The Usable Past

During our reading of Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark (1915), I introduced the concept of a “usable past” to account for Thea Kronborg’s time spent in Panther Canyon–and the boost that the experience provides to the  career of the young artist.  I also mentioned that this romantic cultural construct indicates Cather’s own view of a distinctly American art tied to American soil and–by extension–American Indians.  Now that we’ve read Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s The Heights of Macchu Picchu (1947), consider in what ways he also seeks a “usable past” to aid his work in the service of an American ideal.  How is it different and/or similar than Cather’s formulation?

24 thoughts on “The Usable Past

  1. The desire Thea Kronborg felt to do better because of native genocide is very much similar to Pablo Neruda’s, however his feels broader. It is as if he feels we must push out the bourgeoisie for the fallen laborer Incas’ lives to know peace. Personally, I understand and agree with the communist cause, but using minorities as props in that cause is alienating and dehumanizing. Incas have descendants, Quechua, who should be the ones invited to speak on what happened to their people. Robbing a culture of their own voice to propel your cause for equality is bitterly ironic.

    I want to drop three links to related articles I found interesting!
    “Scientists disturb thousands of Inca deceased”
    “Yale Returns All Machu Picchu Artifacts to Peru”
    “Lost Incan City, Last Refuge of Warrior Túpac Amaru, Found at Last?”

  2. I think one of the biggest similarities between the two works is the seeking out of this kind of inspiration at the time of their lives when they are both so run down. There are seeking greater purpose and somewhere to draw new experiences from. I think the difference between the two is that Thea did have a great deal of appreciation for the culture and history, but I think Pablo Neruda goes deeper than that. He seems so deeply moved and takes that emotion and creates his art through that emotion. He uses it to his advantage.

  3. I found that the main difference between Cather and Neruda’s approach to romanticizing the history of those who came before them is that The Heights of Macchu Picchu made no attempt to gloss over the blood stained past. Whereas The Song of the Lark did pay tribute to the rich culture of the Native Americans, it did not bother to mention why exactly Kennedy had to grab his gift for Thea from a burial mound. Although Neruda’s poem’s primary function is to illustrate the magnificent beauty of Macchu Picchu and its surrounding landscape in luxurious detail, he also made sure to describe the images of slaughter and conquest that plagued his mind as he made his climb. The Heights of Macchu Picchu definitely utilizes a “usable past” but in telling the true story of that past, it is done in a much more tasteful – a possibly more honest – way.

  4. I feel that the speaker of “the Heights of Macchu Picchu” has a very realistic and sympathetic perspective of the people that once inhabited the ruins. He seemed to understand them as human beings that experienced real life success and tragedy in much detail. I understood the speaker as compassionate and inspired by them and honor them as they truly were. I feel that the speaker’s perspective of the Incas in this poem is vastly different than Thea’s of the Ancient people. She seemed to admire and glorify them as well but in more naïve and ignorant way. She romanticized them as living lives of peace and ease. I did not feel that it occurred to Thea that they endured any struggle. She seemed to gain inspiration from them as if they were a fairy tale rather than honor them as a legitimate, past society.

  5. One of the biggest similarities between Cather’s “Song of the Lark” and Neruda’s “The Heights of Macchu Picchu” is that both authors use the history of the native people to propel their message. Compared to Cather, Neruda puts more of an emphasis on the suffering of the natives and seems to have more of a “call for justice” as he focuses on gratitude towards the people who had built Macchu Picchu. While Cather does talk about the natives, she covers the subject in a way that seems more naive, and less aware of their actual situation.

  6. When Cather and Neruda write about the usable past, they give plenty of attention to the people of those places (Panther Canyon and Macchu Picchu) that came before them. Both writers pay homage to the cultures and history of the Native Americans and the Incas who populated both places. Neruda mentions the many ingredients, both nature and cultural, that make up Macchu Picchu in Canto 9. He describes in great detail the stones and animals that make up Macchu Picchu and the mystical aspect of the place. He is in awe as he ponders the many lives that took place there and their cultural traditions, like the rituals and ceremonies the Incas did. Cather also has her protagonist become inspired by both the cultural and natural aspects of Panther Canyon.

  7. Willa Cather and Pablo Neruda are similar in many regards, while also being vastly different. It wasn’t until our discussion of the previous blog post pertaining to The Song of the Lark that I realized, with help from my classmates, that Cather doesn’t adequately represent the native people. While she does utilize the “usable past” approach by highlighting the Native Americans of Panther Canyon, she doesn’t necessarily portray their history in, what we would deem today as, a politically correct manner. Neruda seems more in touch with with his approach of applying a usable past; while Neruda recognizes the beauty of the Macchu Picchu, through his rich descriptions, he also doesn’t shy away from showcasing how hard the lives of those who built Macchu Picchu were. Neruda makes it very clear that the common masses are to thank for the artistry that is Macchu Picchu, not the rulers who required Macchu Picchu be built.

    • I like that you brought up that Neruda isn’t afraid to show the struggles of those that built Macchu Picchu in his writing! I agree completely.

  8. I felt as though in Cather’s work, Thea used the culture of the Native Americans to inspire her and help her singing career. While she didn’t necessarily appropriate the culture, I did get the impression that she was using the Native American culture for her own benefits. In Neruda’s writing, however, I didn’t get this sense at all. Neruda was in awe as he was experiencing the climb to the top of Macchu Picchu. I thought his writing was not at all for his benefit, but as a symbol of his appreciation to a lost culture and what they stood for. Cather’s appreciation of Native American culture was shown as a benefit to her protagonist, while Neruda’s appreciation of Macchu Picchu was genuine to his lived experiences .

  9. In Pablo Neruda’s Heights of Macchu Picchu he focuses so much on the past. The site of Macchu Picchu to him is about what the past has to offer to the future and the present. To Neruda, the past is everlasting and Macchu Picchu creates a foundation for the future. If your present is fulfilled and life is lived with purpose and wonderment then that part of you will never die and continue on even after you have physically passed; in the way that the spirit of Macchu Picchu lives on forever. Going back to nature and finding his roots and wondering about who is ancestors were is a moving moment for Neruda, he is overwhelmed with the greatness that went into the creation of Macchu Picchu.
    I think that Neruda and Thea share a common theme in their pursuit of greatness. Both of them want to find their purpose in life and are able to reconnect with themselves when they are surrounded by nature and spirits of the past who created such amazing sites that are still preserved today. The experience for both of them is humbling and grounding.

  10. I think both authors show in their readings a journey for something that is bigger than themselves in life that is discovered once in nature. From there, they both show an appreciation for the past, the land, and the native people that came before them. Both authors describe the significance and beauty of the land. In my opinion, I find that Neruda shines more light on the ancient people and what they went through where Cather uses Thea to focus on the environment more. Thea does acknowledge that the people are dead but she (nor Cather) seem unbothered by the people and their stories.

  11. “The Heights of Macchu Picchu” by Pablo Neruda and Willa Cather’s “The Song of the Lark” have many things in common, such as nature aligned with civilization and the past with it’s people to propel their ideas. Neruda describes Macchu Picchu as this forgotten city that has seen the death of its people and is perfectly in sync with nature. For example in their are lines like “You are no more, hands of the spider, weak threads, entangled web:” and “of stone petals:the eternal rose”. Cather also describes the land her main character grew up in as this beautiful place where remnants of the past culture can be found. However, unlike Neruda, Cather doesn’t go into the past occupants history while Neruda does talk about the Incans achievements and how the city does reflect their ideology on life.

  12. Both Cather and Neruda use the history of the native people as inspiration in their works. While Cather shows appriciaton for the culture of the Native Americans (because it is something that has shaped Thea and made her successful), Neruda shows sympathy for human beings who keep searching for a hidden “vein of gold,” but sink lower as they keep searching. “The jasmine of our exhausted human spring” is a symbol for “a lost paradise” of Neruda himself, or of human beings. Neruda’s “The Heights of Macchu Picchu” mainly focuses on the beauty of Macchu Picchu, but it also at the same time, gives its reader an idea of the lives of those who built Macchu Picchu and those who climbed and climb Macchu Picchu through hardships.

  13. The major difference between the “usable past” in Cather’s novel and the “usable past” in Neruda’s poem is the way and the extent of which the past is used. While Neruda’s language may glorify and objectify native peoples, within the text there is more of a respect and reverence shown. He references the life lived within Macchu Picchu, and the work that went into the construction of such an awe-inspiring place. Whereas in the Song of the Lark, there are references to literal grave-robbing, and this is not seen as a deplorable act. It is written as adventurous and exciting, even though it is far more exploitive than Neruda’s pilgrimage to Macchu Picchu. There is little to no regard for the human life of these natives in the text.

  14. I see a similarity both a similarity between Cather and Neruda’s work. In “Song of the Lark” there is a abundance of exploitation of the Native American culture and Cather’s manner of using the art to further along Thea’s career without giving credit to Native Americans or having any Native American characters, or characters of color, that weren’t depicted stereotypically . Similarly, In “The Heights of Macchu Picchu”, Neruda uses Macchu Picchu as a whole as the base for his poem as well as talking about the people the helped built it. However, I feel as though in Neruda’s work he is more accrediting to the past, both good (the beauty of the ruins) and the bad (the lives that may have been lost to build it).

  15. In Pablo Neruda’s The Heights of Macchu Picchu, the theme of ancient story and the ways in which the experiences of the past make possible the realities of the present, is thoroughly explored. In regards to the ancient story assessed in Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark, the span of time that is explored as “the past” is very short. That is, Neruda’s “ancient” spans hundreds of years, far greater than the life span of the main character (himself). While the stories explored in Cather’s writing are centralized to the life span of Thea, the main character.

  16. I feel like a large difference between Cather and Neruda’s “usable past” is the way they describe the past. Cather romanticizes the history of the Native Americans in a way that–to me at least–feels almost too “American.” By this, I mean that Cather glosses over the gruesome history that America has with Native Americans. Neruda; however, describes a “usable past” that shows more appreciation to those that came before. Neruda acknowledges the history (or tries to by imagining what happened to the Incas) behind Macchu Picchu. I think Neruda shows more of an appreciation for the past than Cather does.

  17. Both Cather and Neruda examine the interplay between humanity, nature, and the “New World Metropolis.” Ironically, Neruda examines humanity’s relationship with its construction by exploring an ancient civilization which has long since disappeared although the physical remnants of its existence remain. Ultimately, he champions man’s sovereignty, if you will, over the ‘metropolis’ because it is only within humanity’s creative power that the metropolis is brought into existence. Humanity, not physical constructs, allow us to remember one another’s accomplishments and sacrifices, the useable past. According to Neruda, humanity is what creates the useable past. Likewise, Cather, also examines the relationship between humanity, nature, and the “metropolis.” She explores how the artist needs nature for inspiration and nourishment, but, ultimately needs the “metropolis’ and its inhabitants for recognition and, therefore validation, of their artistic creation. She uses Thea’s experiences in the canyon, and her creation, albeit glorification, of the indigenous struggle as a source of strength and creation in her own art. Although, both writers, ultimately examine the relationship between humanity, the past, and the “new world,” they appear to draw different conclusions about what is most important. Cather uses the past as a source for artistic creation which she brings to the new world while Neruda uses his artistic creation to elevate the individuals of the past to remind the new world.

  18. Cather and Neruda both chose to use environment in the forefront of their writings. Both writers explore ideas of the “useable past” however they differ in their portrayals of the past. The stunning environment serves as a catalyst for the narrator’s artistic creation. The Song of the Lark and The Heights of Macchu Picchu explore the history of the places they are set in. However, The Song of the Lark selectively chooses history to paint a beautiful and noble picture of the past. Macchu Picchu has a far more ambiguous past than southwest, we still don’t know exactly what it was used for and why the Incans left, however Neruda doesn’t hesitate to highlight both the good and bad histories of Macchu Picchu.

  19. While both works definitely share similarities through the use of nature for artistic inspiration, I think they vary greatly in their motivation. Cather’s use of the past is for inspiration, to tell a story. She gives this beautiful portrayal of what it takes to become an artist through using the land and history around her for inspiration. She glorifies the sacrifice that others make in order to create this singer. In that sense, Thea is similar to Macchu Picchu, itself. She is the final product, the creation that is left to awe those who witness it, that leaves people to wonder how something of her scale was made. Meanwhile, Neruda takes a far different approach. He talks much about the beauty of nature and the beauty of this mysterious city that is now abandoned. He finds an inspiration from thinking of the past but instead of showing the growth of an artist, he ends up shifting focus in the end to those who created it. He looks at this thing of beauty and feels for all the people that sacrificed themselves for it. In that sense, while both works absolutely discuss the use of nature and past as an inspiration, Cather’s feels more like a loving relationship with the arts while Neruda’s ends on a note that makes you question the integrity of creating something as grand as Macchu Picchu.

  20. The romanticization of the ‘primitive’ as a nostalgic inspiration for the betterment of humanity differs in two major ways between Neruda and Cather.

    1. Neruda is focused on the collective while Cather (and certainly at least Thea) is preoccupied with the individual. Neruda seems to be caught in the beauty of Machu Picchu but retains a striking message: everyone should be affected by this. Meanwhile, Cather creates a relatable picture of being ‘lost’ in the sublime, but a relatable character does not necessarily mean a message of communal affect.

    2. There is also the presence of the nature/culture divide in Cather’s work that is subverted by Neruda. In “The Heights of Machu Picchu” there are many metaphors for man that utilize maize, wheat, and other ‘natural’ substances. In Neruda’s work, not only does humanity become closer with the past, but there is an identity shift that brings us closer to, or un-separates us, from ‘nature’ ideologically. In “The Song of the Lark,” the sublime as we have repeated ‘makes us feel small,’ but at the end of the day it is still an objectification of nature with no obvious subversion of the nature/culture divide; nature is still something to be had, even if enjoyed, and the individual is marked as separate from the land in the lack of metaphor.

  21. I think one of the strongest comparisons between the two works is the artist or poet’s focus on nature as their inspiration. In Cather’s novel, she writes wordy, flowery passages about the natural world that demonstrate Thea’s internal growth, both as a young woman and an artist. Cather also uses the landscape to demonstrate her negative opinions towards the oppression of a group of native peoples and modernization. Likewise, in Neruda’s poetry, he connects imagery of nature to the human soul and demonstrates his negative opinions towards modernization by talking about death. In his perspective, the death of himself, his connection to nature, and nature are all inevitable once modernization occurs.

  22. Both Thea and Neruda find meaning in the art from the past, but Thea only “uses” it by admiration, therefore finding inspiration to endure what she was going through to become the artist she ended up being. If she had “used” the past in the same way Neruda did, she would have become disillusioned with some aspects of the life that she was admiring, like he did when he went deeper into the ruins of the Incan empire. I think that Thea takes from the art in a more self-centered way, in how she only sees herself in the painting “Song of The Lark”, while Neruda may have gone deeper into the history of the painting, possibly finding something more. Thea simply took what she needed, while Neruda wasn’t originally sure what he wanted to find. Thea wanted a reason for all her struggling to be worth it, and I believe that she already had an idea, but the painting sort of validated it. Neruda went searching for “the meaning of life” somewhat and had no real idea as to what he would find, so he found what he wanted, but didn’t pause and then continued searching.

  23. I feel like both Thea and Neruda use their surroundings to find inspiration. Thea used the canyon to find her voice and gain confidence in what she really wants to do with her life. She takes the beauty of of the land to portray what it actually takes to be a artist. She also compares the origanal natives and those in her life so show the sacrifice it takes for someone to find the success they’re looking for. Neruda on the other hand, uses the journey up the mountain to Machu Picchu to show more appreciation for the people who built it.

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