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.