Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Tragedy of Prof. St. Peter

I recently finished reading The Professor's House by Willa Cather. I was on a Willa Cather kick after reading My Antonia while on vacation, and M. gave me two volumes of her writings for my birthday. I have read several other novels of hers about fairly normal people living the not so interesting life they happened to be in; this book was a bit different. It struck me as more tragic than the other stories I had read by her. Life did not always turn out as the people expected, yet they made the most of it, but Prof. St. Peter had a good successful life and then found it to be empty and became apathetic about it, choosing to not draw pleasure from life anymore. It's like he committed suicide without actually killing himself, but just letting himself live as if he were dead.

In the novel he almost let's himself die on accident and is saved by the Catholic lady who sews for his daughters and wife. He is intrigued by the way this woman lived. Augusta seemed to have more dreams for herself, but never made it beyond being a seamstress. She was a practical woman, devoted to those she served. On the last page of the book the professor goes through his depressing transformation:
"All the afternoon he had sat there at table where now Augusta was reading, thinking over his life, trying to see where he had made his mistake. Perhaps the mistake was merely an attitude of mind. He had never learned to live without delight. And he would have to learn to, just as in Prohibition country, he supposed he would have to learn to live without sherry. Theoretically he knew that life is possible, may be even pleasant, without joy, without passionate griefs. But it had never occurred to him that he might have to live like that."

This is where he makes his tragic mistake, he looks to Augusta as an example of living life in this way without delights. For him this is what the Catholic life is like. Cather seems fascinated with Catholicism, but always emphasizes the sacrifices Catholics choose to make seeing them as a rejection of a pleasurable life. This seems to be the wrong view of Catholicism--she misses the beauty of sacramentality entirely. Her writing is very sacramental, but it seems she missed the point of it all--union with God. When one has union with God, it seems that life cannot be without pleasure (esp of the spiritual kind). Prof. St. Peter rejects the possibility of this union by choosing to be apathetic-lukewarm. And this my friends, is a tragedy.

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