In her essay on Joseph and His Brothers, Willa Cather singles out for special praise Thomas Mann’s subtle handling of narrative form, which, by contrasting East and West, past and present, familiarity and distance, manages to convey the “dreamy indefiniteness” of a life concerned less with tangible achievements than with the ongoing quest for spiritual enlightenment. Such a quest, as she points out, is its own reward: “With [Mann’s shepherds], truly, . . . the end is nothing, the road is all. In fact, the road and the end are literally one” (99). This aesthetic ideal is no less brilliantly illustrated in My Mortal Enemy, which, like Mann’s novel (as read by Cather), depends on a clear framework of oppositions to create endless opportunities for circulation, make space for the dynamic manifestation of the absolute, and thus reflect on the “double nature” of the human race as it tries “to find its kin somewhere in the universe” (96–97).
Cather points out that rhythm plays an essential role in a narrative of this kind, which must be characterized by “continual circling” and freedom to “go backward and forward” from one pole to its opposite (“Joseph” 100) in order to do justice to the “unrest of the spirit” (104) and the insight, memorably expressed by Myra Henshawe, that in the spiritual realm, “seeking is finding” (My Mortal Enemy 77). Indeed, the importance of rhythm is explicitly stressed in My Mortal Enemy as part of an ongoing attempt to emphasize the novel’s affinities with opera or music drama and thus align the writer’s art with the singer’s or composer’s, which likewise seeks the eternal in the transient. However, this strategy raises complex questions. If the quintessential rhythm is that of song, as the text suggests and I will indicate below, then it is as ambivalent as voice itself, which can assist the artistic quest for the absolute but also has deep-seated affinities with the bestial side of human nature, the “animal pulp” to which, according to Cather, D. H. Lawrence’s characters are too often reduced (“Novel Démeublé” 51).
In the Greek tradition, to which we are still deeply indebted, voice is both pho¯ne¯ and logos, the animal cry of pleasure or pain and the articulate manifestation of abstract thought; thus, to describe vocal expression as the key to humankind’s quest for a higher self-awareness is to raise the disturbing possibility that the human spirit may lose itself in the process, eventually degenerating into brutishness when language, transfigured by aesthetic means, paradoxically becomes indistinguishable from its polar opposite. This is precisely what happens to Myra Henshawe, whose exalted quest for redemption through music and art comes full circle and brings her face-to-face with her “mortal enemy,” that is to say, with humankind’s latent animality, successively recalled by her infatuation with Oswald and by her later “struggle to keep the physical machine running smoothly” (“Joseph” 96), despite her desperate desire to rise above mere biological needs.
Myra’s tragic plight is meant to reflect a dilemma all artists must face at some point; thus, it has indirect implications for Cather, for if writing emulates voice, then it may run into the same pitfalls and end up foregrounding not humankind’s higher faculties but the mere “physical sensations” this artistically conscious novelist is keen to disregard, scornful as she is of the sort of fiction that conducts “a laboratory study of the behaviour of [the characters’] bodily organs under sensory stimuli” (“Novel Démeublé” 50). Thus, My Mortal Enemy not only epitomizes Cather’s aesthetic but reveals the tensions inherent in an approach to writing that, grounded in ancient dualities, cannot fail to bring to light the unresolved paradoxes they entail. Indeed, this text does so all the more clearly since, as the novelist herself points out in “The Novel Démeublé,” “The higher processes of art are all processes of simplification” (48–49).
Duality, duplicity, and the unresolved tensions to which they give rise are key thematic and formal concerns of My Mortal Enemy. Not only does the narrative explore a series of binary oppositions—between East and West, privilege and poverty, love and money, to name a few—but it falls into two contrasting sections and focuses on the ambivalent relationship between Myra Henshawe, the quintessential rebel, and her more conventional friend Nellie Birdseye. The passage that best sums up the novel’s preoccupation with life in a divided universe occurs in the third chapter, when Nellie describes the two faces of Madison Square, thus setting a pattern for the rest of the narrative: “Madison Square was then at the parting of the ways; had a double personality, half commercial, half social, with shops to the south and residences on the north. It seemed to me so neat, after the raggedness of our Western cities; so protected by good manners and courtesy—like an open-air drawing-room” (21)
While oppositions here define a topography characterized by elegant symmetry, the point is not so much to create an impression of order as to emphasize the hesitations resulting from such a juxtaposition of incompatibles. Said to be “at the parting of the ways,” Madison Square emblematizes Nellie’s position as a fifteen-year-old hovering on the verge of adulthood. Although she is aware that, soon enough, she will have to make decisive choices, as Myra did when she gave up a fortune in order to marry for love (12), Nellie does not seem especially eager to commit herself to a career and prefers to spend the afternoon “linger[ing] long by the intermittent fountain,” as if to enjoy the last, precious moments of irresponsibility before an irrevocable decision has to be made (21). Years later, even, when she narrates the scene, Nellie still seems reluctant to choose and favors paradoxical images that suggest the uneasy coexistence of opposites, as when she compares the Square to “an open-air drawingroom” or likens the New York winter to “a polar bear led on a leash by a beautiful lady” (22). As a result, symmetry is associated with instability, unrest, and a persistent sense of imminence rather than with trust in the harmonious ordering of life; and the elaborate framework of oppositions on which the text relies calls attention not so much to itself as to what exceeds it, namely, the elusive moment of transition, the indefinitely deferred yet already impending crisis.
Saint-Gaudens’s statue of Diana, which “step[s] out freely and fearlessly into the grey air” (21), is one of a cluster of references that epitomizes this sense of suspended animation and suggests its aesthetic import by revealing the extent to which artistic creation in all its forms relies on dynamic dualities and on the persistent instability to which they give rise. While the sculptor’s talent seems to lie in his ability to evoke motion as well as to arrest it at the point of maximum tension, Nellie’s evocation of the “intermittent fountain” by which she chooses to linger implies that music can achieve a similar binary effect by rhythmical means, as the sound of the water owes its songlike quality to the cyclical movement of rise and fall: “Its rhythmical splash was like the voice of the place. It rose and fell like something taking deep, happy breaths; and the sound was musical, seemed to come from the throat of spring” (21–22). This description is unmistakably endowed with a metatextual dimension, since the combination of simile and allegory—“Its rhythmical splash was like the voice of the place. . . [and] seemed to come from the throat of spring” (emphasis added)—shifts the reader’s attention away from the plot and toward the novel’s broader poetic vision, which is concerned less with Nellie’s—or Myra’s—individual predicament than with the universal oscillation between youth and age, rise and fall, past and future suggested here by a reference to the cycle of seasons. In other words, the “voice of the place” is comparable to Nellie’s own, which likewise relies on the rhetorical rhythm of contrast and opposition and strips the narrative of other particulars in order to make room for “the glory of Pentecost” heralding the imminent but as yet deferred manifestation of the absolute, in accordance with the principles stated in “The Novel Démeublé” (51).
While the implicit analogy between writing and vocal music no doubt serves in part to emphasize the dignity of fiction, which Cather, in a Jamesian vein, is always keen to describe as a form of “art” rather than as a mere “amusement” (“Novel Démeublé” 44), it nonetheless raises complex questions, for song and speech foreground very different uses of the human voice, the latter being in the service of thought whereas the former owes much of its appeal to immanent musical properties rather than to meanings conveyed. To a certain extent, song is an apt metaphor for the writing process as Cather understands it, if only because it has the ability to make words appear secondary and therefore illustrates the novelist’s fascination with the “inexplicable presence of the thing not named” (50)—understood less as what cannot be named than as what need not be, as something better to experience than to describe. Naming serves a dual purpose: it draws attention to that which otherwise might not have been imagined or perceived, and it explains or gives an account of what is named. However, voice as a precondition of speech is present whenever anything is said, so that there is no point in trying to conjure it up as long as words are used at all; and its presence is “inexplicable” in the sense that, unlike words, it does not appeal to the understanding but merely asks to be heard. No doubt, perceiving the voice of a written text requires the ear to “divine” subtle “overtones” beyond what is notated on the printed page (41–42), but this does not imply that voice is in any way mysterious or remote, for what is thus “divined” is merely one of the dimensions of ordinary speech.
An interesting illustration of voice’s affinity with the “thing not named” and of its ability to draw the reader’s attention to the musical aura of language at the expense of meaning occurs at the beginning of part 2 when Nellie recognizes a familiar tune coming from the apartment of an elderly man next door: “Presently I detected . . . a voice humming very low an old German air—yes, Schubert’s Frühlingsglaube[Faith in Spring]; ta ta teta / ta-ta ta-ta ta-ta / ta” (49–50). Her immediate reaction is to reflect on the melancholy significance taken on by Schubert’s lovely meditation on regeneration and rebirth when heard in such sordid surroundings: “All this made me melancholy—more than the dreariness of my own case. I was young, and it didn’t matter so much about me; for youth, there is always the hope, the certainty, of better things. But an old man, a gentleman, living in this shabby, comfortless place, cleaning his neckties of a Sunday morning and humming to himself. . . . It depressed me unreasonably” (50). Taking her cue, several critics have commented upon the thematic value of this indirect reference to a poem by Ludwig Uhland, Schubert’s lyricist (see, e.g., Giannone 177–78). However, there may well be something unreasonably hasty about their response, as about Nellie’s own, for more than the poem, what she recalls is the characteristic phrasing of a tune played on the piano but never taken up by the singer, as one realizes when listening to Schubert’s delicate piece. Here, music is neither an extension of the narrative nor a repertoire of coded literary allusions but the text’s nonverbal double, just as Schubert’s piano accompaniment serves as a counterpoint to the vocal line without ever echoing it. This episode recalls the “voice of spring” heard earlier in Madison Square and likewise signals the presence of the “thing not named,” again associated with the purely musical aura of song. While the piece could not be identified without its title, Nellie’s attempt to write down the melody’s peculiar rhythm results in a string of meaningless syllables intended to suggest the sound of her voice as she hums the tune. Thus, like a true poet, she does not try to dispense with words but seeks to make us hear them differently and encourages us to perceive language as something to be experienced as well as understood. Here, as elsewhere in the narrative, Nellie’s voice draws attention to prosody, speech’s rhythmical other, which underlies its meaning but can be perceived independently, “divined” by the sensitive or musical reader.
While equating voice with the highest goal of writing is natural enough, it nevertheless involves a paradox, for Cather also insists that the “thing not named” is “created” (50)—in other words, that the end product of the literary artist’s creative activity lies through but beyond articulated speech. Likewise, when the musical use of voice is mentioned in My Mortal Enemy, the emphasis lies not so much on the gifted singer’s reliance on the sheer given of the vocal apparatus as on the ability to achieve feats of vocalization of which the human throat would be incapable without the assistance of art. In other words, voice both preexists speech and requires words to come into its own; it is both a fact of nature and, as one of culture’s supreme achievements, the result of consummate artistry. By implying that voice, the “thing not named,” is a made thing, a literary artifact, Cather sharply distinguishes it from logos, which is not created but the agent of creation. She thus revises the traditional distinction between pho¯ne¯ and logos, between the vocal equipment humankind shares with numerous animal species and the capacity to use it in the service of judgment and thought, which humans alone possess. The distinction is made forcefully in a well-known passage of Aristotle’s Politics: For nature, as we declare, does nothing without purpose; and man alone of the animals possesses speech (logos). The mere voice (pho¯ne¯), it is true, can indicate pain and pleasure, and therefore is possessed by the other animals as well (for their nature has been developed so far as to have sensations of what is painful and pleasant and to signify those sensations to one another), but speech is designed to indicate the advantageous and the harmful, and therefore also the right and the wrong; for it is the special property of man in distinction from the other animals that he alone has perception of good and bad and right and wrong and the other moral qualities. (1253a, 11)
Yet voice, as evoked in Cather’s fiction, is more than merely natural, since it is both a physical given and a “special property of man,” a twist Aristotle does not anticipate. This paradox is clearly adumbrated in the description of Madison Square when Nellie equates “the voice of the place” with “something taking deep, happy breaths,” as if it came from the “throat of spring” (21–22). In aligning voice with nature—with the cosmic forces that exist prior to the emergence of the human and therefore precede any form of artistic activity—Nellie echoes Aristotle’s seminal distinction. However, by pointing out that “the sound [is] musical” (21) she also implies that voice has an immediate artistic impact, as if it were a uniquely human achievement. The resulting confusion between nature and culture, between innate biological features of the human species and the highest expressions of human activity, has disturbing consequences, for it suggests both that artistic creation eventually obscures the very distinctions that make its existence possible, and that, in so doing, it draws attention to unresolved tensions inherent in our traditional understanding of the human condition. The creative act is deeply ambiguous, for it assumes that culture differs from nature as art does from animality yet reveals them to be strangely interchangeable, as if all such distinctions were somehow unstable and provisional. As a result, one is tempted to view the many unresolved oppositions that structure Nellie’s narrative and guide Cather’s choice of imagery as so many metaphorical expressions of writing’s essential ambivalence.
At its best, literature reveals humankind’s ability to rise above itself, as suggested by a setting in which winter is tamed like “a polar bear led on a leash by a beautiful lady” (22), but this is tantamount to reminding humans of what they are under the skin, and of recalling that a beast is still a beast, even when restrained by a fashionably attired New York socialite whose own deeply repressed animality is subtly recalled by this unusual juxtaposition. In Madison Square, every white shape has its frightening dark double, as Nellie points out: “The snow lay in clinging folds on the bushes, and outlined every twig of every tree—a line of white upon a line of black” (21). This remark can be read as a metatextual comment on writing itself, which ultimately becomes the very thing against which it struggles, a reversal echoed in the novel’s famous last lines: “Sometimes, when I have watched the bright beginning of a love story, when I have seen a common feeling exalted into beauty by imagination, generosity, and the flaming courage of youth, I have heard again that strange complaint breathed by a dying woman into the stillness of the night, like a confession of the soul: ‘Why must I die like this, alone with my mortal enemy!’” (85).
While Nellie’s function in the novel is less to take an active role than to reflect on the events she witnesses and reveal the underlying aesthetic dilemmas, Myra’s is to act out the resulting conflicts in a manner consistent with the demands of narrative form. Her life story, vividly summed up in the novel’s final paragraph, can be regarded as a dramatization of the issues arising from art’s impossible struggle against the limitations of the human condition. Again, voice—its artistic transfiguration and its indissoluble links with the bestial side of human nature—plays a key role in the process.
Among the numerous oppositions that characterize the evocation of Madison Square, the reader notices a contrast between two musical uses of voice, the one more suited to Nellie’s contemplative nature, while the other matches Myra’s extroverted personality and active involvement in the plot. Nellie prefers the quiet sound of the fountain, which suggests a faith in spring later echoed by Schubert’s lied—the ideal musical form for an “openair drawing-room”—but she also notes that Madison Square would be a perfect setting for events such as “a winter dancing party” or “a reception for some distinguished European visitor” (21). Both of these involve an element of play-acting in all senses of the word: social events often serve to hide bitter disagreements by cultivating a semblance of harmony, as Nellie later realizes when she accidentally overhears an argument between Myra, the perfect hostess, and her husband, Oswald (41–42). (Likewise, official receptions concealed explosive international tensions during this critical time prior to the Great War, as the reference to the Wilhelm der Grosse suggests.) Thus, Madison Square, glimpsed from Myra’s window, resembles an openair theater no less than a drawing room, and therefore provides an appropriate backdrop for operatic selections like Norma’s plea for peace in Bellini’s “Casta Diva,” sung at one of Myra’s parties (39).
While spoken drama, of which Myra is very fond, appears irremediably caught up in the contradiction between the bestial and the civilized aspects of human nature—as is suggested by references to Schiller’s Mary Stuart and Shakespeare’s Henry VIII (both about the complex interplay of kingship and sexual intrigue in Tudor Britain) and to Sarah Bernhardt’s celebrated impersonation of Hamlet (37–38)—opera seems to be the preferred vehicle for the pursuit of higher truths. In it, voice never dissembles but points to a dimension of expression that manifests itself prior to the use of words, including the deliberate utterance of falsehoods. Singing never deceives, or, at least, so Nellie suggests when she associates an operatic aria with the quintessence of Myra’s personality, especially that side of Myra that most ardently aspires to be released from the limitations of the human condition: For many years I associated Mrs. Henshawe with [Bellini’s “Casta Diva”], thought of that aria as being mysteriously related to something in her nature that one rarely saw, but nearly always felt; a compelling, passionate, overmastering something for which I had no name, but which was audible, visible in the air that night, as she sat crouching in the shadow. When I wanted to recall powerfully that hidden richness in her, I had only to close my eyes and sing to myself: “Casta diva, casta diva!” (39–40)
Like an ambitious artist, a great composer, or a gifted prima donna—indeed, like Cather herself, whose distaste for “meaningless reiterations concerning physical sensations” is well known (“Novel Démeublé” 51)—Myra wishes to rise above the dictates of the flesh and attempts to do so by exerting the sort of control over nature of which operatic singing is a thrilling example. In this respect, the emphasis on Bellini’s Norma is perfectly appropriate. Its protagonist is a Gallic priestess and political leader who defends her people against the Roman invaders despite having had two children with the Roman proconsul. Like Norma, Myra asserts a contested claim to sovereignty, which turns out to be threatened by the turmoil of her private life. Myra aims at the sort of mastery which releases that which is beyond control, and she uses her authority to make room for the manifestation of that which obeys no earthly power but must be experienced as it comes and goes of its own accord—like moonlight, or like voice itself. These together make “visible” and “audible” the “thing not named” in Myra’s nature, the “compelling, passionate, overmastering something” remembered by Nellie. In the scene Nellie recalls, Polish actress Helena Modjeska, inspired by the view of Madison Square from Myra’s window, asks a friend to sing Norma’s plea: “‘See, Myra, . . . the Square is quite white with moonlight. And how still all the ci-ty is, how still!’ She turned to her friend; ‘Emelia, I think you must sing something. Something old . . . yes, from Norma.’ . . . Her friend went to the piano and commenced the Casta Diva aria, which begins so like the quivering of moonbeams on the water” (39).
However, the triumph of art immediately exposes the vanity of the artist’s endeavors, and voice’s supreme creation turns out to be identical with the facts of nature the singer was keen to leave behind. Expertly played, Bellini’s music evokes “the quivering of moonbeams on the water” (39), recalling the fountain in the Square below as if the performer’s greatest achievement consisted in recreating a song from “the throat of spring” (22). This has disturbing implications, for it suggests an affinity between the “compelling, passionate, overmastering something” in Myra’s personality and that other “something”—presumably a nonhuman creature—that Nellie imagines “taking deep, happy breaths” as she sits by the fountain (21). Thus, Modjeska’s request—“I think you must sing something”—not only partakes of the “dreamy indefiniteness” Cather associates with the highest achievements of literary art in her essay on Thomas Mann (“Joseph” 99) but also prefigures the consummate artist’s reversion to a quasi-animal status, and the “thing not named” comes suspiciously close to appearing “nameless,” that is to say, too vile for words. Besides, art’s re-creation of nature appears unimpressive when compared to the real thing, and the artist’s exalted struggle against the limitations of the human condition only serves to reveal them in all their starkness and to demonstrate how pointless it is to try to escape the dictates of the flesh, even in the name of high art. As Cather states in the fragment “Light on Adobe Walls,” Nobody can paint the sun, or sunlight. He can only paint the tricks that shadows play with it, or what it does to forms. He cannot even paint those relations of light and shade—he can only paint some emotion they give him, some man-made arrangement of them that happens to give him personal delight. . . . At bottom all he can give you is the thrill of his own poor little nerve—the projection in paint of a fleeting pleasure in a certain combination of form and colour, as temporary and almost as physical as a taste on the tongue. (123–24)
Myra is a tragic figure; her tragedy is that of the artist whose masterpiece consists in the creation of that which defies mastery, and whose supreme achievement has the elemental impact of a natural force at its most uncontainable. What can be neither placated nor controlled can only be worshipped; hence Myra’s return to Catholicism. She places her trust not so much in God himself as in a religion that, like moonlight or Bellini’s music, gives immediate, sensually appealing expression to the human desire for what can easily be seen or heard yet forever eludes our grasp. “Why is it, do you suppose, Nellie,” Myra wonders, “that candles are in themselves religious? Not when they are covered by shades, of course—I mean the flame of a candle. Is it because the Church began in the catacombs, perhaps?” (76–77). At this juncture, Myra’s return to the faith of her ancestors appears logical enough, for God alone is immune from the uncertainties that plague her. Considering him as the master artist involves no contradiction, for he fashioned the world ex nihilo: nature is genuinely his creation, and he is not content with reinventing whatever existed before his intervention but brings totally new entities into being, unlike the human artist who merely rediscovers what, to him or her, appears a given. Yet what Myra primarily seeks from her Catholic faith is not an awareness of how the divine logos transcends the difficulties that beset human existence, but rather further glimpses of what the “voice of spring” conjures up in Madison Square: “the quivering of moonbeams on the water,” or, in one last variation on the same theme, dawn breaking over the sea, which is what music has been showing her all along: “I’d love to see this place at dawn. . . . That is always such a forgiving time. When that first cold, bright streak comes over the water, it’s as if all our sins were pardoned; as if the sky leaned over the earth and kissed it and gave it absolution” (61).
Myra here uses the terminology of religion, except when she unexpectedly substitutes “sky” for “Heaven,” which, in this context, would have been no less appropriate. This gives rise to the suspicion that she has not truly decided if the transcendent logos or the immanent splendor of pho¯ne¯ more directly appeals to her: the language she uses is ambiguous and could be taken to indicate that she is both yearning for divine salvation and entertaining a lingering vision of a world in which water, light, sky, and earth are just what they are, unguided by any higher design. Thus, she still appears to be struggling with the difficulty that lies at the root of all her problems, reformulated in Christian terms as the question of incarnation. According to Catholic theology, Jesus, the Word made flesh, is God’s answer to the conflict that defines human nature, torn as it is between animality and the soul’s yearning for redemption. The “ebony crucifix with an ivory Christ” that Nellie finds in Myra’s possession provides a reminder of this (75). Whether Myra has fully accepted its message remains unclear to the last, as she still describes herself as a seeker, a wandering soul, like Thomas Mann’s Old Testament Hebrews for whom “the end is nothing, the road is all” (“Joseph” 99). The vivid contrast of ebony and ivory could just as easily remind the reader of the “line of white upon a line of black,” which in Nellie’s description of Madison Square serves as a striking metaphor for the unredeemed duality that ensnares the artist (21).
Be that as it may, the point is that Cather’s novel envisions no artistic solution to the problem of art—the solution, if it exists, is religious and belongs to the individual conscience rather than to artists as such, who may be aware of the dubious implications of an aesthetic pursuit which, in fine, glorifies the flesh rather than the spirit, yet who cannot turn against such “idolatries” without “turn[ing] against themselves,” as Nellie witness Myra doing (78). Thus writing remains a prisoner of the contradictions that it seeks to transcend, yet without which it would not exist. My Mortal Enemy is often, and rightly, considered the most accomplished illustration of Cather’s aesthetic ideal as formulated in “The Novel Démeublé”: the formal perfection of its narrative, the avoidance of “tasteless amplitude,” and the rejection of gratuitous “literalness” brilliantly demonstrate what is to be gained when the writer’s “accomplishment” is entirely “subordinate[d] to a higher and truer effect” (49). However, the very economy of means that makes this achievement possible also reveals, with exceptional clarity, the unresolved tensions inherent in an ars poetica whose primary aim is to do justice to the restlessness of the human spirit and the sort of “seeking” that, for the lack of a better answer, has to accept itself as its own reward.
Thus, Myra’s tragedy serves as a warning that it is best not to take art too seriously and not to expect it to transfigure the human condition, with which it is too indissolubly bound up. The transfiguration, if it happens at all, must come from quite another source, as Cather’s next novel, Death Comes for the Archbishop, vividly demonstrates. The novelist herself took pains to ensure that her readers would not miss the point when she wrote in “Light on Adobe Walls”: Art is a concrete and personal and rather childish thing after all—no matter what people do to graft it into science and make it sociological and psychological; it is no good at all unless it is let alone by itself—a game of make-believe, of re-production, very exciting and delightful to people who have an ear for it or an eye for it. Art is too terribly human to be very “great,” perhaps. Some very great artists have outgrown art, the men were bigger than the game. Tolstoy did and Leonardo did. When I hear the last opuses, I think Beethoven did. (125)