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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Intermediality and the incommunicable : musical memory in Willa Cather's My Àntonia Frim, Christine


In My Ántonia’s final sentence, narrator Jim Burden describes the past as “precious” and “incommunicable,” suggesting that the novel confronts the problem of communicating memory and its subjective value (MÀ 196). One critical paradigm simply asks, “How does one share what cannot be communicated?” (Tellefsen 232). This thesis refocuses My Àntonia’s paradox of “communicating the incommunicable” to the limitations of what literature can communicate as a medium. It considers music as an alternative mode of communication in Jim’s memoir. The permanence of literature, combined with the temporality of music, enables him to capture his memories while conveying their transience. Therefore, analyzing My Àntonia’s intermedial form offers insight into how Jim addresses paradoxes of time, memory, and communication. I reconsider My Àntonia as a work of art or affect, giving special attention to Jim’s artistic process. Building upon Jeffrey Swenson’s assertion that Jim takes “memories of his immigrant friends and set[s] them into […] classical modes,” I demonstrate how Jim uses intertextuality and intermediality as artistic tools to aggrandize his memories (25). He maps Ántonia onto Vergil’s Muse: a method to instill symbolic value. Through intertextuality, she becomes a timeless inspirational figure. Additionally, many of Jim’s memories are described through musical metaphors or occur alongside dances, shows, or plays. Intermediality in the form of musicalized prose is a hyperbolic strategy to communicate incommunicable emotion. Levinasian and Deleuzoguattarian aesthetic theory provide the conceptual framework to explain how Jim makes his art objectively moving. His memoir, an image, is more impactful than reality because it is crafted with what I argue is “rhythm,” an aesthetic force that occurs “in the in-between,” permeates the reader’s senses, and affects their emotions (Levinas 4, ATP 313). By combining multisensory imagery and intermediality, his memoir forces interaction between the five senses and two media, thereby generating rhythm. Through a critical lens combining intermedial studies and aesthetic theory, I argue that My Ántonia is a musical-literary memoir that communicates Jim’s axiological beliefs regarding ephemeral beauty and value. Ultimately, this thesis claims that Jim uses technical intermediality to convert subjective emotional significance into an objectively moving piece of art.

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