- An Ear for the Story, an Eye for the Pattern: Rereading Ceremony
For the ancient Mayans, creators of the almanacs after which Leslie Marmon Silko’s 1991 novel Almanac of the Dead is titled, writing was a gift of the great creator, the “word made visible” (Coe 12–13). As Silko explains in the introduction to her recent collection of essays, Yellow Woman and a Beauty of the Spirit (1996), much of her work is concerned with “the written word as a picture of the spoken word” (14), with the visualization of narrative in both written text and image. Walter Ong theorizes this effect in Orality and Literacy, describing how, in the transformation of the spoken word into written text, the aural event becomes an object, a series of marks fixed on the two-dimensional space of the page and arrested in time. Thus, he argues, literacy contributes to an objectivist paradigm that conceives reality as something visualizable; it equates consciousness with visual activity, and anchors knowledge in two-dimensional space. Silko’s writing may be understood in part as an attempt to extend the written word beyond the surface of the page, not in order to move away from the visual paradigm, but to alter the visual process of reading in order to reconnect the written word with the dynamic, multisensory, and multidimensional experience of orality. She writes to transform both the words [End Page 69] and the acts of seeing/reading, to recontextualize, to re-embody and to “reworld” them.
Almanac of the Dead was deeply influenced by Silko’s interests in archeoastronomy (the study of naked-eye astronomy in prehistoric cultures) and popular science, particularly her fascination with the Mayan calendar and its expression in the “rich visual languages” of the Mayan codices (Yellow 21). These screenfold books narrated a mythic history and recorded astronomical events with great accuracy, unfolding linear time within recurring cycles of days and years. In the complex structural and thematic interplay of the oral, the written, and the visual in Almanac of the Dead, Silko evokes textually the “thoughtworld” of the ancient almanacs, which employed both pictographic and phonetic writing to record an undifferentiated sense of space and time in which all time is always present, made visible in the written records of its intricate cycles, and of a “mythistory” (Tedlock 64) in which mythic and historical narratives are understood to be part of a coherent whole. In designing her second novel as an almanac, Silko achieves a textual merger of oral and literate paradigms, and suggests a new epistemology that encompasses both.
Some critics have observed similar processes at work in Silko’s first novel, Ceremony (1977). James Ruppert terms Ceremony a mediational text, one that engages both western and Native discourse fields in a dialogism that shifts perception and creates “new structures of meaning” (75). Similarly, Louis Owens observes that Ceremony demonstrates the “interpenetrability of ‘conceptual horizons’” and “challenges readers with a new epistemological orientation” (171). Rereading Ceremony through the lens of Almanac—foregrounding the dynamic patterning of stars and time, which for Silko intertwines ancient Native astronomies and metaphysics with the sciences of quantum relativity and chaos—permits a rereading of Ceremony that bridges science and spirituality, and suggests that this new orientation might be described as fractal. From what D. Emily Hicks terms the “double vision” of the “border text,” which arises in the interaction of the “referential codes” of two cultures (xxix), there emerges in Silko’s work a vision of wholeness that perceives the ongoingness of creation in self-generating patterns that are self-similar but never identical. Like the apparently solid lines in a fractal image, which give way to intricately patterned interrelationships when viewed in a temporal sequence of [End Page 70] enlargements, 1 Silko’s texts afford multiple temporospatial perspectives that comprehend binarisms as simultaneously oppositional and interdependent, flowing in and out of each other in shifting relationships of resistance and assimilation. The practice of “seeing double” inhabits a fractal interdimensionality where seeing/reading are both visual—grounded in the concrete world of sensory experience—and visionary—capable of accessing “other” realms of experience where larger patterns of interrelationships...