Willa Cather’s “Paul’s Case” and the “picture-making mechanism” phrase

Author: Shane Lambert

Willa Cather published “Paul’s Case” in 1905 as part of a small collection of stories known as The Troll Garden (pictured below). One phrase that students often have trouble with when reading this short story occurs within the following quotation:

“(Paul) felt something strike his chest, and that his body was being thrown swiftly through the air, on and on, immeasurably far and fast, while his limbs were gently relaxed. Then, because the picture-making mechanism was crushed, the disturbing visions flashed into black, and Paul dropped back into the immense design of things” (emphasis added).

The cover of Willa Cather’s book, where Paul’s Case originally appeared. I found this in the June 11th, 1905 edition of The Nebraska State Journal (page 8).

The phrase that students often trouble with is the one in italics. Cather isn’t talking about an early camera or anything of that sort. She appears to be talking about a faculty of Paul’s brain — but not necessarily the entire brain itself.

Willa Cather. A public domain photo.

In this paragraph Paul’s death at his own hands is depicted. He has stepped in front of a train, it struck him in the chest, and that’s why he was “thrown swiftly through the air.” It’s clear that in Cather’s imagination, dying from the impact of a train might leave you alive for a few short moments before the catastrophic and massive injuries of the impact killed you. The “picture-making mechanism” being “crushed” can best be understood as brain damage that, in Paul’s case, was nearly immediately terminal.

Some might say that “the picture-making mechanism” is actually a metaphor for Paul’s brain, however, I wouldn’t state that. The brain itself is a complex organ and it is known to have divisions that have differing responsibilities. So “the picture-making mechanism” is likely just describing the part of the brain where the sensory-data input from the eyes is processed or where we see dreams when our eyes are closed.

How did Cather know of this part of the brain? In short, she probably didn’t know about it in a specific way (ie. she probably couldn’t literally point to the part of the brain with “the picture-making mechanism” during an autopsy). Maybe she just suspected or even deduced that this part of the brain existed. If you think about, how could it not?

Noam Chomsky’s most famous linguistics book is called Syntactic Structures. Photo by Hans Peters/Anefo, who donated it to the public domain.

To get what I’m talking about, let’s visit a theory in the field of linguistics. Noam Chomsky, a linguist who taught at MIT for many years, uses the term Language Acquisition Device to describe a part of the brain that he thinks is responsible for humans learning how to speak a language. He’s not using the phrase “Language Acquisition Device” metaphorically — it’s just the name he assigns to the part of the brain that he thinks exists through abstract theory and logic.

If we acquire language, then we must have a native ability to do so. The part of the brain that enables us to do this is what Chomsky calls the Language Acquisition Device.

The phrase “Language Acquisition Device” and “picture-making mechanism” actually remind me of one another. I don’t see either phrase as metaphorical but rather I see them as reflecting a certain amount of infancy when it comes to understanding the compartments of the brain: the names are simplistic. We can figure out what goes on in our brain on a certain level but the organ remains mysterious in so many ways.

Perhaps the phrase “mechanism” could make the entire phrase into a metaphor. Mechanisms, when used literally, are more commonly associated with machines. Analogies between humans and machines in terms of how we function have been made for generations. Thus, you could argue that Cather is presenting Paul as a machine in her statement, metaphorically speaking.

However, I don’t actually see it as a metaphor anymore than the word “device” is from Chomsky’s usage. I think “picture-making mechanism” is just a primitive description for a part of the brain that really wasn’t understood in 1905, when Cather’s story was published. Nearly all aspects of the paragraph in question could be read literally, even the very last statement about “the immense design of things” which I will get into at another time. In conclusion, re-read the paragraph but take everything literally except for maybe the word “immeasurably.” When you read “picture-making mechanism” understand it to be a phrase that literally is part of Paul’s brain, not metaphorically.

“He felt something strike his chest, and that his body was being thrown swiftly through the air, on and on, immeasurably far and fast, while his limbs were gently relaxed. Then, because the picture-making mechanism was crushed, the disturbing visions flashed into black, and Paul dropped back into the immense design of things”

A portrait of Willa Cather. Taken from the April 16th, 1905 Pittsburgh Weekly Gazette. Page 20.

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