Thursday, September 8, 2011
Douglas Messerli | The Encounter Between History and Myth in Welty's The Golden Apples
METRONOME AND MUSIC: THE ENCOUNTER BETWEEN HISTORY AND MYTH IN WELTY’S THE GOLDEN APPLES
by Douglas Messerli
Eudora Welty The Golden Apples (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1949)
According to Eudora Welty, The Golden Apples (1949) is a book of short stories; nonetheless, as Thomas L. McHaney recently noted in his essay “Eudora Welty and the Multitudinous Golden Apples” (Mississippi Quarterly, XXVI [Fall 1973]) “it…manages to create a complex unified impression in the manner of the novel. Certainly, an appreciation of the structural and thematic density of the whole is lost if the work is considered merely in its parts. As McHaney has shown, the book as a whole functions almost as a musical composition, structured according to various and diverse mythological analogues. To a lesser degree, several other critics have also explore some of these mythological patterns (see Harry Morris, Ruth M. Vande Kieft, and F. D. Carson), but thus far no one except McHaney has recognized the vast importance of these analogues to the structure and the philosophical matter of the work, and even McHaney has failed to note that Welty’s concern for myth, as sweeping as it is, is but half of her conception in this fiction. For The Golden Apples is also deeply grounded in Welty’s concept of time, and her, specifically, she considers not merely the problem of time, but the order of time.* Knowing that time may be seen as occurring either in a linear or a cyclical pattern, that time may be experienced as either history or as myth, Welty has structured the individual stories and, consequently, the whole book around the encounter between these two perceptions of the order of time.
On one hand, The Golden Apples is a history. It is a series of stories ordered chronologically which concern the small Mississippi town of Morgana from a period before World War I until post-World War II, a span of about forty years. Within this time-span Welty’s characters move in linear time; they are born, they mature, and some of them die. Indeed, a great part of the power of the work as a whole derives from this historical framework. As one watches characters such as the MacLain twins, Cassie Morrison, Virgie Rainey, Nina Carmichael, and Jinny Love Stark grow from childhood to maturity, one cannot but come to love and judge them, to feel linked to them in the same way they and the townspeople do to one another. In Morgana, as in any small town, because of this shared experienced in linear time, the individual’s life is inextricably connected with, is even defined by, the lives of the others in the community. But this fact can also bring about a destructive set of circumstances in which individual lives become community property and individual acts lose meaning or, because they are seen as a threat to the homogeneity of the community, are outrightly opposed.
Welty establishes this idea immediately in “Shower of Gold” by having the narrative carried by Katie Rainey, who, friendly, somewhat wise, and neighborly gossip that she is, choses to tell the reader, not her own story, but the story of King MacLain. It is a history of a man who, free from traditional morality, leaves his wife Snowdie only to return for few hours every so many years to impregnate her as he has half of the women in the countryside. But it is also a history in which Katie and the whole community unwilling partake, for, obviously, such behavior is a threat to community values. As Katie reports early in her narrative concerning King’s comings and goings, “We might have had a little run on doing that in Morgana, if it had been so willed.” It has not been “so willed,” Katie implies, because she and her fellow townspeople have selected and reordered the events as they occurred. Katie’s story concentrates not upon King MacLain’s individual exploits, but upon the community conspiracy to keep the truth from Snowdie about King’s penultimate attempt to return home, an occasion when his twin sons, dressed in masks for Halloween and wearing roller skates, unknowingly scared off their father. Although this story is hilariously comic, there are quite serious implications to it, for, as the story belies, Katie and the community have attempted to control the lives of those around them by converting individual action into history, a history which, like all histories, is created in the historian taking events in linear time and reinterpreting them according to his vision of reality. Katie may feel slightly guilty for the reinterpretation—she suggests that Snowdie “kind of holds its against me, because I was there that day when he come….” (p. 18)—but she believes that it is necessary in order to protect the community from the outside, from the world of threatening and chaotic modes of existence.
Indeed, even in telling her history, in her pretense of confidentiality, Katie attempts to draw the reader into the community; despite protestations that she tells her tale to the reader only because is a passerby, that will never see her [Snowdie] again, or me either” (p. 3), Katie invites, almost insists through sharing the reality behind her history that he partake of the community sensibility.
On the other hand, in “Shower of Gold” one recognizes a pattern directly opposed to history, of which it is clear that Katie has little awareness. For Katie’s narrative implies far more than she comprehends. She fears that Snowdie blames her for being there the day of King’s return, but it is doubtful that she believes that Snowdie has any reason to blame her. While Katie sees that there is something special about King MacLain—as she says, “With men like King, your thoughts are bottomless” (p. 17)—she lacks the vision to see King in the proper perspective. In her historical view of reality she can only see King as a threat, as a special type of man, a “man with manners,” of whom she cautions the reader to beware (p. 4). Fate, her own husband, the type of man she prefers, “is more down to earth” (p. 17). It is only in their literalness that events and people have meaning to her. When she asks her husband to describe what King looked like while riding with Governor Vardaman, where Fate claims he spotted King, she takes a broom to her husband for imitating “a horse and man in one” (p. 9). She has not the gift, the imagination to perceive that King has mythological qualities, that he may indeed be a centaur. And like many visionless people, she insists that it is others, not she, who cannot see. Snowdie, according to Katie, is a “blinky-eyed” albino who has never “ever got a good look at life, maybe. Maybe from the beginning. Maybe she just doesn’t know the extent. Not the kind of look I got, and away back when I was twelve year old or so. Like something was put to my eye” (p. 7). Again, when she hears of people claiming to see King in New Orleans and Mobile at the same time, Katie responds, “That’s people’s careless ways of using their eyes” (p. 10).
Katie understands nothing that occurs simultaneously. From her historical perspective, “time goes like a dream no matter how hard to run, and all the time we heard things from out in the world that we listened to but that still didn’t mean we believed them” (p. 9). She admits, in other words, that reality for her is like a dream, with several layers of meaning; but it is an enemy for that very reason, because she cannot make sense of it. She attempts, therefore, to outrun time, to make it into the past so that she can take away its dream-like quality and grasp it. But time always wins and confuses life. Thus, Katie suggests, things outside her narrow purview of experienced history cannot be believed. Reality exists only in the community, for the community is close at hand, and is the creator of history. The community unifies, regulates, and equalizes reality, and, in so doing, ends confusion, destroys simultaneity. Accordingly, after Snowdie meets King on the bank of the river and returns pregnant, looking as if “a shower of something had struck her” (p. 6), Katie fears for her. For even cannot recognize what has happened to Snowdie, she does perceive that, struck with that “shower of something,” Snowdie is set apart. To keep Snowdie from being “by her own self,” “Everybody tried to stay with her as much as they could spare, not let a day go by without one of us to run in and speak to her and say a world about an ordinary thing” (p. 8). It is no “ordinary thing,” however that has happened to Snowdie. As critics have pointed out, like Danaë, Snowdie has been impregnated by Zeus (King) in a “shower of gold.” Thus, when years later on that day when King tries and fails to return, in trying to protect her, in “fabricating,” Katie and her friends cheat Snowdie out of partaking once more of another reality. As with Danaë, who was kept locked in a subterranean chamber, they keep Snowdie in their insulated chamber of community where time exists merely as the past.
In “June Recital” Cassie Morrison replaces Katie Rainey as historian. Like Katie, she tells a story from memory. Tie-dying a scarf in her room one summer afternoon, Cassie is made to remember by hearing a phrase of music. The phrase, from the recital piece entitled Für Elise, recalls for her a scrap of language which, in turn, brings forth memories of her childhood piano lessons with miss Eckhart, who had then rented out the bottom floor of the now-decaying MacLain house next door. Critic Zelma Turner Howard, in her chapter on time in The Rhetoric of Eudora Welty’s Short Stories, has suggested that Welty is here using time in the Proustian sense, and indeed, there are similarities. But, once again, it is not a personal history that Cassie recalls as much as it is a community one. For, several of Morgana’s children, including Jinny Love Stark, Parnell Moody, Missie Sights, the MacLain twins and, most importantly, Katie Rainey’s daughter Virgie, also take lessons from Miss Eckhart, and it is their stories more than her own that Cassie relates.
The history of Miss Eckhart and her pupils is one of frustration and despair. Miss Eckhart, having come to Morgana for what reason no one knows, has spent her energy and accomplishment on the unpromising pupils such as Cassie, with only Virgie Rainey showing any particular talent. Thus, Cassie remembers the phrase, “Virgie Rainey, danke schoen,” Miss Eckhart’s continual sign of recognition and praise of her favorite, whom Miss Eckhart insists must “go out into the world,” away from Morgana to be “heard from” (p. 53). To the rest of her students Miss Eckhart reveals little evidence of any feeling save an unvarying strictness and a hatred of flies. As Cassie and her friends play, their teacher sits with flyswatter in hand, ready to come down upon their wrists if a fly should alight, otherwise entirely motionless and silent except for an occasional leaning forward to write on the child’s music the word “slow” or “practice.” The only other essential of Miss Eckhart’s lessons is the presence of her metronome. As Cassie observes, “Miss Eckhart worshipped her metronome” (p. 40). It is that adoration which, among other things, makes Cassie and her friends suspect that there are other aspects of Miss Eckhart’s personality. Virgie, who seems to be oblivious of Miss Eckhart’s praise and love, one day refuses to continue to play another note if the metronome is not taken away, and thereafter, Virgie is made an exception to Miss Eckhart’s metronome requirement. It is this event, and Virgie’s general disrespect for Miss Eckhart that enlightens Cassie concerning “changes” in her piano teacher:
Anybody could tell that Virgie was doing something to Miss Eckhart. She was
turning her from a teacher into something lesser. And if she was not a teacher,
what was Miss Eckhart?
There were times when Miss Eckhart’s Yankeeness, if not her very origin,
some last quality to fade, almost faded. Before some caprice of Virgie’s, her
spirit dropped its head. The child had it by the lead. Cassie saw Miss Eckhart’s
spirit as a terrifyingly gentle water-buffalo cow in the story of “Peasie and
Beansie” in the reader. And sooner or later, after taming her teacher, Virgie
was going to mistreat her. Most of them expected some great scene (pp. 41-42).
Indeed, a “great scene” does soon occur, although it is not one that any of them have foreseen. On a rainy day when Cassie, Virgie, and Jinny stay after their lessons in Miss Eckhart’s studio-apartment to wait for a downpour to let up, Miss Eckhat plays a sonata which, Cassie reports, if it “had an origin in a place on earth, it was a place where Virgie, even had never been and was not likely every to go” (p. 49). The listening children, hardly daring to move, are made “uneasy, almost alarmed” by the performance, which they see as if “something had burst out, unwanted, exciting from the wrong person’s life” (pp. 49-50). Later, when the local shoe salesman drowns—a man named Mr. Sissum who the children recognize that Miss Erkhart is “sweet on”—the community is presented with another “great scene” in which Miss Eckhart breaks “out of the circle” of mourners at the burial and is caught before going “headlong into the red clay hole” (p. 47). It is because of this demonstration of grief that the Morgana mothers begin to stop their children from taking lessons. Finally, some time after, Virgie’s stopping lessons takes away “Miss Eckhart’s luck for good” (p. 56), and she goes “down out of sight” (p. 58).
Cassie, like Katie Rainey, is unaware of what her history implies. She does not recognize in her memories of Miss Eckhart that she has witnessed a woman torn between a linear and a cyclical view of time. Cassie’s view of time is, like Katie’s, historical and linear, and, thus, she cannot comprehend her teacher’s struggle. Cassie has never been able to play the piano without the metronome. It is only Virgie who can reject the bullying order of the metronome with its incessant reminder of time perpetually moving forward; it is only Virgie who can draw her teacher away from that narrow view of time which has come to rule Miss Eckhart’s frustrated existence. Virgie is special. What Welty shows the reader through Cassie’s memories is that with Virgie’s help, Miss Eckhart begins to loose herself from the exacting demands of historical time, that through the creative imagination, which among her students Virgie alone is sensitive of, Miss Eckhart comes to terms with a different kind of time, the kind of time of which Cassie had a glimpse when Miss Eckhart played for them on that rainy day, the kind of time which, like the music itself, is new and old at the same moment, like all music made new each time it is repeated. It is the time of myth.
Cassie’s failure to perceive this is at the heart of Miss Eckhart’s frustration. Cassie, in her communal and historical view of the world, is Miss Eckhart’s enemy and yet akin to herself. One may conjecture that Miss Eckhart’s insistence that Virgie leave Morgana is an expression of new possibility for what she herself as attempted and failed. For, it is implied by her origin that Miss Eckhart was once a wanderer like King MacLain. One suspects that she has stumbled into a cage of sorts, where in order to survive she has imposed upon herself the strict order of the metronome. It may be, moreover, that in a world of Cassie Morrisons, a world of historicism the use of the metronome is the only way to teach a concept of time. Miss Eckhart’s flyswatter attacks of the wrists of her pupils is perhaps a subtle way of punishing them for their failure to grasp the idea of that other kind of time. Certainly, Miss Eckhart has been sensitive to myth all along. As McHaney points out, Miss Eckhart’s recitals are clearly a rite of spring, and throughout The Golden Apples she is associated with mythological figures such as Circe, Eurydice, Perseus, and others. It appears that Virgie serves primarily as a catalyst for freeing Miss Eckhart once again from linear order, for opening her to the life of the wanderer. But Miss Eckhart is too old to wander and, staying in Morgana, she is recognized as an individual opposed to communal history; her actions are interpreted to be a threat to social order.**** Cassie’s suspicions concerning Miss Eckhart’s disintegration prove correct. In the society where she remains, breaking “out of the circle” can only bring destruction upon her.
In “June Recital,” then, Welty has, as in “Show of Gold,” brought together two sets of seemingly opposing forces: history and myth, community and the individual. But here she reexpresses these oppositions in the very structure of the story. While Cassie sits in her room and recalls the past, her brother Lock, in bed with malarial fever, observes the events of the present in the run-down MacLain house next door. Given his father’s telescope because he is ill, Loch is able to watch the comings and the goings of several people, including Virgie Rainey, who with her usual precocity has a sailor in hand. They romp in the room upstairs while, unknown to them, Miss Eckhart, having walked into town from the old people’s home, enters below and there, after stuffing the room with torn newspaper, and setting out her once-precious metronome, she tries to burn down the house and accidentally sets fire to herself. Old Man Moody, the town Marshall, and Mr. Fatty Bowles also happen by (they have come to awaken Mr. Holifield, the night watchman, who has been sleeping in the house through the whole affair) and, after a farcical series of attempts, eventually put out the house fire and the fire in Miss Eckhart’s hair, and take her away to the mental asylum, while the final caller on the old MacLain house, King MacLain, home again from his wanderings, looks on. In other words, it has been Miss Eckhart herself playing the phrase of music which triggered Cassie’s memory. Welty ironically demonstrates once more that Cassie has only memory; she is unable to look upon the present which has connections with all the past and future time. Loch calls to her from his room to come join him, but Cassie’s answer is telling, “I ain’t got time.” In fact, Cassie does not have a sense of time other than her historicism. She does not have the capability to look upon the multitudinous reality of the present.
Loch has that capability. Because he does not know as much of the past, he misinterprets the events which he witnesses; he is a poor historian. Nevertheless, he employs what he does know of the past to make sense of the present. The rest he fills in with imagination. And, with these two, with history and imagination (which is at the heart of myth), Loch discovers a meaning which transcends the literal reality. As with the music of Miss Eckhart, he gives an order to the world in his especial and personal vision which is both old and new. To Loch, Miss Eckhart is logically the “sailor’s mother” come to the house after her son who is upstairs, and, as she rips newspaper, he comes to believe that she is decorating the room as if for a party. Gradually, however, he perceives that, in the “splendor” with which the old woman continues to decorate long after everything seems “fanciful and beautiful enough,” she is “all alone,” that she is “not connected with anything else, with anybody. She was one old woman in the house not bent on dealing punishment” (pp. 27-28). Loch comes to understand that the old woman intends to burn down the house. At first he is vexed, not so much because of the loss of the house which he has come to claim for his own, but because she is going about setting the place on fire the wrong way: she leaves the windows shut tight, allowing for no draft. But when she takes out the metronome and sets it on the piano, Loch is newly fascinated by her slow, bird-like movements, for he now presumes that the box contains dynamite which will be set off by the fire in the piano. Old Man Moody and Mr. Fatty Bowles, men whom Loch recognizes, arrive just in time to put out the fire, but the other man who happens along and watches Moody’s and Bowles’s antics through a window as if it were a show, Loch mistakenly identifies. Having no remembrance of King MacLain, Loch thinks he is Mr. Voight, an ex-roomer at the MacLain house in the days of the piano lessons, who had promised Loch a talking bird that could say “Rabbits.” Meanwhile, the two men inside discover the ticking metronome, and coming to the same conclusion as Loch, Fatty Bowles throws it out the window. The metronome falls into the weeds just below where Loch has crawled out onto a tree, and Loch retrieves the object. After examining it, he touches and stops its pendulum, takes away its key, poles the stick into the box and secrets it away as if it were a prize.
What is noteworthy here is that, through his fevered imagination, Loch has made several conclusions which are closer to “reality” than is Cassie’s history. Lock immediately makes a connection between the actions of the couple upstairs and those of the woman below, but he also makes the perception that, despite that connection, Miss Eckhart is terribly alone and separated from that couple. Loch’s first belief, that Miss Eckhart is decorating the room as if for a party, is also not far from the truth, for Miss Eckhart’s preparation for and setting fire to the house is like a party; it is ritualistic. It is evident that in burning the house Miss Eckhart is attempting, in the mythological sense, to stop the flux of time, the time of history, and, with the destruction of what is left of the old, with the destruction of that history, to permit a rejuvenation, a beginning anew.***** Moreover, Loch’s association of King MacLain with the man who had promised Loch a bird that could say “Rabbits” is not far from correct, for, as McHaney points out, King MacLain is associated throughout The Golden Apples with rabbits, a fact of which will become more evident in the story entitled “Sir Rabbit.” Finally, and most importantly, Loch recognizes the destructive potentiality of the metronome, of time as seen merely in linear motion, and just as Virgie has previously been able to free herself from that time, so is Loch able to control it; he stops the metronome. As he sits in the sandpile with his new possession buttoned under his shirt, momentarily freed from that destructive rush of time, Loch hears “nothing ticking” but the repetitive music of the crickets—who keep the time of nature and myth—and the sound of “the train going through, ticking its two cars over the Big Black Bridge” (p. 77)—which suggests that in the future, in linear time, Loch will leave Morgana to become one of the special people, a wanderer who partakes of myth.
That evening, Cassie, having returned home from a community hay ride, lays thinking in her bed. She recognizes that Miss Eckhart and Virgie Rainey are “human beings terribly at large, roaming on the face of the earth. And there were others of them—human beings, roaming like lost beasts” (p. 85), but Cassie also understand that she is unlike them. As Welty writes of Cassie earlier in the book:
She could not see herself do an unknown thing. She was not Loch, she was not
Loch, she was not Virgie Rainey; she was not her mother. She was Cassie in her
room, seeing the knowledge and torment beyond her reach, standing at her
seeing the knowledge and torment beyond her reach, standing at her window
singing—in the a voice soft, rather full today, and halfway thinking it was pretty
Even as she has a glimpse once again of that other kind of being and time, even as she recalls Yeats’s “The Song of the Wandering Aengus” (the poem central to The Golden Apples because it concerns the search for fulfillment through wandering and myth), even as the lines of the poem run perfectly through Cassie’s head, the lines vanish as they go, the reader is told, “one like yielding to the next, like a torch race” (p. 85), exactly as life itself vanishes in the linear and historical view of time. In the middle of the night Cassie sits up in her bed and repeats out loud one of the lines, “Because a fire was in my head”; but no fire is in her head. The fire has been in Loch, sick with malarial fever, and in Miss Eckhart whose hair caught fire. Cassie falls back, “unresisting.” The fact that was in the poem looks in only in her dreams, and, like Katie, Cassie cannot make sense of a reality which exists as dream.
From two different windows the, Welty has made clear that there are two perspectives of time, and she continues to work with these perspectives through the rest of the book. The next story, “Sir Rabbit,” perfectly counterpoints “Shower of Gold,” for in “Sir Rabbit” the events which occur years apart are narrated not through the voice of a historian, but are seen rather through the eyes of Mattie Will as she is raped first by the MacLain twins, and later by King MacLain himself. Mattie is not the only one who, like Snowdie, directly partakes of myth, but she is one who has heard the myth told and believed it from the start. “Oh-oh. I know you, Mr. King MacLain!” she cries, “I know the way you do” (p. 86). But it is not King the first time; it is his twin sons, who are the “spitting image” of King. And, although they may be somewhat lesser than King, Zeus himself, and although she sees them as two “little meanies coming now that she’d never dreamed of, instead of the one that would have terrified her for the rest of her days” (p. 97), Mattie, nonetheless, obliges and, thus, partakes of myth. As she waits for the two boys to come at her, Mattie feels “at that moment as though somewhere a little boat was going out on a lake, never to come back” (p. 87). Like all experiences grounded in myth, the rape makes Mattie feel as if something is beginning anew, from the beginning. The sex act itself takes her back to the beginning, to the Weakness,” and being what he has left her, she will fulfill the patrimony of her maiden name, Sojourner; for, although she stays behind, married to Junior Holifield, she will always be a wanderer at heart. The aftermath of this rape is actually expressed in music, in what I have been suggesting is the perfect analogy of the mythical moment. Mattie sings a song which is concerned with that magical and mysterious world in which she has just participated:
In the night time,
At the right time
So I’ve understood
‘Tis the habit of Sir Rabbit
To dance in the wood— (p. 97).
As Ruth Vande Kieft has suggested, however, there is something deprecating about the rhyme. Something has happened to the myth. King has grown older, and Mattie is aware that in his “affront of body” and “sense” there is something “frantic” about his existence. After sex King falls asleep, and is horrified to awaken and find Mattie watching him. And horrified he might well be, for during his sleep she has seen his body parts “looking no more driven than her man’s now, or of any more use than a heap of cane thrown up by the mill and left in the pit to dry” (pp. 96-97). For Mattie the myth as begun to disintegrate, perhaps because she has looked at it too carefully, perhaps because it has been fragmented. Mattie now looks upon the earlier experience with the twins almost with nostalgia. “For the first time,” the reader is told, “Mattie Will thought they [the twins] were mysterious and sweet-gamboling now she knew not where” (p. 98). That previous participation in myth is for Mattie more meaningful than communion with the myth of which she has heard all her life. And, with that new look to the past, one perceives the beginnings of the transformation of myth to historicism. Perhaps Mattie has change, or perhaps the times have.
In either case, it is clear in “Moon Lake” that the world has become more complex. The societal urge which ruled Katie in “Shower of Gold” is more developed in this story, and the communal pressure is stronger, more ensnaring. All of this is made ironic because the action of “Moon Lake” takes place at a supposed retreat from society, a girls’ summer camp. Jinny Love Stark, grown older (Jinny was much younger then both Virgie and Cassie on that rainy day when Miss Eckhart played a sonata), and Nina Carmichael are definitely the representatives of this social order, and the orphans, led by a girl named Easter, and the Blacks who work at the camp are clearly outcasts. The only person free from this dichotomous structure is Loch Morrison, now a Boy Scout and Life Saver, who has pitched a tent some distance from everyone else. Accordingly, Welty has set the stage for another encounter between history and myth. But this time the encounter is made more complicated through its occurrence in a world that is very self-aware. Previously, both Katie and Cassie could not always recognize differences between themselves and those with the ability to partake of myth; and to those to whom they did recognize that special awareness, they were protective or, at most, insistent in the attempts to draw them closer to the communal circle and the historical sensibility. But in this new age, Jinny and Nina, completely aware of distinctions, either reject the differences outright or try to possess them.
As Welty presents her, Jinny Love Stark is completely conscious of her role as societal spokesman. For example, Jinny suggests to camp councilor Mr. Gruenwald, in “the cheerful voice she adopted toward grown people”:
Let’s let the orphans go in the water first and get the snakes stirred up…. Then
they’ll be chased away by the time we go in (p. 101).
At another time when Easter suggests that Jinny, Nina, and she play “mumblety-peg,” a game neither of the Morgana girls knows how to play, Jinny asks, while “closing the circle,” “Who would even want to know?” This “not wanting to know” is precisely Jinny’s stance. For the society she represents no longer claims to have special vision; theirs is the only vision. Jinny knowingly rejects all realities save her own.
Nina, on the other hand, wants terribly to partake of those realities; she wants more than anything to possess the talents she sees in Easter. Indeed, the compulsion to possess seems the best way to describe the force which rules Nina. Just as she possesses her drinking cup which she permits no one to share, and of which Jinny says, “You don’t known Nina…. You’d think it was made of fourteen-carat gold, and didn’t come out of the pocket of an old suitcase, that cup” (p. 107), so must Nina possess Easter’s ability to share in nature and myth, the capability which Nina sees in Easter’s open hand as she sleeps, to be one with the night:
Easter’s hand hung down, opened outward. Come here, night, Easter might say,
tender to a giant, to such a dark thing. And the night, obedient and graceful, would
kneel to her. Easter’s calloused hand hung open there to the night that had got
wholly into the tent (p. 123).
Pitably, Nina opens her hand, stretches it and tries intellectually to will the gesture. Inevitably she fails; she comes to recognized that the “night was not impartial. No, the night love some more than others, served some more than others” (p. 124).
Earlier in the story, Nina attempts to share in the myth by following Easter into a swamp on the other side of the lake. Upon entering the swamp, which is “all enveloping, dark and at the same time vivid, alarming,” she comes to see Moon Lake from “a different aspect altogether” (p. 113). But even in this primordial world, in this return to the beginning of time, Nina is unable to share in myth. She and Easter find a boat which Nina is determined to free, but upon pulling it out of the “sucking, minnow mud,” she finds that the boat is chained to shore. For Nina, unlike Mattie Will of “Sir Rabbit,” there is no journey in store. As much as she desires, she cannot become a wanderer.
Only Easter and, once again, Loch are destined to take part in that special experience. Every morning all the girls are herded together to take their morning dip in the lake. Mrs. Gruenwald hoarsely sings, “Good morning, Mir. Dip, Dip, Dip, with your water just as cold as ice!” (p. 100) and, walking into the lake, she swims away. The girls feebly follow suit, but only the Morgana girls can swimm, and even they do little more than stand around in the water holding onto the life rope, “hungry and waiting” until the time when Loch blows his bugle and they can all get out. Nina’s sentiments express the girls’ detestation of this daily ritual most clearly: “There is nobody and nothing named Mr. Dip; it is not a good morning until you have had coffee, and the water is the temperature of a just-cooling biscuit, thank Goodness” (p. 101).
One morning, however, something exceptional happens. Easter climbs onto the high diving board and, waiting there, suddenly falls into the lake as Exum, a black child, gives her heel the “tenderest, obscurest little brush” (p. 125). Loch swims to the rescue, but Easter is nearly drowned by the time he reaches her, and it takes some time before he successfully resuscitates her. Meanwhile, Miss Lizzie Stark, Jinny’s mother, who visits the camp daily, arrives and ineffectively orders that Lock remove himself from the drowned girl sprawled atop the picnic table, while the girls look on, aghast that life-saving is so brutal, so “much worse than they had dreamed” (p. 129).
What they are witnessing is the fulfillment of the ritual in which they have daily failed to participate. Easter has truly gone for a “dip,” which archaically means “to baptize by immersion.” Easter undergoes a baptism which mythologically permits the self-renewal which the name she has given herself signifies (her name is spelled Esther), and, through the girls’s participation in the experience (they have no choice but to look on, and Jinny Love even participates by fanning Easter with “a persistence they had not dreamed of” [p. 131]), permits their renewal as well. It allows for a new beginning, for an opening up of the minds of the girls at Moon Lake Camp to the greater awareness of life and death. What Miss Lizzie, the social leader of the community, cannot tolerate, understandably, is Loch’s life-saving—which is a metaphorical acting out of a confrontation with the world outside of the community, with chaos, with death. The life-saving act also symbolically represents the sex act, the implantation in Easter of a new seed of life. Now, as Nina observes, all present share in the time of myth: this is a time “far, far ahead of her—…without time moving any more” (p. 134). Miss Lizzie Star’s historicism has no power here. As Parnell Moody tells her: “Can’t any of us help it, Miss Lizzie. Can’t any of us. It’s what he [Loch] came for” (p. 130). Again, Nina sees things momentarily form an entirely different aspect. She faints, loses the consciousness which has prevented her previously from partaking of myth. By the end of the story even Jinny thinks in terms of the future. But her prediction that Nina and she will always be old maids is wrong. She is too much of historical time to have vision. Nina and she turn back from their walk to join “the singing” (p. 138), but it is clear that their song will be dictated by the metronome.
While the girls’s summer camp still contains some possibility for myth, Morgana, several years later, does not. Ran MacLain, one of the twins, is now married to Jinny Love Stark, and has left her because she has had an affair with Woody Spights, the story of which, as the title of Ran’s impassioned plea to his still-missing father suggest, “the whole world knows,” and least his world, the world of Morgana. And, since the events have already been subsumed into community history, Ran’s life is taken over the community as well. As Miss Perdita Mayo, who daily visits Ran at work in the bank, reports:
My Circle declares Jinny’s going to divorce you, marry Woodrow. I said, Why? Thing
of the flesh, I told my Circle, won’t last. Sister said you’d kill him, and I said Sister,
who are you talking about? If it’s Ran MacLain that I knew in his buggy, I said, he’s
not at all likely to take on to that extent (p. 146).
But Ran is ready to kill. Trapped in space, must as Miss Eckhart once was, working in a bank cage behind bars, living in a hot rented room in the same house where Miss Eckhart gave piano lessons—perhaps living in the same room—the same house wherein he grew up, and having no place to go but to drive up and down the main street, Ran, at least imaginatively, plots Woody’s murder. His mother, Snowdie, exhorts him to move to MacLain, the neighboring town where she now lives, the town where, as its name suggests, myth is still possible, but Ran is too much in love with Jinny and all that she represents to leave. Snowdie warns him, “Son, you’re walking around in a dream” (p. 145), but Ran no longer recognizes the significance of that statement, and like Katie and Cassie before him, despairs that the world is made no clearer. He focuses all of his awareness on one event in the past: his wife’s infidelity. Ran has no Virgie to help free him from his historical perspective, but he does have Maideen Sumrall, an unimaginative farm girl who has come to town to work at the Seed and Feed store. It is on her that Ran takes out his vengeance. They drive to Vicksburg, and eventually end up in a motel where Ran takes out his father’s pistol and, putting the gun to his head, pulls the trigger. The gun is empty. But Maideen is not so fortunate; after the sexual encounter that follows Ran’s attempted suicide, she kills herself in the store where she works. Unlike Ran, Maideen acts, and her act has significance. Her mother’s maiden name is the same as Mattie Will’s, Sojourner. Thus, in a small way she too is connected with myth. Her death is a sacrificial death which again permits a renewal. We discover later that Ran, after Maideen’s death, is reunited with Jinny. The farm girl’s suicide even gets him elected as mayor years later. But Ran himself is lost forever to historicism. His existence, like the tale which he tells, lies already in the past despair. And, as Welty implies, it is a despair which now “the whole world knows.”
Certainly, Eugene, Ran’s twin brother living in San Francisco, knows that despair. In “Music from Spain” Welty describes the conditions which lead him one morning to slap his wife across the face and leave the house, unconsciously seeking and finding an experience which will permit him again to share in myth. Emma, his wife, is described as a woman with an historical sensibility. She is obsessed by the death of her only child, Fan, and therefore is able to do very little in the present except sit and talk with a neighbor. Eugene himself works at the job of putting together clocks, at a job defined by clock time; waiting at the door is the jeweler’s son, watching to see that no one arrives to work late. But on the special morning, Eugene slips past him and comes across the Spanish guitarist whom he and Emma had seen in the concert the night before (in one of their only nights out since Fan’s death). Eugene saves the guitarist from being hit by an automobile. Through that act a special kinship arises between the two of them, and Eugene and the Spaniard wander together throughout the city all day without being able to speak a word of each other’s language.
If the incidents of this story seem unbelievable, it is perhaps because on this special day the vents which occur to Eugene are not of that literal and historical world. To the non-visionary they appear as in a dream, but to one who participates in myth they, like all the events which occur in the time of myth in The Golden Apples, have great significance. For the Spaniard to whom Eugene attaches himself is another wanderer. As McHaney points out, the Spaniard’s face, having “the enchanted presence of a smile on the face of a beast” (p. 173), seems to be the face which looked in at Cassie in her dreams. And, like Miss Eckhart, the guitarist plays a music from far off, some “unbearably rapid or subtle songs of his own country” (p. 183), a music “most unexpected” (p. 173) which makes Eugene feel as if on a “visit to a vast present-time” (p. 174). So it is to be expected that Eugene’s journey with the guitarist to the top of a hill overlooking the ocean—where the two men battle, clinging to each other as if they were in love (the entire story is bathed in homoerotic imagery) and where the Spaniard lifts Eugene out over the edge of the cliff, wheeling him in air as if to throw him over before setting him down again—should end in renewal, in a “vision—some niche of clarity, some future” (p. 197-98), some hope for him and Emma. But as for Ran, the renewal is only temporary. Returning home, Eugene is not met by Emma running to him as he has imagined she might; rather, she sits in her kitchen “talking-away” to her “great friend, Mrs. Herring from next door…” (p. 201), and together the two women condemn the Spaniard for not fitting their societal requirements: for his long hair, for his laughing out loud at church where he as supposedly seen that morning with a woman by Mrs. Herring, for his “bad taste” (p. 202).
“The Wanderers” takes the reader back to Morgana where Katie Rainey, she who began the book, has just died. But Katie is not the only one to die or about to die in this story of the dead. Eugene’s body has been sent back to Morgana for burial; Cassie’s mother has died, committed suicide some years after her husband’s death (Cassie, true to her ability only to remember, memorializes the death by spelling her mother’s name in hyacinths); Miss Lizzie Stark is now an old woman, too old even to lay out Katie’s body; Snowdie, who lays out the body in Lizzie’s stead, is nearly seventy; and King, Zeus himself, who has come back home, is terrifying now because he is “too old” (p. 246). The whole town has radically aged. The road by which Katie waited—where she waited like all the town’s old people, “…watching and waiting for something they didn’t really know any longer, wouldn’t recognize to see it coming in the road” (p. 205), where she waited out her “remaining space of time” (a metaphor which clearly defines time as linear) (p. 206)—that road, everyone says, now “goes the wrong way,” which means evidently that the “wrong people” go by on it, those “riding trucks, very fast or heavily loaded, and carrying blades and chains, to chop and haul trees” (p. 213) as they deplete Morgan’s Woods. The old myths and their incarnations and even the sacred places have fallen, and those who perceived only in terms of history have become history themselves, replaced by a people who move faster, who are more able to try to outrun time than Katie, who tires once more, however, just before her death by listing “faster and faster” all the flowers she can think of (pp. 207-208).
Thus Virgie is alone in a house of dead people, alone in the midst of almost all of those who come to the wake and funeral, those who keep her from partaking even of that last ritual left her, death itself. They fondle her, reassure her, protect her as they have always; but for Virgie, as well as the reader, they are now only ghosts. As Juba, Miss Lizzie’s black servant sent to help Virgie, says: “I seen more ghosts than live peoples, round here. Black and white. I seen plenty both. Miss Virgie, some is given to see, some try but is not given” (p. 237). Only King shows vestiges of life. While all listen to the funeral music, he pushes out his “stained lip” and makes a “hideous face at Virgie, like a silent yell. It was a yell at everything—including death, not leaving it out—and he did not mind taking her present animosity out on Virgie Rainey; indeed, he chose her” (p. 227).
King chooses Virgie because he knows that she is one “given to see,” that only she can understand that his hideous face is made from the horror and anger that he knows since he can no longer participate in myth. It is a face that Virgie sees and carries with her, not in her dreams, but in her awakened and active mind. After the wake, Virgie crosses the road to the old MacLain place and walks back into the pasture down to the river. She undresses and lets herself into the water, where after a few moments she hangs “suspended in felicity” (p. 219). So she purifies herself; she is reborn, which in this book of myths one has seen occur time and again. She is now free to lead the life of a wanderer.
After the funeral, she packs, gets into her car and drives to MacLain (still the town connected with myth) and, as it begins to rain, stands under a tree where she suddenly remembers Miss Eckhart and her lessons. But what Virgie remembers is a picture which hung in the studio, Perseus with the head of Medusa. What Virgie perceives about the picture is not merely the heroic act, the act of order which makes visible “a horror in life….a horror in love…the separateness,” but, because Virgie “sees things in their time,” “she must believe in the Medusa equally with Perseus.” Virgie sees the “stroke of the sword in three moments,” which occur over and over again in time like music: “Every time Perseus struck off the Medusa’s head, there was the beat of time, and the melody. Endless the Medusa, and Perseus endless” (p. 243). Because Virgie sees things not as in a dream, an image of reality, but recognizes and accepts things in their multitudinousness, she sees life in all of its fullness: in the past, present, and future simultaneously. And seeing that, the very structure of time is revealed to her, revealed as a cyclical time. As Welty has written of Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust, life is “full of riddles and always starting over (Welty, “In Yoknapatawpha,” Hudson Review I (Winter 1949), 596).
As Virgie waits under that tree with an old black beggar woman, it is no longer certain whether she will leave or stay. It does not matter. For Virgie, unlike anyone else in the book—except perhaps for Loch on that one summer afternoon—has in that revelation learned how to wander without moving. Remaining where she stands, Virgie listens to the “magical percussion”:
…the running of the horse and the bear, the stroke of the leopard, the dragon’s
Crusty slither, and the glimmer and the trumpet of the swan (p. 244),
a world where history is embraced by myth.
Washington, D.C., 1977
Reprinted from John F. Desmond, ed., A Still Moment: Essays on the Art of Eudora Welty (Metuchen, New Jersey: The Scarecrow Press, 1978).
*I emphasize that I am using the word “history” here in its most limited meaning. History, understood properly, is also a thing of flux; the historian is as much a creator as the artist. But here I am using the word “history” to suggest a sensibility which, looking to the past, sees time as progression, a spatialized.
**Actually, the events narrated by Katie Rainey in “Shower of Gold” begin much earlier than this time-span. She reports that her husband Fate claims he saw King MacLain riding in the inauguration parade with Governor Vardman to the new capitol building. The new capitol was dedicated on June 4, 1903, and Varadman was elected governor in September of the same year. However, the work actually “begins” a few days after the Halloween day when the MacLain twins frighten away their father and Katie’s daughter, Virgie, swallows a button. By the end of this book, Virgie is in her forties.
****This idea is emphasized by the fact that, when Miss Eckhart is raped by a black, the community cannot fathom why she does not move away. Again, by staying, Miss Eckhart reminds them of another, more dangerous reality that lies outside of community order.
*****Mircea Eliade describes just such a ritual in his Myth and Reality (New York: Harper, 1963), pp. 50.53. He calls it the “perfection of the beginnings,” for in the myth the “flux of Time implies an ever greater distance from the beginnings,” and hence “loss of the original perfection.” This implies a complementary idea, he suggests, “That, for something genuinely new to begin, the vestiges and the ruins of the old cycle must be completely destroyed.”
*******See Eliade, Myth and Reality, pp. 85-91.