- Willa Cather's "Consequences" and Alexander's Bridge:An approach through R. D. Laing and Ernest Becker
In his classic work of existential psychiatry, The Divided Self, R. D. Laing explores and defines a "schizoid way of being-in-the-world" characterized by what he calls "ontological insecurity," a condition in which "the individual in the ordinary circumstances of living may feel more unreal than real; in a literal sense more dead than alive; precariously differentiated from the rest of the world, so that his identity and autonomy are always in question" (42). The ontologically insecure person may respond to the anxiety that becomes his constant condition by a splitting or division in the self. He seeks to protect his inner or true self, which comes to be experienced as "transcendent" or "disembodied," by developing a "false self system" (73) whose job it is to confront and manage reality. Moreover, there is in the ontologically insecure person "a failure to sustain a sense of one's own being without the presence of other people. It is a failure to be by oneself, a failure to exist alone" (52). Such dependence on others for one's identity, however, threatens the self with engulfment, with "complete loss of being or absorption into the other" [End Page 191] (44), and thus the ontologically insecure person frequently retreats into utter isolation. For him the poles of existence cease to be separateness and relatedness, for these are based upon a firm sense of one's own autonomy. Instead, he is torn "between complete isolation or complete merging of identity . . . each equally unfeasible" (53).
Laing's description of ontological insecurity provides an extraordinarily useful set of concepts with which to approach two of Willa Cather's studies of anxiety and psychic division, the 1912 novel Alexander's Bridge and the 1915 short story "Consequences," which shares many of the novel's motifs.1 "Consequences" is the story of a young man's being driven to suicide by his double, an alter-ego or projection of himself as an old man. Its hero, Keir Cavenaugh, is completely dependent on others for his identity. Indeed what one of Laing's patients said of himself could easily have been said by Cavenaugh: "Other people supply me with my existence" (52). Alexander's Bridge, of course, is the story of an engineer, Bartley Alexander, who undergoes a comprehensive splitting of his personality at midlife. After Bartley renews his relationship with Hilda Burgoyne, his becomes clearly a "schizoid way of being-in-the-world." Why Bartley becomes thus divided can be illuminated dramatically by looking at his experience from a perspective supplied by Laing and by the related work of Ernest Becker. To define the nature and sources of Bartley's fragmentation and to allow "Consequences" and Alexander's Bridge to shed light on one another will be my purpose here.
Keir Cavenaugh is the thirty-two-year-old son of "a Pennsylvania preacher, who died soon after he discovered that his ancestral acres were full of petroleum" (71). Cavenaugh has come to New York, where the story is set, to enjoy his fortune, which he does by lavishly entertaining others. But entertaining is not simply a pastime for Cavenaugh; it is the means by which he sustains his precarious sense of identity:
His motor hit the Park every morning as if it were the first time ever. He took people out to supper every night. He went from restaurant to restaurant, sometimes to half-a-dozen in an evening. The head waiters were his hosts and their cordiality made him happy. They meide a life-line for him up Broadway and from Fifth Avenue.(71)
Cavenaugh soon comes to be pursued, however, by an old man of decayed and shaby gentility. This figure seems to have an independent existence, but he is also clearly Cavenaugh's double, an alter-ego or projection of Cavenaugh himself as an old man. He appears only to Cavenaugh, and Cather is careful to leave ambiguous the problem of his corporeality. What [End Page 192] seems especially to disturb the old man is a photograph of Cavenaugh's twin brother Brian, who...