A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
In town for lunch. The air-conditioning, the smell of perfume and gin, the attentions of the headwaiter, the real and unreal sense of haste, importance, and freedom that clings to the theatre. It was a beautiful day in town, windy, clear, and fresh. The girls on the street are a joy. A girl with bare arms by the St. Regis; a girl with bare shoulders on Fifty-seventh Street; dark eyes and light eyes and red hair and above all the wonderful sense of dignity and purpose in their clear features. But there is the imperfect joining of the carnal world and the world of courage and other spiritual matters. I seem, after half a lifetime, to have made no progress, unless resignation is progress. There is the erotic hour of waking, which is like birth. There is the light or the rainfall, some ingenuous symbol by which one returns to the visible, perhaps the mature world. There is the euphoria, the sense that life is no more than it appears to be, light and water and trees and pleasant people that can be brought crashing down by a neck, a hand, an obscenity written on a toilet door. There is always, somewhere, this hint of aberrant carnality. The worst of it is that it seems labyrinthine; I come back again and again to the image of a naked prisoner in an unlocked cell, and to tell the truth I don’t know how he will escape. Death figures here, the unwillingness to live. Many of these shapes seem like the shapes of death; one approaches them with the same amorousness, the same sense of terrible dread. I say to myself that the body can be washed clean of any indulgence; the only sin is despair, but I speak meaninglessly in my own case. Chasteness is real; the morning adjures one to be chaste. Chasteness is waking. I could not wash the obscenity off myself. But in all this thinking there is a lack of space, of latitude, of light and humor.
Quoted from The Journals of John Cheever in The Writer’s Almanac, edited by Garrison Keilor
John Cheever (1912 – 1982) was an American novelist and short story writer. He is sometimes called “the Chekhov of the suburbs”. His fiction is mostly set in the Upper East Side of Manhattan, the Westchester suburbs, old New England villages based on various South Shore towns around Quincy, Massachusetts, where he was born, and Italy, especially Rome. He is now recognized as one of the most important short fiction writers of the 20th century. While Cheever is perhaps best remembered for his short stories, including “The Enormous Radio”, “Goodbye, My Brother”, “The Five-Forty-Eight”, “The Country Husband”, and “The Swimmer”, he also wrote four novels, comprising The Wapshot Chronicle (National Book Award, 1958), The Wapshot Scandal (William Dean Howells Medal, 1965), Bullet Park (1969), Falconer (1977) and a novella Oh What a Paradise It Seems (1982).