No. 50, November/December 2001
The Deserts in Literature, II
by N. Scott Momaday
From Old Southwest, new Southwest: Essays on a region and its literature, ed. Judy Nolte Lensink. Tucson: Tucson Public Library, 1987. Reprinted by permission of the author.
By means of the title above I wish to indicate a certain equation that has become more and more important to me. I wish to suggest painting as well as writing as a clear reflection of the deepest reality of the Southwest, for I am a painter as well as a writer. These two expressions of my spirit, painting and writing, are not unrelated, I believe. As a matter of fact, I have come to believe that they are so closely related as to be indivisible.
One of the definitionsperhaps the most basic of allof the word "write" is this: "to draw or form by scoring or incising a surface." Imagine somewhere in the prehistoric distance a man. He holds up in his hand a crude instrument, a brand, perhaps, or something like a daub or a broom, bearing pigment, and he fixes the wonderful image in his mind's eye to a wall of rock. In that instant he accomplishes really and symbolically the beginning of art. That man, apart from his remarkable creation, is all but impossible to recall from the remote past, and yet he is there in our human parentage, in our racial memory. In our modern, sophisticated terms, he is primitive and illiterate, and in the whole reach of time he is utterly without distinctionexcept, he draws. And his contribution to posterity is immeasurable. He makes a profound difference in our lives, on us who succeed him by thousands of years. For all the stories of all the world proceed from the moment he makes his mark. All literatures issue from his hand.
Language and literature involve sacred matter and sacred places, places of deepest mystery and ancient vision. Among sacred places in America, there is one that comes to my mind as I think of that anonymous man who painted upon the face of rock. At Barrier Canyon, Utah, there are some twenty sites upon which are preserved prehistoric rock art. One of these, known as the Great Gallery, is particularly arresting. Among arched alcoves and long ledges of rock is a wide sandstone wall on which are drawn large, tapering anthropomorphic forms colored in dark red pigment. There on the ancient picture plane is a procession of gods approaching inexorably from the earth. They are informed with irresistible power; they are beyond our understanding, masks, if you will, of infinite possibility. We do not know what they mean, but we know that we are involved in their meaning. They persist through time in the imagination, and we cannot doubt that they are invested with the very essence of language, the language of story and myth. They are two thousand years old, more or less, and they remark as closely as anything can the origin of American literature.
Let me point in my writings to two brief passages in which this equation of words in the landscape is applied to my memory of growing up in the American Southwest. The first passage is from The Names, an autobiographical narrative that was published in our bicentennial year by Harper & Row.
The second passage is from a work in progress, a novel which is tentatively entitled Set. Set is the name of the main character, a name which means "bear" in the Kiowa language. The story is, at its center, about a boy who turns into a bear, and it is based upon an ancient myth in the oral tradition. In this passage, Set has returned to a sacred, ancestral home. The narration is his own.
When I look back over these passages, the two of them some ten years apart in time, I am struck by a common quality which informs them, a point of view, it may be, or an irresistible sense of place. It happens that the character Set is an artist, a painter, as I am a painter. He sees the world in a particular way, in terms of lines, and shapes, and shadows, and forms-in terms of foregrounds and backgrounds and middle distances, in terms of color and light. In both passages there is a strong accent upon the concept of the mind's eye, an emphasis of which I was not aware until I had put the passages together.
No doubt you have already taken the point I am trying to make: that the elements of place and vision, as they are realized in the imagination, in the mind's eye, if you will, form the aesthetic equation that is art. And I am speaking of particulars, not of any place, nor of any vision, but of sacred ground and of ancient vision.
As an artist, I want to say: in the landscape of my homeland let me place an offering of words in the foreground. And in this act, which is holy, let me stand in the place of that man who touched the wonderful image in his mind's eye to the wall of rock. It is appropriate; it is good.
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N. Scott Momaday, a Kiowa Indian, spent his childhood living on the Navajo, Pueblo and Apache reservations of the American Southwest. A highly respected scholar and author, Dr. Momaday is the recipient of many honors including a Pulitzer Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Institute of Arts and Letters Award, and the Premio Letterario Internationale Mondello, Italys highest literary award. Dr. Momaday is a Regents Professor of English at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Arizona.
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Prologue from The Names
This excerpt from N. Scott Momaday's memoir is provided by the University of Arizona Press.
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