A Seminar at St. John's

May 22, 2015

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post:

“From my own experience I knew that there was nothing strange in the fact that a man who finds bread agreeable to the taste when he is well finds it hard to eat when he is sick, and that light is hateful to sore eyes, although we welcome it when our sight is hale and clear.”

– (St. Augustine, Confessions)


“19th November

Didst thou see? Today when Thou wert broken on my tongue didst Thou see me shake? I have never loved Thee more & I shall never love Thee less again. No not less tho' I be hale in the hour & whole....I see now it will be clear tomorrow.”

- (Momaday, House Made of Dawn)


Recently, I was able to travel to Santa Fe, New Mexico for a seminar at St. John's College titled, “Native America: Coming Home from the War”. We read two novels, Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko and House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday, for this conference. I was amazed with the level and interests of participants. Each person offered new, unique and relevant insight on very complicated subjects.

Both novels discuss Native American participation in U.S. war efforts. Their eventual displacement after the war evidences the painful experiences brought about by the merging of cultures and borders. After the war ended, Native Americans were sent back to their communities without many of the previous military benefits. As a result, these soldiers became confused, angry, depressed and disheartened. These novels weave song, culture, dialect and ceremony into a narrative of finding oneself.

Native Americans often struggle to exist in two very separate worlds. As these characters react to the displacement, the reader, too, finds it very difficult to define the idea of home. The two main characters, Tayo from Ceremony and Abel from House Made of Dawn, fight everything...their nature, their society, white society, custom. Everything. And through their struggles, the reader gains a new perspective on the concept of a whole person, and perhaps even, a whole society. What does it mean to be whole? Is it necessary to be completely pulled apart before finding the true self, or before understanding one's home?

The above quotes use an uncommon term: 'hale'. Hale comes from the Old English word for whole and for an author like N. Scott Momaday, who chooses his words painstakingly precisely, I think it is important to understand the vast complexity of the idea of wholeness as he tries to explain it. He repeats the word 'hale' a number of times in reference to different characters who are, most often, 'hale' only when in nature or running. When the characters experience this feeling of good health, the surrounding environment reflects it. And vice versa.

The natural environment plays a strong role in both novels. It is through the environment that the characters find place, find home, find self. The natural environment localizes them in a unique way. As they come to understand the language of the natural world, to name the physical world, they also come closer to knowing their place in the world. For Tayo in Ceremony, this is vital to his understanding of Japan's endless rains. Tayo finds the drought of the New Mexican desert difficult, but reassuringly correct. Therefore, he struggles to understand the suffocation of endless rain. It does not center him as does the barren landscape of the dry desert. Yet, without seeing and breathing and feeling the suffocation of rain, he could hardly appreciate drought. One idea completes the other, and through both, one can create a middleground, understand the limits of each.

In House Made of Dawn, a distraught elderly woman, Abel's neighbor, approaches him holding her pet rat. It has died, yet, she does not think so. Clearly she cannot decipher reality. This elderly woman searches the eyes of the boys standing in front of her for some sign, some gesture of hope. And Abel simply states that the rat has died. What does it mean to recognize death, to be able to name it? In that same instant, life is also revealed. It lacks callousness and absurdity. It is merely a moment of truth. And in that moment she sat on the apartment stairs “holding that little dead animal real close to her, and she looked awful small and alone and the night was coming on and it was getting dark down there” (158). She clings to this being whom she loved. She searches for understanding in its death. And she once again knows loneliness. But she also knows love. In this moment life meets death and, together, ironically, they offer fullness to the other. In death, life is whole.

Augustine, in the quote above, talks of the struggles to understand life when a piece of oneself is sick. This quest for wholeness, in Augustine's case, is a quest for spirituality. The same could be said of Tayo and Abel. Their ghastly, brutal struggles evidence a search for some deep inner meaning, something inherent in their character and perhaps their culture. These novels ask large, difficult questions about the health of individuals, but also of society in general. Time and place weave into a tapestry of wholeness only found after having expunged sickness. Which brings us to the title of Momaday's novel: House Made of Dawn. Humans do, after all, live in a perpetually fragile world of changing light. This dawn lies between darkness and light, between death and life, between non-existence and health. And without it, we cannot be whole.

“Being as it used to be long ago, may I walk.

May it be beautiful before me,

May it be beautiful behind me,

May it be beautiful below me,

May it be beautiful above me,

May it be beautiful all around me.

In beauty it is finished.”

- Song from House Made of Dawn, 130


These novels discuss global issues. They are beautiful, poetic and rhythmic. I thank the  participants and St. John's for blessing me with the discussion of these rich novels.

I highly recommend the St. John's seminars. If you have never been to the Santa Fe area, the picture below will hopefully show you a bit of the beauty of the St. John's campus (and some snow in May). Check their website for upcoming events and thanks to all of the wonderful participants – I hope to meet again!

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