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From Cather Studies Volume 5

Nature and Human Nature

Interdisciplinary Convergences on Cather's Blue Mesa

[T]here should be no watertight compartments between the fields of human knowledge. Not necessarily because Everything is One; but because, to deal with everything, Homo Cogitans has Only One Mind. — Helen Couclelis, "Philosophy in the Construction of Geographical Reality"
Human nature is a dead idea. Efforts to uncover a fundamental biological component to human behavior are based on an unsophisticated understanding of both culture and science and contribute little to our exploration of human society. This is an assertion that many scholars would readily agree with, but is it true? — Andrew Kirk and John Herron, Human/Nature

For the prospective interdisciplinarian, the cluster of ideas surrounding the terms place and human nature increasingly offers literary scholars across-field entry into interesting territory. To begin with place, Aristotle announced in his Physics that "the power of place will be remarkable."[1] Many writers— George Eliot, Mark Twain, Sherwood Anderson, Willa Cather, Sinclair Lewis, D. H. Lawrence, Eudora Welty, Ernest Hemingway, Laurence Durrell, N. Scott Momaday, Leslie Marmon Silko, Scott Russell Sanders, bell hooks, to name a few—have directly asserted the importance of place, often attributing to it the role of indispensable participant—even leading character—in their work; "[C]all it what you like," D. H. Lawrence said, "[b]ut the spirit of place is a great reality" (16).[2]

As might be expected, it is the eclectic field of geography that has done most to bring place-centered insights of writers and thinkers into the purview of scholarly investigation. Geography has been called the Mother of the Sciences, since it distills and concentrates questions about the nature of our physical surroundings, questions which have been common to all people, everywhere. Throughout human history a regional geographic sense has been a given in all cultures. "Beyond that of any other discipline," geographer David Lowenthal writes, " the subject matter of geography approximates the world of general discourse; the palpable present, the everyday life of man on earth, is seldom far from our professional concerns" (241). More than any other subject, Lowenthal argues, geography studies aspects of human surroundings on the scale and within the contexts in which they are usually encountered in everyday life.

Such broad-gauge interests and claims have not gone unchallenged by those who find in them evidence of theoretical and methodological fuzziness. Even while defending his field's interests in and dependence upon many allied disciplines in the natural and social sciences, geographer N. Peter Haggett allows that his field "is unusual (perhaps promiscuous) in the range of its trading partners" (12). The wide-reaching concepts of place and region came under particular questioning in the middle and late years of the twentieth century as outmoded and diminished perceptions no longer relevant to a world of interchangeable, media-fed urban settings and ubiquitous shopping mall experiences. Academics of various disciplines regularly announced the end of nature, place, and region, and a fiction writer like Don DeLillo, in White Noise, provided ominous evidence of an apparent postmodern erasure of place. Critic Dana Phillips notes how one of the book's teenage characters updates her so-called address book: "She was transcribing names and telephone numbers from an old book to a new one. There were no addresses. Her friends had telephone numbers only, a race of people with a seven bit analog consciousness" (qtd. in Phillips 237). Were White Noise to be published today, instead of in 1985, the author would doubtless be underscoring the characters' placelessness with e-mail and other computer-related identities.

Still, even during this recent history in which place has been threatened with displacement, it has proved resistant to efforts to dismiss it. With the growing emphasis upon ecological thinking, the rapid joining of interdisciplinary fields in the sciences and social sciences, and the rise of new approaches in the humanities like ecocriticism, place would seem poised to resume its place as a vital human concept. The work of contemporary human geographers like Yi Fu Tuan, Edward Relph, and Robert David Sack, for example, has kept the place of place before us. Sack reminds us of the importance of holding together concepts that other fields take apart: We cannot live without places, and yet modernity is so quietly efficient at creating and maintaining them that whatever the mix and whatever the thickness, thinness, or porosity of places, their existence and effects often seem to be invisible. We run the risk of becoming geographically unaware at the very moment we have to be most aware. . . . A geographical awareness helps reveal how the segments of our lives fit together. It shows how we are cultural and natural, autonomous and independent. Most important, it focuses our will on our common purpose as geographic agents— transforming the earth and making it into a home. (257)

Important arguments for the revaluation of place have also been provided by philosophers of place, from early proponents like Gaston Bachelard and Simone Weil to recent contributors like Edward S. Casey, J. E. Malpas, and David Abram. Their line of reasoning is increasingly influenced by the allying of place to body, in the phenomenological tradition of Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, in which the primacy of the lived world of bodily experience is the foundation for all human thinking, meaning, and communication. "Just as there is no place without a body," writes Edward S. Casey, "so there is no body without place. . . . [W]e are embodied-in-place. . . ." (Getting Back into Place 104). Phenomenology thus confronts a narrowly reductionist cultural constructionism with the lived body, the source of our place in the world and, as Casey calls it, the common but unrealized root of our thought (Getting Back into Place 50).[3] Phenomenology may be seen to intersect literary analysis in the pioneering rhetorical criticism of Kenneth Burke, and his perception of poetry, or any verbal act, as "symbolic action," or "the dancing of an attitude," which has at its base level a bodily or biological expression (The Philosophy of Literary Form 8, 9, 37).

Phenomenologists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, in their recent book, Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought, employ the findings of the cognitive sciences to argue for the authenticity of the embodied mind and reason. Lakoff and Johnson recognize that if all human reasoning is embodied, then a valid theory of human meaning will have to be grounded in that science for which there is "broad and deep converging evidence," namely evolutionary-ecological Darwinism, which holds that human rationality is not unique but builds upon forms and inferences present in so-called lower animals (92, 4). In looking to evolutionary biology as the basis for their theory of a human nature, Lakoff and Johnson join literary critics like Joseph Carroll, in Evolution and Literary Theory, and Robert Storey, in Mimesis and the Human Animal: On the Biogenetic Foundation of Literary Representation. Both of these recent works of literary criticism were anticipated to some extent by Joseph Meeker's pioneering 1974 study of evolution and literature, The Comedy of Survival: Studies in Literary Ecology.[4]

What may be seen in such studies, then, is an important movement toward interdisciplinarity, combining literary and humanistic interests with the braided scientific concepts of evolution and ecology. Place itself has, through the influence of humanistic geographers, been revivified as a field of study and positioned for collaborative inquiry. Phenomenology, the study of the experiential core of our lives, has added the working of the body and mind to the power of place, bringing philosophy and the cognitive and life sciences into the mix. The rise of an ecocritical view point in the discipline of English literature has led literary critics to begin considering these issues from a fresh, new perspective. Even the academic Left, long resistant to evidence of biological influences on human behavior, or to even the concept of a human nature, may be moving toward a rapprochement with such ideas, as is suggested in renowned ethicist Peter Singer's new book, A Darwinian Left: Politics, Evolution, and Cooperation. Such realignment may be expected to continue, as evidence mounts in the biological and cognitive sciences that inherited factors have a major role in human behavior.

It seems inevitable to me that literary scholars of the next one hundred years, widely anticipated as the Century of the Environment, will find themselves, along with other humanists and social scientists, engaged in important, ecologically based interdisciplinary work with the natural sciences, bridging the two-culture gulf between them. We will necessarily become more interdisciplinary because we live in an increasingly interconnected world, because we need all the intellectual resources we can muster to find a sustainable place within it, and because we will see more and more the relatedness of all of this to the work we do as teachers and scholars of literature. Anthropology-trained Gary Snyder offers a comfortable common-sense stance for spanning the divide between the humanists and the evolutionary-based sciences when he writes: Recollecting that we once lived in places is part of our contemporary self-discovery. It grounds what it means to be "human" (etymologically something like "earthling"). . . . [H]ow could we be were it not for this planet that provided our very shape? Two conditions—gravity and a livable temperature ranging between freezing and boiling—have given us fluids and flesh. The trees we climb and the ground we walk on have given us five fingers and toes. The "place" (from the root plat, broad, spreading, flat) gave us far-seeing eyes, the streams and breezes gave us versatile tongues and whorly ears. The land gave us a stride, and the lake a dive. The amazement gave us our kind of mind. We should be thankful for that, and take nature's stricter lessons with some grace. ("The Place, the Region, and the Commons" 29)

If, as I believe, we are edging toward a virtual science of place, embodiment, and human nature that will undergird our reading and criticism of literature, the work of Western writers like Willa Cather, for whom these concepts have been of defining significance, will serve as fertile ground. Notable scholarship on Cather and place has, of course, already been done, in books like Leonard Lutwack's ground-breaking The Role of Place in Literature (1984), Judith Fryer's Felicitous Space (1986), Laura Winters's Willa Cather: Landscape and Exile (1993), and Diane Dufva Quantic's The Nature of the Place (1995), as well as in numerous chapters and articles from Cather scholars through the years. Many of these pieces appeared in the pages of Western American Literature, which, during the long tenure of Tom Lyon as editor, kept alive the power of place and region when it was all but dismissed in other literary venues.

Susan J. Rosowski has called attention in her 1995 article, "Willa Cather's Ecology of Place," to "a Cather we have scarcely met" (37), whose emplaced ideas were formed in the intellectual excitement of pioneering botanists and ecologists Charles Bessey and Frederic Clements at the University of Nebraska, whom Cather knew and admired in her student days and long after.[5] Citing Michael Kowalewski's "Writing in Place: The New American Regionalism," Rosowski finds in Cather's fiction and its relationship to the discipline of scientific ecology a proper response to Kowalewski's call for "'something challengingly new'" in place studies (48). In what follows, I intend to push still further in what I hope to be the direction of the new, with a consideration of a portion of Cather's The Professor's House from an interdisciplinary perspective, one if not overtly scientific, at least leaning in that direction.

I begin with the suspicion that what is challengingly new may turn out, in a sense, to be old, even archaic, but still, perhaps, challenging in its reconsideration of concepts ignored or pronounced dead by prevailing poststructuralist theory.

My admiration for The Professor's House goes back some thirty-five years since I first read it. It has been a perennial choice of texts for my classes in American and Western literature at the University of Oregon. This is the fourth scholarly essay I have written on the book. It may be, along with My Ántonia, the most frequently investigated book in the Cather canon. Cather has written approvingly of Sarah Orne Jewett's observation that "[t]he thing that teases the mind over and over for years, and at last gets itself put down rightly on paper—whether little or great, it belongs to Literature" (Willa Cather on Writing 47). If such things become literature, it must be because they come to tease the mind of the audience as they did the mind of the writer.We can, of course, recognize the description of an archetype here. But what is the archetypal or mythic appeal of The Professor's House, and why should it draw author and reader as it does? I believe that the answer lies inWilla Cather's environmental imagination—which is, I would argue, a biological and topographical imagination— and what is surely one of its most intriguing and suggestive manifestations, "Tom Outland's Story" and the secret of the Blue Mesa.[6]

Putting it that way makes it sound like a Nancy Drew mystery. But that is how archetypes work. For all of our acculturated subtlety, memorable literature draws us in by appeals that may be shaped by culture but whose origins are often subcultural, epigenetic, in the language of evolutionary biology. Great writers often draw from such primal sources, as Constance Rourke pointed out in her classic study of American humor: "inevitably genius embraces popular moods and formulations even when it seems to range furthest afield. From them literature gains immensely; without them it can hardly be said to exist at all" (130).

Terms like epigenetic and evolutionary biology, or even nature, will perhaps raise for some the uneasy state of essentialist debate among ecofeminists, or call to mind connections to the conflict over sociobiology, which arose in the 1970s and 1980s with the publication of Edward O. Wilson's textbook by that title. Although the ideas underlying the term sociobiology have already been assimilated into the working theory and assumptions of many scientists and social scientists, what Mary Midgley has called "the fear of biology" continues to haunt other social scientists and humanists. Writing of this phobia, Midgley says:

This is not a denial of evolutionary theory itself, which is usually conceded as correct in its own sphere, but a steady rejection of any attempt to use it in the interpretation of human affairs. A sanitary cordon is erected at the frontier between the physical and social sciences, at which biological explanations generally and evolutionary ones in particular still tend to be turned back, marked with an official stamp which may read "Fascist," "Racist," "Galtonist," "Innatist," "Biological Determinist," or at times most grimly of all, merely "biological."

This habit is fortunately on the way out, and a modest two-way traffic now does go on, to the general advantage. But a good deal of work is still needed to explain—as is always necessary in these cases—the distortions which gave rise to the prejudice in the first place, and just why they are not actually a part of biological science. (7)

Since Midgley published these words in 1985, a great deal of such explaining has gone on and a considerable amount of crossdisciplinary work has arisen in the natural and social sciences and even in some of the humanities, where human behavior is, of course, a matter of concern. The conception of a universal human nature has, as the result of this and earlier research, increasingly challenged and replaced the widespread assumption, as demonstrated in the second epigraph to this essay, that human nature is a dead idea, and that all human behavior is the product of social conditioning. This axiom, dating from the work of anthropologists Franz Boas, Margaret Mead, and others in the early twentieth century, was, partly at least, a wholly justifiable reaction to the early distortions of evolutionary theory that were common at the time. Unfortunately, the baby—human universals—was thrown out with the bath-water distortions.[7] The denial of biology has remained politically appealing ever since because it has made the perfectibility of humankind seem an easy goal. What it wrongly assumed was that there was no middle ground between grim biological determinism and blue-sky freedom. What it overlooked was the presence of several million years of the evolution of the human brain and body into common social behavior. The attempt within the social sciences to purge human behavior from human biology has eroded during the last few decades in the face of growing evidence to the contrary, as seen, for example, in the work of Leda Cosmides, John Tooby, and others in the groundbreaking 1992 anthology on evolutionary psychology, The Adapted Mind.[8]

Although there are behaviors and beliefs particular to specific cultures, there are also many that are common across all cultures, as anthropologists Donald E. Brown, George Murdoch, and others have established. Within the category of human universals are our similarities in living in social groups rather than alone; in our tendency to form cooperative relationships and to accept reciprocal obligations; in the underlying structure and semantics of human languages; in human facial, hand, and arm gestures; in our use of fire; in our territoriality (including our attraction to specific places); in the play of children; in our distinctions between close and distant kin; in age-grading and age distinction; in division of labor; in dominance relationships between men, women, and children; in rules of social unit membership; in conflicts structured around in-group and out-group relationships; in reasoning; in distinguishing right from wrong; in religious or supernatural beliefs, and so on.[9]

It is necessary to stress that such classifications carry no evaluative judgments. As bioethicist Peter Singer writes: I am not saying that because something like hierarchy, or male dominance, is characteristic of almost all human societies, that therefore it is good, or acceptable, or that we should not attempt to change it. . . . My point is not about deducing an "ought" from an "is" but about gaining a better understanding of what it may take to achieve the goals we seek. (38)

Human universals offer corroboration of our place within, not above, nature. They are evidence of the commonality to which we are bound in our evolutionary history. It is worth noting, for example, that many traits like language, reasoning, tool-making, even culture itself, which once were confidently assumed to separate us from the rest of the animal world, have now been shown to exist in other animals, especially in our closest relative, the chimpanzees, with which we share nearly all of our genetic makeup. The discovery that reason itself is evolutionary, say Lakoff and Johnson, "utterly changes our relation to other animals and changes our conception of human beings as uniquely rational. Reason is thus not an essence that separates us from other animals; rather, it places us on a continuum with them" (4).

If human nature affirms, as seems self-evident, the validity of what we call the human condition, archetypes of wide-reaching significance take on an importance that has been ignored in recent decades and are deserving of much greater attention. That Cather found the story of the far mesa archetypal is beyond dispute. She made it the emotional center of two of her novels, The Song of the Lark and The Professor's House, and of her 1909 short story "The Enchanted Bluff," and elements of it, as David Harrell points out in his From Mesa Verde to The Professor's House, are found in many of her other works. Cather admitted in a 1925 interview that "'[w]hen I was a little girl nothing in the world gave me such a moment as the idea of the cliff dwellers, of whole civilizations before ours linking me to the soil,'" and Edith Lewis identifies the mythic elements of this early enchantment when she says of Cather's visit to Walnut Canyon in 1912, "'She had never seen any cliff-dwellings before; but she and her brothers had thought and speculated about them since they were children. The cliff-dwellers were one of the native myths of the American West; children knew about them before they were conscious of them'" (qtd. in Harrell 8).

Harrell's book details revealing differences between "Tom Outland's Story" and the factual history of Mesa Verde's discovery, as well as the scientific archaeology and anthropology subsequently carried on there. In doing so, Harrell underscores many of the elements by which Cather sets aside historical reality in order to heighten the mythic and emotional power of her story. The Blue Mesa carries a particularly thick texture of meaning for Cather. Further inquiry into her treatment of human nature and embodied place in Tom's relationship to the Cliff City indicates something of her keenly archetypal and place-centered imagination.

Most noticeably, of course, the mesa's height as a natural feature of the landscape lifts it to a metaphorical level that Cather reserves for her characters' moments of high spiritual achievement. [10] But within the mesa's heart is the Cliff City, enclosing a cluster of incipient meanings central to the novel. "TomOutland's Story," like the work as a whole, is engrossed with the human need to find one's place, literally and figuratively. The Blue Mesa not only draws Tom Outland into his search for the right place, but also offers in the Cliff City the opportunity to ponder the human significance represented by the stunning record of a civilization that has been built into it. "Carving out places," writes geographer Robert David Sack, "and creating a world occurs in the simplest preliterate societies. Identifying parts of the landscape, clearing sites, erecting shelter, bounding areas, establishing rules about what should or should not be in the place, knowing where to be and when, where to find this or that resource, and conveying all this through an oral tradition is world-building" (7). No less is it in a written tradition, not only in "TomOutland's Story," but in books 1 and 3 of The Professor's House, where the characters in a modern setting are also carving out places and trying to find their roles within them.

Thus, Cather has tapped into the nascent archetypal potentialities of the Cliff City, which lies waiting for what Tom can make of it, a lost civilization that was the product of millions of years of evolutionary development, during all of which time, place, and geography were life-and-death matters, when the ability to read the landscape correctly amounted to a survival factor. Yet the cliff dwellers' evolutionary step forward, a literal leap from earth into a fixed habitation, and an agricultural rather than a wandering way of life, could not, in Cather's perception of it, survive the aggressiveness of surrounding hunter-gatherers who, unlike the cliff dwellers, suffered no decline in the arts of war as the price of high cultural attainment.[11] All of this embedded in the parallel context of the Professor's contemporary world in which ideals continue to fall victim to a reigning aggressive materialism.[12]

The reigning irrationalist assumptions in poststructuralist criticism may have denied the reality of nature and human nature, but Cather, like those I have been citing, had not. If Cather is seen today as politically suspect from such perspectives, perhaps it is time to begin questioning the politics, rather than Cather. Joan Acocella, in her important new book on Cather and academic politics, notes that Cather is the victim of "political critics' revenge on the 'liberal humanism' of the fifties and sixties" (64). Acocella writes, "How wearying is the tone of recent political criticism of Cather, so aggressive, so righteous, calling her to the dock to answer whether she was as good as the critic" (68). Cather calls up the perception of a shared human condition not only through her own commentary but also through the words of characters she admires, like Father Duchene and Tom Outland. Note that Cather puts into Father Duchene's mouth what she calls, in her 1916 Mesa Verde essay, the most plausible explanation of the Cliff Dwellers' extinction (Rosowski and Slote 85).

Duchene feels reverence for Tom's Cliff City because it represents the desire of "humanity" for a home, "some natural yearning for order and security. They built themselves into this mesa and humanized it" (221). To Tom, Father Duchene calls the Cliff Dwellers "your people" (221), a characterization that Tom accepts when he later upbraids his friend Roddy for selling the artifacts that belonged "to all the people . . . to boys like you and me that have no other ancestors to inherit from. . . . I'm not so poor that I have to sell the pots and pans that belonged to my poor grandmothers a thousand years ago" (242-43). Later, in book 3, Professor St. Peter longs to "look off at those long, rugged, untamed vistas dear to the American heart. Dear to all hearts, probably—at least calling to all" (270). My italics in these passages emphasize Cather's implicit argument for a deeper human unity than today's unexamined assumptions of absolute cultural relativism might find acceptable. Tom's sins as an excavator doubtless qualify today as cultural appropriation, and it is useful to have these aspects of his story pointed out to us.[13] But we also need to keep in mind that they are consistent with Tom's deep sense of his own human bonds with the lost inhabitants of the Cliff City. We might also reflect, with some humility, that for their time, these actions would have been seen largely as Cather saw them, as noble and self-sacrificing. And if we were alive at the time, we would, at our best, likely have seen them that way as well.

Moreover, Tom's perception of a shared humanity takes on new significance in the light of recent genetic research that leads most scientists to discount the idea of separate and distinct human races. Steve Olson, in Mapping Human History: Discovering the Past through Our Genes, notes that traditional racial classifications ignore the overwhelming genetic similarity of all human individuals. "One need go back only a couple of millennia to connect everyone alive to a common pool of ancestors" (Olson 47). Tom's universalist sentiments are now verified by the dna in our Darwinian bodies.

In the same context, Tom's reverential naming of the mummi- fied body of the woman among the ruins as "Mother Eve" proves remarkably prescient. A recent genetic discovery finds that all of the mitochondrial dna sequences that exist in all six billion of us in the world today come from the mitochondrial dna of one single woman who lived about 200,000 years ago, our common ancestor, the so-termed Mitochondrial Eve (Olson 23-27, 237).

Cather reminds us of the presence of the archaic human past within any of us when she reveals, in book 3, that a discouraged Professor St. Peter had reverted to a preintellectual state and had become "a primitive. He was only interested in earth and woods and water. Wherever sun sunned and rain rained and snow snowed, wherever life sprouted and decayed, places were alike to him" (265). Cather uses style itself here to convey her meaning, with sentences and phrases shortened and freed from qualification and subordination, disregarding any reach for graceful synonyms that might muffle the hard truth: "sun sunned . . . rain rained . . . snow snowed."[14]

It is as if Cather were anticipating, and undercutting, the postmodern assumption that culture and language have somehow lifted us above our biology and rendered our bodies and their elemental emplacement inconsequential. Such invocations of a deeply felt presymbolic existence are frequently encountered in Cather and to note them is to memorialize many of her most powerful scenes: the children on the river sandbar, glimpsed from the window of a passing train, recalling to Bartley Alexander of Alexander's Bridge the dreams of his youth; young Jim Burden feeling himself melting into the slow fecundity and self-sufficiency of the pumpkin patch; Ántonia's children swarming up out of the root cellar in a kind of evolutionary fast-forward, an explosion of the victory of the life force over the underground world of the dugout that claimed the Shimerdas in their early days on the Divide, and which still holds the father in his suicide's grave; Thea Kronborg of The Song of the Lark lying on the floor of her bedroom, bathed in moonlight which seems to pour its essence into her young body, thirsting with creative desire.

Cather's art is, of course, complex enough to embrace other influences than the archetypal. But, given the tendency of much contemporary criticism to dismiss anything that speaks of biology and the commonality of human nature as deterministic or reductionist—while single-mindedly promoting its own brand of cultural reductionism—we should be at pains to reexamine what Dorothy Van Ghent described years ago as a quality of Cather that "allowed the back door of her mind to keep open" to archaic and instinctive influences. For Van Ghent, Cather's best fiction is characterized by "a sense of the past not as an irrecoverable quality of events, wasted in history, but as persistent human truth repossessed—salvaged, redeemed—by virtue of memory and art" (5).

One such line of reexamination is presented by Edward O. Wilson in his latest book, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. There Wilson applies a theory of gene-culture coevolution to an interpretation of the arts. "We know that virtually all human behavior is transmitted by culture. We also know that biology has an important effect on the origin of culture and its transmission. The question remaining is how biology and culture interact, and in particular how they interact across all societies to create the commonalities of human nature" (126). Briefly summarized, "culture is created by the communal mind, and each mind in turn is the product of the genetically structured human brain" (127). Here and in his earlier book, Biophilia, Wilson uses, to illustrate the creation of an archetype, the example of human reactions of fear and fascination toward snakes—spread across many different cultures of the world—as the genetic component, formed out of hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution in proximity to snakes. "Poisonous snakes have been an important source of mortality in almost all societies throughout human evolution. Close attention to them, enhanced by dream serpents and the symbols of culture, undoubtedly improves the chances of survival" (127). The culture draws upon those reactions of fear and fascination to create art, thereby transforming the natural snake into the archetypal serpent of art.

One recalls, at this point, Cather's versions of zero at the bone on the matter of snakes: the ominous dread of the snake-serpent expressed in the "Snake Root" chapter of Death Comes for the Archbishop, or Jim Burden's battle with the giant rattlesnake in My Ántonia, a creature presented in unmistakably prototypical terms, who "seemed like the ancient, eldest Evil. Certainly his kind have left unconscious memories in all warm-blooded life" (45-46). Such primal memories also manifest themselves in The Professor's House with the intrusion of the snake-serpent into the relationship between Professor St. Peter's two daughters, Kathleen and Rosamond: "'When she comes toward me, I feel hate coming toward me, like a snake's hate,'" Kathleen confides to her father, whose response is described as an anguished suffering in which he replies, "'We can't, dear, we can't, in this world, let ourselves think of things—of comparisons—like that'" (85). Then there is the rattlesnake that strikes old Henry Atkins, Tom and Roddy's cook and companion, as they are exploring mesa ruins, killing the old man almost instantly. Although, as David Harrell reports, snakes were not a problem in the actual Mesa Verde–Wetherill excavations (126), the "terrible" (216) death of old Henry seems another example of Cather's heightening of the mythic trials of Tom's quest.

Traditional Freudian interpretations of snakes as phallic representations and dreams as forbidden wishes that evade the brain's censorship have been recently seriously questioned or replaced by biological explanations.[15] As Wilson says, "If brain and mind are at base biological phenomena, it follows that the biological sciences are essential to achieving coherence among all the branches of learning, from the humanities on down to the physical sciences" (Consilience 81). What is new from an interdisciplinary point of view, then, in such literary criticism (as is also seen in the books of Joseph Carroll and Robert Storey), may require us to reconsider something old, something akin to the archetypal criticism of Northrop Frye in his Anatomy of Criticism, sweeping through graduate English departments forty years ago. The work of Frye, who has been called by Frank Kermode "the major figure in literary criticism of our century," may, according to Carroll, today be severed from its questionable mysticism and obsolete science and revised by strong new underpinning drawn from recent research in the cognitive and behavioral sciences (117, 382-90).

Wilson rightly emphasizes that a theory of the biological origin of the arts is only a working hypothesis, vulnerable and meant to be tested, but that it offers the humanities the attraction of a reinvigoration of interpretation, just as science would benefit from the interpretive and intuitive power of the arts. A scientific theory that is consistent with what we know from the recent cognitive sciences is worth our attention as literary scholars in reconsidering the interpretation of archetypes, those defining elements of art, reminding us, as Robert Frost put it, of what we didn't know we knew. Such a rapprochement with science squares with the existing evidence, then, and may offer exciting new possibilities for productive interconnections. If the sciences have a role to play in interpretation, they cannot replace interpretation, as Wilson acknowledges. The human brain is the world's most complex biological phenomenon, with 100 billion neurons and 100 trillion synaptic connections. Thus the variety and intensity of responses and connections as they play back and forth between artist, subject, and critic are virtually infinite. There will always remain work for the critic to do.

The Professor's House, particularly "Tom Outland's Story," then, is rich in archetypal elements, as has been noted in several critical treatments, especially in David Harrell's book, in Susan Rosowski and Bernice Slote's 1984 article, "Willa Cather's 1916 Mesa Verde Essay: The Genesis of The Professor's House," and in John N. Swift's 1986 essay, "Memory, Myth, and The Professor's House." It seems likely to me that the publication of "Tom Outland's Story," as reported by Cather, in French, Polish, and Dutch, as a short narrative for school students learning English, may owe something to the appeal of TomOutland as a version of the code Western hero ("On The Professor's House" 30). "Tom Outland's Story" reminds us that "The Western" in fiction and film is a clear example of the appeal of archetypes across cultural lines, leading to theWestern's emergence by the mid-twentieth century as what has been called a contemporary world-wide myth.

"Tom Outland's Story," centered as it is upon the discovery and archaeological investigation of the Cliff City, is a particularly packed meditation on biological-cultural coevolution in which Cather recreates a complex pattern of human history including, incidentally, a deadly serpent and a Mother Eve, but most important a hidden lost Eden that sprang from its hunter-gatherer origins on the plain into a fixed habitation, a Catherian city in the sky, named for the sky's color.

Along with these thematic elements, an interdisciplinary and scientifically aware reading of the novel might note its sensitive response to the often-ignored phenomenological base of our directly felt bodily experience. Cather affirmed such experience when she claimed that "art appeals primarily to the senses" (Willa Cather in Person 146). Tom's life on the Blue Mesa is one of heightened physical attunement to his surroundings: a keenly sharpened sense of colors, sights, tastes, textures, sounds, silences, and especially the feel and smell and taste of the air itself. These pre-reflective sensations, like Shakespeare's bites and blows of weather, "are counselors / That feelingly persuade me what I am." They suggest Merleau-Ponty's claim of "our primordial inherence in the world."[16] The frequently noted array of houses and dwellings in the novel seem related to the sense of bodily emplacement that such structures arouse, returning us, as Edward Casey suggests, to our bodily emplacement "immeasurably enriched" (Getting Back into Place 178). Like the phenomenologists, Cather never loses the sense of normative significance that characterizes subjective physical experience.

If the thing that teases the mind is the archetypal element, it does not become literature, as Jewett and Cather affirm, until it is put down rightly on paper. Human universals are fine, but it's what the writer does with them that counts. To conclude, it is worth calling attention to the artistry with which Cather puts down on paper the climactic moment of "TomOutland's Story." In the episode of discovery Cather skillfully creates a form that clusters the final revelation of his search with a heightened sense of place and bodily sensation. To apply Kenneth Burke's terms, form is the arousing of an expectation in the minds of the audience and then the adequate satisfying of that expectation ("Psychology and Form" 31). Cather has carefully prepared us as readers for this moment.

The Blue Mesa, high and intriguing, has occupied Tom's thoughts and hopes of exploration since he had first seen it, perhaps even before, as it had teased the imagination of prairie children, who knew of such a place before they were conscious of it. Now, several strayed cattle from the herd in Tomand Roddy's care have swum the river and disappeared in the canyon winding into the mesa. Tom quickly prepares to follow them. He swims the river with his horse and, at first running beside the horse to keep warm, begins trailing the cattle into the canyon as it twists back into the mesa. Cather's keen sense of place and the lived sensations of the body in place are immediately evident in Tom's description: The bluish rock and the sun-tanned grass under the unusual purple-grey of the sky, gave the whole valley a very soft colour, lavender and pale gold, so that the occasional cedars growing beside the boulders looked black that morning. It may have been the hint of snow in the air, but it seemed to me that I had never breathed in anything that tasted so pure as the air in that valley. It made my mouth and nostrils smart like charged water, seemed to go to my head a little and produce a kind of exaltation. I kept telling myself that it was very different from the air on the other side of the river, though that was pure and uncontaminated enough. (200)

Here is the bodily phenomenological immediacy of the opening window in the crowded interior of the Dutch paintings, which Cather later cast as the metaphor for "Tom Outland's Story": "Then I wanted to open the square window and let in the fresh air that blew off the Blue Mesa, and the fine disregard of trivialities which was in Tom Outland's face and in his behaviour" ("On The Professor's House" 31-32).

Soon the ground becomes so rough that Tom hobbles his horse and goes on alone. "My eyes were steadily on the ground—a slip of the foot there might cripple one" (201). The act of coming into the country calls to mind Leonard Lutwack's observation that "[t]he quality of a place in literature is subtly determined by the manner in which a character arrives at it, moves within it, and departs from it" (59). Hemingway, whose style and manner had much to learn from Cather, was also deeply engrossed with writing about coming into a place, walking into the country.[17] "Some days," he wrote, "it went so well that you could make the country so that you could walk into it" (qtd. in Tanner 82). As Stephen L. Tanner points out, for Hemingway, [m]aking country—that is, creating place—was the real challenge. "The people were easy to do." He [Hemingway] thinks of a number of writers who do people well and concludes, "They weren't after what he was after." People were easy to do, he reasons, because "nobody knew anything about them. If it sounded good they took your word for it." Implied here is that everybody knows what a sense of place is; they won't take your word for it—you must satisfy their sensuous and emotive apprehension of topos or physical location. (85)

Cather shares what Tanner calls Hemingway's topographical imagination, making the most of the excitement of coming into the county, walking into the country. Nick Adams, walking into the country of the Big Two-Hearted River has much in common with Tom Outland walking into the Blue Mesa. Basic to Tom's experience is the primacy of bodily movement, swimming the river, running, walking and scrambling over stony ground, fi- nally stopping to catch his breath, a moment of physical repose after strenuous motion, which will find its counterpart in the immortal repose of what he is to see. Cather's sensitivity to the significance of human movement is a novelist's corroboration of Maxine Sheets-Johnstone's claim that "[p]rimal animation and tactile-kinesthetic experience are at the core of our infancy and remain the unsurpassed core of our adult being. Indeed, the wonder of being lies in aliveness and the wonder of aliveness originates in movement. Human being, and the being of all who must learn to move themselves, is foundationally and essentially kinetic" (The Primacy of Movement 271).

Cather at this point in the story skillfully heightens our eventual gratification of fulfilled expectations by purposefully misdirecting our attention for the moment to the ground, under Tom's feet, with its dangerous footing, a jumble of stones fallen from above. It was such rough scrambling that I was soon in a warm sweat under my damp clothes. In stopping to take breath, I happened to glance up at the canyon wall. I wish I could tell you what I saw there, just as I saw it, on that first morning, through a veil of lightly falling snow. Far up above me, a thousand feet or so, set in a great cavern in the face of the cliff, I saw a little city of stone asleep. It was as still as sculpture—and something like that. It all hung together, seemed to have a kind of composition: pale little houses of stone nestling close to one another, perched on top of each other, with flat roofs, narrow windows, straight walls, and in the middle of the group, a round tower. (201)

Tom happens to glance up. From his ground-held scrutiny of the jumbled and chaotic canyon floor at his feet, his eyes lift in an involuntary glance, and he beholds—just when he and we least expect it—the secret of the Blue Mesa. A revelation of composition overhanging formlessness, confusion transformed into composition, both the country and the materials out of which countries are made. The vision suggests an actualized creation myth of the early people of this place, in which chaos is magically transformed into a fitting home place. The climactic sentence beginning "Far up above me" may be one of the great sentences in Cather, in literature. Periodic, dramatic, a string of parallel phrases serving to heighten the significance of the very simple main clause that follows: "I saw . . ." and all rounded off by the single suggestive modifier, "asleep." In this fine moment Tom lifts up his eyes to the hills, and the teased mind gets it all down rightly on paper. This is why the writer writes and why the reader reads.

To sum up, what I am arguing here is that, to paraphrase Henry James, the house of criticism has many rooms. And many of them deserve more looking into. There is nothing more worthwhile for the scholar or for scholarship than honest interdisciplinary work. I join my colleague William Howarth in urging variety in environmental criticism and "in knowing more disciplines than literature" (7). And no interdisciplinary work has more to offer now than the various fields of biology, ecology, physical anthropology, and evolutionary psychology, to which literary theorists and critics have thus far paid little attention.

Cather's unusual richness of mind and imagination repays study from the many ecocritical approaches that are now developing in response to individual and collective environmental imaginations. She avoids the one-dimensional approach that reads culture and nature according to the current reigning ideological stance. Her version of the Cliff Dwellers' story also questions much of the current romanticizing of the hunter-gatherer past as an ecological paradise, yet she recognizes in it our common evolutionary development. She sees the promise of the stunning architecture and the ordered agriculture of the early mesa people, "growing strict fields of corn and beans," in the words of Gary Snyder's fine poem "Anasazi" (3), but she understands the Cliff Dwellers' vulnerability to human and natural-based catastrophe. She looks beyond culture to its roots in human animality, as is suggested in the mummified figure of Mother Eve, with its broken skull, its pierced side, and its face frozen in a scream of agony. The mummy's scream is the embodiment of the human potentiality for destructiveness or sexual aggression. The emptiness of the Cliff City, whether one attributes it to murdering marauders or prolonged drought, is a lesson in stone that biology counts, that past human life has been almost unbearably hard, and that all progress has been dearly bought.

In this sense, "Tom Outland's Story" and The Professor's House remain intensely contemporary, calling upon us to face our own nature. Reading the scene as a human tragedy, an ecological violation of the local carrying capacity, or an earlier "global warming," the silence and emptiness of the Cliff City reminds us that we cannot culturally construct the world any way we choose.

Cather's best work demonstrates that it is not the minor differences that divide humans culturally but the major similarities uniting us as a species that make for memorable literature. For "TomOutland's Story," as for all stories, the medium is the message. Stories are one thing that makes us human, and their origins are at the heart of our evolutionary development.[18] Tom's story is the opening window letting in the disregarding wind that sweeps away pettiness and confusion and joins us to reverberating human experience. Narration serves an ancient and literally humanizing function of lining out a meaningful structure from the wretched mess of ordinary existence. That this particular story contains its own questioning of the cathartic power of such narrative—as seen, for example, in Tom's guilt over his dismissal of his friend Roddy Blake, and in Professor St. Peter's virtual withdrawal from his family and from life itself under the near-suffocating influence of Tom's heroic idealism—these are ironies that nevertheless depend for their effect upon the continuing appeal of Tom's archetypal example. Like the drawings in the Lascaux caves, "Tom Outland's Story" reminds us of the timelessness, the antiquity of human aspirations as they reach for meaning and coherence through artistic expression.


 1. Quoted in Casey, The Fate of Place, ix. (Go back.)
 2. Other testimonials to the power of place may be found in Lutwack's The Role of Place in Literature. (Go back.)
 3. Literary critic Leonard Scigaj effectively applies Merleau-Ponty's phenomenological ideas, and those of his interpreters like David Abram in The Spell of the Sensuous, to his recent ecocritical study, Sustainable Poetry. (Go back.)
 4. Meeker's book has recently been revised and republished by the University of Arizona Press. For more on these and related works, see Love, "Science, Anti-Science, and Ecocriticism" and Love, "Ecocriticism and Science: Toward Consilience?" An important book relating bioevolutionary evidence to the larger role of art in human life is Ellen Dissanayake's What is Art For? (Go back.)
 5. For further connections between Cather and science, see, for example, Love, "The Cowboy in the Laboratory," Quirk, and Reynolds. (Go back.)
 6. "Tom Outland's Story," may seem to be confined to book 2 of the novel's tripartite structure, but the story of Tom Outland permeates the entire novel. (Go back.)
 7. For the history of the twentieth-century conflict over human nature, see, for example, the books by Brown, Degler, and Pinker. (Go back.)
 8. As the editors, Cosmides, Tooby, and Barkow, say in their introduction, "The central premise of The Adapted Mind is that there is a universal human nature, but that this universality exists primarily at the level of evolved psychological mechanisms, not of expressed cultural behaviors. On this view, cultural variability is not a challenge to claims of universality, but rather data that can give one insight into the structure of the psychological mechanisms that helped generate it" (5). See, also, Jolly 257, ff. (Go back.)
 9. Besides those sources in note 8, see, for example, Brown 54-87, 130-41; Dissanayake 20-23, 109-26; Pinker 439; Singer 31-43; Sheets- Johnstone, The Roots of Power 328-29, and Wilson, On Human Nature. (Go back.)
 10. On Cather and heights see Love, "The Cowboy in the Laboratory" 118, 165, n.15. Also see McGiveron. (Go back.)
 11. For a view supportive of Cather in its critical questioning of a hunter-gatherer "golden age," see Flores. (Go back.)
 12. On this point, see the discussion in Randall 217-18, and in Reynolds 124-49. (Go back.)
 13. See, for example, Anderson 133-46. (Go back.)
 14. For further discussion of the book's stylistic experimentation, see Love, "The Professor's House: Cather, Hemingway and the Chastening of American Prose Style." (Go back.)
 15. See, for example, Wilson, Consilience 74-81; Carroll 174-75; Storey 84-86. Likewise, Freudian discounting of place moves us even further from the explanatory power of evolutionary biology. (Go back.)
 16. The Merleau-Ponty quotation is from Langer (154). The Shakespeare reference is found in As You Like It, act 2, scene 1. (Go back.)
 17. On Hemingway's stylistic indebtedness to Cather, see Love, "The Professor's House." (Go back.)
 18. See Carroll, Storey, and Entrikin for further discussion of narrative in this context. For an important recent defense of literary universals, see Hogan. (Go back.)


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