Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Horse Dances and Goat Songs

I have been reading Black Elk Speaks by John G. Neihardt, in the newest version put out by University of Nebraska Press. I am glad to have encountered this text, an essential reference in any discussion of the history and spiritual practices of North American native peoples, in such a complete critical edition, as it helps clarify even to a casual reader which aspects of the text originate faithfully from the visions of Lakota warrior and medicine man Black Elk, and which are intrusions of Neihardt's authorial voice. Neihardt, a poet and journalist, first met Black Elk in 1931. It would not be fair to call Neihardt "a man of his time," since in terms of his respect for the intelligence and dignity of Native American peoples, he was far in advance of nearly all white men of his day. Yet there are traces in Neihardt's prose of a condescension, and a casual acceptance of the race "science" of the pre-World War II Euro-American intellectual atmosphere, that sit poorly with this modern reader.

This became particularly clear for me in Appendix 5, which reproduces a column that Neihardt wrote for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch describing his first encounter with Black Elk. In the very first sentence, he speaks of "a contemporary antiquity that, in certain cultural respects, may be described as pre-Homeric." What he means by "pre-Homeric" is spelled out, in embarrassing detail, at the end of the column's lengthy concluding paragraph.

Black Elk's "visions, as set forth in careful detail for this writer, rank easily in beauty and profundity of significance with the supreme things in the rich literature of the Aryan peoples. [sic] ... Unfortunately, for us white people, literature, in our sense, never developed among Black Elk's people. His culture never passed the evolutionary stage of the dance ritual and accordingly the great vision can be adequately expressed only in the dance ceremony, with its accompanying song. One portion of the vision alone--the horse dance, which is poetry of a sublime order--would require some five or six hours to produce.... Black Elk is truly a great poet; and if ever our world shall be privileged to see and understand his masterpiece, the horse dance--as this writer hopes it may--there will be few to question the indubitable truth of this statement."

The reference to "evolution" betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of culture, and the contrasting of dance ritual to "literature, in our sense" indicates a convenient forgetting of the facts of the Homeric and post-Homeric antecedents of that literature. Unlike Homer--who, if he existed, may never have scratched so much as a character into the earth--Black Elk was capable of writing, albeit only in Lakota. And following the Homeric epochs, the next great Hellenic creative outburst, to which "we" trace what is called literature, was what is now called "tragedy." That word in most European languages shares a common ancestor with the modern Greek word τραγούδι, meaning "song." And what did that ancestral word mean in ancient Attic dialect? "Goat." Ancient Athenian men wrapped themselves in goat skins to sing and dance in groups, and from that we now have the written words of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Together with their less reputable cousin comedy, these goat-songs came to be known as drama, which by the time Neihardt was writing had re-accommodated itself to song and dance in the form of musical theater, both on stage and in a new sort of painted vision of shadow and light called "film." A big hit on Broadway that year was a show called The Band Wagon which featured a song entitled "Dancing in the Dark" that became a hit for Bing Crosby. Walking around St. Louis, Neihardt might have heard a passerby whistling the tune.

The emergence of boundaries between various modes of expression is something against which artists and visionaries have rebelled nearly everywhere and every time such boundaries have been around to rebel against. While it can fairly be stated that genre boundaries tend to be an emergent property of "civilization" (for which read, class-divided societies) the precise mapping of those boundaries varied not only over time, as an evolutionary perspective would have it, but with the overdetermined ideological structures developed by dominant classes to legitimate their rule. For example: Christian clerics embraced the liturgical use of instrumental music as a point of differentiation from both Judaism and Islam, with their austere emphases on the unadorned masculine voice. With the lyrics and order of, say, a mass prescribed and known to all, the means of expressing devotion and passion in Western European music shifted from the word to the ensemble of voice and instrumentation, from the melodic line to the harmonic combination. From this decision to J. S. Bach's Mass in B Minor there is not a straight line, but a series of breaks, discontinuities, and alternate pathways. Nor was the victory of the ensemble over the soloist, the composer over the librettist, ever final. From Mozart's collaboration with Schikaneder, through Beethoven's Ode to Joy, Wagner's dream of the Gesamtkunstwerk, to Schoenberg's Gurrelieder or Ned Rorem's simple settings of poems by the likes of Wallace Stevens, the musician longs to be reunited with the poet. This longing is at least partially understood by Neihardt himself, in that he recognizes Black Elk as one of his own, a poet.

As I hope to have shown with my random walk through the cultural leavings of what is called the West, both high and low, "literature, in our sense" has never been as far away from the horse-dance and the goat-song and Neihardt seems to have been taught. Nor is Black Elk's vision, and its description as relayed through Neihardt, far from what might have been recognizable as holy to Homer, or Sophocles, or the prophet Ezekiel. Just as classical sculpture has literally been whitened, by erosion of once vibrantly painted surfaces down to a durable marble base, the literature of the ancients has been metaphorically whitened, through the construction of dubious genealogies that retroactively project the modern myth of the West onto cultural artifacts that should amaze through their strangeness and multiplicity. It is possible to read Black Elk through Homer. It may now be more necessary to read Homer through Black Elk.

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