Abroad in the plain the scattered mesa tops, red with the afterglow, one by one lost their light, like candles going out. He was on a naked rock in the desert, in the stone age, a prey to homesickness for his own kind, his own epoch, for European man an his glorious history of desire and dreams. Through all the centuries that his own part of the world had been changing like the sky at daybreak, this people had been fixed, increasing neither in numbers nor desires, rock-turtles on their rock. Something reptilian he felt here, something that had endured by immobility, a kind of life out of reach, like the crustaceans in their armour.
—Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop
I have a never-to-be-published centaur story that expresses this sentiment pretty much exactly, even from the same setting, in grosser, less polished, but no less problematic terms. So many layers of interpretation to get through before we come across anything remotely like objective truth, yet the core meaning remains as plain as a scalpeled-open vein. I’ve felt this feeling and its accompanying shame.
This is Willa Cather, frontier-raised, classically educated white woman of the 1920s, writing from the limited experience of travel about a time and place eighty years and two thousand miles removed, the mesa-top, precolombian settlement of Acoma pueblo, New Mexico, as visited by a French missionary bishop in 1848.
Her comparisons to turtles and crustaceans signify nothing so much as alienness. No female character has yet had a line of dialogue. The bishop’s Indian guide speaks broken English, she tells us, deliberately, because he prefers its simplicity and sound. The bishop himself thinks in French and laments this desert’s dearth of olive oil and good wine.
This is just the kind of experience I was looking for when I opened this book, honestly. It confirms and stratifies what I already know, that there’s no expressing anything without wading across disconnect and alienation. The struggle to communicate is the study of otherness and loss.