Ceremony is a novel meant to change us. It is a story, which instructs and enlightens, but it is also a tool for relating. It is useful in an extremely practical sense: It teaches us about being connected to our world, about difference and the other. These are only a couple of the possible tangible effects the book has on readers, and truly, the limiting factor in the number of possible uses for Ceremony is simply the number of individuals who read it. One of the individuals who has read Ceremony and outlined the impact the novel had on her is Alanna Kathleen Brown, a professor from the English department at Montana State University, whose essay is entitled "Pulling Silko's Threads Through Time: An Exploration of Storytelling." She is not a Native American, but has found all kinds of ways of interacting with the text. She has brought Native American storytelling, and with it many different tribal attitudes, into her own life, and attributes much of this to Silko's style of storytelling. Silko creates a ceremony-written-down that a reader can engage with on an active level. Between Silko's story, and style of storytelling, and Brown's reading, there is room for another literary theory that can shed light on why so many non-Indians can relate to Native American Literature, and this theory seems custom built for Ceremony. It is the idea of the Hermeneutic Circle, an ancient idea in European literary thinking, but a useful one that relates literature in many of the same ways Silko and her peers do. Hans-Georg Gadamer, a major player in hermeneutic circles, describes the basic goal of literature: and hermeneutics: "something distant has to be brought close, a certain strangeness overcome, a bridge built between the once and now" (Colborn, 2). What Silko provides us with is a book that builds bridges so that, as readers embarking on our own personal "ceremony" of striving to understand, we can each make connections between the novel and our lives, and likewise, Silko connects the Native American tradition of storytelling to a Western tradition.
The concept of hermeneutics was developed by Friedrich Schleiermacher in 1819. It was put forth as a theory of understanding, interpreting. MH Abrams describes the goal of hermeneutics like so: "the aim of Hermeneutics is to establish a general theory of 'understanding' as opposed to explanation" (Abrams, 91). Therefore, much of the emphasis is put on the reader's involvement. Schleiermacher culminated his ideas about hermeneutics in a procedure that he outlined for a reader's understanding of a text. His process was simple: in order to understand the whole, we must understand all of its constituent parts. This seems basic, especially if the fractured linearity of Ceremony or any number of Native American novels is readily accepted by the reader, but oftentimes this is not the case and it is useful to let a reader know that they cannot expect to understand portions of text individually, that it is necessary to see the whole to get the whole picture.
Anyhow, this idea was called the Hermeneutic Circle by another German theorist, Wilhelm Dilthey. This name is quite the misnomer, since, as I will detail in the bulk of this paper, the reader is not simply thrust back into the same place they started from. Indeed, they may barely recognize home when they return to it, depending on the effectuality of the text. Martin Heidegger developed some more particulars of hermeneutics and the Hermeneutic Circle, and his student, Gadamer, evolved the idea into its current form, and it is mostly to his ideas which I will relate Silko's novel.
The initial concern for the Hermeneutic Circle is the fusion of horizons. The reader brings his cultural-social-historical background to the text, and this constitutes her horizon. The text also brings its same background, which may or may not be the author's horizon, to the reader, and the Hermeneutic Circle works to combine these disparate horizons together. This coming together may constitute, among other potential mergings, a merging of ideas, people, cultures or theologies.
This is possible because the text itself provides a journey for the reader. The Hermeneutic Circle is the description of that journey. A reader comes to the text with certain prejudices. It is important to note that "prejudice" in this theory does not have a negative connotation; it simply denotes all the things that a reader knows, or thinks she knows, before actually reading a piece. At the outset, a reader's perception of a novel is entirely based on prejudices, and a successful reader will allow those prejudices to slip away as they are overturned by the text. Then, upon the reading of the next text, all the information that a reader gathered from previous texts, in addition to any ideological or cultural prejudices that aren't textually based, forms the basis for their prejudices on this new reading. The reader embarks upon her journey and begins gathering information. As she does this, she forms new prejudices about the meaning of the novel as a whole and these are readjusted as she gathers new information from the text.
The information that the reader gathers from the text is usually alienating. Again, it is necessary to reaffirm that alienation does not bear its usual negative connotation in the realm of the Hermeneutic Circle. Here, it simply means that what was once familiar to a reader becomes unfamiliar to her in some way. It is this alienation, the struggle to make these things familiar again, that leads to the reconfiguring of prejudice. The reader inhabits the world of the text, which may be like her actual world in varying degrees, and it is this interaction with a foreign world that allows her to integrate foreign ideas into her world after the journey is done and she returns home. But, again, home is altered, possibly in some serious ways, and the reader is changed. Hopefully she has succeeded at fusing some horizons.
Another aspect of hermeneutics in general that is not to be overlooked is the idea that the reader is an integral part of a text. The text itself only exists in the act of being read. Literature that is not read is dead literature.
So it is important in any "Circular" discussion of a text be based around a reading experience. For this, we will look at Brown's reading of Silko's work. In the beginning she doesn't know that she is "sick." Her sickness can be described as simply not being able to relate as well to Native Americans as she can after reading the text. This connects with the theme in Ceremony that an individual needn't be consciously aware that he is in need of a ceremony to cure him. Tayo exhibits this: He doesn't know what is wrong, but has a clue that something is wrong. Brown writes, "What I thought I knew, even what moved me, was culture bound" (171). This is an illustration of her prejudices, which we can assume for discussion are similar to the prejudices of an average Euro-American consciousness.
Brown embarks on the journey of reading, unconscious of the fact that she is working towards fusing her cultural horizon with the Native American cultural horizon. It is a long journey, during which she must gather information. As Ben Colborn describes in his essay, "Becoming at Home Through Reading: Excursing and Returning in the Hermeneutic Circle," the process of this information gathering goes something like this: "Based on incomplete information, the interpreter forms a hypothesis or preliminary projection of the meaning of an entire situation or text" (3). As she reads, Brown constantly revises this hypothesis to fit with the new information she gathers. She quotes Silko discussing this gathering in her essay, "As with the web, the structure will emerge as it is made and you must simply listen and trust, as the Pueblo people do, that meaning will be made" (Brown, 171). Brown herself bolsters this idea by writing, "When we watch the spider create the web strand by strand, the geometric beauty is not evident until the end" (175). These are excellent examples of the process outlined in the Hermeneutic Circle at work.
This gathering is also what causes the aforementioned alienation. Brown's familiar world is subverted by elements of Silko's story. For most Americans, the mere mention of witchery in any kind of serious way is alienating. Another good example of a portion of Silko's text that serves to alienate the reader and upset that reader's worldview is the part where Silko describes the creation of the whites through witchery "it was Indian witchery that made white people in the first place" (Silko, 132). This turns the white view of the world all kinds of topsy-turvy directions. First, it places an anonymous Native American witch in the place of God in traditional Euro-American creation myths. It also turns around the colonialist idea that Native Americans were hellspawn. This one scene can also alienate a Native American who reads it because it does implicate Indians as creators of their own holocaust. Silko has embedded things to alienate, and therefore force reconsideration of prejudices, all her potential readers.
After the journey, the reader returns home, but home is changed according to the reader's interpretation of the work. Colborn writes: "An interpretation is valid only as long as it explains the situation. If the interpreter adheres to an interpretation which constituents of the situation contradict, the interpretation becomes dogmatism" (3). Dogmatism negates the possibility of a fusion of horizons, and therefore negates the validity of the interpretation. A good example of this is those critics who would read Ceremony as an "anthropological" novel despite the fact that stories Silko incorporates which have the trappings of anthropology, like the witches convention, have no actual anthropological basis. Their interpretations are wrong, and can be said to be wrong and invalid because they are not supported by the text. However, there cannot be any single right or wrong interpretation of a text because interpretation is the key to the vitality of a text. Weinsheimer points out that, "An old book is meaningless, dead, indeed not a book at all, until it is revitalized in interpretation" (Colborn, 5).
Brown, having read Ceremony and other Native American novels on their own terms and openly, has fused her horizons with those horizons that have created novels like Ceremony. She finds herself at a different place when she is finished: "What the study of Native American Literature has helped me understand is concentric knowing, that it is the relation between things, between others, that is of critical importance" (174). Thus, Ceremony, Silko's other novels, and anything else she has read has contributed to imparting that knowledge to her in a way that she can utilize in her life. Weinsheimer describes this capability of literature: "The work is read by what is not just a consciousness but another world. At both ends, as it were, the work of literature belongs not to a writer or a reader but to a world. It mediates between worlds" (Colborn, 6).
Although much of the community has dropped out of reading and writing in the 20th Century, literature is still capable of having this effect. There is still residue in Euro-American culture of a time in which stories were a community-based endeavor, as they remain in large part in Native American communities. By capturing this community spirit, Silko has created a novel that, while completely Native American and tribal in form and content, transcends any cultural, racial or ethnic barriers and succeeds at interacting with the reader. Any reader.
Silko, Leslie Marmon. Ceremony. New York: Penguin Books, 1977.
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