Monday, June 10, 2013

`A Certain Volatile and Ethereal Quality'

“The first of June, and the world that was not mine yesterday now lies spread out at my feet, a splendor. I seem, in the middle of the night, to have returned to the world of apples, the orchards of Heaven. Perhaps I should take my problems to a shrink, or perhaps I should enjoy the apples that I have, streaked with color like the evening sky.”

This is from The Journals of John Cheever (1991), dated 1966. Seven years later he published The World of Apples. In the title story, we’re told the most popular work of an aged poet, Asa Bascomb, is titled The World of Apples. He resents what he considers the early volume’s disproportionate fame and popularity. The narrator tells us it contains “poetry in which his admirers found the pungency, diversity, color, and nostalgia of the apples of the northern New England he had not seen for forty years.” Bascomb is Frost-like but lives in Italy, and seems able only to write obscenities. He bitterly longs for the Nobel Prize. The opening sonnet in The World of Apples,” we learn, is titled “The Orchards of Heaven.” In a country church in Italy, Bascomb prays: 

“God bless Walt Whitman. God bless Hart Crane. God bless Dylan Thomas. God bless William Faulkner, Scott Fitzgerald, and especially Ernest Hemingway.” 

Except for Whitman, this is the familiar roll call of drunken, self-destructive writers, not excepting Cheever himself in 1973, though he was soon to sober up. After the prayer, we learn, “Something seemed to shine in his mind and limbs and lights and vitals and he fell asleep again and slept until morning.” Bascomb returns to his home in Monte Carbone, “and in the morning he began a long poem on the inalienable dignity of light and air that, while it would not get him the Nobel Prize, would grace the last months of his life.” 

Like Guy Davenport, Cheever evolved a private mythology around apples. Davenport titled a 1984 story collection Apples and Pears. In “Shaker Light,” an essay in The Hunter Gracchus (1996), he writes: “Apple is the symbol of the Fall, pear of Redemption. Apple is the world, pear heaven. Apple is tragic.” Cheever’s apples are complicated. They suggest one’s native gifts. To refuse them, to seek something else, is a frustrating violation of one’s pact with creation, perhaps with God. Like Cheever a native of Massachusetts, Thoreau, in whom the naturalist and the mythographer happily coexist, writes in “Wild Apples”: 

“There is thus about all natural products a certain volatile and ethereal quality which represents their highest value, and which cannot be vulgarized, or bought and sold. No mortal has ever enjoyed the perfect flavor of any fruit, and only the god-like among men begin to taste its ambrosial qualities. For nectar and ambrosia are only those fine flavors of every earthly fruit which our coarse palates fail to perceive, -- just as we occupy the heaven of the gods without knowing, it.”

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