Willa Cather’s “Coming, Aphrodite!”; The Hero and Heroine’s Perspectives on Success

Willa Cather’s short story Coming, Aphrodite! includes both a Heroine’s Journey and a Hero’s Journey—with a twist. Published in 1920, it chronicles a woman undertaking the Hero’s Journey while a man simultaneously undertakes the Heroine’s Journey.

Originally a small-town girl from an Illinois prairie, Eden Bower has set her sights on becoming an international-stage star when she moves next door to Don Hedger, an orphaned and independent artist living in a small New York apartment.

nyc broadway theatres 1920sEden has wanted to an actress from the time she was very young and is convinced “that she would live far away in great cities, … be much admired by men and … have everything she wanted.” This vision guides Eden throughout her life and she accepts advice (such as changing her name from Edna to Eden) from anyone whom she believes can move her closer to international fame and adoration. She goes to New York, where she believes she is fated to find someone who will take her to Paris. In New York, Eden is for the first time momentarily free to do what she wants, when she meets Hedger who presents her with the opportunity for a new life perspective .

Meanwhile, Hedger, who has grown up in foster homes, has already brushed up against recognition and prosperity as an artist which Cather describes as twice having been on the verge of becoming “a marketable product.” However, Hedger has turned down easy renown because he recoils at being stuck doing “the same old thing over again.” Hedger wants to follow  his inner artistic intuition  and supports his modest domestic needs through occasional commercial work.

As neighbors, the Eden and Hedger (the story refers to the female protagonist by her first name and the male by his last ) have several brief and tense odd couple-like interactions and then fall into a  brief romantic relationship. Their affair begins after Hedger invites Eden to Coney Island, a trip which Eden uses to insert herself into a hot-air balloon performance (for which she has no training) to show off her talents. Hedger, upset by her disregard for his feelings in taking such a this “foolish risk,”  forgives her in part because he recognizes that Eden causes him to consider things “that had never occurred to [him]” before.

Their different worldviews, which initially intrigue and excite them, soon lead to conflict. Eden does not understand how there can be any achievement or purpose in being an artist that “nobody knows about” and criticizes Hedger. Eden wants to be popular in the eyes of the general public and she cannot forgive Hedger for consciously rejecting fame. For his part, Hedger believes he has already found success because he works for himself on projects that please him. Hedger wishes to create new things and paint for other artists “who haven’t been born” yet. He is looking towards a future, but it is one that values internal personal progress and ingenuity, not one that is subject to the taste of popular culture. He chides Eden’s focus on public approval, telling her that “a public only wants what has been done over and over.”

After their fight about success (which, of course, cuts to the core of their identity and sense of place and value in the world) Hedger is hurt more than he’d previously imagined possible and leaves Eden for several days “to be among rough, honest people.” when he returns he is ready to forgive Eden and attempt to integrate their lifestyles so they can continue their relationship, but in his absence Eden has found a way to get to  Paris, so Hedger finds only a hastily written note of explanation.

In The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell describes the hero’s journey as  “a hero ventures forth from the world of the common day into a region of supernatural wonder. Fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won.” Eden has embraced this (hero’s) journey and managed to become successful (at least by her lights). The story picks up when Eden returns to New York after performing in an opera in Paris. She visits an art gallery to ask about Hedger in order to find out if, in her absence, he has become rich and famous. The gallery owner tells Eden that Hedger is a well-received and influential artist among the New York crowd who has gained the respect of others for being “original” and “changing all the time.” Eden cuts the gallery owner’s explanation short, demanding to know if he’s much talked about in Paris, saying that’s all  she wants to know.  The story then pulls back closes with a wonderfully enigmatic paragraph description of Eden sitting in a car after leaving the gallery as she is being driven to her next performance.

hermione lee secret selfIn Coming, Aphrodite!, Cather presents her readers with a complex  discussion of success. Both characters find the success they seek, and  Cather is careful to present a neutral view. But by the close of the story one senses that her sympathies lie with the Heroine’s Journey.

To learn more about Willa Cather and read her short story Coming, Aphrodite!, you can find it here or in Hermione Lee’s wonderful collection, The Secret Self: Short Stories By Women

Wholeness Introduces Herself to Promises of Happiness and Success

Unlike Heroines’ Journeys, The Hero’s Journey ends with the hero returning to his tribe, kinsmen, country, or home with the Elixir. In Hero Journey stories such as the Lion King, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, or Wonder Woman, the hero (male, female, or otherwise) finds the treasure, restores his tribe’s lost honor, learns the magic code, or discovers the key to success and is rewarded with recognition, status, and respect.

Maureen Murdock describes the heroine’s quest as an “inner journey toward being a fully integrated, balanced, and whole human being.”  Although Murdock focuses on the integration of feminine and masculine personality traits, the heroine’s journey can be understood as a quest to integrate almost any two dichotomies, binaries, opposing concepts, or ideologies. Victoria Schmidt’s version of the heroine’s journey concludes with a “Rebirth– the Moment of Truth” when the protagonist faces her own (and others’) fear with compassion and returns to the “perfect world” or  “the world seen for what it is.”  The reward for the journey is an integrated connection to the world and something larger than herself.

The Heroine Journeys Project team believes that the Heroine’s Journey is, in essence a search to affirm and experience wholeness. By definition, wholeness necessarily includes both sides of a binary including the masculine and feminine, but also success and failure, perfection and imperfection, joy and grief, happiness and despair, respect and disrespect, glory and stunning disappointment, etc. The world and human experience encompasses each of these things, so respite from disappointment or suffering is temporary so long as life, or the story, continues.

Creative Cycle by Nancer Ballard

Artist book by Nancer Ballard depicting pleasant and unpleasant aspects of  creative cycle

Throughout our lives, most of us are told that loyalty, hard work, sacrifice, and some notion of universal fairness (sometimes called Destiny) will bring us Happiness and Success and eradicate our suffering, frustrations, and disappointment. We are taught that it is possible to “make it,” and become our family/tribe/community leader or win a coveted personal relationship and live happily ever after…. or at least a relatively care-free comfortable life.  Many of us know differently but still secretly believe in the mythical hero’s journey arc because we have grown up in a binary-soaked culture and recoil from the unpleasant aspects of wholeness we have been led to believe are unnecessary.

A few months ago I was given a poem by Lynn Ungar (which she has graciously allowed us to share) that describes the kind of stories and lives that royalty and most of us commoners actually live rather than the make-believe myths we think we want to live.

The Story

I’ll tell you a secret.
There is no happy ending.
Also no tragic conclusion.
The prince and princess don’t
live happily ever after.
They live happily sometimes,
and sometimes they are stricken
with so much grief that they know
their hearts will explode—
which never actually happens—
and sometimes they are
well and truly and deeply
bored, and ready for the tiniest
of catastrophes to shake them awake.

They will not, of course,
live ever after.  No one does.
But they might have children
who carry on the royal line,
or friends who tell the story
of how the witch showed up
at the baby shower, or maybe
they planted trees. One way
or another the story
inevitably continues.
Pray that it is some kind of
story about love.

In this poem, love is viewed as the best glue for a full evolving life rather than the reward that ends the story-life arc with flatlining good fortune. A good working definition of “love” is an enduring, positive, attentive connection between two (or more) separate beings that creates a relationship.  The relationship is distinct and larger than its individual members or constituents. Love does not abolish loneliness and vulnerability, but having a positive, enduring connection with others can make the pain of being alone and being imperfectly understood tolerable. A loving connection also provides company in times of vulnerability.

In Maureen Murdock’s formulation of the Heroine’s Journey, the final step in the cycle is integration.  Integration has several meanings. It can refer to the act or an instance of combining disparate elements into an integral whole—as in the integration of personality.  But integration can also refer to harmonious behavior of individuals within a larger environment, or to the coordination of distinct previously segregated elements within a unitary system—as in the integration of a school system.  In other words, integration can refer to blending or synthesizing or to the coordination of parts in which the parts retain their individual distinctness and integrity within a larger whole.  Love draws upon both types of integration. Unless the individuals in a loving relationship maintain their individual selves and identities, the result is a merging of one person into another, or domination and subordination, rather than connection borne by love. Love’s connection also produces a relationship which neither person can create by themselves.  Their relationship, a product of their connection to themselves and each other, is a third thing that is something different than the sum of its parts—just as a story depends upon character, action, motivation, and result but is more than the sum of these elements. As in a relationship, each element in a story is necessary and significantly influenced by other elements but can still be somewhat differentiated from the other parts.

Integration of the masculine and feminine, and whatever other binaries are at stake, can involve blending, synthesis, or the coordination of separate elements that retain their individuality within a larger whole.  The best stories and fullest of lives involve evolving combinations of each of these.

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We appreciate Lynn Unger’s allowing us to share “The Story” in this post. To learn more about Lynn Unger’s work and/or purchase her book of poetry, Bread and Other Miracles, go to http://www.lynnungar.com.