Ahem! Where are your manners of expression?

During November 2007, Latina poet Fila Harris and I organized a local chapter of the NEA’s “The Big Read,” a literacy project designed to restore literacy to the center of American culture.   We conducted a series of book group discussions centered around one of The Big Read’s selected novel’s, Bless Me, Ultima, by Rudolfo Anaya.  For our final book group meeting, we managed to snag author and folklorist Barre Toelken.

Toelken is Professor Emeritus at Utah State University.  His wide range of expertise includes Chaucer, Medieval literature, American folklore, ballads, folksongs, ethnic literatures (especially Native American literature), legend, myth, and American studies.  He’s a former board member for the American Folklife Center in the Library of Congress, the Western Folklife Center, the Utah Arts Council, the American Folklore Society, and the Chair of Folk Arts Panel for the National Endowment for the Arts.  He has won numerous awards and authored many publications, most recently, The Anguish of Snails.  I own a much underlined copy.

The central character of Bless Me, Ultima is a curandera, a practitioner of traditional Latino healing arts.  Toelken brought to our discussion his experience with and insight into healing rituals — in his case, Native American rituals, which he has experienced throughout his life but most recently because he suffered a debilitating stroke. 

Toelken perceives the stroke as being an effect of his fifty years immersion into Navajo Coyote stories, calling his trouble “a case of being cursed by what you’re interested in.”  Coyote tales, traditionally told only in the winter, portray the misdeeds and occasionally the creative prowess of Coyote, a complex character whose desires and behavior exert several levels of cultural energy.  Toelken stated that it took half a century for the full meaning of Coyote stories to dawn on him: “I spent fifty years studying levels of lesser meaning.”  To explain the trouble his “misapprehension” (his word) of Coyote tales caused him, Toelken described the effects of the stroke and contrasted the way his white doctors and the way his Navajo healers treated his affliction.

Toelken’s stroke occurred on the left side of his brain, wiping out his ability to speak his native English and adopted Navajo languages.  However, he retained his fluency in German, apparently stored in a different cabinet in his mind.  When the trouble erupted, Toelken’s institutional “white” doctors didn’t know what was wrong because, as he put it, the stroke “took three days to bring me down.”  His “white” doctors treated his ailment as being an isolated case and performed upon him “internal” healing, giving him medicine to ingest.  They also pronounced upon him only a twenty percent chance for recovery.  They didn’t know why the stroke had occurred; their only useful advice was, “Get a one-level house.”

But Toelken’s Navajo community understood clearly the causes for the stroke.  Toelken said they have a name for the kind of stroke he suffered.  Three other strokes had occurred in his immediate Navajo family, all, he asserted, related to his: “These things happen for a reason.”  Rather than treating Toelken’s affliction as being restricted to him, Navajo curing ceremonies included his entire family, who all took Toelken’s prescribed treatments with him, because his active collection and study of Coyote stories had affected them all.  Toelken participated in four healing rituals altogether, and his Navajo family and healers are still “acting where they can to put down effects of the stroke.”

Toelken explained how vital to his considerable recovery was the Navajo practice of treating the “external” causes for his illness — circumstances of behavior and relation in which the patient is engaged — in this case, language and narrative, as well as their effects upon all social bonds involved.  Rather than attributing his fall from health to purely physiological causes, his Navajo healers treated him for effects of his “misapprehension” of Coyote tales, which he now identifies as exerting four levels of cultural energy, ranging from moral instruction to children to instructions for realizing evil intent, or witchcraft.  “It’s serious stuff,” he said.  In other words, prior to his stroke, his objective, anthropological studies of these folktales, into which he had delved deeply, had taken wrong turns, doing him personal injury and putting his Navajo family in a quandary.

Toelken’s mishandling of the narrative purpose and power of Coyote tales was not intentional.  He did not use the stories to wreak havoc and control others’ choices, as those bearing evil intent knowingly do.  Whatever his motives for searching out and collecting the stories, basic misunderstanding of their nature — garden variety ignorance — put him and others in harm’s way.

Listening to Toelken explain the nature of and causes for his stroke, I thought of longtime BYU Poet in Residence Clinton F. Larson, who in the years before his death in 1994 was similary stripped of language through one or more strokes.  Larson, in his strivings to assert, as he put it, a “style that relates the realities of earth to the realitites of heaven,” exercised vigorous dominance in language with his self-identified baroque style.  His strivings to marry heaven and earth often resulted in verse and poetic plays that strained, if not spurned intelligibility.  Many Mormon scholars and writers acknowledge Larson as the father of modern Mormon poetry and in the same breath voice their frustration with him.  In a spirited session titled “Memorable Moments in Mormon Literature” at a recent Association for Mormon Letters conference, author and playwright Thomas Rogers acknowledged Larson’s influence upon modern Mormon literature but told how the audience at one of Larson’s “unplayable and most unintelligible plays” “drifted out, eyes glazed.”  I’ve witnessed several of Larson’s friends and colleagues at BYU, many of whom are accomplished scholars, and many of his former students, praise Larson’s ambition to create a uniquely Mormon literary style and at the same time complain of that style shutting them out, even doing them injury.

Could there be something about Larson’s strivings in the baroque sytle that “misapprehended” poetic energy and the nature of sacred, resulting in him losing, as Toelken did, his glory of language?  Former students, myself among them, describe themselves as having to recover from Larson’s influence, which recalls Toelken’s perception of his entire Navajo family suffering the consequences of his behavior.

The idea that misapprehension of narrative purpose or the mishandling of language could lead to physical trouble such as strokes might seem an unsteady belief, perhaps a superstitious one or a post hoc fallacy.  But one’s language and the way it works upon one’s thinking is in the brain and of the brain.  The influence it exerts could be more potent, constant and pervasive than the effects of ingested drugs and as consequential as other aspects of one’s behavior, such as what one eats and how much one exercises.  Also, how an individual expresses and asserts him/herself in word, which is in fact deed, affects his/her community for good or ill.  Engaged properly, langugage has curative, restorative, creative power.  It opens up possibilities for its speakers and hearers and keeps sharp the cutting edge of progress.   Engaged improperly, it engenders fear and restricts choice to serve its speaker’s hungers.  Bad language courts illness and strives to maintain a self-serving status quo.  Coyote stories demonstrate that Navajos are among the assortment of cultures that understand that langugage does these things.  Toelken emphasized that Navajos are just one tribe out of five hundred plus in the Americas that approach healing from the perspective of external, rather than internal causes.

Whether people wish to consider human origins as having erupted in the primordial wilderness or having opened in The Garden, language is part of that same wilderness and/or divine striving that created us.  It is, in fact, a dynamic environment wherein by our carelessness we might cause or suffer injury or find ourselves cast out.  Or course, some people’s misapprehensions, like Toelken’s, and perhaps Clinton Larson’s, actually advance understanding and contribute in other important ways.  Both have produced influential work from which all may benefit.  Beside that, both men’s stories — the stories they created through poetry, scholarship, or other narrative, all part of the language in which they lived — might serve as cautionary tales about the dangers of engaging language carelessly, laying too much store by hoarded ignorance, or overly asserting oneself in manners of expression.  Science and other methods of inquiry — artistic inquiry among them — routinely demonstrate how more goes on in heaven and earth than what we imagine.  Our widespread “misapprehension” includes unawareness of the influence language exerts upon our health, our abililty to progress individually and as a species, and the vitality of what we create.

9 thoughts on “Ahem! Where are your manners of expression?”

  1. How often do women in particular get told by their doctors: ‘it’s all in your head’?
    I hope that’s getting better.

  2. Thanks for the comments.

    Lora, one of Toelken’s Navajo relations attended with him on that evening. She described how in Navajo culture, when a baby is born, that child is handed around the family and each family member welcomes the child and tells how happy he or she is that the baby has come. She said that these welcoming words help the baby grow up happy and improve the baby’s chances of reaching adulthood healthy and well adjusted. Through a story, she explained how if the baby hears negative words or not enough good language directed at him/her, that baby will be at risk and grow up troubled and disoriented.

    Just thought you might like to hear about that.

  3. BTW, yesterday, I listened to a Speaking of Faith interview on the radio featuring Rachel Naomi Remen, who has, as I understood it, pioneered an intergrative healing medical training program that’s being used in San Francisco and some other universities around the country. This program encourages students of medicine to learn to distinguish between curing and healing, the first being the act of “fixing” the problem, the second being a much more narrative-invested process of “listening generously” not only to a patient’s symptoms but also to the patient’s stories. “Curing” doesn’t necessarily entail engaging in any sort of relationship with patients, but “healing” necessarily does. This rising interest in many fields in the nature and value of storytelling and narrative desire strikes me as a very significant development in our culture.

    For Christmas, I received Homo Narrans by John D. Niles. Some of his assertions about human beings’ special nature lag behind the curve and in my opinion his dramatic language sometimes bends points too far, but his overall assertion that mankind’s culture, religious traditions, identity, evolution etc. are dependent upon narrative’s creative thrust has a solid ring. There’s something about language, and especially language woven into narrative, that changes us for better or worse. As Remen said and as other wise people have said, including the Navajo Hugh Yellowman, whom Toelken frequently quotes in his work, narrative shows what’s possible. From “The Pretty Language of Yellowman,” here’s a relevant quote:

    Why tell the stories? “If my children hear the stories, they will grow up to be good people, if they don’t hear them, they will turn out to be bad.” Why tell them to adults? “Through the stories everything is made possible.”

    Also BTW: I’ve written more extensively about the effects language has upon us in my series, “The Working Language of Good and Evil,” which you can find here: http://www.motleyvision.org/?p=153

    Unfortunately, Part V suffered some accident in the transporter when A Motley Vision beamed from Blogger to WordPress, and I have to go in and retransmogrify it, which I intend to do soon.

  4. Do you need a copy of that part? I posted it in some form or other on my group long time ago. I also think I have a hard copy. Not that you wouldn’t.
    In our sociology we often talk about positive messages and negative massages, particularly when it comes to parenting. It’s such a common idea that it shows up on TV: the criminal who went bad because his mother was cruel, that sort of thing. Why do we have trouble seeing our medical problems as physical manifestations of other aspects of our world view, like our growing up, or our habitual thinking? Is it because we think mind and matter are so separate? I feel strongly that one of my health problems is directly linked with my internalizing everything around me. The doctors might be including that bad habit of mine when they refer to ‘lifestyle’.
    And why the weight problem? LDS folks ‘give’ themselves that one addiction. What is addiction for? It’s not a cure or a healing, the choices you mention. It’s like rubbing salt in a wound. It seems we sometimes develop a taste for what’s bad for us, and we pass that along, and it becomes a culture. Can you imagine Adam and Eve watching their children make everything from murder to beer?

  5. I started listening to the radio program today. I find myself wondering at a connection I never made before: the descriptions I’ve heard over the years of interns, doctors, with their brutal training periods, and their disconnection from wholesome living. No wonder prescriptions are their first line of thinking! Not sleep, or a good long conversation, or perhaps learning the life skill of telling people ‘no’.
    I also found myself having trouble sitting still for the program. I felt like I had to be ‘doing’ something. So I have to think more deeply about this ‘listening generously’ idea.

  6. To My Friends of Faith,

    Recently a friend at our church brought this “film” to my attention.
    Her son apparently was sent this web link from someone.

    It’s a movie clip (that has been recently released, or is about to,,, I’m not sure),,
    anyway, it depicts Mormons as flesh eating ghouls, and it is just awful. http://www.thebookofzombie.com

    On behalf of myself and my husband, and our Mormon friends,
    I would like to make sure that young people are NOT subjected to this terrible conception of our faith.

    please let me know if you are able to help.

    regards, Betty Toms

  7. Betty:

    We’re aware of the film. I have no plans to see it. We have linked, however, to an interview that the By Common Consent Mormon blog has done with the filmmaker.

    I’m quite sure, though, that whatever the intent of the filmmakers, the Mormon element is fairly tongue-in-cheek. From what I understand, most zombie movies these days are.

    It occurs to me that this may also be a bit of reverse viral marketing. If that is the case, then you all are incredibly lame. If it not, then posting a link to the trailer is probably not the most effective way of getting people to boycott a film that they would never have heard about anyway.

    So if you are an indie filmmaker or a concerned LDS — it’s clear that you don’t really understand the tone and purpose of this blog. I invite you to read through the archives and gain some knowledge of what this community is all about. Also feel free to e-mail me — william AT motleyvision DOT org.

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