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Critical Essay by Thomas F. Walsh
SOURCE: "The Dreams Self in 'Pale Horse, Pale Rider,'" in Wascana Review, Vol. 14, No. 2, Fall, 1979, pp. 61-79.
In the following essay, Walsh explores the significance of Miranda's dreams in "Pale Horse, Pale Rider," noting allusions to fear of death and the author's own personal experiences.
Deriving its title from an old spiritual, Katherine Anne Porter's "Pale Horse, Pale Rider" tells how Death carries off Adam, "a sacrificial lamb" who is "committed without any knowledge or act of his own to death," leaving Miranda the "one singer to mourn." Therefore some critics have read the story as a tragedy of circumstances in which war and disease doom its star-crossed lovers. Wayne Booth writes that the reader is united with Miranda "against the hostile world around her" as she travels "alone toward the discovery that the man she loves has died." He also stresses her "moral superiority": "She must be accepted at her own estimate from the beginning," for "the slightest suggestion that she is at fault" or "that the author and reader are observing [her] from above rather than alongside will destroy, at least in part, the quality of our concern and hence of our final revelation." Yet, in the story's five dream (or delirium) sequences, we do observe Miranda "from above" without sacrificing our concern for her. They are the most subjective parts of "Pale Horse, Pale Rider" because they reveal the hidden undercurrents of her mind, but they are also the most objective because they enable the reader to understand her in a way that she never understands herself. Miranda's dreams offer convincing evidence that the agonizing circumstances of war and disease trigger rather than cause her despair at the end of the story, bringing to the surface what lay submerged in her character prior to their event. She seizes upon the circumstances but never completely grasps the underlying causes of her discontent.
Examining the story's five dreams in detail, I shall show that: the opening dream of the Pale Rider establishes the ironic pattern of the story and reveals early symptoms of Miranda's discontent that strongly resemble those of the ontologically insecure person of R. D. Laing's The Divided Self; Adam is a narcissistic projection of Miranda, this discussion relating to Laing's study and encompassing a reading of the second, third and fourth dreams; Miranda's long fifth dream dramatizes the crisis of her desperate physical and psychological struggle with life and death, resulting in her Pyrrhic victory over influenza and in her alienation from the world of the living; and Porter, like Miranda, came to consider her own near-death from influenza more significant to her than her love, her story indirectly serving as a justification of her conception of herself as artist.
The story's opening dream reveals Miranda's chronic inner struggle with life and death. She envisions herself in her childhood home, readying for a pre-dawn journey that she does not "mean to take": "Daylight will strike a sudden blow on the roof startling them all to their feet; faces will beam asking. Where are you going, What are you doing, What are you thinking, How do you feel, Why do you say such things, What do you mean?… How I have loved this house in the morning before we are all awake and tangled together like badly cast fishing lines …" She wonders where "that lank greenish stranger" is, as if she were looking for him, and then decides to saddle her horse and outrun "Death and the Devil." The stranger then appears and rides with her, "regarding her without meaning, the blank still stare of mindless malice that makes no threats and can bide its time," but she tells him to ride on, after which she "slowly, unwillingly" awakens, waiting "in a daze for life to begin again." Then "a gong of warming" reminds her of the war which she had "happily" forgotten.
Not remembering her dream, Miranda thinks that sleep is a happy escape from the war: while bathing, she "wished she might fall asleep there, to wake up only when it was time to sleep again." Later in the day her desire to escape becomes an explicit death wish: "There's too much of everything in this world right now. I'd like to sit down here on the curb … and die, and never again see—I wish I could lose my memory and forget my own name…." But her dream of the Pale Rider suggests that Miranda's fear and insecurity are rooted, not in the present circumstance of war, but in her childhood. The young Miranda awakes before her family to escape their demands which she considers a threat to the self; her escape is from the human condition, conceived in terms of sleepers who are shocked into an unhappy resurrection by the sun and become hopelessly entangled with each other as it runs its course until they can sleep and forget again. Her fluctuating attraction and aversion to the Pale Rider reveal her paradoxical attempt through death to preserve the self from extinction by others and her determination to live on despite her fears. She rejects the Pale Rider and with him the dream-escape itself as she waits "in a daze for life to begin again," just as the sleepers in her dream would be "startled" to life by a "blow of daylight." The irony is that her forgotten dream of escaping the war has played out the hopelessness of her escaping anything, which she learns at the end of the story: having been shocked back to life on Armistice day, "she folded her painful body together and wept silently, shamelessly, in pity for herself and her lost rapture. There was no escape."
The opening dream is a paradigm of Miranda's unbearable dilemma throughout the story; fearing life and death, she reluctantly chooses life which she likens to death. Her condition is similar to that of Laing's ontologically insecure person who "may feel more unreal than real; in a literal sense, more dead than alive; precariously differentiated from the rest of the world, so that his identity and autonomy are always in question." Particularly relevant is the insecure person's feeling of "engulfment," in which he fears that he will lose his identity and autonomy in any relationship with another or "even with himself." "Engulfment is felt as a risk in being understood (thus grasped, comprehended), in being loved, or simply in being seen."
Miranda's flight from the well-meaning questions of her family is an explicit example of her fear of being understood. Just as she seeks sleep as an escape from war, a temporary death which preserves her life, so in the dream she wishes her family temporarily dead because awake they and she become "tangled together like badly cast fishing lines," an image of her fear of losing her autonomous identity. In an essay Porter quotes with approval Willa Cather's fear of the family: "Yet every individual in that household … is clinging passionately to his individual soul, is in terror of losing it in the general family flavor…. Always in his mind each member is escaping, running away, trying to break the net which circumstances and his own affections have woven about him."
The common ingredient in Miranda's dream and in Cather's passage is the fear of engulfment or entrapment, expressed by the fishing line and net images. Cather implies that this fear in some form is a common experience. Laing would agree, pointing out that in the "comprehensible transition" from the sane to the psychotic, "sanity or psychosis is tested by the degree of conjunction or disjunction between two persons where one is sane by common consent." The key word is "degree." I find that the degree of Miranda's disjunction between herself and the world is remarkable enough to view her symptoms in light of Laing's study, but not as remarkable as, for example, Mr. Helton's disjunction in "Noon Wine," the second story of Pale Horse, Pale Rider; obviously Miranda is sane and Helton is not.
Another symptom of Miranda's engulfment is her dread of relatedness even with herself which she expresses in her uncertain response to the Pale Rider as Death and the Devil: "Ah, I have seen this fellow before, I know this man if I could place him. He is no stranger to me." Miranda confronts an aspect of herself which she fears and hates and for that reason is not quite able to recognize. The Pale Rider as Death symbolizes her death-wish. As the Devil he symbolizes her pervasive fear that she is evil to others as they are to her.
Miranda's sense of mutual danger and distrust between herself and others is reflected by the Pale Rider's "blank still stare of mindless malice" and by her preoccupation with eyes throughout the story. His stare is matched by the "really stony, really viciously cold" stare of the Liberty Bond salesman and by the "malign eyes" of the rainbow-colored birds of her second dream. The "unfriendly bitter" eyes of the hospitalized soldier anticipate Miranda's own "covertly hostile eyes of an alien" as she too lies in a hospital bed at the end of the story. Her eyes reveal her sense of betrayal, yet the hostility of all the eyes has a common source in her mind; without realizing it, the betrayed are self-betrayed. Her remark that "the worst of the war is the fear and suspicion and the awful expression in all the eyes you meet … as if they had pulled down the shutters over their minds and their hearts and were peering out at you, ready to leap if you make one gesture or say one word they do not understand instantly" applies equally to her. The "hard unblinking point of light" of her last dream represents her loveless determination to survive in a hostile world against which she has formed her defense. Laing notes that to the insecure individual "every pair of eyes is in a Medusa's head which he feels has power actually to kill or deaden something precariously vital to him. He tries therefore to forestall his own petrifaction by turning others to stone." Miranda's preoccupation with hostile eyes obviously does not assume such an extreme form although she notes the "really stony" stare of the bond salesman. Her hostile eyes, if they do not petrify others, serve defensively to counteract their hostility.
Miranda's dream and painful recollection of the preceding day are partially offset by her love for Adam, who "was in her mind so much, she hardly knew when she was thinking about him directly." Although the first fifteen pages of the story offer no evidence that he was in her mind, we still must question how Miranda in love is like the engulfed person who "regards his own love and that of others as being as destructive as hatred." One answer is that he longs for and needs love, but, as Laing points out, his longing and need are not enough to overcome his dread. This applies to Miranda, the poignancy of whose story does not lie only in Adam's death, but also in her belief that she could love him if he had lived.
One disturbing note in Miranda's love for Adam is the frequency with which she expresses her pessimism about their future together: "… he was not for her nor for any woman, being beyond experience already, committed without any knowledge or act of his own to death"; she "faced for one instant that was a lifetime the certain, the overwhelming and awful knowledge that there was nothing at all ahead for Adam and for her"; "Pure, she thought, all the way through, flawless, complete, as the sacrificial lamb must be." The uncertainties of wartime alone cannot account for Miranda's insistence on Adam's death; her frequent premonitions betray her unconscious desire that he die, for she fears love: "'I don't want to love,' she would think in spite of herself, 'not Adam, there is no time and we are not ready for it and yet this is all we have—.'"
Miranda's ambivalent response to love also explains her idealization of Adam as pure and flawless, a prelapsarian Adam who cannot survive in the fallen world of war, disease, and human love. Her inclination to idealize him out of existence reveals not only her fear of accepting him as real, but also her idealization of herself. Adam does not seem real because he is a narcissistic projection of Miranda—that is, her double.
The clues to the doubling relation are that Miranda and Adam are "twenty-four years old each, alive and on the earth at the same moment," both are Texans, are vain about their appearance, indulging in the purchase of expensive clothes, keep "unwholesome" hours, and like to swim, dance and smoke. Like many doubles Adam almost seems a hallucination: he keeps company with Miranda in the late evening and is alone with her during the day, even in public places, talking exclusively to her except for a brief exchange with her landlady.
Miranda's vanity touches on the reasons for the doubling relation. Adam tells her, "I think you're beautiful" and when she later returns the compliment in almost exactly the same words, he objects to the inappropriate adjective, but the point is that she unconsciously applies it to herself, seeing her beauty in him. Significantly, the sentence telling us that Adam's "image was simply always present" in her thoughts is immediately followed by "She examined her face in the mirror…."
Miranda's vanity is a manifestation of that narcissism which Otto Rank defines in its broadest sense as self-love in which is "rooted the instinct for self-preservation, and from which emerges the deep and powerful longing to escape death, or the submergence into nothingness, and the hope of awakening to a new life…." In this sense all are narcissistic, but narcissism becomes extreme to the degree that a person, in his inordinate fear of aging and death, is unable to accept his own limitations in time. His consuming preoccupation with self prevents him from loving another. Desperately attempting to realize his ideal self, he may provoke the appearance of his double who represents that self or hated aspects of his personality which fall short of the ideal.
Miranda's narcissism in its purest form appears in her fifth dream as the "minute fiercely burning particle of being that knew itself alone, that relied upon nothing beyond itself for its strength … composed entirely of one single motive, the stubborn will to live." After her recovery she thinks that "her hardened, indifferent heart … had been tender and capable of love," but it is doubtful that she was ever capable of truly loving Adam, who appears as a projection of her desire to escape time, and of her fearful knowledge that she cannot escape, that she is doomed to grow old, lose her beauty, and die.
Miranda's concern for her appearance and her "uneasiness" at the first symptoms of influenza pertain directly to Adam's function as her double. She projects his "beauty" and perfect health because she desires eternal youth, but the reality of her situation ("I have pains in my chest and my head and my heart and they're real") causes her to transform him from a god into a time-doomed victim of her fears of old age and death. When Adam first greets Miranda, "She half noticed … that his smile faded gradually; that his eyes became fixed and thoughtful as if he were reading in a poor light." It is as if Adam's eyes become "fixed" in death. The word recurs twice more: his eyes are "fixed in a strained frown"; "his face [is] quite fixed and still." At the end of the same day Miranda completes his transformation from god to mortal as he sits in a restaurant "near the dingy big window, face turned to the street, but looking down. It was an extraordinary face, smooth and fine and golden in the shabby light, but now set in a blind melancholy, a look of pained suspense and disillusion. For just one split second she got a glimpse of Adam when he would have been older, the face of the man he would not live to be."
Miranda's glimpse of Adam grown old gives her a premonition of herself in the same condition. Having created his image out of her desire for immortality and then infected it with fear of aging, she finally denies him the aging process, as if his death were, paradoxically, a defense against the ravages of time. Her shifting images of him anticipate her own worst fears at the end of the story. His "blind melancholy" and "look of pained suspense and disillusion" precisely describe her mental state after her recovery from influenza. Even the "dingy" window and "shabby light" of the restaurant foreshadow the "melancholy wonder" of the hospital scene, "where the light seemed filmed with cobwebs, all the bright surfaces corroded…." Miranda's physical transformation, wrought by disease, embodies all her earlier fears of aging. She is like one of the "old bedridden women down the hall," her trembling hands tinted "yellow … like melted wax glimmering between the closed fingers." It is as if she has aged as rapidly as she imagined Adam aging in the restaurant.
Miranda's narcissistic fear of aging also colors her views of those who have aged. We are less surprised than Adam at her overreaction to the bond salesman: "I hate these potbellied baldheads, too fat, too old, too cowardly, to go to war themselves…." She also overreacts to Danny Dickerson, the pathetic has-been performer with his ten-year old clippings: "He might have been a pretty fellow once, but now his mouth drooped where he had lost his side teeth, and his sad red-rimmed eyes had given up coquetry." Chuck doesn't understand why Miranda bothers to mention "the also-rans" in her reviews, nor would he understand the unconscious connection she has made between the "very beautiful" Adam and the once "pretty" Dickerson.
Miranda, then, projects Adam as dead or soon to die to protect herself from the engulfment of his love and to express her death wish through him. Identifying with him as good and mortal, she unconsciously wishes him dead because he reminds her of what will happen to her in time. Also, by removing him from time, she can preserve him as god and, at the end of the story, evoke him unchanged as "a ghost but more alive than she was." He becomes her "sacrificial lamb" because he enacts her death wish, allowing her to follow her stronger instinct of self-preservation.
Miranda's sexual fears also express her fears of engulfment and aging, as the symbolic relation between her influenza and her love of Adam suggests. Eleven days elapse between the couple's first meeting and the day influenza forces her to bed. Since the incubation period of the disease is from ten days to two weeks, her love and her disease develop simultaneously, although to Miranda "it seemed reasonable to suppose [her headache] had started with the war." Her flashback of the first nine days shows that she and Adam were frequently together without expressing any strong feeling for each other. But on the tenth day she is preoccupied with her love for him and with her malaise. She holds hands with him in the theater, apparently for the first time, and goes dancing with him: "They said nothing but smiled continually at each other, odd changing smiles as though they had found a new language." But their clearly expressed love is counterpointed against the Wasteland conversation of the girl at the next table who recounts her rejection of a former date's advances. In an abrupt transition we then discover Miranda in bed, gravely ill with influenza. But the point of the girl's rejection of her date is not lost, for Miranda sinks into her second dream which indirectly involves the rejection of her own date of the night before.
Miranda's second dream is a mixture of memory and delirium. She first evokes "cold mountains in the snow," the frigid Denver landscape of the present which she will associate, after her recovery, with deadened, loveless reality. She then evokes the past of her childhood, "another place she had known first and loved best," of warm skies, tropical trees and a "broad tranquil river," made slightly ominous by the "hovering buzzards." But this landscape suddenly changes into a hideous jungle, "a writhing terribly alive and secret place of death, creeping with tangles of spotted serpents, rain-bow-colored birds with malign eyes … screaming long-armed monkeys tumbling among broad fleshy leaves that glowed with sulphur-colored light and exuded the ichor of death, and rotting trunks of unfamiliar trees sprawled in crawling slime." Miranda, waving gaily to herself in bed, enters the jungle and hears "the hoarse bellow of voices" warning her of danger and war.
As in the first dream Miranda's childhood landscape of warmth and security turns nightmarish, expressing her fear of the war and of life itself. First, the dream anticipates her death-in-life recovery from influenza, the "sulphur-colored light" of the leaves relating to the "sulphur colored light [that] exploded through the black window pane," and the exuding "ichor of death" relating to "the sweetish sickening smell of flesh and pus" of her body. The "hoarse bellow of voices all crying together, colliding above her head" is also picked up in the later passage: "Bells screamed all off key, wrangling together as they collided in mid air, horns and whistles mingled shrilly with cries of human distress …" The voices in the dream cry of danger and war whereas the other voices are celebrating the Armistice, but for Miranda it is all the same: "the far clamor went on, a furious exasperated shrieking like a mob in revolt." Her nightmare of death is really her nightmare of life.
The jungle landscape also reveals Miranda's sexual fears. The "writhing terribly alive and secret place of death" reverses the connotations of the womb; life and death are juxtaposed because the "long march" to death, "beset with all evils" begins at birth. The phallic imagery in the passage suggests a terrifying version of the sex act. The seminal "ichor of death" and "crawling slime," extending the life-death paradox, relate to "the sweetish sickening smell of flesh and pus" of the passage describing her recovery because sex is a disease, just as marriage to the younger Miranda of "Old Mortality" is "an illness that she might one day hope to recover from."
The dream does not directly mention Adam although the phallic serpents may relate to his statement, "Where I'm going … [you] crawl about on your stomach here and there among the debris." However, this imagery shows that the prostrate Miranda unconsciously responds to his sexuality, her influenza an infectious accompaniment to her growing awareness of their love. After returning to her room after her dream, Adam, although "shy of the word love," finally tells Miranda that he loves her, his coat off, lying in bed with her, his arm under her shoulder and "his smooth face against hers," and "Almost with no warning, she floats into the darkness, holding his hand" only to dream of killing him. There is a causal relation between their intimacy and the content of her third dream.
Like the first two dreams the third is set in a wood, "an angry dangerous wood of inhuman concealed voices singing sharply like the whine of arrows," reminding us of the voices of the second dream and of the Armistice. Adam is struck in the heart by flights of arrows, but rises each time "in a perpetual death and resurrection," but when Miranda "selfishly" interposes between him and the arrows, they pass through her heart and kill him: "… he lay dead, and she still lived, and … every branch and blade of grass had its own terrible accusing voice."
The dream, as critics point out, expresses Miranda's guilt in exposing Adam to her contagion, but it also confirms the ambivalence of her love for him, seen earlier in her frequent predictions of his death. His "perpetual death and resurrection" repeat the pattern of her own escape from life to death to life, and again reveal her desire for immortality in her projection of him as a god, impervious to the onslaught of war and love. But again the image of the unchanging god gives way to Adam's human reality. His death, caused by her interposition, proves her own fear of endangering him by the contact of her love as well as her unconscious desire to escape his love by killing him. Laing points out that the insecure person "regards his own love and that of others as being destructive as hatred," causing him "to destroy 'in his mind' the image of anyone … he may be in danger of becoming fond of, out of a desire to safeguard that other person … from being destroyed." The bowdlerized version of the dream which Miranda gives Adam when she wakes—"There was something about an old-fashioned valentine" with "two hearts carved on a tree, pierced by the same arrow"—directly equates his death with the interlinking of their hearts. The arrows of her dream represent war, pestilence, love, and sexual contact. To Miranda they are all equally lethal.
When Adam leaves shortly after Miranda's third dream, he is replaced by Dr. Hildesheim, who carries her to the ambulance: "'Put your arms around my neck,' he instructed her. 'It won't do any harm and it's a great help to me.'" His simulated affection and allusion to harm reinforce Miranda's ambivalence toward love, making him a fit substitute for Adam in the fourth dream. This dream, set in a "landscape of disaster," pictures Hildesheim as Boche, "his face a skull beneath his German helmet, carrying a naked infant writhing on the point of his bayonet" and a huge pot of poison. He throws the infant and poison into the "pure depths" of a once dry well on her father's farm, causing "the violated water" to sink back into the earth. Miranda emerges from her dream screaming, "Hildesheim is a Boche … kill him before he kills you."
This dream reveals Miranda's unconscious surrender to the war hysteria which she so abhors in her waking hours (the "baby on a bayonet" occurs in a Liberty Bond speech), but it also reveals hidden fears that existed before the war. Like the first two dreams it depicts Miranda's attempt to return to her childhood. Because he poisons her purified childhood memories and because his skull makes him another Pale rider, Hildesheim is the enemy while Miranda is the baby whose retrogressive escape he prevents. Later she accuses him and others of conspiring "to set her once more safely in the road … to death." Whether projected as a monster by the unconscious or as well-meaning bungler by the conscious mind, Hildesheim is a scapegoat whom Miranda can conveniently blame, in her self-pity, for her unwillingness to accept her mortality.
The dream is also a condensation of Miranda's fearful version of life. Born naked into the world, helpless and pure as the living water of the well, she is subject to war (poison, bayonet), disease (poison), and death (skull), making Hildesheim as Hun and Pale Rider her enemy. Also subject to love and sex, equated with war and disease, she is "violated" by Hildesheim, a substitute for Adam and perhaps for all men. His phallic bayoneting recalls the Liberty Bond speech and Adam's earlier description of how he used the bayonet, gouging the "vitals" out of sandbags and watching the sand "trickling out," while the instructors cried, "Get him, get that Boche, stick him before he sticks you."
After her fourth dream Miranda's semi-conscious mind "split in two … her reasoning coherent self [watching] the strange frenzy of the other coldly, reluctant to admit the truth of its visions, its tenacious remorses and despairs." The splitting continues in a different form in the two main parts of her fifth dream. Both parts are extreme expressions of her isolation from life, yet completely opposite each other regarding the role her consciousness plays. In the first part she attempts to blot out experience by becoming insensate while in the second part she attempts to purify experience to make it conform to the dictates of her feelings.
In the first part Miranda, thinking about oblivion, finds herself "on a narrow ledge over a pit that she knew to be bottomless." When she is certain that "Death is death … and for the dead it has no attributes … she sank easily … until she lay like a stone at the farthest bottom of life, knowing herself to be blind, deaf, speechless, no longer aware of the members of her own body, entirely withdrawn from all human concerns …" At this point she has dehumanized herself, "all ties of blood and the desires of the heart" dissolving and falling away from her except her "stubborn will to live."
Miranda is indeed at "the farthest bottom of life" physically and psychologically, her mind split away from her body and from her painful guilt over Adam and Hildesheim. It is her most extreme form of escape, an escape into nothingness in which she sheds her humanity and becomes an inanimate stone. Her struggle is best explained by Laing's comments: the insecure person, once he has successfully destroyed in his mind the image of anyone he loves and reduced all his wants to nothing, "sets about murdering his 'self…. He descends into a vortex of non-being, but also to preserve being from himself." He notes elsewhere, "… to forgo one's autonomy becomes the means of secretly safeguarding it; to play possum, to feign death, becomes a means of preserving one's aliveness. To turn oneself into a stone becomes a way of not being turned into a stone by someone else."
The first part of Miranda's dream ends with her stubborn will to live, out of which springs her vision of a more hopeful and seemingly more human state of being. The setting is a "deep clear landscape of sea and sand, of soft meadow and sky," another landscape evoked from childhood memories, but with the difference that this one is peopled with "all the living she had known": "Their faces were transfigured … beyond what she remembered of them, their eyes were clear and untroubled … and they cast no shadows." Miranda later refers to this vision as "her paradise," "a child's dream of the heavenly meadow," but she has not envisioned an after-life, for eternity to her is "unknowable." Rather she has projected an idealized version of this life, where all the "living" and "transfigured," their "untroubled" eyes without the "awful expression of fear and suspicion" of which she had complained earlier. Yet all the living are so idealized that they are not human; they are "pure identities" who cast no shadows in a timeless world where it is "always morning." Miranda, "desiring nothing," "within touch but not touching" anyone, has purified human relationships out of existence in an attempt to render them harmless.
As her dream fades, Miranda resumes her painful journey back to life and death: she "felt without warning … some small flick of distrust in her joy … somebody was missing…. There are no trees, no trees here, she said in fright…. We have forgotten the dead, oh, the dead, where are they?" Some interpret this difficult passage to mean that Miranda has resisted death to return to Adam since later she complains, "… I wish you had come back, what do you think that I came back for, Adam, to be deceived like this?" But the passage states that she returns because the "somebody" missing from the "company of the living" is dead. And when she does return, she makes no inquiry about him; not until she reads many days later the letter informing her of his death, does she complain of being deceived.
The passage is better interpreted as part of the entire fifth dream, which moves downward to the farthest bottom of life and then upward and back to life. Miranda's vision of paradise is a stage between her desire to protect herself by turning into a stone, and her counter-desire to return to life from which she has fled. Her paradise fades, as did her vision of Adam as god, because it is unreal and cannot be sustained. Having fled from life which threatens death to states of non-life too similar to death, she returns to life defined by the presence of death. Miranda needs the dead to know that she is alive despite the grief it causes her.
Miranda's need of the dead is symbolized by her alarm at the absence of trees in her dream of paradise, which "the same monotonous landscape of dulled evergreens" replaces. The evergreens are symbols of life in death like the woods in her first three dreams. The "angry dangerous wood" of the third dream in which she kills Adam is probably inspired by Belleau Wood, patriotically evoked by the hated Liberty Bond salesman, who prompts her to think, "What's the matter with you, why aren't you rotting in Belleau Wood? I wish you were…."
After her recovery Miranda exhibits all the symptoms of Laing's insecure person. Awakening to the smell of death in her body, she thinks, "The body is a curious monster, no place to live in, how could anyone feel at home there? Is it possible I can ever accustom myself to this place?" To her "all objects and beings" are "meaningless, ah, dead and withered things that believed themselves alive!" She is "not quite dead now … one foot in either world," but she assures herself that she will "cross back and be at home again." "Condemned" to this life by those who have "conspired" to restore "her disordered mind," she views them with the "covertly hostile eyes of an alien." Although she knows that people will say that they love her, "her hardened, indifferent heart shuddered in despair at itself, because it had been tender and capable of love." Similarly, the insecure person feels "more dead than alive" and unable "to experience himself 'together with' others or 'at home in' the world"; he lives "in despairing aloneness and isolation," an incomplete person "'split' in various ways, perhaps as a mind more or less tenuously linked to a body…." Obviously, Miranda would not view herself in these terms since she feels fortified by a knowledge gained at a terrible price in her struggle with death in her fifth dream.
Miranda's vision of paradise is crucial to her view of herself and of the world. It confirms her despair of ever finding happiness, but it also reinforces her "stubborn will to live." Knowing that there is no escape from the world, she is stoically determined to live in it but not be part of it. She will disguise her face with make-up and mask her inward feeling with a smile so as not to "tamper with the courage of the living." Their courage is based on the illusion that happiness can exist, but her brush with death has given her an insight into the "truth" which they are not privileged to share. Thus her secret knowledge which she considered the source of her despair makes her unique in her own eyes. As she prepares to reenter the world in "the dazed silence that follows the ceasing of the heavy guns," she almost covets that despair because to her it defines a courage superior to that of the living.
Miranda's constricting fear of self and others does not allow me to accept her at her own estimate as Wayne Booth and some other critics do. Yet Porter's comments on her own experiences, which became the basis for "Pale Horse, Pale Rider," seem to justify their interpretation. She reports that while working for Denver's Rocky Mountain News in 1918, she almost died of the influenza that carried off her friend Alexander, who had nursed her in the first stages of her illness. During her illness she had a "vision" which eventually became Miranda's "dream of the heavenly meadow":
It took me a long time to go out and live in the world again. I was really "alienated," in the pure sense. It was, I think, the fact that I really had participated in death, that I knew what death was, and had almost experienced it. I had what the Christians call the "beatific vision," and the Greeks called the "happy day," the happy vision just before death. Now if you have had that, and survived it, come back from it, you are no longer like other people, and there's no use deceiving yourself that you are.
We can never know to what extent Porter transformed her vision of 1918 into her fiction of 1938, or to what extent her fiction transformed, in the next thirty years, her conception of her original experience. She has so mythologized it that her account of her own return from the dead seems more literal and mystical than that suggested by Miranda's playful dialogue with herself: "Lazarus, come forth. Not unless you bring me my top hat and stick. Stay where you are then, you snob. Not at all, I'm coming forth." Yet the close identification between author and character allows the reader to view "Pale Horse, Pale Rider" as a personal statement of Porter's self-perception as artist. The biographical, as well as thematic, key to the story is the old spiritual that gives it its title. When Adam summarizes the many verses about the rider's carrying off the whole family including the lover, Miranda responds, "Death always leaves one singer to mourn. 'Death,… oh leave one singer to mourn—.'" Death grants character and author their wish. Allowing her her vision, he leaves Porter to mourn her loss in her art. "Pale Horse, Pale Rider" is her new spiritual, justifying her role as artist and assuaging her guilt over her survival at the cost of another. It may also justify her detachment from any who might come between her and the practice of her art, for she has made her priorities clear: "But this thing between me and my writing is the strongest bond I have ever had—stronger than any bond or any agreement with any human being or with any other work I've ever done."
The close identification between author and character seems to indicate that Porter consciously intended the reader's acceptance of Miranda's estimate of her vision. My interpretation runs counter to her intention on this point, and implies that Miranda's fears, to some extent, originated in the author's own. Porter's statement, "When I was a child, I was always running away," relates to Miranda's escape from her sleeping family in the first dream, and the alienation "in the pure sense" that Porter experienced after her vision may have been an extreme manifestation of a condition that unconsciously existed before her own exposure to war and influenza.
Porter's comments pertain to Miranda's vision, but other comments reinforce my reading that Miranda deceives herself into thinking that, like Juliet, she has returned to her beloved only to find that he has died in her service. Such a motive is in the best tradition of romantic love, on which Porter theorizes in a letter to her nephew in 1948. In "love at first sight," the lover
is instantly transfigured with a light of such blinding brilliance all natural attributes disappear and are replaced by those usually associated with archangels at least. They are beautiful, flawless in temperament, witty, intelligent, charming, of such infinite grace, sympathy, and courage, I always wonder how they could have come from such absurdly inappropriate families…. It is a disaster, in fact. We are in love and while it lasts—…. And when it is over. And when I have recovered from the shock, and … put my mangled life in order, I can then begin to remember what really happened. It is probably the silliest kind of love there is, but I'm glad…. there were times when I saw human beings at their best, for I don't think by any means that I lent them all their radiance…. Lightening makes the most familiar landscape wild, strange, and beautiful, and it passes. It was all my fault, though. If one ever treats a man as if he were an archangel, he can't ever, possibly, consent to being treated like a human being again. He cannot do it, it's nonsense to expect it. It begins to look as if I had never wanted it.
The words I have italicized recall Miranda's description of Adam, her dream of paradise, and her subsequent disillusion. The passage suggests that Miranda's very act of idealizing Adam is proof that she, like Porter, never wanted a lasting love relationship at all. Although Porter wrote her letter ten years after she published her story, she may have intended Miranda's self-deception. In an interview she remembered telling a friend in Mexico that Alexander was the only man she could have spent her life with. "And he replied, 'Just think, now he can never disappoint you.' And I suppose if there is anything at all good about it, that's it, but it does seem an awfully high price to pay to keep one's illusions, doesn't it?" Her friend, who could not have made his sardonic remark later than 1931, the last year of her stay in Mexico, exposed her self-deception which she had probably tried to sustain since her recovery from influenza. By 1938 she must have known that her attempt was futile. If she did intend that the reader accept Miranda's estimate of her love for Adam despite her own suspicions about Alexander and romantic love, her suspicions crept into her story nevertheless, as an examination of Miranda's dreams reveals.
Porter's near identification with Miranda illuminates but cannot resolve the problem of whether the reader should accept her at her own estimate, although it helps explain why critics are divided on the issue. In this paper we have viewed Miranda "from above" because we know more about her than she knows about herself, but that does not diminish the force of our sympathy for her as unwitting victim of overwhelming circumstances and of her ontologically insecure personality.
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