When a writer reaches iconic status, we seek less to find a context through which we may comprehend the author (how and why should she be read?) and begin to contemplate the various contexts made available to us through the author's work. The iconic, in other words, is an intellectual force that shapes consciousness—or, in Cather's language, casts a shadow on our minds. As we scrutinize the words and the meanings, we find we cannot turn any away; and as we encounter new ways of receiving texts, we are not at liberty to refuse the implications they bring. On the contrary, the writer whom we acknowledge as iconic we also acknowledge as having, to an extent we seek to realize, produced the way we think.
Willa Cather possessed a hard-thinking and fierce secular humanism. One is awed by her habitual attraction, in her subject matter, to depictions of strong, enabling systems of belief—so much so that she is often thought to be a "believer." But she was not a believer in any particular theology or political program or cause. It was the phenomenon of belief that fired her imagination, whether manifest as patriotism, Catholicism, racial hierarchy, talent, ambition—whatever it was that moved people to something particularly fine. This fire turned her into what "Canadian of the future" Leonard Cohen calls, in another context, "Winter Lady": traveling from setting to setting seeking out the best that was ever desired, the finest manifestations of ideas that leave shadows on consciousness, and of shadows that result in the very finest of human things. One might see a Catherian spirit in Leonard Cohen's image: "Traveling lady stay awhile / Until the night is over / I'm just a station on your way / I know I'm not your lover."
Cather is a great American liberator, an author who truly understood the potential of American secular and humanistic pluralism to serve art and to advance the human condition by lifting it above the denominational. She wrote into it, out of it, and in 1931, at the very height of her career, structured it into a best-selling novel in the same year she received honorary degrees from Princeton and Berkeley and made the cover of Time magazine. The title of the novel, Shadows on the Rock, evokes Plato's cave, the chained beings who watch the shadows of reality on the cave wall and never know more than what is called "the visible region," and who pride themselves on being "the quickest to make out the shadows as they pass and best able to remember their customary precedences, sequences, and coexistences." Those who are dragged away from the shadows are able to contemplate the "true nature" of what "it is that provides the seasons and the courses of the year and presides over all things in the visible region, and is in some sort the cause of all these things that they had seen" (Book 7: 514-17). However, those who glimpse the eternities do not easily integrate back among the shadows.
According to this philosophical tableau, human beings are prisoners of their limited perception and their attenuated consciousness, and we are further demarcated by the senses through which we are compelled to experience and contemplate reality. What we normally consider to be the real are shadows of ultimate phenomena. Certain intellects, those able to free themselves from sense perception and transcend the shadowy world, those of philosophical capacity, are able to break free of the chains, called "systems of thought," and glimpse the true nature of what controls the visible region. These same people, as one would expect, find it difficult to take seriously the sensory world and may turn to investing themselves in philosophy or, in a subsequent civilization, literature. Millennia later, William James—whose influence on Cather Merrill Skaggs has established definitively —would make the same point in terms perhaps more accessible to domestic life in his civilization. According to James's image, "we stand in much the same relation to the whole of the universe as our canine and feline pets do to the whole of human life. They inhabit our drawing rooms and libraries. They take part in scenes of whose significance they have no inkling. They are merely tangents to curves of history the beginnings and ends and forms of which pass wholly beyond their ken" (144).
Recall Count Frontenac on his deathbed in Shadows on the Rock, in book 6, "The Dying Count": He would die here, in this room, and his spirit would go before God to be judged. He believed this, because he had been taught it in childhood, and because he knew there was something in himself and in other men that this world did not explain. Even the Indians had to make a story to account for something in their lives that did not come out of their appetites: conceptions of courage, duty, honour. The Indians had these, in their own fashion. These ideas came from some unknown source, and they were not the least part of life. (200-201) The Count is, in 1698, blasphemous; in 1931 (and still, in the early 2000s), he is one of Cather's spiritual pioneers. The Count knows that what he believes, the shadows trained on his mind—a shadow that has come into his consciousness and will not go out again, to paraphrase Cather—are the Christian God, the Trinity, and the Last Judgment. But he knows these beliefs to be the shadows of the real, "because he knew there was something in himself and in other men that this world did not explain," and that other civilizations had come into contact with the same shadows, in their fashion. William James completes his image this way: "So we are tangents to the wider life of things. But, just as many of the dog's and cat's ideals coincide with our ideals, and the dogs and cats have daily living proof of the fact, so we may well believe, on the proofs that religious experience affords, that higher powers exist and are at work to save the world on ideal lines similar to our own" (144). Precisely this is revealed to the dying count, whose experience is the culmination, such as it is, of Cather's novel of liberation. Just as there are many human languages to express the very same physical experiences, there exist numerous human religions, shadows of the "something . . . this world did not explain." Cautiously, James claimed that pragmatism could not prescribe a particular religion, "for we do not yet know certainly which type of religion is going to work best in the long run" (144).
A literary pragmatist, Cather was drawn to ideas that worked. Her two great "Catholic novels," Death Comes for the Archbishop and Shadows on the Rock, explore unlikely areas for human habitation, much less emigration—the arid, barren desert and the wintry, isolated cliff—remote areas transformed into destinations on the strength of a very particular theological technology. We might consider her career as that of an itinerant, missionary writer, traveling around North America (and, at her death, planning her next writing-stop in France) with her message: desire is truth, and attracted to its finest examples, such as: How Truth happened in Nebraska; How Truth happened in Taos; and, How Truth happened in Quebec. Truth happens wherever the desire for it is strong enough, wherever the language, the mode of thought, the religious practice, the ideological construction of reality (name your cave, in other words), wherever human effort is concentrated sufficiently to summon the appearance of the Virgin, the construction of a cathedral, or the planting of wheat fields that will feed the world. Janis Stout has argued that Cather's interest in religious experience was cultural; that is to say, Cather had "an essentially secular and skeptical cast of mind, a cast of mind keenly responsive to the aesthetic experience of religion and its moral and cultural associations" (26).
To borrow Leonard Cohen's image from 1967, the "stations on [Cather's] way" were myriad, as we know—and included virtually every major region of North America, as she seemed to commit herself to seeking out manifestations of what James calls the "live possibilities" of human beings: "if the complementary conditions come and add themselves, our ideals will become actual things" (137). I sense Cather's close pursuit in James's footsteps when he argues, "the only real reason I can think of why anything should ever come is that someone wishes it to be here. It is demanded. . . . This is the living reason, and compared with it material causes and logical necessities are spectral things" (138, emphasis in source). Seeking out these living reasons occupied Cather's literary life. What could enable people to live in dugouts and sod houses in an area known as "the great American desert" for its seeming inhabitable topography? How does an artist "tear [herself] loose" from the hole in the ground that awaits her and shoot herself out into the world of ideas and music? Why did so many young men march willingly, almost gleefully, to their deaths in the Great War? Why live past fifty-two, with the knowledge that age bestows? What was the truth that happened in Virginia before her life began, that enabled her kin to own and to systematically degrade other human beings? The "traveling lady" went to these places and situations, probing the shadows, writing what it was that demanded these things to come into being.
In a letter to the Saturday Review of Literature in October 1931, Cather wrote (in response to a favorable review of Shadows on the Rock written by Governor Wilbur Cross of Connecticut) to explain a few things about her novel. "To me the rock of Quebec is not only a stronghold on which many strange figures have for a little time cast a shadow in the sun; it is the curious endurance of a kind of culture, narrow but definite." She went on to describe the narrative as "more like an old song, incomplete but uncorrupted, than like a legend. The text was mainly anacoluthon" ("On Shadows" 15). Anacoluthon is a linguistic term to describe a sentence or construction lacking grammatical sequence; the Greek root, akolouthos, meaning "following," and the prefix, an, negating it; the term is literally translated from its Greek root as "not following" or "it does not follow." According to the OED, the word anacoluthon can be traced to the early eighteenth century, coming into use, curiously enough, only a few years after Cather's La Bonne Espérance left Quebec in 1697, severing an apothecary from the world and leaving him "on a grey rock in the Canadian wilderness" (Shadows 3-4).
In "Before Breakfast," Henry Grenfell is troubled by two things: the scientific study of his private rock-island and the intrusion of beauty upon his privacy. He works himself up fairly nihilistically: "Why patch up?" he says when he decides against his eye medication. "What was the use . . . of anything? Why tear a man loose from his little rock and shoot him into the eternities?" Cather's narrative advice follows: "All that stuff was inhuman. A man had his little hour, with heat and cold and a time-sense suited to his endurance. If you took that away from him you left him spineless, accidental, unrelated to anything" (148-49). Grenfell does not feel better until he realizes and then experiences a physical rejuvenation. He sees the planet Venus in the morning "serene, terrible, and splendid, looking in at him," and counters the night's nihilism with his sense of "immortal beauty . . . yes, but only when somebody saw it, he fiercely answered back!" (158). With this realization in mind he scurries over the rock-island. "He had always known this island . . . must once have been a naked rock," as the scientist-professor had told him. "But that fact had nothing to do with the green surface where men lived and trees lived" (161) and where, as he sees immediately, the scientist's pretty daughters shoot themselves off rocks in the morning. "People are really themselves only when they believe they are absolutely alone and unobserved" (164), Grenfell concludes, as he unobservedly observes the girl who dives unobserved (she believes) into the Atlantic, and (for Grenfell) into the eternities. And because he takes her shadow home to breakfast, his appetite is sharpened for more than just food.
Today, the idea of nonsequential telling is common—it is, as Terence Martin has pointed out, "a provocative (and thoroughly postmodern) trope." However, in 1931, when Cather published Shadows on the Rock, it was not. In Fowler and Fowler's The King's English (1931), anacoluthon is identified as "the most notorious of all" examples of "grammatical misdemeanors," all too common to writers. "The anacoluthon is a failure to follow on, an unconscious departure from the grammatical scheme with which a sentence was started, the getting switched off, imperceptibly to the writer, very noticeably to his readers, from one syntax track to another. There is little to be said on the matter." Today we are more likely to ask, What does not follow? Everything follows. The object is to pry oneself loose from the rock that threatens us with narrated nihilism ("What was the use of anything?") by finding what casts the shadow. Whereas Cather acknowledged the idea that the rock was "the utmost expression of human need," as she has it in Death Comes for the Archbishop (97), she saw also beyond this metaphor. In Sapphira and the Slave Girl we have "solid rock" that is in the process of being blasted away by "the destroying armament of modern road-building" (170); and in "Before Breakfast" it is modern science that suggests the artificiality of the rock, when the geologist tells Grenfell that "the island was interesting geologically because the two ends of the island belonged to different periods, yet the ice seemed to have brought them both down together" (147). If the rock has a history, if it was delivered by ice, if something predates it, then even (to get back to the metaphor) those things that we consider rock-fixed and eternal are in fact contingencies, and we are left "spineless, accidental, unrelated to anything," left, like Grenfell, "sitting in his bathrobe by his washstand, limp!" (761). A man sitting limp beside the washstand holds little promise for the survival of the species. Cather's exclamation point is emphatic, ironic, and outrageous.
Shooting out into the eternities juxtaposes two central Catherian ideas. One's experience of life is mainly and grammatically anacoluthon, in Cather's mind. The rock, which we cling to out of need for Stability and Truth, is the hypothesis on which we live our lives and believe our beliefs, "the green surface where men lived" ("Before Breakfast" 161), the rocks on which faith staged miracles and missionaries carried civilizations. But the rock is an illusion of permanence; it is, before all else, a metaphor, a grammar, an expression of need, not the need itself or the answer to the need. Permanence, the experience of eternities, is available only when one is "torn loose" from these rocks to which we cling—those few moments when the geologist's daughter floats between the rocks and Grenfell comes back to life.
Although Cather wrote from this fire throughout her career, it takes coherent shape as an idea in her mind in 1931, when, like many other authors at pinnacle, she felt the need to explain herself. In "My First Novels (There Were Two)," written in 1931 and published in The Colophon right after Shadows on the Rock, Cather disowned her first novel, Alexander's Bridge, because it was "made out of 'interesting material'" instead of what she knew, what was familiar to her own experience (91). Her second novel was O Pioneers!; it was a much better job, a quality Cather attributes to her familiarity with Nebraska despite its literary and geographical flatness. But in 1931, the year she claimed to value familiarity, she published Shadows on the Rock. Why write a novel about something she knew nothing about, researching Quebec because she found in it (to throw her words back at her) "interesting material" that was "more exciting than the familiar" (she made five research trips to Quebec between June 1928 and September 1930), and then write an essay for The Colophon disavowing that method of writing as "the wrong road" to take? ("My First Novels" 91, 96). Why declare in The Colophon essay that "too much detail is apt, like any other form of extravagance, to become slightly vulgar" (97) after writing a novel concentrating on what she called "the salad dressing" ("On Shadows" 16), a novel, James Woodress observes, that is filled with things (432) so much that it seems more about things than characters. Shadows on the Rock remains somewhat unheralded in Cather studies not only because we have not quite yet understood the full arc of the career but also because we continue to think she was mainly interested in "the country people and the nuns" for the substance of what they believed. We would do better to see how their households resembled, from the perspective of the eternities, the actions of "ants," as she explained to Governor Cross, ants that "begin to rebuild when you kick their house down" ("On Shadows" 16).
Also in this crucial year of 1931, Cather met Flaubert's niece, an event she later recounted in "A Chance Meeting," first published in 1933 and later reprinted in Not Under Forty (1936). She tells the niece that she does not want any manuscripts or letters of Flaubert's. "The things of her uncle that were valuable to me I already had, and had had for years" (33), Cather claims. Nonetheless, Mme Franklin-Grout sends Cather one of her uncle's letters, which is somehow removed, lost, or stolen from the envelope. "I wrote to her, quite truthfully, that her wish that I should have one of her uncle's letters meant a great deal more to me than the actual possession of it could mean" (41). Cather gave the same cast of mind to Cécile, who says of the Count's glass fruit that is to be hers one day: "it is quite enough to look at it; one would never forget it. It is much lovelier than real fruit" (Shadows 48). By way of describing the effect of a Flaubert's L'education sentimentale on her, Cather may have revealed her frame of mind in 1931: "It is something one has lived through, not a story one has read; less diverting than a story, perhaps, but more inevitable. One is 'left with it,' in the same way that one is left with a weak heart after certain illnesses. A shadow has come into one's consciousness that will not go out again" ("A Chance Meeting" 20). The irrelevance of things never seems far from Cather's sense of value.
Cather seems to have lived and thought in nonlinear patterns, where nothing necessarily follows, and so anything may follow. Her transcontinental and transoceanic travel habits, her life in hotels, inns, and cottages—these were manifestations of a restless, anacoluthonic intellect. Cather's, moreover, was one of the minds that produced the era we live in now, where we cling to the nonsequential as if it were true. Cather's mind contributes to the shadow of our present intellectual ecology. Shadows on the Rock is the pinnacle, where it all comes together in a novel about stillness—about the rare and oh-so-temporary experience of standing still. It took a while for Cather to write Nebraska out. It was always her rock. Like Grenfell, she got frantic for it and had to visit it or think about it a lot. But once she let it go, she shot out into the eternities and wrote herself into her most intellectually rigorous work. The world may have broke in two in 1922, but it was back as one in 1931.
The coming of shadows into one's consciousness is a recurring motif in Shadows on the Rock, the building of frames of mind, of faith and visions. Consider the two working women in the novel. Because, from another perspective, there is something metaphorically whorish about Cather's itinerant career, spending a night here and there, this pen for hire, dropping into Taos or Quebec and "doing" Catholicism, and "doing" Bohemian girls and "doing" midlife professors. I'm just a station on your way / I know I'm not your lover. It is remarkable how Cather slips whores into the world of faith and endurance in Shadows on the Rock. Then again, how could Cather miss the fact that there were two main institutions by which women could immigrate to Canada without being wives: as the objects of spiritual salvation, and as the objects of physical satiation; ministers to God or sailors.
Cather's main whore is 'Toinette, a whore descended from a whore, from a long line of whores. Her mother was "one of the worst" of the "several hundred" women sent to Canada by the king to marry the men of a French regiment that had subdued the Iroquois—she was not one of the good girls or the orphans. She was one of those whom Cather identifies as the truly bad girls. The whore-mother gives birth to 'Toinette, "as pretty and as worthless a girl as ever made eyes at the sailors in any seaport town." Antoinette, surely Ántonia's dark twin, falls in love, leaves her whorish ways for about as long as Ántonia leaves her good ways, has a child, and then "returned to her old ways, and her husband disappeared" (41). Antoinette opens a "sailors' lodging house," which takes its place among the institutions clinging to the rock, but down low, where she does a pretty good business for a woman surrounded by piety. The girls attract sailors by advertising "'frogs' and 'snails'" to the hungry sailors, whether they had these delicacies on hand or not, because, as Cather explains, 'Toinette is "still good to look at" (41). (And, if the sailors cannot eat "frogs and snails," they can have either frog or snail, which are also the nicknames of 'Toinette and her business partner, in another of Cather's forays into suggestive orality.) The whore-bird whom Antoinette conceives during her brief fall into grace is Jacques, whose angelic nature Cécile finds in need of shoes.
'Toinette may be a whore, but she is not unenlightened. When she hears that it was the Governor, not Auclair, who bought the shoes for Jacques, she transcends her station for an instant: "The Governor? Ah, that is different. The Governor is our protector, he owes us something. The King owes something to the children of those poor creatures, like my mother, whom he sent out here under false pretences" (71, emphasis added). 'Toinette and her son cast strong shadows on the minds of the saintly rock dwellers. Bishop Laval sees Jacques as "a sign that it was time to return to that rapt and mystical devotion of his early life." And for his part, the apothecary Auclair watches Jacques and wonders why it is a whore "should have a boy like that" (71).
The other berating whore in Shadows on the Rock is Marie, in the story Mother Juschereau tells Cécile. Marie is such a whore that she must first be introduced by Cather as a pécheresse; the English word for sinner is apparently not sinful enough to communicate the extent of Marie's whorishness. "She had been a sinner from her early youth," Cather translates, and continues, in an uncharacteristically tortured sentence, "and was so proof against all counsel that she continued her disorders until an advanced age." Apparently lacking the entrepreneurial spirit of 'Toinette, Marie is banished from her town; "she fell lower and lower, and at last hid herself in a solitary cave" where she "dragged out her shameful life, destitute and consumed by a loathsome disease." She died alone, but apparently not unobserved, because after her death someone came around, removed her from her cave, and threw her body into a ditch where it was "buried like that of some unclean animal" (30). In her "solitary cave," however, Marie, like one of Plato's unchained visionaries, manages to free herself and see the source of her shadowy existence in the appearance of the Virgin Mary. At this point the story ceases to be about Marie and becomes a shadow in the consciousness of Sister Catherine. "One day, while [Sister Catherine] was at prayer," we learn, Marie pays her a visit and chews her out: "You commend to God the souls of all those who die," says the whorish Marie. "I am the only one on whom you have no compassion" (31). Sister Catherine immediately makes amends and has masses said for Marie, who returns, a few days later, with news of her admission to heaven. The story makes Sister Catherine's career, because the shadow of Marie leads her to produce a reputation for "always dedicating herself to the impossible and always achieving it" (34).
And so it follows—does it not follow?—that the colony of Quebec was begun in whoredom, sustained by visions of whores visited upon its saints, and continued by bourgeois whores who accept assistance from the governor and raise respectable sons. To place these two whore stories in the context of Cather's controlling metaphor: when we enter the game of rock/shadows/ meaning, we commit to a "disorder" that shall continue "until an advanced age." And what is a whore but the shadow of those sexual and economic desires that inform our more sacred, domestic arrangements? "She used to wear her hair like you," we tell the Winter Lady. In the time of the novel, the term whore could be—and was—applied to entire communities that had become corrupt or idolatrous. That whorish Quebec, one might say. We are all, in this sense, descendants of whores, whether descended from an eventually secularized Quebec or as Yankee descendants of Puritan saints, on their errand into the wilderness.
Cather's liberationist consciousness moves us away from manifestations and back to origins. Whence the shadows on our minds? The "Winter Lady" who stays a while brings the news that belief and desire are human energies that can make the world a sacred or a whorish place. It is the sense of having been shot out into the eternities, of having been pried loose from the rock for a while, of recognizing the cave we call our sanctuary and knowing briefly that what we hold to most dearly are shadows cast by ineffable sources—or by the eternal sources of our own desires. Cather makes us almost believe we can see that.
Recall the soon-to-be-reformed whore, Tom Outland, right after he "requites faith and friendship" (The Professor's House 229) and feels pretty bad about it. He does not pursue his estranged friend, Roddy Blake, immediately. While Blake gets away, Tom lies down and watches the shadows come over the mesa at sundown. As the light fades, he thinks, "It all came together in my understanding," so that "the mesa was no longer an adventure, but a religious emotion." Far from feeling that he had done something wrong in his rude treatment of Blake, Outland "wakened with the feeling that I had found everything, instead of having lost everything" (226-27). Blake had done him a great favor in selling off the things he had mistakenly valued, and now he can conjure the forces that produced those pots and vases. "I seemed to get the solar energy in some direct way," he muses. Tom Outland, in the final scene of his narrative, has been torn loose from his little rock and shot out into the eternities. "And that's what makes men happy," St. Peter lectures in The Professor's House, "believing in the mystery and importance of their own little individual lives" (55). But what makes humanists giddy is the knowledge that the mystery is no more than another shadow cast to keep them in chains. We believed this, because we had been taught it in childhood. It is very much like the days when Cécile "loved her town best": not when her view of things was plain, but when her vision of the physical world was obscured, when "The autumn fog was rolling in from the river" and "Everything else was blotted out by rolling vapours that were constantly changing in density and colour" (50)—liberating her, for the moment, from that God-haunted rock.
And in the end, we see the final liberation of Cécile—not into the convent, but into the wilderness; not within the shadowy world where nothing changes, but into the world of what Cather calls "the future," the ever-receding realm of human salvation. Nowhere to be found in the epilogue, Cécile has been liberated from this particular rock. She has been torn loose and shot out into the eternities, and, to invoke Plato again, no longer "required to contend with [the] perpetual prisoners in 'evaluating' these shadows" (517a)—prisoners such as Jean Le Ber, Bishop Laval, even her father, the rock-bound pharmacist—all terribly good people, but imprisoned nonetheless. Think of all the prisons in this novel—from Blinker's tales of torture to Saint-Vallier's captivity in England—and, of course, the prominence of the religious orders in Quebec. How human beings seem to love their cages! And what beauty is produced by an imprisoned soul. But not Cécile. She moved into "a commodious house in the Upper Town," her father explains, "beyond the Ursuline convent" and out of the novel in the arms of Pierre Charron, namesake of the famous sixteenth-century French skeptic. Jacques, the whore's son, has taken over Cécile's chamber and is filling the apothecary's shop with keepsakes—shells and corals. Meanwhile, Auclair recognizes in the Bishop "a man uncertain," in Cather's final invocation of her title, "a man uncertain, and puzzled, and in the dark like ourselves." But Jacques is not at home in the dark very much; he is a sailor and spends much of his life between the rocks, with visions, no doubt, of pretty girls, diving. We might hear the Canadian singing: "I'm just a station on your way / I know I'm not your lover" as he, like us, navigates within the shadows cast by his creator, Willa Cather.