Critics have read the conclusion of The Professor’s House, especially Professor Godfrey St. Peter’s depression, near death, and final resolution “to live without delight” (282) in a variety of ways. Michael Price’s “Epicurus in Hamilton: St. Peter’s Contemplative Retirement to the Attic Study and Garden in The Professor’s House” offers an Epicurean reading, arguing that St. Peter’s actions, including his withdrawal from family and society, enact Epicurean philosophy (264–83). Price’s insight is a sound one that deserves more investigation, both to identify additional ways in which Cather marks St. Peter as an Epicurean and to explore how Cather uses Epicureanism to construct a web of associations in order to connect and contextualize the novel’s themes of jealousy, greed, violence, erotic love and, ultimately, change itself. Seen through an Epicurean lens, formerly trivial details are significant, and strange, even bizarre, moments become coherent.
While Price’s work focuses specifically on The Professor’s House, Martha Nussbaum’s The Therapy of Desire and The Fragility of Goodness provide a wider context in their reading of classical and Hellenistic philosophy, including Epicureanism. Nussbaum observes that ancient philosophical traditions recognize that happiness is dependent on circumstances outside control which render all people vulnerable to loss. Ancient philosophy’s task was to make us invulnerable by teaching us to limit the ways circumstances harm us and to cope with inevitable loss. Nussbaum explains that “some human values simply open the human being to risk. Caring about children, friends, loved ones; caring about political citizenship and political action; caring, in general, about being able to act rather than simply to be—all these concerns and attachments put the person who cherishes them at the mercy of luck” (Fragility xxix). Faced with such vulnerabilities, classical and Hellenistic philosophers agree “that the central motivation for philosophizing is the urgency of human suffering, and that the goal of philosophy is human flourishing, or eudaimonia” (Therapy 15). Nussbaum reminds us that this central motivation was not unique to philosophers and their schools but was shared by literary artists such as the Athenian tragedians.
Cather similarly grapples with the urgency of human suffering and with the difficulty of flourishing in a world of change and loss. The Professor’s House engages these problems by means of an image Cather borrows from Lucretius’s great Epicurean poem On the Nature of Things and by introducing this work through the intermediary of Tennyson’s poem “Lucretius.” In addition to these references to On the Nature of Things, the novel alludes extensively to other literature and art to elaborate its Epicurean critique of erotic love (always a vexed subject for Cather). By the novel’s conclusion, Cather has proposed an Epicurean solution to the universal problem of change and loss.
Before undertaking this analysis, however, it would be helpful to recall Price’s identification of Epicurean elements in The Professor’s House. The novel’s one explicit reference to Epicureanism occurs in a passage in which St. Peter recalls a summer with Tom Outland: “Over a dish of steaming asparagus, swathed in a napkin to keep it hot, and a bottle of sparkling Asti, they talked and watched night fall in the garden. If the evening happened to be rainy or chilly, they sat inside and read Lucretius” (173). Price, who begins his article with this passage, argues that St. Peter’s garden and attic study are paradigmatically Epicurean, noting that the study is a place of contemplation and learning. Price then moves to the garden image, which recalls the garden of Epicurus, and argues that “the garden topos reveals it [St. Peter’s withdrawal] as an Epicurean form of garden retirement” (270). Both attic study and garden are places where St. Peter strives for the prime goal of Epicurean life, atarxia (a term often translated as “tranquility”). The importance of atarxia is further emphasized by a Lucretian image Cather borrows. When St. Peter comfortably gazes out at a snowstorm over Lake Michigan, he recalls a passage from On the Nature of Things, in which a person gazing over a stormy sea serves as an image of Epicurean calm and detachment (Price 273). Price demonstrates that St. Peter possesses other Epicurean qualities as well. He mingles “austerity and indulgence,” and his rejection of greed and jealousy also mark him as Epicurean (277). Finally his name (God-free) and unbelief tie him to Epicurus’s unconventional beliefs about the gods (276).
The novel provides more information, however, and this detail bears examining because Cather’s use of Lucretian imagery points toward thematic parallels between On the Nature of Things and The Professor’s House. One such image Cather borrows is that of the emerald necklace Louie intends to give Rosamond. Cather’s use of Lillian’s emerald necklace reveals a key similarity between Epicureanism and The Professor’s House: both are critical of, even hostile to, the cultures they inhabit. For the Epicureans, there is a “recurrent opposition: between ‘nature’—apparently some healthy unimpeded condition—and corrupt social teaching” (Therapy 106). Nussbaum elaborates on this idea, writing that Epicurus is suggesting that we come into the world as healthy living creatures, our faculties operating reliably and without blemish. But shortly after this we encounter external forces that corrupt and confuse us. These influences take hold of us: and yet they are not really us. We know already what some of those influences are: religious superstitions that teach us fear of the gods and of death; love stories that complicate our natural sexual appetite; conversations all around us glorifying wealth and power. (Therapy 107) Cather confronts similar sorts of cultural corruption, focusing on American society’s misguided notions about erotic love, acquisition, and conformity. Moreover, she does so in ways consistent with Epicurean thinking and conveyed using Lucretian imagery. To these ends, Cather borrows from book 2 of On the Nature of Things, in which Lucretius catalogs the gifts men buy their lovers among the evils of erotic love: “yes, and huge emeralds with their green flash are set in gold. The well gotten wealth of their fathers becomes hair-ribbons and diadems. all in vain, since from the heart of this fountain of delights wells up some bitter taste to choke them even amid the flowers” (181). These emeralds set in gold are alluded to in The Professor’s House when St. Peter overhears Louie and Lillian discussing one of Louie’s gifts for Rosamond: “In a corner sat Lillian and Louie, a little lacquer table between them, bending, it seemed, over a casket of jewels. Lillian held up lovingly in her fingers a green-gold necklace, evidently an old one, without stones.‘Of course emeralds would be beautiful, Louie, but they seem a little out of scale.’” Louie, however, insists on emeralds, saying,“I like the idea of their being out of scale. . . . To me, her name spells emeralds” (75).
The passages from Cather and Lucretius are linked not only by their emeralds but also by the fact that money is spent extravagantly by a lover who didn’t earn the money in the first place. Louie spends the money gained from Outland’s work just as the young men in “Lucretius” waste their inheritances on love gifts. This passage thus ties together two of the novel’s and Lucretius’s central concerns, the dangers of erotic love and the dangers of wealth. Cather links these dangers through the theme of jealousy, which she consistently associates with the color green, drawing on Lucretius’s green emeralds as well as on a more obvious allusion to Shakespeare’s Othello and Iago’s “green-eyed monster” speech (46, 85). St. Peter’s daughter Kathleen, whose hair has “distinctly green glints in it,” is also linked to jealousy (38). At one point, St. Peter observes Kathleen, jealous both of her sister’s wealth and her marriage to Tom, literally turn green: “Her pale skin had taken on a greenish tinge—there was no doubt about it. He had never happened to see that change occur in a face before, and he had never realized to what an ugly, painful transformation the common phrase ‘green with envy’ referred” (85). Cather’s reference to the emeralds in On the Nature of Things helps make sense of the otherwise odd color imagery surrounding Kathleen and reinforces her point that the desire to acquire and spend money as well as the desire for erotic possession both incite jealousy. For both Epicureans and Cather, these desires and the jealousy attending them are not simply personal failings but symptoms of a corrupt society.
The entanglement of eros, jealousy, and greed captured by Cather’s use of the Lucretian emerald necklace directs us to a larger point about Cather’s work, namely, that she employs a classical concept of erotic love as disease and madness, a painful, violent, dangerous condition. For Epicureans, eros is this condition as well as part of a larger complex of emotions and desires that render humans vulnerable to external circumstance. Nussbaum observes, “Toward erotic love, or eros, Epicurus is unremittingly hostile” and Epictetus claims that “the Epicurean will neither marry nor have children” (Therapy 149). Epicurus is reported to have said that “sexual intercourse never did any good and it’s lucky if it does no harm” (Therapy 151). The Epicurean tradition, then, is consistently hostile to erotic love, which it sees as an illness for which Epicureanism is the cure. Cather draws on this tradition with another striking intertextual image, this one linking the much discussed dress form,“the bust,” in St. Peter’s study with “the breasts of Helen” in Tennyson’s “Lucretius.”
As Carey Chaney notes in “St. Peter, Blue Mesa, ‘Ruins,’ and ‘Archaic Forms’ in Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House,” this complicated borrowing originates in a story about Lucretius related by St. Jerome, then retold by Tennyson (62–63). Cather certainly knew her Tennyson well, as in 1888 she listed him as her favorite “Poet or Poetess” (Bennett 112), and the Cather family library contained several collections of Tennyson’s poetry including “Lucretius.” The story, as Tennyson tells it, is that Lucretius’s wife, Lucilla (the resemblance to the name Lillian is striking), finds her philosopher husband cold and distant and so attempts to reignite his passion with a love potion. The potion is effective and drives Lucretius, who unsuccessfully strives to maintain his Epicurean calm, to madness and suicide. Lucretius’s despair climaxes on a stormy night when he falls asleep (anticipating a similar scene in The Professor’s House) and is haunted by three dreams. The first dream is of an Epicurean universe seen in its two essentials, atoms and void. (We might recall here that Tom invents the Outland vacuum and Professor Crane studies space, both echoes of the void of Epicurean physics that Lucretius discusses at length.) The second dream is a nightmarish combination of sex and violence that describes “Hetairai, curious in their art, / Hired animalisms” who spring from the earth after a rain of blood. These hetairai “yell’d and round me drove / In narrowing circles till I yell’d again / Half-suffocated, and sprang up, and saw— / Was it the first beam of my latest day?” The disturbing mix of sex and violence in the second dream continues in the third: Then, then, from utter gloom stood out the breasts The breasts of Helen, and hoveringly a sword Now over and now under, now direct, Pointed itself to pierce, but sank down shamed At all that beauty; and as I stared, a fire, The fire that left a roofless Ilion, Shot out of them, and scorch’d me that I woke. (218) While elements of all three dreams echo in The Professor’s House, the final dream gives us the image Cather borrows: the breasts of Helen, here manifest as the bust in St. Peter’s study. Cather writes, “The one which Augusta called ‘the bust’ stood in the darkest corner of the room, upon a high wooden chest in which blankets and winter wraps were yearly stored. It was a headless, armless torso, covered with strong black cotton, and so richly developed in the part for which it was named that the Professor once explained to Augusta how, in calling it so, she followed a natural law of language, termed, for convenience, metonymy” (18). Tennyson’s Helen is metonymically reduced to breasts just as the “headless, armless torso” of the dress form is likewise reduced to “the bust.” Cather tells us that the bust looks soft and safe but feels “unsympathetic” and “dead . . . somehow always fooling you again. For no matter how often you bumped up against that torso, you could never believe that contact with it would be as bad as it was” (19). The parallel to Helen in character as well as form is clear. Helen represents not just deception but also a destructive sexuality, an erotic force that breeds violence and subjects men to its power. Cather picks up the idea of dangerous eroticism with the description of the second form, which has “no legs, as one could see all too well. No viscera behind its glistening ribs, and its bosom resembled a strong wire bird-cage” (19). Here the bosom and the sexuality it represents become a cage or a trap St. Peter mistakenly believes he has evaded.
The parallel with Tennyson’s poem continues when Augusta opines that “these forms were unsuitable companions for one engaged in scholarly pursuits” (19–20). Augusta’s comment reminds us that the love potion of Lucilla “check’d / His [Lucretius’] power to shape” (217). The erotic impulse, then, impedes the work of the scholar and artist. In St. Peter’s case, the dress forms represent not only a threatening sexuality but also the usual consequences of an erotic relationship (at least of a conventional heterosexual relationship in Cather’s day), marriage and the “cruel biological necessity” of children—that is, a family, which for St. Peter often impedes his scholarly work. The Epicureans likewise saw marriage and family as an impediment to the work of the wise man. Remembered from a distance, eros may provide inspiration, but the immediate practical consequences of erotic love entangle rather than liberate the artist and scholar. This perspective is exemplified by Epicurus’s failure to marry and by Seneca’s masterfully understated claim that the Epicurean sage rarely marries, “since marriage is mixed up with many inconveniences” (Therapy 152–53).
Cather’s allusion to Helen also highlights St. Peter’s anxiety about public views of his marriage. For instance, he tells Augusta,“I’ll work here, and board at the new house. But this is confidential. If it were noised about, people might begin to say that Mrs. St. Peter and I had—how do they put it, parted, separated?” (20). It seems decidedly odd that St. Peter, who otherwise is quite happy to ignore popular opinion, is so worried that rumors of a separation circulate. Augusta’s view of the forms is also interesting. When St. Peter forbids her to remove them, she “looked down her nose as she did at church when the dark sins were mentioned. From the tilt of her chin he saw that she felt the presence of some improper suggestion” (22– 23). What exactly she thinks unsuitable, darkly sinful, and improper is never specified, but given the context established by Tennyson’s poem, it is plausible that these adjectives refer to the dress forms as symbols of eros.
These directions to read The Professor’s House as a statement of Epicurean philosophy become more substantial when combined with etymological clues. As a former Latin teacher, Cather would have known that the word bust is derived from the Latin bustum meaning a “funeral monument, tomb; originally, funeral pyre. . . . The sense development from funeral pyre resulted from the Etruscans’ custom of keeping the ashes of the dead in an urn shaped like the person when alive” (Barnhart). The link between death and eros resonates with Tennyson’s poem, which associates Lucretius’s vision of the breasts of Helen with the destruction of Troy with fire and is followed by the poet’s suicide. Likewise, St. Peter’s study is referred to as a “crypt” (110), repeatedly associated with images of the grave (holes, boxes, coffins, to name a few), and nearly turns into the site of the professor’s passive suicide when the study’s fire goes out and he wakes, like Tennyson’s Lucretius,“Half-suffocated.” By linking the dress forms, especially “the bust,” to images of death, destruction, and entrapment through Helen, perhaps the foremost symbol of dangerous eroticism in the western literary tradition, Cather builds up a remarkable network of associations binding passionate love to jealousy, sexual infidelity, and violence, all connections the Epicurean tradition makes in its condemnation of erotic love.
This Epicurean critique of eros explains the otherwise puzzling density of reference to sexual impropriety, betrayal, and violence. The most subtle and interesting references are literary. For example, Cather twice refers to the most famous portrayal of sexual jealousy in English literature, Othello, connecting its famous “green-eyed monster” passage to the novel’s consistent and repeated association of the color green with jealousy (36, see Scholarly Edition note). She also cites Antony and Cleopatra, another famous story of love, betrayal, and death (149). When Tom chooses a passage from the Aeneid to recite before St. Peter, he begins with another example of erotic love that ends in betrayal and violence, the first encounter between Dido and Aeneas (112). This use of Latin literature is paralleled by a similar reference to the Greek tradition, St. Peter’s mention of Medea, whose tale of erotic love goes spectacularly and violently wrong (124). The importance of this reference is further highlighted by the novel’s mention of Delacroix, one of whose works is entitled “Medea about to Kill Her Children.” (Significantly, the painting is set in a cave, which refers us back to St. Peter’s story of Euripides living in a cave and to St. Peter’s own cavelike attic study. Delacroix also painted Helen.) As Alice Bell has documented in “The Professor’s Marriage,” St. Peter’s comparison of the dressmaker’s forms in his attic to those of Monsieur Bergeret (20) is a reference to the sexual infidelity and violence portrayed in Bergeret’s Le Mannequin d’Osier. Even the novel’s final sentence,“He thought he knew where he was, and that he could face with fortitude the Berengaria and the future” (283) refers to the estrangement of Richard the Lionheart and his wife, Berengaria, as the editors of the Scholarly Edition of The Professor’s House (381) and Eve Kosofsky Sedgewick have discussed.
Cather even slyly alludes to her own work. We read that St. Peter’s true first name is Napoleon, and after one of Rosamond’s shopping sprees, he compares his daughter to “Napoleon looting the Italian palaces” (153), two references that recall the picture, “Napoleon Announcing the Divorce to Josephine,” which Jim Burden mentions in My Ántonia (78). When St. Peter refers to “Napoleon looting the Italian Palaces,” Cather also doubtless wants us to think of the Medici Venus, one of the greatest prizes Napoleon carried of and of course another symbol of classical eros.
Additionally, Cather uses architecture to build her critique of eros. St. Peter’s head is compared to those “of the warriors on the Parthenon frieze” (71). The Parthenon’s metopes, one of which depicts the battle of the centaurs and Lapiths, another battle between Athenian men and Amazons, and a third the Trojan War, are particularly relevant. The battle with the Amazons takes place because Theseus, king of Athens, has abducted an Amazon to be his wife. The centauromachy occurs when centaurs, guests at the wedding of Peirithous and inflamed with wine and lust, attempt to rape the Lapith women. This precipitates a bloody brawl. In both cases, erotic love and violence are conjoined in the context of abduction and marriage, which brings us back full circle to Helen and the Trojan War metope. This network of allusions, remarkable both for its subtlety and density, highlights the novel’s Epicurean critique of erotic love, an emotion that Cather, again and again, links to infidelity, violence, and jealousy. This complex of associations is perhaps densest in “Tom Outland’s Story,” which is filled with accounts of infidelity and betrayal, many of them cataloged in Margaret Doane’s “In Defense of Lillian St. Peter.” For instance, while explaining his duties as a railroad call boy to St. Peter, Tom says,“Sometimes you have to get a man when he isn’t where he ought to be. I found there was usually a reason at home for that,” an explanation that significantly ends when “Mrs. St. Peter came out into the garden” (115). Tom’s friend Roddy Blake runs away from home when his mother remarries after an extramarital affair, and he is later “double-crossed” by his fiancée (183). When Roddy and Tom argue over the sale of the artifacts in the cliff dwellings, including the corpse Henry names “Mother Eve,” Tom protests to Roddy, “If it was money you’d lost gambling, or my girl you’d made free with, we could fight it out, and maybe be friends again. But this is different” (245). Doane argues that these examples of love and marriage gone bad reflect the “central consciousness” of St. Peter, who “is both prejudiced and insensitive” (302) toward women. While this may well be so, my point is that Cather exposes the danger of eros in all its forms; it is eros itself rather than any particular character that is the prime problem.
Mother Eve’s story deserves particular attention for the way it combines violence and eros with greed. The initial description of the body is horrifying: “We thought she had been murdered; there was a great wound in her side, the ribs stuck out through the dried flesh. Her mouth was open as if she were screaming, and her face, through all those years, had kept a look of terrible agony” (212). Later Father Duchene comments on the appropriateness of Mother Eve’s name, saying,“‘I seem to smell,’ he said slyly,‘a personal tragedy. Perhaps when the tribe went down to the summer camp, our lady was sick and did not go. Perhaps her husband thought it worth while to return unannounced from the farms some night, and found her in improper company. The young man may have escaped. In primitive society the husband is allowed to punish an unfaithful wife with death’” (222). Critics have argued that we are not to take Father Duchene’s story seriously. Given the evidence he has to work with, Duchene’s interpretation is, at best, wildly speculative. However, the accuracy of Duchene’s interpretation matters less than the mere existence of the interpretation, which continues the novel’s pattern of connecting eros to jealousy, infidelity, and violence. In this larger context, Father Duchene’s interpretation is especially important for the very reason it is inaccurate. Indeed, the Epicurean context provides a reason for Cather to include Father Duchene’s otherwise bizarre interpretation of Mother Eve’s death.
A similarly strange moment, which suddenly makes sense when seen with Epicurean eyes, occurs as St. Peter reflects on a conversation with Professor Crane, who is considering suing to gain a share of the profits earned on Outland’s patent. St. Peter muses that “Homer Bright’s rhetoric might influence a jury in a rape or bigamy case, but it would antagonize a judge in an equity court” (148). St. Peter’s mention of rape and bigamy in the context of a patent case is extremely odd. What conceivable reason could he have to connect patents to rape? However, this passage’s striking conjunction of sex, violence, infidelity, and greed makes perfect sense in an Epicurean context in which erotic love is associated with a complex of other negative emotions and actions. Given Cather’s multiple allusions to Helen and the Trojan War, naming the shyster lawyer Homer Bright is also a nice touch.
While Cather overwhelms us with examples of ways change makes us vulnerable to loss, particularly in the realm of passionate love, the larger point is that, living in a mutable world, we always risk loss. If we are unable to remove the experience of change and loss from the world completely, our only remedy is to alter the way we react to these losses. Hellenistic philosophers like Epicurus, “Instead of arranging to bring the good things of this world to each and every human being . . . focus on changes of belief and desire that make their pupil less dependent on the good things of this world. They do not so much show ways of removing injustice as teach the pupil to be indifferent to the injustice she suffers” (Therapy 10), the lesson St. Peter must learn by novel’s end. What could be more Epicurean than learning to live on the “bloomless side of life?” However, he is nowhere near this point at the beginning of the novel, where the general theme of change and loss is introduced with the first sentence, “The moving was over and done” (11). In the context of the novel’s first paragraph, moving of course refers to St. Peter’s change of address. However, in the context of Epicurean physics, moving describes the state of all things always. The universe simply is matter in motion and nothing more. Physically, motion and change are unavoidable. Even after death, the atoms constituting our bodies and souls are rearranged and continue, constantly in motion, endlessly recombined to form one substance after another. Not only is it impossible for humans to resist change; it is impossible for anything to resist change. On the Nature of Things makes this observation with great eloquence and force.
St. Peter, however, still tries to resist changes, even those he knows to be inevitable. He muses that “he could not evade the unpleasant effects of change by tarrying among his autumn flowers” (17); he resists the move to the new house; he forbids Augusta to remove the dress forms from his study; he fights against changes to his university and higher education. St. Peter baits his professional rival and representative of the new order, Professor Langtry, by noting,“There have been many changes, Langtry, and not all of them are good” (54). This exchange is punctuated by the ringing of a church bell, a sound we hear several times throughout the novel, most prominently in the final chapter as St. Peter awakes from near asphyxiation in his study. While some critics have focused on the religious significance of the bells, in an Epicurean context they are important as clocks “ringing the hour” (277). That is, they call our attention to the inevitable passing of time, which is another way of saying the very change St. Peter tries to evade.
These changes, moreover, are unpredictable. As St. Peter tells Augusta, “Life doesn’t turn out for any of us as we plan” (24). In fact, the novel presents life as a series of unforeseen and undesirable changes. Cather’s language of fate and chance makes this point, especially in the concluding chapters, where the novel connects both to Epicureanism and the wider world of Hellenistic and classical philosophy. In this world, the concepts of fate and chance point to a universe outside of our control and not subject to our plans and desires. Nussbaum argues that human “concerns and attachments put the person who cherishes them at the mercy of luck” and that ancient philosophers “seek to limit those risks for the sake of stability of life” by removing “the influence of chance altogether from life” (Fragility xxix–xxx). Cather wrestles with these problems explicitly using the language of fate and chance. For instance, Tom begins his story like this: “The thing that side-tracked me and made me so late coming to college was a somewhat unusual accident or string of accidents. It began with a poker game, when I was a call boy in Pardee, New Mexico” (177, all subsequent italics in this paragraph are my emphasis). He explains his own life story as an accident, an idea recapitulated in the poker game, the frontier version of the wheel of chance crowning the classical goddess Fortune. Just as chance brings Tom and Roddy together, it tears them apart. Roddy tells Tom that his opportunity to sell the artifacts was “a chance in a million” (240) and leaves Tom saying,“here’s luck!” (247). Tom ends his story on a similar note, observing, “I’m not very sanguine about good fortune for myself” (253). Similarly, the final section of the book,“The Professor,” begins and ends with the language of chance and fate. The first sentence of this section reads, “All the most important things in his life, St. Peter sometimes reflected, had been determined by chance.” Even “education in France had been an accident. His married life had been happy largely due through a circumstance with which neither he nor his wife had anything to do” (257). The theme continues with observations like “Tom Outland had been a stroke of chance” (257) and “St. Peter thought he had fared well with fate. He wouldn’t choose to live his life over—he might not have such good luck again” (258), and “His career, his wife, his family, were not his life at all, but a chain of events which had happened to him” (264). In the novel’s closing chapters, this language returns. The wind blowing out the stove is the “long-anticipated coincidence” (276) and “when he was confronted with accidental extinction, he had felt no will to resist, but had let chance take its way, as it had done with him so often” (282). In these examples, events are described as either random or fated and thus outside human control.
The novel depicts human helplessness in order to advance Epicurean strategies and, given the ubiquity of uncontrollable events, asserts that we must learn to manage our reactions to them since we cannot control the events themselves. This is where the professor ends up when, at the novel’s end, he “let something go” (282). Broadly, what he has let go is the desire to hold on to his former passionate life. He accepts the power of chance, which results in apathy. Although the word apathy now seems almost entirely negative, in the context of Hellenistic philosophy it is a desirable condition. While it is associated more with Stoicism than Epicureanism, the basic point remains the same: by refusing to let events outside one’s control affect one’s emotions, to make one happy or sad, one can achieve ataraxia, the tranquil life without joy or grief that Epicureans saw as the ultimate achievement.
There is, however, an additional way to address the problems of change and loss faced by St. Peter. An Epicurean solution, particularly to the problems of erotic relationships, is friendship, perhaps even an all-male “family” of friends as we see with Roddy, Tom, and Henry on the Mesa, or with St. Peter when he abandons his vision of being picturesquely shipwrecked with Lillian for a fantasy of sailing the Spanish coast in a boat devoid of women and children. Unfortunately, St. Peter’s vision is pure fantasy and friendships end, either through death, as Tom and Henry’s violent ends demonstrate, or through misunderstanding, as happens with Tom and Roddy. Absent friendship, the only alternative seems to be isolation, as the professor vividly expresses in a misogynist outburst: “I was thinking . . . about Euripides; how, when he was an old man, he went and lived in a cave by the sea, and it was thought queer, at the time. It seemed that houses had become insupportable to him. I wonder whether it was because he had observed women so closely all his life” (154). Robbed of his friendship with Outland, his collegial relationship with Professor Crane strained by a dispute over money from Outland’s invention, the Thierault brothers far away in Europe, St. Peter finds that masculine companionship is no longer an option.
Isolation, however, is not an Epicurean alternative. Epicurus famously argues that friendship is the greatest of goods: “Of the things which wisdom provides for the blessedness of one’s whole life, by far the greatest is the possession of friendship,” and “The noble man is most involved with wisdom and friendship, of which one is a mortal good, the other immortal” (Inwood 34, 40). Perhaps most moving is a letter from his deathbed which Epicurus writes to his friend Idomeneus: “I write this to you while experiencing a blessedly happy day, and at the same time the last day of my life. Urinary blockages and dysenteric comforts afflict me which could not be surpassed for their intensity. But against all these things are ranged the joy in my soul produced by the recollection of the discussions we have had” (Inwood 79). Recollecting his discussions with Outland is not, however, enough to bring the professor joy. From an Epicurean perspective, this lack of pleasurable friendship indicates there is something fundamentally wrong with St. Peter. He is desperately unhappy; erotic love and his family no longer give him pleasure; he has no friends and no desire to make new ones.
The only way out of his misery seems to be death, which he looks at as “release from every form of obligation, from every form of effort” (272). The professor gets his chance at this release when the attic stove goes out, threatening him with asphyxiation. A random occurrence gives him the opportunity to euthanize himself passively; he can die without the stigma of premeditated suicide. If Augusta is to be believed, St. Peter rejects this opportunity and tries to leave the room. When he awakens, having been saved by Augusta, he finds her presence “a comfort” and asks her to stay with him. He sees her as a representative of “humankind” and reflects that “If he had thought of Augusta sooner, he would have got up from the couch sooner. Her image would have at once suggested the proper action” (279). St. Peter realizes that he feels no obligations toward his family and that “He had let something go—and it was gone: something very precious, that he could not consciously have relinquished probably” (282). This realization coincides with another: “He had never learned to live without delight. And he would have to learn to, just as, in a Prohibition country, he supposed he would have to live without sherry. Theoretically he knew that life is possible, may be even pleasant, without joy, without passionate griefs. But it had never occurred to him that he might have to live like that” (282). These passages, which are often read as distressing and even despairing, are consoling in an Epicurean context and show St. Peter at the conclusion of his philosophical education. He has learned to let go of the pursuit of delight, joy, grief, and passion, including the joys and griefs of erotic love, status, and acquisition.
For an Epicurean, freedom from these emotions and relationships is an unambiguously good thing. St. Peter is left with a pleasant life, a life free of tumultuous emotion and disturbance. He embraces, in the words of Tennyson’s Lucretius,“the Passionless bride, divine Tranquility, / Yearn’d after by the wisest of the wise” (220). Given the Epicurean definition of pleasure as the absence of pain, this is simply as good as it gets. If we readers see this as a sad concession and still crave a world of great pleasures and their attendant pains, we are not yet perceiving things as Epicureans, and our philosophical education is incomplete. It is enough to live, outward bound, in “a world full of Augustas” (281), that is, in a world full of friends, a world (symbolized by Augusta as a “bloomless” spinster) without passionate, erotic desire. St. Peter “lets go” an illusory happiness and replaces it with a real source of pleasure and goodness. By letting go of the part of himself he identifies as “the lover,” he is able to again welcome friendship, that highest of Epicurean goods, into his life. In a world full of change and loss, of passionate violence, of greed and jealousy, embracing stable Epicurean pleasures is a victory rather than a defeat.
This interpretation of the novel, however, creates a problem when reading the entire body of Cather’s work. The problem is this: If Cather links the creation of art to passion and desire, as she often does in her novels and stories, what becomes of art when Epicurean ataraxia is the goal? A number of possible responses suggest themselves. The first is to note that Lucretius himself managed to create a great work of art, On the Nature of Things, so it must be possible to be both an artist and an Epicurean. But how can this be? Perhaps we can explain it by noting that nobody starts out life as an Epicurean in a state of ataraxia. We must first experience joy, despair, and desire and then work our way from them to the truths of Epicurean philosophy. The memories of these emotional disturbances might serve as inspiration and material for art, even to an Epicurean who is now free of the disturbances themselves. There may be something of Wordsworth’s famous “emotion recollected in tranquility” here. Or perhaps Cather is simply not concerning herself with this question in The Professor’s House. For the purposes of this novel, it may be that she is interested only in the larger problem of how to cope with change and loss and is not worried about how this coping affects the creative process of the artist. In any case, there certainly is an important tension in Cather’s work between a vision of art as a timeless refuge that transcends the petty annoyances of daily life (think of Outland on the Mesa) and a vision that looks at the creative process of the artist in terms of desire, struggle, and strife (the “fervour in the blood and brain” from which “books were born as well as daughters” ). It seems to me that with works of Cather’s middle period, like The Professor’s House, the emphasis begins to move toward the timeless refuge view of art and away from the passionate struggle of the artist, although both perspectives are always present in her fiction.