Nightmare and apocalypse in Katherine Anne Porter's Pale Horse, Pale Rider.
ONE OF THE MAJOR CHARACTERISTICS OF MODERNIST CLASSICS LIKE Ulysses, Mrs. Dalloway, and The Waste Land is that they chart the relation between the flittering consciousness of the individual and the nightmare of contemporary history and, at the same time, put both into a larger context that at once de-personalizes and de-temporalizes, thus giving the personal and the temporal a shape and significance they otherwise would not have. The rich complexity of these works by Joyce, Woolf, and Eliot can also be found in the short novels of their American contemporary, Katherine Anne Porter. In Pale Horse, Pale Rider, she is faithful to the moment--in her own fife, in the history of her time--and also faithful to art, which she uses to cast that history in a larger perspective. Porter's achievement in Pale Horse, Pale Rider can best be appreciated in terms of the modernist determination to be simultaneously true to history and (through mythic engagement) to art, and within those realms, to exhibit the continuous interplay of past and present, and within the present, of individual consciousness and external events. Porter's response to modern life and her experiments with narrative came together in the summer and fall of 1932, when she was riving in Basel, Switzerland. Geographically and culturally, Basel highlights the simultaneity of past and present and underscores the inextricable web connecting the individual to the history of grand events--most notably, to the Protestant Reformation and the First World War. It was Porter's immersion in Reformation art in Basel that renewed her appreciation for Albrecht Durer, whose The Four Horsemen oft he Apocalypse (1498) and The Knight, Death, and the Devil (1513) she used as the structural and thematic reference points for her apocalyptic short novel. (1)
In "Ulysses, Order and Myth," Eliot makes a distinction helpful to understanding Porter's work. The "material" of art, he suggests, is related to life, to what the artist has experienced in private and in public (in the bedroom and the newsroom, but also in the mind). The "method," on the other hand, is related to what the writer does with that material. Joyce's contribution, Eliot insists, is not related to his material, which is ordinary, but to his method, which is extraordinary (Eliot 177; Brooker 110-22). In Pale Horse, Pale Rider, Porter's material includes her experience as a reporter for the Rocky Mountain News in Denver in 1918-1919. She was there during the final months of the Great War, months that also included a worldwide influenza epidemic. The war and the pandemic constituted an international crisis of unprecedented proportions. Between August 1914 and November 1918, some nine million soldiers were slaughtered, countless civilians killed, and several times as many people forever scarred, both physically and psychologically. In the months immediately before and after the end of the war, according to estimates cited by John Barry, between fifty and one hundred million more were claimed by the so-called Spanish Influenza (397). To Porter, who worked every day at a news desk, this international turmoil was not remote but immediate, at the center of her waking life.
Within this international crisis, Porter experienced a personal crisis, one leaving as its calling card the trademark white hair that henceforth was to frame her youthful face. In September 1918, the dreaded flu appeared in Boston and quickly spread across the continent, reaching Denver by month's end. Highly contagious and incredibly virulent, it often caused death within days of the onset of symptoms. Porter was smitten in early October and plunged to what seemed to be the point of no return. Her obituary was set in type at the newspaper and her family in Texas began funeral arrangements. But inexplicably, she revived, and after a few weeks in hospital, was released--crippled, weak, and bald, but alive (Unrue, Life 62-63). Porter later claimed that this experience was the central event in her life. "The plague of influenza.., simply divided my life, cut it across like that. So that everything before that was just getting ready, and after that I was in some strange way altered" ("Interview" 85). The nightmare of history, then, became the frame for a personal nightmare, and both for Europe and for Porter, the horror lingered long after the Armistice was signed.
A dozen years after these events, using the material accumulated during those traumatic months, Porter outlined the plot for what was to become Pale Horse, Pale Rider. It consists of a foreground focused on her harrowing experience and on contemporary history and a backdrop suggesting medieval/Reformation history and biblical archetypes. The heroine is Miranda Gay, an intelligent and prematurely jaded twenty-four-year-old working as a reporter for the Blue Mountain News in Denver in the waning days of the Great War. Her newspaper work provides a continuing means of connecting her private thoughts and actions with those being played out on the stage of world history--namely, the last weeks of fighting along the Western Front and the worldwide influenza epidemic. The plot consists of the interplay of Miranda's mind (her thoughts and dreams, her conscious and unconscious mind) with these larger forces in the social and political world.
For the backdrop to her plot, Porter drew on her preoccupations in history and myth. She incorporated references to the Middle Ages and the Reformation and, within these, references to biblical archetypes. More specifically, she built into her narrative a running analogy to Dante's Divine Comedy and to two works by Durer, the first--The Knight, Death, and the Devil--focused on the individual's journey through life, and the second--The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse--on the larger sweep of history. She originally intended for the story to be part of a longer allegorical work about life's journey--hers and Everyman's. The working title for the section which became the short novel was "Midway of This Mortal Life," an allusion to Dante's description in the opening lines of the Inferno of waking up in middle age to find himself lost in a dark wood. (2) The opening paragraph of the short novel, Dantean in structure and theme, is a dream within a dream. Miranda, without knowing that she has the dreaded influenza, is in her bed in a boarding house in Denver; she dreams that she is in her childhood bed having a dream from which she awakens to encounter Death on a gray horse with his companion the Devil. She mounts her own ominously pale horse, Graylie, and attempts to outrun them, but as she does so, she wakes up in the boarding house and finds herself in the nightmare of contemporary history. Porter signals her artistic intent by including in the dream within the dream an allusion to Durer's engraving about the soul's progress from this world to the next. The short novel contains four more dreams, each like the first in being occasioned by stress and illness and each alluding to the protagonist's perilous journey through a dark wood or jungle or along the edge of an abyss.
Porter's final title, Pale Horse, Pale Rider, an allusion to Durer's woodcut illustrating a scene from The Apocalypse of St. John, shows that Porter had in mind not only her own allegorical journey but larger patterns of history. Durer's woodcut consists of an image from the sixth chapter of Revelation--four horsemen symbolizing Conquest, War, Famine, and Death. This allusion, much used in Medieval and Reformation art, calls attention to the most comprehensive of narratives, the biblical story that begins with creation and culminates in judgment at the end of time. The end time, according to Matthew's gospel, will be characterized by "great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time" (Matthew 24:21). Both in the late fourteenth/ fifteenth and the early twentieth centuries, contemporary disasters seemed to conform to those associated in scripture with the end of history. Events such as the Black Death in the fourteenth century and the Great War in the twentieth were widely interpreted as "signs of the time." Believers saw them as evidence for God's presence in history and intellectual historians used them as images in the construction of theories of history. Artists, including Porter, Yeats, and others, also associated contemporary events with an apocalypse of some kind. (3) Porter's methods in Pale Horse, Pale Rider have much in common with those of other modernists. In his review of Ulysses, Eliot contrasts the "narrative method," which he associates with nineteenth-century novelists, with the "mythical method," which he associates with Joyce. He defines the "mythical method" and its raison d'etre in the following passage:
In using the myth, in manipulating a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity, Mr. Joyce is pursuing a method which others must pursue after him.... It is simply a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history. (177)
Porter also needed a way to tame history, and although she does not manipulate a continuous parallel between ancient and modern, she does invite the sort of comparative reading Eliot describes. For example, as Miranda and her soldier friend Adam watch funeral processions pass along a Denver street, he comments on the "funny new disease," and she replies, "It seems to be a plague ... something out of the Middle Ages" (Collected Stories 281). Like Joyce, who generates a narrative moving through the hours of a day, Porter creates a narrative that moves from the last days of the war through the Armistice to Miranda's release from the hospital. She uses the five dreams as part of the narrative string, but within the dreams, she uses a non-narrative mixture of past and present, fear and hope, reality and fantasy. Porter's imagination was at once medieval (moral, allegorical, apocalyptic) and modern (psychological, realistic, skeptical). Her use of vivid details to point to abstractions and her personification of Death, for instance, are modern adaptations of medieval strategies. Some of her techniques are more obviously modernist--fragmented narrative, stream of consciousness, and the alternation of conscious thought and subconscious anxieties and desires.
Porter outlined Pale Horse, Pale Rider in the summer and fall of 1932 in the medieval city of Basel, Switzerland, an ideal nest for the conception of her short novel. First, it is a famed repository of the Medieval and Reformation materials that she used to give a "shape and a significance" to her personal nightmare and the nightmare of contemporary history. Second, it is a striking mixture of medieval and modern, a living illustration of the simultaneity of past and present, a geographical analogy to the "mythical method." Third, it is located at an intersection of nations with numerous connections to the Great War and, like Denver, it is situated next to snow-capped mountains, both of which provided Porter with daily reminders of her crisis in Colorado in 1918. What she took to Basel and what she found there help us understand the creative underpinnings of Pale Horse, Pale Rider.
The odyssey that was to take Porter to Basel began in August 1931. She and Eugene Dove Pressly, whom she was to marry the following year in Paris, left Mexico for Europe on the North German Lloyd ship, the Werra. As is evident from her fictional account of the voyage in Ship of Fools, the social and political milieu on board reminded her not only of the recent war but also of continuing tensions, reminders reinforced by what she found in Berlin and, to a lesser extent, in Paris. In Berlin, Porter's interest in history and politics was heightened by her warm relationship with a young American, William Harlan Hale, who was writing a history of Hitler's rise to power, and even more, by her social encounters with a range of diplomats and elite Germans, including Hermann Goring and other high-ranking members of the Nazi party. Still seething with resentment over the humiliation at Versailles, the Nazis were intent on creating a new world order (Unrue, Life 136-37; Austenfeld 31-43). (4) In February 1932, Porter and Pressly moved to Paris, and in May, to Basel, where he had accepted a position at the American Embassy. She carried her newly revived memories of the 1918 crisis, the material that was to form the backdrop of her short novel. She also carried an important cluster of well-established intellectual interests focused on sixteenth-century history and religion. Having worked for years on a biography of the American Puritan leader Cotton Mather and presently doing research on Erasmus, the celebrated Reformation humanist who had lived in Basel, Porter welcomed the move as an opportunity to continue her own work. (5)
Given her experience and interests, what Porter found in Basel--culturally, geographically, intellectually--was quite stimulating. Geographically and culturally, Basel is located in the very heart of Europe, the "comer" on the Rhine River where three nations--Germany, France, and Switzerland--come together. Porter and Pressly settled down in the old city at the Krafft Am Rhein Hotel overlooking the Rhine, within walking distance of Germany and France, the principal antagonists in the war. They had only to step outside of their hotel room to encounter the tense intersection of language and culture. Occasionally straying into Germany, they saw Hitler placards and swastikas and noted Hitler's young supporters singing on their way to political rallies (Givner, Life 277). Basel is also a model of the simultaneity of past and present. Whole sections of the city are largely unchanged since the late Middle Ages. The old city has medieval and Reformation churches, medieval walls, stone bridges, and cobbled streets. Basel's oldest bridge, the Middle Rhine Bridge, was built of wood in the thirteenth century. In the fifteenth, it was replaced by stone, with a stone chapel rebuilt as its center. This bridge, the center of old Basel, was within view of Porter's hotel. The oldest hotel in Europe, the Konige, built in 1026, was also nearby. It boasted a glittering guest fist, including Queen Victoria, Dickens, and Picasso.
Another aspect of Basel, perhaps the most important for Porter, was that it is a major repository for materials related to the history and art of the Reformation and Northern Renaissance. The key event in this history is the invention of the printing press. The Gutenberg Bible was printed in 1456 and in subsequent decades enormous progress was made in printing and illustrating texts. This technological revolution fueled the Reformation by making possible the broad dissemination of the Bible and of Luther's 95 theses, nailed to the church door in Wittenberg in 1517. Basel quickly became the publishing center for the Reformation, a role documented in the Basler Papiermuhle, one of the world's finest museums of printing and bookbinding. The great library of the University of Basel, founded in 1471, acquired landmark manuscripts and books as they appeared and soon housed one of Europe's most valuable collections of medieval and Renaissance materials.
The invention of the printing press quickly generated a revolution in the graphic arts. Although most Europeans were visually literate and able to "read" narratives in cathedral windows, they were unable to read printed texts. If the Bible was to reach the broadest audience, it would have to be illustrated. This circumstance led to a renaissance in the art of woodcuts that could be mechanically reproduced for book illustrations. Basel's art museum, the Kunstmuseum, contains a magnificent collection of work by artists active in the Upper Rhine region between 1400 and 1600, including those masters of graphic art who illustrated the first printed Bibles, principally Albrecht Durer, Hans Holbein, and Lucas Cranach. All three did striking illustrations of The Apocalypse. Durer's series on The Apocalypse appeared in 1498, Cranach's in 1522, and Holbein's in the 1520s. Cranach's images appeared as illustrations for Luther's translation of the New Testament, and thus quickly spread throughout Northern Europe. Because these woodcuts were intended to assist people in reading the book of Revelation, they were intentionally literal and anti-hermeneutic. These artists had no desire to interpret The Apocalypse; rather, they tried to enable others to "see" what St. John saw on Patmos. (6) Basel's cultural resources, fortunately, corresponded to a remarkable degree to Porter's interests in religion, history, literature, and art. After a short time in Basel, Porter found herself transported to another world. Writing to Pressly, who was in Geneva, in November 1932, she dated her letter "1932--or is it 1400? Who cares?" (Unrue, Life 146).
Soon after settling into Basel, Porter began working in the University of Basel Library and the Kunstmuseum, focusing on three great artists who had lived in Basel in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries (Unrue, Life 145-46; Conversations 118). The first was Erasmus, who published many of his major works in Basel. His greatest achievement was his landmark translation, with annotations, of the Greek New Testament (Basel, 1516). It was hugely influential, in large part because Luther adopted it for his classes at Wittenberg University. Of greater interest to Porter was a book that she had loved since adolescence--namely, The Praise of Folly (Paris, 1511; Basel, 1532), an unrivaled presentation of the literary, social, and theological aims of Northern Humanism.
The second writer of interest to Porter during her six months in Basel was Sebastian Brant. The study of The Praise of Folly led her to its most important forerunner, Brant's Das Narrenschiff, published in German and Latin in 1494. Brant, who had been educated at the University of Basel, worked in the city for many years. His allegory, an international best seller, was translated into English as Ship of Fools in 1509 by Alexander Barclay. (7) Brant's tale was to become the inspiration for Porter's Ship of Fools, a debt acknowledged in her preface to the novel:
The title of this book is a translation ... of Das Narrenschiff, a moral allegory by Sebastian Brant.... first published in Latin as Stultifera Navis ha 1494. I read it in Basel in the summer of 1932, where I had still vividly in mind the impressions of my first voyage to Europe. When I began thinking about my novel, I took for my own this simple almost universal image of the ship of this world on its voyage to eternity. It is by no means new--it was very old and durable and dearly familiar when Brant used it; and it suits my purpose exactly. I am a passenger on that ship. (vii)
The third artist in Porter's ken was Albrecht Durer, the so-called Leonardo of the North. Of the 115 woodcuts in Brant's Das Narrenschiff, 75 are by Durer, who worked in Basel from 1492 to 1494. Porter had been under Durer's spell long before she rediscovered him in Das Narrenschiff. In 1922, she recalled that when, at the age of twelve, she first saw Durer's "Praying Hands," she "felt like weeping with pity for struggling, suffering, human life" ("Letter from Mexico"). In the stories about her Texas childhood, she alludes to Durer's work a number of times. In Old Mortality, for example, the narrator describes Porter's alter ego, eight-year old Miranda, as lying on her stomach, peering at pictures in old Holbein and Durer books, "turning the shabby leaves that fell apart easily, not surprised at the sight of the Mother of God sitting on a hollow log nursing her Child; not doubting either Death or the Devil riding at the stirrups of the grim knight" (CS 178). The latter refers to Durer's 1513 engraving of The Knight, Death and the Devil, one of two works by Durer that Porter appropriated for Pale Horse, Pale Rider. The other was The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, part of his celebrated fifteen-piece series, The Apocalypse of St. John (1498). In 1935, Porter indicated that Durer retained his hold on her imagination: "I have his view of the Apocalypse, and it is mine; I was there" (Walsh 178). (8) Durer's graphic art is peripheral in Old Mortality, but in Pale Horse, Pale Rider, it supplies the two main symbols. (9)
Much of the strength in Porter's finest stories comes from the fact that she brought to the modern situation a mythic imagination, the groundrock of which was biblical and medieval. The months in Basel buttressed this foundation. She was later to say that some things "came back whole and free as air that summer in Basel, Switzerland, where I thought I was studying only the life of Erasmus and the Reformation" (CE 473). Two things that "came back" were her Texas childhood and her Denver newspaper experience. In the case of the first, perhaps as Givner suggests, "there was something in the atmosphere.... in the connection with Calvinism ... that evoked the constricted atmosphere of her childhood" (Life 279). What is certain is that Porter was able to make progress on the Texas short novels, of which Old Mortality and Noon Wine are masterpieces. In regard to Pale Horse, Pale Rider, as I have tried to show, the relevance of Basel is far clearer. The snowcapped mountains reminded her of Denver, references to the fourteenth-century Black Death brought back the 1918 pandemic, the international situation and the location of Basel reminded her of the Great War, and the cultural resources of Basel provided her with the biblical and medieval archetypes she needed to put contemporary events into perspective. Of the cultural resources, Durer's woodcut of the four horsemen and his engraving of the "grim knight" are paramount and both are linked to background texts that Porter was able to draw on in constructing her short novel. The Apocalypse of St. John is virtually a visual translation of the book of Revelation. The Knight, Death and the Devil is suggestive of two medieval narratives--namely, the journey of Everyman from this world to the next and the movement of Dante's pilgrim through a landscape of horror to a vision of paradise.
Porter's "material" and her "method," to return to Eliot's terminology in the review of Ulysses, came together in Basel at the end of the summer. Her material consisted of fresh reminders of the 1918 crisis in Denver--the war, the influenza epidemic, the newsroom, the doomed romance, illness, the brush with death. Her method, similar to the "mythical method" outlined by Eliot, was the suggestion through myth of a parallel between the temporal (that is, between historical events, both personal and international) and the timeless (that is, meaningful patterns). Porter uses the book of Revelation and The Four Horsemen woodcut to deal with the big picture; to deal with the individual journey, she uses The Divine Comedy and the engraving of The Knight, Death and the Devil. The big picture, suggested in the title, establishes the context for the journey, which is introduced in the dream that opens the story and reinforced in four subsequent dreams. Porter's fidelity to history (war, pandemic, funerals) and, at the same time, to the individual (newspaper work, romance, illness; also thoughts) is clearly reflected in the plot, a stream of consciousness over a narrative base. Porter's faithfulness to the unconscious is indicated by the series of dreams that punctuate the story. She demonstrates her commitment to art (coherence, symmetry, patterns, wholeness) by referring both the international struggle and the individual journey to biblical and medieval works.
In re-visiting the chaotic situation of 1918, Porter turned to the last book in the New Testament, The Revelation (or The Apocalypse) of St. John. In its most literal sense, "apocalypse" means a revealing or uncovering, and thus it is a synonym for "revelation." As John used the word, however, it referred to an unveiling of events associated with the end of the world, and thus it came to be associated with history's final cataclysm (Second Coming, Armageddon, Last Judgment). Porter found in St. John a theory of history that enabled her to associate the unprecedented carnage of the Great War with larger patterns. John assumes, first of all, that history is linear. The Christian understanding of time is rooted in chronos, which in Greek refers to a succession of moments always moving towards the future. Thus, history has a beginning (Creation), a middle (Crucifixion), and an end (Apocalypse). Second, history is teleological--that is, it has some purpose; it may appear to be standing still or moving in circles, but it is actually moving forward, in one direction, towards fulfillment. Third, history is largely hidden or veiled; it cannot be adequately comprehended by any individual or from any one point in time. Those within the house of history are bound to see events as disordered. This applies to the evangelist himself, who is clearly amazed and puzzled by what he is seeing but nevertheless meticulously describes it. Finally, the curtain of history is occasionally lifted and the future revealed to privileged human beings in dreams or visions. Porter's use of dreams to probe the deepest truths in Pale Horse, Pale Rider is inevitably Freudian, but it is also part of the biblical and medieval tradition she is using for her story, a tradition that she takes quite seriously.
Porter knew The Apocalypse not only from her childhood Bible but, more immediately, from the great illustrated Bibles of the Reformation that she saw in Basel. The invention of the printing press at the end of the Middle Ages, as noted earlier, facilitated the translation and dissemination of the Bible, creating a need for illustrations to assist a semi-literate population in reading it. As The Apocalypse is the most visual book in the New Testament, it was the one most frequently chosen for illustration. Durer's Apocalypse was published in 1498 in both Latin and German--Apocalipsis cum Figuris (The Apocalypse with Illustrations) and Die heimlich offenbarung iohnis (The Revelation of St. John). It includes fifteen woodcuts which "translated" the text (Cologne Bible, 1480) into pictures, scene by scene. Each woodcut is linked to a relevant passage so that ordinary people could see what St. John saw. Durer and his readers, like Porter in the early twentieth century, were taken with the relevance of these woodcuts to their own times, for they had experienced war, plague, and the collapse of social and political structures. It is not surprising that Durer's illustrations captured Porter's imagination. As masterpieces of visionary art, they have long held first place in German illustrative art and are a textbook example of Eliot's "tradition" and the "individual talent." While faithfully representing John's visions (tradition), Durer transcends them by projecting a powerful "personal spiritual creed" (individual talent) (Durer 20). Artistically, his achievement can be associated with a brilliant marriage of classical and late Gothic style. The classical, which is mimetic, derives from a close study of nature, and the neo-Gothic, which is nonnaturalistic, from a longing to transcend nature.
In coming to grips with her World War I material, Porter focused on one particular scene in The Apocalypse. In Revelation 6, St. John describes the dramatic appearance of four horsemen, a sequence putting war and plague at the heart of social and political change. In the biblical text, the four horses and their riders appear one at a time, each on the heels of the preceding one. Logically and politically, each follows naturally from the one before. In Durer's striking illustration, the four are arranged not only to show the sequence but to indicate forward momentum, dynamism, and inevitability. A Conqueror riding a white horse leads the way, initiating a series of events. He is wearing a crown and carrying a bow, and he comes "conquering and to conquer" (6:2). The Conqueror is followed by the military. War enters riding a red horse and carrying a sword, and he comes to "take peace from the earth, that they should kill one another" (6:4). The generals are followed by merchants in charge of a disappearing food supply. Famine/Plague enters on a black horse carrying a pair of scales to indicate scarcity. Famine is followed by Death, who rides a pale horse, and he comes collecting those who have been killed by the sword and by starvation and disease. In Durer's woodcut, Death is imagined as the Grim Reaper, and he carries a harvesting fork. He is naked, and both he and his steed are skeletal. His companion is Hell--in Durer, a beast with enormous jaws who swallows the victims of the sequence set in motion by the Conqueror.
Almost every detail in the biblical text and in Durer's woodcut is fraught with meaning. The clothes worn by the horsemen identify their social and political roles; the objects in their hands suggest the work they are to do. The horses' colors, emphasized in the biblical text, complement their respective missions: the white horse suggests a triumphant conqueror; the red a bloody warrior; the black barren fields and stricken multitudes; and the pale a blood-drained population. Paleness is neither presence nor absence of color but color in the process of disappearing. Hell, who brings up the rear, is anchored not so much in history as in theology--the conviction that here or hereafter justice will be done. The sequence shown to St. John moves from the hierarchical to the egalitarian, from boundaries related to status, wealth, and class to total lack of distinction, from a system of cultural and political difference to the flattest of democracies--i.e., to death, which takes not only the weak and the poor but the rich and powerful, not only beggars but popes and kings. In Durer, the loss of distinction is represented by Death's merciless trampling of people from all classes--kings, bishops, peasants.
Interpretations of St. John's vision of the four horsemen have been remarkably consistent over the centuries. The secular version is that the figure on the white horse is a powerful political leader whose militarism inaugurates a course of destruction. The Christian version is that, unbeknownst to themselves, the horsemen are agents of divine judgment. In both versions, the sequence happens again and again, whenever a powerful leader rides out "conquering and to conquer." In the Christian version, however, the cycles of conquest/war/plague/death will not continue forever; they are moving toward an ultimate catastrophe called the Battle of Armageddon in which the figure on the white horse will be Christ initiating history's final battle. For nearly two thousand years, this vision has had a powerful hold on the Western imagination, both within the Christian tradition and outside it--in political science, in theory of history, and in painting and literature (Carey 270 ff.). It is paradigmatic for the simple reason that it is firmly rooted in a recurring historical sequence. Conquest leads to war, and war leads to slaughter and devastation of the earth; devastation in turn leads to plague and famine, and famine leads to death.
The Great War vividly illustrates the truth behind the myth of the four horsemen. First, in honest accounts of the disaster, the responsibility for initiating and escalating the slaughter is associated with one man more than any other. The Kaiser of Imperial Germany, Wilhelm II, was the megalomaniacal ruler who charged in on a white horse with a drawn bow "conquering and to conquer." Second, the generals on both sides mounted their red steeds and defined their objectives in terms of attrition, a strategy that justified unprecedented killing of both their own and the enemy's soldiers, with the last one standing the winner. The sheer amount of bloodshed is indeed mind-boggling. Third, in the fourth year of the war, with Europe a waste land oozing with blood, with the economies of all parties strained to the breaking point, the black horse appeared in the form of the "Spanish Flu," which claimed several times as many lives as were lost in battle. As John Barry makes clear, it was the most devastating epidemic in recorded world history, killing "more people in a year than the Black Death of the Middle Ages killed in a century" (5).
Through her title allusion to the four horsemen, then, Porter both points to the contemporary situation and puts it into a context of large impersonal forces. In the story itself, the war is the essential background; the foreground is the personal journey of an individual caught in historical crisis. From beginning to end, Porter keeps her heroine in focus and, at the same time, points beyond her to Everyman. Through allusions to medieval literature and art, she both retains the particularity of Miranda's experience and universalizes it. Porter began, as noted earlier, with Dante's Pilgrim in mind, but then changed her primary point of reference to Durer's Knight. She had known The Divine Comedy since childhood (Unrue, Life 22) and considered it one of the consummate works of the human imagination. In a letter written from Basel, Porter declared that "Dante's poetry is ... still as living, and full of meaning as the sculptures on the portals of Sainte Chapelle, and for the same reasons" (Unrue, Life 146). Porter's Dantean intent is obvious from her working title, "Midway of This Mortal Life," and from many parallels. Pale Horse, Pale Rider begins, for example, with a situation that clearly echoes the opening of The Inferno--a mortal waking up from a bad dream, unsure of the way forward. In later dreams, she is lost in dark woods and gnarled jungles, and in her last dream, in imagery drawn from the Paradiso, she experiences Paradise. Most important, like Dante's Pilgrim, she descends to the underworld and returns with knowledge that she will never be able to share. But Miranda's journey, as Porter came to realize, is quite different from that of Dante's Pilgrim. The biggest difference is that in Dante's allegory, the journey is not literal, but imaginative; it is interior; it takes the Pilgrim into the possibilities of evil within himself. The knowledge he gains, the knowledge that makes possible his salvation, is the knowledge of evil. Modeled in part on Augustine's Confessions, The Divine Comedy is in a sense both a spiritual autobiography and a tour of the human heart.
Durer's The Knight, Death and the Devil is also an allegorical representation of the Christian journey. His "grim knight," as Porter refers to him, is not a pilgrim who ponders the evil within, but a warrior who battles the evil without, a situation approximating that of Miranda in Pale Horse, Pale Rider. The Knight on his horse is statuesque and the details in his environment support the symbolism of a Christian making his way through the waste land of the world to the city on the hill, visible in the far distance. The landscape is bleak, wintry, and wild. The road is narrow, steep, and twisting, its sides dropping into a deep gorge. The way is littered with the skulls of pilgrims who fell by the wayside. The Knight, in full armor, wears helmet, breastplate, and shin greaves, and he carries a lance and a sword. His companion, a faithful hound, trots alongside his monumental horse. The composition includes two other figures--Death and the Devil. The Devil, a horned beast with a spear, follows the Knight, and Death on a pale horse rides beside and slightly before the Knight. Wearing a crown entwined with snakes, Death leers and dangles an hourglass in front of the Knight. The determined and disciplined warrior is aware of these malign creatures, but he is unflustered and keeps his eye on the road.
Durer's symbolism is traditional and would have been clear to his contemporaries. Like Pilgrim in John Bunyan's Pilgrim "s Progress, the Knight is the Christian making his way to the heavenly city, a journey that requires him to outwit the devil and devalue death. He is armed as St. Paul advised him to be, with "the whole armor of God, that [he] may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil." He wears the "helmet of salvation" and the "breastplate of righteousness" and he carries "the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God" (Ephesians 6:13-17). These allegories all suggest that life is a challenge and that one's principal antagonists may be forces of darkness too formidable to resist without spiritual help. Porter, well-versed in theology, understood the finer points of the allegories she admired. At the same time, as a post-Freudian with a skeptical imagination, she adapted the traditional interpretations to serve her own purposes in Pale Horse, Pale Rider. Without denying the theological content, she shifts the focus to psychological and historical materials by implanting them in her heroine's nightmares. Miranda's dreams are a descent into her fears and anxieties, states at once physiological, in that they are precipitated by illness, and psychological, in that they are born of emotional extremes related to love and war. Her fear of death is less related to reaching the heavenly city than to remaining in the earthly one. Her descent to the underworld, unlike Dante's, is literal, a representation of her near-death experience and miraculous recovery.
The parallels with Durer's Knight are explicit in the dream that opens the story, the first of five that punctuate the narrative. Porter begins by dropping the reader into a nightmare within a nightmare. In the opening paragraph, Miranda is in bed in a Denver boarding house dreaming that she is in bed in the Texas of her childhood. Unbeknownst to her, she has the dreaded flu. In the dream within the dream, she tries to shake off her sleep and escape from what is literally a death bed, the bed in which several of her ancestors had died. Aware of a pale stranger with a greenish tint lurking about, she remembers that her relatives and her silver gray kitten went away with him and she knows that someday he will call for her, but she is determined not to go willingly. She feels compelled to prepare for a "journey I do not mean to take." Choosing one of her horses, a gray one that is not afraid of bridges, she is transformed into Durer's Knight: "Come now, Graylie, she said, taking his bridle, we must outrun Death and the Devil." The pale-faced stranger, waiting at the gate on a gray horse,
swung into his saddle beside her, leaned far towards her and regarded her without meaning, the blank still stare of mindless malice that makes no threats and can bide its time.... The stranger rode beside her, easily, lightly, his reins loose in his half-closed hand, straight and elegant in dark shabby garments that flapped upon his bones; his pale face smiled in an evil trance. (CS 270)
Shouting that she is not going with him, she wakes up, calms herself, and prepares to face the day. Death as a pale rider on a pale horse appears not only in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse but also in The Knight, Death and the Devil--in the former, as a figure in a historical drama, in the latter, as a leering companion in a personal journey. In binding the two images by using them in her title and opening paragraphs, Porter economically links the character of her heroine, an intelligent and spirited but gravely ill newspaper reporter in a plague-stricken city, to international violence and impending death.
An instance of the way Porter modifies her archetypes without sacrificing their symbolic resonance is her use of the colors white, black, and gray. In her sources, Conquest is associated with white, War with red, Scarcity (Plague) with black, and Death with "pale." Porter introduces the color symbolism by including the pale horse and rider in her title and by referring to the stranger in the first dream as "pale-faced" and "greenish." And, consistent with medieval iconography, she clothes Death in black, shabby garments. She complicates the value of white, however, by associating it not only with triumph but also with annihilation. White is a cold color, associated with snow-capped rocky mountains and also with cold hospital walls, the curtain around her hospital bed, and the clothes of her medical "executioners." White is the color of the cloth placed over her face when she is given up for dead; it hints of the white-on-white into which she is drifting, the utter blank of non-being. The most important color in the short novel, however, is neither black nor white but gray. As Unrue notes in her excellent discussion of Porter's use of color symbolism, gray is a mixture of black and white; it is neither life nor death but a twilight zone in between (Truth and Vision 154, 157). In trying to evade Death, Miranda chooses a gray horse, and her unwelcome companion, Death, also rides on gray. The muted black and darkened white of gray--the colors of twilight and dawn, fog and mist--appear in Miranda's dreams in the penumbra between sleep and waking, day and night. But gray is also positive. Miranda associates it with the Spanish moss of her childhood and her silver kitten. It is, in fact, the favorite color of the plague-stricken heroine (as it was of Porter herself). It binds Miranda's nostalgia and her sense of muted elegance to her fear of slipping into the white of non-being or the black of night. Gray is the color connecting her conscious and unconscious, the area containing the brew of hope and fear stirred by illness, war, and fleeting love. As Miranda descends into her close encounter with oblivion, she experiences it as being pulled into a whirlpool of gray water. When, after her return from the abyss, she prepares to leave the hospital, she asks for "gray suede gauntlets without straps, two pairs [of] gray sheer stockings" and a "walking stick of silvery wood with a silver knob" (CS 316). So attired, she walks out into a postwar, post-plague world in which "it is always twilight or just before morning," a world in which the "promise of day ... is never kept" (CS 313).
The other four dreams in Pale Horse, Pale Rider, all variations on the theme of a journey through a twilight zone toward death, are linked in subtle ways to Everyman's journey in the Durer engraving. In the second dream, Miranda, now experiencing a more advanced stage of influenza, alternates between fever and chills. To ease her fever, she longs for the cold, white peaks of the Rockies, which rise around her; to dispel her chill, she dreams of the hot, gray, swampy river country of her childhood. A broad tranquil river and a tall sailing ship appear, and she boards the ship and looks back on a gray jungle writhing with images of death and, in a Dantean vignette, waves goodbye to her own body in the bed. In the third dream, Durer's Knight enters via an old Negro work song which Miranda's beloved, who keeps watch by her bedside, sings to her. The song "Pale Horse, Pale Rider" catalogs dead loved ones by using a fill-in-the-blank refrain. "Pale horse, pale rider done taken my mammy away," is followed by a verse in which the pappy is taken, and so on (304). Miranda falls asleep and finds herself in an angry wood, in a nightmare in which her lover is taken away, a foreshadowing of Adam's death. In the fourth dream, Miranda is in the hospital engulfed in white--white sheets, white walls, white curtains, white-robed doctors. She drifts into a world of silence in which the white walls become sheer white cliffs and in which frosty white moons drop one after another into an abyss of snow. Hanging between life and death, she watches as another patient is taken away and is reminded of the journey she did not mean to take. Miranda's assessment of the situation could serve as a description of Durer's engraving:
The road to death is a long march beset with all evils, and the heart fails little by little at each new terror, the bones rebel at each step, the mind sets up its own bitter resistance and to what end? The barriers sink one by one, and no covering of the eyes shuts out the landscape of disaster. (CS 309)
The devil she encounters on her own death march is Dr. Hildesheim, whose German name transforms him in her delirium into the poster boy for Boche barbarism, notably in Belgium. She awakens in horror as he approaches to take her pulse.
The final dream registers Miranda's near-death experience and her return to life. Her mind is split in two: the coherent part helplessly observes "the strange frenzy" of the incoherent part. She is pulled into a "whirlpool of gray water turning upon itself." And then, in terms again pointing to the Durer engraving, she finds herself "on a narrow ledge over a pit that she knew to be bottomless, though she could not comprehend it;... and she strained back against a reassuring wall of granite at her shoulders, staring into the pit" (CS 310). She knows this is death and whispers to herself that she should consent. "But she could not consent, still shrinking stiffly against the granite wall" (CS 310). The whirlpools and granite walls themselves dissolve, and she lies "like a stone at the farthest bottom of life, knowing herself to be blind, deaf, speechless,... entirely withdrawn from all human concerns, yet alive with a peculiar lucidity and coherence" (CS 310). Dante's Paradise replaces Durer's wild wilderness: "She rose from her narrow ledge and ran lightly through the tall portals of the great bow that arched in its splendor over the burning blue of the sea and the cool green of the meadow on either hand" (CS 311). Miranda romps through the New Earth and enjoys its glory before becoming aware of a "thin frost" touching "the edges of this confident tranquility" (CS 311). As if a curtain had dropped on a scene in a play, the bright and beautiful landscape vanishes, leaving her "alone in a strange stony place of bitter cold, picking her way along a steep path of slippery snow, calling out, Oh, I must go back!" (CS 312). At this point, the attending nurse jabs Miranda with a hypodermic needle, joking her back into the land of the living. As she awakens, she hears bells screaming and crowds cheering in celebration of the Armistice, thus bringing together the personal and historical levels of the plot.
Pale Horse, Pale Rider is a masterpiece of narrative art. Using strategies similar to those pioneered by Eliot and Joyce, Porter includes allusions to overarching myths to manipulate parallels between past and present and between individual consciousness and historical forces. The myths she chose, taken from biblical and medieval sources, were perfect for the material she retained from her experience during the Great War. For her heroine's descent to the underworld and Europe's plunge into hell, she drew on the Dantean pattern in The Divine Comedy. For Miranda's encounter with death and evil, she worked with parallels drawn primarily from Durer's engraving of the grim Knight; to put Miranda's journey into the context of great historical forces, she depended on the Bible and Durer's Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Her achievement, inseparable from her experience of repose and recreation in Basel in the summer of 1932, is one of the triumphs of literary modernism.
Alighieri, Dante. The Divine Comedy. Trans. Mark Musa. New York: Penguin, 1985.
Austenfeld, Thomas Carl. American Women Writers and the Nazis: Ethics and Politics in Boyle, Porter, Stafford, and Hellman. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 2001.
Bailey, Martin. Albrecht Durer. London: Phaidon, 1995.
Barry, John. The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History. New York: Viking, 2004.
Bible. Genesis, Matthew, Ephesians, Revelation. King James Translation. 1611.
Blasco Ibanez, Vincente. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Trans. Charlotte Brewster Jordan. New York: Dutton, 1918.
Brooker, Jewel Spears. Mastery and Escape: T. S. Eliot and the Dialectic of Modernism. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1994.
Carey, Frances, ed. The Apocalypse and the Shape of Things to Come. London: British Museum, 1999.
Durer, Albrecht. The Complete Woodcuts of Albrecht Durer. Ed. Willi Kurth. New York: Dover, 1963.
--. "Albrecht Durer: Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (19.73.209)." Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000-. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ hd/durr/ho_19.73.209.htm (October 2006).
--. "Albrecht Durer: Knight, Death, and the Devil (43.106.2)." Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000-. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ hd/durr/ho_43.106.2.htm (October 2006).
Eliot, T. S. "Tradition and the Individual Talent." Selected Essays. New ed. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1950. 3-11.
--. "Ulysses, Order and Myth." Selected Prose. Ed. Frank Kermode. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1975. 175-79.
Givner, Joan. Katherine Anne Porter: A Life. 1982. Rev. ed. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1991.
Joyce, James. Ulysses. 1922. Corrected Text. New York: Random House, 1986.
Keegan, John. The First World War: An Illustrated History. New York: Knopf, 2001.
Porter, Katherine Anne. The Collected Essays and Occasional Writings. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970.
--. Collected Stories. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979.
--. Katherine Anne Porter: Conversations. Ed. Joan Givner. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1987.
--. "Katherine Anne Porter: An Interview." With Barbara Thompson. Conversations 78-98.
--. "A Letter from Mexico and the Gleam of Montezuma's Golden Roofs." Uncollected Early Prose 131-35.
--. Letters. Ed. Isabel Bayley. New York: Atlantic Monthly P, 1990.
--. "Recollection of Rome." Travel and Leisure (January 1974): 4-9.
--. Ship of Fools. Boston: Little, Brown, 1962.
--. "This Strange, Old World" and Other Book Reviews. Ed. Darlene Harbour Unrue. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1991.
--. Uncollected Early Prose of Katherine Anne Porter. Ed. Ruth M. Alvarez and Thomas F. Walsh. Austin: U of Texas P, 1993.
Strieder, Peter. The Hidden Durer. Chicago: Rand McNally, 1976.
Unrue, Darlene Harbour. Katherine Anne Porter: The Life of an Artist. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2005.
--. Truth and Vision in Katharine Anne Porter's Fiction. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1985.
--, ed. Critical Essays on Katherine Anne Porter. New York: G. K. Hall, 1997.
Walsh, Thomas F. Katherine Anne Porter and Mexico: The Illusion of Eden. Austin: U of Texas P, 1992.
JEWEL SPEARS BROOKER
(1) The Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History on the Metropolitan Museum of Art's website includes excellent descriptions and images of both works: see http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/durr/ho_19.73.209.htm for The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/durr/ho_43.106.2.htm for The Knight, Death, and the Devil.
(2) Porter also included "Old Mortality" in this section and occasionally referred to it as "Midway of This Mortal Life." In the late 1920s, she conceived of a three-part novel to be called The Story of America. The first section was to have been "Legends of the Ancestors"; the second, "Midway of This Mortal Life"; and the third, "The Present Day." This project evolved eventually into Ship of Fools.
(3) The literature and art of the Great War is replete with images of the four horsemen. In 1916, the Argentine writer Vincente Blasco Ibanez published his epic novel The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (English translation, 1918; film, 1921), lust before the mythic horses appear in the film, Durer's famous woodcuts of the Apocalypse (1498) are shown to Julio, Ibanez's hero, played by Rudolph Valentino in the film. Published in the third year of the war, the novel was an international best seller and the film became an instant classic. Porter knew Ibanez's work not only from the novel and film, but from her work in Mexico. In the November 22, 1920 issue of El Heraldo de Mexico, she reviewed his Mexico in Revolution ("This Strange Old World" xvii).
(4) Austenfeld makes the point that it is important to distinguish between what was actually going on in Germany and Porter's memory of her experience there in 1932. Although his discussion, informed by native expertise in the language and culture of Germany, is focused on Ship of Fools, his insights will be of interest to readers of Porter's shorter fiction, including Pale Horse, Pale Rider.
(5) In 1941, Porter signed a contract with Doubleday to write a biography of Erasmus to be called "Erasmus of Basel" (Unrue, Life, 187). Although this project was never finished, it testifies to the seriousness of her interest in Erasmus in the summer of 1932.
(6) Luther, interestingly, considered The Apocalypse too cryptic to be of much use to the general reader of the Bible; artists/illustrators, nevertheless, have always been drawn to its vivid imagery.
(7) In later years, Porter said that the real name of her character, Adam Barclay in Pale Horse, Pale Rider, was Alexander Barclay (the name of the Scottish scholar who translated Brant's Das Narrenschiff). She claimed that Alexander was the only man she had ever really loved ("Recollection of Rome").
(8) Porter's "I was there," like her "I am a passenger on that ship," is a reminder of her allegorical imagination.
(9) In both the Basel Library and the Kunstmuseum, Porter would certainly have encountered two other late fifteenth/early sixteenth-century masters who did woodcuts and engravings of the book of Revelation, including the Four Horsemen. Hans Holbein, whose work she had admired since childhood, did a scene-by-scene series of woodcuts illustrating the Apocalypse, and Lucas Cranach did the striking woodcuts for Luther's translation of the New Testament. These artists knew and admired each other, and all had connections to both Erasmus and Luther. Durer did a drawing from life of Erasmus, and in one of his treatises, Erasmus included detailed discussion of Durer's woodcuts (Strieder 22). Cranach lived near Luther in Wittenberg and painted several portraits of the reformer and his family. Durer also admired Luther and longed to paint him from life. "If God allows me to come to Doctor Martinus Luther, I shall do his likeness with the greatest diligence and turn it into a copperplate engraving as a permanent memorial to that Christian man" (Streider 148).
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|Title Annotation:||Special Section on Katherine Anne Porter|
|Author:||Brooker, Jewel Spears|
|Publication:||The Mississippi Quarterly|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2009|
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