Consciousness, Psychology, and the Patriarchy: William Faulkner and the Zombie

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Popular culture has been ripe with all things monster for decades. An examination of today’s culture shows the rise of the zombie permeating our media. One can hardly look around without finding some reference to an apocalyptic event including those undead walkers. Perhaps it is our fear of human extinction, or at least the end of life as we know it, throwing us into a dystopian rebirth of humanity. However, “zombie” is by no means new, nor is it defined in only one way.

The idea of the zombie comes from Haitian culture, in which slaves were often described as “dead men working the cane fields,” as is evident in “The Magic Island” by W. B. Seabrook (92-103).  These creatures were neither the dead, nor were they the living, but they also were not the monsters we see in present day adaptations of the zombie. Zombies described in Seabrook’s story were risen from the dead to serve only as slaves (92-103). They were not hungry for brains, overtly sexual, or any of our other modern tropes. They had simply “…been raised like Lazarus from the dead…a soulless human corpse…to act and move as if it were alive (93). We can immediately see, then, that there could be a definition of zombie to expand beyond what we see on the big screen, and the Oxford English Dictionary confirms just that. According to the OED, zombie can also include the figurative meaning “A dull, apathetic, or slow-witted person” (OED). An expanded definition makes “zombie” easier to understand in the context of interpreting some works of literature.

William Faulkner was no stranger to taboo. He never shied away from the subjects of miscegenation, incest, rape, or even necrophilia. One need not take a great leap to assume we might find the undead hidden in his works, and in fact, some of them do include hints of the recently deceased speaking from beyond including Emily in “A Rose for Emily,” and Quentin Compson from The Sound and The Fury. One novel, however, contains a plot completely driven by the death of its main character, without which there would be no story: As I Lay Dying.  One barely need say the Bundren family is confronting death in this novel that sees a family struggle to bury their dying mother in her familial burial plot whilst being forced to also overcome both natural and unnatural obstacles. What is really worthy of deeper examination is the way we understand the character of their dying mother, Addie Bundren and her state of being. Was she truly “dead” throughout the novel? When did she die, and by what definition was she “dead”? Can our fascination with zombie culture help us answer the question: Was Addie Bundren a zombie? To begin answering these questions, there are a few concepts we must grasp before we can deal with her character.

Understanding Consciousness

Most of us tend to understand consciousness through the long-held Cartesian teaching of self: “I think therefore I am” (Descartes). In short, Descartes tells us that because we are able to think, it follows with necessity that we are beings—the mind creates the reality of the brain (Descartes). If we break that down into slightly more palatable portions, we can understand Descartes to mean our mind rules our bodies, giving us our psyche, which is to say our sense of self (Descartes). The mind, then, is the all-powerful tool that leads not only our thoughts, but our emotions. At least one man disagrees.

Antonio Damasio has called Descartes’s theory into question in his book Descartes’ Error. Damasion goes through an intense explanation of the physical makeup of the brain, including many disorders, to tell us that the brain simply cannot be the leader of all things thought and emotion at all times because the brain can be faulty (1-258). One example of this faulty synopsis within the brain can be demonstrated through what we commonly know as Phantom Limb Syndrome, in which a patient with an amputated limb fails to recognize, and even feels pain in, a limb that is no longer there (Mount Sinai). Damasio takes this theory further into a study he calls the “neurobiology of rationality,” and examines what happens within the brain of stroke patients (85).

Studying something called “Anosognosia,” a neuropsychological disorder affecting stroke patients and patients with other brain injuries or diseases, Damasio found that while a patient may be completely paralyzed on one side of their body, they may fail to recognize their own deficiencies (62). He goes on to say that even when faced with not being able to ambulate, the patients when asked will answer “I’m fine” (62). There is a disconnect between the mind and the body that Damasio posits is not some “psychologically motivated denial” (62). Rather, what Damasio has found through his studies is “The denial of illness results from the loss of a particular cognitive function” (63). Michael Shermer writing for Scientific American seems to agree, suggesting that we cannot simply say that the mind causes consciousness, but rather states “Because we know for a fact that measurable consciousness dies when the brain dies, until proved otherwise, the default hypothesis must be that brains cause consciousness. I am, therefore I think” (Shermer). With what we might call “faulty wiring” sending incorrect signals to the body and the mind, we can then surmise that a person really may not know who or what they are simply because of what they think, therefore telling us our sense of self can be misleading.

Knowing that a loss of self can be devastating to a person’s mental well-being, we must also delve into the realm of psychology because even though we might not exactly form who we are by a Cartesian model, the problem of confusion about the self becomes a deeply seated problem of the human mind. The mind and body cannot be completely disconnected, after all. No matter from whence the signals come, both mind and body must communicate to keep the human in a healthy state of being free from internal discord.

The Psychology of Zombies

In a compilations of essays entitled The Years Work at the Zombie Research Center, Stephen Watt breaks popular zombie tropes into digestible pieces for us in his essay “Zombie Psychology”.  Notably, Watt finds one distinct difference between the psychology of zombies and humans: Desire and Drive (68). Watt quotes Freud from his “Uncanny,” “It is only rarely that a psycho-analyst feels impelled to investigate the subject of aesthetics, even when aesthetics is understood not merely the theory of beauty but the theory of the qualities of feelings…” (68). From this, Watt explains how desire and drive operate on different levels, and how that is present within zombie films. “Drives,” Watt explains are, “comprised of an impetus, aim, object, and source…” (74). Again referencing Freud, Watt states that a breastfed infant does not so much have a desire (specifically a sexual desire in Freud’s world) for its mother, but for the source of the milk that will give it sustenance (75). This is clearly separated from “Desire,” which Watt explains differs because, for one, “the object receiving the pulsion, or physical force,” is treated differently (74).  There can be emotion attached to an object of desire, but not for an object connected with drive (74-75). It is the difference between Tallahassee, a character from the film Zombieland, carrying out a relentless search for his beloved snack, Twinkies, and his friend, Columbus’, neighbor/ love interest turned zombie who tries to eat him, according to Watt (60-61). Tallahassee has a desire for something for which he feels an emotion, while the girl known only as “406” has a drive to eat to stay alive—sadly, Columbus is meaningless to her (60-61). In this sense we can see that “Drive” and “Desire” separate not only humans and zombies, but create a distinction we might call “Animal” and “Human”. Having explored both consciousness and psychology as they will be used within this paper, we can move forward to examining the star of the show: Addie Bundren and her personal connection to the aforementioned subjects.

Unearthing Addie

When asked by Jean Stein what he would say to people who say they do not understand his writing, “even after they read it two or three times,” Faulkner simply replied “Read it four times” (The Paris Review). Faulkner makes an important point about the very characters he created by making that statement. Some of his most simplistic seeming characters are complex in ways that take much study to understand, if it is even possible to fully understand his characters at all. As E. L Doctrow states in “On As I Lay Dying,” Faulkner writes a novel in which “Nothing is explained…the people in the book will always know more than the reader,” and so we are left to try to surmise from our own knowledge what might have been going on inside the minds of the characters (New York Review of Books). It follows then that we really must focus closely on the character we mean to dissect.

It goes without saying Addie Bundren was actually dead at some point within the novel. She was, after all, the one who “lay dying” from the title placed inside a coffin and transported by wagon to her burial plot of choice. There is proof from an overwhelming stench of decaying flesh that followed the troop on their journey, to the buzzards who popped in looking for a free meal that Addie Bundren was indeed a corpse proper, and we will not debate that notion with this paper, although some might say this is debatable (1-261).  For the purposes of this paper, we will look specifically of the time before Addie’s death proper to find if, by some definition, she could be classified as “undead,” or as some may say “a zombie”.

It is important for us to decide where Addie was in time—something that can be complex in Faulkner novels, and to give definition to her words—another complexity added by Faulkner. We immediately find within the first few pages of her chapter, Addie goes through an elaborate sequence to basically tell us one could not understand what it means to be in a specific state of being—to be a mother, be fearful, or to be proud, without never having been those things (171-172). This is predicated by her reiteration of her father’s mantra “the reason for living was to get ready to stay dead a long time” (169). Within the first few passages of her chapter, she tells us about a part of her life she would later qualify as when she was alive. What is assumedly the time she spent as a teacher was the time during which she was preparing “to stay dead,” or by her own uncanny definition, her state of being alive (169-170). This marker in her life was highlighted by the rare opportunities she had to spend alone, and find happiness by punishing her students (169-170).

After she married Anse Bundren, Addie becomes pregnant with her first son, Cash (171). By her explanation, this is the time when she “knew living was terrible and that this was the answer to it” (171). Falling on the knowledge of Addie’s knowing things by their opposites, we can see that because Addie had a certain distaste for children, she felt having children of her own was the opposite of living, death, so that this became a period of transition for Addie from which she would change from feeling alive to dead, at least mentally. For a woman who did not want to be a mother, we might understand what was a, most likely, unavoidable byproduct of marriage—pregnancy and birth to mark the time of Addie’s loss of self.

Addie has no real motherly connection with her firstborn son. “Love” was not unlike any other word to her, but “just a shape to fill a lack” (172). Addie states she never used the word with Cash, but rather “let Anse use it” (172). In her thoughts, having children only “violated” her “aloneness” (172). In fact, Addie felt “tricked” by not only being a mother, but what we might assume is marriage as she says “he had tricked me, hidden within a word like within a paper screen,” and that even Anse had been “tricked by words older than Anse or love” (172). Her “revenge” for all this trickery would be to become despondent as she states “he would never know I was taking revenge,” and she then says he made him promise to bury her in her hometown, Jefferson (173). Addie may not have been dying when she made this statement, but she certainly believed she was in need of burial, and she also believed Anse was dead, but unware of his own condition (173).

Thinking about the previous discussion about consciousness and psychology, it is important to note here that there could be a scientific explanation for what Addie was experiencing. First diagnosed in 1882, a disorder known as Cotard’s Dellusion was first diagnosed by Dr. Jules Cotard (Ruminjo & Mekinulov). This syndrome causes patients to believe they are either figuratively or literally a zombie (dead) (Ruminjo & Mekinulov). While the delusion was noted as being quite rare, the syndrome is still diagnosed today, and causes serious impairment that must be treated with either medication or electroconvulsive treatment (Ruminjo & Mekinulov).  Of course we must not assume Faulkner was pointing to this disorder, but it is not outside the realm of possibility that Addie could have suffered from this disorder that made her feel she was dead. It is also not impossible for Faulkner to be privy to the disorder, and so it is just one thing to keep in mind.

As Addie lived her life without much feeling, she enters into an affair with a man who was an “instrument ordained by God” (174). Looking for happiness, Addie dreamnt of her lover, the preacher (174). She describes her sexual affair as sin, and states it is a “duty to the alive” (174). The affair (sex) was not a “duty” to Addie because she was not one of “the alive”. Unfortunately for Addie, her affair leads only to another child, and she ruminates once more on her father’s thoughts on being alive and dead (175). She thinks her father could not have even known what he was talking about because he was male, did not bear children, and never had to cover up a pregnancy resulting from an affair (175-176).

Following the birth of the child, Jewel, born by Addie and the preacher, Addie continues to have children in order to pay Anse back for her adulterous offspring (176). She says she gave Anse three sons, and she could now “get ready to die,” which by her definition of knowing life and death would mean she was done having children, and could know what it meant to live. For Addie, knowing life is to be dead. Addie Bundren did not want to be a mother. She wanted to disconnect from her children and her husband. She only felt childbirth was her “duty to Anse” (174).

Her friend Cora Tull was constantly reminding her she “was not a true mother” (173). However, by the end of her chapter, Addie dismisses all Cora said to her by saying Cora did not understand sin or salvation (176). If we understand Addie’s definition of “sin” to be sex, we might conclude “salvation” to be love. Being truly alive for Addie might mean having sex without the bounds of marriage and childbirth—something from which she could walk away and be alone. Death to Addie was being restricted by marriage and children—the very things which kept her from going “down the hill to the spring” where she could just “be quiet and hate them” the children who were of “blood strange to each other” and “strange” to her (169-170).

While most of this interpretation of Addie comes from a personal perspective on words, or lack thereof, and their meanings possibly further complicating and confusing the character of Addie Bundren, there are two built in observers within the novel who shed more light, and thus lend more credibility to this interpretation.

 

 

The Carpenter and the Fisherman Do Psychology

            When we fail to understand a person or their behavior, one of the best places to dig for clues is from their family. Those connections are an easily accessible gift handed to us by Faulkner within the same novel unlike some of his characters in his other novels, who must be read across several texts to really understand.  While it could be said all the characters give us a lens through which to view their dying mother/wife/friend, two in particular narrow the focus closer than the others. Cash and Vardaman give unique insights into their mother and her plight.

Building a coffin for his own mother must be a painful, painstaking task. Cash takes on the task with pride, even giving us the specifics of its design. “I made it on a bevel” begins the thirteen point list describing how he knew he simply must build his mother’s coffin (82). The list seems like incoherent mumblings, written in broken sentences and thoughts. A closer examination shows a man privy to a great deal of knowledge about the world, including physics and, apparently, phrenology.

Number eight on the list contains only two words: “Animal magnetism” (83). What could animal magnetism have to do with a dead woman’s casket? How does it even relate to things like creating “more surface for the nails to grip,” or explaining the stress caused by living humans on a house or a bed (82-83)?  At first glance, or even second or third, it probably makes little sense, but as Faulkner suggested, we might read it one more time to understand. Rosemary Franklin believes she has uncovered the real meaning behind the short phrase in her essay “Animal Magnetism in As I Lay Dying”.

Franklin explains most of Cash’s list with drawings to help explain the bevel (27-30). Important here is her explanation of what might have been knowledge beyond carpentry learned by Cash. She says Cash speaks “in an almost syllogistic form, but the simple sentences and language disguise the complexity of his logic” (24). Franklin paraphrases other critics of the novel as dismissing Cash as a “simpleton,” but goes on to explain he should not be dismissed because “his entire theory of carpentry is built upon his understanding of this [animal magnetism] pseudoscience” (24). She continues to say that “magnetism” helps drive the plot of the entire novel, and “helps clarify problems encountered in other characters than Cash” (25). According to Franklin, animal magnetism is a type of “science” involving “hypnotism,” which believers thought “cursed all through living things” (25).  “Animal magnetism,” Franklin writes, “became especially well known around 1840, when it became associated with another pseudoscience, phrenology” (25).  Phrenology, Franklin explains, was a “primitive form of psychology (25). Therefore, Cash was not just in the business of coffin building, the carpenter was roughly practicing psychology on his mother.

We might surmise a couple of things from his mention of animal magnetism associated with his mother. One, Addie must have had some sort of emotional disorder—magnetism came from the “emotional centers” in the brain, and two, Addie was technically still alive at the time he was building the coffin because magnetism “cursed through living things” (25). Addie, then, for as much as she believed herself dead was not yet dead.

Vardaman lends insight of a different type. Regardless of the fact this chapter contains only one sentence, these five words might sum up his mother more astutely than anyone, including herself: “My mother is a fish” (84). This young boy, the youngest child of the Bundrens, is trying to deal as best he can with the death of his mother, to be sure, but he does not equate her in any other way than to the fish he caught earlier (71-72). The thought of a fish is astoundingly significant when compared to Addie because even those with only passing knowledge of fish know that once they procreate, they usually die. Vadarman’s mother had effectively lived the life of a fish—an animal, who stayed technically alive only long enough to have children, then made her transition to death. This brings our thoughts back to the aforementioned theories of zombie psychology—the natural, the human with desires, and the animal, the zombie who functions only within the realm of drive.

Diagnosing Addie: Is She A Zombie?

            Viewing Addie as a character, a fish if you will, caught somewhere between being a human with desire, and a zombie who only functions on drive, we can possibly determine if she was, indeed, a zombie. George Marion O’Donnell helps us understand the human/animal dichotomy in his essay about the works of Faulkner entitled “Faulkner’s Mythology”. Within his essay, O’Donnell takes a closer look at other Yoknapatawpha families, the Sartorises and Snopes. He aligns the Sartoris family with the idea of being “human” because of their morality, and situates the Snopes opposite of them as animals because of their “a-morality” (286-290). Of significance to this paper, O’Donnell looks into the life of the Bundrens, classifying them as some Sartoris-Snopes hybrid, saying they are human because Anse keeps his promise to Addie to bury her—a moral act, but “almost animalistic” due to their “low mentality” and uncontrolled sexuality (291). He states “they are infected with a-morality; but it is the a-morality of a physical nature” (291).

Addie herself recognizes her having children as an unpleasant byproduct she really does not choose, but is forced into by “duty” (171-172). Her own sexuality had caused her to become no more than an animal fit only for reproduction—drive, and not happiness—desire. It is if Addie had diagnosed her own disease. The theory of a woman valued nearly only as chattle is not lost on E. L. Doctrow, either. As he states in his essay “The Bundren family relationships are cruel…Dewey Dell and her mother Addie are the gender afflicted…” (New York Review of Books).

We might also view Anse’s response to the loss of his wife as that of an uncaring man only set on bettering his own life with new teeth, and replacing the property he had just lost when, after Addie’s burial, Anse does not mourn, but instead remarries announcing “Meet Mrs. Bundren” (261). His actions certainly do not point to the moral man spoken of by O’Donnnell. William Faulkner himself described Anse’s reaction at the end of the book as a coping mechanism saying “The father having lost his wife would naturally need another one, so he got one” ( The Paris Review). Whether Anse is only being pragmatic is definitely up for debate as William Van O’Connor writes in “The Grotesque in Modern American Fiction,”  “Anse Bundren is the very voice of propriety in his own respect for Addie’s wishes (we have no reason to believe he is insincere in this), but he uses the funeral journey as a means of getting himself new teeth and a new wife” (346).  As practical as it might be for this man to need a wife to cook and clean around the house, it is also doubtful he needed to grab the very first one he saw because he did have an older daughter who could have worked in the home. It also calls not only his character into being, but his state of being. Addie was probably wrong with her assumption that Anse was dead, because by her own definitions, Anse was alive and fully capable of having sex when, where, and with whom he so chose.

Another important point made by O’Connor is that Addie is a woman “desperately trying to find her sense of significant being…” (346). We need not stretch far to compare Addie Bundren to our first mention of zombies in this paper, the Haitian slaves. While she certainly is not of color and is not enslaved in the most proper definition of the word, Addie felt she had been duped. She was “tricked” not by Anse, but by life about what marriage was. She was as disposable as any farm animal. Anse dropped her in the grave, and promptly found a new wife (261). One might even say it was no more difficult for Anse to switch Addie for a new wife than it was for him to trade Jewel’s horse to the Snopes for mules (184-193). If Addie truly is the equivalent of farm animals, she really is very close to Seabrook’s zombies.

Jessica Baldanzi and Kyle Schlabach offer more insight into Addie, and the handling of her corpse, in their essay that explores As I Lay Dying as a way to help understand the Georgia Crematory Scandal. The scandal in 2002 found 300 bodies left unattended to rather than having been buried or cremated in rural Georgia, and the authors use Faulkner’s novel to help explain the handling of the dead (38-55). For the purposes of this paper, we will focus only on their interpretation of Faulkner.

Dewey Dell was the Bundren daughter pregnant with an illegitimate child, and the duo write about her situation “Dewey Dell attempts to erase the illegitimate child…but she knows…the child is written into her poor, rural narrative” (48). Childbearing seems to be an accepted fate of the poor Bundren women as exhibited by both Addie and her daughter. They got pregnant. That was just part of their lives. It was an expected duty from which the only escape was death. Furthermore, the two authors go on to explain why Anse, maybe not so moral after all, goes to all the trouble to bury Addie in Jefferson. Anse needed to make sure Addie was properly buried because to do otherwise would have meant “Addie’s improperly buried body would have left damaging evidence of his marital disrespect” because her body stunk as much as did the fact she was barely dead before he replaced her (51). Even the preacher with whom Addie conceived a son disrespects Addie, showing he only used her for his own sexual purposes Baldanzi and Schlabach point out (51).

Called to the house for her passing, Whitfield the preacher remarks “she had sworn then that she would never tell it” (178). The man of God with whom Addie had found respite was only worried for his own well-being, and Addie knew so. She says in her chapter “I hid nothing. I tried to deceive no one. I would not have cared. I merely took the precautions that he thought necessary for his sake, not for my safety, but just as I wore clothes in the world’s face” (175). What Baldanzi and Schlabach posit is that Faulkner in As I Lay Dying is doing is “exhuming the truth of post-Civil War America,” and with his words “There is no such thing as was-only is” he gives an “elegant testament to the haunted character of humanity…” (53).

“Haunted” and “humanity” serve for interesting parallels where Addie Bundren is concerned. Not only does Addie really reflect gender inequality during the time this novel was written, but she might serve as more than just a female character who dies. As Susan Willis writes, the characters in As I Lay Dying “fascinate and trouble our thinking” (587). “Faulkner,” Willis says, demonstrates how “…history’s seemingly insignificant characters” and “literary modernism might be conceived as the proper mode for articulation of history” (587).

If we can imagine Addie Bundren and family teaching us the history of the American South, we surely can envision her using the lens of zombie scholarship. Even though it might have been unintentional ( Although, there is nothing definite with Faulkner) seeing as Faulkner was writing this story well before our real media frenzy that is “zombie”, Faulkner has seemingly touched on yet another taboo. If not quite taboo, one might say uncanny subject.

Addie Bundren is not only a woman bound by her duties as an unwilling wife and mother, she has decided that she is dead. She finds some reprieve in an adulterous relationship only to end up with another child, and therefore, more lack of life. The zombie phenomenon of the twenty-first century can help us understand consciousness, the psyche, of a woman caught between the animal—the zombie who functions on drive alone, and for which reproduction is necessary for survival, and the human, who has desire, hopes, dreams, for whom we might say happiness is necessary for survival, at least for the survival of the self.

Native American poet, activist, and one of the great philosophers of our time John Trudell has said many people are zombies (YouTube). Their minds have been stripped of  human qualities by what he calls “technologic miners” who “mine their minds,” removing their ancestral identity (YouTube).  He says modern humans have “entered the reality of the already dead who are just spending their lives waiting to die” ( YouTube). Of course, he is speaking here directly about the human connection with Earth and what he says are the “ancients,” but his theory can be expanded in the instance of Addie to include her as a woman who has been stripped of her human identity by a patriarchal society who keep her as no more than an animal fit for breeding. It is because of this dehumanizing of human beings, says Trudell, that we lose our connection with our descendants, thus we can say this why Addie felt no real connection to her children—she was a zombie (YouTube). We can understand Addie as a zombie because, as Trudell explains the word “human” only means “bone, flesh, and blood,” but it is our access to the “being”—the part of us that connects us to the universe, which is missing in Addie Bundren (YouTube). It is that connection to the universe through our spirit, our “being,” that gives us power in life (YouTube). Mining of things like uranium leaves behind toxic waste, and it is no different when the “being” is mined from humans, according to Trudell (YouTube). He goes on to explain that the toxic aftereffect of the mining of the “being” from humans breeds a disease inside of us that causes us to forget what it means to be human, namely the “fears, doubts, and insecurities” that distort our “perception of self and reality,” and this is the most important aspect to keep in mind concerning Addie Bundren (YouTube). Addie has no true reality of self anymore, tying together everything about consciousness and psychology, but more importantly showing that she can be read as a zombie if we define “zombie” as someone with a distorted sense of self.   Trudell says we are in a place “where spirits get eaten” by these “slavers,” and Addie is no exception (YouTube). Addie’s spirit was stolen from her just as technology steals away spirits today.

If asked directly if Addie Bundren is a zombie, the answer would be a resounding “Yes”. Addie fits the criteria of a woman whose consciousness is flawed by psychological disease brought about by lack of happiness. She is a woman who is, of course, a human, but is treated as no more than a man’s disposable horse. More importantly, Addie lacks the agency to speak for herself against her oppression. She is similar to the Haitian zombies in Seabrook’s tale in that, because of her place in history, she is an enslaved woman that even her children recognized as having problems.

Addie, the physically alive, mentally dead mother was in a period of transition during her chapter. She moved from a woman who was very much a live, to a woman who had lost herself. She was what we might call now “turning”. Addie Bundren became a zombified woman, numb from the burden of multiple unwanted births and the husband who only cared for her in the capacity he would his cattle. She resigned herself, and completely envisioned herself, as being dead before her time was up. It should not go without notice that Faulkner never says from what ailment Addie dies. Perhaps she was so depressed she climbed into bed never to leave it again just as a salmon never leaves the spot on which it lays eggs. Vadarman was right. His mother was a fish—a fish not quite alive, but not yet dead, flopping on the bank trying desperately to die.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Native American Literature: Activism in Art

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Abstract

In thinking about the relationship between art and activism, I wondered just how many involved in the American Indian Movement were also actively writing. The question then became: is literature a profound part of activism, and if so, how does that work? For Native Americans, the written word is a relatively new concept in comparison to nonnative written works. Practicing oral traditions, much of Native literature was not even considered literature until someone put those most basic Native stories (i.e creation stories) into print. It took even longer for Native stories to be appreciated as something worthy of scholarly study. Today, much of Native literature is still considered to be in the realm of something children would read rather than the serious business we associate with other literary greats like Hawthorne or Faulkner. What might be important in our modern world is to view these works with a different lens—one that values them as being as great as any contained in the Norton. This paper outlines the importance of the written word as a form of activism, and also touches on the value that should be given to Native literature.

Jimmie Durham once said about Hachivi Edgar Heap of Birds that “there is no way to see his work as ‘ethnic,’ as ‘Indian Art’; but there is no way to escape the Indian reality his work represents” ( Townsend-Gault). Perhaps what Durham spoke is true of many Native artists, be they visual, musical, or written artists. Although not all art created by Native people is inherently “ethnic” as Durham noted, the connection to Native culture in their art is inescapable, making the connection between Native art and activism easy to make. Life is often represented in art, and vice versa, giving way to social activism through art.

In fact, sometimes a work of art could be considered as one of the highest forms of activism: using a colonizer’s own culture in ways to foster understanding between cultures. As Mágara Averbach mentions in “Translation and Resistance in Native American Literature,” when Native Americans move away from the spoken word stories to writing, and more importantly, writing in English, they are using “inverse appropriation” as “a weapon in the fight for survival” (166). Not only a figurative fight for survival, this battle to survive colonization into which Indigenous People were forced, made “appropriation” a necessary part of their lives. Although using words as weapons seems cliché and ineffective, one must understand both Native culture and the power of words within their culture to fully realize the importance of Native writing and literature within the culture few white Americans comprehend.

According to Paula Allen writing in “Symbol and Structure in Native American Literature: Some Basic Considerations,” There is much more at play than simply story telling in the sense most white Americans relate to. Rather than writing for artistic pleasure or expression, Allen tells us Native writers generally write to convey a message—there is deep meaning and morals planted within the stories (267). We do not often equate the moralistic story with western literature as this facet of literature is more often connected with other cultures. Rather, according to Allen, most nonnatives tend to relate Native literature with that of “folklore”—something “primitive” or “heathen,” without much merit (267). This becomes problematic because by categorizing Native literature in this way we not only take away its relevance in our society, but also do not learn to appreciate or understand them as relevant to their own culture. As Allen says, “Literature is a facet of culture. Its significance can best be understood in terms of its culture, and its purpose is meaningful only when the cultural assumptions it is based on are understood and accepted” (267). Understanding Native culture, then, leads to understanding Native literature. Once we understand the deep meaning embedded within the literature and realize these are more than folklorists’ tales, we then might be able to glean the meanings we should absorb, which is paramount to understanding why Native literature is so important in Native activism. The literature can act as a liaison between cultures.

One culture struggling to understand another, or even worse, denying the other does or even should exist, has been a long standing problem in our national history. According to Kathryn Winona Shanley in “The Paradox of Native American Intellectualism and Literature,” the Native American figure has gone through different stages of representation during and following colonization, which she likens to narrowing the focus of a lens (276). “Images of Native Americans transformed from national ancestor to obstacle to residue…,” writes Shanley (276). She adds later that “When it comes to identity, American Indians are stuck between the rock of the law and the hard place of the lived reality of being something called American Indian, Native American…or whatever term seems the least contested and the most expressive of that reality” (289). What has become in mainstream society is something Shanley says is a declaration of “the absence of Indianness” and “declarations about how ‘Indian’ others are” (289).  Many, Shanley writes, are willing to “devour Things Indian,” although this is no more than cultural misappropriation of sacred traditions for the purpose of entertainment (289). It is easy, then, to understand the utter lack of nonnative comprehension of Native culture, and the frustration from the Native culture towards those nonnatives. The liaison of literature is indeed important.

As important as the connection literature might make for nonnatives is, it is imperative to remember as Robin Riley Fast reminds us in “Outside Looking In: Nonnatives and American Indian Literature,” that “Native lit isn’t just about consciousness raising for white kids” (63). To be sure, Native lit can serve that purpose, and often times does, however, we must be careful not to make this into “our thing”. It is not about us or our questions, as stated by Fast (63). Rather, the study of Native literature must remain the study of cultures fighting against all odds to remain intact. If we do indeed garner understanding from the literature, that is wonderful—there is no misstep in pedagogy there. However, in learning, we must leave the culture whole. We cannot make it something we twist and create for ourselves. Doing so would defeat the purpose of learning about the culture, and thus break down the connection between cultures. Although it is impossible to read a piece of work without having some personal feelings concerning that work, we have to remember if we are not Native, we have not lived the Native experience, and therefore can only let the work inform us rather than writing more into the work than is there. This becomes important in all activism, whether through literature or some other form. One may not speak with the voice of the oppressed, but only reiterate what they have been told. To let the story tell itself is vital as preservation of cultural identity is part of Native activism.

With the written word, part of this cultural identity fades with necessity as it moves away from the spoken word. Arnold Krupat writes in “Postcoloniality and Native American Literature” that hearing the spoken word is a different form of interactive exchange between author (orator) and listener (168). He tells us that during spoken storytelling, visual acts and different intonations engage with the listener/watcher, bringing, perhaps, more meaning to the story being told than what ink provides on a page (168). Translating from oral traditions to written is difficult enough, but adding the translation from languages largely not understood in the United States to English further skews our understanding of Native literatures (168). It is this misunderstanding of the Native experience and culture that leads us to categorize Native literature as something “postcolonial,” a misstep according to Krupat.

Krupat states about Native literature “…it is not, and cannot now be considered a postcolonial literature for the simple reason that there is not yet a “post” to its colonial status (169). What Natives are still experiencing, according to Krupat, is “ongoing domestic imperialism” (169). Because of this ongoing cultural robbery occurring, we might then begin to understand the importance of activism within the Native community, for if we could attach the prefix “post” to the “colonial,” there would be no need for activism. Having already been colonized, there would be some aspect, perhaps understanding of, having already assimilated. We do not see that within Native literature. Even if the oral traditions have sometimes become westernized by print; even if the languages of the tribes are translated to English, the voice of struggle continues to punctuate each line. Native works also, as noted by Krupat, are not homogenous compared to other American literatures and histories (169). Krupat also makes the point that, while calling Native lit is to incorrectly categorize as it really is not “post”, they do showcase the “tension with imperial power,” therefore making it “postcolonial” by way of working definition (170). What Krupat adds to his argument is “that any tensions and differences from the ‘imperial center’ in these texts may usefully be theorized as acts of anti-imperial translation” (170). He goes on to add that “it seems useful to reappropriate the concept of translation for not merely postcolonial, but, as I want to insist, anticolonial purposes, and thus to speak of contemporary Native American literature as engaged in the specific practice of anti-imperial translation” (170). Returning to Jimmie Durham, we can look to his poetry as an example of “anti-imperial translation”.

In his poem “Justiniana Lamé has been killed,” Durham delves deeply into the archives of Native American history, connecting not only what Indigenous people of the United States have experienced, but also those in South America. Within this poem, Durham uses both English and Spanish, making a connection between cultures. He relates the death of many Native Americans from the United States to those in South America, which is important to foster an understanding that being “Native American” is not an experience limited to those indigenous people living in the United States. Also of importance, we must note that before the tragedy of the genocides against people in the United States, genocidal acts were already in active in South and Central America by way of Christopher Columbus et al.

Durham speak of Lamé’s dictum “Viva la unidad de todos los explotados,” meaning long live the unity of all the exploited (133). A powerful statement, to be sure, but simultaneously unifying within the cultural group and resistant to colonizers. What Durham effectively does here is to use language to show that Native people will band together to fight further imperialistic efforts and genocide. By changing the language from English to Spanish then back to English again, Durham showcases the “anti-imperialistism” of which Krupat speaks, because Durham is able to show that no matter what language might be forced upon them through imperialism, Native people will fight for their freedoms and indigenous rights.

Of course, it is only fair to say that being nonnative, all this explication is that of an outsider. It is impossible to know the Native experience without having ever lived that experience. The tool of this writer is only a looking glass through which to see the message written by Durham and other Native writers. It would be inherently wrong to appropriate the meanings of the writings as a personal experience with which it is impossible for me to have lived. Rather, the purpose here is to show how through Native Americans’ use of the English language, resistance and activism flows from their pages more so than if I were trying to translate from their language.

What Jimmie Durham and countless other Native Americans have done is take a tool from their colonizer, and use it smartly to combat cultural genocide. It is, perhaps, the greatest form of activism when one can use from within the enemy’s own toolbox in order to protect themselves and ensure their own culture lives on. Some might argue that language and words are hardly the most deadly of weapons. However, we must remember and recognize how far reaching a word can be. After all, it was first words that helped foster support for colonization—the Manifest Destiny mentality, if you will, was fueled through words such as “savage” or “heathen”. It was words such as those that caused many to believe Native Americans to be subalterns and less than human. So, for Native Americans to turn those words in the direction of the colonizer—not words that lose meaning in translation, but words well understood by those reading them, is to turn around an ideal, a mentality, and end the war that has never ended against Native peoples worldwide.

Looking again to Durham, he writes “La mejor manera de recorder los compañeros caïdos/En la lucha, es fortalciendo nuestra organización,/Para enfrentar la repression, conquistar nuestras tierras/ Y todos nuestras derechos./ The best way to honor our comrades who have fallen/ In the struggle is to strengthen our organization,/To confront the repression, regain our land and all/ Our rights” (133). Durham, in fact, does work to strengthen the organization to fight for the rights of Native peoples through his writing. A side benefit of his work is that people who do not understand Native culture can begin to investigate the lives and strife of those who have struggled as Durham speaks “during the long season of Indians being killed” (132).

The gift we receive from Native writers’ ability to take the English language and make it something beneficial rather than only a part of the cultural genocide thrust upon them is the lesson of the sorrowful effects of imperialism on Indigenous people worldwide. We nonnatives will never understand fully what it means to be “Native”. However, we can get closer to understanding the importance of preservation of cultures once in danger of extinction without forceful efforts of preservation. We can learn what it means to appreciate through the written word a culture that would remain foreign to us without the wonderful writers, authors, poets, and storytellers working as liaisons between cultures, inviting us to their world so we can all live peacefully.

Works Cited

Allen, Paula. “Symbol and Structure in Native American Literature.” College Composition

and Communication.24:3. 267-270. 1973. PDF.

Averbach, Margara. “Translation and Resistance in Native North American Literature.”

Durham. Jimmie. “Justiniano Lamé Has Been Killed.” Harper’s Anthology of 20th Century

            Native American Poetry. Ed. Duane Niatum. Harper and Row San Francisco. 1988. Print.

Krubac. Arnold. “Postcolonality and Native American Literature” The Yale Journal of

            Criticism. 7.1 171-180. 1994. Print.

Riley Fast, Robin. “Nonnatives and American Indian Literature.” American Quarterly.

46:1. 62-76.1994.PDF.

Townsend-Gault, Charlotte. “Ritualizing Ritual’s Rituals.” Art Journal. 51:3.51-58. 1992. PDF.

Winoa Shanley, Kathryn. “The Paradox of Native American Intellectualism and Literature.”

Melus. 29:3/4.273-292. 2004. American Indian Quarterly. 24:2. 165-181. 2000. PDF.

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