increasing (decreasing?), concentric circle of time—"the bundles and sacks were plainly part of the pattern." (Silko 1986, 120) The imagistic effect is that of showing the falling of time away from the center of the hogan, the present. Also important is the recognition by Tayo of the Santa Fe Railroad calendars, and his admission of this fact. “’That gives me some place to start,’ old Betonie said… ‘All these things have stories alive in them.’" (Silko 1986, 121) In essence, Tayo has been placed in time, or in a context of time, and this, psychologically or strategically speaking, gives Betonie a place to begin his work. The second remark by Betonie reaffirms the importance of language, and of a dialogue of voices. It isn’t enough, as Betonie’s old grandmother pointed out, that he know the ceremonies and stories, he needed to know how to convey them: he needed to know all the languages of those who might need his help.

As a chronotopic healer—a heterochronous healer—and a healer speaking in multiple voices and languages, Betonie is given a sizable task. With Tayo, especially, he has to either bury the voices in Tayo’s head, or put them in a context that de-emphasizes their importance—to connect Tayo to a larger system of reference. Using heteroglossia, Betonie has to add more voices to Tayo’s dialogue—to remove the monologic nature of the voice of modern science (which Tayo learned in white schools), and counter the negative voices (of Tayo’s aunt and Tayo’s friends). This is precisely Betonie’s role: he serves as an eternal chronotope, a chronotope that transcends both time and space. For readers familiar with the movie Star Wars, Betonie is, in a way, comparable to Obi Wan Kenobi. That is, Kenobi represents to Luke Skywalker (another displaced and wandering young hero) an historic connection (he knew Luke’s father), a connection with the present (in the here and now of the tale), and later, after he dies, Kenobi transcends both time and physical space to advise Luke. In a similar way, Betonie retains a strongly dialogic purpose within the narrative—both in this section with his physical presence, and later, when he is for Tayo just a remembered voice that advises him. Betonie thus becomes a voice for multiple time periods and, shadow-like, occupies multiple spatial zones. For as "the chronotope is the place where the knots of narrative are tied and untied,” (Burton 1996, 45) so Betonie must act chronotopically to untie Tayo’s personal knots and retie them to something much larger. For Betonie, the primary vehicle for this effect is language, but it is not the only vehicle, a fact that is demonstrated on at least one occasion:

[Betonie] ran his fingers through his mustache again, still smiling as though he were thinking of other stories to tell. But a single hair came loose from his thick gray mustache, and his attention shifted suddenly to the hair between his fingers. He got up and went to the back of the hogan. Tayo heard the jingle of keys and the tin sound of a footlocker opening; the lock snapped shut and the old man came back and sat down; the hair was gone.

"I don’t take any chances," he said as he got settled on the goatskins again. Tayo could hear his own pulse sound in his ears. He wasn’t sure what the old man was talking about, but he had an idea. "Didn’t anyone ever teach you about these things?”

Tayo shook his head, but he knew the medicine man could see he was lying. He knew what they did with strands of hair they found; he knew what they did with bits of fingernail and toenail they found.” (Silko 1986, 122)

In stark contrast to scientific thought, here we see the workings of magic, or as Sir James Frazer would say in his imperialistic nineteenth-century voice, the “spurious system of natural law… a fallacious guide of conduct…a false science…an abortive art." (Frazer 1993, 11) To be more specific, Betonie is defending himself against what Frazer terms "contagious magic:” the form of magic that allows one person to act on another person by merit of an object that was at one time in contact with that person—that whatever the practitioner "does to a material object will affect equally the person with whom the object was once in contact, whether it formed a part of his body or not." (Frazer 1993, 11) This system of belief forms a sharp dialogic contrast with the system of belief of modern science, and shows a more traditional understanding of how the world operates. That Tayo is familiar with this system is shown by his nervous denial of it, and the increase in his heart rate as the realization of what the old man is doing breaks upon his mind. Processes precisely like this do not rely on language as a vehicle, but are systems of belief latent in Tayo’s mind, and a personal history to which Betonie sees he can refer—and on which he can rely to reconstruct Tayo’s self-image, or construct a new image altogether.

This magical system of thought is not unknown to Tayo, as much as he may like to deny it, and it is while Tayo is opening up to Betonie, demonstrating the psychological consequences of the war and his life prior to it, that we first see the indications that Tayo is more like the old shaman than he may suspect:

My uncle Josiah was there that day. Yet I know he couldn’t have been there. He was thousands of miles away, at home in Laguna. We were in the Philippine jungles. I understand that. I know he couldn’t have been there. (Silko 1986, 124)

Here we see Tayo discussing a war moment in which he was convinced he saw his uncle’s face on the bodies of Japanese soldiers he had been ordered to execute. As readers, though, and as Betonie, we can see two dialogues: that of science ("he couldn’t have been there"), that is, the idea of omnipresence being scientifically ridiculous; and that of magic, that is, the fundamental insight that all things in the world are connected, and that one thing certainly can affect another at great distances. To Tayo as white man, the possibility of Josiah being in the Philippines is impossible; to Tayo as Laguna Pueblo, Josiah was there. For Betonie, the confusion is easily dispelled; he is thoroughly familiar with the logic of magic. Further, on a more philosophical note, to Betonie, there is no difference between Laguna Pueblo and Japanese. This is a trick of thinking; a trick of the "destroyers," who are seeking the end of mankind. Tayo was right in seeing what he saw—it was a fundamental insight into the nature of the universe, that all people are to be valued, all life. Enemies and allies are tricks of thought.

An additional dialogue that takes place outside the realm of language, though relying on language as its vehicle, is the dialogue of values: that is, determining what is important. For

Tayo, this is certainly a conversation between his white, materialistic expectations—generated by both his identification with his own mixed blood, and the taste of material possessions he experienced as a soldier (the attraction of women, new clothing, and abundant food); and his Native American expectations—an identity attached to landscape, and strong sense of autonomous unity with the earth, governed by natural patterns of time—latent, again, in Tayo’s mind and remembered only vaguely in the stories of old Grandma and Josiah. For Tayo, in the

Betonie section, this dialogue of self and value becomes more prominent, and the words of Betonie harmonize with a more traditional expectation of what is important: "He wanted to believe old Betonie. He wanted to keep the feeling of his words alive inside himself so that he could believe that he might get well.” (Silko 1986, 126) For Tayo, this harmony is one with the living earth, revealed most in Tayo’s strong desire to recapture Josiah’s scattered herd of cattle, and take up Josiah’s dream. Yet, as soon as the old shaman leaves, Tayo looks around Betonie’s hogan and sees how shoddy the place is, the rags and boxes of sticks and how run down and meager the hogan is. We see the chronotope of "white" Tayo entering the narrative again; we see Tayo viewing Betonie through the eyes of the destroyers, through the eyes of the materialist:

"All Betonie owned in the world was in this room. What kind of healing power was in this?" And yet, soon after, Betonie answers Tayo, not directly, but in looking at Mount Taylor he remarks, "They only fool themselves when they think it is theirs. The deeds and papers don’t mean anything. It is the people who belong to the mountain." (Silko 1986, 128)

And so the dialogue of value continues—the slow, steady reversal of Tayo’s misunderstanding of the world: the heteroglossia, the many voices, working to undo the damage that has been done.Beyond the non-language vehicles that Betonie uses to open a dialogue with Tayo (the assumption of Tayo’s knowledge of magic and tradition, as well as the assumptions of what it is he values), the language vehicles, or language images, that Betonie draws upon are twofold: stories and ceremonies. While there is an ongoing story in Ceremony to this point in the book (a story largely concerned with the rejuvenation of the land—rejuvenation brought about by Hummingbird and Fly), in this section we will see Betonie introduce far more.

In the article, "From the Prehistory of Novelistic Discourse," taken from the book of essays entitled The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, M. M. Bakhtin discusses, among other things, novelistic images. To Bakhtin, a novelistic image is "the image of another’s language.” (Bakhtin et al. 1988, 44) This image is important for two reasons: it is distinct from the voice of the author, as it does not represent the author’s direct speech, but an instance of someone else’s speech; and it is a vehicle for creating a dialogue between various narrative strands within a novel: that is, it is a distinct voice that can speak independently of the author, or even a character, and advance or reverse any rhetorical elements that may be at play within the scene, or novel. It is with this concept in mind that one can consider the verse sections within Ceremony, and draw complex conclusions regarding the nature of the stories in Betonie’s section, and Betonie’s voice as well.

In the Betonie section of Ceremony there are several narrative strands that step outside the chronotope of Tayo, which is to say, outside Tayo’s temporal and spatial sphere. In some instances, the reader can attribute the verse sections, which appear to be stories, as belonging to Betonie. That is, the verse sections are stories told, perhaps, by Betonie to Tayo, and are presented in verse to emphasize a voice that it is distinct from the narrator’s voice and governed, syntactically, by someone else. However, there is at least one other section, the "Note on Bear People and Witches," that takes on an authoritative and encyclopedic voice that may be outside even the voice of Betonie.

Presuming that these verse sections are presented by Betonie, the concepts mentioned at the outset of this essay come in to play: namely, the concepts of the chronotope, heterochrony, and heteroglossia. These concepts are important by merit of Bakhtin’s dialogic principle, that is, “the language of the novel is a system of languages that mutually and ideologically interanimate each other." (Bakhtin et al. 1988, 47) That is, the languages refer to and contrast one another and present us with not Betonie’s language, but Betonie’s rendition of traditional language—an image of traditional language. Another way of looking at it is that stories are vehicles of knowledge passed down through time—and not necessarily the language of only one individual. As such, Betonie’s chronotope alters from a voice in the "here and now" to one that transcends time, and becomes representative of all the years through which the story has passed prior to his re-telling it. Betonie becomes heterochronous in that he begins speaking for multiple times. Additionally, Betonie becomes a vehicle for the story he tells; becomes a purveyor of heteroglossia, as he suddenly allows the voices of all times to pass through him and into the present. These "images" of another’s voice are presented often throughout Betonie’s section, and have the effect of altering Tayo’s view of himself and his perception of the world, for:

As Bakhtin notes…human life is a process of orientation in “a world of others’ words,” a course of transforming “the other’s word” into “one’s own…” In terms of language, this process conventionally is described as “finding one’s voice”; in terms of one’s understanding of the world, shaped through language, experience, and concepts about time, it may be read as developing one’s chronotope.

The human world exists as an ongoing dialogue in which multiple languages and chronotopes engage and reshape each other perpetually. It is characterized not only by heteroglossia, but equally by multitemporality or heterochrony. In Morson’s words, “there are always multiple senses of time that can be applied to the same situation; thinking and experience therefore often involve a dialogue of chronotopes.” (Burton 1996, 48)

In the face of these stories, Tayo cannot help but begin a dialogue with what he hears, even if it is only to come to some understanding of the stories that the old medicine man tells. But for Tayo, knowing that the stories Betonie relates somehow apply to him, to his own condition, both Tayo and the reader cannot help but internalize the stories and try to apply them.

For Tayo, and perhaps the others that Betonie has helped, the stories and the ceremony serve different but important purposes—each form speaks to a different need. The story works as a novelistic image and carries the meaning of the culture—when Betonie speaks a story, he speaks with an historical voice: the voice of the people who have come before him. The story is a social vehicle and, in essence, suggests that what is happening to Tayo has happened to other people as well. Further, it is in a social landscape that the story operates and in the same landscape that the result will be achieved: in Betonie’s story of both the bear and coyote the child hero and young man hero each are helped by the social group, and always brought back to the social group—but aided by a ceremony. The ceremony, on the other hand, works at the individual level. The specific ceremony that Betonie performs on Tayo moves Tayo through the five directions, the North, East, South, and West, and then, into the center, into himself—into the dark, whirling blackness of his own interior, his own mind and his own soul. The ceremony, in this regard, cannot work on a social level; instead, it relies on the individual to find meaning. To aid in this process, for Tayo, homage is paid to the four cardinal points, the four directions, and can be clearly seen as a spatial attempt to reconnect Tayo to the larger world—to, in effect, reset his psychological reference: to put him in alignment with the world, and in perspective against it. Then the ceremony drives Tayo into the center, the interior. "What will cure you?" the ceremony asks. The individual has to find that answer—find that answer inside his or her own self: as what will cure or heal one person will not likely cure another. And, as we see with Betonie, perhaps what is best is not so much a good ceremony, as a sound dialogue between the person performing it, and the person receiving it.

As a vehicle from the past, that is, the story as a vehicle of knowledge or wisdom that is passed down from generation to generation, Betonie becomes a carrier of an eternal chronotope—a vehicle of heterochrony—of past, present, and the future. Betonie carries time on his shoulders and distributes it to all who come to him. The ceremony, on the other hand, stands ironically in contrast to the passage of time, and becomes the voice of the eternal moment. That is, the ceremony defies time and seeks to transcend the time forms of the world and show that a uniformity of existence lies behind the whole of the world—and that world is within, too. That Tayo comes to understand this is demonstrated later by such realizations on Tayo’s part as, "This night is a single night; and there has never been any other." (Silko 1986, 192) As a vehicle of other voices, the story and the ceremony become the carrier of other’s words, or other’s voices which speak to Tayo and enlarge the catalog of voices already inside his head—that is, there are voices beyond those of Rocky, and his Auntie, and his alcoholic friends. "Human beings are shaped in and through the words they use: consciousness and ideology develop in ‘the process of selectively assimilating the words of others."’ (Burton 1996, 48) Ironically, Betonie’s personal role—his chronotopically distinct voice that emerges from within the chronotopically eternal voice of the story and ceremony—serves at once to undermine the continuum of the story and the eternity of the ceremony, and to expand their efficacy; that is, Betonie alters the language of the stories and ceremonies, not to undermine or modify their meaning, message, or importance, but rather to make a more natural connection to the hearer or participant in the ceremony. Betonie endeavors to speak a language that the hearer or participant will understand—in Tayo’s case, to use a language that both meets Tayo’s expectations of traditional practice, and also connects with Tayo on a personal level: a language that is at once formal and ceremonial, and also understandable and common. As if this tightrope weren’t enough, Betonie must use the language to convey stories to Tayo that speak specifically to the psychological and social dilemma in which Tayo has become entangled. This practice can be seen in most of the stories within Betonie’s section, but especially in the key story of the section, and possibly the book: the story of the witches’ contest. In this story, there are numerous instances of Betonie’s speech defying traditional language patterns and introducing words and phrases of a more contemporary style. And it is complex language images such as this that Betonie will use to heal Tayo. In this regard, Betonie succeeds where previous medicine men, like Ku’oosh, have failed—precisely because of Betonie’s understanding of the importance of heteroglossia and heterochrony. Ku’oosh’s rendition of the scalp ceremony altered nothing with regard to the language and, chronologically, the ceremony was static—and consequently failed to connect with Tayo—or any of the other young men for that matter, and failed to fulfill its function as a vehicle for healing and individual insight. As Betonie has implicated the witches in Tayo’s trouble, it is important here to note that the witches, the destroyers, do not want Tayo, or anyone, to have the heteroglossia that Betonie is offering. That is, the destroyers do not want the people to hear multiple voices—they do not want changes in ceremonies or stories, they do not want life—which by necessity alter the static present. The witches fight change in the people; they fight the life-altering effects of time. Like human interaction, ceremonies must change: they must form a dialogue with the people who rely on them, a dialogue of meaning and purpose. Ceremonies must create in their recipients a fundamental understanding about the nature of the universe and an understanding of what it is to be alive; otherwise, the ceremonies are not effective, and people look on the world with dead eyes.

Beyond the stories and ceremony, Betonie is not above speaking in very logical and practical terms. This is certainly the case with regard to Shush, the boy who helps him. Tayo notes, "There was something strange about the boy, something remote in his eyes," (Silko 1986, 130) and we sense Tayo’s uneasiness in the boy’s presence. But Betonie remarks,

"You don’t have to be afraid of him. Some people act like witchery is responsible for everything that happens, when actually witchery only manipulates a small portion." He pointed in the direction the boy had gone. "Accidents happen, and there’s little we can do. But don’t be so quick to call something good or bad. There are balances and harmonies always shifting, always necessary to maintain.” (Silko 1986, 130)

Betonie tells Tayo that not everything has an explanation—the incidents of the world are not always explicable—for good or bad; and this Zen bit of common sense, or matter-of-fact wisdom, lends credibility to Betonie’s voice: it shows him to be a man of the world, a man of perception.

For Tayo, Betonie’s two principal modes of healing are enormously beneficial: namely, the expansion of time (heterochrony), by presenting multiple time-voices to Tayo; and the expansion of voice (heteroglossia), by presenting multiple narrative viewpoints. The expansion of time allows Tayo to free himself from the confines of his own personal history and see a larger pattern into which he fits, a pattern that affects all of his people through all time, and eventually, all people in the world, including the whites and the evil witches or "destroyers" that Silko introduces. By seeing how his life and problems fit into this pattern, Tayo is freed from the burden of ambiguity and malaise, and can address himself to actions that force a solution—such as finding Josiah’s cattle. The expansion of voice allows Tayo to consider the words of other people, people who have experienced what Tayo has experienced and found a solution. These voices expand his understanding, and form a contrasting dialogue to the personal references that are too personal, negative, and destructive.


Bakhtin, M.M. “From the Prehistory of Novelistic Discourse.” In The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1988.

Burton, Stacy. “Bakhtin, temporality, and modern narrative: Writing ‘the whole triumphant murderous unstoppable chute’.” Comparative Literature 48, no. 1 (Winter 1996): 39-64.

Frazer, James George, Sir. The Golden Bough Wordsworth Reference. Hertfordshire, England: Wordsworth Editions Ltd, 1993.

Silko, Leslie. Ceremony. New York, N.Y: Penguin Books, 1986.

%d bloggers like this: