A ghost but more alive than she was

Edvard Munch’s illustration of Oswald, in Ibsen’s Ghosts, slumped in his chair at play’s end, the cold sunlight finally streaming through the window. More on Munch and Ibsen here.

As we transition from Ibsen to Porter, let’s take a moment to remember poor Oswald, slipping into unconsciousness just as the cold, cold Norwegian daylight finally comes streaming through that window. The ending of Ibsen’s play resonates with the final lines of Porter’s story:

No more war, no more plague, only the dazed silence that follows the ceasing of the heavy guns; noiseless houses with the shades drawn, empty streets, the dead cold light of tomorrow. Now there would be time for everything. (208)

Porter — or maybe it’s her heroine, Miranda — leaves us in a postapocalyptic landscape. The silent houses might remind us of Defoe. And Ibsen’s cold light makes a comeback. If you lived my ’80s teenage life, you’d have no question about the music direction for this moment:

Morrissey, “Every Day Is Like Sunday,” from Viva Hate (1988)

“Come, Armageddon! Come!”

Compare the endings of Ghost and Pale Horse. When Ibsen’s play closes, Mrs. Alving still stands there, wringing her hands, paralyzed by her own agency. Whatever she chooses to do will certainly result in her being haunted. Will she lose herself or finally find freedom? When Porter’s story closes, Miranda comes “to herself as if out of sleep,” but it’s hard to tell how much of Miranda is left and how much she’s just being propped up by the same voices of duty, obligation, and propriety that continually dogged Mrs. Alving. When she addresses the dead, her newly awakened self becomes self-conscious, chiding: “Oh, no, that is not the way, I must never do that” (208). Has she pulled herself out of sleep or into the numbness of survival?

One set of past conveners used the question of survival — how does it feel to be left behind? — as their way to frame the reading. Miranda, like Mrs. Alving or Defoe’s H.F., finishes the story having to make sense of what’s just passed. But unlike H.F., who seems to have all the answers, or Mrs. Alving, whose survival is overshadowed by the choice she confronts, Miranda seems profoundly altered, at odds with the notion that she’s awake and in charge of a future in which everything is possible. Here’s how those conveners put it:

Have you heard of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic? It killed more people than the first World War did, yet it is not widely remembered. Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter is one of the few literary records of a traumatic event that killed between 20 million and 40 million people. This is Porter’s most autobiographical work as she nearly died of the plague herself when she was working for the Rocky Mountain Newspaper. According to a 1936 interview with Porter, 18 years had passed before she set down to write this fictional novella. This suggests she may have tried to forget the pandemic and was unable to repress her memories of it. Perhaps the act of writing this novella was her way of coming to terms with her personal experience of surviving the influenza pandemic of 1918, and suggesting that events like this should be remembered. In the 1936 interview, she recalls her experience as identity-shattering.

 “It simply divided my life, cut across it like that. So that everything before that was just getting ready, and after that I was in some strange way altered, really. 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.” (“Interview” 85) – The Forgotten Apocalypse

Surviving a plague or a war is a life-changing event for an individual survivor and a community. Porter draws upon her own personal experience of alienation and disorientation after a plague when she describes Miranda’s painful and bitter recovery. It raises the question of what survives in a survivor after a plague? Or after a war?

As another set of conveners explained even earlier, the figure of the survivor — charged with the work of mourning — is prefigured even by the novella’s title, a reference not only to apocalyptic imagery from the Bible but, in Porter’s story, to a song Miranda and Adam improvise based on a spiritual sung by black field workers in Texas, presumably the descendants of slaves:

The suffering of the living is explicitly mentioned when Miranda introduces the song that begins with “Pale horse, pale rider…” (189). In this song the death, represented by “pale horse, pale rider”, takes away not only lover but also the whole family, leaving “one singer to mourn” (190). And Miranda, in her nightmare, experiences this devastating pain. She sees Adam continuously struck by arrows in his heart and dies, while she cannot help but live and endure everything. Miranda believes that the pain of the living is no less than that of the dead, as we can assume from “It’s my turn now, why must you always be the one to die?” (191). She would rather die than become the lone one who has to suffer from the loss.

This isn’t the first time music mediates a crucial moment in Porter’s story. References to popular songs appear scattered throughout. The characters have their own relationships to the popular culture of the war years, the same way I, growing up in the 1980s, had my relationship to the popular culture of the Cold War West. If Miranda, at the end, seems a bit like a zombie, one of the questions the novella asks is whether, when all is said and done, we’re made up of anything more than the stories and songs and social expectations we’ve consumed. It’s another tie back to Ibsen: what is it that actually lives on in us, lodged there, that we can’t get rid of? And is that detritus the stuff that ultimately doesn’t just haunt us but shuffles us into survival?

Oscar Seagle (baritone) and the Columbia Stellar Quartette sing “Pack Up Your Troubles In Your Old Kit Bag (And Smile, Smile, Smile)” on Columbia A6028, recorded on January 25, 1918.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.