Monday, March 3, 2014

Doña Isabella

Around the time Willa Cather was composing her great New Mexican novel Death Comes for the Archbishop, muralismo was the prevailing art form in Old Mexico, on the rise in the years subsequent to the Mexican Revolution. Meditating on the architecture of the novel, which is structured in prologue and nine books, several with numbered scenes within, it occurred to me that this may have been Cather's interesting and formally ambitious stab at creating a contemporaneous literary equivalent. Certainly some of her descriptions of natural phenomena are lucid to the point of hallucination.

Muralismo typically depicts significant, often legendary, historical scenes, especially as seen from the point of view of indigenous peoples, and conveys social messages meant to speak to the ages often painted in vivid, sometimes lurid, primary colors. This is no less true in Cather's verbal compositions, perhaps the most brilliant and exciting of which is the passage in Section 4 of Book Three, The Mass at Acoma, in which Cather relates how the pueblo people summarily dispensed with one despotic and carelessly lethal priest. His downfall is described dispassionately in plain, spare, almost methodical language evoking an atmosphere of  utter detachment.

They carried him down the ladder and through the

cloister and across the rock to the most precipitous

cliff — the one over which the Acoma women flung

broken pots and such refuse as the turkeys would

not eat. There the people were assembled. They

cut his bonds, and taking him by the hands and feet,

swung him out over the rock-edge and back a few

times. He was heavy, and perhaps they thought this

dangerous sport. No sound but hissing breath came

through his teeth. The four executioners took him up

again from the brink where they had laid him, and,

after a few feints, dropped him in mid-air.

There's much to admire in the writing of this brief passage, the double meaning of refuse for instance, the tyrannical priest as “such refuse” (garbage) and the peoples' refusing (resistance) of his casual act of murder—or the very few adjectives that somehow generate so much foreboding: “precipitous,” “broken,” “dangerous,” “hissing.” It is part of Cather's linguistic genius that in “hissing breath” can be found both the condemned man's ultimate voicing of disapproval, and the final wheezings of a criminally unholy gasbag.

Muralismo often includes portraiture of iconoclastic figures whose deeds are worthy of contemplation, exemplars whose lives and accomplishments merit scrutiny over Time. Often unsung heroes who have fought the power in one way or another, or who have opened up new vistas of thought or creation. Book Six, containing the fewest pages of all the books in Death Comes for the Archbishop, is titled Doña Isabella, and at first it's difficult to perceive how this trivial-seeming character fits into the social landscape, or why she should be singled out at all and elevated to the status of her own book. Since she's no notable personage, what exactly is her character a portrait of?

In the first of the two sections, Cather describes her as the second wife of a prosperous ranchero who returned to Santa Fe from New Orleans with “his American wife and a wagon train of furniture.” From the get-go she is situated as ornamental, decorous to her new surroundings, and she's drawn as vain on several counts. Most especially because she indulges a pretense about her age which she doesn't quite manage to pull off. Cather focuses us on Isabella's hair which was “a little silvered, and perhaps worn in too many puffs and ringlets for the sharpening outline of her face.” Ringlets that she takes care to pin back before entering the company of her dour adult daughter Inez, altering her appearance by toning it down and becoming more churchly.

Doña Isabella is generally the subject of gossip but of a trifling nature, mostly concerning her fashion sense (she's said to be something of a clothes horse) as well as conjecture about possible extra-marital dalliances. Cather seems keen to make us notice both her flightiness and her whiteness as reflected in her choice of pop songs such as La Paloma (the dove), La Golondria (the swallow) and “the Negro melodies.” Near the close of Section 1 when Doña Isabella plays her harp at the end of a long party sequence, Cather narrowly avoids the bird in the gilded cage cliché with a bracing splash of surprising language: “She was very charming at her instrument; the pose suited her tip-tilted canary head, and her little foot and white arms.”

In Section 2, Isabella is now the widow of the prosperous ranchero who brought her to Santa Fe. His brothers are challenging the will which would leave the bulk of the hefty fortune to her and Inez (and in time, the church) on the grounds that she is too young to be Inez's mother, her own lie used against her. Pride prevents her from admitting the truth, even if it means forfeiture of the inheritance. Cather is cruel, extending her whiteness to oblivion, dressing her “in heavy mourning, her face very white against the black, and her eyes red. The curls about her neck and ears were pale, too—quite ashen.” In Cather's hands whiteness itself becomes a kind of lived delusion, one that is openly acknowledged by the other characters. “Tramping home,” Father Vaillant says to Bishop Latour that, “he would rather combat the superstitions of a whole Indian pueblo than the vanity of one white woman.”

Subsequent scenes serve as nuanced reinforcements of Vaillant's considered conclusion. We turn the page on Doña Isabella, frozen in her panel: a none-too-flattering yet starkly iconic portrait of enduring white female privilege.

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