Thursday, April 18, 2019

Cather enacts the Eleusinian Mysteries, maybe

I waved, yesterday, at Willa Cather’s use of classical literature, of Ovid and Virgil, but she has another way of using mythology in her fiction, building major episodes of My Ántonia on the anthropological approach to myth.  Not the intellectual literary Greek mythology of Ovid, but the real thing, Greek religion, to the extent that scholars understood it.  William Faulkner, when he decided to write a thriller, structured it around The Golden Bough, but Cather had a more serious intellectual interest in the subject, unless she also just read The Golden Bough.  I doubt that is what I am saying.

Regardless, My Ántonia has quite a lot of this sort of thing.  It has a scene involving a human sacrifice to the corn god, for example.  That’s in, where a tramp falls or throws himself into a thresher.  The last twenty pages or so of the novel contain a reunion between the narrator and Ántonia, who is married with twelve children, as literal an earth-mother figure as Cather can make her.  The long, complex scene appears to be packed with references to – no, appears to be re-enacting – the Eleusinian Mysteries.  The bit where Jim descends into a cave, and is shown its mysterious treasures by the priestesses – I mean, c’mon.  The treasures in this case are things like spiced plum preserves.

Maybe not.  But it’s right there in front of my eyes.  I don’t see the like in The Professor’s House, and A Lost Lady only gave me frustrating hints of something else going on behind the scenes.  My Ántonia at least has more clues.  Because the form is nominally a memoir, told at some distance in time, the “plot” is episodic  and even random.  Here are the odd things that happened in my town while I was growing up, the (rare) murders and (somewhat less rare) suicides and the time the dying Russian told that crazy story about throwing a bride to the wolves and the time the blind pianist came to town.  There is some ordinary life, too, but plenty of extraordinary events.  The extraordinary events are often bizarre or grotesque, and they often have associations with more archetypal mythical stories.

The “Negro pianist,” Blind d’Arnault, “looked like some glistening African god of pleasure, full of strong, savage blood” (II.vii).  Dionysus is Asian, right, but d’Arnault is a Dionysian figure, a strange magical musician.  Or maybe he is Orpheus.  He gets the girls, Ántonia and her friends, dancing.  If they are Bacchantes, at least they do not tear anyone to pieces.  His music apparently also summons a group of Italian dancing masters, who set up their tent in the next chapter, where girls in white dresses dance to the harp and flute, overseen by an Italian woman in lavender who “wore her hair on the top of her head, built up in a black tower, with red coral combs.”

Again, what do I know, but that is a lot of Mediterranean detail for the Nebraska prairie.  So I have suspicions.

The pianist is likely a composite of a number of touring blind African-American pianists of the 19th century, but for some reason that I do not understand Cather and her narrator interrupt the scene with a long description of his childhood and how an enslaved boy became a piano prodigy.  The biography is specifically that of Blind Tom Wiggins, the subject of a superb recent novel, Song of the Shank (2014), by Jeffery Renard Allen.  I suppose Allen is interweaving Cather into whatever he is doing with the story.

To what degree – whether – any of this is part of the meaning of My Ántonia, whatever that might be, and to what degree it is a separate layer, content to be invisible to most readers, is a puzzle.


  1. Didnt the Professor spend some of his best, happiest time alone in the attic with the dressmaker's forms around him? And didnt he try to end his life there, with them, rather than go to the new house with his estranged wife and materialistic family? I havent read this one for awhile, but these symbols could be part of Cather's deeper narrative. In the three-part form, narrative split by an (un)related interlude, it seems to echo To the Lighthouse. Now I must go to The Professor's House again.

  2. Ye, the dressmaker's forms! That is exactly the kind of detail to make a person wonder. They are obviously symbolic of something. They are symbolic within the story, to the Professor himself. But are they a shadowy piece of another story, too?

  3. I was tempted to have a look at The Professor's House just now and now see Augusta, the seamstress, as the priestess at the shrine, attending the rites of his creativity and creating her own forms to adorn the women in his household. Look at the forms themselves. One is a partial figure, a "Bust", possibly a fertility figure from the old, Great Goddess Days (Venus of Willendorf?) and the other a full length figure, the regular Venus of the de Milo strain, a figure of beauty. You know I am going to have to read more of this during the weekend!

  4. Yeah, that's great. There is something there. We, I mean humans, are good at inventing over-interpretive nonsense, but I at least in this case I Know that Cather was deeply interested in the material.

  5. The treasures in this case are things like spiced plum preserves.

    Hey, well, in Nebraska that's probably as precious as ambrosia was to the ancient Greeks.

    That obsession with the classical world among so many early 20th century American writers - Cather, Wolfe, Eliot, even Steinbeck - where did that come from? Was it primarily due to Frazer? I'm sure there are probably a dozen scholarly treatises on the subject, but it seems so unusually powerful an influence. You can hardly move in Thomas Wolfe without knocking over some Greek statuary.

  6. Some of it is from Frazer, and associated discoveries and writers. For Faulkner - such is my impression - the Frazer stuff was a quick way to add weight to his nasty shocker.
    Look, it's "mythic!"

    Cather is deeper in the subject, a real classicist, meaning she really loved this stuff.

    There's also the Modernist fascination with laying patterns on patterns, even if it is just to see what happens. Make a day in Dublin be like The Odyssey, sort of.