Fear in Ceremony

Fear in Silko's Ceremony

Through the cold night air, Tayo hears the engine sputter and sees headlights. Moonlight mingles with his breath's steam as he squeezes out a position between boulders to wait. If it's the government people, he's poised to run. They want to cart him away, to stick him back in the hospital he loathes where he would just become "white smoke" again. Become invisible. Tayo watches them get out of the car and make a fire. Flames engulf the tumbleweeds they toss on it. Smoke enters Tayo's nostrils, drifting over the dark rocks. Light illuminates their faces. They are his own people, Indian World War II heroes -- Emo, Pinkie, Leroy. He has reason to be afraid, for they are "destroyers" (p. 249). He'll be lucky to make it home alive.

His elbows bruised from the rock, he keeps watching though tired and hungry "from the fear and the running from that day" (p. 250). The visitors are drinking as usual. Pinkie smashes a bottle against a water tank. The sounds of shattered glass and shrill voices pierce the canyon. "It was the sound of witchery . . . It was the empty sound of his nightmares" (p. 250). A scream echoes from the car trunk. The men pull their victim out and dangle his pale limp body from a barbed wire fence, laughing. Tayo turns numb with anger, shivering and squeezing his screwdriver till it merges with his hand. Harley screams as they slice his body with blades. Warriors, they fuse violence with pleasure. Then a warning rings out for Tayo: "Look at this, you half-breed! White son of a bitch! You can't hide from this!" (p. 252). Eno's voice haunts him. Tayo wants to lash out: "He was certain his own sanity would be destroyed if he did not stop them and all the suffering and dying they caused" (p. 252). But he refrains. One sees in this scene the major themes that will occupy this brief analysis of fear in Ceremony. Tayo's greatest fear, it will argue, is to succumb to witchery, which would prevent restoration of his wholeness. He fears being locked in a world of loss, fragmentation, and mental illness from such separation. He struggles against witchery, represented by Emo, to regain his sense of wholeness.

During the war, the Indians who fought felt for once like they belonged (p. 57). After the war, the feeling of belonging vanished and "they blamed themselves just like they blamed themselves for losing the land the white people took" (p. 43). So they drink in bars to recreate through brutal war stories that sense of belonging (p. 57). Tayo's participation contradicts them. His stories are sad and quell laughter (p. 41). Emo, his negative image, is the epitome of a veteran bewitched. Emo's bile explodes as he plays with the teeth of his butchered victirms (p. 60). While Emo "grew from each killing," Tayo cries often and is innocent (p. 36). Emo hates Tayo for his resistance to witchery. He uses Tayo's half-breed status to insult him (p. 57). Tayo gets so angry that he hospitalizes Emo (p. 63). Their antagonism intensifies. By the end of the story, Emo and Tayo are irreconcilable. It is this conflict that raises Tayo's fears about his own sickness and bewitchment. It is this contrast of love and hate that is the key to resolved fear.

Witchery is a complex theme in Ceremony. It is often connected with loss. Tayo's mental illness and the fear surrounding it is a sickness from loss -- the loss of loved ones during the war (his brother, his uncle) and the loss of his connection with the land. It is accompanied by nightmares and nausea. He fears such fragmentation and the resulting hopeless results.

They were never the same after that: they had seen what the white people had made from the stolen land. . . . He lost touch with the life he had lived before the day he found those beads; and the man he had been before that day was lost somewhere on that trail where he first saw the beads. Every day they had to look at the land, from horizon to horizon, and every day the loss was with them; it was the dead unburied, and the mourning of the lost going on forever. So they tried to sink the loss in booze, and silence their grief with war stories about their courage, defending the land they had already lost. (p. 169)

He no longer recognizes himself (p. 154), but he sees how his people despise themselves, buying into lies (p. 204). This longing against fear pulls him toward the medicine man to seek help.

In his interaction with Betonie, Tayo learns how to approach his fear. He begins to confront his demons of loss: He admits possibly returning to the hospital "where he could merge with the walls and the ceiling, shimmering white, remote from everything" (p. 32). That invisibility was comforting, as he tells Betonie:

They sent me to this hospital after the war. It was white. Everything in that place was white. Except for me. I was invisible. But I wasn't afraid there. I didn't feel things sneaking up behind me. I didn't cry for Rocky or Josiah. There were no voices and no dreams. Maybe I belong back in that place. (p. 123)

Betonie knows that form of white comfort is not the answer. He tells Tayo that he might as well go get drunk and die in the mud like the others. Tayo realizes that Betonie is calling him to some larger goal: "His sickness was only part of something larger, and his cure would be found only in something great and inclusive of everything" (p. 125-26). The medicine man explains his fear as fear of change and then describes witchery some more:

Then we will look no further to see what is really happening. They want us to separate ourselves from white people, to be ignorant and helpless as we watch our own destruction. But white people are only tools that the witchery manipulates; and I tell you, we can deal with white people, with their machines and their beliefs. We can because we invented white people; it was Indian witchery that made white people in the first place. (p. 132)

This view counters the position of Emo, who believes that "all evil resides with white people."

His encounter with Betonie drives Tayo into a quest to recover cattle (as well as stars, the mountain, woman). This is part of his cure and a necessary transition away from fear and toward wholeness (p. 170). He clips a fence to tear the boundaries down, to restore wholeness against fragmentation, and to return what had been stolen (to let the cattle pass through). During this journey begin the series of events that will lead to the scene initially described. It is in this state of yielding and forsakenness that he realizes he hasn't lost anything:

It was pulling him back, close to the earth, where the core was cool and silent as mountain stone, and even with the noise and pain in his head he knew how it would be: a returning rather than a separation. He was relieved because he feared leaving people he loved. But lying above the center that pulled him down closer felt more familiar to him than any embrace he could remember; and he was sinking into the elemental arms of mountain silence. (p. 201)

He feels Josiah and Rocky there, close and vital as the mountain. "The dreams had been terror at loss, at something lost forever; but nothing was lost; all was retained between the sky and the earth, and within himself" (p. 219).…