Opened Graves, Emptied Coffins

March 18, 2012 § 1 Comment

Finished: The Art of Fielding.

SPOILER ALERT: You’ll probably want to skip this post for now if you plan on reading The Art of Fielding anytime soon.

Given that the Bible is the wellspring of 2000 years of Western culture, it’s not surprising that the empty grave, and the resurrected body, should be recurring features in our literature.  Early on in The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach (through his character Mike Schwartz) introduces a lesser-known example from the life of Emerson:

“His first wife died young, of tuberculosis.  Emerson was shattered.  Months later, he went to the cemetery, alone, and dug up her grave.  Opened the coffin and looked inside, at what was left of the woman he loved.  Can you imagine? It must have been terrible.  Just a terrible thing to do.  But the thing is, Emerson had to do it.  He needed to see for himself.  To understand death. To make death real….”

It’s a little surprising, when you start looking, how many of the open graves in our literature do not partake of the Christian joy and hope in resurrection: how many are full instead of terror, disgust, despair, existential questioning, grim humor.  Hamlet, of course.  The premature burials and morbid lovers of Poe.  The countless tales of “resurrection men” in penny dreadfuls, ballads, and sensational stories.

In the coda to this book, Pella (with the help of Owen, Henry, and Mike) digs up her father’s body to bury him at sea, as she believes he would have wanted.  Harbach is referencing a number of the empty graves in American literature with this finale — or at least, it reminded me of them.  Most obviously, there is the coffin of Queequeg in Moby-Dick, rescuing Ishmael from the Pequod’s doom.  The famous last word of that work is “orphan,” and orphans abound in this work: Affenlight’s death leaves Pella orphaned, of course, but Schwartz is also an orphan.  You can argue that Henry is also a kind of orphan in this work, at least spiritually.  His parents are nonentities in his life, objecting to the liberality of his college experience; further, his spiritual father, Aparicio Rodriguez, is present for his public humiliation, leaving him too ashamed to meet his hero.

The two other allusions are more subtle, but I think they are there.  The possibility entered my mind thanks to the seemingly innocuous fact that Westish plays Amherst in the national championship game.  Amherst: hometown of Emily Dickinson, and alma mater of David Foster Wallace.  With this choice of opponent, Harbach introduces connections to both the American Renaissance that forms the background of his work and the contemporary milieu of his work.

Dickinson, of course, is one of the great grapplers with death and the afterlife, testing possibilities and asking questions throughout her poetic career, imagining both death in the grave and life beyond it.  The questioning and constant self-inspection of Dickinson, and her interest in conceptions of an end to same, are reminiscent of Henry’s journey from “thoughtless being” to “thought” to “return to thoughtless being.”  Further, Dickinson is a weighty counterpoint to Emerson and the traditional, male-centered view of American literary history.  Pella objects to the Emerson story that Mike tells, “the namelessness of women in stories, as if they lived and died so that men could have metaphysical insights.”

Infinite Jest also contains (or at least looks forward to) the exhumation of a father: Hal Incandenza’s father James, whose head may contain the antidote to his unstoppably entertaining film.  The allusion points out a number of parallels between Harbach’s book and DFW’s, especially the campus setting, casually precocious students, mysterious drive and stamina of gifted athletes, addictions to pain and painkillers, and battles with depression and stasis.  But the different purposes for grave-robbing in the two novels point out the differences between the authors.  I think, in this scene, that Harbach is referencing Infinite Jest (by way of Moby-Dick, and Hamlet, and Dickinson) to attempt to move beyond the postmodern condition which DFW critiqued and which Affenlight diagnoses earlier in the book, the crippling self-consciousness and “profound failure of confidence in the significance of individual human action.”  In Owen’s eulogy over the body, he remembers Guert Affenlight’s belief “that a soul isn’t something a person is born with but something that must be built, by effort and error, study and love.”  He asserts the continuation of Guert’s soul in the people he loved, the works to which he devoted it.  The whole scene feels a little like a “didactic little parable-ish story”  at the close of a tragicomic, linear narrative of liberal-arts education.  But we’ve seen that it’s actually pretty complex, and that it’s about how to be an adult, how to move beyond education: how to choose what to think about.  The orator of the 2005 Kenyon College commencement speech would be proud.

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The Buddhist Baseball Wisdom of Aparicio Rodriguez

March 17, 2012 § 7 Comments

Finished: The Art of Fielding.

Among my favorite books as a kid were sports stories of the Matt Christopher ilk, especially basketball and baseball books.  These books more or less always featured a preteen or teen whose real-world problems overlap with and affect their sports abilities.  I still have one of these, which I’m pretty sure I bought through Weekly Reader for $4 or so: Johnny Long Legs, featuring a new kid in town heroically struggling to improve the strength of his freakishly long legs and help his school’s basketball team, the hilariously named White Cats.  But I loved the baseball books, too, and have a vivid memory of reading one on my bed on a rainy summer afternoon, swept away by a young shortstop’s difficulty with turning the double play.

I mostly read these books for the descriptions of the games: the main, non-sports conflict in the book was only useful insofar as it enhanced the conflict I really cared about, that of the Cougars vs. the Eagles or whatever mascots were involved.  To be honest, I also just loved the creation of team and player names, uniforms, and mascots.  My favorite sections of pretty much all of these books were the expository paragraphs at the beginning of the games, the scenery of names, colors, gyms or fields.

All of which is to say that, though I’ve done an awful lot of reading since then, there’s still a big part of me that craved the baseball action in The Art of Fielding, and that valued it as a baseball book with a nostalgic, Christopher-esque structure: boy loves baseball, boy has baseball-related life problem (or life-related baseball problem?), boy finds help and solves problem to improve baseball skills.  Harbach intentionally embedded this nostalgic structure, I think, having a similar reading background: in this interview, he mentions growing up reading “Matt Christie” books, which I think is a reference to Matt Christopher.  And you can feel his delight in the creation of the Harpooner’s uniforms and logo, and those of their small-college rivals.  The “powder-blue jerseys” of the Muskingum Muskies (a real school whose colors appear to be red and black).  The “beet-red” jackets, uniforms, faces of the preppy Coshwale “douchetards.”  And, especially, the mild satire of the Opentoe College Holy Poets, in “threadbare brown-and-green uniforms” like a bunch of John the Baptists or Thoreaus.

Of course, because this is not a kids’ book, Harbach uses Henry Skrimshander’s baseball problem as a way into complex thinking about life and the process of becoming a functioning human adult, and critiques its own embedded YA sports-book structure.  But it’s also a really good baseball book, and one of its interesting sidelights is that it might, in its roundabout way, show how maybe athletics of the small-college variety could still have a place in the educational mission of institutions of higher learning.  (There’s no point in even trying to defend big-money Div I programs anymore.  They’re hopelessly corrupt alum-appeasing farm systems with zero educational reason for being.  And I’m pretty sure that, deep down, every administrator knows that.)

The device that brings this all together is the eponymous book within the book, The Art of Fielding by Aparicio Rodriguez, Henry’s idol, a Hall of Fame shortstop for the St. Louis Cardinals.  Rodriguez’s book is a collection of numbered items of practical advice, epigrams, and aphorisms, some of them cryptic koans.  The two most important appear very early in Harbach’s book:

3. There are three stages: Thoughtless being.  Thought.  Return to thoughtless being.

213. Death is the sanction of all that the athlete does.

These epigrams form a fascinating thought.  These two statements are bookends to Rodriguez’s book, the earliest and latest excerpts we are given from it, and keys to Harbach’s book, as well.

The first is the journey of Henry Skrimshander compressed to a “simple” Buddhist thought.  In the book’s gorgeous, idyllic 50-page opening overture, Henry is a “natural”: a scrawny South Dakota kid whose preternatural grace, constant practice,  and passionate love for the game have made him the perfect defensive shortstop.  He thoughtlessly is a being made to play shortstop.  If such being is useful, we call it talent, and Mike Schwartz recognizes and hones Henry’s talent.  In a bravura passage at the book’s center, Mike reflects on Henry’s development, and “[t]he making of a ballplayer: the production of brute efficiency out of natural genius.”

For Schwartz this formed the paradox at the heart of baseball, or football, or any other sport.  You loved it because you considered it an art: an apparently pointless affair, undertaken by people with a special aptitude, which sidestepped attempts to paraphrase its value yet somehow seemed to communicate something true or even crucial about The Human Condition.  The Human Condition being, basically, that we’re alive and have access to beauty, can even erratically create it, but will someday be dead and will not.

Baseball was an art, but to excel at it you had to become a machine….

The body of the book constitutes “Thought” in Aparicio’s formulation, introduced to Henry’s mind by his near-fatal errant throw into the dugout, and brings us to the second aphorism.  Sanction is a complicated word.  A sanction can be a permission or encouragement; it can also be a punishment, and this seeming contradiction stems from the word’s original meaning of a law or decree — and, even more interesting, its etymology from the Latin sancire, “to render sacred or inviolable” (per OED).  Death can be the athlete’s sanction in the sense that Mike uses above — encouraging production of the grace and beauty that athletes feel and display in the use of the lively body that will eventually perish and move no more.  But it can also be a warning or punishment, as when Henry nearly kills Owen with a bad throw, and has his own brush with death later.  And athletes grow older, lose their skills.  The athlete must become reconciled to the mini-death of losing the body’s ability, an image of the larger, final death of the body and spirit.

Beyond the level of the individual, Henry’s crisis of thought — his severe case of “Steve Blass Disease,” or “the yips” — also has cultural significance.  In another great passage, the literary scholar Guert Affenlight reflects on the apparent lack of such cases before 1973:

It made sense that a psychic condition sensed by the artists of one generation — the Modernists of the First World War — would take a while to reveal itself throughout the population.  And if that psychic condition happened to be a profound failure of confidence in the significance of individual human action, then the condition became an epidemic when it entered the realm of utmost confidence in same: the realm of professional sport…. that might make for a workable definition of the postmodernist era: an era when even the athletes were anguished Modernists.

Rodriguez’s Buddhist formulation has an important codicil: “33. Do not confuse the first and third stages.  Thoughtless being is attained by everyone, the return to thoughtless being by a very few.”  Henry has to come to realize that he cannot un-think the thought — the consciousness of life, and death, to which he has been awakened — which has been introduced, but must understand and learn from it.  His (and Mike’s) desire for life to remain forever the same must be understood as impossible.  Like any college student, and any baseball player, he has to move into the world, and become an adult, to be able to play again.  There’s a lovely little intimation of this cycle in an early training scene. Henry, in the batting cage, seeks to “meet the ball so squarely that it retraced its path and reentered the mouth of the pitching machine, sending the big rubber wheels spinning in the opposite direction, as if reversing time.”

The Melvillean Context of The Art of Fielding

March 11, 2012 § 3 Comments

Just finished: The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach.

Reading next: Plays, Poems, and Prose, by J. M. Synge.

With all due modesty, if I had not heard about and purchased a copy of The Art of Fielding, the American publishing industry may as well have thrown up its hands and stopped trying.  This is a novel by a cofounder of the Franzen-approved journal n+1, with the following keywords appearing in just about every review, blurb, or synopsis: Melvillebaseballcollege, Wisconsin.  Seriously: if I didn’t buy this, literary marketers would really have needed to go back to the drawing board.

The Melvillean context is both overt and covert, operating as plot element, allusion, and deep thematic dialogue.  Melville’s work is the atmosphere of the book, the water in which its characters swim.  The book is set at the small Wisconsin liberal-arts school Westish College.  A stir is caused there in the 1960s when an undergraduate named Guert Affenlight discovers a manuscript of a (fictional) lost speech by Herman Melville given on his (fictional) second trip to the Great Lakes in 1880.  The commotion provokes the administration to change the school’s mascot from the Sugar Maples to the Harpooners, and to erect a statue of Melville looking out at Lake Michigan.  Further, Affenlight is inspired by the discovery to devote his life to literary study, and has returned to present-day Westish as its president.  He published an acclaimed work on the homosexual/homosocial content of Moby-Dick entitled The Sperm-Squeezers.  Plus, the college bar is named Bartleby’s.

I appreciate that Harbach resisted the inevitable urge to write another retelling of Moby-Dick, or to make his characters one-to-one reincarnations of the principles of that book, or to simply “ruminate” on the work as so many books have already done.  Instead there are a number of interesting resonances between the books, echoes of themes and scenes from the great book, with virtually every character finding his or her life echoing something of the experience of Ahab’s crew.  Duads reminiscent of the great relationships that form the core of Moby-Dick are central to The Art of Fielding: Ishmael-Queequeg (Skrimshander-Owen), Ishmael-Ahab (Skrimshander-Schwartz, Pella-David), Starbuck-Ahab (Skrimshander-Schwartz, later), Ahab-Pip (Affenlight-Owen), Ahab-Fedallah (Cox-Schwartz, Schwartz-the Harpooners), Melville-Hawthorne (Affenlight-Owen, Pella-Schwartz).

What there is not — or not much of, anyway — is a white whale.  If there is a white whale, each character has their own, but honestly, I don’t think any of these characters would describe themselves as obsessed with one particular thing, one trauma or nemesis holding them back.  This is an interesting reading of Moby-Dick, implying that the relationship between Ahab and the whale was never the most important part of the book, and not most importantly about revenge.  It is, instead, about Ahab’s unhealthy relationship to his past and inability to move into the future, as most of these characters struggle with this same problem.

Problems of depression, monomania, desire, homelessness, and autonomy crop up for nearly every character.  There’s Skrimshander’s preternatural harpooner’s grace turned crippling self-consciousness turned Pip-like shell-shock and isolation.  Schwartz’s orphanhood, deep love (and buried desire to never leave) of his adopted Westish home, obsessive quest to win a national championship, and the broken-down legs, destined to leave him with virtual pegs, that stem from that quest.  Pella’s complicated Ishmaelism, her combination of depression, desire to lose herself in work, love of personal freedom born of former self-imposed oppression, and impulse to flee a home.  Owen’s expansive calm, his ostensible misfit/Other nature (a mixed-race homosexual) broadening into Buddha-like calm and detachment mixed with deep compassion.  Affenlight’s irresistible and unexpected desire, and his questioning of his lifelong, self-imposed batchelor nature.

(A lengthy aside, if I may: I find the Affenlight-Owen relationship troubling, in a way that, say, the Ishmael-Queequeg relationship never is, or would be, were its homosexuality made explicit.  The affair is one of my big gripes with the book, especially in the characterization of Owen.  I always find it hard to empathize with teacher-student, March-December relationships of this sort.  Harbach does his best to make clear that Owen, the younger member of this duad, is very much in control — too much so, I felt.   Owen’s characterization veers dangerously close to “magical negro” or, rather, “magical gay mulatto” territory; it’s sometimes hard to remember that he’s supposed to be an undergraduate when he is so self-aware, so sweet, so calm, so wise.  But real people aren’t that way.  There is good reason, I think, that these relationships are cause for real concern on college campuses: the dynamics of power and control are just so out of whack, so prone to abuse.  It shows a real lack of self-control on the part of Affenlight; a real lack of foresight about the consequences of such an affair.  And yet Harbach seems to treat the affair as purely good, and the concerns of others about it as puritanical or retrograde.  When Harbach, through Affenlight, speculates that the relationship would be overlooked and even tacitly approved were it heterosexual, he is simply wrong.  No one would (or at least, no one should) condone a college president having an affair with any student.  It’s insane.)

But there is also the camaraderie and competition of the Harpooners, from golden-boy Starblind to little-brother Izzy to pot-bellied partier Rick O’Shea, and the complicated dynamics by which individuals with their own goals can form a team, or a crew, and can do wonderful or horrible things together.  The homosociality of sports, as of whaling, is in evidence here (of course, there is also the possibility of the homosexual, present here especially in an early comic scene in which the reader is led to believe that Henry is hearing gay sex in his bedroom, when he is actually hearing Schwartz giving macho encouragement to a weightlifter).

Much of the Melville-thread running throughout the book leads to its coda, which I will discuss in another post.  Honestly, as much as I enjoyed and felt enriched by the Melvillean context of the book, I think it’s a better book about baseball.  And I’ll write about that next.

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