Friday, May 27, 2011

Dickey's Deliverance - The Macho Movie to End All Macho Movies

James Dickey was one of the most celebrated poets during his lifetime. Chronologically, he belongs to my parents' generation. Born in 1923, Dickey served as a fighter pilot in the Army Air Corps in WWII (and later again in Korea), then attended Vanderbilt, and embarked on a teaching career, interrupted for a time while he worked in advertising (Coca-Cola and Lays Potato Chips), before taking up writing and teaching full time in the 1960's. His first three books published by Wesleyan--Drowning With Others [1962], Helmets [1964] and Buckdancer's Choice [1965] which Dickey eventually named collectively "the early motion"--were widely admired. During the Sixties, he published dozens of poems in major periodicals, principally The New Yorker. Also during the Sixties, he became associated with hawkish positions on the war in Vietnam, opposing the liberal phalanxes (represented by, for instance, Robert Bly, Denise Levertov and Galway Kinnell), and was routinely vilified in the press for his reactionary, chauvinistic and jingoistic attitudes. His verse, which addressed many of these issues directly, was frequently condemned along political, as opposed to aesthetic, lines or criteria. As Dickey's career progressed, his successes as a fiction writer tended to overshadow his efforts in verse, and by the late 1970's, when Deliverance [Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970] was published, and then made [1972] into a successful movie, he was thought of mostly as a literary has-been, who had descended into pop culture status. He would go on to write more novels (Alnilam and To the White Sea), but his best days clearly lay behind him.

Seen within the context of Dickey's political biases and tendencies, coming out of the 1960's, Deliverance is like a kind of manifesto of his vision of life, and the manly culture he advocated. It presents as clear a picture as we may yet have, of a belief in a primitivistic reliance and a culture of dominant male ritual. Dickey was a sportsman, and had been an athlete in school. He was a child of the South, and he subscribed to many of the familiar attitudes peculiar to rural Southern whites. But Dickey's was an intelligent and inquiring mind. He took nothing for granted, and his work is as much as anything an exploration and a pondering of traditional issues: Death, the dream-life, wildness, our primitive nature(s), courage, conflict, violence. Like Hemingway, he believed in testing his principles under fire, and Deliverance is (rather in the way of Death In the Afternoon) if nothing else, certainly a ritualistic testing adventure, a fictionalized drama of men against men, men against nature, and men pitted against, or expressed through, their own natures.

Lewis, a devoted backwoodsman whose hobby is hunting with a bow and arrow, convinces his buddies Ed, Bobby and Drew to accompany him on a canoe trip down the imaginary Cahulawassee River in the Georgia outback, before it's inundated by a new dam. This rough, unspoiled back country is peopled by rough, mangy, predatory hillbillies, who would (it turns out) as soon rape and shoot you as not. Dickey wrote the screenplay for the movie, and also plays the part of the local sheriff, in a memorable cameo.

The testing part of the narrative at one level places these citified slickers against the challenges of running down an untamed river, where there are no easy portages, and no first aid stations. It's a wilderness that belongs to those who are familiar with its dangers, or those who can master its raw power. The trip will obviously be, at the least, a kind of gauntlet, to be survived as much as enjoyed. Nature is beautiful--seductive--but uncaring, even hostile. A man can discover parts of himself which civilization has domesticated out of him, and once he begins to sense and cultivate these, he may discover a new power, but also an evil or grimly aggressive side of his nature. Confronting other men--uncivilized men who do not follow society's soft compacts and mutually assured comforts and securities--in a natural setting, where the rules don't apply--may awaken qualities and strengths (or weaknesses) which we would perhaps rather not know about ourselves. These are the basic conflicts which face the men as they set out on their vacation canoe trip.

As quiet, courteous, contemporary American suburbanites, the men are hesitant to abandon their duties and obligations, and they'd prefer to think of their adventure as clean fun, instead of as the jeopardy they fear it may entail. As the movie begins, the men arrive at an encampment of old buildings and abandoned auto hulks in a forest setting, where they've hired some locals to drive their cars down river where they will end up. An aura of malice and mystery pervades the place. You can feel the trappings of civilization loosen as the wilderness closes in around them.

As the canoes slide into the water, there's a sense of immersion in the unknown, an irrevocable baptismal submission has begun. The scenery is gorgeous, but all-encompassing. As the men begin to absorb the sounds and smells and motions of the country, they feel both delight and foreboding. Lewis, the leader, brimming with confidence and risk, urges them onward.

Ed is also a veteran of several trips but lacks Lewis' machismo. Bobby and Drew are novices.
The locals are crude and unimpressed with the presence of outsiders, and the film implies that some of them are inbred. Drew briefly connects with a local weird banjo-playing boy by joining him in an impromptu dueling bluegrass duet. The boy's playing is so miraculous that it seems magical. The City Boys are suspicious of these locals. They'd best be left alone.

The men spend the day canoeing down the river in pairs before camping by the riverside at night. Shortly before they retire for bed, Lewis tells the others to be quiet and disappears into the dark woods to investigate a sound he heard. He returns shortly after and says that he didn't find anything. When asked whether he heard "something or someone," he tells them he doesn't know.

The next morning, Ed wakes first, and heads into the woods with his bow and arrow. He sees a deer, but cannot keep his aim straight. He fires and misses. This first confrontation in the woods creates a spooky sense of mystery. He returns as the others are finishing breakfast and loading the canoes. Bobby and Ed get away first, and Lewis says that he and Drew will catch up.

After a while, they pull off to the side to wait. They notice a pair of unkempt hillbillies (Bill McKinney and Herbert Cowboy Coward) emerging from the woods, one carrying a shotgun. Bobby speculates that the two locals have a moonshine still hidden in the woods and amicably offers to buy some, but the hillbillies are not moved. Bobby is forced at gunpoint to strip naked. McKinney's character chases after and physically harasses Bobby as he tries to escape. Bobby's ear is twisted to bring him to his hands and knees, and he is then ordered to "squeal like a pig" as McKinney's character rapes him, holding him by his nostrils. Ed is bound to a tree with his own belt while this is taking place, helpless as Bobby is violently sodomized.

As the two hillbillies set their sights on Ed's "pretty mouth", Ed notices Lewis sneaking up with an arrow drawn. Lewis shoots and kills the rapist as the dimwit escapes into the woods. Lewis and Drew argue about whether to inform the authorities. Lewis argues that they would not receive a fair trial, as he claims that the entire local population are related to one another, and the jury would be comprised of the dead man's friends and relatives. Likewise, Bobby does not want the incident of his sodomy to become public. Lewis tells them that since the entire area would be flooded by a lake soon, the body would never be found and the escaped hillbilly could not inform the authorities since he had participated in the incident. The men vote to side with Lewis' recommendation to bury the dead hillbilly's body and continue as though nothing had happened. During the digging, Drew, the most lyrical and "soft" of the group, is obviously agitated with guilt and remorse, and blurts reservations during the dig.

The four make a run for it downriver, cutting their trip short, but soon disaster strikes as the canoes reach a dangerous stretch of rapids. In the lead canoe, Ed repeatedly asks Drew to don his life jacket, but an unnerved Drew ignores him without a word of explanation. As Drew and Ed reach the rapids, Drew's head appears to shake inexplicably, perhaps from being shot, and he falls forward into the river; the roar of the river is so loud in the rocky confines of the canyon they're passing through that a gunshot would not be heard above it.

After Drew disappears into the river, Ed loses control of his canoe and both canoes collide on the rocks, spilling Lewis, Bobby, and Ed into the river. Lewis breaks his femur and the others manage to swim ashore ashore alongside him, pinned under the overhanging cliff where the shooter may be above. The badly-injured Lewis believes the toothless hillbilly shot Drew and is now stalking them. Ed, in an almost superhuman demonstration of skill, climbs a nearby rock face in order to dispatch the suspected shooter using his bow, while Bobby stays behind to look after Lewis. Ed reaches the top and hides out until the next morning, when he sees the man he was looking for standing on the cliff holding a rifle, looking down into the gorge where Lewis and Bobby are hiding. The moment has an eerie quality, as if seen in a dream. Ed abhors violence, and killing, but he knows he's in a state of absolute natural selection. If he weakens, the half-wit hillbilly will surely despatch him.

Ed, a champion archer who nevertheless earlier lost his nerve while aiming at a deer, now freezes in spite of his clear shot--either out of extreme fear, or preternatural reluctance, we can't be sure. The man notices Ed and fires as Ed clumsily releases his arrow. In the movie version, the botched release of the arrow is made to seem as if the arrow has back-fired somehow and not been released, but instead stabs Ed. The man reaches Ed and is about to shoot him when he collapses, revealing an arrow sticking through him. This whole episode seems like a fantasy; did Ed really shoot him with the arrow, or what? The incident feels a little like the passage in The Shining when the metal door to the freezer compartment opens by itself to enable the Jack Nicholson character to escape. Ed lowers the body down the cliff with a rope and climbs down after it. His rope breaks and he falls in the river, not far from Bobby and Lewis.

Ed and Bobby weigh the dead hillbilly down with stones and drop him into the river. Later, they come upon Drew's grotesquely-contorted corpse and, after being unable to find any definite gunshot wound, they also weigh it down and sink it in the river to ensure that it will never be found. This business of drowning the dead bodies in the river has symbolic significance. The river valley itself will be inundated soon enough, concealing all its history and secrets of human presence. Near the end of the movie, grave-diggers are seen unearthing coffins from a cemetery, in order that they may be moved to new ground--it's an unsettling scene. The religious overtones are clear: Sinful acts can't be completely submerged or hidden. The guilt and consequences of evil or violence may float up to the surface, against our best efforts to keep them pushed down.

When the three survivors finally reach their destination, the town of Aintry (which will soon be submerged by the dammed river and is being evacuated), they take the injured Lewis to the hospital while the Sheriff comes to investigate the incident. One of the deputies has a missing brother-in-law, who may have been the man that Ed killed, and is highly suspicious. The three hastily concoct a cover story for the authorities about Drew's death and disappearance being an accident, lying about their ordeal to Sheriff Bullard (played by author James Dickey). The sheriff clearly doesn't believe them, but having no evidence and clearly sensing the truth of what happened, simply tells Ed: "Don't ever do nothin' like this again...Don't come back up here... I'd kinda like to see this town die peaceful," to which Ed readily agrees. The men vow to keep their story a secret for the rest of their lives, which proves to be psychologically burdensome for Ed; lying in bed with his wife, he awakes screaming from a nightmare in which Drew's hand is seen rising from the lake surface.

The men have suffered through an ordeal which they share, but the secret they've agreed to keep binds them together in ways they want to escape from. They've had a glimpse--in a very Conradian sense--of human vulnerability and culpability, and want no more to do with it. They'd prefer their tame games of golf, and gratefully embrace the familiar trappings of the secure, easy life they know. But there is a lingering sensation of enrichment as well. An experience as profound--and potentially life-changing--as this, wields an improbable power over these men's memories and characters. They appreciate civilization in a way they hadn't before, but they also perceive its fragility with an awful new objectivity. Men may dam nature up, contain it, bury it, conceal his own depredations of it, but nature won't be bottled up and tamed. It's inside of us, a part of our natures, and demands to be recognized. Our genetic inheritance isn't something we can manage as if it were a problem in corporate governance. We're capable of violence, and revenge, and ruthless acts of self-preservation. Under the grace and beauty and efficiency of selection and technological solutions, lies a stranger, intractable force.

This recognition would be familiar to readers of Dickey's poetry, where ritual killing and death and violence are regular subjects. It was part of what made his poetry powerful, if a bit brutish and relentless. Dickey was considered a bit reckless as a poet, but his daemon demanded nothing less. This proclivity for seeing life in terms of its most sharp challenges--in a competition with nature, or with other men (as in war)--undoubtedly was crucial in shaping Dickey's conservative attitudes towards American foreign policy during the post-war period. As a veteran of two wars, it would be unusual if he hadn't turned politically the way he did. As a generational split, it's completely appropriate and predictable. Men dressed in fatigues, hiking around the Appalachian hill country, carrying automatic weapons, isn't very far removed from soldiers patrolling the jungles of South Vietnam. The rehearsal of ritual manhood common to the country this fictional story describes, holds the same imaginative attraction we experience when thinking about any virtual battleground.

But Dickey loved wilderness. The wilderness in himself. The wilderness around us. The wilderness of our dreams and plans and the commitments we make. They are gestural and histrionic, but also fated and joined. Deliverance is a masterpiece of movie-making. It reminds me of another testing film, The Edge [1997], which starred Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin. Both are films that ask fundamental questions in the context of a state of nature.

Buster Posey & The Collision Rule Debate

Late Wednesday night I lay in bed, hanging on grimly as the home team Giants fought back from a 6-2 deficit against the visiting Florida Marlins. In the 9th inning, we got four runs in the last frame to tie it. Things couldn't have looked brighter. After having lost the first game to the fish, it looked as if we were going to extend our string of come-from-behind one-run wins during the last home-stand.

But it was not to be. We had men on second base twice, but couldn't get the big hit to finish it. Then, in the 12th inning, with a man on second, the Marlins batter hit a short fly ball to right-center, and Schierholtz (who has an arm like a cross-bow) caught the ball and fired home. The runner--Scott Cousins, a rookie trying to make the team after a stellar college career--was steaming in from third. Posey, who had had a history of hard knocks this season, crouched about two feet in front of home plate. Cousins, sensing correctly that the throw was going to beat him, decided to try to knock the ball out of Posey's glove, instead of sliding to the right in an attempt to evade the tag. He aimed straight for Posey's left shoulder. Posey wasn't able to handle the throw, as it turned out, but the impact of Cousins on Posey was catastrophic. Posey was spun 45 degrees to his left, and as his left leg twisted under him, he fell backwards, bending his left leg and ankle in a gruesome angle against the ground. Writhing in pain and pounding the turf, Posey lay in a heap. Cousins, realizing partly what had happened, reached over and touched Posey on the side, but then quickly walked away, not wanting to instigate a brawl.

As all the baseball world knows, Posey was the Rookie of the Year in 2010, leading the Giants to a world title. His debut--much like Lincecum's in 2007, was much heralded, and he didn't disappoint, moving right in to take over the catcher's position, and hitting a ton in his first full year.

The severity of his injury is still not completely known, but we do know that he broke one of the bones in his lower leg, and that there was "tearing" of ligaments in the ankle. Broken bones usually heal fairly quickly, and don't pose any long term problems for professional athletes. But ligaments are a different matter. Injuries to the knee or ankle (or foot) can take much longer to properly heal, and may have residual affects for years after. Depending upon the success of the surgery, and the rehabilitation regimen, it might take years before Posey could resume the squat position, which is what catchers do, if indeed he's ever able to go back to it.

There had been discussions about putting Posey at 1st or 3rd base, in order to relieve some of the wear and tear on his body--a problem which all catchers face--and lengthen his career. At this point, it doesn't appear that Posey has the power and punch of a Johnny Bench, or a Mike Piazza, but he was clearly going to have All Star quality for years to come. Mature, motivated, skilled--he had all the qualities and talent you need to make it in the big leagues. Posey's injuries could severely curtail his major league career, and almost certainly will shorten it. In immediate terms, he's lost for this season, and quite likely won't be up to full capacity for at least two years.

Could this injury have been avoided, and is it time, after a century of play, to institute new rules governing the impact of close plays at home plate, as has been done for close plays on the bases? Was Cousins intentionally attempting to cause injury to Posey? Did Cousins choose to hit Posey, in preference to sliding? Was that a correct choice, or one which ought to be forbidden by rule? Should players be fined for deliberately spearing catchers on these plays?

Traditionally, the collisions at second base and home have been a routine part of the game. Ty Cobb was notorious for sliding "high" into second base, raising his spikes high into the air, attempting to wound or intimidate second basemen or shortstops attempting to make a play on him. That practice has been curtailed somewhat by changes in rule, which prevent runners from going in with spikes first. But they still are permitted to slide in such a way as to impede the fielder, and injuries at second still happen from time to time. In plays at home, there has not been any significant change in the rules affecting how the catcher's position, or the runner's options, can be dictated. Some catchers attempt to "block" the plate, preventing the runners access to it. Some runners routinely choose to "tackle" the catcher, to prevent him from holding on to the ball during the catch and tag attempt. Other catchers will swat or stand just to the side of the plate, and other runners will slide far away from the side the catcher is on, stretching out to swipe the plate with one hand or toe. Catchers, of course, can't anticipate exactly where a throw from the outfield is going to be; more often than not, the throw goes "off-line" forcing the catcher to move to one side or the other to get it. Whatever the outcome, though, catchers are particularly vulnerable in these situations, because their attention is focused on the outfield, where the throw is coming from, instead of on the runner. Catchers are thus considered "defense-less" and in great jeopardy for injury, should the runner choose to collide with them, instead of sliding away from the catcher.

Videos of the play taken during the game clearly show that Cousins didn't need to hit Posey, who was squatting in front of the plate. He could have chosen to slide "wide" on the right side of the plate, and might very well have made it safely, even if Posey had managed to catch the throw cleanly. But Cousins decided to try to guarantee being safe, by hitting Posey hard enough to prevent him from making a clean catch and tag.

Because the home plate play is commonly accepted as a violent event, the issue of culpability doesn't center on Cousins per se, but on the "culture" of violent behavior which is broadly defined as a resolute and "manly" part of the sport. Baseball isn't, obviously, a "contact" sport, but the few instances in which it is, are of concern, because players don't wear--except for the catcher--any additional gear to protect themselves against violent impact. Baseball wasn't designed as a contact sport, and any injuries resulting from the collisions of players in the field, are, or should be, unintentional.

Everyone has an opinion about this, and I have too. I tend to think that Cousins made the decision he did, because he believed that hitting Posey increased his odds of success in scoring the go-ahead run. Cousins is batting "under his own weight" as a rookie, and his status with the Marlins is marginal, at best, given his performance to date. Cousins understood the culture of the play to be such that it permitted him to take the more destructive option. He believed he had tradition on his side. And, given the drift of comment in the media since the incident, with many advocating no rule change, he was right. But Posey's injury was still a needless outcome. Cousins made the wrong choice--that is, he was willing to put another (star) player's career at risk, in order to improve his chance for a relatively small success (in the larger context of careers and whole seasons). The Marlins are in a dog-fight for their division lead with the Phillies, but it's unlikely that their season will/would be decided on a single play, in a single game. Whatever you believe about "tradition" or "rules" Cousins clearly meant to risk hurt, and he did it with full knowledge of the possible consequences. It was a cowardly act, even if it was defensible as a "routine" play, under present rules.

If I were the commissioner, I would fine Cousins $50,000, and I would change the rules to prevent runners from "smashing" or "spearing" catchers at home plate. He may have ruined Posey's career. It's a small price to pay.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Men versus Machines

When I was a kid, hanging around pool halls or taverns was taboo. I had a friend named Jon, who, like me, had for a time, a paper delivery route. Except that Jon's, unlike mine (which was in a strictly residential neighborhood), included the seedier parts of the little California town in which we lived, where there was one of probably only two or three places where pool tables and pinball machines were. In very short order, my friend got to spending time playing snooker when he was supposed to be delivering papers.

I never got interested in pool, partly because it was never available to me during my formative years. At an age when guys were likely to take it up--between, say, the ages of 16 and 25--I was into philosophy and poetry and classical music. I didn't take up smoking or drinking either, so that world was largely closed to me. Gambling, getting loaded, or high, or simply into some small-time mischief, just never was in the cards for me. Which made it slightly difficult for me to understand why another friend I had, many years later, got such a kick out of spending weekends in Reno or Las Vegas, dropping $500-2000 on the blackjack, poker, roulette or craps tables, eating cheap food and generally wasting a lot of free time. He and his wife were such practical, level-headed types 98% of the time, it made me wonder what they saw in it.

When I was attending the Iowa Writers' Workshop in the early 1970's, the head of the department was George Starbuck. George was a sort of erudite polymath who could talk intelligently about almost any subject under the sun. He had an explosive wit, and could be charming and persuasive when he needed to be. But George could, on almost any given afternoon, be found hunched over a pin-ball machine in a local town tavern, transfixed by the progress of the little silver ball on its route down the lively obstacle course of the electrified turrets and flippers and buttons. He wasn't drunk, he wasn't depressed (at least not obviously so), he just loved to play that pin-ball machine. (We, his students, used to speculate that the pin-ball machine was a metaphorical representation of how his lively mind worked, ricocheting puns and rhymes and cross-rhythms as cute as any in his playful light verse poems.)

The thing about pin-ball machines is that there's only so much "body language" you can use to exert "influence" over the progress of the ball, before the machine--armed with sensitizers set to sense changes in the balance of the carriage--goes into "tilt" mode, terminating the game. Serious pin-ball enthusiasts have a dialogue with the "tilt" sensors, giving the box a gentle little nudge, now and then, to coax the ball a little bit to the left, a little bit to the right, to get just that merest edge to keep the ball bouncing off the sides and stations, lighting them up and making them chime and buzz and bong and buzz and ring.

My point in talking about pin-balls is that it always seemed to me that playing a game in which the putative "opponent" is a machine, rather than another human being (or an animal, such as a horse), always seemed like an artificial contest, one in which the "skill" or ability in winning was waged against another automated, concocted, engineered human construct. Competing with machines may be the ultimate human irony.

In the pre-computer age, trying to beat machines such as pin-balls, or slot machines (or "one-armed bandits"), had a silly futility about it, as if the simple act of playing were nothing but an admission that the time spent doing so was as meaningless as the life of the player. The probability of actually "winning" on a pin-ball, or on a slot-machine--feeding coins in one by one and yanking on the crank-arm, over and over and over--seemed very much beside the point, because whatever the pay-off, in pleasure, or the relatively tiny "purse" might be, nothing could be more demeaning than submitting to the seduction of such puny diversions. Toys for adults.

I must admit to having something like the same feeling of pointless futility when confronted by the personal computer. What, after all, is a computer, but a sort of arcade game screen, a very sophisticated bar-machine with more bells and whistles than we could ever have imagined as children growing up in the 1950's, '60's '70's or '80's?

People who spend time in bars, drinking, or looking for action, have to have some kind of diversion. How much idle talk is there, after all, to fill up an afternoon or an evening in a state of semi- or total inebriation? There are a lot of weird games people think up to entertain the slaves of the bottle, or the lonely and aimless, or the bored and restless. Is there something I missed over the years, unable to see the joy and fun in playing these mechanical toys?

Pin ball and slot machines are very much American things. Both were invented here, and have evolved and been perfected over the decades. Since the emergence of the silicon chip, they have become quite sophisticated, though the unpredictability and challenge are inherently limited to the aptitude of the user (or player). The pin-ball player of 1940 would be astonished at how sophisticated places arcades are today, though the underlying relationship between player and game has not appreciably changed.

Playing such mechanical games is in fact a form of gambling, of course, though their lower risk level may be a reflection less of the sensible control of jeopardy, than of a reduced estimation of the potentials of a given life. Anything built by man can be overcome by man. But the point of novelty or "entertainment" machines seems more a kind of artificial pastime, than of any ultimate test of ability or knack. People seem to feel the need to indulge in some kind of permitted play, perhaps wanting to revisit the innocent delight of childhood, or the sense of mischief experienced in adolescence.

These machines are so sophisticated today, that probabilities can be "set" to payoff with a mathematical regularity which insures their profit-making return. With pin-ball machines, the difficulty is only rewarded with free games. Any pin-ball which is too easy, or too hard, quickly bores its user. Most people who play slots--like those who play card games or the like--really expect to lose. Gambling addiction is a well-identified psychiatric disorder, as powerful as the addiction to drugs or sex. But gambling is not restricted to casinos or tavern machines.

The Stock Market is the ultimate casino, where the only real reliable winners are those who run the joint--the brokers and fund managers, and the insiders who cheat the system.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Wittgenstein's Tractatus - Model of Creative Thinking

Ludwig Wittgenstein published his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus [or Logical-Philosophical Treatise] in 1921.* Written shortly after WWI, during which its author had suffered something akin to a nervous breakdown following service in the war, as a soldier and later as a prisoner. In philosophical circles, the Tractatus (as it its commonly called), has been a notorious and admired text in its field, as well as a model of thought and approach for others in disciplines as widely separated as physics, linguistics, literature, music and so forth.

Wittgenstein was an eccentric. Inheriting a huge fortune from his family, he undertook to divest it at once, taking a sort of secular vow of poverty for the rest of his life. Obsessed by certain philosophical questions, he was at first viewed by some as a hack or nut-case. Eventually, after years of study, he assumed the chair of philosophy at Cambridge (England). He published little during his lifetime, though his own collected works and the books made of the contents of notes taken by his students at Cambridge, produced posthumously, runs to a half dozen volumes.

Much in the manner of 19th Century philosophers, Wittgenstein's seminal work is a system-building work, intended to interpret and consolidate much if not all previous thought into a simplified outline as a model for error-free apprehension of phenomena. But with a difference. Unlike his predecessors, Ludwig wrote his treatise in a quasi-mathematical format of numbered statements, rather like a rule-book or set of progressive directions. The structure builds out of its initial all-encompassing pronouncements rather in the way that geometry or calculus manuals do, by enumerating a sequence of axioms intended to define the relationships of all shapes in three-dimensional space. Euclidean geometry was the first attempt to set up an interlocking system of theorems and propositions which could serve as the basis for the application of knowledge about the universe to practical problems, as well as theoretical investigations into phenomena. A set of axioms sets up a hierarchical canon of interdependent relationships, which are all related to one another through their interlocking laws and common structures. It's a powerful mental tool for building organically expanding thought(s).

Later in his career, Wittgenstein repudiated some of the principles of the Tractatus, or he incorporated its implications into his changing view of its meaning. The latter half of his career was devoted to a process of piecemeal interrogation of language itself--turning language backward, or inward, upon itself to reveal its inherent presumptions or contradictions. This was accomplished by examining, or dissecting, or deconstructing seemingly simple or "obvious" statements, and showing how language fails to provide a reliable basis for the systematic verification of sensory data, definitions, or valid communication among individuals. By undermining the classic presumptions of language, Wittgenstein was able to render much of philosophy as faulty, since all thought is dependent, to some degree or other, upon language for its structure and foundation. By language, Wittgenstein wasn't simply applying his analytical genius to verbal language, but upon all systems of representation, including mathematical symbols, and other kinds of symbolic systems.

There is a kind of ironic circularity in attempting to discuss the problems of language inside language, since there is no escaping the limitations of any system of symbols and meanings if you are using that system to express your analysis of the system itself. Of course, Wittgenstein wasn't simply trying to lay bare the structural vagaries of language, but also attempting to describe mental processes and interactions in the real world which depend upon linguistic presumptions. Thus language became both the tool and the barrier to his pursuit of truth. And this irony is never lost on Wittgenstein--he seems ever ready to exploit it, in ways that you wouldn't have guessed. His ability to bring these linguistic revelations about is almost a kind of witchery, and the feeling it inspires is not unlike what Emily Dickinson said in describing what poetry could do--"like feeling the top of your head come off."

Movements in European philosophy following WWII pursued many of the pathways that Wittgenstein had either opened, or suggested in his work and lectures and Cambridge. Modern linguistics owes much to his pioneering work. Wittgenstein's model of deconstructing language units is one of principle tools used to undermine the classic texts and works of Western thought. It was a very short distance between seeing how fragile our grasp of reality and meaning was--via language--and realizing how important the value of the creative use of language could be in defining new values in works of art, thought and speculation. The whole campaign of the dismantling of traditional art and literature has been seen to follow logically from the deconstruction of fixed notions of textual meaning and firm foundational reliance.

It was only natural that Wittgenstein's Tractatus should become a kind of model of assertion and/or a formal skeleton upon which to build aesthetic verbal structures. In traditional logic and linguistics textbooks, there were the question-and-answer exercises designed to elicit a spontaneous understanding of the loops and triggers that govern ordinary grammatical structures. Dead-ends, spin-outs, open and closed fallacies, strategies of argumentation, etc. Serious logic and semantics, styles of reasoning, etc., are fields of inquiry which would at first seem to be alien to the aesthetics of music, literature, and other kinds of formal expression, but they are quite closely related, especially at the level of fine detail familiar to students of epistemology, ethics, higher physics, behavioral and theoretical psychology, theories of the progression of history, and so forth.

Much of Modernist literature rests upon the failure of scientific investigation and empirical practice to furnish reliable bases for the understanding of culture: Meaning, behavior, value. A spreading field of relativity across all disciplines caused artists in all fields to experience a feeling of "drift" or "rootlessness" unlike anything described by thinkers or artists in the previous 2500 years. The Surrealists, for instance, repudiated truth and meaning and accepted "realities" in favor of baffling, illogical, absurd or repulsive acts, works, and assertions. Post-war American and European painters abandoned representation in favor of complete Abstraction. Pointillism, Futurism, Cubism, Fauvism, Impressionism, Precisionism, Rationalism, Brutalism--seemingly an inexhaustible supply of names were summoned up over the last century to provide some nomenclatural legitimacy to different ways of expressing the breakdown of the representational impulse in art and thought. It was inevitable that a percipient mind like Wittgenstein's would apply the same kind of analytical inquiry to ordinary language that others were rendering in the plastic arts.

What I noticed immediately when the first Language Poetry works began to appear, was a common effort to employ the philosophical-mathematical model of an incremental notational sequence, which Wittgenstein had "invented" in the Tractatus. But the participants of the Language School weren't philosophers or logicians; they were poets!

The earliest examples of the tendency to use the logical sequence vehicle to create incremental faux-logical poem structures were Barrett Watten's poem Factors Influencing the Weather, his collections Decay, 1-10, Plasma/Paralleles/X, Complete Thought, and his book-length poem Progress; Silliman's sections from The Alphabet; nearly all of Armantrout's work, beginning with Extremities (in 1978); Peter Seaton's Agreement (1978). There are doubtless several others; I am not a dogged reader of Language Poetry writing. Pre-cursors to a sense of writing which rejects the representational basis of language and the inherent "logic"of grammar would be Gertrude Stein, and Louis Zukofsky. Later pre-cursors would include John Ashbery (see his Multiple Choice Questions), and Jackson Mac Low. Overtly "unpoetic" linguistic devices such as chance combinations, fragmentation, various "automatic" writing techniques, in addition to mathematical sequences and logical devices--explored at the level of the phrase--have continued to inform the movement since its inception.

In previous posts
I explored Silliman's use of the free-form paragraphic prose-poetic structure, asking "What are the implications of wanting to make a prose sequence in which the individual sentences do not relate, sequentially, to each other?" Exploiting the possibilities of poly-contextuality at the level of the paragraph--rather than the sentence--or individual word--Silliman seems to accept the denotative (and connotative) potential of the grammatical unit (a sentence). As does Watten, whose use of the incremental sequence form seems to posit a reordering of the position of address proposed by Wittgenstein (i.e., I am a person expelling probative missives into blank space, hoping to strike a nerve), in which each statement is an expression of a degree of disorientation appropriate to the specific case. Watten's early works cited above, seem like a direct appropriation of the Tractatus model of a faux-logical numbered sequence project, combined with the practice-b00k exercises from a Linguistics 1A lab manual--that's the source of their irony and their humor. Feeling the autonomy of the language coming out of one's mouth may signal a failure of the deliberate function of the creative impulse; accepting this phenomena as if it were a gift of the oracle may seem opportunistic at times.

Armantrout's poems--and I do refer to them as poems, which, I believe they are, in every sense of the word--use language almost as if it were a ventriloquial act. She seems incapable of speaking any phrase, of expressing any thought, without at the same time hearing it as the utterance of some other agency, of carrying, as it were, meanings other than those which she might think to ask of it. This duality--in which the hearing of familiar kinds of speech yields double- and triple-entendres--is a little like listening to a tape of oneself in conversation, noting its rhythms and tones and particular (nearly unconscious) intuitive insinuations--then setting up pieces of this raw matter into shrewd dialectical sequences--a kind of dialogue of self and soul, if you will--where one is talking without being quite aware of the implications of what one has actually said. Each sentence, each phrase, becomes an axiom of a system of logical (or illogical) progressions, which lay bare the hypocrisy or jeopardy or humor of the emotion contained in the language itself.


* Note: I have not described Wittgenstein's Tractatus for the purposes of this essay, assuming that readers will already be familiar with the work, and/or its basic methodology. Wittgenstein, his work, and the meaning and significance of the Tractatus is a very large subject, which I'm obviously not at liberty to address in this short essay. Equally, I have not quoted from the works cited, hoping to rely, again, on the reader's familiarity with the material.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Giants at the Quarter Season Mark

It's a long season.

Back on March 31st, I speculated about the Giants' chances in 2011, after a surprising world championship in 2010. The team's starting line-up--

Andres Torres
Freddy Sanchez
Aubrey Huff
Buster Posey
Pat Burrell
Miguel Tejada
Brandon Belt
Pablo Sandoval
Tim Lincecum

--has changed, predictably, given injuries and the ups and downs of individual performance. Brian Wilson began the season on the DL, and shortly afterward was joined by Torres and Cody Ross. DeRosa, nursing a bad wrist that didn't respond to treatment, was still in rehab; Freddy Sanchez has had knee problems; Brandon Belt couldn't hit big-league pitching and was sent down for more seasoning in the minors; and Pablo Sandoval broke a tiny bone in his hand, necessitating a month and a half on the disabled list. Barry Zito also managed to hurt himself, apparently for the first time in his career--though there were rumors the team management were actually kind of relieved that they didn't have to worry about him for a while.

Meanwhile, the team's inter-season acquisition, Miguel Tejada, was a flop, batting around .200, and making costly errors in the field at both Third and Short. I will note that I was disappointed when the Giants made no effort to keep Uribe (who signed with the Dodgers), who had been the true glue in the Giants infield in 2010. Bringing in Tejada, whose numbers had been steadily declining for the last three years, at age 37 (Uribe is only 31), looks to have been a really dumb move on Sabean's part. The addition of Mike Fontenot and Burrell for utility fill-in has been, again, predictably unsuccessful.

Throughout the first 35 games of the year, the whole team has been in a batting slump (with the exception of Sandoval, who's unavailable for at least another month). With Torres out, the team led-off with Rowand, who performed in his usual frustrating, streaky, manner. Huff, Burrell and Posey all were hitting in the low two-hundreds for this period, and team "power" simply didn't exist. Without speed, or power, it's hard to see how any team so constructed could long compete.

But pitching has been the story this year, as it was last year. Lincecum, Cain and Sanchez have mostly been very good, with Bumgarner taking over Cain's old "hard luck" position (starting the season presently at 1-6). With Zito out, new arrival (and reconstruction project) Ryan Vogelsong has been a pleasant surprise, winning three of his four starts, with a 2.36 ERA. Among relievers, only Affeldt seems to be underperforming. Wilson has 12 saves, despite 2 terrible outings. And Ramirez, Lopez and Romo have been the brilliant set-up men they were last year. With Ross and Schierholtz (who finally seems to be coming into his own as an all around fine hitting outfielder) in place of Rowand, and Burrell, the line-up looks solid, at least on paper. DeRosa's career--and the Giants' patience with him--seems finally at an end. What would have happened had the Giants put out the cash to keep Uribe (and Ishikawa)--instead of signing Tejada and sticking with DeRosa? Team chemistry is a funny thing. Tejada may seem committed, but his body language and approach seem very compromised--his career is clearly about done. Belt might be brought back up, but there shouldn't be any hurry about that (he's only 23).

Another encouraging sign is Bumgarner, who, despite having very frustrating numbers, has stayed focused and pitched very well last night against the Dodgers at Dodger Stadium, narrowly missing a shut-out (and his first complete game). Take away Sandoval's .313 average when he went down, and the team's combined average is only .238, compared to last year's total year's figure of .257. Clearly, the team won't be able to hold the line with that kind of offense (especially without any power numbers). Last year the team hit 162 homers; at the current pace, the team would hit only 124).

With 43 games completed, the Giants are 24-19. That would yield 90 wins at a steady pace. Last year, the team was 92-70. You could say the team is performing at about the same efficiency and success as it did in their championship year of 2010. But you'd be wrong. Almost no one on the present team is performing the way they've been expected to. At this point in the season, Lincecum should have at least 5 wins, Posey should be batting .300 with 35 RBI's, Huff should have 8 homers, and so on. When Sandoval comes back, that will help, but it can't cure this present anemic batting.

At least two position players will have to start performing up to skill-level, or the wins will stop coming. Last year's surprising play-off run was the result of the old adage about good pitching prevailing in a short series (5-7 games). This year, if the team continues at its present clip, the play-offs are definitely in the picture. But running on three wheels is always risky. With an improved offense, the pitching would have much more impact. The Phillies are only 2 games better than the Giants, despite a hefty power-laden line-up.

There's only so much tinkering you can do with a fluid line-up; Bochy has been moving players around freely to maximize whatever potential the team can muster. But he's no miracle worker. The guys have got to start hitting. There's been a hint of that lately--we got 13 hits on Wednesday, 10 the day before, and 10 the day before that. But there's a briskness, a friskiness which is lacking. The averages of batters with men in scoring position is woeful. Repeatedly, the team fails to pad leads, or to come through in tight situations when there are runs on the table. Back in 2009, I complained that too many Giants hitters were undisciplined at the plate--Molina, Burriss, Renteria, Sandoval, Fredy Lewis, Rowand, Winn, Uribe, Schierholtz, Velez, Torres--as well over 2/3's of the offense performed like minor leaguers, swinging at balls a foot outside or in the dirt, trying to out-guess the pitchers. That lack of discipline is still evident in Rowand and Tejada this year, though there have been stretches when Huff and Posey (and Belt) were just as sophomoric in their performance. What's the problem? In 2009, I thought it was the hitting coach. But now I'm not sure what the problem is. Are the players still "distracted" by the hoopla over their championship season last Fall?

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Fine Art of Calling Strikes

Watching major league baseball games on television is a sedentary activity. You won't get into shape by sitting on your butt. But following professional baseball is a mental activity which has spawned a whole technology of statistical data. There are people who apply higher level algebra to the diagnosis of statistical performance. They measure nearly everything that happens on the field, and cross-refer it by player, situation, across time, frequency, and everything else. Frankly, I'm not one of these types.

I watch my team (the San Francisco Giants), and cheer or moan in proportion to their relative success on the field or in the standings. It's a pastime well-documented in the literature. There are books by serious guys explaining the philosophical and psychological reasons we become obsessed by adult men playing games in public.

Of all the games designed by man for his own diversion, none is so carefully gauged to test the limits of skill, speed, attention and strength as baseball. The dimensions of the field, the distances and relationships, seem so accurate a measure of the tolerances between opposing contenders that the contest is literally a "game of inches"--or, indeed, of millimeters.

However, something I've become more and more aware of, over the course of the last five years or so, has been the touchy matter of the official strike zone. Most people who watch baseball, either in person, or on the media, pretty much accept the definition of the strike zone as an act of god. In the old days, when we listened mostly to baseball on the radio, you couldn't see the balls being pitched, and so if you heard a man being called out on strikes, you tended to think the batter had been outsmarted or had capitulated to the pressure of the occasion. Players might be thrown out of a game for arguing strikes, either pitchers or batters, and umpires were known to "punish" certain players for not being properly "respectful" to an umpire's calls. Umpires didn't like being "shown up" by a player, demonstratively objecting to an umpire's "judgment."

Television has become relatively sophisticated in its presentation of the action on the field. In some parks, cameras are mounted on the roof of the stadium, which can look directly down on the field of play. Cameras mounted directly behind home plate, or aimed in from behind center field, can provide an accurate view of the ball as it crosses the plate. What has become perfectly obvious to even casual viewers these days, is that home plate umpires don't call balls and strikes consistently. That is, the so-called "strike zone" is constantly changing. Each umpire's "strike zone" is unique, and may even change from inning to inning, or batter to batter, or pitcher to pitcher, depending upon the case. Some pitchers are apparently "granted" more leeway than others, while others see their strike zone "squeezed" by the umpire, as "payback" for previous offenses, or simply because the umpire appears to have some prejudicial regard for the teams involved. A batter may be "punished" for some previous sin, or an umpire may be trying to "balance" a previous bad call by reversing the tables in favor of the injured party.

All these kinds of excuses do nothing to rectify what has become--or, perhaps, may always have been--a very inexact science. There is always the "human element" in any judgment situation, apologists will insist. Umpires are human, they make mistakes, they have emotions, they have their moods, their biological ups and downs, and managing a game by defining the limits of the tolerable is partly an intuitive matter.

But we all know in our hearts that the criteria for acceptable risk and measure is truth, not some preferable or compromised standard. Balls should be balls, and strikes should be strikes, and it should be the same no matter who is doing the calling, or who is at the plate, or who is pitching, or which teams are playing, or what inning it is, or how well the umpire likes player X, or the weather, or the standings, or the price of beans. If we are willing to allow any other "extenuating" circumstances to justify departures from the rule, we've admitted to failure even before we've started play. Individual umpires can't be allowed to have "personal" strike zones, and the calling of pitches can't be allowed to descend into contentious interpersonal gamesmanship. The efficiency and accuracy of an umpire's calls should be based on the accuracy of the calls alone, and nothing else.

Baseball's official rule book states as below, the dimensions of the strike zone.

Over the last half century, the evolution of the game had caused umpires to lower and widen the strike zone, a trend which was officially changed in an official directive by Major League Baseball in 2001, insisting that henceforth, the old rule should be reinstated, to prevent false calls. So far as I can tell, this has had no appreciable effect on the strike zone interpretation in the last decade. Umpires still routinely call balls above the belt balls, and umpires routinely call strikes below the knees, and an inch or two outside the outer edge of the plate (away from the batter). Why do these anomalies persist? Why is the strike zone allowed to be "enterprised" by "creative" interpretations?

Based on my purely unprofessional observations of the behavior of umpires calling balls and strikes, I think umpires have become the unofficial arbiters of games, which should be decided by the performance of the players, and the strategical moves of their managers and coaches, instead of upon the vagaries of the umpires' calls. Umpires' calls need to be more closely monitored, and consistency needs to be improved. How could this be done?

Do we have the technology to actually measure actual strikes by some holographic electronic rectangular frame projection? If not now, then someday? Would taking the "human element" out of the calling of balls and strikes somehow make the game less "human"? Or, should we rate umpires by the percentage of calls that can actually be shown to be technically wrong? Does Major League Baseball already do this--behind closed doors? Be careful of what you wish for!

Above is Ted Williams's location chart of the averages he believed applied to pitches in each part of the quadrant of the strike zone. Click on it to see the averages. But Williams's theory doesn't include the umpire's capriciousness. If an umpire is calling strikes two inches off the plate, having an "accurate" strike zone isn't going to help the batter much. Or conversely, if the umpire isn't calling "high" strikes properly, the pitcher is going to be at a definite disadvantage. Either way, the game's fairness gets compromised. Great players will overcome adversities of various kinds, and quality will prevail. But it would be nice if we could see better performance by the umpires. Since they have so much power over the outcomes of games, their accuracy and consistency should be at least as closely watched and administered as any other part of the process.