Thursday, April 21, 2011


Yes, tomorrow is Earth Day, but I'd rather think about this day proximally and obliquely. I teach this way too, believing there is much to be seen in the circuitous journey that enhances our understanding of the original 'text.' And so the pear. Last year, right about this time, I read a short book by Yann Martel called Beatrice and Virgil. Ostensibly, this is a novel about a struggling playwright and a menacing taxidermist, yet beneath the metanarrative lie questions about the Holocaust and our shared memory of horrific large-scale trauma. With many barely veiled references to Waiting for Godot, the two main characters (a donkey and a monkey) in the writer's play wander around their striped country, starving and asking questions and waiting. At one point during a particularly poignant discussion of what they would eat if they had any food, the subject of pears comes up. When Beatrice reveals that she has never eaten a pear, Virgil proceeds to describe the appearance, the taste, the aroma, and the experience of eating a pear as best he can. Nearing the end of his long portrait/reminiscence of a pear, Virgil pronounces: "Slice a pear and you will find that its flesh is incandescent white. It glows with inner light. Those who carry a knife and a pear are never afraid of the dark."

And I, too, have found there is something about a pear. The ancient Chinese believed pears were a symbol of immortality... and even more, the pronunciation of the Chinese word for 'sharing a pear' is the same as that of the word for separation. Thus, there developed a custom where lovers should never cut apart a pear to share amongst each other because it was thought to lead to the kind of separation hauntingly heard when the word, pear, issued from one's lips.

There is something about pears and suffering.... something that connects the two. There was a story in the newspaper (The Boston Globe, I think) a year or so ago about a Polish man, Catholic. He was 22 and the year was 1943. September, autumn. He had been wrongly suspected of being a resistance fighter and imprisoned at Auschwitz. He was working in a grain storage warehouse, stealing bits of food when he could, just trying to survive. And one day she walked in... or was escorted. But she appeared just like that -- in his world -- utterly unexpected. A dark-haired strikingly beautiful Jewish girl. Cyla. And the gravitational pull was immediate. One little wink at first. And then moments. Moments while she repaired grain sacks and he transported grain in and out. Moments to say a word or two, sometimes more. But the love unfolded. Because it was already there in full power from that first moment. He figured out a way to escape. He got hold of an SS uniform, changed the name on the guard's pass. He told Cyla, "Two days from now, an SS guard will come to find you. He will order you to come with him. Don't worry. He will be me." Two days later and he came for her, came to the laundry where she had been reassigned to work. And they managed to escape. And then so much walking... through forests and fields and up hills and over rivers and down roads in the darkest shield of night. For more than a week, they walked... until she begged him... begged him to stop for she had become too weak to continue walking. But at that point they were so close -- to his uncle's house. And with a little more effort, and with his carrying the weight she no longer could, they arrived. And his mother was there. Overjoyed but deeply fearful. The girl. The girl was a problem. How could they live? Where would they live? How was it possible? You see, it wasn't. And they knew they must be separated for a time. He would hide in Krakow. She would hide in a nearby farm. And there would be a time -- long in the future, untold, impossible really -- but they didn't know that... or didn't admit the knowledge. And so they spent their last night together under a pear tree, speaking words that only that pear tree could bear, could lift up. But the words remained there... with the pears.

And so I have observed. Pears. They appear in conjunction with the Holocaust, with the fear of separation, with the inevitability of separation. And yet the pear is the sacred tree, the 'gift from the gods' that Odysseus notices at the palace of the Phaeacians. "Esto es 'le pera'" is a Spanish expression, used most often by adolescents to remark upon a legendary experience. In Korea, the white flowers of the pear tree represent the innocence in young women's faces and yet the destined-to-fall delicate petals are viewed in their evanescence as a denotation of melancholic but inescapable endings. The pear exists in between these poles -- of deep, everlasting affection and devastating endings. A swan song, indeed. The pear is the tragic beauty of the fruit world.

For Beatrice and Virgil, their pear is a non-existent longing and a dark reminder of deprivation and danger. They are starving, live in a treeless criss-crossed world, don't have any pears. They are in a state of longing, silence, and waiting. What do pears both possess and lack? The shape of a pear is... pear-shaped. A pear lacks structure as much as it holds its own in a roundly uneven, blushing little body. Eric Satie expressed as much when he titled a musical composition Trois morceaux en forme de poire (Three pieces in the form of a pear). Perhaps there is a form -- just a form we cannot quite describe or comprehend. So, how do we get inside of the pear to the 'incandescence' we know to be within?

Many feel that the fruit that Eve picked from the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden was not the apple, but was the fig. Still others believe it to have been a pear. One such person is the artist Samuel Bak. Bak uses the pear as symbol repetitively in his work. Stone pears crumbling like a memorial in ruins.... the landscape behind in flames.... the sky full of smoke. Pears in harnesses, restrained, bound. The pear on an altar in front of a boy half made of stone... this pear painfully left lying next to a pair of boots. Whose boots? Or the painting called Envelope which is a painting of a pear collapsing, and yet full of other bulging pears... repetition... the creation of something in its own image... what lies within and yet cannot be reached... can only be repeated. Only these paintings can "speak the unspeakable" as Bak has said of the Holocaust.

Samuel Bak, Reflection (2003)

Samuel Bak, Present Absence (2003)

Samuel Bak, Sanctuary (2001)

Samuel Bak, Purification (2001)
I was lucky enough to work for a while as an intern at Pucker Gallery on Newbury Street in Boston -- this is how I became familiarized with this amazing artist. Bak also explains:
As a child, I had a feeling that if Adam gave up Paradise in order to taste the fruit that would give knowledge and a capacity to distinguish between good and evil, it must have been a pear. I felt that an apple, which in my childhood memories was usually something very sour, had nothing in common with the sensual, wonderful taste of a pear. (See Pucker's website for more Bak paintings.)
And perhaps that indefinable shape of a pear is very much a human shape. And perhaps it is this unusual shape, its momentary ripeness, the grace and yet weight of a pear -- all of which lead us to seeing it as man's very humanity. The pear, once fallen, always leans slightly, never finds a secure foundation upon itself or a settling upon the ground. So, St. Augustine relates to us in his Confessions a story. He and some friends once snuck into a neighbor's pear orchard. They greedily ravaged the trees of their fruit and later abandoned the fruit to rot. For, as Augustine explains, it was not their goal to eat the fruit, but merely "to destroy it." He was quite aware that this particular neighbor did not even possess the best pear orchard and that there were much tastier pears to find elsewhere... probably in his own orchard. Augustine uses this tale to bring up a discussion of mankind's inclination to sin... with no fortuitous gain. Within man's deepest impulses, there exists something out of balance... like the pear, rocking back and forth upon its unlevel, unsteady seat.

Oh, the clumsiness and inelegance of the pear. Oh, its blushing humility. Oh, its subtle perfume. Oh, its tempting transient sweetness. Oh, its white inner glow. Oh, its hidden juiciness. Oh, its improbable grace. Oh, the white delicacy of its flowering tree.

When the apple is ripe, it is picked. When the pear is ripe, it falls. Under a pear tree, we find ourselves amidst desire and entering awakening.
[Janie] was stretched on her back beneath the pear tree soaking in the alto chant of the visiting bees, the gold of the sun and the panting breath of the breeze when the inaudible voice of it all came to her. She saw a dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight. So this was a marriage! She had been summoned to behold a revelation. Then Janie felt a pain remorseless sweet that left her limp and languid. (Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God)
Only a pear can say what no human can. And when a pear is transformed artistically, it speaks both more forcefully and more inaudibly. As Picasso said, art is "un instrument de guerre..." Art is not made to decorate our living-room walls, but "is a weapon, an instrument of war, in defense against the enemy." And this little pear too. This little pear. This little pear in your hand. Does it have to be a weapon too? This sweet little pear. Must everything be a weapon? A defense? Must we always be on guard? Where can this pear... where can we be safe?

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