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Self and Story

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Jeff Clapp

on 8 February 2017

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Transcript of Self and Story


Native American Literature
This is a strange phrase. It can mean "indigenous literature of the Americas"--the stories, histories, and poetry of the peoples who were at home in the Western hemisphere.

But in fact most of those peoples had oral cultures, and although some of those oral traditions have been preserved in various ways, this phrase usually means something else.
In general, Native American literature is a contemporary development--the enormous body of literary writing inspired by N. Scott Momaday's
House Made of Dawn
and a few other novels written in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The expansion of the European populations in North America destroyed hundreds of cultures across the continent--a process that began around 1750 and was essentially complete by 1890.

Some of those cultures, like the one to which Momaday and his family belong, the Kiowas, were more or less completely dependent on the American bison for their way of life. And in the late 19th century, the bison were exterminated, primarily for their skin and fur, but also just for sport. The ways of life of these indigenous tribes simply collapsed.
There are still many tribes living on small pieces of land "given" to them by the governments of the U.S. and Canada. But these are now cultures which struggle to remember, preserve, promote, and perpetuate forms of life which are in the past: they are
ways of life.
as a theory of literature
the tepee
The Way To Rainy Mountain
the introduction
The Way To Rainy Mountain
assessing a few pages
Momaday uses his introduction to interrelate three separate stories: the story of the Kiowas, the story of his grandmother, and his own story.

Though highly aware that these three stories divide eras, Momaday uses the
of a
his experiences with those of his ancestors.

That journey terminates in the all-important ideas of "wholeness" and "eternity"--as represented by the cricket centered in the moon.
The First Paragraph
Claim: In this paragraph, Momaday invokes emotions of danger, abandonment, and emptiness. Over the course of the introduction, he will seek to show how community, and a community's shared ideas, can create a sense of wholeness and eternity in this empty landscape.
Important elements of this paragraph
for quotation and analysis
"single knoll"
"my people, the Kiowas"
"old landmark"
"gave it the name"

Five sentences of nature imagery.

"plenty of time"

Use of second person.

"lose the sense of proportion"

"imagination comes to life"
The Second Paragraph:
The second paragraph of this book begins to knit together the three basic time frames:

1) the Kiowa as a people,
2) Aho the grandmother,
3) and Momaday himself.

Note that it also affirms this continuity by mentioning the intervening generation--probably Momaday's aunt. This creates an unbroken line from the end of the Kiowa "golden age" to Momaday himself.
The Kiowa Narrative
: Momaday tells the story of the Kiowas as a story of development and transformation, like the story of an individual life. It has a birth, an adolescence, an adulthood, and a closure.
: The adolescence of the Kiowas occurs in their confrontation with Devil's Mountain, and their forging of a myth that orients them in the landscape.
Aho's Narrative
Claim: Momaday frames Aho primarily as living in the wake of a vast tragedy. Memory of tragedy is presented as the key feature of her life; she is characterized as a repository of lost practices and ideas. In this way, her narrative connects the Kiowa narrative to Momaday's own.
Some ideas for analysis in this paragraph
sight metaphors and imagery in this passage:
"a vision of deicide" and "I see my grandmother" and "having seen many things"

historical details in this passage:
"July 20, 1890"
"the Washita [River]"

The imagery of the "kerosene lamp"

"I do not speak Kiowa, but...."
Momaday's Narrative
Claim: Despite the disasters of history, Momaday uses the introduction to forge a meaningful connection between himself and what he calls "my people." The introduction is carefully plotted, and it climaxes in the powerful image of the cricket in the moon--an image which represents both the connections, and the distances, between Momaday, his grandmother, and the Kiowa.
Analyzing this paragraph
For me, the ambiguity in the word "there" is the most interesting element of this passage. Is the cricket in the right place on the railing to be perceived in a certain way by Momaday? Or is it actually in the moon?

A similar question arises in Momady's essay "On Indian-White Relations":
The most interesting single feature of this book is its division into three interrelated, but clearly separate, narratives.
Let's take a look at the first spread of pages.
Your assignment: fill in the argument
Describe the relationships among the three parts of the text on one of the following pairs of pages: 20-21, 22-23, 30-31. 38-39, 44-45, 72-73, 82-83. How does this pair of pages create meaning in Momaday's text?

Consider: what kind of information appears in each of the three positions? Describe the relationship among the three positions. In other words, how are all the left hand pages alike?

Consider: Each spread of pages is also a unit. For your own pages, what relationships among the parts do you see? How are they connected or not connected, to one another?

Either write your answer on paper or type it and email it to me at jmclapp@eduhk.hk. Length: around 150 words. Due: 5pm today.

No plagiarism check here. You may choose to work alone or you may informally collaborate; I still need a submission from each student.
Initial conclusions about the form of the book
-literature establishes cultural identity, and

-determines that language and cultural identity are the same thing.

-It strictly excludes almost everybody who does not directly share one's culture,

-potentially including Momaday himself.
One way to describe the three sections: they represent


These three sections can be both related and separated.
Sometimes they conflict, and sometimes they support one another.
Further Conclusions--toward an analytical essay

Major Claim
: The three discourses, or text types, in Momaday's text hold a relative stability and distinctiveness in earlier parts of the book, but then increasingly collapse toward one another.
Major Claim
: Momaday creates many fleeting or evanescent connections among the three elements, primarily using forms of repetition, including a variety of narrative techniques, imagery, and allusions.
Momaday & Subjectivity
Momaday's first person aspires to be "
the man made of words
," the one who knows the myth, knows the language, and lives in a defined, whole, and eternal relationship to a culture and to nature.
The Way to Rainy Mountain
attempts to create such a first person, even as it acknowledges linguistic difference, lost knowledge, and a vanishing culture.
This is the book
from which
I photocopied
"War Dances."
Published 2012.
Consider this word and this facial expression. Did we encounter either of these ideas in Momaday?
"War Dances"
Initial Allusions
"War Dances" begins with
a series of allusions to
a short novel by Franz Kafka,
The Shape of the Text
As a "list," we might initially
see the text as primarily paratactic,
but this may not be the case.

hydrocephaly & meningioma
alcoholism & diabetes
One of these answers is "strategic essentialism." Let's look at this in the section of the story called "Blankets."
: By framing distinct parts, and then blending them together, Momaday forges connections with his Kiowa ancestors, even as he acknowledges the impassable gaps between them. Further, Momaday uses hypotactic elements to create connections, and paratactic elements to indicate gaps.
These allusions would make a great paper topic for this class. But it requires you to read Kafka's book.

Write me an email.
The Way to Rainy Mountain
was published in 1969.
Major Native American Authors
N. Scott Momaday
Leslie Marmon Silko
Louise Erdrich
Joy Harjo
Sherman Alexie
Arguing with literary evidence
The three discourses, or text types, of Momaday's text hold a relative stability and distinctiveness in earlier parts of the book, but then collapse toward one another. This formal development directly tracks the introduction,which also creates connections between Momaday, his family, and Kiowa history. For Momaday this was the major goal of taking on the journey "to Rainy Mountain," where he can re-encounter his
self within story
, as symbolized by his vision of the cricket encircled by the moon.
So let's approach this text in this way:

it is preoccupied with some of the same questions as Momaday, but it will come to very different answers.
One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin. He lay on his armour-like back, and if he lifted his head a little he could see his brown belly, slightly domed and divided by arches into stiff sections. The bedding was hardly able to cover it and seemed ready to slide off any moment. His many legs, pitifully thin compared with the size of the rest of him, waved about helplessly as he looked.

"What's happened to me?" he thought. It wasn't a dream. His room, a proper human room although a little too small, lay peacefully between its four familiar walls. A collection of textile samples lay spread out on the table - Samsa was a travelling salesman.

In fact the story is structured in a rather conventional, hypotactic way.

1,2,3: Present time: the illness develops
4: Flashback to father's surgery
5: Present time: At the doctor
6: Flashback to childhood illness
7,8: Present time: Conversations with brother and wife about illness
9,10: Flashback: Father's death and aftermath
11, 12, 13, 14: Present time: Responding to the diagnosis
15: Flashback: "Exit interview for my father"
16: Present time: Reunion with wife; conclusion.

A good literary question, then,
is what the numbers are for.

Why provide this kind of gap or breakage,
and why emphasize the separateness
of the "parts" of the story?
Exit Interview: Telling Stories
"I know you want something big here...I knew you hoped he'd said something huge and poetic, like maybe something you could have written, and honestly, I was thinking about lying to you. I was thinking about making up something as beautiful as I could....But I could think of anything good enough...So I have to be honest and say that your grandfather didn't say anything. He just died there in the sand. In silence." (62)
"War Dances" develops the theme of "story" and its uses. Let's take this theme into a discussion of the story's most complex part, "Exit Interview for My Father."
Discuss the two following questions:
1) Why might this story climax with an "Exit Interview"? What kind of relationship does that imply between father and son?

2) After quoting his own poem "Mutually Assured Destruction," Alexie points out lots of things that are wrong with it. Why not just rewrite the poem, or not include it at all? What is being emphasized here?
Alexie wrote a YA novel called
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

He's obviously interested in questions of truth, lying, and the way that stories might be understood to contain both of these elements.

Discuss in your group, then, one final question: What is the relationship between Alexie's ideas, and Momaday's cricket-in-the-moon?
In this context, and given the form of the work, an excellent question is this: what is the relationship between Momaday's three-part structure, and Du Bois' "double consciousness"?
Rubric for this Exercise
A: Your exercise gives a detailed, accurate synthesis of how the pages work.

B: Your exercise indicates understanding of the question.

C: There are words on your paper.

strategic essentialism:

The political practice of overlooking the fact that from a post-structuralist perspective essences . . . are difficult to sustain. For example, few feminist theorists would agree that there is a set of definable attributes essential to the idea, the concept, or the actuality of woman. Yet the more one pushes this . . . line of thinking, the harder it becomes to establish common ground, or more especially common cause, sufficient to the needs of political action. If all women are irreducibly different, then why should they act together? The same problem besets all political groups defined by their identity (e.g. race, class, ethnicity, sexual orientation). For that reason, US-based Indian critic Gayatri Spivak proposes the notion of a
strategic essentialism
which simultaneously recognizes the impossibility of any essentialism and the necessity of some kind of essentialism for the sake of political action.

A Dictionary of Critical Theory

Three further approaches
to developing theme in "War Dances"
The first incident that suggests "strategic essentialism" in Alexie's story comes when he goes to ask the nurses for another blanket for his father, on pages 45 and 46.
"I hoped my darker pigment would give me an edge with the black nurse."
The second incident that suggests "strategic essentialism" in Alexie's story comes when he goes looking for a better blanket.

How can we understand the "strategic essentialism" in this part of the text?

In your group, look together at page 51.
The third incident is not the narrator's strategic essentialism, but instead the Lummi man's father's.

But the narrator is quite skeptical of this person. He suspects him of claiming to be "traditional."

Look on page 52. What does the phrase
"self-aware fundamentalist"
So now:
what does the title
of this story mean?

a situation, incident, idea, image, or character-type that is found in many different literary works . . . or any element of a work that is elaborated into a more general theme.

Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms
"we're being invaded" (42)
"the cockroach without his tribe" (43)
"defensive mucous" (43)
Okay, let's do a little writing exercise.
In the middle of page 54, Alexie uses the phrase "imperialistic water demon."

Write 2-3 sentences explaining how this phrase operates as a
and/or a
that develops the themes of "War Dances" as a whole.

Post your sentence to FB.
Momaday, in short, is after very serious business. Here, by contrast, is an excerpt from the first pages of

"For a half-assed Indian, Junior talked full-on spiritual. Yeah, he was a born-again Indian. At the age of twenty-five, he war-danced for the first time. Around the same day he started dealing drugs. I'm traditional, Junior said.

Whenever an Indian says he's traditional, you know that Indian is full of shit."

(Alexie, from "Cry, Cry, Cry, " p. 1-2).
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