|The University of Alaska|
William Heyen contrasts two cultures in his book of poems Crazy
Horse in Stillness (1996), through his portrayal
of Crazy Horse (1849-1877), Lakota warrior, and General Armstrong Custer
(1839-1876), leader of the United States' Seventh Cavalry. Heyen's Custer,
a cultural hero, sees himself as the instrument of manifest destiny, of
American expansionist freedom, and thus finds it possible and necessary
to repress feelings of guilt and feelings of emotional connection to the
culture it is his duty to annihilate. Crazy Horse is portrayed as more
open to his feelings and dream visions, and could be said to represent
a sentimental culture - where sentimentality is defined as that which
is characterized by feeling at least as much as reason. Custer's culture
is in the grip of an ideology of Logos, of reason, which is sustained
and propelled by an ideological fantasy that symptomatically reveals its
own unconscious desire - to come to terms with its other, sentimentality.
Today, the United States and Western civilization still operate within
an ideology of Logos, and therefore, for the contemporary writer invested
in developing a sociological poetics, confronting the Real of this cultural
desire may inform aesthetic decisions and literary taste.
Slavoj iek, in The Sublime Object of Ideology, shows
that ideology is not just a false consciousness, a mask hiding reality
underneath, but rather a kind of reality wherein subjects must turn a
blind eye to the contradictions within the ideology in order to maintain
and reproduce it. To demonstrate the mindset of the
subjects of ideology within this basic definition, iek quotes
Marx: 'They do not know it, but they are doing it' (iek
1999: 28). iek outlines critic Peter Sloterdijk's formulation
of cynically driven ideology as a consciousness that 'recognizes, [
takes into account, the particular interest behind the ideological universality,
the distance between the ideological mask and the reality, but [
still finds reasons to retain the mask' (iek 1999: 29). He
describes the cynical mindset with a twist on Marx's statement: 'They
know very well what they are doing, but still, they are doing it' (iek
iek complicates Sloterdijk's notion of cynical ideology by exploring the deeper level of ideological fantasy, which he defines as 'the level on which ideology structures the social reality itself' (iek 1999: 30). Returning to Marx's syllogism, he argues that the illusion of ideology rests not in the knowing, but in the doing:
iek uses the language of psychoanalysis, pointing to the
notion that ideological fantasy masks a subconscious desire. In keeping
with Freud's and Marx's homologous techniques of analyzing symptoms in
order to pinpoint a pathological imbalance, and with Lacan's theory that
'the only point at which we approach this hard kernel of the Real is
indeed in the dream' (iek 1999: 47), iek asserts
that 'the only way to break free from the power of our ideological dream
is to confront the Real of our desire which announces itself in this dream'
Heyen's Custer is often confronted with twinges of foreboding, disturbing feelings he shrugs off in order to maintain the ideological fantasy that sustains his violent actions in the real world. In 'Buffalo Dusk', Custer finds a frozen buffalo corpse and has a momentary waking vision:
The vision of the shuddering buffalo comes just after Custer places his
lips over the animal's nostril and runs his bare hands over its side in
an attempt to resurrect it (Heyen 1996: 93). This uncharacteristic, unreasoned
act of compassion is not in line with Custer's ideology; one might say
he is letting his subconscious guide his actions in this moment. He sees
the dead buffalo shudder, but the '&' that might have led him to his
subconscious desire is cut off immediately by the ideology of reason:
'but no,/he'd only imagined
'. Custer represses his vision and resorts
to ideological fantasy in order to keep from waking into the Real of his
Custer's backward looks show he is disturbed by his momentary departure
from the ideology of reason. This is because his unconscious has given
him a glimpse of the pathological imbalance inherent in his ideology.
The imagery of red dusk and dead stars points to a lingering guilt that
the man carries, repressed, for the blood he has spilled and the mass
death he has caused. Custer walks away from his vision in order to sustain
and reproduce the ideological fantasy that enables him to kill and, in
so doing, achieve cultural fame.
In contrast, Heyen's Crazy Horse embraces his vision of the dead buffalo, illustrating his sense of connection to his subconscious, and his textual position as the foil for Custer's ideological imbalance:
Unlike Custer, Crazy Horse follows the '&' of his dead buffalo vision
into the doorway of his subconscious dream world. He has a spiritual-emotional
experience that does not register in his conscious memory, but which leaves
him a changed man. Where Custer suppresses his vision and is subsequently
haunted by it, Crazy Horse follows his waking dream to 'riversource, a
story', and afterward consciously believes that he carries the vision,
symbolized by buffalo eye, inside his body. The tone of Crazy Horse's
buffalo dream is empowerment through spiritual-emotional experience, whereas
Custer's is guilt by way of suppressed desire and retreat into ideological
As warriors, Crazy Horse and Custer both kill, but Crazy Horse is a different
kind of warrior from Custer. More than his fellow Lakota, he seeks visions,
constantly striving, through these experiences, to expand his understanding
of self in relation to 'the Great Mystery'.
For Crazy Horse, battle is a spiritual-emotional experience, much like
a dream state. The poem begins the moment before his 'trance' begins.
Once in trance, he is not thinking in the rational sense, as signified
by the trailing off of words - representing linear thought - into white
space. When language returns, after the battle, and Crazy Horse recalls
the memory of the experience, he feels he has approached the Great Mystery
What bothers Crazy Horse is the 'falling out of it', 'it' being a pronoun
with another ambiguous pronoun, 'that', as antecedent. He is not interested
in reasoning out the answer to 'what was it', moving on instead to the
heart of experience itself. Implicitly, that which Heyen's Crazy Horse
desires is beyond the reach of language, is the kind of pure spiritual-emotional
experience characterized by the absence of language. In an attempt to
return to 'it', he shuns social celebration in order to 'sleep himself
awake'. Crazy Horse displays an unusual (even for the Lakota) degree of
confrontation with the Real of his desire, by an engagement with the dream.
In the moment of doing, Crazy Horse's actions are in line with the Real
of his desire, and accordingly, he is not portrayed as a character suffering
from repressed desire. Rather, he continually seeks the object of his
desire (which cannot be grasped and held, but only approached) through
action, attempting to sleep 'himself awake' through spiritual-emotional
experiences such as battle.
Custer's approach to war is very different.
This is a snapshot of what Custer knows in the moment of doing, the moment
that, according to iek, ideological fantasy works to support.
In the heat of battle, Custer feels none of the twinges that might alert
him to the weak point of his ideology and allow him to awaken into the
Real of his desire. Everything he ever heard or studied becomes
a support of this moment, including the moments in which he has experienced,
and overcome, doubt or hesitation. In the midst of a violent reality created
by his culture's ideology, his actions appear natural, his worldview seamless.
But even if Custer were to experience doubt in the moment of battle, this would not, in iek's view, lead him away from the grip of his ideology:
In the moment of doing, Custer has a cerebral experience, a feeling of
being separated from the moment by a magnifying glass, showing that he
has already made the final conversion, wherein he consciously recognizes
and experiences the superiority of reason. A deeper, iekian
reading would emphasize the unconscious belief that brought Custer into
position as the executor of Manifest Destiny. Through his actions, he
has already accepted the ideology that structures his social reality,
and repressed the unconscious desire that might allow him to awake into
the Real of his desire, which would subvert his culture's ideology, and
the reality it has created.
iek defines the symptom as 'a particular element which subverts
its own universal foundation', and states that 'the Marxian procedure
of "criticism of ideology" [
] consists in determining
a point of breakdown heterogeneous to a given ideological field
and at the same time necessary for that field to achieve its closure,
its accomplished form' (iek 1999: 21). In a criticism of the
ideology of Freedom, the Marxist tack is to identify the lack of freedom
that makes possible freedoms of speech, press, commerce, etc.; namely,
the exploitation of human labourers that is a systemic necessity within
capitalism (1999: 21). These social realities, heterogeneous to the ideal
of Freedom, are necessary to the function of capitalism, and embody the
point of breakdown in the system that underlies the ideology.
In the case of Custer as portrayed in Crazy Horse in Stillness,
the symptom of an ideology of Logos is a repression of sentimentality
as expressed through the subconscious or visionary dream-state. It follows
that the repression of sentimentality is the point of breakdown heterogeneous
to the ideology of reason, and is at the same time necessary for the ideology
to achieve its closure and hegemony. Heyen portrays Crazy Horse as the
subject of a culture that works outside this ideology, embracing spiritual-emotional
experience and using it as a form of empowerment. To Custer, Crazy Horse
and his people represent the sentimental, the very underbelly of his own
ideology, which he must repress in himself in order to maintain and perpetuate
his own illusory perception of the world. The extermination of Crazy Horse's
people is therefore analogous to a violent repression of sentimentality,
the pathological symptom inherent to the ideological hegemony of Logos.
Both actions are necessary for the maintenance of Custer's ideological
fantasy, which is also that of the dominant paradigm in the society he
If Lacan is correct that 'the only point at which we approach this hard
kernel of the Real is indeed in the dream', then following the symptom
of the fantasy inherent to the functioning of an ideology of Logos should
lead to the discovery of the ideology's unconscious desire. If Custer
had not suppressed his vision of the buffalo, where would it have led
him? Presumably, like Crazy Horse, he would have had a spiritual-emotional
experience. The fantasy Custer maintains by repressing this impulse is
the inferiority of sentimentality, the very notion necessary to ensure
the superiority of reason. The unconscious desire inhered in this fantasy
is that experience which would result from a refusal to awaken from the
spiritual-emotional dream state - that is, an experience characterized
by the absence of logical thought.
As Heyen represents it through Custer, the ideology of Logos lacks, and
wants to come to terms with its Other, with sentimentality. This is a
paradox, because in doing so, the system's illusory nature would be revealed,
its power stripped. The fantasy of sentimental inferiority is necessary
to the maintenance and reproduction of Logos as a ruling ideology. In
the first place, Logos only understands sentimentality in as much as the
subject can identify its Other, and use it as a mask for its own inherent
lack of closure. In desiring a conversation with its Other, Logos in effect
desires its own demise. For Custer, coming to terms with the Real of his
desire would require him to acknowledge guilt and cease the very behavior
that lends him his cultural status, something his ego does not allow.
This desire to reconcile with the Other must be violently suppressed if
the ideology supporting this character's reality is to be maintained and
Through the figures of Custer and Crazy Horse, Heyen establishes a dialectic
conversation of sorts between Logos and sentimentality, both indirectly
throughout the book, and directly once the characters have both perished
and entered a state of pure being:
Here, the Sublime object of desire finds embodiment. Relieved of flesh,
Heyen's Custer and Crazy Horse are like gods, a piece of the 'Great Mystery
fulfilled', dealing out fate to the living. There is a sense of rightness
as desire is fulfilled on a plane beyond corporeal and cultural limits.
One experiences, simultaneously, the displeasure of realizing the Great
Mystery is not entirely fulfilled, and the pleasure at coming a step closer
to understanding the vastness of that mystery. This combination of sentiments
is, by Kantian definition, precisely the feeling of the Sublime (iek
In 'Tarot', the speaker confesses Crazy Horse's relationship as 'Other'
to the subject, who is Custer, revealing the truth of its own ideological
premise. Crazy Horse in Stillness is written within the paradigm
of Logos, and the construction of Crazy Horse as character is enacted
through this lens. While Heyen may appear to establish Crazy Horse and
Custer as equal and autonomous subjects in dialectical conversation, ultimately
the received hierarchy of Western subject and Native object is maintained.
The contrast between Crazy Horse and Custer is therefore more telling
of Western culture than it is of any Native American culture, especially
A iekian reading of Heyen's Crazy Horse in Stillness shows that American culture, and by extension any logocentric culture, desires a conversation with its object, sentimentality. Confronting the antagonistic Real of this desire, announced through Heyen's text, can enable the writer to break free from the power of her culture's ideological dream, and thus inform creative writing practice and pedagogy. In his comparative treatise, which positions the American writing workshop in conversation with Australian creative writing programs, Paul Dawson states:
According to Dawson, a poetics concerned with literature's relationship
to society would find politics and ideology relevant to every aesthetic
decision. The idea of establishing a dialectic exchange between sentimentality
and Logos could therefore be applicable to matters of craft in every genre.
For the fiction writer, engagement with sentimentality entails first wrestling for a definition of the term. John Gardner, whose texts on craft are commonly recommended to American MFA students, claims that sentimentality, along with frigidity and mannerism, is a fault, not of technique, but of the soul (Gardner 1991: 115). He does not specify exactly what fault this might be, but does provide a definition of the term:
Sentimentality is predicated on a lack of dramatic cause for emotional
provocation in the reader. Sentiment is the desired response in a reader,
but sentimentality amounts to a failure to achieve it. Logically,
drama is the only legitimate means toward the desired end of evoking sentiment
in a reader.
Gardner's definition of sentimentality contrasts with the one set forth
in this essay, where sentimentality is defined as that which is characterized
by feeling at least as much as reason. A slippery relationship
exists between these seemingly disparate meanings of the same word. The
definition set forth here is a slight variation on Merriam-Webster's
definition 1b: 'resulting from feeling rather than reason or thought'.
'Rather than' has been replaced with 'at least as much as' in recognition
of the nature of ideology, which, as a iekian reading of Heyen
demonstrates, is threatened with annihilation by the prospect of a balance
between itself and its Other.
Gardner's pejorative notion of sentimentality - the attempt to get some effect without providing due cause through dramatic events - corresponds with definitions of the word that focus on affectation, such as the following in a handbook of literary terms:
In traditional fiction, feeling in the reader stems from the conflict.
The writer should not import a 'standard emotion' such as fraternal devotion,
and assume the reader will feel the pain of two brothers torn apart despite
their natural love for one another. Rather, the 'rivalry of desires' would
be the point of highest dramatic tension. If the writer engages these
'real ingredients of the conflict', she will have a higher chance of success.
Affectation, presumption, cheating - these are things the fiction writer
would, logically, want to avoid. But what of the unstable ground between
contrasting definitions of sentimentality? Might one inform the other
in ways that are hard to see?
A specific example of the way this unstable relationship informs pedagogy
involves the notion of psychic distance, commonly discussed in terms of
point of view. Gardner defines psychic distance as 'the distance the reader
feels between himself and the events in the story' (Gardner 1991: 111).
Burroway and Weinberg, whose textbook Writing Fiction is also widely
used in American MFA programs, use the roughly analogous term 'authorial
distance', which they defines as 'the degree to which we as readers feel
on the one hand intimacy and identification with, or
on the other hand detachment and alienation from, the characters in a
story' (Burroway and Weinberg 2003: 287). For Burroway
and Weinberg, the defining relationship is between reader and character;
for Gardner it is between reader and events. Minor differences in terminology
and definition notwithstanding (though they are not without implication),
both seem to be talking about the same phenomenon.
Gardner's and Burroway and Weinberg's chapters on point of view diverge in terms of stylistic preference. Burroway and Weinberg seem comfortable with a tight, limited third-person perspective, while Gardner points out what he sees as the limitations of this point of view:
For Gardner, psychic distance operates paradoxically. It is harder for
the reader to relate to a character when the distance is too little, because
in the absence of any narrative mediation of the character's thoughts,
the reader may feel jilted upon realizing the limitations of the mind
in which she is traveling.
Cool withdrawal is the desired effect when constructing an unreliable narrator, and Gardner admits as much (1991: 156). 'But even when the fiction is benevolent,' he asserts, 'the third-person-subjective point of view can achieve little grandeur. It thrives on intimacy and something like gossip. It peeks through a keyhole, never walks through an open field' (1991: 157). Gardner goes on to extol the omniscient point of view for its ability to vary psychic distance. A lens capable of rolling out for a long shot and also moving in close enables variety and creates a less 'claustrophobic' texture for the reader (1991: 157). It may be, however, that Gardner's 'reader' is not a universal phenomenon, but rather a reader who shares his particular, ideologically informed sensibilities:
Gardner equates nobility with Godliness. He characterizes the familiarity
of close psychic distance as 'petty', 'unseemly', 'something like gossip',
all of these judgmental and loaded descriptors. One might question whether
nobility and grandeur are universal goals for writers, and in fact a comparison
between Gardner and Burroway shows that they are not.
Burroway emphasizes the positive attributes of third-person-subjective point of view, saying, 'The advantage of the limited omniscient voice its immediacy' (Burroway and Weinberg 2003: 258). For Burroway, the familiarity of a close authorial distance is not petty or unseemly. Recalling that. in Writing Fiction, the focus of authorial distance is the relationship between reader and character, a difference between her and Gardner's aesthetic tastes begins to emerge. Burroway includes the following quote from Toni Morrison:
Asking the reader to participate as he goes along, to be that
character, means diminished authorial distance. For Morrison, the less
distance the better.
This stylistic preference, shared by Morrison and Burroway, would fit
neatly into Gardner's definition of the term sentimental. For him, emotion
or feeling in this texture would be likely to ring false since the style
is based on a supposition that the intimacy associated with diminished
authorial distance is an attribute, that 'the reader' is interested in
participating as he goes along rather than watching from a distance. This
reader must be different from Gardner's reader, for whom, logically,
the only legitimate cause for emotional response in traditional fiction
is character in action. This predilection toward drama as the emotive
catalyst explains why, for Gardner, psychic distance is defined as a relationship
between reader and events.
The slippage in our chain of signifiers and its potential consequences
of readership now become evident. Any emotion the cause of which has not
been dramatized might fit within the definition of sentimental that focuses
on affectation, and yet, in Morrison's and Burroway's preferred style,
any number of emotions might be the result of events not dramatized. If
the reader is being asked to participate, he is, in effect, being asked
to feel what the character is feeling, regardless of the cause. Perhaps
the thesis that 'the reader' will only feel emotions stemming from
dramatic events is not universally true. And yet today, writing within
an ideology of Logos, the received wisdom is that sentiment must be properly
earned; sentiment for sentiment's sake earns only the pejorative label
sentimental - because it is characterized by feeling at least as much
as by reason.
Since opinions about psychic distance are a matter of stylistic taste, choices concerning psychic/authorial distance intersect with questions of style and intended audience. If Dawson is correct that 'aesthetic or craft-based decisions of a writer are always the result (consciously or otherwise) of ideological or political choice', then tracing stylistic preferences to their ideological origins might enable writers to discover the fantasies structuring the reality of creative writing pedagogy. Once those fantasies are unveiled, the writer will be better prepared to confront the political implications of her aesthetic choices, to do what she is knowing in the practice of her art.
List of works cited
Erin Wilcox aired a story on "AK Radio" in 2005. She is a 2007 graduate of the University of Alaska, Anchorage MFA program, and copy editor for Alaska Quarterly Review.
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Vol 11 No 1 April 2007
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Jen Webb