On Willa Cather’s “Death Comes for the Archbishop”

by vinnyhaddad

At times theory can feel overly burdensome and frustratingly vague (reading Deleuze and gnashing my teeth, I thought to myself, “None of the words you are putting next to one another seem to signify anything in the order you are putting them”). However, theory undeniably opens up new ways of seeing and alters perception. This was the case when reading Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927). I squashed my initial navel-gazing impulse (oh-yippee-a-bishop-that-converts-Navajos-to-Catholocism) when I began to notice what might be a richly and poetically expressed repressed homosexual relationship between two priests.[1] Willa Cather is popularly studied through the lens of queer theory (and I will do nothing to detour that trend in this blog), but the queerness in her texts are unique in their quiet resistance to interpretation. In Foundlings: Lesbian and Gay Historical Emotion before Stonewall, Christopher Nealon discredits the linear narrative of progress from the discourses of sexology and the invert to those discourses of ethnicity and the gay and lesbian liberation movement, instead bringing to the fore what he terms “foundling” texts that address the tension between the two, ultimately invoking a desire among queer characters to “feel historical.” Nealon distinguishes Cather from her contemporaries in the following way,

Cather’s refusal of the trappings of mass culture, and of the literary strategies modernist writers were developing in response to it, sets her apart from her literary and her lesbian contemporaries: she makes recourse neither to the strategies of irony so many of them embraced nor to the new explicitness about sex. Radclyffe Hall, although similarly sincere, is of course writing directly about lesbians in The Well of Loneliness (1928), and Djuna Barnes’s dithyrambic Nightwood (1936) reads light years away from the measured prose of [Cather’s novel] Lucy Gayheart, published the year before. Of course, one difference between Cather and Hall or Barnes is that Cather wrote about rural people of little means, while Hall and Barnes, whatever their innovations in sexual subject matter or literary style, were still firmly rooted in the tradition of writing about the rich, or at least the glamorously mobile. This difference reflects a class difference between Cather and the other literary lesbians of the period, such as Hall or Barnes or Edna St. Vincent Millay, all of whom were either born into privilege or privately educated. Cather, born on a farm and enrolled in a state college, seems in retrospect all the less likely to incorporate her lesbianism either mimetically, into her writing, as did Hall and Barnes, or publicly, into a bohemian life, as did Millay. Barnes, Hall, and Millay all embraced the age as the age of sex, either according Freud or according to the sexologists (in Hall’s case)—an embrace that would have appalled Cather, in whose novels sex is never narratively rendered. (Nealon, 63-64)

Briefly, I might add that, whereas in my recent reading of Henry James, an openness of interpretation can be invited through linguistic ambiguity, Cather’s careful clarity seems to face the tension of the repressed; in Sedgwick’s words, the “secret that always reveals itself” (Epistemology of the Closet) is not inherently political, so much as it is melancholic with precious few avenues to the anti-depressive. Interpretation is available to those able to see it, and utterly absent for those who cannot or will to not. This being said, Cather’s historical novel that offers an account of two French Jesuit missionaries sent to install morality where Spanish padres modeled moral depravity in the newly annexed American Southwest aligns well with Nealon’s positioning of Cather as seeking out a feeling for a queer history. The intense feeling of movement in the novel is complicated by the intense temporal and physical paralysis that the foreclosed queerness of the characters induces. Her affiliation with the moral certitude of Jesuit missionaries creates a tension between how this history buoys up and aligns with a Catholic spirituality (particularly through the medium of nature and the natural as I will show) and how it must also be endlessly deferred, how the denial of a queer past acts as a paralytic to the future.

The characters of Death Comes for the Archbishop (with their, and the audience’s, romanticized history of Navajo’s as a mimetic guide[2]) experience an affective attunement with nature and the environment. Let us take the following experience of Bishop Latour as an example:

Father Latour lived for three days in an almost perpetual sand-storm—cut off from even this remote little Indian camp by moving walls and tapestries of sand. He either sat in his house and listened to the wind, or walked abroad under those aged, wind-distorted trees, muffled in an Indian blanket, which he kept drawn up over his mouth and nose. Since his arrival he had undertaken to decide whether he would be justified in recalling Father Vaillant from Tuscon. (250).

The way in which the swirling dust and sand cloaks and covers Bishop Latour on the one hand allows for a secretive divulsion, and on the other an activation of the stormy feelings that have been covered for so long: “Father Latour needed his Vicar…When they were together, he was always curbing Father Valliant’s hopeful rashness—but left alone, he greatly missed that very quality. And he missed Father Vaillant’s companionship—why not admit it?” (251). This socially foreclosed desire is endlessly deferred for the reader, his admission of what this “missed companionship” is can never be verbalized textually, and therefore fulfilled physically. Bishop Latour and Father Vaillant exhaust all means of verbal signification but are deterred by the clear repression of what can and cannot be uttered:

‘I sent for you because I felt the need of your companionship. I used my authority as a Bishop to gratify my personal wish. That was selfish, if you will, but surely natural enough. We are countrymen, and are bound by early memories And that two friends, having come together, should part and go their separate ways—that is natural, too. [emphases mine]… If you take [the mule] Contento, I will ask you to take Angelica as well. They have a great affection for each other; why separate them indefinitely. One could not explain to them…’ Father Vaillant made no reply. He stood looking intently at the pages of his letter. The Bishop saw a drop of water splash down upon the violet script and spread. He turned quickly and went out through the arched doorway. (283-285)

Cather invokes Freud as only one possible avenue to understanding the psychic life of Bishop Latour. This socially foreclosed desire is expressed through a familiar description of melancholia: “But Jean, who was at ease in any society and always the flower of courtesy, could not form new ties. It had always been so. He was like that even as a boy; gracious to everyone, but known to a very few” (Emphasis mine, 283). Melancholia becomes depressive, or non-productive, when it casts a “shadow of the object” on the ego. If the relationship to the lost object is ambivalent (the relationship with Father Vaillant is at the same time held up in its bodied relationality and then disavowed), then it causes “this introjected emotional tie…[to introduce] a particular relationality into the ego, producing a ‘cleavage’…in which one part of the ego (the ‘critical agency’) ‘rages’ against the other” (“Mourning and Melancholia,” 47). Latour’s inability to form new ties can be traced to the loss of Father Vaillant and the socially foreclosed grief that accompanies any recognition of the importance of that cathexis. It lodges itself as a shadow in his Ego,

More and more life seemed to him an experience of the Ego, in no sense the Ego itself.  This conviction, he believed, was something apart from his religious life; it was an enlightenment that came to him as a man, a human creature.  And he noticed that he judged conduct differently now; his own and that of others. The mistakes of his life seemed unimportant; accidents that had occurred en route, like the shipwreck in Galveston harbour, or the runaway in which he was hurt when he was first on his way to New Mexico in search of his Bishopric. (325)

What Latour perceives as an increasingly hostile and prohibitive influence of the Ego suggests the melancholic cleavage. However, in a moment of ‘embrace,’ Nealon’s focus on a desire to ‘feel historical’ complicates a fixed diagnosis of Latour’s melancholia:

On the morning of his departure for home, when his carriage was ready, the cart covered with tarpaulins and the oxen yoked, Father Vaillant, who had been hurrying ever since the first streak of light, suddenly became deliberate. He went into the Bishop’s study and sat down, talking to him of unimportant matters, lingering as if there something still undone…He rose and began to pace the floor, addressing his friend without looking at him…He knelt, and having Father Vaillant, having blessed him, knelt and was blessed in turn. They embraced each other for the past—for the future. (293)

Again, these tense, ambivalent feelings are preserved in the material:

When he was otherwise motionless, the thumb of his right hand would sometimes gently touch a ring on his forefinger, an amethyst with an inscription cut upon it Auspice Maria, — Father Vaillant’s signet-ring; and then he was almost certainly thinking of Joseph; of their life together in this room… in Ohio beside the Great Lakes…as young men in Paris…as boys at Montferrand. There were many passages in their missionary life that he loved to recall; and how often and how fondly he recalled the beginning of it! (318)

Jonathan Flatley elucidates the profundity of the past, in all of its sensory outputs, forcefully erupting into the present, through material itself: “if sensory feeling (Empfindung)…is not experienced in the brain, but in the materiality of the place, then affect travels along the material paths of sensation to find a dwelling place. And here, it is as if beauty is too abstract and generalized; because it produces an overall effect that ‘dazzles’ one, it cannot provide a nestling place for the ‘fleeting darts of adoration…’ For Benjamin, experiences of affective attachment are interesting because they put us—precisely at those moments when we care most, when we feel the value of something—‘outside of ourselves.’” (Affective Mapping, 18). When the Archbishop is in a trance of these memories about Father Valliant, “when a voice out of the present sounded in his ear. It was Bernard” (305). This feeling is conjured beautifully and cathartically in the death of the Archbishop, when “there was no longer any perspective in his memories.” Then, only to be released and expressed in the final moment of the Archbishop’s death, the narrator ventriloquizes the immobilized and mute Latour’s dying fantasy:

 He continued to murmur, to move his hands a little, and Magdalena thought he was trying to ask for something, or to tell them something. But in reality the Bishop was not there at all; he was standing in a tip-tilted green field among his native mountains, and he was trying to give consolation to a young man who was being torn in two before his eyes by the desire to go and the necessity to stay. (335)

Near the conclusion of the novel, Father Latour summarizes his view of History: “For many years Father Latour used to wonder if there would ever be an end to the Indian wars while there was one Navajo or Apache left alive. Too many traders and manufacturers made a rich profit out of that warfare; a political machine and immense capital were employed to keep it going” (327). What is remarkable about this moment is the way in which the historical is actually at best a merely dramatic background for the affective turbulence of the Bishop’s personal relationship with Father Vaillant. The offering for the reader that the Navajo’s freedom is triggers the possibility for an anti-depressive melancholia is, to me, merely metaphorical. The repression of the “nature-conscious” Navajo’s by Americans mirrors, for Latour, an “affective map,” of the historical origins of his own melancholia, of his own foreclosed homosexual relationship with Father Vaillant.


[1] Again, I do this often with this blog, but as a disclaimer, I am in a whirlwind of reading from my upcoming Qualifying Exam and I would be very surprised if a minimal level of research does not uncover a wealth of scholarship on this relationship. If it does exist (and I would imagine it does), apologies for not due credit, you have all been in my shoes. If it does not, shame on you Willa Cather scholars.

[2] As a brief example, Bishop Latour admires “the Indians’” respect for the environment in contradistinction with “the white man” through a series of familiar associations, ending with the following, “The land and all that it bore they treated with consideration; not attempting to improve it, they never desecrated it” (263). The notion that Native Americans never attempted to improve their land by changing it (a romantic trope borne out of tradition popularized by James Fenimore Cooper) embodies a fantasy structure of white settlers as much as it would be for Cather’s American middle-class readers in 1927, or for contemporary readers for that matter.

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