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JO H N N . S W IF T Occidental College Memory, Myth, andThe Professor’s House The Professor’s House concerns archaeology, drawing not only its subject but also its form from the sifting and interpretation of artifacts from the human past. An archaeological dig in the Blue Mesa’s abandoned cliff dwellings provides the setting for the novel’s oddly inserted center, “Tom Outland’s Story”; this dig concretely mirrors and comments on its framing narrative, the inconclusive journey in memory undertaken by Godfrey St. Peter, himself a professional historian of the American Southwest. Tom Outland and St. Peter pursue parallel adventures in cultural and personal recollection, driven obscurely to make “that perilous journey down through the human house” (27). Willa Cather’s reader, impelled by the novel’s regressive organizational scheme, engages also in a literary kind of archae­ ology, suffers its perils, and, like the two protagonists, discovers a disturbing ambiguity or flaw at the journey’s object: the point of deepest remem­ brance. In fact for Cather the encounter with the past occurs always as an act of reading, of decoding the medium of a present text. St. Peter studies the documents of history professionally while attempting the mnemonic recov­ ery of his earliest, truest self; Tom, a cowboy and amateur archaeologist, apparently observes firsthand among the Blue Mesa’s ruins the unwritten but material traces of human origin. Both are readers, looking equally at a representing text, listening equally for a comprehensible voice, an original intention in that text. Tom says of first discovering the mesa Indians’relics: “There is something stirring about finding evidences of human labour and care in the soil of an empty country. It comes to you as a sort of message, makes you feel differently about the ground you walk over every day” (194). The novel is about receiving “a sort of message” from the past; in this essay I will adopt religious and psychoanalytic perspectives to examine that central activity, and eventually to suggest the ambivalent nature of the “message” uncovered by Tom, St. Peter, and the reader of their readings. 302 Western American Literature The most striking confrontationwith the past’svoice—and a paradigm for other regressions in The Professor’s House—is Tom Outland’s penetra­ tion of the Blue Mesa, an exploration that thinly conceals a religious journey. It leads him from the rescue of the drunken Roddy Blake in a New Mexican gambling bar to the “high tide” of his solitary summer on the mesa. Its form of quest and transfiguration resembles those of Dante’s or Bunyan’s pilgrimages, or of the seeking of the Grail, and Tom’s lan­ guage explicitly defines its end as religious experience rather than mere “adventure” : Something had happened in me that made it possible for me to co-ordinate and simplify, and that process, going on in my mind, brought with it a great happiness. It was possession. ...F o r me the mesa was no longer an adventure, but a religious emotion. (250-51) Various writers have traced the constellation of specifically Christian allu­ sions embedded in the mesa’s description: the mummified “Mother Eve,” the snake, Tom’s revelation that “I had found everything, instead of having lost everything” (Kubitschek 14-15, Stouck 106, Wild 267-69). Eden or New Jerusalem, the mesa lures Tom as paradise regained, the fulfillment in time of a promise made in the lost mythic past. His journey is ritual in form, a hieratic progress toward the recovery of a first strong myth. Mircea Eliade, who posits a universal myth-seeking characteristic in human behavior, has defined myth as a sort of exemplary narrative, “the History of the acts of the Supernaturals . . . [it] is always related to ‘crea­ tion,’ always tells how something came into existence, or how a pattern of behavior, an institution, a manner of working were established; this is why myths constitute the paradigms for all significant acts” (18). Myth speaks of and from a time beyond human chronological time, and—for Eliade— the cultural purpose of recovering, recounting, or re-enacting mythic experi­ ence is the therapeutic re-connection of the diminished world-in-time to...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 301-314
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
Archive Status
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