December 22, 2007

The Professor's House

He had made something new in the world- and the rewards, the meaningless conventional gestures he had left to others.

Professor St Peter is the hero of Willa Cather's novel- the Professor's House- he is the hero of a novel in which nothing much seems to happen. The novel dwells on death repeatedly- St Peter himself beleives that he is dying, his best student Tom Outland died in the Great War and St Peter sees old loves and old attachments die around him to- he is he says transported back to his childhood, transported back within himself with neither his daughters nor his wife to keep him company. He has completed the work for which he was placed on the world- a history of Spanish adventurers in the Americas- and now all he sees is mindless games of conversational convention- the sport of furniture and clothes which fascinates him less and less.

Professor St Peter's book has gained recognition and the wealth that that provides enables his family to buy a new house- but the elderly academic wishes to spend his days inside a study in the house that they have left. A cold and bare study but one in which he can remain in solitude and think- where the ornaments of the room are signals to inspiration. For him the study remains a sanctuary, and its inhabitants- two clothes models- are as sacred as any other emblems of his own individuality. Emerging from the study, the Professor finds society outside tiresome and trivial. There is something he cannot grasp in the fascination his wife and daughters feel for small things- something he cannot appreciate about the way they interrupt the internal scholastic monologue.

His student Tom Outland shared that inclination. Outland was a country boy and part way through the story in the novella amidst the romain (as A.S. Byatt who provides an introduction to my edition charmingly calls it), Outland narrates his own tale- of how he discovered out in the south west United States an abandoned Indian village. What Outland tells us though is more than that process of discovery- he tells us about the pleasures of loneliness. The pleasures of sitting on the Indian tombstone and communing in the quiet with the intellectual idea of the past. The sense that Outland is more fundamentally disturbing than that- for going to Washington he realises that all the inhabitants of the capital are slaves. They are slaves to work and office, slaves to desiring lunch, slaves to desiring more and more and more- endless items to satiate an endless desire. A desire created by society.

For Outland and the Professor, such solitude finds society. However they both need society in order to thrive. Outland never looked happier than when playing with the Professor's daughters. The Professor's chief happiness came when Outland arrived- but also during his early marriage, when his children were growing up, when the sweetness of a child too caring of her father to disturb him, sitting outside his study for hours with a beestung finger charmed him. Furthermore he has genuine affection for his daughters and wife. He has a genuine sense of style as well. The story thus isn't simple- it isn't just that withdrawel from society is reccomended- happiness could not be found by St Peter in the hermit's cell, no less than official Washington, the cell would be barren of what provides human excitement. Convention may be the enemy but conversation is a good.

The Professor's withdrawel from the world is in part the withdrawing of a man who has become weary of the world, his lament over his vanished youth (visualised in those lines I quote above about Outland) is just as much a cry of weariness, of tired resignation as it is a point about the way that the world works. Death Cather implies is a renouncing not of the self but of company, a desire for death is a desire to be alone to meditate. Nobody interrupts in a grave. The irritating skin of society gets worse after time- after acheivement- after life has passed. There is no balm for existential doubt. Furthermore resting in that alienation is the alienation of someone who had been far away when his favourite son had died on the Western Front- its the angst of a society that has been shaken by death that is reflected on the page of Cather's novel- despite it never been mentioned, the shells of the Somme shake the Professor's living room.

We all struggle ultimately with other people- they are as Sartre said hell, they are as Bergman implied our only route to God's existance. Cather's novel places other people and the self in contradiction- it tends to no easy answers- but it demonstrates an acute power of observation is at work within its pages. The world, that old Christian bugbear, is very much with us- its impact upon us all is the subject of almost everything we do- even when we renounce- and failing to acknowledge both its danger and its pleasure is the mark of folly.