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From Cather Studies Volume 4

Willa Cather's Condition

Disease, Doctors, and Diagnoses as Social Action

Malaise casts its shadow over much of Willa Cather's fiction, but the somber presence of disease is most strikingly, indeed unremittingly, central to her novel of old Quebec, Shadows on the Rock. Disease in diverse, sometimes grotesque forms grounds this work. From the dignity of Count Frontenac's last illness through the mundaneness of Frichette's hernia to the bizarreness of Blinker's afflictions, Cather's characters are to some extent defined by the diseases they present, are identifiable by their conditions, are patients. Most importantly, they require the professional attentions of Euclide Auclair, the apothecary, whose professional burden it is to somehow lighten such afflictions by practicing his "dark science" (Shadows 212). And, although disease and dying never abate in Cather's old Quebec, although Auclair's professional ministrations are far from universally successful, although the season always seems to be the dead of winter (in spite of Cather's occasional mention that summer does occur), and although everyone seems to move in the marginal light of sunsets or candles, which merely intensifies the shadows surrounding them, Cather yet persuades us that she is depicting Quebec's golden age. What sort of sense can we make of this combination of medicalizing focus and romantic nostalgia we find in Shadows on the Rock?

A pattern begins to emerge when we consider the disease-shadowed world of old Quebec in relation to the rest of Cather's work. Turning to the summarizing "Kronborg" section of The Song of the Lark, we find Dr. Archie asking Thea if she had been "in love" with Nordquist, a singer with whom she'd worked. She replies: "I don't think I know just what that expression means. I've never been able to find out. I think I was in love with you when I was little, but not with anyone since then. There are a great many ways of caring for people. It's not, after all, a simple state, like measles or tonsillitis" (381). Dr. Archie, who wants to hear that Thea has a happy, normal personal life outside her work, asks his question "hopefully": her answer is one he neither hopes for nor expects. Thea's negative simile for love is rather startling. Love, she implies, differs from conditions of ill health like measles and tonsillitis not in its basic state or nature but merely in its degree of complexity. Thea resists a conventionally positive definition of romantic or sexual love: within her epistemological uncertainty ("I don't think I know just what that expression means") she suggests that being in love is a diseased state that is at once more serious, more complex, less comprehensible (and more potentially threatening) than "simple" childhood maladies such as measles and tonsillitis.

Thea's negative simile that connects romantic love with the destructive power of disease seems related to Blanche Gelfant's contention that in Cather's work "whenever sex [or love or romantic involvement] enters the real world . . . it becomes destructive, leading almost axiomatically to death" (96). Gelfant's assessment of Cather's treatment of sex in her texts concurs with Elizabeth Hampsten's findings that women between 1880 and 1910 "wrote about sexuality, disease, and death as though they expected to slide by degrees from one to the other" (102). However, Thea's comment about love seems less an acknowledgment of the negative trend of this medical liebestod continuum (though I believe such a trend to be operative as well) than of an uncertainty about and a resistance to conventional nomenclature, whether romanticizing or medicalizing.

Disease, doctors, and patients tend to predominate in Cather's writings. As we have seen, Euclide Auclair and his interactions with people as patients in need of treatment frame the story in Shadows on the Rock. The Song of the Lark begins with the words "Dr. Howard Archie"; his presence, too, frames the story, in this case the story of the rise to fame of his favorite patient, Thea. As the above excerpt suggests, he continually provides occasion for Thea to reveal diagnostically significant glimpses of her inner life. But every story of Cather's, it seems, is susceptible to description in terms of its medical focus. "Neighbour Rosicky" makes use of this same framing strategy: Dr. Burleigh is introduced in his diagnostic role in this short story's first line. Reduced to a mere "Dr. Ed" by the end of the story, this physician nonetheless has the last word on his patient's life and death. Both "A Death in the Desert" and "On the Gull's Road" focus on women who are patients, cases: outstandingly beautiful, gifted, and doomed by disease to early death, these characters are presented to the reader, if not by doctors, then by diagnostic and evaluative male voices (Collected Short Fiction). Sapphira and the Slave Girl and My Mortal Enemy foreground two famously impatient sufferers of untreatable disease. Alexandra in O Pioneers! begins to demonstrate her powers only upon her father's sickness and death. Jim Burden arrives in the world of his Ántonia only because his parents have sickened and died. We could describe The Professor's House as a house of sickness, of utter "dis-ease," for Godfrey St. Peter, for his family, even for the structure of the house itself. The story of that lost lady Marian Forrester is framed and motivated by medicalized events: Marian meets the Captain, her husband, when she breaks her legs in a hiking accident; the Captain's stroke and ultimate death increase her "dis-ease" with her world; her desperate strategies for coping with such medically induced difficulties both elucidate and distort Niel's image of her; Niel, the narrator, can enter the magic circle of Marian's world only by experiencing his own medicalized event (a broken limb). And, now recognized as Cather's first extensive piece of writing, The Life of Mary Baker Eddy and the History of Christian Science, in particular revolves around medical (or antimedical) issues of disease, healing, and health. The extent of this (incomplete) list of Cather's medically implicated texts may indicate the centrality of Cather's use of disease tropes. The question is, what sort of use does she make of such tropes, such medicalized naming of so much of human experience as "disease"?

It seems clear from the extent of the foregoing incomplete catalog of the disease-doctor-patient nexus in Cather's work that a medicalizing, science-based model of human existence in some way determines many of the choices Cather makes in constructing her stories, in her choices of act, scene, agent, agency, or purpose that determine her narrative. Cather seems very concerned with what sickness is, what health is, how these binary states are mediated and by whom (or by what). What is not clear, especially at first glance, is why Cather, to whose romanticism Bernice Slote and Susan J. Rosowski attest (Rosowski ix), should find this medico-scientific model, with its necessary corporeal materialism, both attractive and useful. Romanticism, as Rosowski indicates, is fundamentally "in reaction against dehumanizing implications of the scientific world view" and characterized by a privileging of the individual imagination that can synthesize and "create meaning in an alien or meaningless material world"(x). Surely her use of the trope of the diseased human organism as a mechanism that is broken and may be repaired or discarded (as Cather does mostly explicitly in "Paul's Case," where she asserts that, as the train hits the protagonist, "the picture-making mechanism was crushed" [Collected Short Fiction 261]) does not participate in the conventions of romanticism.

Critics, if they agree on nothing else about Cather, generally concur that Cather's attitudes toward her subject matter are hard to pin down and seemingly contradictory. Deborah Lambert speaks of Cather's "inconsistencies and contradictions" (119) of attitude that seem to pervade what Judith Fetterley in turn calls Cather's "remarkably powerful and remarkably contradictory" texts (43). And these troublesome contradictions, such as Cather's apparent oscillation between antifeminism and feminism, between medico-scientific and romantic stances, are nowhere more apparent than in her treatment of "sex roles and sexuality" (Lambert 119)—the diseaselike "love" that Thea's medicalizing epistemological uncertainty draws our attention to. However, I suggest that Cather's ambivalences and inconsistencies, rather than unraveling into inexplicable strands of contradiction, may instead form the warp and woof of both her life and her texts. Seemingly opposing threads, woven together, may fabricate a whole cloth, a coherent attitude. I want, then, to examine the possibility that Cather's model of human existence, although expressed in medico-scientific imagery, is in specific reaction against medico-scientificism with its particular authoritative and normalizing naming functions. And I will argue that Cather's equation of what Gelfant calls sex in the "real world" (96) (that is, heterosexual experience in the "real" world) with death or illness reflects what, on the authority of Jane Rule's 1975 pronouncement in Lesbian Images, I will presume to call Cather's lesbian viewpoint. I am suggesting that her antimedico-scientific bias is connected with the medico-scientific establishment's naming of lesbianism as disease or dysfunction. Her unwillingness to portray heterosexual unions "in the real world" as positively healthy may be of a piece with her resistance to such naming as well. That is, Cather's romantic resistance to the medico-scientific model of human existence and interaction, in conjunction with her putative sexual orientation, suggests the disparate threads—biographical, historical, literary—that can be teased out of her texts and woven together to make a pattern that coheres. And this pattern can then be taken out of the shadows of negative namings and considered in the light.


In two hundred years doctors will rule the world. Science reigns already. It reigns in the shade, maybe—but it reigns. And all science must culminate at last in the science of healing—not the weak, but the strong. Mankind wants to live—to live. —Ossipon, the anarchist in Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent

Cather demonstrated an early familiarity with and predisposition toward science and medicine by presenting herself to the world as "William Cather, MD," her self-created adolescent identity and aspiration. Cather persisted as "William Cather, MD," for four years, beginning at the age of 14 (O'Brien 96). During that time she enthusiastically dissected various dogs and cats in Red Cloud in the interest of scientific experimentation, engaged in "toad-slicing," and "pursued her vocation seriously, making house calls with the two Red Cloud physicians, and on one occasion, giving chloroform while one of them amputated a boy's leg" (Lambert 120).

It is important to distinguish among the several related but distinct threads of the young Cather's medico-scientific enthusiasm. Science and medicine clearly appealed to Cather for their own sakes. She was drawn to the challenge of exercising her mind with the rigors of such study, hence the M.D. part of her adolescent identity. And in her graduation speech she strongly endorsed science and scientific experimentation, citing science as "the hope of our age" (O'Brien 113). However, in that same speech, as O'Brien indicates, Cather "placed herself in a tradition of experimenters who became respected authorities" (113). It is this thread of desire for recognition, authoritative status, and the right to name, to define, as well as to investigate that I am suggesting inspired Cather to assert herself as Doctor "William." Doctors, scientists, were and are figures of some authority in society; they are empowered to name, to diagnose, and prescribe for the diseased condition of humanity. And doctors who indeed rescue the diseased from suffering and death wield great and arguably desirable power through what the older and more disenchanted Cather was to call their "dark science" (Shadows 212).

A connecting thread of romanticism runs through Cather's early medico-scientific enthusiasm as well. The appeal of the doctor figure for Cather, O'Brien suggests, was furthered by the presence of an important doctor in her home life. O'Brien reports that "a serious illness during which [Virginia Cather, Willa's mother] became attached to Dr. McKeeby immediately preceded the daughter's medical apprenticeship" (91). Dr. McKeeby, in a manner both heroic and dramatic, "achieved the patient's confidence along with her recovery" in what was called a "miraculous" cure; he transacted this cure in the best romantic tradition, wherein a powerful individual pits his imagination and resources against worthy opposition (91). Dr. McKeeby's success as a healer, with its manifestation of individual and imaginative transforming power, would have appealed to Cather's romanticism and inspired her emulation as strongly as would its medico-scientific aspects.

But in Cather's day doctors, those powerful namers, rescuers, transformers, were male. "What man in his right mind would ever [even?] marry a female doctor?" O'Brien quotes from the Webster County Argus (99). In patriarchal Red Cloud such female unmarriageability was a "fate worse than death" and was envisioned as sufficient threat of fit punishment to keep in line such females as might transgressively aspire to be doctors. Although Cather did not aspire to marriage, she did aspire. So Cather's interest in science and medicine, which she coupled with an assumed male identity (and thus at least temporarily neatly side-stepped the marriage issue), may also be seen as her bid for greater power, greater authority than was willingly or easily accorded to women in her day. Carroll Smith-Rosenberg asserts that the doctor's "would-be scientific views reflected and helped shape social definitions of the appropriate bounds of woman's role and identity" (qtd. in O'Brien 92): Cather's assumed male identity, and indeed her early medico-scientific interests, are connected to her desire to be on the authoritative side of that (male) doctor-(female) patient equation. Cather was opting for the male-gendered freedom to be the namer, not the named, and not primarily indulging a desire to cross gender boundaries. This is not to deny or diminish the importance of lesbianism but to make clear that such a sexual preference operates in a different arena from career choice and from desire for social power. Given her ambition and ability, even without a predilection toward her own sex, Cather might easily have preferred to be male, to be accorded male rights and privileges. Regardless of which aspect of the medico-scientific figure of the doctor that we believe most attracted Cather in her adolescence, however, it seems clear that the practice of medical science in her "Doctor William" days represented to her a site of power—one ultimately unavailable to her because of her gender, whatever costume she might affect and one that she finally abandoned.

When she went to college, Cather returned at least superficially to the conformity of her female "Willa" identity. I could argue that she transferred her early skill with the scalpel to the written dissections of the human condition that give her work—perhaps especially her work on Mary Baker Eddy—the almost surgically incisive quality of a case study of abnormal psychology. And I could further suggest that her experimental interest reemerged as an interest in experimenting with literary form, with genre. But to suggest that she merely outgrew, transcended, or transferred her adolescent infatuation with medical science does not satisfactorily resolve the contradiction, the split between science and romanticism, that perplexes Cather's readers. Why, for example, if Cather was seduced by the medico-scientific world-view, combining as it did power and authority with "the hope of the future," are the doctors with which she so plentifully supplies her texts presented as ineffectual?


Illness expands by means of two hypotheses. The first is that every form of social deviation can be considered an illness. Thus, if criminal behavior can be considered an illness, then criminals are not to be condemned or punished but to be understood . . . treated, cured. The second is that every illness can be considered psychologically. Illness is interpreted as, basically, a psychological event, and people are encouraged to believe that they get sick because they (unconsciously) want to, and that they can cure themselves by the mobilization of the will; that they can choose not to die of the disease. These two hypotheses are complementary. As the first seems to relieve guilt, the second reinstates it. Psychological theories of illness are a powerful means of placing blame on the "ill." —Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor (my emphasis)

Carl von Westphal, Lillian Faderman asserts, began the process of medicalizing lesbianism in 1869 with his psychological study of the case of a young woman who was both a tomboy and attracted to women. With the publication of his work lesbianism entered the canon of medically named diseases. Inspired by Westphal's work, Richard von Krafft-Ebing confirmed this "lesbian morbidity" in his Psychopathia Sexualis. Lesbianism was a disease, he announced, a condition in need of rectifying, caused by "cerebral anomalies": lesbianism was "a functional sign of degeneration," simultaneously inheritable and pathological (Faderman 241). Havelock Ellis, in 1897, popularized this naming and medicalizing of the "disease" of lesbianism in his Studies in the Psychology of Sex: Sexual Inversion, a book that Faderman asserts enshrined and popularized these stereotypes of "lesbian morbidity" in the medical canon (241). Cather—a well-read, quick-minded woman with scientific and medical interests—could hardly have been unaware of this development in scientific thought or of the ways in which such scientific diagnosing medicalized, marginalized, and disapproved of her own sexual preference. She could hardly have failed to be much disturbed by this development. From the defiantly public "William Cather, MD," phases, Cather moved toward a more conventional sexual persona—or at least a more femininely attired one. But the medicalization of lesbianism defined Cather, as she must have been well aware, as diseased, no matter what her overt behavior might have been. If deviation from social norms must be considered an illness, a dysfunction to be cured, Cather and all lesbians must be defined as patients, however much they might resist that role. If such a deviational illness was considered, as Sontag suggests (57), primarily a problem, a defect of the deviant will (the patient could recover if she would correctly mobilize her will), then naming lesbianism as disease also blames lesbians for willfully engaging in such social deviation, such ill health. Medicalizing lesbianism in fact makes sure that the individuals thus defined as sick, as patients, are excluded from naming functions: sick people by definition may not be objective about naming their own condition or anything else. Clearly, lesbians, by definition, must be defying what Smith-Rosenberg describes as the power of doctors to define and shape women's roles and identities under the guise of describing what is healthy, undiseased. And such defiance is written into every mention that Cather makes of doctors in her texts.


Euclide Auclair, the apothecary of old Quebec, although central to the story of Quebec's golden age in Shadows on the Rock, is generally unable to cure illness. Granted, Auclair's desire to cure is impeded by the novel's being set in the seventeenth century, prior to the medico-scientific advances that the young Cather praised. But in spite of this distinction, Cather shows this medical practitioner, struggling with disease as do all Cather's doctors, with the best that is available to him according to his own lights and likewise losing the battle: the dynamics (and the results) are no different from those experienced or achieved by nineteenth- or twentieth-century doctors. Auclair's wife dies of a cough that he is powerless to cure (10). He arrives too late at the convent to treat Mother Juschereau's sprained ankle, which has mended regardless (34). He can do nothing for Frontenac, his patron who is dying, except to keep him company and promise to do what is necessary to send Frontenac's heart back to France upon his death. "We will have no more remedies. The machine is worn out, certainly, but if we let it alone it may go a little longer" Frontenac insists (249), suggesting he no longer has the strength to withstand the dangerous ineptitudes of medicine. Auclair himself deplores most remedies: "He was strongly opposed to indiscriminate blood-letting. . . . [Auclair's] opposition to the practice lost him many of his patrons" (29, 30). And he further resists dispensing other remedies much in demand in his part of the seventeenth century, like viper broth and unicorn horn (212, 213). In fact, his stock in trade leans heavily to preserved figs, apricots, and cherries and candied lemon and orange rind: treats, not medicine. His most successful intervention, reminiscent of Dr. Archie sewing up the flax-poultice for Thea, is to make a truss for a coureur du bois who has a hernia, and even so, Auclair acknowledges that this device will merely make the man more comfortable, not cure him (145). In fact, Cather has populated Auclair's Quebec with multitudes of characters who are "made comfortable" in spite of their intractable ailments: Blinker and his partially eroded jaw, Frichette and his hernia, Frontenac and his fatal disease, Mme. Pommier andher disabling, badly healed broken hip, Bishop Laval and his bad legs—and even Auclair's own daughter, Cécile, who develops a rather alarming fever and chest condition, the ultimate conclusion of which they simply "wait out," while of course making her as comfortable as possible.

Dr. Archie in The Song of the Lark seems at first glance a powerful figure, physically, socially, and medically. Certainly he is a sympathetic figure. But, Cather insists, in spite of his "massive shoulders" and his socially prominent position in Moonstone, he is only "a distinguished-looking man, for that part of the world"—a figure who only seems large or distinguished, for lack of a sophisticated standard of comparison (3). Such undercutting, which Cather begins on the first page of this novel through the use of this geographical limiter, may start with Dr. Archie's appearance but slices much deeper. Dr. Archie's medical endeavors are also apparently only good enough "for that part of the world." (And can the implication here be that the medical model, as well, is only a partial good, at best?) Our first glimpse of Dr. Archie as a doctor is when he attends Thea's mother at the birth of her seventh child. The birth, unproblematic, takes place offstage; Cather does not report that Dr. Archie need do more than observe the process. After the birth he observes that Thea, neglected in the fuss surrounding the birth, is ill with pneumonia. Again, besides observing and naming the condition, he does little to assist, beyond the rather effeminate sewing of Thea into a flax poultice, a nurturing (what Granny would have done), not a scientific gesture. Cather makes it clear that it was Thea's remarkable constitution, not the doctor's ministrations, that pulled her through. Dr. Archie, in Thea's company,observes and names the diseases and social discomforts of Spanish Johnny and of Professor Wunsch; he does not or cannot "cure" them, make them conform to the norms of Moonstone. More dramatically, Dr. Archie can only look on and diagnose doom for Ray after his train accident. As well, Dr. Archie can only observe and evaluate Thea's potential in a very generalized way: "There was something very different about her" (9), a difference he unscientifically intuits that makes her "worth the whole litter" (8). While Dr. Archie is proven correct in his intuition of Thea's worth—Thea succeeds against the odds—he can do little for her. He is perhaps most effective after he gives up his medical practice and devotes himself to making money speculating in mines; his newly achieved wealth allows him to lend Thea the money that at once frees her from dependence on Fred and allows her to pursue her studies abroad.

Nor are other doctors in Cather's work more able to cure their patients' diseases. In Sapphira and the Slave Girl, Sapphira's dropsy is untreatable by doctors. Even old Jezebel, on her own death bed, finds the energy to comment with some disgust on medical ineffectualness: "Oh, Missy, cain't dem doctors in Winchester do nothin' fur you? What's dey good fur,anyways?" (87). What, indeed? When word reaches Sapphira that her granddaughters are ill with diphtheria, she deprecates the attending doctor's ability even to name, to diagnose the problem, much less treat it: "Brush! Why the man's an ignoramus! It may be measles, for all he knows"(254). She's right about Brush's incapacity, of course. Dr. Brush's regime of treatment—starvation, dehydration, and punitive throat swabbing—kills off the majority of his diphtheria patients. Mary, the granddaughter who survives, does so by finding and drinking an unattended and prohibited bowl of chicken broth. She can achieve this only because the medical proxy whose job was to prevent her from drinking anything is "remiss" and passively watches while she drinks it. The "scientific method" of the "good" doctor Clavanger (opposite number to the inept Brush) is to do nothing interventive or even "medical": he chats pleasantly with his patients and gives them glasses of water. And Betty, Sapphira's other granddaughter, dies in spite of this enlightened attendance.

Godfrey St. Peter, of The Professor's House, whom Augusta addresses as doctor, participates in Cather's celebration of ineffectual doctors on both sides of the equation: he is a doctor (of history, a designation that, if not medical, still puts him in the ranks of authorized namers, diagnosticians) and he is a patient. At the end of his summer of withdrawal from his family and from his previous life, after a profound series of inner transformations, and after a premonition that his life is nearly over, he rather prosaically decides to see a doctor. Dr. Dudley, as his name predicts, is, in spite of performing "tests of the most searching kind" on St. Peter, a diagnostic dud. He sends St. Peter on his way, saying "There's nothing the matter with you. Follow your inclination" (144). As St. Peter is indeed feeling nonmaterial, not to say incorporeal, this inclination leads him to his old study where the malfunctioning stove "coincidentally" all but satisfies his suicidal impulse.

Dr. Ed Burleigh, in "Neighbour Rosicky," appears, at least, to be accurate in his diagnosis of his patient Rosicky's problem. Rosicky is indeed deemed to be ill—(is Cather flagging this admission by inserting the word sick in the center of the patient's name?) Certainly the "problem" is Rosicky's heart. And just as clearly, Dr. Ed is powerless to do anything to prolong his patient's life or to understand the metaphorical import of Rosicky's condition. At the end of the story Cather underlines Dr. Ed's failure—the failure of the medico-scientific model—by confronting and confounding him with the reality of the graveyard wherein his patient has been recently buried: "Everything here seemed strangely significant, though signifying what, he did not know" (70). How could he? Instead, all Dr. Ed can do is congratulate Rosicky on his death and his resting place: "Nothing could be more right for a man who had ... always longed for the open country and had got it at last" (71).

Cather relates, with sarcastic relish, "Doctor" Mary Baker Eddy's transformation from a demanding, neurotic invalid to the leader of amedico-religious movement—Christian Science—whose exceedingly unscientific tenets include the denial of the existence of disease, indeed the denial of matter itself. Cather relates that "Eddy asserted that there is no matter and that we have no senses" (179), making disease and cure both imaginary functions of our equally illusory brains. She further reports Eddy saying that "the fruit of the tree which Eve gave to Adam was .. . 'a medical work, perhaps'" (191). The pattern that I have been unfolding in Cather's treatment of doctors and their general effectiveness might seem to suggest that Cather and Eddy could agree about the medical-text-as-apple-of-temptation analogy. However, Eddy and Christian Science are as rigorously prescriptive about naming and as ineffective at actually healing patients as are all the other doctors that Cather writes about. Eddy and her "science," which blames the patient for entertaining erring, disease-inducing ideas, receive disdainful treatment at Cather's hands. Cather relates the story of a family in Des Moines who became devout converts to Christian Science—and whose two small children died as a result of Christian Science "treatment" (that is to say nontreatment) when they became ill. Cather includes a plaintive letter from the distraught parents:"Why this termination?" they implored (323-25), death being another thing in which Eddy proscribed belief. By including such plaintive examples of the fallacy of this view, Cather firmly opposes the view that disease is illusory.

Cather's presentation of doctors and their "dark science" reads like a casebook that obsessively documents medico-scientific malpractice. And Cather's presentation of heterosexual "love" as diseased, disturbing, and frequently fatal competes with and counters Krafft-Ebing's documentation of instances of lesbian degeneracy and indeed could be seen to parallel that text.


Nothing more deeply engrosses a man than his burdens. . . . And so the poet may come to have a "vested interest" in his handicaps; these handicaps may become an integral part of his method; and in so far as his style grows out of a disease, his loyalty to it may reinforce the disease. And it bears again upon the subject of "symbolic action," with the poet's burdens symbolic of his style, and his style symbolic of his burdens. ——Kenneth Burke, Philosophy of Literary Form

I have suggested that Cather's work is marked by her resistance to the medico-scientific apparatus. Medical science, with its self-authorizing naming functions, operates against the worldview of romanticism, in which Cather clearly participated. Her resistance to the naming function—which is also the function that gives the namers control over the named—is comprehensible, too, as resistance to the recent medicalization of lesbianism, which I believe was a central feature of Cather's own life. The burden of being so named, so diagnosed as Other and disempowered, because diseased, by the medico-scientific world seems likely, as Burke implies, to condition the choices of subject and presentation in such an artist's work. Thus the symbolic action of Cather's presentation of heterosexual "love" as diseased, as universally flawed, is to redress that balance, to turn the carpet and show the pattern of diseased heterosexuality that comes through on the other side. Cather's characters seem indeed to all be "cases": "Paul's Case" is simply a more overtly medicalized presentation. Paul, as Judith Butler reminds us, is of course susceptible to a medicalizing interpretation of his own sexuality (162-66): Cather is not saying the pattern is untroubled on either side of the carpet. Love, in some sense, does equal death: no mortality (or life) without sex. Certainly in My Ántonia, Ántonia's father dies of the ramifications of ill-advised heterosexual love, while Ántonia frequently pays the price of heterosexuality through societal disapproval. Her dancing, her employment by Wick Cutter, her relationship with the disappearing Donovan, all put her on the wrong side of Black Hawk ideas of heterosexual health—for what we might call "practicing without a license." In this novel, too, Pavel and Peter demonstrate a "cure" for a life-threatening situation (the attack on the sleighs by a wolf pack) occasioned by an ill-advised marriage celebration: they jettison the originating, heterosexual cause of the problem, the bride and groom, and effect an at least temporary get-away cure. And in O Pioneers! Amadée, after his effusive praise of the married state and the joys of reproduction, is killed off promptly and ironically enough because he ignores his appendicitis in favor of enhancing his family's wealth by making the most of the new machinery. Marie and Emile die of consummated heterosexuality. Cautionary tales, all. A few more extensive examples will elucidate.

Dr. Archie's marital situation illustrates Cather's stance toward the disease of romantic, heterosexual love and its victims. Mrs. Archie, née Belle White, whom he married while he was in a disordered state of blind, heterosexual infatuation, presents many symptoms of such illness and indeed symbolizes Dr. Archie's, and indeed all of Moonstone's, marital disease. On their wedding day "his besotted confidence, his sober, radiant face, his gentle, protecting arm, made [her relatives] uncomfortable. Well, they were glad that he was going West at once, to fulfill his doom where they would not be onlookers. Anyhow, they consoled themselves, they had got Belle off their hands" (Song 31).

Belle is afflicted with manifest heterosexuality—we are presented with her successful seduction of her husband—and, further, presents many secondary symptoms of the worst of female heterosexuality. She is pathologically frugal, her housekeeping is obsessive, and indeed she dies of obsessive cleaning when, in cautiously scrubbing with gasoline, which explodes, she incinerates herself and the marital home as well.

Belle's symptomology and behavior, if distressing, do not surprise Dr.Archie: "In his work he saw pretty deeply into marital relations in Moonstone, and he could honestly say that there were not many of his friends whom he envied. . . . 'hanging and wiving go by destiny.' If wiving went badly with a man—and it did oftener than not—then he must do the best he could to keep up appearances and help the tradition of domestic happiness along"(Song 76).

In an interesting redefinition of "romantic," Cather diagnoses Archie's heterosexual disease as exacerbated by romance: as a patient, "thed etermining factor about Dr. Archie was that he was romantic. He had married Belle White because he was romantic—too romantic." (76). Wiving does not govery well for anyone in The Song of the Lark. Fred's first wife, who causes him to succumb to a disastrous bout of marriage through her infectious heterosexuality, makes their lives a misery. Dr. Archie has the last (medical) word about her: "a woman with general paresis should be legally dead" (380).

In Sapphira and the Slave Girl Sapphira's condition of diseased heterosexuality is more complex (than measles? than tonsillitis?). Because she is immobilized by dropsy, her only, and arguably diseased, outlet is to manipulate individuals around her, to control their behavior. When she wrongly believes that her husband is sexually interested in her slave, Nancy, her response is indeed both sick and heterosexual. She creates a situation that would have ensured, if it had persisted, that Nancy would be raped by her husband's nephew, the nephew an unwitting but mindlessly enthusiastic and manipulable proxy for both Sapphira's husband's putative desires and her own revenge. Heterosexual experience thus is figured not only as disease but as a means of revenge, of punishment.

In "Neighbour Rosicky" it may seem at first glance that—exceptionally—heterosexuality, "wiving," has gone well for him. And indeed the image of Mary and her ever-present pan of kolache would seem to epitomize heterosexual bliss, or at least blissful comestibility. But the relationship of Rosicky's son Rudolph and daughter-in-law Polly is more heterosexually problematic. In some respects Rosicky's demise (of his heart) is a sacrificial gesture, symbolically both a response to and a cure for Polly and Rudolph's disease. Caring for Rosicky after his heart attack causes Polly to become resigned both to country life and to her husband: "It had been like an awakening to her" (67). But the enterprise of effecting this cure of heterosexual disease is indeed too much for Rosicky—he dies—and the reader might well wonder if the disease of Polly and Rudolph, like the thistles that Rosicky is weeding out when his heart attack strikes, could not easily return.

Heterosexuality is clearly implicated in Katherine's death in the desert. Her obsession with Adriance Hilgarde, who regards her as, at best, a friend, has replaced, displaced, her career in music. With her career, her real life, removed by this heterosexual obsession, Katherine can only die, fittingly, of consumption—that operatically ennobled disease of heroines who nevertheless fail in the love and power game. She is consumed, to the last degree, to her dying words—"Ah, dear Adriance, dear, dear" ("A Death in the Desert," Collected Short Fiction 217). Even the narrator is consumed by this surplus of heterosexuality represented by Adriance: he is Adriance's brother and resembles him to the degree that people he comes in contact with (but particularly women) consistently mistake him for his famous brother. Indeed, Everett, the narrator, seems to be in unsuccessful flight from this erosion of identity that such constant misidentification reinforces.

Like Neighbour Rosicky, Alexandra Ebbling's problem is said to be her heart:"She had a bad heart valve . . . and was said to be in a serious way,"reports the ship's doctor ("Gulls' Road," Collected Short Fiction 82). But clearly heterosexuality and the position of women in her day exacerbates or conditions this problem. The narrator of "On the Gulls' Road" tell us that she married Lars Ebbling as her only escape from Finmark; her heart problems develop subsequently (in response to his heterosexual philanderings?). When her heart becomes further implicated in a shipboard romance with the narrator, she is too ill as well as too married to do more than acknowledge the experience and return to Finmark to die.

In My Mortal Enemy, Myra's diseased heterosexuality takes the form of another blind, ill-advised, romantic marriage, like the Shimerdas', like Fred's, like Dr. Archie's. She marries Oswald on the strength of this heterosexual love and, disinherited by her uncle, finds over time that it is not enough to live on or for. Similar to Mr. Shimerda's situation, poverty becomes a major and distressing symptom. But most importantly, heterosexual jealousy, combined with a very unromantic disillusioning about the nature of her partner and his inability to be who she had imagined him to be, become more symptomatically significant. Her disintegrating illusions about the relationship are metonymic with her disintegrating body under the sway of an incurable disease. She dies, of her marriage, of her disease, revisioning her former beloved, her erstwhile heterosexuality, her illusions as metonymic with her disease itself; she dies with the question hanging in the air "Why must I die like this, alone with my mortal enemy?"(95).

And heterosexuality is inimical to old Quebec's golden age of "twilight and miracles" (50). In Shadows on the Rock Euclide Auclair, though married, is not a sexual being—he is widowed. Cécile, whom we are told marries the dashing Pierre, does so between the count's death and the epilogue, offstage, her future sexuality all but excluded from the foregrounded image of the prepubescent Cécile. The only actively sexual being in this novel is Jacques's mother, the prostitute 'Toinette, La Grenouille. Her subhuman frog-nature, combined with her absolute ineptitude as a mother, is symptomatic of further disease, in no way celebratory of heterosexuality. Her condition, rather, causes suffering to her son, Jacques, and unease to her community in general.

Caroline Miller's groundbreaking article "Genre as Social Action" builds on and explicitly alludes to Burke's discussion of symbolic action (23). Miller contends that every choice of mode of expression (which ultimately conditions what can be expressed) is an action that has social and political consequences. So while Burke suggests that the burden, the illness of an artist is symbolically central to what she expresses and influences her choices about what to express, I, with Miller, want to add to Burke's concept an active social and political dimension. Cather confides to her readers that she is most interested in being the writer of implication, of the "thing not named" (On Writing 41). Perhaps the key thread that, once pulled, will unite Cather's seemingly oxymoronic strands of romantic, antiscientific but doctor-patient-disease fixated texts is this. If Cather's obsessing and inspiring burden is the stigmatizing, medico-scientific naming of lesbianism as disease, then unnaming must be her action in response. Cather, by presenting virtually all human interaction in the frame of disease, is engaged in a kind of unnaming: if all is disease, the human condition, the human challenge, is this uneasy mortality, and no one kind of human expression within it is less diseased than another. Issues of sexual preference may be part of this uneasiness, but she implies, the problem is more complex, more profound than recent medical science has the capacity to comprehend or authority to describe or proscribe. And perhaps the social action most endorsed by Cather is implied in Thea's words, with which I began: "There are a great many ways of caring for people" (Song 381). Cather privileges nurturing, nursing over all medico-scientific activity: Dr. Archie is at his best sewing a flax-poultice, Dr. Auclair making a truss and furthermore making his patients comfortable with their infirmities, which become no infirmities at all but simple variations in the texture of humanity.


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