Thursday, December 13, 2012

Dark Articles: "The Horror! The Horror?" (Part 1 of 5)

Over the next 7-10 days here at Macabre Republic I will be serializing an essay first published in the Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts back in the year 2000.  "The Horror! The Horror?  The Appropriation, and Reclamation, of Native American Mythology" stems from my days as a grad student and fledgling literary critic at NYU.  In preparing the essay for posting here on the blog, I have made some grammatical edits, but have otherwise tried to leave the structure of the original text intact. 

The Horror! The Horror?  The Appropriation, and
Reclamation, of Native American Mythology
By Joe Nazare
"In any culture, myth, legend and folklore serve to explain the unexplainable, to promote cultural continuity and survival, and also to entertain."  Lester A. Standiford (168) sketches this blueprint in the opening of his essay "Worlds Made of Dawn: Characteristic Image and Incident in Native American Imaginative Literature."  Certainly Standiford points out the key functions of a mythology within its own culture, but what happens when such mythology is appropriated by another culture?  Increasingly over the past two decades, the horror genre, whose literary and cinematic narratives are scripted primarily by whites, has found its subject matter in the darker elements of Native American mythology.   Various explanations might be offered for this repeated turn to native elements.  Philosophically, the "natural supernaturalism" of Native American spiritualism seems to accord well with the Romanticism of the horror genre, which allows for the infusion/intrusion of the unworldly into the realm of everyday existence.  Less positively, the Native American can be seen as just another variable to be plugged into horror's xenophobic formula: establishing a monstrous Other that must be vanquished to preserve cultural order [see Note 1 below].  The modern horror genre might simply follow the pattern of American popular literature, culminating a history of demonization of the "Indian" extending back through the sensationalist dime novels of the late 19th Century that "fed the public taste with increasingly violent images of the Indian as thoughtless savage killer and destroyer of civilized institutions" (Ruppert 389), all the way back to Puritan captivity narratives that fashioned Indian captors as "ravenous beasts," a "company of hell-hounds, roaring, singing, ranting, insulting" (Rowlandson 70).
With its functional dependency on notions of monstrosity, villainy, and violence, the horror genre can hardly be expected to conform to the strictures of political correctness; still, the cultural work of horror's treatment of the Native American should not be glossed over.  Historically the rise of the horror narrative in America intertwines with the narrative of Native American dispossession.  In a founding text of American Gothic, Charles Brockden Brown's 1799 novel Edgar Huntly, blame--and punishment--for the various transgressions within the book is ultimately heaped on war-mongering Indian "savages."  Brown himself in his preface "To the Public" argues for a distinctly American brand of horror that casts aside European hallmarks--"Puerile superstition and exploded manners, Gothic castles and chimeras"--in favor of more indigenous subject matter: "The incidents of Indian hostility, and the perils of the western wilderness, are far more suitable, and for a native of America to overlook these, would admit of no apology" (3).   Here Brown performs an initial appropriation of the very concept of "native American," and perhaps not coincidentally, the author proceeds to deny his Indian characters in the novel any linguistic ability.  As critic Leslie Fiedler notes of Brown's rhetorical strategies: "For the corrupt Inquisitor and lustful nobleman [of European Gothic], he has substituted the Indian, who broods over the perils of Brown's fictional world in an absolute dumbness that intensifies his terror.  Brown's aboriginal shadows do not even speak.  They merely threaten by their very presence" (159-60) [see Note 2 below].
In retrospect, the disavowal of Native American language and literary tradition, the positing of the Indian as brooding bogeyman and howling, inarticulate fiend of the wilderness, clearly served as a pretext for cultural domination.  My interest here, though, does not lie with the colonial project (and rhetorical rationalization) of Indian oppression/removal that informs the long first wave of American (Gothic) literature.  I invoke first-wave writers such as Brown, Bradford, and Hawthorne only to establish the tradition, the touchstone against which subsequent horror narratives are to be rubbed.  Rather the focus is on what I would like to call the more modern second and third waves, on the complexities of the manipulation of tribal materials in late 20th Century Gothic narratives by white and Native American writers alike [see Note 3 below].
By "second wave," I refer to the aforementioned proliferation of Native American subject matter within popular horror narratives of the past two decades.  Such a phenomenon might at first seem to reflect the development of America's own attitudes at the close of 20th Century: a movement away from historical silencing, and a belated acknowledgement that Native Americans possess their own language, literature, and culture, their own cosmology and mythology.  It is soon quite apparent, though, that the presence of Native American mythology within modern horror narratives often speaks to something more nefarious than an enlightened regard for another culture.  The appropriation of the darker elements of Native American mythology for horrific effect suggests a hearkening back to the first wave, as these second wave (re: white) writers retroactively associate the Native American with an untenable state of savage primitivism [see Note 4 below].  Still, the dubious cultural work performed by such narratives has not gone unchallenged.  Indeed, a third wave can be traced to those Native American writers who themselves choose to script Gothic narratives from their own unique perspective.  This third wave attempts a reclamation of Native American mythology from its often disparaging use by the second wave (here "reclamation" implies not only the seizing back of native materials but also their restoration towards more productive ends).  By juxtaposing horror's handling of the mythology with native writers' employment of tribal myths, the following essay hopes to chart both the cultural repercussions of such cooptation by the horror genre and the effect on the Native American literary project of emergence [see Note 5 below].
What follows, then, is a series of comparative readings.  First, I counterpose Louise Erdrich's 1988 novel Tracks (which I will be upholding throughout this essay as a paradigmatic emergent text of Native American literature) to two second-wave horror narratives, Muriel Gray's The Trickster (1995) and Stephen King's Pet Sematary (1983).  Such juxtaposition helps to delineate the appropriation and reclamation of leading native myths of the trickster and the wendigo, but deeper issues are also unearthed (like the issue of cultural property--the museum-like display of Native American materials reflexively performed by both Gray's characters and The Trickster itself).  The linking of Gothic rhetoric with land disputes in both Tracks and Pet Sematary also demonstrates that the struggle for narrative control of Native American mythology maps onto issues of geographic dispossession [see Note 6 below].
Yet even as the adopting/adapting of a Gothic rhetoric by a Native American writer like Louise Erdrich (or Leslie Marmon Silko) proves quite instructive, one must admit that such emergent writers can be located only on the farthest fringe of the horror genre proper.  Thus my second act of comparative readings involves two Native American texts more deeply immersed in the third wave: Sherman Alexie's Indian Killer (1996) and Owl Goingback's Crota (1996).  Again, though, matters are not so simple as a growth from silence to speech: these third wave writers do not merely offset the ventriloquism of white horror writers (in the latter's mythological appropriations) by lending an authentic Native American voice to the horror genre.  Closer scrutiny forces one to consider whether such third wave novels ultimately cut against the grain of emergence; Goingback's Crota in particular--despite being laureled with a Bram Stoker Award for Best First Novel--hardly proves the crowning achievement of Native American Gothic.
Next I turn to a text whose strategic use of Native American mythology helps render it an exemplum of the emergent horror novel: S.P. Somtow's Moon Dance (the fact that the novel is written by an Asian American signals the work left to be done by Native American writers of horror).  Somtow's addition of Asian-American subject matter to his Native American material as part of a critique of comparative racism counterbalances the strategies of second-wave writer Jack Cady in his novella By Reason of Darkness.  My point, though, is not to lose the particularity of my Native American theme by eliding it with an Asian-American one: I focus on how Cady returns with a crucial difference to the theme of the native burial ground and the issue of territorial encroachment/ displacement previously raised in King's Pet Sematary.  Finally, by returning once more to Erdrich's Tracks and contrasting it with Cady's novella, I point towards future possibilities for the Native American/third wave horror novel.
Over the past two decades, various traditions of ethnic literature have made strategic use of the trickster figure: Asian-American (Maxine Hong Kingston's Tripmaster Monkey [1989]); African-American (Toni Morrison's Tar Baby [1981]); Chicano (Gloria Anzaldua's Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza [1987]).  Louise Erdrich's Tracks is a Native American novel similarly infused with a "trickster aesthetic" (Smith 11) [see Note 7 below].  Nanapush, co-narrator of Tracks, embodies characteristics of the trickster figure; he's a "smooth-tongued artificer" (Erdrich 196) who can "wound with pointed jokes" (17).  With his ability to "comically unite opposites and upend categories and conventions" (Smith 8), Nanapush cunningly undermines the Christian rhetoric of his rival Pauline.  Asked if she has given up "the fruit without price," Pauline preaches: "You mean Christ.  He dwells within us.  He is the fruit of the virgin's womb" (Erdrich 144).  To which Nanapush lewdly responds: "Not that fruit.  the cherry."  Likewise, when Pauline proudly recites that she will not live "by bread alone," Nanapush answers her metaphoric language with reductive literalism: "There's meat...good stew!" (199).  Nanapush also displays an ability to put the sacred instruments of the church to profane use, stealing the wire form the church piano to maker snares.  Akin to the Chippewa trickster Naanabozho, "Nanapush adopts the techniques of the oppressor to even the score and to balance the distribution of power" (Peterson 990).  In Tracks, Nanapush's mastery of the white man's language enables him to slyly negotiate cross-cultural boundaries, as when he seizes upon his position as a government interpreter to warn Rift-In-A-Cloud not to sign the Beauchamp Treaty.  Well aware of the deceptive yet authoritative quality of government documents, Nanapush also utilizes the technology of writing to forge his granddaughter Lulu's birth certificate and rescue her from boarding school.  No doubt Nanapush's relationship with Lulu is central to Tracks, as Nanapush uses his storytelling ability as a trickster to narrate to Lulu her familial and cultural history and to point out a communitarian moral: "We must live close together, as one people, share what we have in common, take what we're owed" (180).  Ultimately, then, Erdrich's trickster aesthetic proves integral to the emergent aspect of the novel.  While the book dramatizes cultural damage, "reconstructing the evil blows" inflicted by dominant white culture, Tracks does not reduce itself to a bitter lament.  Erdrich instead demonstrates through Nanapush that humor and craftiness can be vital skills for "the personal and cultural survival of the Chippewa people" (Smith 72).
Erdrich's narrative project of revisionist mythmaking and pointed use of the trickster in Tracks, though, face sits own stunning transformation when this mythological figure is appropriated by the horror genre.  In her novel The Trickster, Scottish writer Muriel Gray is careful to note the contradictory elements of the trickster myth:
Creator or destroyer.  It could be both.  There were many Tricksters, apparently.  Some were figures of fun, who could be deceived in hilarious fashion as well as deceive, providing endless stories of great ribaldry, almost always involving sex and defecation.  Others were figures of the deepest terror, demons who destroyed and murdered as naturally as a mortal breathes in and out, clever, shapeshifting, vengeful, evil beyond imagination. (87)
The protocol of the horror novel naturally leads Gray to focus on the second type of trickster, but the darkening of the trickster aesthetic evident in Erdrich's novel is nonetheless remarkable.  Gray turns the trickster back against native culture as an agent of genocide: her eponymous monster is not a positive model for cultural survival like Nanapush but rather an "Indian-hating killer" (99) that preys on the Canadian descendants of the Kinchuinick tribe that had defeated and imprisoned it.  Whereas Nanapush's profanations were marked by a clever wit, Gray's trickster wallows in mere vulgarity, manifesting itself "in so many foul guises, so many obscene tableaux" (262).  Nanapush's carnivalesque inversions devolve into physical mutilation in The Trickster: each victim has his "heart stuffed up his anus, the penis in the mouth" (98).  By situating her trickster as menacing Other, Gray also strips the figure of any verbal acuity or storytelling ability: generally its dialogue consists of the mundane command to have its four demonic names spoken.  Overall, then, Gray's novel might be seen to enact its own trickster-like deception on its audience.  Gray's characters are certainly politically correct in their challenge of racist stereotypes of the Indian as drunk, wife-beater, and superstitious fool.  The novel's protagonist also learns to take pride in his hitherto-repressed Indian heritage: finally recognizing that "he was no savage among civilized white folks" (428), Sam Hunting Wolf accepts his shaman powers and vanquishes the trickster.  these seemingly positive messages, though, mask the fact that Gray has taken a mythological figure used constructively by countless ethnic writers (and who now even has its own unit--"Native American Trickster Tales"--in the Norton Anthology of American Literature) and served it up to the popular imagination as a vile fiend to be removed from the cultural order.

Another aspect of Gray's The Trickster proves equally discon-certing.  The review blurbs prefacing the novel tout Gray's work as reminiscent of Stephen King, and one of the character sin the novel actually invokes King's name (90) when describing a grisly murder scene.  By novel's end, however, the extent of King's influence becomes quite apparent.  When Sam confronts the Trickster in its subterranean lair, finding its truest incarnation to be a giant, insect-like monster, the scene unfolds as a virtual rewrite of the finale of King's 1986 opus It.  That Gray's Trickster trace sits heritage to King's shape-shifting It is also evident in the way both antagonists draw their evil power from the malice lurking in the hearts of the respective townspeople.  All this leads one to question the importance of native mythology to Gray's text and to wonder if the author has merely cloaked a familiar horror plot with Indian exotica.  The Trickster is well-stocked with medicine men, sweat lodges, sacred charms, ancient curses, and dream visions, supporting the claim of Native American writer and critic Paula Gunn Allen that white culture seeks "to be titillated by Indian lore, seeing--however unconsciously--native spiritual life as a curious artifact" (385-6).  Appropriately enough, Sam's white wife in The Trickster works in a museum, and her endeavors seem to mirror Gray's own catalogue and display of tribal materials: "Kate knew the whole floor should have been [devoted to] railroad history, but she had all these great Indian domestic tools and artifacts to do with tribal worship and mythology to show and nowhere else to show them" (67).

Notes to Part 1

1.To acknowledge such a formula is not to equate or homogenize the abjection of various minority peoples.  For instance, when Leslie Fiedler in Love and Death in the American Novel suggests that "the proper subject for American Gothic is the black man" (397) and traces out a tradition extending from Poe's Narrative of A. Gordon Pym of Nantucket to Melville's Benito Cereno to Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!, he links such Gothicism to a particular set of anxieties expressed by the dominant culture (slave rebellion, miscegenation).  Such anxieties do not necessarily (or fully) translate to the depiction of the Native American, whose recurring role in horror narratives bespeaks other white fears and prejudices.

2.In his introduction to Edgar Huntly, Norman S. Grabo notes the significance of Brown's setting his novel outside Philadelphia in the year 1787: the symbolic founding of a new nation via the Constitutional Convention coincides with the attempted eradi-cation of Native American society within the novel (what Grabo [xiv] calls the "national nightmare of dispossession").  Cf. the Gothic rhetoric of another foundational American document, William Bradford's Of Plymouth Plantation, which attributes to "the savage people" various "cruelties horrible to be related" (169) and situates the Indian as a barbarous obstacle blocking the march of civilization.

3.Just as I want to be careful not to tendentiously indict an entire genre on charges of inherent racism, I also hope to avoid (through close textual scrutiny) the naive championing of those narratives that offer more positive depictions of Native Americans.  Even
works of horror (by white and Native American writers alike) that on the surface seem to make all the correct statements can be seen to be fractured by deeper ideological faults.

It should also be noted that I deliberately choose the term "wave" for its sense of a fluid, overlapping dynamic, as opposed to the rigid chronological sequencing suggested by a historical "period."  Rather than attempt a sweeping survey of the evolution of the Native American in the horror narrative, I hope to dialogize these second and third waves that form a roughly contemporaneous moment in American literary history.

4.The paternalistic rhetoric of William Gilmore Simms' 1846 Views and Reviews--his call for white American writers to civilize their Indian materials--foreshadows the opportunistic (and perhaps hypocritical) appropriations of the modern horror genre.  Simms writes: "Their [i.e. Native Americans'] dark and gloomy mythologies...will receive some softening lights, some subduing touches, from all the endowing spells of [white literary] genius" (qtd. in Goddu 72).

5.The concept of "emergent ethnic literature" is itself rooted in Raymond Williams' notion of emergence in Marxism and Literature: "By emergent, I mean, first, that new meanings and values, new practices, new relationships and kinds of relationship are continually being created" (123).  Williams' understanding of hegemonic authority as a cultural process, a constant tug-of-war between dominant and emergent culture, also forms a useful paradigm for the struggle over Native American mythology that I am attempting to trace here.

6.Edward W. Said acutely interconnects issues of narrative property with those of land ownership: "The main battle in imperialism is over land, of course; but when it came to who owned the land, who had the right to settle and work on it, who kept it going, who won it back, and who now plans its future--these issues were reflected, contested, and even for a time decided in narrative.  As one critic has suggested, nations themselves are narrations.  The power to narrate, or to block other narrations from forming and emerging, is very important to culture and imperialism, and constitutes one of the main connections between them" (xii-xiii).

7.In Writing Tricksters: Mythic Gambols in American Ethnic Literature, Jeanne Rosier Smith finds writers like Kingston, Erdrich, and Morrison engaged in a project of "revisionist myth-making" that doe snot just attempt to retell traditional myths but to reinvent and recombine them: "As they draw on Chinese legend, Chippewa myth, and African American folktale, they not only question gender roles but also revise traditional myths both of their own ancestral backgrounds and of the dominant culture, to suit the needs of life in modern America" (5).

No comments: