Cultural Apocalypse

August 11, 2017 | Autor: Elisebeth VanderWeil | Categoria: Literary Criticism, Apocalypse, Leslie Marmon Silko
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cultural apocalypse

Elisebeth VanderWeil

Published by the NCTE Assembly on American Literature

in This Is Just to Say, Summer 2003

Leslie Marmon Silko's Almanac of the Dead is an epic apocalypse with
Tuscon, Arizona, as its disintegrating vortex. Using supports threads from
Alaska to Mexico City, from San Diego to New Jersey, Silko weaves
characters, settings, and perceptions together to create a web of entropy,
terror, disease, and fear which is the "Reign of the Death-Eye Dog", the
last five hundred years in the Americas. This web is so complex and far-
reaching that attempts by various characters or siutations to "fix" the
people/problems which define the Death-Eye Dog are merely swallowed up as
some new horror emerges from the depths of secrecy. But this reign has run
its course and the time has come to light up the web with a tapestry of
firestorms, riots, earthquakes, volcanos, and wars which is the "Reign of
the Fire-Eye Macaw". Drawing from everything available to her, from
ancient Laguna prophecy to current events, Silko makes us witnesses to that
which we have chosen to turn away from and forces us to make a conscious
choice on how to conduct ourselves from now on.
The word "apocalypse" first appeared, according to the Oxford English
Dictionary, in the writing of John of Patmos. It is derived from Greek
words meaning "the action of disclosure." This primary meaning is all but
lost to modern readers who associate its meaning with the vision of the end
of the world written in the Christian New Testament. Oxford defines the
word: "any revelation or disclosure"; while the Random House College
Dictionary states that "apocalypse" is "a revelation or vision of a great
world upheaval; like or giving a revelation, especially of violent
This leap from "the action of disclosure" to "a revelation of a great
world upheaval" is significant, but not always accurate. Per the
permeation of Judeo-Christian ideology in the U.S., the latter definition
is more widely accepted. Yet, when that word was first being written in
Canaan, the societies in that area, as well as the world over, had been
practicing at least annual "apocalypses" for centuries. In Babylonia, the
annual "akitu" ritual (New Earth 5) re-enacted the end of all, return to
chaos, and the rising of the new from the ashes every year. In Rome,
Saturnalia was the death and birth of the god -- madness and the release of
any control marked the time. These societies, which John of Patmos was
undoubtedly reacting to, viewed time as cyclical; endings are beginnings,
catastrophes are creations on a regular basis. The Judeo-Christian concept
of a singular, all-encompassing apocalypse at the end of time is due to a
linear time concept. Along this line, the Hebrew writers saw the future as
a solution to the past and present -- a linear equation.
To cope with apocalyptic works, which may not be part of the Judeo-
Christian tradition, literary critics have worked to modify the apocalypse
to fit many modes. R.H. Charles said that the purpose of apocalyptic
literature is " get behind the surface and penetrate to the essence of
events, the spiritual purposes and forces that underlie and give them their
real significance." (New Earth 13) On a less esoteric level, Walter Wink
said "apocalypticism is literally visionary; it is the awful perception of
the end of the 'world' and the vision of the coming of a new." (New Earth
219) Wink's use of "awful" can be taken in both its connotations
simultaneously -- as "awe-inspiring" and "terrible" in Almanac of the Dead.
In drastic contrast to Silko's first novel, Ceremony, Almanac of the Dead
is a huge, epic tale that "Instead of invoking the healing ceremony,
Almanac calls for an upheaval in the world order and a dramatic revision of
world history." (Sol 24)
Inside the cover of Almanac of the Dead is a "Five Hundred Year Map"
which coordinates characters, locations, and movements within both the
novel and the world. In the lower corners of this map are "Prophecy" and
"The Indian Connection." They tell us:

When Europeans arrived, the Maya, Aztec, and Inca cultures had already
built great cities and vast networks of roads. Ancient prophecies
foretold the arrival of Europeans in the Americas. The ancient
prophecies also foretell the disappearance of all things European.
Sixty million Native Americans died between 1500 and 1600. The defiance
and resistance to things European continue unabated. The Indian Wars have
never ended in the Americas. Native Americans acknowledge no borders; they
seek nothing less than the return of all tribal lands. Thus, the tone is
set for Silko's cultural apocalypse.
The harbingers of this apocalypse are both expansive and specific.
The "Reign of the Death-Eye Dog" in the Americas marks a time of deformity
and destruction. This is followed by the "Reign of the Fire-Eye Macaw;" a
time of swift, violent change. These are the expansive, general symbols
that follow prophecy. More specifically, clear, physical events take place
at the juncture of these two reigns: the American bison return to the
Northern Plains, and the appearance of Maah'Shra-True'-Ee, "a giant snake
who is a messenger for the Mother Creator." (4th World 124) Legends of the
Southwest tribes also tell of the Twin Brothers, "who have always helped
our people," (735) who will lead the people in taking back the land. (All
but the last of these signs has become, or is becoming, apparent.)
"Death-Eye Dog has been seated on the throne for five hundred years."
(252) As fast as medical technology moves forward, disease, deformity, and
breakdown move faster. Separation from the Earth has made "shitting where
you eat" normal. Spiritual entropy has reached the human conscience that
thrives on visions of terror, blood, violence, and fear. The "Fire-Eye
Macaw" is waking up with firestorms, riots, earthquakes, volcanoes, and
wars. The buffalo are overrunning their reserves, and a giant stone snake
was discovered on the Laguna Pueblo Reservation in 1980.
Using these elements of reality, Silko also introduces items of
fiction. Yet, this novel so deftly intertwines that which we know as fact
and that which we don't know that, like hope and despair, fact and fiction
became problematic. What is the real drug/cocaine war? Who, or what, is
actually behind the origin and spread of HIV/AIDS? Almanac of the Dead
shows us perhaps more than we want to see of the "Reign of the Death-Eye
Dog," the dawn of the "Reign of the Fire-Eye Macaw," and the consequences
all suffer when humanity desecrates itself and its "brother and sisters" on
Earth -- for "none can survive unless all survive." (4th World 125)
Silko takes the symptoms of our planetary disease to their all too
horrifically possible ends, as well as tracing them back to their
beginnings in the separation from the Earth and the desecrations of sacred
expressions. Focusing very specifically on the issues extending from
"separation", her "focus of attack is explicitly the misogynistic,
arrogantly hierarchial, and egocentric traditions of Western liberal
individualism…(her) monstrous characters demonstrate that the philosophy of
the primacy of the individual has in fact stripped individuals of the
social and spiritual structures that define their humanity." (St. Clair
In the South, there were thousands who worshipped Mama Coca, because
she had loved and cared for the people for thousands of years. Mama Coca
had taken away the pain, she had numbed the hunger, and she had given tired
travelers a last push over the mountain. Mama Coca had sustained them all
along, and now Mama Coca was going to help them take back the lands that
were theirs. That was why the white men feared the coca bushes and
poisoned and firebombed them. Coca leaves gave the Indians too much power,
dangerous power; not just the power money buys, but spiritual power to
destroy all but the strong. All things weak, all things European, would
shrivel, then blow away. Nothing would stop their passing; all their
apprentices and toadies whatever their ancestry, would disappear too. (502-
This is the root of the cocaine "problem" in the Americas according to
Tacho, one of the Twin Brothers in Almanac of the Dead. Europeans have
deformed and separated the coca from its natural state. The resulting use
of cocaine has quickly become abuse and, according to Serlo's information,
hypocritical control by the U.S. CIA over "black and brown people,":
Without cocaine and heroin, the U.S. faces a nightmare as young black
and brown people took to the streets to light up white neighborhoods, not
crack pipes. Secret U.S. policy was to protect the supply of cocaine.
Without cocaine, the U.S. would face riots, looting, and even civil war.
Serlo, the misogynist, non-sexual "blue-blood," gives more secret
information on the not-so spiritual origin of our most recent plague --
AIDS. Serlo, the epitome of the unnatural, cold, sterile, and pure
European, "believed the day would come when the world was overrun with
swarms of brown and yellow human larvae called natives," (545) and he took
steps to thwart that day. Not only was his "finca" self-sufficient, he was
working toward a self-supporting, artificial satellite and an artificial
womb to countermand "the defects of the child's mother." (542) Serlo
embodies the deformation and separation of the human from its natural state
and community. As "a charter member of a secret multinational organization
with a 'secret agenda' for the entire world," Serlo has participated in the
creation of HIV/AIDS.
Although they required time, biological and chemical agents were far
superior to bullets and bombs because they worked silently and anonymously.
No one could prove a thing. The AIDS virus, HIV, had not been detected
for years, and by then the targeted groups had been thoroughly
infected...In Africa they had simply contaminated whole blood and blood
plasma supplies...HIV had no cure. Members of the research team bragged
that they had created the first "designer virus" specifically for targeted
groups. The filthy would die. The clean would live. (547-548)
Anything that isn't clean and sterile disgusts Serlo. Thus he "was
able to appreciate the beauty of HIV" (548) which has forced humanity to
use male and female condoms, dental dams, or to completely abstain from
intimate human contact.
The triad of Serlo, Beaufrey, and David also represent another
frightening trend of separation and loss of "humanity" -- the market and
enjoyment of pornographic films and photos. Silko takes this category to
the extreme of including not just sexual pornography, but torture,
abortion, human vivisection, and murder/suicide pornography. All these
subjects are produced and viewed with cold, clinical precision, or erotic
arousal. These men, along with corrupt governments and militaries, film,
traffic, and enjoy torture and abortion videos, the more bloody and
horrific, the "better."
Our first encounter with this extreme mentality is David's
photographic "master-piece" of Eric's suicide:

David had probably not called the authorities for three or four hours
to be sure both the color and black-and-white film had turned out.
David had photographed Eric's corpse "Police Gazette" style. The
black-and-white prints David had made were all high contrast: the
blood thick, black tar pooled and spattered across the bright white of
the chenille bedspread...David had focused with clinical detachment,
close up on the .44 revolver flung down to the foot of the bed, and on
the position of the victim's hands on the revolver...
After discovering Eric's body, David didn't just snap a few pictures. He
had moved reflectors around and got the light of Eric's blood to appear as
bright and glossy as enamel paint. (106-108)
But it wasn't only this group which was warped out of control. Art
critics "dwelled on the richness and intensity of the color," and
"Influential international critics agreed; at last David 'had found a
subject to fit his style of clinical detachment and relentless exposure of
what lies hidden in flesh.'" G., the gallery manager, assured David of
success. Later, similar pictures of his own infant son carved up for parts
would drive David to his death, and after that death, Beaufrey had sent for
a camera.
Other symptoms, while not as graphically bloody, are as violently
symptomatic of American separation from the Earth and each other, as well
as our destructiveness. The "Army of the Homeless" in Tucson; Menardo's
"insurance" which is actually an undeclared war to keep the rich rich and
everyone else out or down; uranium strip mining on sacred tribal lands
which gave rise to the giant stone snake; the Native American holocaust for
which Bartolomeo is tried, "civil" wars, and Leah blue's plan to create the
canal city of "Venice, Arizona" in the desert, all interrelate characters,
lives, and lands to create the fragile illusion of European superiority in
the Americas.
This illusion has been shattered by the Africans, who "have retaken
all their ancestral lands, blood-soaked though they were." (470) The tribal
peoples of the Americas use this example for both spiritual and financial
support. The twin brothers, El Feo and Tacho, work separately and
cooperatively with each other and Angelita to take advantage of the

...the world over...they all wanted to be called "friends of the
Indians." They had just witnessed the bloody end of European control
in South Africa. They had watched the tribes of Africa take the land
from Europeans; in the Americas they might have another fifty years or
even one hundred, but time was running out. (471)
The Africans give the Barefoot Hopi money to travel and tell people, even
"the whites," about " the day all the walls fall down. Ask him if he means
earthquakes or riots and the Hopi smiles and says 'Both.'" (617) He speaks
fondly of the kamikaze eco-warriors, "Green Vengence", who "freed the
river," and senses earthquakes in Arizona through his bare feet.
As civil wars erupt throughout Central and South America, and the
"Twin Brothers walk north with hundreds of thousands of people," the twin
sisters, Lecha and Zeta, converge with the Barefoot Hopi and Wilson Weasel
Tail at the "International Holistic Healers Convention" in Tucson. Wilson
Weasel Tail is a Lakota who has vowed to reclaim tribal lands and echoes
the words of the Paiute prophet, Wovoka. This poet warrior tells his mixed

The spirits are outraged! They demand justice! The spirits are
furious! To all those humans too weak or too lazy to fight to protect
Mother Earth, the spirits say, "Too bad you did not die fighting the
destroyers of the earth because now we will kill you for being so
weak..." (723)
Wilson Weasel Tail is the bringer of the another piece of the prophecy
coming true -- "The buffalo are returning." (725) Also at the conference is
Awa Gee, the Korean computer "wiz" who has networked with the Green
Vengence to "shut off the light"--everywhere, simultaneously. It is after
this "convocation" of forces that the waves of violent change from the
south reach Tucson and the twin sisters, Seese, and Sterling escape under
gunfire over poisoned guard dogs.
No one of these individuals or events is the cause, or even a cause,
of the pervading horrific scope of this novel. They are all symptoms of
the "Death-Eye Dog". All of the characters "have become infected by the
times they inhabit…(for) it is less the ambition of Almanac to destroy
every one of the Destroyers than it is to participate in the overturning of
the reign that produces them." (Sol 34) As Almanac of the Dead entered its
final stages of creation, Leslie Marmon Silko published the article "The
Fourth World". She reiterates here the prophecy of the fading away of all
things European in the Americas, but qualifies it further, saying: "The
prophecies do not say the European people themselves will disappear, only
their customs." (4th World 124) One of the European customs to arrive on
the Americas was the fear and loathing of snakes as evil. In the Americas,
as in Africa, the snake represented wisdom and life, issuing forth from the
Earth Mother to communicate with people. The emergence of the stone snake
in Arizona, and its message, reminds people that the "Earth is inviolate."
(4th World 124)
The Barefoot Hopi says: "the giant snakes, Damballah and
Quetzalcoatl, have returned to the people." (735) Thus, both images of the
giant snakes come true: for the tribal peoples, they bring wisdom and life;
for the invaders and destroyers, they bring death and destruction.
For the "destroyers," whatever their ancestry, the appearance of the
giant snake is a death knoll. But what of everyone else? Angelita brings
the message from the twin brothers which "was quite simple. There was
nothing to fear or to worry about. People should go about their daily
routines. Because already the great shift of human populations on the
continents was under way, and there was nothing human beings could do to
stop it...All the people needed to remember was the twin brothers and the
people coming from the south were coming to stop the destroyers." (735-736)
Customs and people who perpetuate destruction and separation from the Earth
will be stopped.
There have been attempts to confine the meaning of the snake to an
"official" story suitable for general consumption. What is true will
persist. Inside of everything, Maah'Shra-True'-Ee, the sacred messenger,
will appear again and again. Nothing can stop that. Not even a uranium
mine. (4th 125)
And nothing can stop the wave of spirit and people moving to take back
their ancestral land from the destroyers. At the end of Silko's novel,
which is but another beginning, she gives us the snake's message through
The snake was looking south, in the direction from which the twin
brothers and the people would come. (763)
Almanac of the Dead sets the scene for a new awareness of
accountability and responsibility -- both to the land and humanity. The
messengers from the Earth, in the forms of buffalo, macaws, and snakes,
tell the human beings who listen that the reign of the destroyers is over
and it is time to stop them and take back the land of which "the people"
are a part. Balance between genders is achieved through the importance of
both the twin brothers and the twin sisters; cultures are balanced through
the Barefooted Hopi speaking "even to whites" and the acknowledgment that
this is not a race war, but a definitive end to those who destroy -- the
land, others, and themselves. The movement is from the sterile to the
natural, voyeurism to participation, separation to community.
The apocalyptic novels since the late eighties have shown that more
than nuclear armament, we must struggle to "stop the destroyer." Beneath
the veil of nuclear threat lies the human, perhaps even American, tendency
toward quick fixes and shortsighted selfishness. While Silko's Ceremony
"attacks specifically the threat of those who grow away from the
Earth…Almanac of the Dead garishly illustrates the realization of that
threat." (St. Clair 151)
With our unique extent of cultural diversity, the U.S. is in the
position to lead or fall into the next millennia. We are aware that our
past follies and habits have put us in the position of "sink or swim." By
focusing our efforts on people and perspective, rather than things and
gains, the necessary fundamental change can be accomplished. Awareness and
respect, for the land and all its peoples, will facilitate this change;
willingness to "stop the destroyers" on a very basic, primary level will
make it happen. Whether it happens quickly and violently or slowly and
quietly, may already be out of our control.
Works Cited

May, John R. Towards a new Earth. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame,

Silko, Leslie Marmon. Almanac of the Dead. New York: Penguin, 1991.

---. Ceremony. New York: Penguin, 1977.

---. "The Fourth World." Artforum; Summer 1989: 124-125.

Sol, Adam. "The Story As It's Told." American Indian Quarterly; Berkeley;
Summer 1999: 24-48.

St. Clair, Janet. "Death of Love/Love of Dead: Leslie Marmon Silko's
Almanac of the Dead." MELUS; Los Angeles; Summer 1996: 141-156.

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