Monday, April 9, 2018

Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

The Bishop sat a long time by the spring, while the declining sun poured its beautifying light over those low, rose-tinted houses and bright gardens.  The old grandfather had shown him arrow-heads and corroded medals, and a sword hilt, evidently Spanish, that he had found in the earth near the water-head.  This spot had been a refuge for humanity long before these Mexicans had come upon it.  It was older than history, like those well-heads in his own country where the Roman settlers had set up the image of a river goddess, and later the Christian priests had planted a cross.  This settlement was his Bishopric in miniature; hundreds of square miles of thirsty desert, then a spring, a village, old men trying to remember their catechism to teach their grandchildren.  Their Faith planted by the Spanish friars and watered with their blood was not dead; it awaited only the toil of the husbandman.

It was really interesting to re-read Death Comes for the Archbishop on the heels of CeremonyIn the latter Silko adds the white missionaries who came to the indigenous populations of New Mexico to the forces of witchery, the colonialist evil that Tayo must expunge through a traditional Pueblo ceremony.  Willa Cather's account of Bishop Jean Latour--a fictionalized version of the real Bishop Lamy--quite obviously does not feel the same way.  But it's also not that far off as you might suppose.  Cather has a keen appreciation for the indigenous people Latour ministers to that seems respectful without being patronizing, and though Latour himself is a paragon of gentleness, he arrives to a church in disarray, represented by men who use the wild remoteness of the land to abuse others.  At the mesa-top community of Acoma, Latour muses that the beautiful church, constructed of giant wood beams that must have been carried for hundreds of miles by workers who were little more than slaves, represents a great cruelty.  (For this crime and others we learn that the former priest of Acoma was unceremoniously tossed off the mesa.)

In fact, Death Comes for the Archbishop is full of cruelty, from the Mexican priests who refuse to give up their fiefdoms to the new French Archbishop to the poor whites who murder supplicant travelers.  Or the protestant family that refuses to let their Mexican servant see a priest or attend the Catholic church of her upbringing.  It's easy to miss these things because Cather's style is as gentle as Latour himself.  My memory was of a novel where nothing much happens, but that's not true.  A lot happens, but it plods by episodically with the easy grace of a man whose eyes are set on higher things.

I liked the novel more on this re-reading for several reasons.  I knew that the novel isn't really about the Arcbishop's death, but rather his life--a surprise which, subtle as it is, threw me the first time.  Or perhaps it's more correct to say it's about a friendship, that of Latour and his vicar Father Joseph Vaillant, boyhood friends from France who have come together to serve God in the desert.  One way of reading Death Comes for the Archbishop is as a study of goodness; both Latour and Vaillant are scrupulously kind and pious men, but in wildly different ways.  Whereas Vaillant is an outgoing populist who serves passionately among the most deprived, Latour is a quieter, more contemplative man whose passion for his people comes perhaps from a deeper understanding.  Latour says that Vaillant "must always have the miracle very direct and spectacular, not with Nature but against it.  He would almost be able to tell the colour of the mantle Our Lady wore when She took the mare by the bridle back yonder among the junipers and led her out of the pathless sand-hills, as the angel led the ass on the Flight into Egypt."  Another reason I liked it more this time is that a friend pointed out to me the way in which Archbishop is a model for Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, a study of a good and quiet man of the cloth.  Both novels are remarkable because they believe that good can be as interesting, and as multiform, as evil.

Not far from his humble church in Santa Fe, Latour finds a single golden hill whose rock he decides will form his cathedral.  In contrast to the priest at Acoma, extracting it will be no unnecessary burden.  In contrast to the priest at the heart of William Golding's The Spire, he desires the cathedral not in vanity but in hope that it will make a permanent thing of beauty.  He tells Vaillant, "the Cathedral is not for us, Father Joseph.  We build for the future--better not lay a stone unless we can do that."  Doubtless Silko would read the cathedral's symbolism differently.  For me, it was wonderful to walk out of our rented apartment in Santa Fe and walk a few short blocks down to the plaza, four hundred years old, and see the thing itself, still gold, framed by a red mountain.  It allowed me to really understand both the reason and the beauty in Latour's words.

They frame also the final chapter of the book, which shares its title.  Though the book isn't really about Latour's death, like I said, the final chapter does contain its most compelling language, and its most beautiful observations about human life.  It's the kind of stuff that makes you want to quote without comment:

In New Mexico he always awoke a young man; not until he rose and began to shave did he realize that he was growing older.  His first consciousness was a sense of the light dry wind blowing in through the windows, with the fragrance of hot sun and sage-brush and sweet clover; a wind that made one's body feel light and one's heart cry "Today-today," like a child's.

How about:

The air would disappear from the whole earth in time, perhaps; but long after this day.  He did not know just when it had become so necessary to him, but he had come back to die in exile for the sake of it.  Something soft and wild and free, something that whispered to the ear on the pillow, lightened the heart, softly, softly picked the lock, slid the bolts, and released the prisoned spirit of the man into the wind, into the blue and gold, into the morning, into the morning!

How remarkable that that passage isn't about the Archbishop's death, but rather the experience of his life!  When Latour does begin to die, Cather writes about it as an experience not of diminution but of enlargement and expansion:

He observed also that there was no longer any perspective in 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 the 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.

Does one have to be as good a man as Latour to have as good a death?  I don't know.  I hope not.  But I do know that Cather is one of the only authors who can make death seem not only not frightening but perhaps even pleasant.

In the midst of the Archbishop's dying Cather stops to recount the story of the Navajos who, after being expelled to the other side of the Rio Grande, were allowed to return to their ancestral lands after a campaign of rebellion against the U.S. government.  It's a story I didn't know, and a rare reprieve in the long and sorry history of U.S.-Native relations.  It might seem like a strange digression from the Archbishop, but I think that Cather tells it because it represents a kind of reconciliation that parallels the reconciliation at the heart of Christian religion, the reconciliation that is promised to the Archbishop, who lies on his deathbed thinking about his boyhood in France with his friend Vaillant, himself long since dead.  If God has the power to return life to the dead, friend to friend, perhaps He can also return the Native peoples of America to the full vitality that was stolen from them.

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