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From Cather Studies Volume 4

Losing Nothing, Comprehending Everything

Learning to Read Both the Old World and the New in Death Comes for the Archbishop

In her 1927 letter to Commonweal, written to explain how she wrote Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather indirectly offered a possible interpretation for the novel itself: "I used to wish there were some written account of the old times when those churches were built; but I soon felt that no record of them could be as real as they are themselves. They are their own story, and it is foolish convention that we must have everything interpreted for us in written language" (On Writing 6, emphasis mine). In Death Comes for the Archbishop, Cather attempts to bring readers beyond"written language," trying to create on the written page that which is usually intelligible only with sound or sight. To teach us how to read beyond written language Cather offers two models, one aural and one visual: the Angelus bell and the figure of the southwestern mesa. The novel thus offers a pedagogy of interpretation: when we understand the mesa and the bell as tropes with which to organize our understanding of the novel, we arrive at new ways of reading Cather. She deliberately does not provide us with means to "translate" her landscape into meaning; we can only "divine"meaning—Cather's word for how we are to understand the "inexplicable presence of the thing not named" (On Writing 41). When we try to name the thing, we limit the full range of associations and reverberations; we do not hear the entire Angelus, and we do not see the full scale of the mesa. The aural and visual landscapes of the novel teach us to read; what we come to understand is that, in Death Comes for the Archbishop, tropes and topos are one and the same.

The novel makes meaning in much the same way as does the tolling of the Angelus bell in the beginning of the novel: a series of echoing associations that come together to form a whole. The bell's notes are "Full, clear . . .each note floated through the air like a globe of silver" (43), but until the last note joins the first in the air, the Angelus itself is not complete. When Latour first hears the Angelus bell, almost in his sleep, he has the "pleasing delusion that he was in Rome" (42). As the bell continues to ring the nine strokes of the Angelus, its sound sends Latour on an inner journey: "Before the nine strokes were done Rome faded, and behind it he sensed something Eastern, with palm trees—Jerusalem perhaps, though he had never been there. . . . he cherished for a moment this sudden, pervasive sense of the East. Once before he had been carried out of the body thus to a place far away. It had happened on a street in New Orleans.... he [had been]overcome by a feeling of place, was dropped . . . into a garden in the south of France. . . . And now this silvery bell had carried him farther and faster than sound could travel" (43). The bell's sound sets up a series of reactions in Latour's mind, bringing him to places that he has not physically seen but that the sound allows him to imagine. He travels to the Old World, to places of origin: Jerusalem, the holy city; Rome (and thus by implication the Vatican); New Orleans, one of the first cities in the United States; and the south of France, Latour's boyhood home. Although Latour's thoughts are linear—from distant to recent past—they are triggered by the sound of the bell all at once and experienced synchronously. This synchronous experience of time becomes central to the novel; the novel works to represent time and space, history and tradition, in nonlinear ways.

The story of the bell's provenance continues the movement from past to present, from Europe to America: "the inscription [on the bell] is in Spanish. . . . it must have been brought up from Mexico City in an ox-cart .. . and the silver of the Spaniards was really Moorish, was it not.... The Spaniards knew nothing about working silver except as they learned it from the Moors. . . . The Spaniards handed on their skill to the Mexicans, and the Mexicans taught the Navajos to work silver; but it all came from the Moors" (45). Thus the skill of"infidel" Europe becomes the artisanship of Catholic Spaniards, the trade of colonized Mexicans, and finally the art and craft of Native Americans, who are in effect being displaced by the carriers of the traditions they have embraced. The two French priests, Father Latour and his companion Father Vaillant, listen to their Spanish bell ringing the Catholic Angelus in an American territory occupied first by the Native Americans, then the Spanish, then by the French, and finally by Americans. The bell's provenance illustrates historical movement; the tradition of silversmithing becomes away of tracing patterns of Old World imperialism and yet also suggests that, in Cather's mind, aesthetic traditions continue regardless of who is in power.

Cather's descriptions of landscape—the New Mexican mesa itself—provide the visual counterpart to the Angelus bell. The mesa offers another trope that we can use to help us read beyond language. Father Latour and Jacinto, riding through this landscape en route to Acoma, stop so that Jacinto can show Latour where they are going, "The Bishop following with his eye the straight, pointing Indian hand, saw, far away, two great mesas. . . . at this distance [they] seemed close together, though they were really some miles apart" (96). Mesas are perceptible only at a distance although distance can blur the perception of depth. The distance alters our perspective on the subject to the point that the distance—perspective—becomes the subject. And because each layer of a mesa is a compression or distillation of the landscape at a particular point in time, seeing the entire mesa allows us to see all the different eras of history at once: chronological time can be seen synchronously.

The layers of the novel, which resemble the striations in a mesa, create a novel structured to collapse seeming oppositions, such as pagan and Christian, Europe and America, past and present, into one another. In order to see the full range of these complexities, we need to learn to read the landscape. The mesa is the site of that lesson. Each term of the opposition becomes a striation of the novel, and by collapsing these seeming dialectics, Cather calls into question the idea that any one history, any one set of experiences, can define America. The mesa like structure of the novel incorporates Old World and New and finds the Old World in the New.

Latour's reactions to the mesa and to the sound of the bell are examples of how the novel attempts to layer Old World and New, but Latour himself also offers an example of the connection between old and new. Latour's name indicates the presence of this layering: the aesthetic ideals of Walter Pater, whose final novel was titled Gaston Latour (1888), about a Frenchman in the Middle Ages. This in turn is eerily echoed by Cather's last, unfinished novel: a story of two French boys from Avignon, set during the Middle Ages. Although Cather seems to have quoted Pater directly only once, in her 1925 preface to Sarah Orne Jewett's short stories, Bernice Slote suggests that Pater was one of those "great essayists . . . whose beliefs and whose rich, incantatory, or elegant styles certainly touched [Cather's]own" (36). Cather's early statement that "a novel requires not one flash of understanding, but a clear, steady flame and oil in one's flask beside" (qtd in Skaggs 11) resonates directly with what Pater wrote in the conclusion to The Renaissance: "to burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life" (Bloom 60). Pater's "hard gemlike flame"and Cather's "clear, steady flame" are clearly similar fires. Pater's ideas pervade this novel to the extent that Latour becomes a sort of Pater on horseback. So, for instance, when Latour says to Joseph Vaillant that "I do not see you as you really are, Joseph; I see you through my affection for you" (50) it rephrases Pater's dictum that one should "know one's own impression as it really is" (Bloom 17).

Latour's burning desire to build a cathedral worthy of the beautiful setting echoes a Paterian comment that Cather made to Mariel Gere in an 1896 letter, to the effect that there is no god but one god, and art is god's revealer. She said that was her creed and indicated her commitment to it (August 4,1896, Cather papers, University Archives/Special Collections Department, UNL Libraries). Latour is the artist figure within the artistic creation of the novel. He is not a representation of Cather herself although they do share a similarly Paterian vision. Latour's position at the end of the novel embodies Pater's idea that life is a "drift of momentary acts of sight and passion and thought. . . . to such a tremulous wisp constantly reforming itself on the stream, to a single sharp impression, with a sense in it, a relic more or less fleeting, of such moments gone by, what is real in our life fines itself down" (Bloom 59-60). In Death Comes for the Archbishop, Cather records specific incidents in the life of Latour and his friend, Father Vaillant, but fleetingly, with large gaps of time and space between episodes. Ultimately, however, the novel "fines itself down" to the moment of Latour's consciousness before he dies: a refined moment, a precise moment, but composed of a flood of memories. This refined moment in the flow is like one note heard in the midst of many or like one striation of earth in the totality of a mesa.

Latour, like Pater, is interested in the beautiful more than the sensual; when his parishioners want to please him they give him "something good for the eye" (179). Latour is made uncomfortable by the physical, a distaste nowhere more clearly marked than in the cave scene about a third of the way through the novel. Latour and his guide, Jacinto, are caught in a snowstorm and take refuge in a cave Jacinto knows of. The cave is a "mouth-like opening. . . . two great stone lips, slightly parted and thrust outward"(127). From the beginning, the cave signifies a kind of appetite and physicality that will be distasteful to the priest.

The cave is a place sacred to the Pecos tribe's rituals, which is another reason for Latour's discomfort—he is outside his parish, so to speak. Jacinto tells him the cave is "used by [his] people," which suggests that somewhere in the underground cavern (perhaps in the hole that Jacinto so carefully blocks off from the priest) is the snake holy to his tribe. In the cave it is Jacinto, not the priest, who tends the altar and sacred flame. Jacinto's religion is the New World's own "Old World"; the European traditions represented by Latour seem youthful in comparison. The cave is a labyrinth of holes, throatlike passages, mouths, and caverns, suggesting that the French priest seems to be at the opposite end of his Catholic church and its idea of heaven. It is not coincidence that the chapter is titled "Snake Root"; Latour is at the root of things, the base. The cave is the site where many of the novel's apparent oppositions are conflated. It also becomes a site wherein the New World of America reveals its significantly ancient roots.

There is something primitive about the cave: the strong, devouring femaleness of the cavities and orifices directly contrasts with the icons of"dolorous Virgins" above ground.[1] This cave is the first of two feminized enclosures within which Latour will encounter something he cannot name or control, something akin to the sublime. This powerful force resides in the cave below the Sangre de Cristo mountains, which adds to the sense that its sacredness antedates the blood of Christ under which it hides. The "pagan" lies under the Christian surface implying the presence of an earth goddess whom Latour senses but cannot name. There are also other resonances and other beliefs in this cave and as a result Latour feels quite ill.

After Jacinto lights the fire, however, Latour—and the reader—encounter still other juxtapositions, other layers of meaning. The fire relaxes the priest, warms him to the point that he becomes aware of "an extraordinary vibration. . . . it hummed like a hive of bees, like a heavy roll of distant drums" (129). Jacinto, also hearing the thrumming noise, leads the priest through a tunnel. The two men go "along a tunnel . . . where the roof grew much lower. . . . Jacinto knelt down over a fissure in the stone floor, like a crack in china. . . . he put his ear on the opening. . . . Father Latour lay with his ear to this crack for a long time" (129-30). We are not allowed to ignore the continuous penetration, deepening, revelation—the two men go from a low-roofed tunnel to a fissure, a crack, an opening, another crack. The priest and the Indian are moving toward the innermost sancta sanctorum. Finally, we are at the source of the vibration and Father Latour realizes:"he was listening to one of the oldest voices of the earth. What he heard was the sound of a great underground river, flowing through a resounding cavern. The water was far, far below, perhaps as deep as the foot of the mountain, a flood moving in utter blackness under ribs of antediluvian rock. It was not a rushing noise, but the sound of a great flood moving with great majesty and power" (130). The priest has encountered the creative imagination via British Romanticism and Coleridge's "Kubla Khan" (1816). In Coleridge's poem, of course, the visionary poet sees and hears: Where Alph, the sacred river, ran Through caverns measureless to man Down to a sunless sea. . . . . . . . . And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething, As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing. Coleridge's underground river is also a "mighty fountain," and its tumult causes Kubla Khan to hear "ancestral voices." What Cather gives us here is a site of disjunction, an implicit confrontation between Old Worlds: the allusion to Coleridge suggests the Old World of Europe, but the cave encloses one of the "oldest voices of the earth." The force of the flood is such that both Latour's Paterian Catholicism and Jacinto's Native American mysticism are humbled before its ancient sound. The voice of the ancient river echoes the voice of the bell: both sounds transport the priest, although the river terrifies him because he cannot name what it is that he hears. Latour and Jacinto do not talk about what they have heard—the priest's only response is "[i]t is terrible" (130)—they simply return to sit by the fire.

Evelyn Hively suggests that this cave scene provides "one of the strongest points of contrast in religions in the book" (158), but I would suggest that we are not being asked to contrast religions. Instead, we are forced to question which set of beliefs is informing the other. Can either be privileged? We are presented not with a contrast but with a relationship that implies connection, a connection that makes Latour uncomfortable because it asks him to acknowledge beliefs other than his own. Thus when he and Jacinto return to the cave, the fire that Jacinto had kindled is "giving off a rich glow of light in that lofty Gothic chamber" (131). Prior to the encounter with the underground river, the cavern was only like "a Gothic chapel" "of vague outline" (129), but now, as if the encounter with the Romantic imagination has transfigured the cave, it is "that lofty Gothic chamber" (134 emphasis mine), a specific site, recognizable to the priest in a way the voices of the river are not. Only after the cave actually becomes a Gothic chamber can the priest fully relax, eat, and sleep. Nevertheless, this Gothic space is also sacred to Jacinto's tribe and contains a river that reverberates with the sounds of histories that make Latour's religion seem brand-new by comparison. The cave becomes a nexus of shifting, apparently contradictory meanings: the cave's stone lips will provide refuge, but the refuge's smell makes the priest ill; the fire burns away the odor, but the voice of the river makes him dizzy. The cave is a place for Indian rituals and the site of High Romantic imagination. It seems hollow, but it supports mountains and from it emerge landscapes.

This already complicated scene is further tangled by Jacinto's presence, which becomes another site of simultaneous meaning. The priest, thinking Jacinto asleep, moves closer to the hole Jacinto had walled up, wanting to examine it more closely. What he sees instead is Jacinto, transfixed by the "oldest voice," in a posture Christlike and mystical: "there against the wall was [Jacinto], standing on some invisible foothold, his arms outstretched against the rock, his body flattened against it, his ear ...listening; listening with supersensual ear, it seemed, and he looked to be supported against the rock by the intensity of his solicitude" (132). Jacinto is simultaneously the Romantic poet, the figure of Christ, and a Native American mystic. Jacinto can hear the voice of the sublime, even be supported by it—the "invisible foothold" —while his body is in the position of one who has been crucified. The cave is a place of Indian ritual, Romantic tropology, and now Christian typology. The phrase "he looked to be supported against the rock," which seems simple enough on the surface, in fact adds ambiguities. The phrase could imply that Jacinto is "looking for support" from the so-called rock of the church. However, it is also possible that he is asking the river for the strength to resist—"against"—the church.

Father Latour's vertigo, or what he thinks is vertigo, is caused by hearing the underground river. But Cather creates a dizzying scene for the reader as well, pushing us ever deeper into the cave, layering histories, typologies, and mythologies, until we too, feel that it is unlike anything we have experienced. Jacinto is the type of Christ, arms outstretched, supported by an intense "solicitude," a curious word to use here because according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it means both "care" and "disquietude, uneasiness." But Jacinto is also the Spanish word for hyacinth flower, which calls to mind the myth of Hyacinth and Apollo. Apollo loved Hyacinth, but when a discus Apollo threw was blown off course by the jealous Zephyr, the West Wind, the discus struck Hyacinth on the head and killed him. From his lover's body Apollo created the hyacinth flower, giving his lover immortality of a sort. The figure of Jacinto blends two stories of immortality and transubstantiation, one Christian, the other pre-Christian and homoerotic.

The multiplicity created through the layers of meaning in Jacinto's name continues the layering we have seen in descriptions of the cave: it is a Gothic chamber and a devouring (feminine) mouth. The vibrations in the cave are pastoral, "like a hive of bees," and threatening, "like a heavy roll of distant drums."[2] And although Father Latour is the priest, it is Jacinto who lights the purifying flame and leads the way to the source; Latour's ritual shave no meaning below the earth. The cave and Jacinto suggest the difficulty of deciphering what exactly is "Old World": the Old World of the Americas before the European settlers or the Old World of Europe. These layer simplicitly allow Cather to question whether terms such as "New World" and "Old World," "ancient" and "modern" can provide adequate definitions with which to interpret history. We have to move beyond such seemingly dichotomous relations into a mode of interpretation that does not privilege any one set of tropes over any other.

As we move out of the cave, histories appear before us like the striations in the mesas: the river flows "under ribs of antediluvian rock," and from this antediluvian space we move up and out, into the "tender morning"outside the cave's mouth. The morning landscape that greets the two men when they emerge from the cave is a "gleaming white world," covered with "virgin snow," a new world, a blank. The virgin snow appears to cancel out the ancient systems of belief: the European's Virgin obliterates the stone lips of Jacinto's cave. The branches outside the cave are "laden with soft, rose-coloured clouds of virgin snow" (132), an almost paradisiacal image: the pearly gates to the New World. The landscape and the description of the morning move us to a consideration of history and the movement from an Old World to a New, a shift that seems at first to be a straightforward linear progression. But the entire mesa, including the cave that supports it, is created from layers of Old World and New; the layers support and enable one another. Cather attempts to move us beyond written language in our apprehension of these layers of meaning: what happens in the cave happens through our raft of associations with the brief words she gives us. The language is the tip; it is not the whole. We comprehend the whole only when we cease to focus on singular, particular images.

Within the cave we begin to understand how the novel's layers complicate easy understandings of religion and history; the landscape outside the cave presents a visual correlation for that lesson. Latour's encounter with Sada, the Mexican slave, rewrites the cave scene in order to stress this visual lesson even as it presents another example of the complicated structures underlying the apparently simple surface of the novel. Their meeting, chronicled in the chapter called "December Night," begins with Father Latour's dark night of the soul and seems to be an overt paean to Catholicism and its salutatory powers. Once we see all the layers of this scene, however, we also see Latour's position as a Paterian observer and notice that what is at work in Latour's church is something much older than catholicism. What happens between Latour and Sada reinforces the importance of seeing the whole rather than focusing on the particular.

The encounter with Sada stresses sight, highlighting the importance of the visual over the verbal. The courtyard between Latour's house and the church is covered with snow, an etching in black and silver: "the court was white with snow, and the shadows of walls and buildings stood out sharply in the faint light" (212). This snow is different from the blizzard that obliterated the trail and forced Latour into the stone-lipped cave. Here in his own church-yard Latour is in control, able to observe. Unlike in the cave scene, no voices terrify him. There is almost no sound at all except for Sada's confession and prayers. The whole scene emphasizes the way light plays over surfaces: from the silhouette of the church tower against moonlit clouds and shadows on the snow to Latour's candle shining on Sada's "dark brown peon face" and the "red spark of the sanctuary lamp" in the pitch dark of the church (214).

Even Sada's prayers express themselves visually. Latour is moved by the belief he sees on her face when she tells him it has been 19 years since she has "seen the holy things of the altar" (214, emphasis mine). Latour had never "seen such pure goodness shine out of a human's countenance" (213, emphasis mine). When Latour lets Sada into the church, to the Lady Chapel, he sees "the working of [Sada's] face. . . . the beautiful tremors [that] passed over it [and] tears of ecstasy" (214). All this light and shadow suggests Cather's essay "Light on Adobe Walls," her unfinished fragment about the possibilities of artistic representation. The artist can paint not sunlight but "only the tricks that shadows play with it. . . . some emotion . . . that happens to give him personal delight . . . that makes one nerve in him thrill and tremble" (On Writing 124). Both Sada and Latour experience this "thrill," Sada by seeing the Lady Chapel, Latour by seeing Sada's belief.

The visible power of Sada's ecstasy allows Latour to share her emotion: "He was able to feel, kneeling beside her, the preciousness of the things of the altar. . . . he received the miracle in her heart into his own, saw through her eyes" (217-18). Earlier Latour had said miracles "rest upon our perceptions being made finer, so that for a moment our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is there about us always" (50). Ironically, the miracle Latour experiences with Sada involves him seeing "through her eyes" rather than his own. These moments of fine perception, moments that imply a fleeting unity, are described in the conclusion to The Renaissance, in which Pater talks about those instants when we are able to distinguish from among a "flood of external objects" and receive a "single sharp impression" (Bloom 59). Latour's "miracle" and Pater's "single sharp impression" are similar, if not identical, moments of perception that produce almost identical results.[3]

Sada becomes the site of a Paterian miracle: what Latour sees in Sada helps him, as Pater says, to "gather up what might otherwise pass unregarded"(Bloom 61). This gathering up of sensation brings Latour to a moment of fullness, of being at one with what is outside himself: "the peace without[the church] seemed all at one with the peace in his soul" (219). This is a marked contrast to Latour's feeling at the beginning of the chapter, when"doubt .. . made him feel an alien. . . . his soul had become a barren field" (211). Even at the moment of fullness, however, there is what Pater calls a "vanishing away" (Bloom 60) in the description of "the line of black footprints [Latour's] departing visitor had left in the wet scurf of the snow" (219). The silvery beauty of the newly fallen snow is now "wet scurf"; the moment of seeming "all at one" vanishes into a line of departing footprints. The Paterian moment is fluid, not static:"those impressions of the individual mind . . . are in perpetual flight"(Bloom 60). Thus this entire scene becomes a kind of passion play about a moment of beauty moving us out of ourselves. We recognize and "fine down" an impression, but at the moment of fining down there is loss. Latour is joined with Sada and feels his inner peace merge with the peace of the external world. But the footsteps vanish, and the next chapter begins with the announcement of the death of Eusabio's son.

Latour comforts Sada by giving her not warm words but a "little silver medal, with a figure of the Virgin"—something to look at. He thinks this a good gift for Sada "for one who cannot read—or think—the Image, the physical form of Love!" (219, 220).[4] He offers her not language but an image, something which her soul can "adore" (220). Sada's ability to gain comfort from an image reveals to Latour the limitations of his intellectual—verbal—faith, "his prayers were empty words and brought him no refreshment" (211). Vision seems more important than language, an idea that may explain the elision over the name Mary: the name is not as important to Sada as is the feeling she gets when she sees the altar in the Lady Chapel.[5]

Latour sees the Lady Chapel only in terms of Catholicism, but Cather creates layers of meaning in this feminized enclosure as well, linking it to the stone-lipped cave in which Latour found such uncomfortable refuge. Cather's description of the spiritual presence in the Lady Chapel links the Virgin Mary with other, earlier goddesses who offer comfort to the wretched: Latour is able to "feel all it meant to [Sada] to know that there was a Kind Woman in Heaven.... [o]ld people, who have felt blows and toil and know the world's hard hand, need, even more than children do, a woman's tenderness. Only a Woman, divine, could know all that a woman can suffer" (217). Latour's God is dismissed in lieu of this other divine force that can understand female pain. This is not only a rare expression of female solidarity on Cather's part but also a link between the Mariolatry of the Lady Chapel and the ancient snake-goddess in the cave.

The female divinity within the Lady Chapel finds further expression in the images of the transformative moonlight that bracket the scenes inside the chapel itself. When Latour wakes up in the night and decides to go to the church, he sees the "full moon ... [that] threw a pale phosphorescent luminousness over the heavens" (212). Afterward, as Sada slips off into the dark, "the full moon shone high in the blue vault, majestic, lonely, benign" (219). The moon, of course, has long been considered a female symbol and suggests again that Latour's religion should be seen in the context of older religions that have not been supplanted as much as they have been subsumed. Marina Warner, in her study of the Virgin Mary, places the Virgin in a context similar to what Cather does here. Warner suggests the possibility of a "chain of descent from Hippolyte [queen of the Amazons] to Diana to the Virgin. . . . that the Amazon queen venerated in Cappodocia was subsumed into the fertility goddess Diana of Ephesus, and that the memories of her emblem . . . survived in the city where the Virgin Mary was proclaimed" (280). Warner also points out that"Diana was associated with the moon . . . and the Virgin Mary is identified with the moon and the stars' influence as well as with the forces of fertility and generation" (225). It seems no accident that the title of the chapter that follows the scene between Latour and Sada is titled "Spring in the Navajo Country." We go from "Woman, divine" to spring: the power of the goddess is still at work.

The moon shining down on Latour as he looks down at Sada's vanishing footprints suggests an older religion, one that Latour would not or could not recognize. The image of the moon and the image on the medal Latour gives Sada are two incarnations of this "Woman, divine": the two virgins—Diana and Mary—watch over the priest and the suffering woman. These female divinities connect the ancient goddess with the Catholic icon with the stone-lipped cave's snake: the chapel becomes an extension of the cave. Just as Mary and her chapel support the church and the cave supports the mountains—recesses that strengthen—so too the "space" or gap in the text where the word Mary might appear supports the presence of Diana or any "Woman, divine."

The final paragraph of this section shifts from Latour alone, locking "his church," to the moon alone in the arched "blue vault" of the heavens and then back to Latour, looking at Sada's footsteps in the snow. Latour has his church, the moon has hers (the blue vault of the heavens), although what Latour may briefly sense but does not understand is that the Lady Chapel, the moon, and the cave are all connected. The rapid shifts in focus—from church to moon to Latour—are another manifestation of the novel's layers, again creating a deeper structure than at first seems apparent. As with the notes of the Angelus bell, this scene is not complete until the final note, sounded by the presence of the moon, has been heard or seen.

Cather's layering process moves us out of a dichotomized "either/or" reading of the novel into a way of reading based on "both/and." Thus Jacinto embodies both Christian and pre-Christian identities as well as that of the Romantic poet, Sada worships at the altar of an ancient goddess who is also the Virgin Mary, and Latour's cathedral is an edifice built from, and out of, a variety of traditions. The cathedral is "worthy of a setting naturally beautiful" (175) and it will be built in the style of the Midi Romanesque, which Latour says is "the right style for this country" (243). After it is finished, the cathedral seems to be one with the southwestern landscape; it is both southwestern and French, organic and constructed: "the tawny church seemed to start directly out of those rose-coloured hills. . . . the towers rose clear into the blue air while the body of the church still lay against the mountain" (272). The description of the church on the mountain is similar to Jacinto's position clinging to the wall of the cave—both church and man unify seeming opposites. Pater seems to have presciently described Latour's church in "Winckelmann," when he explains that "Christian art was still dependent of pagan examples, building the shafts of pagan temples into its churches" (Bloom 213). Although Latour may not have actually used the shafts of pagan temples, his church is supported by the cave wherein Jacinto's goddess-snake is enclosed.

Latour's cathedral becomes not a colonizer's monument but an example of what can happen when, as Pater described in his essay on Coleridge, "a mind concentrates itself, frees itself from the limitations of the particular, the individual, [and] attains a strange power of modifying and centralising what it receives from without, according to the pattern of an inward ideal"(Bloom 150).[6] Latour's idea about what "his" cathedral should look like moves free from the particularities of convention and allows him to build a church that reminds him of something "nearer Clermont" in the Santa Fe hills that he describes as the color of "the dried blood of saints and martyrs preserved in old churches in Rome" (272). His inward ideals about the sacred and the beautiful guide him in designing his monument. Pater's idea seems an apt description, not just of what the cathedral represents within the text of the novel itself but of what the novel itself represents in terms of Cather's aesthetic project and as we will see, of what happens in Latour's mind before his death. The "particular" would seem to force a choice in interpretive modes but the "inward ideal" can be adapted to suggest a way of reading that allows multiples, takes us beyond the words on the page.

Before Latour dies, his caretakers think that "his mind was failing," but Latour does not care about their opinion. They do not realize that his mind "was only extraordinarily active in some other part of the great picture of his life" (290). Latour ranges through time and space, drawing on all episodes of his life without highlighting any one in particular:He observed also that there was no longer any perspective to his memories. He remembered his winters with his cousins on the Mediterranean when he was a little boy, his student days in the Holy City, as clearly as he remembered the arrival of M. Molny and the building of his cathedral. He was soon to have done with calendared time, and it had already ceased to count for him. He sat in the middle of his own consciousness; none of his former states of mind were lost or outgrown. They were all within reach of his hand, and all comprehensible. (290)None of Latour's history is lost to him: it is all there, all comprehensible. He has "modified" and "centralized" his past; it becomes what one reader called "the tower of consciousness."[7] Of course, Latour's very name indicates his position: he is in la tour, the tower. Latour's far-ranging memories and associations echo the pattern of associations set in motion by the silver bell ringing the Angelus much earlier in the novel. In both instances he moves free from the particular—there is "no perspective"—yet each memory is a specific moment and the moments form a flow. It is this perspective—in which there is no perspective, in which everything, Old World and New, Catholic and pagan, youth and age, is layered together—that the novel pushes us to maintain while we read. We are asked to read with a perspective that, like Latour's, loses nothing, comprehends everything.


I would like to thank Janis Stout for her useful and insightful suggestions about this paper when I presented it at the Sixth International Willa Cather Seminar (1995), and I am grateful to Merrill Skaggs both for suggesting that the cave might be a "goddess cave" and for the reference to Evelyn Hively's book.

 1. For further discussion on the almost overdetermined femaleness of the cave, see Hermione Lee's Double Lives (New York: Pantheon, 1989), Sharon O'Brien's Willa Cather (New York: Oxford UP, 1987), or Janis Stout's Strategies of Reticence (Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1990). (Go back.)
 2. The drums also send us to Conrad's Heart of Darkness, although the darkness of the cave is not the unmitigated evil of Kurtz but the overwhelming power of the Romantic imagination. (Go back.)
 3. Watching Sada allows Latour to feel "the beautiful concept of Mary pierce [him] like a sword" (218); this is almost an enactment of Pater's own language. (Go back.)
 4. It is interesting to note that Latour equates reading with thinking, that although he says to himself that the church was "Sada's house and he was a servant in it" (218), he nevertheless puts Sada on a level with unthinking beasts of burden. (Go back.)
 5. The name Mary appears only three times in almost 10 pages, twice said by Latour as he prays with Sada. (Go back.)
 6. It seems not uncoincidental that Pater's description of Coleridge also describes Latour's cathedral, given Cather's earlier use of Coleridge in the novel. (Go back.)
 7. I am grateful to Bill Tipper for suggesting this term. (Go back.)


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Cather, Willa. Death Comes for the Archbishop. 1927. New York: Vintage, 1971.
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Hively, Evelyn Helmick. Sacred Fire: Willa Cather's Novel Cycle. Lanham MD: UP of America, 1994.
Skaggs, Merrill Maguire. After the World Broke in Two: The Later Novels of Willa Cather. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1990.
Slote, Bernice, ed. The Kingdom of Art: Willa Cather's First Principles and Critical Statements 1893-1896. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1966.
Warner, Marina. Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary. New York: Vintage, 1983.