Wednesday, November 14, 2018

How Do You Like Them Apples?

Many years ago, in a junk shop near Cowan TN, I came upon a curious item--a small slab of semi-finished hardwood partially wrapped in brittle Kraft paper on which was written in purple Crayola: “From world’s most famous apple tree.”   This came to mind as I sat staring at the screen of my iMac looking for a blog topic only to find one staring me in the face in the form of the familiar Apple logo, which might be described as the image of a very common fruit in a state of semi-depredation.  In smaller print on the Kraft paper was a claim that it housed a piece of wood from the apple tree at Appomattox near which R. E. Lee awaited the arrival of U. S. Grant to negotiate the surrender of the Army of Virginia.  For some reason I resisted a unique opportunity to purchase this valuable relic, which might have secured my family fortune.  Later, by mere chance, I learned that however shaky the purple provenance of the sacred Confederate relic might have been, there actually had been some such tree. Maybe Chaucer’s Pardoner really did have a fragment of the sail from Saint Peter’s fishing skiff.

A few weeks ago there was a headline in the business section of the newspaper to this effect: “Apple: Solution or Problem?”  I suddenly realized that the considerable degree of ambiguity with which our digital cultures are being assessed everywhere in the press these days pretty well typifies the history of most metaphorical mythic apples in western culture, of which, Lord knows, there are plenty, and General Lee’s a mere also-ran.  Think of the “laryngeal prominence”—alias the Adam’s apple—so prominent in most males, including your bloguiste.  Does that refer merely to an anatomical site, a cartilage protrusion that is simply a feature of human males (adam in Hebrew) or is it rather specifically and theologically related to the man “Adam” in the Hebrew Scriptures as interpreted by early Fathers of the Church.   Surely the latter.

The Augustinian, or Calvininist doctrine of total depravity, without which surely John Winthrop would never have gotten to Massachusetts Bay nor Lindbergh back to Le Bourget, begins with the fruit tree of the third chapter of Genesis.  The sacred author did not actually identify the species, but everybody knew it had to be an apple.  “Adam lay ibowndyn, bowndyn in a bond/Fowre thowsand winter thowt he not to long”--so goes one of our most ancient Christmas songs.  “And al was for an appil, an appil that he tok, / As clerkes fyndyn wretyn in here book”.

History recapitulates philology.  The bad apple which has spoiled so many good ones was confirmed by a certain play on words in the Latin tongue.  Malum is the neuter form of the adjective for “injurious,” “bad” or “wicked.”  Mālum with a long vowel is the apple, fruit or tree.  As a verb mālo means “I choose” or “I prefer”.  Since the scriptural episode concerning the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” involves an evil choice of devastating consequence (“the Fruit of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast brought Death into the World, and all our woe” in Milton’s words), one can easily see how theology and philology joined forces.  It’s a challenge to make the “Turn of the Screw” even creepier than Henry James left it, but Benjamin Britten pulled it off in his operatic version by inventing a Latin lesson for the child Miles consisting of four haunting repetitions of the homophone "malo".

Of course the bad apple of Judaeo-Christian tradition has its parallel and probable antecedents in gentile mythology.  Like many Greek myths the tale of the Hesperides has come down in a confusing cascade of versions, but the main lines are clear.  The Hesperides, daughters of the golden sunset, are three beautiful sisters who look after Hera’s “garden in the West,” a glorious plantation strikingly similar to Dante’s Earthly Paradise in its geographical placement and general vibe.  In particular these girls guard the tree that bears the golden apples—the trouble being that they do not guard it well.  Zeus threw a big party to celebrate the marriage of Peleus and Thetis, but he did not include on the guest list Eris, goddess of Discord.  Understandable, perhaps, but fatal: it is always better, as LBJ knew, to have the camel inside the tent.  Eris got her hands on one of the golden apples and, tossing it like a grenade into the wedding feast, set off a ferocious rivalry among Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite as to which of them was most beautiful and therefore most deserving of the prize of the golden fruit.

This led to the mythological episode generally known as the Judgment of Paris—Paris being the shepherd lad plucked from obscurity to judge the beauty contest.  The contestants did their best to bribe the judge.  Hera offered him great political power.  Athena promised him wisdom.  Aphrodite offered him the world’s most beautiful woman.  It is difficult to explain this myth to modern undergraduates, most of whom are--beneath veneers of realism, feminism, progressivism, or vegetarianism—hardcore romantics.  They are inclined to think that Paris’s choice of Aphrodite (Venus), generally regarded as disastrous by the western cultural tradition, is a vindication of the unchanging majesty of the human heart.  The good news was that Paris got Helen.  The bad news, apparently at first overlooked in the small print on the back page, was that Helen’s friends and relations back home, who got very steamed up about all this, had a thousand warships at their disposal.  Thus, all for a golden apple, came the end of a great civilization.  It didn’t require much of a reach to “Christianize” this myth.  Note the serpent curled around the tree in the Burne-Jones.