There are many concepts and themes I hope to discuss with students when reading Leslie Marmon Silko’s powerful, transformative first novel Ceremony. Tayo, the novel’s Laguna Pueblo protagonist, occupies being, relates himself to land and people, under the burden of a tragic history. But his story tells of healing and survival through belief and practice of indigenous ways of life. Tayo worries that he cursed the rain and caused a drought while watching his brother Rocky die beside him in combat in the Philippines. The book enacts a ceremony to heal him. We can think of the novel here as a form of medicine, prescribed by the medicine man Betonie. I wonder, though: Is a medicine man a shaman? Medicine people are sometimes referred to as “traditional healers.” They lead ceremonies. A review from a 1936 issue of Nature magazine warns against confusing medicine men with “shaman and priest-magicians.” The medicine person’s “theory and practice,” writes the reviewer, “are based on psychology and theology rather than on pathology and pharmacology.” Despite these possibly specious differences in method, though, the figure is like the shaman in that it acts as the tribe’s go-between with the spirit world. The only major difference, as I understand it, is that shaman perform this function among tribes of northeast Asia. The term has been imported injudiciously, in other words, into North American ethnographic writing from elsewhere — so in discussions of Ceremony, it’s important to maintain a distinction between these figures, while nevertheless noting their similarities.
Some of these recent trance-scripts have been addressing and will continue to address for the remainder of the summer the course I’m planning to teach this fall. The idea is to sit with texts and think with them. Texts belonging to a rebellious current — particular expressions that leap across time, appearing throughout American history in the nation’s literature. Placed in dialogue, these texts reveal the Empire, the settler-colony in its pattern of continuous struggle with the land and its people. Rebellion occurs in these texts in open opposition to settler histories, settler temporalities, settler cosmologies. This course, of course, is a work in progress — and also a critique of progress. Yet here I am also learning to make pizza, dough and all. Or so was my hope before the baby woke. Sarah and I collaborate on a pair of dueling Sicilians.
A friend and I chat about Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Talents. It was a good conversation — so I think. A substantive, earnest thinking-through together. There is agreement that this could become a “reading group” of sorts. We’ve at least agreed to read another book together. But perhaps I should refocus my energies elsewhere. Grow vegetables. Tend the land. On my shelf sits Leaves of Grass. Beside it sit other books relevant to my work as a teacher: Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead and Thoreau’s Walden and Resistance to Civil Government. Time to clean up and make good. At some point I also ought to read Ernst Bloch’s The Spirit of Utopia. Sarah urges me to rethink. The book I need to read at present, she reminds me, is Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony.
As I reflect upon Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Talents, I think first of the cruelty of the parable itself. It’s a parable that presages evolutionism, is it not? The ones rewarded by its god are those who go forth and multiply. It appears in two synoptic gospels: Matthew 25: 14-30 and Luke 19: 11-27. In each of its versions, the parable features a relationship between a master and his servants. The servants are placed in charge of the master’s goods while he’s away. Upon his return he “assesses” their stewardship. Measures, quantifies, ranks some numerical output or product. And then punishes the one who had the least talent and saved it — the one who produced no surplus. The one who profiteth not. The master, meanwhile, is a slave-master, described by the servant as “an hard man”: one who reaps where he has not sown, gathers where he has not strawed. By parable’s end, the “unprofitable servant” has been cast into “outer darkness.” The master promises, “There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” So how does Butler, whose ancestors were slaves, respond to this parable? She tells the story of a different god: the god of Earthseed, the god of change. Yet change is a hard master too, is it not? Look at how the god manifests in the lives of Butler’s characters! Comparing Butler’s reply to the parable with the one given by John Milton, I prefer Milton’s: “God doth not need / either man’s work or his own gifts; who best / Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best.” Milton’s god is the more merciful of the two. Other famous authors have critiqued the parable as well. In his Threepenny Novel (1934), Bertolt Brecht presents it as a component of capitalist ideology. “And…all who relate such things, I condemn!” he writes. “And I’ll go further: whoever listens to it and dares to refrain from taking immediate steps against it, him I also condemn!” Perhaps Butler’s great genius, however, was to place this parable in dialogue with another: the Parable of the Sower. Sower precedes Talents in Matthew and Luke, as it does in Butler.
How might we characterize Frederick Douglass’s views regarding religion? Douglass tries to forestall misunderstanding about his views in the appendix to his autobiography. He doesn’t want his readers to suppose him “an opponent of all religion” (107). “What I have said respecting and against religion,” he writes, “I mean strictly to apply to the slaveholding religion of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper; for, between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference — so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. […]. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land” (107). Why is religion the terrain of appeal here at book’s end? Religion has been a tool of indoctrination, a violently imposed ideology, a “crown of thorns”-style cognitive map and/or map of the cosmos imposed upon slaves. Douglass shows that the crown can be seized and repurposed. The slave arrives into Logos, reclaims “Scripture,” and sits in judgment upon the master. Douglass’s religious views also manifest in his several attestations about “divine providence,” and his claims regarding the latter’s influence over key events in the course of his narrative.
“Chapter XI,” the final chapter of Douglass’s Narrative but for a brief appendix, is where the author describes how he “planned and finally succeeded in making” his escape from slavery (94). How does Douglass escape, and what role does literacy play in his plan? Does he, in effect, write his way to freedom? Or is writing but a small part? One arrives to the chapter excited to read further. But Douglass tells us immediately that he’ll have to withhold some of the facts of the escape. Too much of the particular, and others might come to harm. Because of slavery’s persistence as a system, he must deprive himself of the pleasure to speak freely the facts of the matter; otherwise, he would run the hazard of closing doors of use to those still enslaved. Means of flight must be kept secret. At most, no more than hinted at. Of the slaveholder, from whom knowledge of this sort must be kept, Douglass says, “Let him be left to feel his way in the dark; let darkness commensurate with his crime hover over him” (95).
Every book is a monument of sorts. Which ones do we want on our shelves? Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave appears on mine — or in my hands, rather. Acquisition of language — or more accurately, the acquisition not just of orality but also of literacy, learning to read and write: this is a major event in Douglass’s Narrative, as it is in Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein. For the creature in Shelley’s book, this event is a tragic one. It’s that for Douglass, too, in that it brings him great sorrow. “It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things,” he writes, “with which my youthful understanding had struggled, but struggled in vain. I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty — to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man.” But for Douglass, this understanding brings with it a thing to be prized. “From that moment,” he tells us, “I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom” (44).
Lo Lobey, the hero of Samuel R. Delany’s novel The Einstein Intersection, does something radical. Through him, Delany gets readers to enter imaginatively into a cosmos where an Orpheus archetype overtakes and renders as a minor subplot the story of “Green-Eye,” the book’s Christ figure. For many other black authors, however, including nineteenth-century fugitive slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass as well as black feminist science fiction writer Octavia E. Butler, Christianity occupies a position of importance as bearer of myth. But in every case, it’s a Christianity “heard” and interpreted — Christianity turned into dialogue. Call and response. The Bible is rewritten from the perspective of the slave rather than from the perspective of those loyal to a lord or master. Douglass identifies a “divine Providence” acting upon his life, guiding him toward freedom. Butler, writing a century later in the America of the post-‘Civil Rights’ era, speaks not of Providence but of “change” — strongly distinguishing this god from the one worshipped by Christian American Crusaders. Which side are you on, y’all? Which side are you on?
Octavia E. Butler’s inclusion of a neo-slave narrative at the heart of her book Parable of the Talents leads me to Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. A butterfly greets me at my window as I read, then floats off on its way. In a children’s book, we might follow the butterfly. But when the baby naps, we must reckon with Douglass. Born into slavery, he becomes a fugitive at twenty. Seven years later, in 1845, he authors his narrative.
Octavia E. Butler’s novels are painful to read; their narrators testify to traumas difficult to endure. In the Parable books, we’re made to identify with a first-person narrator who suffers from “hyperempathy syndrome’; she and others undergo attack, displacement, migrancy, enslavement, rape, torture, freedom from bondage, all manner of tragedy. Through it all is a story of survival. Lauren is a character who worships Change, and experiences her god in the events of her life. Always while reading, one is made to remember these are traumas that are part of black history, traumas inflicted by white supremacy and antiblackness throughout US history and with it the history of the West. The country is still right now trying to dismantle the Confederacy, if by the latter we mean the portion of America that wants to remain a white Christian settler-colonialist slave-state. The Confederacy lives, in other words, in that part of the republic that refuses the thirteenth amendment.