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From Cather Studies Volume 8

As in a Mirror and a Symbolism

Pascal's Mystical Theology and Cather's Divine Geometry in Death Comes for the Archbishop

This mesa plain had an appearance of great antiquity, and of incompleteness; as if, with all the materials for world-making assembled, the Creator had desisted, gone away and left everything on the point of being brought together, on the eve of being arranged into mountain, plain, plateau. . . . One thing which struck him at once was that every mesa was duplicated by a cloud mesa, like a reflection. . . . The desert, the mountains and mesas, were continually re-formed and recoloured by cloud shadows. The whole country seemed fluid to the eye under this constant change of accent, this ever-varying distribution of light. —Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop
If we are well informed, we understand that, as nature has graven her image and that of her Author on all things, they almost all partake of her double infinity. —Pascal, Pensées

In a letter of 15 October 1931 to Alexander Woolcott, Willa Cather remarked that “the deep meaning” of her “Catholic novels” Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927) and Shadows on the Rock (1931) lay in “the moral character of the French” (Stout 17). Similarly, she had written to the editor of The Commonweal that the attitude that prompted the writing of Death Comes for the Archbishop was “the spirit in which they [the French priests] accepted the accidents and hardships of a desert country” (“On Death” 377). Given these and similar statements, it is surprising that studies of Cather’s works, and of Death Comes for the Archbishop in particular, have tended to adopt an American rather than a French moral-intellectual perspective to explain the “experience of the Ego” (Archbishop 325) and the “feeling about life” (Shadows 32) she circumscribes therein. One notable exception to this rule is Richard C. Harris’s detailed examination of Cather’s debt to Pierre Charron in Shadows on the Rock. Another is Robert J. Nelson’s Willa Cather and France (1988), which focuses on Cather’s use of France as an elusive signifier of culture and transcendence throughout her oeuvre. Both of these studies argue for Cather’s affinity with the humanist philosophy of seventeenth-century France. Both, however, neglect to examine her work in the context of the tradition of Renaissance wisdom writing to which her “sources” belong.[1] Thus they leave unanswered perhaps the most perplexing of questions in Cather criticism—that is, what exactly are the “values” which, by all accounts, Cather embraced upon her first journey to France in 1902 and to which she was “to give her ultimate and perfect, her most mature loyalty” (Kates 131) in Death Comes for the Archbishop? A closer look at the philosophical antecedents to that novel in “the world of mind” (Shadows 115) suggests an answer.

Like Shadows on the Rock, Death Comes for the Archbishop speaks to Cather’s preoccupation with “the universal human yearning for something permanent, enduring, without shadow of change” (Archbishop 103), in particular as it manifested itself in the New World flowering of the Catholic faith. Thus, having instructed his French priests “to plant fruit trees” across New Mexico after his own example, Father Latour lends to the physical act a spiritual significance: “He often quoted to his students that passage from their fellow Auvergnat, Pascal: that Man was lost and saved in a garden” (Archbishop 279). Though Pascal’s Pensées are unlikely to have been the historical bishop’s livre de chevet, Pascal is the “favorite” author of Cather’s Latour (289) and, I would suggest, an important source for the spirituality of Death Comes for the Archbishop. In fact, the fragment from the Pensées glossed by Cather toward the end of her novel pretty nicely sums up Latour’s situation at its beginning. A meditation on the “mystery” of the Passion, Pascal’s fragment contrasts Adam’s “jardin . . . de délices” with Jesus’ “jardin de supplices” (Pensées 553), thus developing Saint Paul’s analogy between the first and the second Adam in Romans 5:12–21. For Pascal, however, the Gethsemane garden of torment transformed back into one of Edenic delight by participation in the mystery of Christ is (as the rest of the Pensées make clear) symbolic of “la vanité des sciences . . . des choses extérieures” in relation to humankind’s ultimate need for solace (2.67). The same goes for Latour. “He had lost his way,” begins the second sentence of Cather’s exposition to the main narrative, “and was trying to get back to the trail, with only his compass and his sense of direction for guides” (16). Oddly enough, though, neither Latour’s compass nor his sense of direction is of much use to him. Indeed, the logical faculty, or as Pascal aptly dubs it, the “esprit géométrique,” is equated here with blindness. Surrounded on all sides by seemingly endless “conical red hills,” Latour senses that he is “wandering in some geometrical nightmare”: “The blunted pyramid, repeated so many hundred times upon his retina and crowding down upon him in the heat, had confused the traveller, who was sensitive to the shape of things.” The “shape” of the “flattened cones” recalls for Latour that of “Mexican ovens.” “And the junipers, too, were the shape of Mexican ovens,” writes Cather. “Every conical hill was spotted with smaller cones of juniper, a uniform yellowish green, as the hills were a uniform red. The hills thrust out of the ground so thickly that they seemed to be pushing each other, elbowing each other aside, tipping each other over” (17). The scene obviously upsets the “sense of proportion and rational adjustment” implicitly attributed to Latour in the prologue, in which we are told that French missionaries are “always trying to discover the logical relation of things” (10). As a result, Latour, though “supposed to be the intelligence of the party,” has led his “poor animals into [an] interminable desert of ovens” (20)—both literally and figuratively a garden of torment.

As with the rest of Cather’s novel, the episode seems deeply allegorical in its import. Specifically, its insistence on the humbling of reason as a propaedeutic to faith recalls the tradition of mystical theology that was revived by Nicholas of Cusa in the quattrocento and which enjoyed a great vogue in CounterReformation France, where it came to be opposed to Scholastic theology and so to find a philosophical ally in the skepticism of Montaigne, Charron, and Pascal (Limbrick 173–75; Ferreyrolles 120–34; Emery 23). Though no more a rehearsal of philosophical doctrine than it is one of fact, Cather’s “highly stylized” (Keeler 253) retelling of a New World Renaissance in Death Comes for the Archbishop invites serious consideration of this intellectual tradition as a background to the novel.

Key to both the mystical theology and the philosophical skepticism of the seventeenth century is the idea of “man’s disproportion” (nulla proportio) with respect to a universe that, like its Creator, is infinitely remote in both its scope and its origins (Hopkins 14–16, 184n6). Thus Pascal famously invites his reader to contemplate the “firmament” in all its majesty (Pensées 72), just as the Bishop Latour twice does on his way to Ácoma in Death Comes for the Archbishop: first in pictorial form “above and about the altar” in the Laguna church and then again in the vista unfurled between the “solitary mesas” (94, 97). Latour agrees with his Indian guide, Jacinto, that the stars are “great,” but significantly, he offers a confession of ignorance (“whatever they are . . .”) to oppose Jacinto’s “pagan” view that they are gods or “spirits” (Archbishop 98, 97). Similarly, Pascal emphasizes the poverty of our powers of imagination or conception when confronted by the immensity of nature. If the earth is but a “point” in comparison with the “vaste tour” traced by the sun, the revolution of the sun is itself only “une pointe” when compared with that described by the stars—and so on ad infinitum, since the entire “visible” world is “un trait imperceptible” in relation to the vastness of the cosmos: “Nous avons beau enfler nos conceptions au delà des espaces imaginables,” writes Pascal, “nous n’enfantons que des atomes, au prix de la réalité des choses” (Pensées 72). Indeed, as the analogy between our conceptions and atoms suggests, our imagination finds an inexhaustible universe everywhere it looks. “Pascal’s man,” as Rosalie L. Colie aptly glosses the Pensées, “is in [a] . . . precarious position, located in an undefended open space between two vast deserts, variously called ‘all’ and ‘nothing,’ ‘infinitude’ and ‘emptiness,’ ‘infinity’ and the ‘infinitesimally small’” (261). For Pascal, as for his skeptical precursor Montaigne, humankind devoid of grace is subject to vicious circling in endless contradiction, as in a fever or a dream, since neither our senses nor our reason constitutes a certain guide (Pensées 354, 386, 82). Thus not only do both distance and nearness, light and dark blunt our vision, but our very habit of seeing the world in terms of number, space, and movement, avers Pascal, is just that, and as such, belief in a material universe bound by our senses is no more certain than belief in the existence of hell and the possibility of damnation (Pensées 72, 89).

Latour lost in the desert, suffering from “fever” and “vertigo” (Archbishop 19), is a fit emblem, then, for Pascalian humanity in its natural state. As a further case in point, it is the animals, not Latour, who scent water, and when they finally lead him to the stream at Agua Secreta, he cannot even trust his own senses to tell him if it is real or not: “But for the quivering of the hide on his mare’s neck and shoulders, he might have thought this a vision, a delusion of thirst” (24). Later, Latour observes the seeming absence of order on the mesa plain: “as if, with all the materials for world-making assembled, the Creator had desisted, gone away and left everything on the point of being brought together, on the eve of being arranged into mountain, plain, plateau” (100). And still later, like his “fellow Auvergnat” Pascal discovering for the first time the reality of the vacuum, Latour stands aghast at the “sound of a great underground river, flowing through a resounding cavern” (137). Instead of the unity, plenty, and fixity he seeks, Latour finds apparent multiplicity, vacuity, and fluidity.

Latour’s infernal “geometrical nightmare” thus serves to underscore, in more ways than one, the narrowness of our powers of perception and imagination. “Mais, c’est fantastique!” he exclaims, dépaysé, as it were, in the face of an unfamiliar because apparently discontinuous, nonlinear geography (Archbishop 17). In fact, Montaigne concludes from such examples as these the “nullity of the compass and the compasser”: “Where the compass, the square, and the rule are crooked,” he writes, “all proportions drawn from them, all the buildings erected by those guides, must of necessity be defective” (292). “[B]uild[ing] man up only to dismantle him again” after Montaigne’s fashion (Colie 266), Pascal goes one step further: drawing on and refining the mystical, Platonic tradition revived by Cusa, Pascal uses geometrical figures to “demonstrate” “la disproportion de l’homme.” For instance, if the cosmos is an infinite sphere whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere, as Pascal and Cusa picture it, it follows that we cannot hope to fathom it or anything in it (Pensées 72). Analogously, in Death Comes for the Archbishop, Latour’s paradoxical sense that the conical hills are “tipping each other over” (17) on the plain can be explained by the absence of a discernible circumference and thus a locatable center. The apparently fixed point or pole of Latour’s compass Fig. 1. Pascal’s Triangle, or the “omnipresence of the triangle,” from “Traité du triangle arithmétique.” Note that Pascal’s triangle is composed of “two infinites” (Davidson 28), the perpendicular and parallel rows, thus generating a potentially endless series of smaller triangles.Pascal's Triangle is belied by his experience, and his sense of proportion and rational adjustment is disturbed by the “omnipresence of the triangle” (17), because in an infinite universe, geometry, like mathematics as illustrated in Pascal’s famous arithmetic triangle (see fig. 1), has an “une infinité d’infinité de proportions” to trace (Pensées 72).[2]

Significantly, however, the cosmic forces depicted in the Laguna church “are linked together by a geometrical design” (Archbishop 94), thus intimating the presence of a hidden order. The question for Latour, then, both at the beginning and throughout his apostolic journey, seems to be how to find the proper vantage point from which to reconcile disparate elements—Christian and pagan, East and West, old and new, matter and spirit, mundane and miraculous. His “mixed theology” (32), which transmutes pagan or natural beauty into the stuff of Christianity, is of course a response to that problem. Thus while it is the animals who scent the water in “The Cruciform Tree,” it is Father Latour who perceives in the combination of natural phenomena that leads him to discover the stream, and indeed in its very lifegiving presence, signs of the miraculous: “water . . . rose miraculously out of the parched and thirsty sea of land” (32). As a result of this “theology,” Latour also finds, literally and symbolically, the “flock” he is seeking and thus his place as Vicar Apostolic: “This settlement was his Bishopric in miniature; hundreds of square miles of thirsty desert, then a spring, a village.” “The Faith planted by the Spanish friars and watered with their blood was not dead; it awaited only the toil of the husbandsman” (33). The entire episode provides a counterpart to the story related in the last book of the Archbishop, about the Spanish missionaries who are blessed by the apparition of the Holy Family during a similar journey across the desert. Latour’s, however, is a more moderately philosophical-speculative vision, an instance, in his own words, of “human vision corrected by divine love” (53).

Again, recourse to the history of ideas helps to explain the nature of that vision. If the “esprit de géométrie” loses itself in endless abstractions in an attempt to square the world with its principles, there is another way, according to Pascal, to apprehend the cosmos. Pascal explains that in matters of infinite subtlety, perception is not subject to linear reasoning and demonstration, but rather synthesis: “Il faut tout d’un coup voir la chose d’un seul regard, et non pas par progrès de raisonnement” (Pensées 2). Cather, who once affirmed the moral superiority of “the great classics”—“Mozart and Handel and Bach and Beethoven”—to “the Gospel Hymns, or bound volumes of the sermons of great divines” (Kingdom of Art 177–78), would almost certainly have appreciated Pascal’s distinction between “l’esprit de géométrie” and “l’esprit de finesse,” the faculty of moral-aesthetic judgment that sees clearly where the former gropes (Pensées 4). For her, too, “literary creation is an ‘intuitive’ rather than an ‘intellectual’ process” (Bloom and Bloom 199), a matter of the heart, not the head, and so it follows a logic not bound by the doctrines of the dogmatist or the philistine: “The ultimate truths are never seen through the reason, but through the imagination,” she contended (World and Parish 1: 131). It is in this common origin of religion and art in the intuition or imagination and their resulting analogy, I would suggest, that can be found the raison d’être for the evidence of supernal design that leads Bernice Slote, among others, to wonder “whether these books [Death Comes for the Archbishop and Shadows on the Rock] are the kingdom of art vivified, or a rich spiritual achievement explained in primary terms, like a parable” (110).

As a case in point, in Death Comes for the Archbishop it is only after Latour has shut his eyes to the “intrusive omnipresence of the triangle” and “opened” them again that he notices the “one juniper” in “the form of the Cross” and meditates on its special meaning (17–18). So far, he “had persevered” in the “sandy track” he had adopted, even as it “grew ever fainter, reasoning that it must lead somewhere” (23). But now, “blott[ing] himself out of his own consciousness,” he sees beyond the merely seeming infinite of perceptual or rational knowledge figured in the “conical red hills” and the “smaller cones of juniper” to the vision of the one hill and one tree of Calvary: “The Passion of Jesus became for him the only reality; the need of his own body was but a part of that conception” (17, 19). In other words, as the sequel shows, his “long training,” like the ascetic discipline of art, “[e]mpower[s]” him to see the physical world as symbol or cypher of the infinite (19). Nicholas of Cusa writes: “All our wisest and most divine teachers agree that visible things are truly images of invisible things and that from created things the Creator can be knowably seen as in a mirror and a symbolism” (30). That is, invisible and visible things stand in the same relation as the mesas and their “attendant clouds” in the Archbishop, of substance to shadowy reflection (1 Corinthians 13). Knowledge of the spiritual realm, it follows, is necessarily indirect and incomplete—so much so, according to Cusa, that “our understanding of God draws near[er] to nothing . . . than to something” (51). Pascal translates: “Le fini s’anéantit en présence de l’infini, et devient un pur néant” (Pensées 233).

How, then, can one cipher the infinite if it is by definition beyond number? According to Cusa, we must “grope by means of a symbolism,” by ascending from “finite mathematical figures” to “corresponding infinite mathematical figures” and thence to “the simple Infinite, which is altogether independent even of all figure” (33). Pascal uses a similar procedure in the Pensées: “[Pascal’s] method is not in fact quantification, however much it may appear to be,” Colie explains, “since ‘nothing’ and ‘the infinite’ are not numbers but denotations of numerical concepts designed to transcend the limitation of numbers” (267). In contrast with the analytical, mensurative aim of the geometrical method Pascal uses elsewhere, the point of his dialectic in the Pensées, agrees Hugh M. Davidson, is to “draw us upward from contradictions and multiplicity toward unity” (101).

That Latour has succeeded in thus bridging the gap between finite and infinite is suggested by the description of his orchard and his cathedral in the final book of Death Comes for the Archbishop. “Long before his retirement” and “against the advice of his friends,” we are told, Latour “set out” his orchard in a “place in the red hills spotted with juniper . . . because he believed it to be admirably suited for the growing of fruit” (276–77). Significantly, he no longer sees the conical hills and the presence of duality in the “two trunks” of the apricot tree that shades much of the area as obstacles to growth and culture: “He surmised that the heat of the sun, reflected from the rocky hill-slope up into the tree, gave the fruit an even temperature, warmth from two sides, such as brings the wall peaches to perfection in France” (277). On the contrary, like his Sante Fe “orchard and kitchen garden,” tended with the help of his aptly named servants Fructosa and Tranquilino, this retirement garden becomes an occasion for his “recreation” (209, 278), in every sense of the term. After the example of his “fellow Auvergnat, Pascal,” Latour has not only literally but also symbolically “domesticated and developed the native wild flowers” (279)—the ecclesiastical verbana and the old, unregenerate Adam. His hortus conclusus garden, unlike the “enclosed garden” (108) of the Friar Balthazar in “The Legend of Fray Baltazar,” but like that at Rome in the prologue, figures the mysterious identity of the Edenic “jardin . . . de delices” and the Gethsemane “jardin de supplices” through the dominance there of “the true Episcopal colour and countless variations of it” (Archbishop 279)—that is, the color of Christ’s blood (Murphy 493). Similarly, the mountains behind the Romanesque cathedral he has had constructed with materials from another mesa are described as “carnelian,” or under the play of light and shadow, “intense lavender,” “dark purple,” and “the colour of . . . dried blood” (284–5).

Here, as when he earlier applies the pagan/Judeo-Christian symbol of the spherical censer to the mesas and their “attendant clouds” (100), Latour, like Cusa (161), intuits a hidden center and circumference, thus unifying such opposites as motion and stasis, matter and spirit, light and dark, doubleness and unity. That is, though Latour is no more capable of perceiving the infinite than we are of kenning the end of the infinite series imaged in Pascal’s triangle (fig. 1), he knows it exists, beyond his line of sight, in the azure or firmament (Pensées 233). For it is only there that the lines of the “blunted pyramid, repeated so many times upon his retina” in the “conical red hills” (17), can be infinitely extended, as in Pascal’s drawing of the asymptote (fig. 2), in order to approximate the triangle Latour sees as omnipresent. Indeed, by a similarly intuitive process, which he called the hexagramme mystique (fig. 3), Pascal arrived at his theorem in projective geometry, according to which the opposite lines of a hexagon inscribed in any conic section meet along the same line Fig. 2. Asymptote, from “Generatio conisectionum.” Leibniz, who transcribed some of Pascal’s now lost manuscript, offers the following explanation: “Duae linea parallelae concurrere intelliguntur, etsi locus concursus infi nite absit, ut in figura DE et EF parallelae ex quibus FE asymptote, seu punctum E abest infinite.”Asymptote, from “Generatio conisectionum.” Fig. 3. Pascal’s Mystical Hexagram, from “Generatio conisectionum.” Pascal conceives of the six-sided hexagram as being formed by two or more triangles. Moreover, “every such hexagramme corresponds to a conic section, and vice versa” (Davidson 35).Pascal’s Mystical Hexagram Fig. 4. Pascal’s Theorem, from “Generatio conisectionum.”Pascal’s Theorem, from “Generatio conisectionum.” when they are extended, thus forming a triangle of sorts (or series of triangles making up a single triangle) (see fig. 4).

It seems more than a coincidence, then, that the triangle of the first chapter of Death Comes for the Archbishop is not only a classical device for diagramming and ordering the mathematical infinite but also, in the speculative philosophy of Cusa and the mystical theologians, a symbol for the mysterious equality of the three persons of the Trinity uniting all aspects of reality. Like the infinitely remote point of convergence absent from Pascal’s drawing of the asymptote, this unity can be perceived only inwardly, by the intellect, as the infinite is not bound by the finite logic of number, of odd or even (Pensées 233). In spiritual terms, this unity is, of course, the mystery of the Cross which Latour next contemplates in the desert. Thus Benet of Canfield writes of the Passion that it is the “book wherein contrary propositions are reconciled” (qtd. in Emery 23). In the Passion, as in the spiritual desert of the “December Night” episode in Death Comes for the Archbishop, something is begotten of nothing. Accordingly, wisdom and naïveté, speech and silence, sight and blindness, first and last, birth and death change places, and “December Night” ends with the “peace without” mirroring “the peace in [Latour’s] own soul”: “The snow had stopped, the gauzy clouds that had ribbed the arch of heaven were now all sunk into one soft white fog bank over the Sangre de Cristo mountains” (230). Indeed, ending corresponds to beginning in Cather’s novel, for the sun rising over the conical mesas of New Mexico that restores Latour’s youth and releases him “into the morning” (288) in the last book answers to the “splendid finish” of its setting over the “flattened” dome of St. Peter’s cathedral in the prologue (4). Latour’s adopting of this “great panoramic view that joins finite and infinite being into an orderly whole” (Davidson 107) brings about a reversal of his earlier judgment that New Mexico lacks a landscape: “Elsewhere the sky is the roof of the world; but here the earth was the floor of the sky,” writes Cather in one of her ecstatic moments: “The landscape one longed for when one was far away, the thing all about one, the world one actually lived in, was the sky, the sky!” (245).

Like his seventeenth-century namesake in Walter Pater’s unfinished romance Gaston de Latour, Cather’s protagonist (and by extension perhaps, Cather herself) would seem ultimately to find in imaginatively apprehended ritual and symbol, in “the fullness and impartiality of [an] artistic reception of the experience of life,” as Pater wrote apropos Shakespeare and Montaigne (40), a happy marriage of mysticism and skepticism, a sense of capacity to exist outside of “calendared time” not dependent on “religious life” but rather on a neoclassical awareness of himself “as a man, a human creature” caught between misery and grandeur, finitude and infinitude (Archbishop 304–5).


 1. Harris strives to dissociate Charron from Montaigne, despite evidence to the contrary, and reads his De la sagesse (Treatise on Wisdom) independently from his theological works, such as his Discours sur la coignoissance de Dieu, a treatise on negative theology and learned ignorance (“Ignorance tres docte, qui surpasse toute science” [3.340]) inspired by Nicholas of Cusa. Similarly, though he alludes to Pascal repeatedly and once to Montaigne, Nelson’s methodology really hinges, by his own admission, on later developments in French poststructuralist philosophy. As suggested by his lumping together of Montaigne and Derrida as belonging to the same “skeptical French tradition,” this practice is somewhat anachronistic (17). (Go back.)
 2. In other words, since in this new geometry “particular things are situated as points . . . on infinite scales of number, size, and movement” (Davidson 98), knowledge thereof is necessarily relative and limited. Cusa explains: “all those who make an investigation judge the uncertain proportionally, by means of a comparison with what is taken to be certain. Therefore, every inquiry is comparative and uses the means of comparative relation.” The more astute the mathematical mind or “esprit géométrique,” so Pascal repeats with Cusa, the more readily it links one premise with its distant antecedents, but “Both the precise combinations in corporeal things and the congruent relating of known to unknown surpass human reason” (Nicholas of Cusa 1.1). (Go back.)


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