Saturday, February 03, 2007

My Mortal Enemy, by Willa Cather

I've read three of Willa Cather's books - My Ántonia in middle school, and again recently; A Lost Lady in college; and The Professor's House a few months ago - and liked all of them. They were all basically written at a stretch, it turns out, between 1918 and 1925. I will need to verify this further, but after reading My Mortal Enemy, I suspect that after this period she was lost to art; the shift that takes place is the sort that writers do not recover from.

My Mortal Enemy was written in 1926, a year after The Professor's House, and a few of the elements that appear briefly in that book - a fascination with Catholicism, for example - become the focus of this one. There is also something that I can only call a massive grudge against life as it is actually lived. In The Professor's House, this grudge seemed somehow legitimate - it was a dramatization of the compromises that very few people can avoid without dying young. When I finished the book, I thought of an Empson quote from Some Versions of Pastoral: "the waste even in a fortunate life, the isolation even of a life rich in intimacy, cannot but be felt deeply, and is the central feeling of tragedy."

Alongside this sense of loss, though, there was a deeply unforgiving strain that I felt entered Cather's work for the first time. I wrote down a long passage from the section narrated by Tom Outland, the book's unspoiled ideal of life as it ought to be lived. He remains pure to the end because he gets killed in WWI (don't worry, I am giving nothing away) before he has to muddy his hands with marriage and moneymaking and other such messy realities.

When he is walking around Washington, D.C. (my former home) he rents a room from a low-level bureaucrat and his wife. Here are some representative passages: "How it did use to depress me," he writes, "to see all the hundreds of clerks come pouring out of that big building at sunset! Their lives seemed to me so petty, so slavish." And later: "Thousands of them, all more or less like the couple I lived with. They seemed to me like people in slavery, who ought to be free..."

Now, these passages struck rather deep, because I have been one of that mob and felt, as who does not, what a poor sort of life it is. But I also wanted to protest, because there was more to my life than Tom is willing to grant - and more to the lives of pretty much everyone else I knew who succumbed to that routine. Outland portrays the couple he lived with as concerned only with money and maintaining their wretched social status. How does this boy - depicted elsewhere as so generous - decide that these other clerks are "all more or less like" them? This thought clearly belonged to Cather more than Tom, and it is an unfair one.

A realistic novelist, I think, has to at least make an attempt to see people as they see themselves, and none was made here. Part of these passages' power comes, I suppose, from their unwillingness to see the entire truth - it is the rare novel that is fair to everyone that walks through its pages. In any case, Cather wisely understands that she has no real interest in these people, and focuses on the ones whose virtues she can see; the clerks take up only a few pages. Which is why The Professor's House is still a great book. In My Mortal Enemy, on the other hand, this bitter side of Cather's worldview has taken over, and instead of the simple, heroic human virtues that she once wrote about, there is only a vague longing for the spiritual communion found in the Catholic church.

The book is a portrait of a long marriage - one something like the couple that she depicted in the Outland story - with every drop of joy taken out of it. The husband works all his life to support his wife, Myra, and she gives up her inheritance and her rich uncle to marry him - and for reasons that are never clear she later wishes that she had not done so. They are never truly happy, and at the end of the book she says that her husband has been, in a way, her mortal enemy.

Why? I don't know. Maybe because when Myra left everything behind for her husband she started to expect more than he could ever give her. But Myra also seems to have voluntarily and inexplicably poisoned her marriage with unfounded jealousy and needless hate. Cather seems to believe that this is somehow the hidden truth of all marriages. At the end, the narrator says that whenever she sees "the bright beginning of a love story" or "a common feeling exalted into beauty by imagination" (the emphasis is mine) she remembers Myra's words about her husband.

God help someone that feels this when they see a young couple in love. Maybe our philosopher is right to be suspicious of such emotions, but I would recommend that she stop writing novels. The real problem is not that this observation is useless or necessarily false - I suppose I could see a poisonous but still honest novel built around it - but Cather has failed to produce anything like a flesh-and-blood marriage to dramatize her observation. The book is still as well-written as the books of hers that I love, and as well put together, but it is all in the service of an inhuman - anti-human - argument.

When I finished the book, I started to wonder: what is it about an attraction to Catholicism that brings out such a bitter view of human nature? You would think that the religion would foster kindness and forgiveness, and it seems to actually produce the opposite - at least in prose writers like Flannery O'Connor and Graham Greene. (Who else? Burgess, maybe?) Maybe people who already have an intensely pessimistic outlook are drawn to religion, since only a god could redeem a world that looked so horrible. In any case, I can admire the craft shown in Greene and O'Connor's books (and in this one as well) and still feel a profound revulsion for them. They strike me somehow as the products of diseased imaginations.


Antinormative Geek said...
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Anonymous said...

Perhaps your reading them in the wrong way - these 'Catholic'-minded authors....
Flannery O'Connor is ferocious though, I'll grant you that.
I think it's the idea that you have to look Fallen Human nature squarely in the eye. She also shows us how God's grace can spring upon us in moments of truth that perhaps destroy our illusions and even our lives - but might just save our souls.
THAT'S one of the things O'Connor is getting at: no compromise with our jaded, mediocre, half-hearted desires.
Is this a lack of compassion and kindness on her part? Well, maybe. But compassion must not become complicity: True Love is forgiving and precisely because it is so, it is demanding: a price is paid (willingly) because we are worth saving. If we then take this gift as our due.
So, thinking out loud here: perhaps O'Connor needs to be seen as waging war on all those who have deliberately (by little daily choices) connived with the worst parts of human nature. She'll not have it. And if God and Truth have to knock us down to make us do that, well then, so be it.

In today's culture where everyone can be a legitimate victim and therefore not have to change anything O'Connor must surely come across as either a wicked, vindictive author or some kind of literary Tarantino - killing off her characters ironically.

It's neither one nor the other.
She takes losing ones soul very seriously. If the price of saving it is losing your illusions, status, false leg or life: well, it's a small price to pay....

Just my two bits (again! coming here as I did from your Willa Cather post).

Mind how you go: the life that you save, might be your own!

Anonymous said...

I think some of the beauty of My Mortal Enemy is how much remains hidden. Who was the woman who gave Oswald the topaz cuff links? What does Myra really mean when she says Oswald really 'feels women'? What was Myra doing in private with her young handsome artist friends?

I don't think the book is unrealistic, just shockingly lean. So we have to focus on the little we know as a reader, which is what Nellie knows, to make sense from a far of something that must be very complex up close.

Miami Information said...

awesome story, nice blog but i have a question
Is this a lack of compassion and kindness on her part?