Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory
Volume 46, Number 2, Summer 1990
pp. 73-100 | 10.1353/arq.1990.0001
STEPHEN TATUM "Distance," Desire, and The Ideological Matrix of Winter in the Blood At the end of part one ofJames Welch's Winter in the Blood the unnamed narrator-protagonist discovers in his jacket pocket a letter written to his mothet, Teresa First Raise, from a Catholic priest in nearby Harlem, Montana. Pondering the envelope with her name written on it in "big, solid, unreal" letters, the narrator concludes that "the name did not belong to the woman who was my mother. It belonged to somebody I didn't know, somebody so far away that the picture on the stamp of a man I didn't recognize seemed familiar" (58). Although he thinks briefly about opening the envelope and reading the correspondence , he decides instead to tear up the letter held between his legs and watch its pieces fall to the floor. He feels "vaguely satisfied" that "a lettet written by a white man who refused to bury Indians in their own plots, who refused to set foot on the reservation" (59), will never reach its destination. Framed by his troubled recall of the previous evening's boozy escapades and by the street sounds that interrupt his thoughts that afternoon while he sits in a tavern, the narrator's gesture binds together several formal and thematic elements at work in the novel's opening section. In terms of characterization, this conjunction of naming, letters , and the power to "bury" humans in plots both magnifies the narrator 's isolation from the social matrix depicted in the novel and deArizona Quarterly Volume 46 Number 2, Summer 1990 Copyright © 1990 by Arizona Board of Regents ISSN 0004-1 6 10 74Stephen Tatwm fines, in particular, Part One's illustration of an Oedipal scenario. In terms of theme, this rupture of the communication circuit foreshadows the novel's overall investment in recording acts of repression or censorship . It also discloses its thematic interest in interrogating the consequences of an indifferent "official" culture's authority to plot a local, native culture's fortunes. Finally, because the narrator's action severs the connections potentially offered by any written discourse, it underlines the reader's burgeoning sense that the twin dynamic of a novel's traditional plotting—to chart meaningful intersections, to announce and eventually "resolve" enigmas—will not dominate the texture of Winter in the Blood. Moreover, what seems initially to be a heightened textual moment charting the narrator's emergent will to power also opens up a basic epistemological question concerning how the truth ofanything, past or present, can be known. To state the question in the novel's language, is it possible to make any written representation "familiar" rather than "distant"? This question surfaces here because the narrator insists on the distinction between representation itself and what is represented. The "I" who speaks in this passage believes that both the individual letters forming his mother's name ("T-E-R-E-S-A" ) and the epistolary discourse constituting the priest's "Teresa" do not "belong to the woman who was my mother," do not bear any relation to the Teresa known and jealously guarded by her son. Taken together, his remarks during the course of this scene raise epistemological questions because they suggest three problems associated with naming. Knowing Teresa— or any other person, object, or domain—becomes problematic when names are severed from the context of their utterance, and when certain experiences seem to overwhelm any effort to control them via the act ofnaming. In addition, the effort to articulate experience in written signs can also be frusttated by knowing of all that contradicts what the signs designate. Such problems are not simply introduced here and dropped. They are bound together later in the novel when the narrator examines his father's tombstone—on which "were written the name, John First Raise, and a pair of dates between which he had managed to stay alive"—and realizes that such engraved marks "said nothing about how he had liked to fix machines and laugh with the white men of Dodson, or how he came to be frozen stiff as a plank in the borrow pit by Earthboy's" (137). Winter in the Blood75...