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From Cather Studies Volume 11

Re(con)ceiving Experience: Cognitive Science and Creativity in The Song of the Lark

Anyone hazarding a scientific reading of Willa Cather’s work might take warning from her scorn for her former professor Lucius Sherman at the University of Nebraska. Sherman’s Analytics of Literature (1893) counted word frequency and used equations to measure sentence length and “ratios of force” (Woodress 80). In his preface, Sherman claims great success with his “objective” method in literature classes: “Those accustomed to write in a lumbering awkward fashion began to express themselves in strong, clear phrases, and with a large preponderance of simple sentences. . . . Students apparently without a taste for reading, or capacity to discern common literary excellencies, were enabled to appreciate and enjoy poetry as well as the best” (v). Sherman sums up his results in a voice redolent of the laboratory: “Things vague were made definite. Grounds of judgment before indeterminate or hidden were made plain. Criticism was rendered confident; and no little enthusiasm was aroused” (v). Little wonder that Cather was not impressed. She parodied his Analytics in an anonymous poem that appeared in The Hesperian in 1893: “Ah I counted, Queen, and counted, / And rows of figures massed / Till e’en my days are numbered / And I’m counted out at last” (qtd. in Woodress 81).

While Cather defended experimental science in her 1890 commencement speech, “Superstition vs. Investigation,” and remained fascinated by medicine throughout her life, long after her youthful scientific ambitions had cooled, she despised reductive thinking. In a 1943 letter to Sigrid Undset, Cather characterized the “cold pride of science” as the “most devilish thing that has ever come into this world” and as the “absolute enemy of happiness” (623–24). By aligning herself with nineteenth-century romanticism in her early novels and essays, Cather distanced herself and her artistic protagonists from the scientific materialism that influenced her realist and naturalist contemporaries. This polarity is strongest in the early novels, but it persists in her 1922 essay “The Novel Démeublé,” where she writes, “Literalness, when applied to the presenting of mental reactions and of physical sensations, seems to be no more effective than when it is applied to material things.. . . Characters can be almost de-humanized by a laboratory study of the behavior of their bodily organs under sensory stimuli—can be reduced, indeed, to mere animal pulp” (50–51). Cather resisted reductive forms of realism and naturalism by emphasizing the interplay between body and mind in her artists, who are awakened viscerally and existentially while deeply connected to nature. Recent work in cognitive science offers a fresh prism for reading Cather’s aesthetics, suggesting that her commingling of naturalism and romanticism in her representations of artistic awakening reveals a form of modernism. As Astradur Eysteinsson suggests, rather than eschewing the “real world,” modernists sought reality “at a different level of human existence, reality as it is processed by the human consciousness” (184). Modern psychology challenged the concept of the unified mind, suggesting that consciousness was a “flux of sensations and perceptions, dissolving from one occasion to the next, and ruled (if ruled at all) by unconscious desires not always available to conscious awareness” (Matz 220). While emphasizing the disintegration of selfhood, modern novelists also explored the process of self-making, the very project that Cather’s artists undertake. Rather than receiving inspiration passively, Cather’s artists actively construct their visions from lived experience, awakening not to the divine or the magical but to their individual power to perceive, and thus to infuse meaning into, physical reality.

Perhaps the most iconic of these awakenings emerges in The Song of the Lark, where Thea Kronborg is transformed in the desert landscape from an “apprehensive drudge” to an artist illuminated by a “power of sustained sensation” (Song 330). Her liberation has been read as akin to “religious ecstasy” (Rosowski 67), as a release of sexual and creative energy (O’Brien 410), as an intellectual emigration from Thea’s family ancestry to the broader “tradition of artistry” (Urgo 139), as an escape from language into a silent absorption of music and ideas (Cumberland 67), as a symbolic extension of cultural unity and ecological growth (Moseley 220, 225), and as a fictionalized account of Cather’s own discovery of “a new, vigorous, confident self” during her trip to Arizona and New Mexico in 1912 (Stout 124).

I will extend these readings to a discussion of blending theory, which applies linguistics and neuroscience to the study of consciousness and offers a fresh understanding of the relationship between cognition and creativity in The Song of the Lark. Thea Kronborg’s emergence as an artist requires a return to the most fundamental elements of thought in Panther Canyon, where she rediscovers her innate gift for blending, experiencing ideas as sensations that she later translates into stage roles where there is a “basic idea . . . pulsing behind every bar she sings” (464). This simultaneously active and passive process of re(con)ception, a term I borrow from Mark Bruhn (563), defines her growth as an artist. By emphasizing Cather’s attention to the visceral root of artistic epiphany, I will show how her anticipation of recent discoveries in brain science reveals the modernist exploration of reality through the human consciousness.


As Mark Bruhn notes, “the reigning topic of the day” in cognitive science is imagination (543). While emerging theories of cognition vindicate some principles of romanticism, such as the central role of blending in the imagination, they also include some significant revisions of nineteenth-century thinking. “Romantic theory may stand in relation to the cognitive science of imagination,” Bruhn writes, “as a storehouse of more or less clearly formulated issues and distinctions, some of which might be reframed as theoretically powerful and empirically testable hypotheses” (548). One of the issues that cognitive science reframes and revises is the polarity of romantic and scientific explanations of the imagination. In his Biographia Literaria (1817), Samuel Taylor Coleridge contrasts his sense of the imagination as an independent power with the scientific view of cognition and creativity as driven by “blind mechanism” or an “agency wholly independent and alien” (81). Coleridge declares, “The inventor of the watch, if this doctrine be true, did not in reality invent it; he only looked on, while the blind causes, the only true artists, were unfolding themselves” (82). The imagination, as Coleridge understands it, is a creative force independent of external and material causes, like a “water-insect” that “wins its way up the stream, by alternate pulses of active and passive motion, now resisting the current, and now yielding to it in order to gather strength and a momentary fulcrum for a further propulsion” (86). Similarly, he argues, in the mind “[t]here are evidently two powers at work, which relatively to each other are active and passive; and this is not possible without an intermediate faculty, which is at once both active and passive” (86). This intermediate faculty, the imagination, is “the living Power and prime Agent of all human Perception, . . . a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM” (202). While Coleridge’s definition of the imagination anticipates many of the principles of blending theory, he regarded scientific and romantic explanations of human creativity as antipodal worldviews.

Cognitive science reveals a modernist fusion of romanticism and realism by demonstrating that imagination “grow[s] out of bodily experience” and is a form of “embodied human understanding” (Johnson xiv, xv). Aristotle associated imagination with sense perception, as did Thomas Hobbes and other Enlightenment-era thinkers. The fresh contribution of cognitive science to this old conversation is a sense that even though the mind is the body, the dynamic and recursive exchange between sensual experience and thought is innately creative, not fundamentally mechanistic. A foundational premise of blending theory is that the intellectual gift taken for granted in metaphor—connecting two unrelated things—is the foundation of thought. As Mark Johnson explains, metaphor is “one of the chief cognitive structures by which we are able to have coherent, ordered experiences” (xv). Metaphor is like our instinctive sense of balance, without which “our physical reality would be utterly chaotic, like the wildly spinning world of a very intoxicated person”; just as physical balance keeps us upright, metaphor “holds together several aspects of our understanding of the world” (74). Because metaphorical reasoning gives structure and meaning to experience, metaphors might be understood as “‘structures of understanding’ because they are patterns in terms of which we ‘have a world,’ which is what is meant by ‘understanding’ in its broadest sense” (82–83). Other neuroscientists characterize consciousness as a “leaderless string quartet” that dynamically composes a symphony “without a unifying score” (Hill 112). While the metaphors used to explain consciousness differ, cognitive scientists agree that creativity and reason are interdependent.

Blending theory, developed by Gilles Fauconnier (a neuroscientist) and Mark Turner (a linguist), resonates with Coleridge’s sense of the imagination as composed of both active and passive faculties. Sensation triggers thought, which moves dynamically and recursively between linked mental spaces created by sensory experience and a “blended space,” or simply “the blend” (41). The result is an integration network: “Building an integration network involves setting up mental spaces, matching across spaces, projecting selectively to a blend, locating shared structures, projecting backward to inputs, recruiting new structure to the inputs or the blend, and running various operations in the blend itself” (Fauconnier and Turner 44). The “emergent structure” of the blend is dynamic, defined by “composition, completion, and elaboration” (48, 89).

To illustrate how composition, completion, and elaboration function in cognitive blending, Fauconnier and Turner pose a riddle adapted from Arthur Koestler’s The Act of Creation:

A Buddhist Monk begins at dawn one day walking up a mountain, reaches the top at sunset, meditates at the top for several days until one dawn when he begins to walk back to the foot of the mountain, which he reaches at sunset. Make no assumptions about his starting or stopping or about his pace during the trips. Riddle: Is there a place on the path that the monk occupies at the same hour of the day on the two separate journeys? (39)
To solve this riddle, we must imagine the monk ascending and descending the mountain on a single day, walking to meet himself. Fauconnier and Turner write, “The imaginative conception of the monk’s meeting himself blends the journey to the summit and the journey back down, and it has the emergent structure of an ‘encounter,’ which is not an aspect of the separate journeys” (40). Because we need this emergent structure—this imagined encounter—to solve the riddle, we cannot reason our way through it without the creative process of blending.

Emergent structure for the Buddhist monk scenario is composed by imagining two simultaneously walking monks who are, in fact, the same person. The scenario gains completion when we imagine the two monks beginning their journeys at the same time from the base and summit of the mountain. With the scenario complete the blend becomes dynamic, and we can elaborate the blended space by imagining the monk meeting himself on the mountainside. Fauconnier and Turner describe the cognitive result:

As we run the blend, the links to the inputs are constantly maintained, so that all these “sameness” connections across spaces seem to pop out automatically, yielding a flash of comprehension. . . . But for this flash to occur, counterpart links must be unconsciously maintained even as they change dynamically across four mental spaces. . . . But this “geometric” knowledge of correlations among time, position of the monk, and location on the path in the different spaces is completely unconscious. What comes into consciousness is the flash of comprehension. And it seems magical precisely because the elaborate imaginative work is all unconscious. (44)

Blending theory clarifies the fundamentally creative structure of thought, which renders even more miraculous the elastic perception required for reading Cather’s fiction, where sensory inputs and blended spaces are manifold. I will return to the implications of conceptual blending for reading Cather’s fiction, particularly in sympathy with her démeublé aesthetic, but first I must consider how blending theory illuminates Thea Kronborg’s experience in Panther Canyon, where her creative energies are unleashed.


Feminist readings of The Song of the Lark have firmly established the relationship between Thea’s artistic voice and her body with special attention to the sexual aesthetics of Panther Canyon, where Thea finds freedom from the oppressive social and psychological forces that have prevented her from emerging fully as an artist. As Sharon O’Brien notes,“Thea’s birth as an artist, like Cather’s, takes place in a landscape that resembles the female body” (410). Debra Cumberland explains that once Thea escapes the tutelage of Madison Bowers, her clinical voice instructor in Chicago, she discovers that “an artistry not grounded in her physical and emotional self is harmful to her as a woman, and as a singer” (59). Susan Rosowski similarly describes Thea’s ability to “take into herself others’ desires and convert them into song” (68). O’Brien explains that Thea’s creative power is both metaphorical, her physical voice like a womb that blends “biological with artistic gifts, unconscious, inborn endowment with technique and discipline” (173), and literally rooted in the material world, in sensory experience. These and other feminist readings of Thea’s development as an artist show how physical experience sparks the dynamic function of the imagination in its receptive and active modes.

Blending theory extends feminist readings by illuminating the relationship between Thea’s artistic awakening and the transformation of her thought structures by physical experience in Panther Canyon. Whereas previous readings of Thea’s awakening have emphasized “a mode of creativity marked by receptivity rather than self-assertion” (O’Brien 415), noting the role that silence plays in her physical and emotional liberation (Cumberland 69) or her sense of vibrating with experience like the “familiar Aeolian harp” (Rosowski 70), Thea’s existential rebirth in Panther Canyon shows a more forceful assertion of imagination, one that is enabled first by purging the cognitive structures that have suppressed her full creative potential and subsequently by composing, completing, and elaborating more powerful blends of sensation and thought.

When she leaves Chicago for a vacation in Arizona, accepting Fred Ottenburg’s invitation to stay at his father’s ranch near Panther Canyon, Thea believes she has wasted her creative power. “Probably she would teach music in little country towns all her life,” she reflects. “Failure was not so tragic as she would have supposed; she was tired enough not to care” (326). Whereas our understanding of the riddle of the Buddhist monk requires just two inputs—the monk ascending the mountain and the monk descending the mountain—Thea’s conception of herself is a selective blend of many inputs. Her cognitive structures at this point in her life are semi-tragic blends of sensation and imagination, metaphorical interpretations of physical memories of Moonstone and of people associated with that place whose ambitions or potential have all been frustrated. While Howard Archie awakens Thea to the world beyond Moonstone, he is trapped in a bitter marriage. Thea experiences music viscerally while singing with Spanish Johnny and studying with Wunsch, though their artistic desires are self-destructive. Ray Kennedy, who introduces Thea to the desert landscape in Colorado and tells her tales of cliff dwellings, is a failed writer who sums up his attempt at recording impressions of the Grand Canyon as “Escaping steam!” (129). Thea’s visit to Panther Canyon purges these influences: “The old, fretted lines which marked one off, which defined her,—made her Thea Kronborg, Bowers’s accompanist, a soprano with a faulty middle voice,—were all erased” (326). With her conceptual blend wiped clean, she begins reimagining it: first through sense-memories, and finally through composition, completion, and elaboration of a new artistic self.

Thea’s awakening carries her back to childhood impressions, “the earliest sources of gladness that she could remember” (326). Once, traveling back to Moonstone from Chicago, she thought of the desert landscape as “an honest country” filled with a “new song in the blue air which had never been sung in the world before . . . like the light of the desert at noon, or the smell of the sagebrush after rain” (243). Thea’s former sense of the desert as a touchstone for creative energy returns as she basks in the solitude of the canyon. As David Hill explains in his examination of identity formation in My Ántonia, memories are constructions, not recollections: “Even the most vividly remembered sensations are not retrievals of stored pictures or sounds. Memories are non-representational in character; that is, they are cues to present performance rather than stored pictures, sounds, or smells” (111). While this is a period of receptivity, when Thea absorbs sensations in the desert, it is also a period of active imagination. The memories she retrieves harmonize with new sensory inputs that will later be selectively blended to re-create her identity as a performer:

Here she could lie for half a day undistracted, holding pleasant and incomplete conceptions in her mind—almost in her hands. They were scarcely clear enough to be called ideas. They had something to do with fragrance and color and sound, but almost nothing to do with words. . . . [A] song would go through her head all morning, as a spring keeps welling up, and it was like a pleasant sensation indefinitely prolonged. It was much more like a sensation than like an idea, or an act of remembering. Music had never come to her in that sensuous form before. (330)
Notably, music has come to other people through Thea in this sensuous form before the scene in Panther Canyon. While Thea sings with Spanish Johnny during one of her trips back to Moonstone, her listeners are overcome with excitement. Even the elderly Kohlers, whom Thea visited when she studied with Wunsch, wake in the night and stand at their bedroom window murmuring “Horch!” (“Hark!”) when Thea’s voice, “like a fountain jet, shot up into the light” (261). Andor Harsanyi, her Chicago piano instructor, remarks to his wife that Thea’s singing is physical: “[W]hen she does get an idea, it fills her up to the eyes. She had my room so reeking of a song this afternoon that I could n’t stay there” (214). When Bowers, her voice instructor, overhears Thea singing to Fred’s accompaniment, he notes that “there was something about his girl’s back that he had not noticed before: a very slight and yet very free motion, from the toes up. Her whole back seemed plastic, seemed to be moulding itself to the galloping rhythm of the song” (299–300). Yet before arriving at Panther Canyon, Thea seems to have been unconscious of her sensuous expression of music. As Katie Owens-Murphy says of other protagonists in “modernist romance,” Thea’s holiday in the desert grants her “a kind of second innocence in which redemption becomes possible . . . even after the corrupting ‘assault’ of experience” (59). Gaining consciousness of her body, of the materiality of music, is the first step toward creating the new blend, the new self, that will give her power as an artist.

Blending begins with composition, coupling and projecting sensory inputs into imagined scenarios or metaphors. Cather writes that Thea’s “power to think seemed converted into a power of sustained sensation. She could become a mere receptacle for heat, or become a color, like the bright lizards that darted about on the hot stones outside her door; or she could become a continuous repetition of sound, like the cicadas” (330). These simple inputs grow more fluid once Thea begins imagining the people who once lived in the canyon. As she climbs from the river to the cliff dwellings, following the path the indigenous women used to gather water, Thea identifies with them intuitively: “She found herself trying to walk as they must have walked, with a feeling in her feet and knees and loins which she had never known before,—which must have come up to her out of the accustomed dust of that rocky trail. She could feel the weight of an Indian baby hanging to her back as she climbed” (332). As she lingers in the canyon,

It seemed to Thea that a certain understanding of those old people came up to her out of the rock shelf on which she lay; that certain feelings were transmitted to her. . . . They were not expressible in words, but seemed rather to translate themselves into attitudes of body, into degrees of muscular tension or relaxation; the naked strength of youth, sharp as the sunshafts; the crouching timorousness of age, the sullenness of women who waited for their captors. (333)
Whereas Cather’s language emphasizes receptivity, these are Thea’s imagined connections to the ancient people, her re(con)ception of them. She moves fluidly between sensation and composition, imagining she is walking as an indigenous woman walked, then to completion, a more comprehensive “understanding” of the cliff dwellers projected across youth and age, male and female.

Thea’s sense of herself as a creative participant in the ancient community allows her to elaborate the blend, constructing other scenarios from the ruins. While gazing at a crumbling watchtower where young men had once snared eagles, she imagines herself as a present witness: “Sometimes for a whole morning Thea could see the coppery breast and shoulders of an Indian youth there against the sky; see him throw the net, and watch the struggle with the eagle” (333). Her re(con)ception of this scene requires blending the ruined watchtower with her own sense-memories of youth and with her limited understanding of Native customs from Ray Kennedy’s explanation of indigenous history. Thea’s creative perception of the ruins extends her cognitive blend to an imagined kinship with the cliff dwellers, which transforms her identity as a performing artist. Thea imagines that “[t]he Cliff Dwellers had lengthened her past,” giving her “older and higher obligations” (339). Thea’s identification with the ancient women remains central to her identity as an artist long after she has left Panther Canyon, as she describes her improvisation in one performance years later as driven by “desperation,” the way “Indian babies swim when they’re thrown into the river” (486). The physical experience she has in Panther Canyon thus allows Thea to erase the old blend in which she imagined herself a failed artist, vibrating with desire yet unable to fully realize her potential, and replace it with a more powerful blend of sensations and an imagined metaphorical ancestry. As a result, she feels “united and strong,” with ideas that are “sharper and clearer” for having been simplified (337).

Thea’s new blend allows her to experience two revelations, which have been conventionally understood as romantic epiphanies but might also be read as akin to the “flash of comprehension” evoked by the riddle of the Buddhist monk. Thea’s most famous revelation occurs during one of her morning baths:

The stream and the broken pottery: what was any art but an effort to make a sheath, a mould in which to imprison for a moment the shining, elusive element which is life itself,—life hurrying past us and running away, too strong to stop, too sweet to lose? The Indian women had held it in their jars. . . . In singing, one made a vessel of one’s throat and nostrils and held it on one’s breath, caught the stream in a scale of natural intervals. (334–35)
Thea’s sense of herself as a vessel and of art as a “sheath” for “shining, elusive” life is a complex elaboration of the blend she has reimagined in Arizona. First, music comes to her in preconceptual, sensuous forms, as colors and heat and sound: essentially, as simple inputs. Thea discovers her voice physically, as “vitality; a lightness in the body and a driving power in the blood” (338). Perceiving art sensually allows her to blend the muscular experience of walking the water path with a broader identification with the cliff dwellers, which she elaborates into an imagined ancestry. Living and thinking in this blended space leads her to the metaphorical revelation in the stream, sharpening and simplifying her sensory and conceptual experience.

While Thea’s revelation in the stream is often understood in romantic terms that downplay its naturalistic elements, feminist readings of Thea’s awakening have emphasized the physical nature of her epiphanies, reinforcing the modernist reading suggested by blending theory. Rosowski reads Thea’s awakening as akin to Wordsworth’s sense of creative power as “a divinely granted intuitive force corresponding in the individual to the creative imagination of God in the universe” (66). Similarly, “a divine creative knowledge is granted to Thea. Ideas recorded upon her come together in a sudden revelation of her relation to art. She recognizes that as an artist she can intuit the abiding in the stream of life, and by holding it, can create universal truths” (66). In contrast, O’Brien notes that the physical space of the desert allowed Cather to “open the container that held her creative energies” (410), and Moseley extends this to Thea’s character, noting that her emergence as an artist requires comprehension of the “cyclical history of the canyon and of life itself” (220). Thea’s awakening might thus be understood in physical terms without diminishing the power of her revelation. She experiences what Hill styles the “synaptic sublime” (121), the symphonic swell of her imagination. Her subsequent success as an artist is also defined less by the expression of universal truths than by her talent for engaging a foundational human aptitude for imagination, which allows Thea to draw others into her personal blend.

Thea’s creative consciousness from her epiphany in the desert stream onward might be understood as a recursive elaboration of her new self-conception as an artist who channels creative energy from nature and from within herself. Even though her epiphany might seem to unmask a “true self,” it is really the beginning of years of performance, years of sustaining the melody that her consciousness composes in the desert. As Hill explains, “What we perceive to be our selfhood seems to be stable not because some entity ‘mind’ is constant, but because our bodies and our autobiographical memories provide a ‘continuity of reference’ that gives us a feeling of stability even as we flow forward in repeated pulses of performed consciousness in which the end-state of one pulse is the beginning of the next” (119). Thea’s second revelation in Panther Canyon illustrates her ability to sustain her new understanding of artistic identity. During a period of restlessness, when “[e]verything seemed suddenly to take the form of a desire for action” (338), Fred breaks Thea’s solitude by returning to the ranch. His arrival threatens her newfound freedom, bringing back memories of the “old, fretted lines” that had formerly marked Thea as a failure and renewing the potential conflict between their relationship and her future as an artist. One afternoon, as Fred lies napping in one of the cliff dwellings, Thea resumes her receptive posture, gazing drowsily from the shadow of a rock house into the blue vault of sky, when an eagle flashes across her line of sight. She leaps to her feet, watching the bird soar through the canyon “steeped in light” like a living epiphany:

O eagle of eagles! Endeavour, achievement, desire, glorious striving of human art! From a cleft in the heart of the world she saluted it. It had come all the way; when men lived in caves, it was there. A vanished race; but along the trails, in the stream, under the spreading cactus, there still glittered in the sun the bits of their frail clay vessels, fragments of their desire. (354; ellipsis in source)
Thea’s visceral response to the eagle merges with her earlier revelation in the stream as her thoughts cycle back to the pottery, the women who made the clay vessels, and the larger principle of channeling creative energy that underpins her new consciousness as a performer. Her instant and instinctual transformation of the eagle’s flight into metaphor reveals the sustaining power of Thea’s vision beyond her vacation in Panther Canyon.

For the remainder of the novel, Thea is not fully herself when she is not living in the blended space generated during her desert experience and then elaborated in her identity as a performing artist. Fred notes in the novel’s final section that Thea is incomplete without performance: “It was only under such excitement . . . that she was entirely illuminated, or wholly present. At other times there was something a little cold and empty, like a big room with no people in it. Even in her most genial moods there was a shadow of restlessness, as if she were waiting for something” (485). Years later, Thea explains to Archie and Fred that her ideas still come “[o]ut of the rocks, out of the dead people” (509). As an acclaimed artist, as “Kronborg,” her understanding of creativity is still fundamentally physical. Recalling her intuitive sympathy for the cliff dwellers, Thea reflects: “They taught me the inevitable hardness of human life. And you can’t know it with your mind. You have to realize it in your body, somehow; deep. It’s an animal sort of feeling” (509).

The material root of imagination is finally evident in Thea’s performance of Sieglinde, a zenith of artistic expression similar to her epiphany in the canyon stream:

That afternoon nothing new came to Thea Kronborg, no enlightenment, no inspiration. She merely came into full possession of things she had been refining and perfecting for so long. Her inhibitions chanced to be fewer than usual, and within herself, she entered into the inheritance that she herself had laid up, into the fullness of the faith she had kept before she knew its name or its meaning. (525)
In this description of Thea’s artistic mastery, Cather anticipates one of the fundamental principles of contemporary cognitive science, that the creative mind is inseparable from the body. During Thea’s command performance, “her body was absolutely the instrument of her idea. Not for nothing had she kept it so severely, kept it filled with such energy and fire. All that deep-rooted vitality flowered in her voice, her face, in her very finger-tips. She felt like a tree bursting into bloom” (526).

Blending theory illuminates not only artistic awakening and expression, as illustrated by Thea’s transformation, but also encounters with art. Thea’s gift as a singer, as Fred explains, is to “[simplify] a character down to the musical idea it’s built on, and [make] everything conform to that” (464). By doing so, she draws her audience into her cognitive blend. Like the imagined ancestry Thea associates with the ancient people in Panther Canyon, performance is not the expression of universal truth so much as a touchstone for the universal human aptitude for blending. Thea’s performances had brought her listeners rapture throughout her life, as illustrated by the earlier examples of how the Kohlers, Spanish Johnny, and others responded to her voice. As a mature artist she consciously draws others deeper into the creative process of blending sensation and thought. Doctor Archie discovers the extent of Thea’s new powers while attending her performance of Lohengrin. After quieting his initial nervousness about seeing Thea again after so many years, “he found that he was sitting quietly in a darkened house, not listening to but dreaming upon a river of silver sound” (452). At first Archie struggles to reconcile Thea with the girl he had known in Moonstone, but he finally “ceased trying to make the woman before him fit into any of his cherished recollections. He took her, in so far as he could, for what she was then and there” (453). As Archie eases into the blended space of the performance, he experiences something similar to Thea’s rebirth in Panther Canyon. He “feel[s] the exhilaration of getting free from personalities, of being released from his own past as well as from Thea Kronborg’s. . . . Something old died in one, and out of it something new was born” (454). When he applauds along with the rest at the end of the performance, “it was the new and wonderful he applauded, not the old and dear” (454).

Spanish Johnny responds similarly to Thea’s Sieglinde performance. After “praying and cursing under his breath” throughout the opera and “beating on the brass railing and shouting ‘Brava! Brava!’ until he was repressed by his neighbors,” Johnny waits for Thea on the street (526). Though she does not see him, he watches her climb into a taxi and then walks away “wearing a smile which embraced all the stream of life that passed him and the lighted towers that rose in the limpid blue of the evening sky” (527). His smile, Cather concludes, is the “only commensurate answer” to the purpose of art (527). By echoing in Johnny’s imagination the metaphor Thea discovered while bathing in the canyon stream, Cather suggests that the audience, as well as the artist, must participate in the creative act of blending.

The awakenings Archie, Fred, Johnny, and others experience during Thea’s performances typify Cather’s later explanation of artistic simplicity in “The Novel Démeublé.” The démeublé aesthetic, like Thea’s stage presence, cannot resonate without awakening the reader’s gift for blending: “Whatever is felt upon the page without being specifically named there—that . . . is created. It is the inexplicable presence of the thing not named, of the over-tone divined by the ear but not heard by it, the verbal mood, the emotional aura of the fact or the thing or the deed, that gives high quality to the novel or the drama” (50). Created by whom? Cather suggests that the novelist brings the reader to the threshold of epiphany, inviting her to enter the blended space of art. To be deeply moved is to re(con)ceive the blend, to make it personal, make it new. Art could not endure—would not be eternal—otherwise.


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