Southwestern Gothic: Alienation, Integration, and Rebirth in the Works of Richard Shelton, Rudolfo Anaya, and Leslie Silko

. . . there against the cliff, their astonished eyes saw the deep-shadowed cave and the lifting walls and tower of an immense ruin . . . . The crumbling walls in the foreground gave it a feeling of desolation, of long abandonment. But against the shadow of the cave rose the walls of buildings still strong against time, and in their midst, rising with staunch grace, the swelling curve of a round tower.

(Gillmor and Wetherill 31)

The gothic tone of this passage is unmistakable and wholly appropriate. Nowhere else in America do the crumbling walls of immense ruins look out from the deep shadows of caves. Nowhere else in America do stone towers mark the past tenure of an ancient civilization that has left all of us who live here uneasy successors to the land. In the Southwest only the most willful blindness can evade the presence of the region's significant cultural past. The authors of the passage above, describing the discovery by Anglo-Americans of the Cliff Palace ruin at Mesa Verde, certainly felt that presence. And just as certainly, the feeling is eerie and gothic.

In the Southwest, three cultures--Anglo, Chicano, and Indian--are struggling to realize their full potential. The effects of that struggle playing itself out through the lives of individuals is a dominant theme in the works of Richard Shelton, Rudolfo Anaya, and Leslie Silko. These writers's characters seek to understand themselves, each other, and the forces that bind them and their cultures as the common inheritors of this region.

Southwestern gothic is the particularly heightened, regional expression of a gothic strain that runs through all of American literature and is especially strong in the literature of the frontier (see Mogen). D.H. Lawrence, in Studies in Classic American Literature, sees at the heart of Anglo-American literature the covert expression of a gothic irony that "has a powerful disintegrative influence" on the Anglo's "white psyche" (51). For Lawrence, America is not the new found land that Anglos would have it be; America is "old, old, wrinkled and writhing in an old skin" (54). Anglos have physically and psychically denied the claims to the land and its spirit of those prior Americans, the Indians. Now, writes Lawrence, the dispossessed presence of Indian culture haunts the umbral edges of the American landscape:  it is "full of grinning, unappeased aboriginal demons, too, ghosts, and it persecutes the white men, like some Eumenides" (51).

The force of the gothic irony that Lawrence pursues lies in one of the strongest attractions of the Anglo-American myth: the promise that Anglos can "get away. Away from what? In the long run, away from themselves" (3). The immediate escape is "from the confinements of the European ways of life" (4), in part, escape from the gothic encounters of European experience. To live in Rome is to live in the ruins of a civilization whose greatness is clearly immense and just as clearly past. In other European cities, the difference is not in kind but in degrees.  In its cultural sense, literary gothicism arises from a culture's need to "express and relieve its fears about its own concepts of identity" (Day 5). When the ethos of a culture's past is integrated with the ethos of the present culture, the identity of the culture at that moment is very strong, and its literature may produce its definitive epic. In European literature and culture, an example of this epic moment of historically unified, cultural identity is the Rome of Vergil's Aeneid.

Gothicism results when the epic moment passes, and an enormous gulf separates what is now from what has been. Out of the darkness of an incomplete understanding of the culture's own past, the misunderstood ancestral ethos returns in the shapes of gothic forms. These fantastic forms are not transcendent. They are immanent portents of a world that lurks beneath the present reality. We are inescapably a part of the gothic world, but it appears to be wholly, utterly other. Gothicism is not fundamentally European; it defines the experience of any culture when the cyclical rise and fall of its fortunes idles too long after a period of greatness.

Lawrence wrote the final version of Studies in the winter of l922-23 when he lived at a ranch in the foothills north of Taos, New Mexico. The Lawrence ranch sits on the eastern edge of the land of the Anasazi, the Old Ones. The ruins at Mesa Verde and at many other sites throughout the northern tier of the Southwest are the remnants of the Great Pueblo phase of the Anasazi civilization. The Great Pueblo people were the last stage of a cultural tradition that extends thousands of years into the past and whose many local variations covered the Southwest (see Lincoln 82).

The Great Pueblo ruins evidence a society whose cultural identity was integrated with the ethos of the land itself. Coming to terms with the "spirit of place" that speaks from the landscape is the final goal of Lawrence's quest for a reborn consciousness and culture:

Different places on the face of the earth have different vital effluence, different vibration, different chemical exhalation, different polarity with different stars: call it what you like. But the spirit of place is a great reality. (6)

The "great reality" of the Southwest is its geological gothicism. Anomalous rock formations, isolated buttes, and yawning canyons speak of the dark ages, the enormous pit of the geologic past, from which the contemporary landscape has evolved. These immense and various formations are the substance of the Southwestern spirit of place. Their unreal reality, their irrealism--consider the example of a single mineralized log from the petrified forest of notheastern Arizona--makes that spirit gothic.

The mud and stone architecture of the Great Pueblo ruins makes an eloquent statement of cultural harmony with the landscape. Cliff walls and pueblo walls fit each other in seamless curves; many of the pueblos were designed to be cooled by the shadows of cliff overhangs in summer and heated by the sun in winter (see Lumpkins). The Great Pueblos marked the seasons by the play of light and shadows across their walls (see Zeilik). Their culture seems to have understood its place in the scheme of creation.

The ghosts that Lawrence senses haunting the white psyche are overt facts of life in the Southwest. We dig up their potsherds while tilling our gardens, stumble over their grinding stone metates while clearing our campsites, and contend with their empty cities looking down on us from the cliffs when we sightsee and, sometimes, when we dream. The imminence of the region's cultural past and the sense of that past culture's harmony with the spirit of this place challenge us to create a new epic moment. Our unsure response to this challenge that rises everywhere out of the landscape itself is, finally, the locus of the gothicism that haunts the Southwestern experience.

Coming to the Sonoran desert by way of Texas, Richard Shelton has made the major theme of his poetry his desire to join spiritually with a land not of his birth, but of his choosing. The cost of Shelton's "symbolic attempts at migration" (Contoski 3) may be measured in the metaphorical imbalances that fill his poetry. The Sonoran landscape is at once filled with mysterious portents:

the moon sleeps
with her head on the buttocks of a young hill
and you lie before me
under the moonlight as if under water
oh my desert
the coolness of your face

("Requiem for Sonora,"Poems 72)

It is devoid of meaning beyond the prosaic reality of what simply is, revealed in the harshest light of the desert day:

under the shadows are more
shadows and under those shadows
is nothing
("Alone," Poems 4)

Shelton expresses the dislocation of his experience in images that are as starkly imminent as they are other-worldly and threatening:

I wave to the names of all
lost places, to paper mountains
and the moon's tetrarchy where sand
gets up and moves across the road.
Goodbye skeletons dressed in alkali
and walls full of razorblades.
The clock in the river is willing
I enter the borders of rain. ("Starting Out," Return 4)

These images are not surreal; they do not evoke a transcendent reality from their juxtaposition of disparate, everyday objects. Shelton dismisses those who would romanticize the desert's otherness:

and if I walk my defeated secrets
like a dog what's that to you
who left by way of the mirror
still believing that rain shows mercy
("Alone," Poems 5)

The pathetic fallacy is a false mirror. What another observer of a desert thundershower might sentimentally mistake for mercy, Shelton portrays as the act of replacing one form of violence with another:

I waited for the sound of water
but when the rains came they were
("And the Greatest of These," Poems 207)

The honesty of Shelton's vision passes beyond realism and naturalism in its rejection of sentimental romanticism. His vision expands into the realm of the gothic:

. . . expansion of consciousness and reality . . . is basic to every aspect of the Gothic. . . . The peculiarly Gothic quality of this extended reality is its imminence, its integral, inescapable connection to the world around us . . . . (Bayer-Berenbaum 21)

This gothic extension of reality gives Shelton's poetry much of its power, even as it denies him comfort or peace:

Nobody can stop this dry wind,
this disaster of a wind. Nobody
can heal it, soothe it, send it on.

* * * * * * * * * *

It is driving us mad with the sound
of a wound torn open again
and again. It can bend us down
as it bends the greasewood.
It can desiccate our minds.
("Sonora Wind," Poems 208)

There is more here than simply the "rejection of unrealistic hope" (Contoski 15), and much more than the "rejection of the world of men [that] must lead us all eventually to the discovery of a rich new world, much as the Pilgrim rejection of the tired orthodoxies of Western Europe blessed . . . our forebears" (Hogan 220). Fiercely alone, Shelton seeks a frontier that will always be a frontier, that will always offer solitude and freedom from any societal responsibility, however small, for the lives of others.

Lawrence writes that "the most unfree souls go west, and shout of freedom. . . . The shout is a rattling of chains, always was" (6). Richard Shelton has gone west and freed himself from the shackles of Anglo-America's naive hope for an easy freedom. But Shelton's desert exile feels very like a cramped confinement:

after the sun's crescendo
cool air after a long fever
the protective walls of darkness
after the phantoms and mirages
of too much light and space
suddenly a cacophony
of coyotes wailing in torment
for the moon to rise
and rescue them from Hell
and a huge tarantula
hauls herself over her threshold
in search of love in search of
a small mate who will not survive
the violence of her embrace
("The Teeth of These Mountains," Poems 209)

Darkness encloses Shelton's poetry, confining him, alienated from humanity in the violent gothicism of his desert world.

In Bless Me, Ultima, Rudolfo Anaya describes the integration of a Chicano culture rising out of the violent conflict of several powerful forces. Anaya's story tells the life of a boy, Antonio Marez, as he grows to the age of eight during the Forties in Guadalupe, a small, river-valley town in New Mexico.

The novel has been described as a "Chicano bildungsroman" that projects "into the collective Mexican-American experience an harmonious and coherent cultural base" (Testa 73, 78). This is an optimistic view. Antonio's experience is filled with frightening dissonance and incoherence of a "quest for the sacred vision" (Lattin 628). The novel ends with a vision of integration, but Antonio's road to that vision is troubled at every turn by the potential for a descent into gothicism, into dissolution and decay.

Antonio must understand his personal experience in the context of the conflicts that underlie Chicano culture and date back to the conquistadores's settling of New Mexico in the 16th century, some 200 years before Anglos would settle there in appreciable numbers. The texture of Antonio's experience is conveyed by the novel's descriptions of magical happenings whose preternatural reality has the unerring, emotional texture of everyday truth.

Antonio's parental heritage is the first source of conflict in his life. His father is a Marez. He "had been a vaquero all his life, a calling as ancient as the coming of the Spaniard to Nuevo Mexico" (2). Antonio was born in Las Pasturas, his father's ancestral village on the llano, the high plains. But before the novel begins, the family has moved at his mother's urging to her family's home, the river-valley town of Guadalupe, and Antonio's father has become a highway worker:

The move lowered my father in the esteem of his compadres, the other vaqueros of the llano. . . . It was as if someone had died, and they turned their gaze from the spirit that walked the earth. (2)

The death fo the vaquero spirit in Antonio's father mirrors the fate of the ancestral vaquero culture that died when "the big rancheros and the tejanos came and fenced the beautiful llano" (2). Contemporary vaqueros who ride the fenced llano are sentimental shadows of their ancestors.

Antonio's mother's family, the Lunas, represents a successor culture, the farmers of the river valleys and the settlers of the towns, like Guadalupe. Antonio's consciousness is a battleground for the competing claims that these cultures make on his identity. In his dreams, Antonio sees his birth, and with it the cultural conflict that is his Chicano birthright:

This one will be a Luna, the old man said, he will be a farmer and keep our customs and traditions. . . . We must return to our valley . . . . We must take with us the blood that comes after the birth. We will bury it in our fields to renew their fertility and to assure that the baby will follow our ways . . . .

No! the llaneros protested, it will stay here! We will burn it and let the winds of the llano scatter the ashes. . . . He is a Marez, the vaqueros shouted. His forefathers were conquistadores . . . . (6)

Into this tumult comes Ultima, the "old woman in black who tended the just-arrived, steaming baby" (6). Ultima is a curandera, or healer. Here she is the midwife who attends to both the physical and spiritual birth of the newborn. Just as Antonio is the focus of conflict in the novel, Ultima is the focus of resolution:

Cease! she cried, and the men were quiet. I pulled this baby into the light of life, so I will bury the afterbirth and the cord that once linked him to eternity. Only I will know his destiny. (6)

Antonio's destiny is to seek the integrated culture that Ultima's knowledge represents. Ultima embodies what Lawrence called "the true myth of America. She starts old, old, wrinkled and writhing in an old skin. And there is a gradual sloughing of the old skin, towards a new youth" (54). Ultima's "ability to draw from the traditions of both Spanish and Indian cultures . . . provides her with extraordinary power" (Paredes 68). She has the inclusive timelessness of an integrated culture within her. Ultima sees the newborn Antonio's destiny because she knows the path his cultural past has fated him to follow.

Some call Ultima not a curandera, but a bruja, a witch. She is attended by an owl, "usually a symbol of evil in Mexican folklore, the nagual ('companion') of witches" (Paredes 68). Anaya portrays Ultima's power as the natural consequence of her harmony with the other world, the gothic world of power, that lives within the everyday world. Her power is never manipulative. She acts with an understanding of the interpenetration of the preternatural and the natural. Ultima frees destiny to work its doom and returns to its pronouncer the binding evil of a curse.

When Ultima lifts the curse that Tenorio Trementina's daughters have placed on Antonio's uncle Lucas, she returns the curse to its senders:

. . . she took from her black bag a large lump of fresh, black clay. . . . She broke it in three pieces, and . . . I saw that she had molded three dolls . . . (93). When she was done she stood the three dolls around the light of the flickering candle, and I saw three women. Then Ultima spoke to the three women.

"You have done evil," she sang,
"But good is stronger than evil,
"And what you sought to do will undo you . . . . "

She lifted the three dolls and held them to my sick uncle's mouth, and when he breathed on them they seemed to squirm in her hands. (94)

The curse abates only when Lucas vomits forth into the everyday world the gothic horror that has afflicted him: "Green bile poured from his mouth, and finally he vomited a huge ball of hair. It fell to the floor, hot and steaming and wiggling like live snakes" (95). The curse returns to the Trementinas. Two of the daughters die, and Tenorio's desire for revenge leads him to his own violent death, shot by Antonio's uncle Pedro even as Tenorio kills Ultima's owl and, through the death of the owl, kills Ultima herself.

Violent as it is, Ultima's death is the necessary complement to the death of Tenorio, her evil antagonist. Because her power is not coercive, Ultima cannot triumph over Tenorio; she can only thwart his evil acts and hope that he will stop trying to control destiny. But he insists on pursuing her. Ultima can cancel Tenorio's evil only in an equation that balances her fate with his: they must both die.

Ultima knows the way, the gothic via negativa, the path of empathetic knowledge that mediates the violence that flares in the uneasy borderland where the fantastic darkness of the gothic world confronts day-to-day reality. Her power seems great, but Ultima is only an intermediary for the greater power that orchestrates the working out of people's fates and the eternal regeneration of nature. Ultima may direct the force of this power, but she does not control it. She cannot save her own life.

Antonio's journey to an early manhood at the age of eight finds him feeling his way through the landscape of a New Mexico filled with curses, magic, violence, and death. Antonio must expand his consciousness to encompass the gothic expansion of the landscape in which his Chicano culture and the mestizo, Indian culture offer conflicting interpretations of the spirit of the place.

Antonio's third-grade friend, Samuel, who "always seemed wise and old when he talked, kind of like my grandfather" (71), tells him the story of "the people" (73) whom the gods changed "into carp and made them live forever in the waters of river" (74). There was "one kind god who loved the people" so much that "he chose to be turned into a [golden] carp and swim in the river where he could take care of his people" (74). Antonio recognizes the golden carp as a mestizo analogue of Christ, and he feels plunged into an uneasy expansion of reality: "the roots of everything I had believed in seemed shaken. If the golden carp was a god, who was the man on the cross? The Virgin? Was my mother praying to the wrong God?" (75).

The inner, spiritual world is as wide and various as the outer, physical world. Antonio seeks some way to balance the competing claims that war in his heart and mind. At the novel's end, he realizes what he must do to become an adult:

"Take the llano and the river valley, the moon and the sea, God and the golden carp--and make something new," I said to myself. That is what Ultima meant by building strength from life. (236)

Antonio sees that he can expand his reality to hold the violent dichotomies bequeathed to him by his culture: "And that is what Ultima tried to teach me, that the tragic consequences of life can be overcome by the magical strength that resides in the human heart" (237). The strongest magic is the human spirit's will to endure.

Understanding the significance of Ultima's death brings Antonio to realize and accept his cultural fate. For Rudolfo Anaya, understanding the significance of his Chicano culture's past is the goal. There must be a place for the people of the river valley and for the people of the llano, a place for the mestizo golden carp and for the Christian God. And if Chicanos would create a culture that will integrate the many spirits of this place, suggests Anaya, let it be "something new," perhaps New Mexico.

Leslie Silko, a native New Mexican, combines in her mixed ancestry Laguna Pueblo Indian, Mexican, and Anglo--the three cultures of her region. In Ceremony she tells the story of Tayo, a Laguna Pueblo man whose ancestry is similar to Silko's own. Tayo returns to Laguna after being released from a Veteran's Administration hospital. It is 1946 or '47, and Tayo is in shock from the violence of the Pacific war, from the death of his friend Rocky, and from his ordeal in a Japanese prison camp. In Tayo's shattered psyche, the Laguna reservation is too much like a prison camp, and he is troubled by flashbacks filled with gruesome horror:

He saw the skin of the corpses again and again, in ditches on either side of the long muddy road--skin that was stretched shiny and dark over bloated hands; even white men were darker after death. (7)

Tayo must sort the violence and confusion of his personal history to understand the underlying confusion and violence in the history of his culture.

Tayo's story is like Antonio's in Ultima, but Tayo is an adult, and his journey to rebirth is tortured by an adult self-consciousness that the boy Antonio is spared. Tayo's character is more familiar. In part, he is the modern hero for whom life is violent and meaningless. But Tayo senses that peace and a deep meaning that will satisfy his desire for understanding lie somewhere in him and in the landscape about him. Tayo's consciousness passes between violence and peace, meaning and meaninglessness, and his eerie experiences are steeped in gothicism.

The Lagunas and the other Pueblo Indians of northern New Mexico are probably descendants of the Great Pueblo peoples. The five story, eight-hundred room, Pueblo Bonito ruin at Chaco Canyon lies less than a hundred miles northwest of the site of today's Laguna Pueblo. The gothic tone in Silko's novel rises from the modern Pueblo Indians's need to understand the realities of their culture in context with the cultural heritage expressed by the ruins of the Great Pueblo culture. The gothicism that results is an American analogue of European gothicism. To the Anglo, this Native American gothicism is curiously inverted: Europeans are the agents of withchery, of gothic evil. But also eerie are the visions of the Pueblo Anasazi ancestors who haunt the ruins that litter the landscape and evoke the classically gothic mixture of doom and grandeur. Tayo's task is to dispel the doom and return the grandeur to his sense of cultural identity.

In Ceremony, Silko attempts to redeem an oral culture by telling its epic story. Her muse for this tale-within-a-telling is "Ts'its'tsi'nako, Thought-Woman . . . the spider" (1) who, like Arachne, weaves the web of meaning that determines the fate of the lives of Silko's characters, of her own life, and of the life of her culture:

She [Ts'its'tsi'nako] is sitting in her room
thinking of a story now
I'm telling you the story
she is thinking (1)

Tayo must learn to read the story of his life and of his culture's past correctly; he must turn its inverted gothicism right-side-out and see the world whole, as it is.

The first truth Tayo faces is that the past is not dead, fixed in the linear record of the whites's concept of history. Tayo's spiritual mentor, old Betonie the mixed-blood Navajo, tells Tayo that "the ceremonies have always been changing" (132). Some Indians see their rituals as the whites do, as relics of a dead history, as museum pieces that must not be changed. Others fear the ceremonies, "They think that if a singer tampers with any part of the ritual, great harm can be done, great power unleashed" (132). What they do not understand is that "things which don't shift and grow are dead things. They are things the witchery people want. Witchery works to scare people, to make them fear growth" (133). Silko's point is that Tayo must understand the past so that he can bring it to bear on his understanding of the present. He must bridge the gulf of gothic misunderstanding that separates past from present. Then the witchery will be defeated, and he and his culture will grow and live again.

The next truth is that Tayo is responsible for his actions and for his visions. It is too easy to pass off the break in his culture's history as solely the fault of the usurping white culture. Betonie says:

That is the trickery of the witchcraft . . . . They want us to believe all evil resides with white people. Then we will look no further to see what is really happening. They want us to separate ourselves from the white people, to be ignorant and helpless as we watch our own destruction. (139)

The whites are the agents of cultural disruption; they are not its cause. The two cultures inhabit the same landscape, and they share a common destiny (see Standiford 193).

The final truth comes to Tayo from within the landscape itself. Tayo has a vision as he stands before the shaft of a uranium mine on the Laguna reservation:

Trinity Site, where they exploded the first atomic bomb, was only three hundred miles to the southeast, at White Sands. And the top-secret laboratories where the bomb had been created were deep in the Jemez mountains . . . only a hundred miles northeast of him now. . . . he had arrived at the point of convergence where (257) the fate of all living things, and even the earth, had been laid. . . . The lines of cultures and worlds were drawn in flat dark lines on fine light sand, converging in the middle of witchery's final ceremonial sand painting. From that time on, human beings were one clan again, united by the fate the destroyers planned for all of them, for all living things. (258)

The atomic bomb has been a central image of the violence and meaninglessness of the modern world. But in Ceremony the bomb is also the force that reintegrates Tayo's fragmented identity.

The ultimate destructive power of the bomb alienates each of us from our personal and cultural histories. If we bring annihilation upon ourselves, we fix the history of our species, destroying it in an anagogically gothic dissolution leaving no one to tell our story, no one to hear it. But if we expand our consciousness and see through our gothic fear of our own awesome power, we can make the human story go on:

. . . all the stories fit together. . . to become the story that was still being told. He was not crazy; he had never been crazy. He had only seen and heard the world as it always was: no boundaries, only transitions through all distances and time. (258)

There will be no rupture in the unbroken round of history; the fearful aspect of gothicism dissolves.

Ceremony is not finally gothic. For Silko, gothicism is one part of a circular journey. Tayo and the peoples of the other cultures of the Southwest must work their way up and out of the idle decay of a gothic nightmare to realize the dream of a reborn culture. Silko's greatest strength, and her novel's strongest appeal, is her belief that Tayo and all of us will survive and find peace.

Of these three writers, Richard Shelton's poetry presents the most self-enclosed vision. He identifies with and honestly confronts the power of the Sonoran desert's spirit of place. But he does not take the next step that Lawrence suggests will lay the demons of gothicism to rest: joining with the spirit of the place, settling the land, making it "a living homeland" (6) that will "fullfil IT. IT being the deepest whole self of man, the self in its wholeness, not idealistic halfness" (7). Perhaps Shelton and the aspect of Anglo culture that his poetry expresses have not been in the Southwest long enough to make it a homeland, a place to return:

the language of this country
is not declined
nothing belongs to anything here
and to come back does not mean to return
("The Language of Postcards," Poems 216)

Shelton sounds too often bitter and alone in the midst of cultural variety. His is the voice of the last arrived and the farthest from--what?--call it the spirit of the place.

Rudolfo Anaya's Antonio integrates his life and his culture with history, with the mestizo culture, and with the landscape. But at the novel's end, Antonio, although about to become a man, remains a boy. Anaya does not present the story of an adult who bears the responsibilities of an adult world.

Leslie Silko manages to encompass the past, present, and future of all cultures in the personal and cultural rebirth that concludes Ceremony. But the story of Tayo's journey to that epiphany focuses in detail on the conflict of the Indian and Anglo cultures. Chicanos are only faintly present.

Each of the Southwest's cultures lives in an uneasy balance with itself, with the landscape, and with one another. Each is somewhat self-absorbed, trying to put its own house in order. And each is somewhat guilty of ignoring not just the houses of neighboring cultures, but the likelihood that these culutral houses are the connected rooms of one great house on one vast landscape.

Shelton, Anaya, and Silko invite us to look at the Southwestern landscape and its cultures in their often contradictory variety. Whether the great house of these three cultures flourishes or becomes a haunted ruin depends on how we choose to see ourselves now, rooted in this place, experiencing the rush of time that carries three diverse cultural pasts into an uncertain, but common future.


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