Losing Nothing, Comprehending Everything: Learning to Read Both the Old World and The New In Death Comes for the Archbishop
In her 1927 letter to Commonweal, written to explain how she wrote Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather indirectly offered a possible interpretation for the novel itself: “I used to wish there were some written account of the old times when those churches were built; but I soon felt that no record of them could be as real as they are themselves. They are their own story, and it is foolish convention that we must have everything interpreted for us in written language” (emphasis mine). In Death Comes for the Archbishop, Cather attempts to bring readers beyond “written language,” trying to create on the written page that which is usually intelligible only with sound or sight. To teach us how to read beyond written language Cather offers two models, one aural and one visual: the Angelus bell and the figure of the southwestern mesa. The novel thus offers a pedagogy of interpretation: when we understand the mesa and the bell as tropes with which to organize our understanding of the novel, we arrive at new ways of reading Cather. She deliberately does not provide us with means to “translate” her landscape into meaning; we can only “divine” meaning—Cather’s word for how we are to understand the “inexplicable presence of the thing not named” (On Writing 41). When we try to name the thing, we limit the full range of associations and reverberations; we do not hear the entire Angelus, and we do not see the full scale of the mesa. The aural and visual landscapes of the novel teach us to read; what we come to understand is that, in Death Comes for the Archbishop, tropes and topos are one and the same.
The novel makes meaning in much the same way as does the tolling of the Angelus bell in the beginning of the novel: a series of echoing associations that come together to form a whole. The bell’s notes are “Full, clear . . . each note floated through the air like a globe of silver,” but until the last note joins the first in the air, the Angelus itself is not complete. When Latour first hears the Angelus bell, almost in his sleep, he has the “pleasing delusion that he was in Rome.” As the bell continues to ring the nine strokes of the Angelus, its sound sends Latour on an inner journey: “Before the nine strokes were done Rome faded, and behind it he sensed something Eastern, with palm trees—Jerusalem perhaps, though he had never been there. . . . he cherished for a moment this sudden, pervasive sense of the East. Once before he had been carried out of the body thus to a place far away. It had happened on a street in New Orleans. . . . he [had been] overcome by a feeling of place, was dropped . . . into a garden in the south of France. . . . And now this silvery bell had carried him farther and faster than sound could travel.” The bell’s sound sets up a series of reactions in Latour’s mind, bringing him to places that he has not physically seen but that the sound allows him to imagine. He travels to the Old World, to places of origin: Jerusalem, the holy city; Rome (and thus by implication the Vatican); New Orleans, one of the first cities in the United States; and the south of France, Latour’s boyhood home. Although Latour’s thoughts are linear—from distant to recent past— they are triggered by the sound of the bell all at once and experienced synchronously. This synchronous experience of time becomes central to the novel; the novel works to represent time and space, history and tradition, in nonlinear ways.
The story of the bell’s provenance continues the movement from past to present, from Europe to America: “the inscription [on the bell] is in Spanish . . . it must have been brought up from Mexico City in an ox-cart . . . and the silver of the Spaniards was really Moorish, was it not. . . . The Spaniards knew nothing about working silver except as they learned it from the Moors. . . . The Spaniards handed on their skill to the Mexicans, and the Mexicans taught the Navajos to work...
(The entire section is 18,615 words.)