The Construction of Amnesia:

Remembering to Forget in My Antonia and La Muerte de Artemio Cruz

Chris Perry

In the introduction that constructs the framing narrative for Willa Cather’s My Ántonia, the narrator Jim Burden says of the “memoir” that will follow: “I didn’t take time to arrange it; I simply wrote down pretty much all that her name recalls to me. I suppose it hasn’t any form. It hasn’t any title, either” (2). He hastily appends the name Ántonia to his memoir, and then on second thought prefixes another word, leaving it as My Ántonia.

The text of My Ántonia stands as a testament against what is implied here by its narrator: that the nature of memory, left to its own devices, is formless. Conversely, this text can be studied as a portrayal of how memory is constructed. Two forces are explanatory in the construction of memory: loss and erasure. The first can be seen as the motivating engine behind its construction, and the second acts as an author would in determining the form of memory’s contents. This form seems to be determined by a narrative logic seeking to create a comprehensible story with the capacity to tie the past to the present in a linear, logical manner. However, this process of editing by amnesia often eliminates the very pieces that would explain the true logic of the story. This process is shaped by collective experience, including historical and social forces, as well as by the forces of individual psychology.

This paper examines the construction of memory and amnesia in My Antonia, and places this study in comparative conversation with another fictional text, La Muerte de Artemio Cruz (The Death of Artemio Cruz) by Carlos Fuentes. Like Cather, Fuentes uses the construction of memory as a narrative device as well as the central organizing theme of the work. He also places at the center of his text the capacity of memory to conceal, to maintain silences, and to mislead. The 1700 miles and the national border between My Ántonia’s setting in Red Cloud, Nebraska and the site of Artemio Cruz’s last days in Mexico City allows for a study of these themes against the background of cultural difference. A study of how events are remembered and forgotten by the protagonists of these two texts highlights the role that culture plays in the construction of memory, including the relationship between individual and collective memory.

In My Antonia, the construction of the memory of the narrator occurs within the context of a still-nascent national identity, in the final years of the “frontier era” as the United States was establishing its internal and external borders and determining what would be included and excluded from the cultural map that resulted from the process. In this paper I will look closely at the role of exclusion in this, using My Antonia as a lens through which to view these historical dynamics. La Muerte de Artemio Cruz is set in a country whose borders were eviscerated by the military ethos of the “frontier era”, outlined in the Manifest Destiny of 1845. A map of the region before the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed forty years before the era these texts address, shows the historical relativism of the national border between them, with the boundary of Mexico still within spitting distance of what would become Red Cloud, Nebraska. Thinking of this land as a “frontier” would be unimaginable in the historical consciousness that guides Artemio Cruz’ reminiscence. In this paper I look at how these historical events and their cultural correlates shape the ways that memory and amnesia operate in these texts.

Both of these texts operate by the narrative device of a protagonist relating a series of memories. Structurally, this informs us immediately of the system that the text will inhabit:the memory of the narrator, which will contain all points of reference within the system. The internal historical time begins at almost the same moment in both texts: Fuentes gives us an exact date, April 9, 1889, and by piecing together clues in My Ántonia we can assume that the initial scene takes place very close to that year. Having established these details, I would emphasize that both of these texts affirm the idea that historical time has little importance to the construction of meaning both within the texts and within the process of memory. In a 1988 interview (Castillo, 1988), Carlos Fuentes discussed the difference between mythical, or “storytelling” memory, and historical memory. He refers to Giambattista Vico’s theory of the mutual origins of myth and language, and states that it is impossible to separate the two. For Fuentes, myth is “the eternal present as lived by a community” (156), and this present is the continual vantage point from which both past and future are viewed. Both of these texts present the construction of memory as following the logic of a mythical sense of time, and that this is coherent with their conception of the way in which memory creates meaning, which is much closer to myth than to history.

The establishment of the text as existing in a continual present, reflecting backward, occurs in the framing narrative in both instances.We are introduced to Artemio Cruz on his deathbed, and follow the peregrinations of his memory until it reaches its actual origin point at his birth. In My Ántonia, the framing narrative is established in the “Introduction” in which Jim Burden explains that he has written down his memories of a girl he knew in childhood. Both texts center on nodal points in the memory of the narrator that control the movement of time in the text. The pacing of time follows a logic that is internal to the narrator’s construction of memory, rather than a logic that is determined by the course of actual events. This is consistent with the conception of memory as operating under a mythical rather than historical sense of time. The focus of the points in time that receive the greatest narrative attention replicates the manner in which memory is constructed: by creating a story that holds a narrative and internal logic, and is contingent on foregrounding specific moments and erasing others from the story. The framing narratives for the texts provide a metaphor for this process: an individual located in an eternal present, reflecting backward over a collection of past events arranged in a manner that is anything but arbitrary. Given our analysis of memory as a process seeking a narrative linearity but built upon amnesia, studying the arrangement of past events within the narrator’s memory reveals its underlying narrative logic. In both texts, this logic creates a story that can only be understood by uncovering what is forgotten in its telling.

In both of these texts there are specific narrative motivations for the memories of the narrators. Artemio Cruz is compelled to play back his memories within his head as he lies on his deathbed.The motivation for this seems to lie somewhere between confession and a compulsion to understand, to follow the threads of memory back to their point of origin in search of some kind of comprehensible order. The confessional connotations of his internal dialogue of memory are accentuated by the numinous presence of a priest in the room, ready to perform the last rites when called upon and occasionally incanting fragments of prayer in Latin. However, the exculpatory implications of a confession seem dramatically out of character for Artemio Cruz, who narrates a lifetime of immoral activities without seeming compunction or apology.His character is eminently dislikable, and the more we learn about his history the more this impression is confirmed, in part because of this apparent lack of remorse.

However, there are fleeting moments at which the confessional impulse with its inference of guilt is glimpsed, as in this sentence which appears in the center of a stream of consciousness: “ Quisieras recordar otras cosas, pero sobre todo, quisieras olvidar el estado en que te encuentras.Te disculparás.No te encuentras.Te encontrarás. “ (13) (…and above all, you want to forget yourself, the man you find yourself to be now. You will exonerate yourself. You cannot find yourself. But you will meet yourself”) (12) [1] . This sentence is important not just for its reference to exoneration, but also for the way it connects the past and the present in terms of identity. Artemio Cruz seeks to forget his present self but also to understand this self, and the only way to do that is to find its origin point in the past, in which he will meet himself. The process, then, is about both forgetting and remembering, about erasure and uncovering.

In explaining his reasons for recording his memories of Ántonia, Jim Burden states, “this girl seemed to mean to us the country, the conditions, the whole adventure of our childhood” (2). Interpretations of My Ántonia often focus on Ántonia as a symbol of the landscape that formed the backdrop for his childhood. The meaning of Ántonia in terms of a motivation for this process of memory is much more interpersonal and intrapersonal, and has to do with the construction of Jim Burden’s identity as much as an exploration of hers.

In the opening scene of the primary narrative, Jim Burden describes himself as a recently orphaned ten year-old boy traveling cross-country to his grandparents’ homestead.Through the book we will learn nothing of his life before this moment of transition; after this first page it will only be mentioned a single time, as a geographical location within a recurrent dream. While Ántonia provides the strongest presence in the text, this previous ten years and the emotional sequelae of the death of his parents provides the strongest silence.There is a connection between these two things. Jim Burden first sees Ántonia on the coach carrying them both into Nebraska, and over the next several years his relationship with her provides him with a way to bring meaning to his new life. When Jim Burden arrives in Nebraska, he describes the startling formlessness of the landscape and states “between that earth and that sky I felt erased, blotted out” (8).The image of erasure leaves a space to be filled by the narrative construction of identity.For Jim Burden, the erasure of what came before this train ride across the country lends a psychological urgency to the memories that will be created in Nebraska, and constructing these memories around the presence of Nebraska rather than the absence of Virginia defines the form that his memories will take.

Given this narrative emphasis on the childhood memories of Jim Burden, it seems essential to note the significant autobiographical subtext in My Ántonia. I state this here because of the specific parallel between Cather’s experience and this moment of the text. In its broadest details My Ántonia follows the same trajectory as Cather’s life: a ten year-old child moves to Nebraska from Virginia in the late 1800’s, lives there until leaving for the University of Nebraska, and after completing studies moves to New York to remain, but will always remember a Bohemian girl from childhood and will return from time to time to visit her. The feeling of erasure expressed by Jim Burden upon arriving to Nebraska is almost a direct quote from Cather’s description of her same journey as a girl: “I felt a good deal as if we had come to the end of everything- it was a kind of erasure of personality” (Cather, 1994, 370).

One way in which Cather fills this sense of emptiness is with the descriptions of the homes that will be created on the prairie, which become archetypal images in the construction of both memory and identity. The concept of home in this text must be understood as an aspect of the process of defining what it meant to be “American” in the context of rural isolation and the endless influx of new immigrants from different countries.The homes established in My Ántonia represent a crossing ground between the past that each family carries with them and the centrifugal pressure of adapting to a new country. As homesteaders, the characters in this novel occupy an interesting sociocultural position: most have arrived within the past generation or two, with a guarantee to a certain amount of land and no other direct tie to this new country. This piece of land carved out from prairie establishes an immediate de facto sense of citizenship by providing a concrete proof of belonging in this new country. However, this sense of belonging is complicated by the fact that it is conferred by a home embedded in a community that has little tolerance for cultural, ethnic, or religious difference. For a recent immigrant this leaves two options: either seclusion from the larger community, or the surrender of the psychological heritage and the customs of the country left behind. The microcosm of the nation made visible in this community demonstrates the project of assimilation by means of culturally enforced conformity that would characterize so much of the American national identity, despite the simultaneously developing myth of American individualism forged on this same “frontier”. The homes in this text represent a tense boundary between these two, establishing a physical space within which the expression of difference is possible, reflected in the practices and objects retained from each family’s country of origin, and yet representing a clear tie to this new country and the expectation this implies to shed that difference.

Based on the most literal reading, My Ántonia seems to be about the centrality of home in the construction of identity. This reading places the character of Ántonia at the fulcrum: with a focus on her character, the text seems to be a story that moves in a linear fashion toward the creation of a satisfying home. However, a structural analysis of My Ántonia reveals that despite her obvious and eponymous centrality, reading this as a book that is centered on Ántonia is in fact a misreading. Considering the text with a lens focused at the level of the system, it is evident that the central axis is not Ántonia, but the narrator, Jim Burden. Everything we learn about Ántonia, both in terms of her actual life and her symbolic meaning, is entirely relative to this axis. Reading the text with Jim Burden instead of Ántonia at the center changes the meaning of home within it, so much that it points toward a reading that sees the central theme not as home but as homelessness.

Ántonia is essential relative to this theme as a foil for Jim Burden’s experience; she represents the ability to create a home and to rest comfortably within the identity that offers, but Jim Burden has no such ability. As an exploration of the national consciousness, this focus on homelessness rather than home alters the usual assumptions about My Ántonia as a reflection of the telos of the pioneer era in North American life. Rather than a myth of a fixed end point to the movement of immigration, this reading contributes to an alternate sociological theory that is proposed by Joseph Urgo. This theory suggests that the immigration dynamics of early American history created a restlessness that has not been resolved, and instead has created a continual pattern of relocation within the North American definition of home.

One scene in My Ántonia seems particularly important for an understanding of the meaning of home relative to the themes of memory and identity within the text. The scene involves the suicide of Ántonia’s father, who is portrayed as a recent immigrant unable to psychologically survive the transition to a new country and its implications of a new home, a new identity, and the burden of memory. His suicide makes visible the violence and the pain that remain hidden in the silences through most of the novel. Jim Burden tells us that he “knew that it was homesickness that killed” Ántonia’s father (66), and in reflecting on this he thinks of the parts of his identity that did not make the transition to America, most cogently in the violin that he brings to America but does not play, and that implies his connection to an entire world represented in the public moments of celebration where he would play his instrument. In America there are no other musicians who know his form of music, no collective identity that can provide him with a context for his own. His memories remain in Bohemia, and with them his sense of belonging. He is a representation of the negation of the power of the archetypal image of home; a warning that within this power there is contained the threat of its loss, and that this loss can be so devastating at a level of personal identity that it can lead to its symbolic and even literal annihilation. Homesickness in this story is not just a mediating state between home and homelessness, but a representation of the intensity of the bond between individual and collective identity. Severed from his connection to the latter, Ántonia’s father was unable to maintain the former, and found himself lost in a new country that imposed and demanded a new identity altogether.

It is clear that this story had a particular meaning for Cather relative to the themes of home and identity, both inside and outside of the frame of My Ántonia.We know from her letters that this description of a suicide is based on one of the first stories Cather remembered hearing upon arriving in Nebraska, and from her bibliography we can see its formative effect upon her. It was the subject of her first published story, written while she was at the University of Nebraska, and was rewritten and republished twice before appearing within My Ántonia.

This story is important not only for its theme of loss but for that of erasure, and in this it points to a larger theme in this text that has to do with the North American project of assimilation.My Ántonia is the story of a society in active formation, and in telling of the methods by which this society excludes integral parts of the cultures and identities that immigrants carry with them, it becomes a narrative of the exclusionary nature of the national identity. The novel was written during the years of the First World War, during a time in which the issue of “Americanization”, or aggressive assimilation of immigrant cultures, was central in the political landscape. This was one of the few political issues about which Cather was ever outspoken, both in her journalistic writings and in her public statements, in which she referred to it as “a deadly disease” (as cited in Reynolds, 37). Cather argued for a pluralistic, heterogeneous society that took an active stance against “standardization” or the uniformity that she believed was overtaking American society (ibid, 38). It is important to note that her notion of heterogeneity had its own exclusionary limits, and a decidedly European outline. However, this connection between assimilation and exclusion provides an important background for the meaning of this suicide within the concept of identity and memory in My Ántonia.

Many critiques of this text see Jim Burden, and by extension Cather, as a hopeless romantic clinging nostalgically to an idealized past. The romanticism in the text is not about returning to the past, but about a desire to maintain aspects of that past in the march toward the future, including the preservation of the history and culture brought to North America through immigration.Jim Burden does have an idealized image of this possibility, but it is set in the greater context of a novel that portrays a process of relentless homogenization as a defining aspect of the nation’s developing identity.Within this context, the specific nature of the mythical home that Ántonia creates is essential to understand:it is an enclave of Bohemian culture in the midst of the Nebraskan prairie, where not a word of English is spoken and her father would have felt perfectly comfortable taking out his violin. Ántonia finds a way to maintain her individuality and her ties to her culture of origin despite the pressures of assimilation, and the most striking aspect of her character is that she remains exactly herself through the decades this text describes.This resistance to the homogenizing force of America is an essential part of what Cather is celebrating in portraying Ántonia as a heroine.

In her analysis of My Ántonia entitled “Haunting the Houses of Memory” , Lisa Marie Lucenti talks about the uncontrollably invasive nature of memory in this text, as reflected in these sudden and unexpected moments of violence that are then resubmerged into the surface calm of the elegiac tone of the text. She argues that memory for the narrator is an attempt to “house and domesticate the past” (195), and looks at the places within the text where this effort fails. Lucenti discusses David Punter’s idea of the “Gothic” in the construction of memory, by which he means the continual effort and yet inability to bury the dead, leading to “eruptions of chaos” and violence, a memory “haunted by death, suicide, and erasure” (Lucenti, 198). This description accurately characterizes the function and style of erasure in this text, where the effort to forget runs parallel with the process of remembering. This description also accurately characterizes the peculiar character of remembering and erasure that lies at the root of the national identity forged in this country. Further, these incompletely buried memories disrupt the force of homogeneity described above.

The Gothic project of attempting to bury the past under a surface calm stands in contrast with the nature of memory and history in La Muerte de Artemio Cruz. The violence in this novel is overt and thematic, and the life of Artemio Cruz and the history of his country are painted in garish colors that make no effort to hide their fatal flaws. Artemio Cruz moves from being a hero of the Mexican Revolution to becoming a symbol of its corrupt decay without apology or explanation, and this transition seems inevitable within the logic of the narrative. Julio Ortega argues that the narration of history in La Muerte de Artemio Cruz corresponds with the specifically Mexican sense of history as un espectáculo (a spectacle), described most accurately in the form of the Baroque (Ortega, 200). There is an apt contrast here with the Gothic mode of construction in Cather, where violence erupts suddenly and then returns to the shadows. However, despite this difference in form there is a central point of erasure in both of these modes of construction, and a return to a point of origin requires a revealing as much as a discovery.

Ortega’s analysis points to the implications that these different forms of memory construction have on not just the level of individual memory, but that of collective memory as well. The differences between these two texts point to essential differences within the national consciousness that have to do with the role of erasure in history, in memory, and in the national identity.The images of emptiness and erasure running throughout My Ántonia connect not only to a personal sense of loss and homelessness, but also to a uniquely North American understanding of the land and the origin myth of the nation. It is essential to this origin myth that it begin with the building of a nation from scratch, just as it is essential to understanding it as myth rather than historical fact. But this initial emptiness is created from erasure rather than absence. In Jim Burden’s first impressions of Nebraska, the language is lyrical in its negations: “nothing to see… no fences, no creeks or trees, no hills or fields… there was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made. No, there was nothing but land… the world was left behind… we hadgot over the edge of it and were outside man’s jurisdiction…” (7-8).

The image of emptiness evoked by these descriptions corresponds to the foundational illusion of North American identity that had its apogee in the frontier era.The idea of a virgin territory, a New World made of open land ready for the taking, is obviously an astounding revision of history, and it is reflected in the fact that in My Ántonia the history of the Native American presence on this land is virtually invisible. This startling erasure lays the groundwork for the emptiness in the landscape and for the starting point that Cather presents in the creation of the collective memory of the nation, and therefore the foundation of its identity. There is room for valid critique of Cather’s approach to this origin myth in her life and her work; however, in this text it would have been historically inaccurate for the character Jim Burden to perceive the land in any other way.

The image of the land in La Muerte de Artemio Cruz stands in sharp contrast to that of an empty, virgin territory: here the land is the locus of endless and violent contestation, and the concept of home stands in tenuous dependency on this pattern of loss and upheaval. Unlike the United States, Mexico has no founding myth of an empty land, a land without history, and as a correlate to this the concept of home in this text is inextricably connected to the question of possession and dispossession. The site that forms the background for Artemio Cruz’s story of origin is only the tiniest sliver of land, “ una uña” (“a fingernail”) (239) surrounded by the holdings of large landowners and existing precariously in their shadow. Because of his parentage, his race, and the structure of power, Cruz has no claim to this land or any other, and this fact of dispossession underlies every aspect of his narrated memories. When Artemio Cruz’s memory finally reaches its point of origin in the final pages of the text, we learn that he was conceived as the result of the wealthy landowner’s rape of his mother, and that his efforts to erase this fact are the inspiring force for much of the life story that he has just narrated. Within that story he eventually reverses his position in the power structure, becoming an agent of violence and exclusion rather than a victim of it, but what we see in this return to the origin is that the loss and the attempt to forget still remain at the center of this constructed identity.

The concept of open, innocent land has a specific meaning within the literary form of the pastoral.In this concluding section, I will situate these texts within the genre of the pastoral and look at what this tradition offers to our analysis of emptiness as erasure. Cather deliberately evokes the pastoral genre in My Ántonia; she opens the novel with an epigraph from Virgil’s Georgics, the quintessential pastoral reference, and based on its formal qualities the entire text could arguably be read as a traditional pastoral. Cather returns to the epigraph later in the text as she describes Jim Burden studying Virgil at the university. It becomes clear that this is an allusion with intent, as he sits in his room reading Virgil and is surprised by a knock at the door. He opens it to find Lena Lingrad, a girl he knew while growing up with Ántonia. Her laugh brings back to him the memory of all of these girls, and after she leaves he says “It came over me, as it had never done before, the relationship between those girls and the poetry of Virgil. If there were no girls like them in the world, there would be no poetry” (173).

No doubt this is one of the statements in My Ántonia that has inspired its reading as a romantic novel. It would be inaccurate, however, to take this sentiment at face value. At this point in the text we have already learned too much about the laughter of girls like this to see it only for its romantic charm. We know that in their community this laughter and these girls are seen as “a menace to the social order” (128), and that the community has established careful although tacit lines of exclusion around them. These lines clearly run along lines of class and ethnicity, and everyone understood that the “town boys” could admire these girls, but not take them home; could dance with them, but not marry them. These lines of division offer one of many ways in which the pastoral and romantic readings of My Ántonia are troubled by the practices of exclusion that run throughout the novel.

The pastoral tradition is certainly not the first literary form evoked by La Muerte de Artemio Cruz: the violence and the suffering are too much on the surface of this text to place it within such a romanticized genre. However, in the protagonist’s psychological journey backward toward a point of origin it is possible to see glimpses of the wish for such a past, such as this phrase in the midst of his stream of consciousness: “Alla, atrás, había un jardín: si pudieras regresar a él, si pudieras encontrarlo otra vez al final (16) (“There, behind, there was a garden- if you could only go back to it, if you could only find it again at the last”) (12). When we arrive at last at this point of origin we find that there is indeed a garden; an idyllic and untouched land at the edge of the water that provided the setting for Cruz’s childhood. However, as in My Ántonia the idyllic qualities of this place exist only at the merest surface level, and immediately beneath them it is clear that the land is a contested territory and the social dynamics around it are based on terms of brutal exclusion.

The juxtaposition of pastoral ideal and the incursion of reality through struggle and exclusion have been part of the pastoral tradition since its Virgilian beginnings.The meaning of a pastoral is not only in its evocation of a purer, idyllic past, but also in the constant threat to that past by humanity. The construction of an idealized point of origin even in this most nostalgic of genres stands in constant relationship to the reality of the past that threatens its very existence, and in the words of Leo Marx the form “is structured around both an ideal and the endlessly encroaching power, complexity, and history” (27). In the pastoral tradition, as in both of these texts, the search for an idyllic past is complicated by fact that it does not exist and that no erasure or construction of memory can create it.

Jim Burden’s professor speculates that Virgil must have thought about the Georgics on his deathbed, stating “after he had faced the bitter fact that he was to leave the Aeneid unfinished, and had decreed that the great canvas…should be burned rather than survive him unperfected, then his mind must have gone back to the perfect utterance of the Georgics…” (170). I see this as Cather not satisfied to let her theme be spoken by the content of the epigraph she borrows from the Georgics, “ Optima dies, prima fugit (The best days are the first to flee)”, but insisting that even behind this “perfect utterance” of loss there is a story of even deeper loss and the attempt to repair it with memory. The insistence on erasure as a constant force in the construction of memory is a central theme throughout both of these texts, which portray how memory is predicated on loss and shaped by forgetting, and how identity develops its lines against the forces of exclusion.




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[1] All English translations are from the Sam Hileman translation. Bibliographic information can be found in the Works Cited section under Fuentes.