Apr 27 2007

Death Comes for the Archbishop

Published by at 10:26 am under Books

by Wllla Cather

This book was a complete change of pace in time, place, style and content from the science fiction that I had been reading. It is very pleasant book and one word, peaceful, summarizes it pretty well for me. Even when describing violence or murder, it seemed peaceful!

The book is a description of the life of a pair of sincere and dedicated French priests working as Catholic missionaries in mid 19th century America. The book focuses on the newly appointed Bishop to a newly created New Mexico diocese soon after New Mexico became part of the U.S. New Mexico was a big undefined space peopled with Indians, Mexicans and a small but increasing number of American. Initially, all travel is on foot or by horseback, but by the book’s end trains have arrived. Along with the Bishop comes his life long friend and fellow priest who eventually becomes Bishop in Colorado after he is sent there during a “silver rush” by his friend the Bishop. The book describes incidents that paint an impressionistic picture of the geography, the priests experiences, and the way the Indians and Mexicans lived. While the priest lived a mostly isolated, very hard life, the overall picture is of two very contented people. The archbishop’s death, which occupies a very small part of the book, describes one nice “way to go”; peacefully, in ones own bed, remembering the good time and good friends. Outwardly, he was mostly non responsive but inwardly still competent; reveling in pleasant memories.

A question that recurs occasionally as I read is “why read fiction?”. What’s the point? I suppose lots of words have been written on this subject, but I don’t want to read them now. That would feel like cheating on a test. One reason is simply entertainment. Reading a good story is fun. A second reason is to expand a persons ideas about what is, was or might be, might have been. For a young reader, fiction can inform a person about how they might act and how they or other people might react in various situations. That’s less but still useful for an old person who has seen more and in any event is less likely to change their ways of acting. Habits are tough to crack. A third reason is too explore an idea without any intent to act or learn. How could a fictional situation play out. Analogous to a physicists ‘thought experiment’ in which the implications of potential physical rules are explored. A game for the mind. How do I see this developing as the author develops it in his/her own way.

Often it seems almost inevitable that reading about a fictional situation has some impact on behavior. But maybe not, if the words and ideas slip entirely “out of” the brain. An increasing problem as one ages. Very young people like to read the same story over and over. Why? The pleasure of a good story? To get it firmly implanted? To help them learn to imagine, use their new brains? Very old people can read the same story over and over and it never gets implanted. Always new. But that sort of lost capability proceeds on to where every word is new and reading becomes impossible. Ugly thought.

Is it more useful or beneficial to read about an imagined 19th century New Mexico or an imagined planet on which chimps, dolphins and humans can communicate and work together? If the reason for reading is entertainment, the answer is personal and subjective. If the reason is to learn about people, probably New Mexico in the past is somewhat better. If the reason is to entertain new ideas, the imaginary planet seems to fit.

Anyway, “Death Comes for the Archbishop” is a good story well written.

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