- “The Sterility of Their Art”Masculinity and the Western in Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony
The US West, Katherine G. Morrissey claims, has become so closely associated with archetypal images of masculinity through the genre of the Western that the landscape itself often functions as a metonym for a “gendered … form of American identity” (133). Yet this masculine national identity, codified in Westerns through masculinized landscapes populated by idealized, “macho” heroes, has never been without contention. Many recent iterations of the Western indicate an increasing rift between the image and its discontents. At the contentious borders of the Western genre are many works that both use and challenge the genre’s traditional depictions of idealized masculinity. Leslie Marmon Silko’s novel Ceremony (1977) provides a particularly incisive example of such a text, as the novel participates in generic conventions while offering a provocative challenge to the Western as a construction of ideological definitions of identity and nationhood. This paper will examine in particular how the novel’s protagonist, Tayo, provides a nuanced challenge to the traditional male cowboy hero as he is encoded and disseminated by the narrative patterns and iconic images of the traditional Western. Ceremony does not merely expose the pernicious realities of the Western’s constructions of gendered definitions of heroism and nationalism. Instead the novel utilizes Western generic forms in order to remake them, to subject those iconic definitions of masculinity and heroism to healing rituals that will transform that which is infertile into that which is ripe with meaning and fruitful for constructions of personal, tribal, and pannational identity.
In one scene in the novel the mixed-race, World War II veteran [End Page 267] protagonist Tayo reflects on the “plastic and neon, the concrete and steel” advertisements, architecture, and art of white Americans living in New Mexico (204). Tayo links this fabricated and industrialized mode of living to aggressive nationalist ideologies driving the recent Manhattan Project’s development and testing of nuclear weapons in New Mexico, a project that sought as its ultimate goal to exert military and cultural influence on a global scale. The blowback from actions undertaken to this end, Tayo thinks, will be savage and implacable. But so far the coming devastation is unseen, its “effects … hidden, evident only in the sterility of their [white American] art” (204). While Tayo does not specify the particular medium of this “sterile” art, he does identify the root cause of that cultural aridity: the art of “the white people” is sterile because it “feed[s] off the vitality of other cultures” and in so doing transforms “their consciousness into dead objects” (204). According to this diagnosis aesthetic artifacts represent the potential for cultural survival or carry the signs of impending doom. It is not surprising that such a philosophy appears in a novel that has commanded so much critical attention to its aesthetic structures.
In general most critics focus on the novel’s prominent stylistic flourishes that derive from Keresan sources or that integrate non-European and “oral” narrative forms into the novel. In fact so pervasive is the critical attention to Ceremony’s non-European artistic forms that Gregory Salyer goes so far as to claim that the novel is Silko’s attempt “to translate oral storytelling to the printed page” (31). In his exhaustive examination of Pueblo and Navajo sources in Ceremony Robert Nelson claims that the novel’s form can be read as a series of “patterns within patterns,” like a fractal (16). His meticulous “mapping” of these Keresan patterns within the narrative set the groundwork for many subsequent analyses of the novel. However, Ceremony’s complex incorporation of Keresan and other non-European source texts and patterns into the narrative, while remarkable and much remarked upon, is not the only cultural pattern present in the artistic weave of the novel. In fact Ceremony’s entire narrative is replete with tropes and iconic imagery from the most quintessentially “American” genre of literature: the Western.
While there are many variant types within the Western genre, the classical Western narrative, according to Will Wright, is “the [End Page 268] story of the lone stranger who rides into a troubled...