Thursday, July 29, 2010

New Book Out

My new book, Vacation Days, will be hitting the bookstores any day now. It sort of just came together from odd bits of writing I’d done in journals and in my quarterly pamphlet, a very-hard-to-get publication which has the same name as this easy-to-get blog, though somewhat longer essays. My original intention had been to collect a bunch of my “Up North” pieces and add some new material in the same vein. I thought I might do an essay describing the years I worked at a summer canoe camp, and another one about a 600-mile canoe trip I took with a friend to Lake Winnipeg one hot summer decades ago. But in the end, I didn’t really feel much like revisiting (and revising) my adolescent self, dredging up those memories and trying to hammer them into a coherent form (while eliminating all the stupidity and pretension) so I scrounged up some essays from more recent trips to the American West, and that was probably a good idea.

The book now has two sections, “Always in the Woods” and “Father Afield.” The former deals with woodsy stuff in Minnesota and Northern Wisconsin, though there are also essays about the state fair and a weekend trip to Willmar. The later covers quite a bit of territory, including the Apostle Islands sea caves, the Sparta-Elroy bike trails, Rocky Mountain National Park in October, Arches National Park, Big Sur, Yosemite, Devil’s Tower, Cloud Peak Wilderness, Medicine Wheel, Cody, Yellowstone, the hot springs in Thermopolis, the lost civilization at Range Creek, Utah, various canyons and pueblos in Northern New Mexico, and the North California coast.

I was originally going to call the book "Always in the Woods," but no one liked that title except me, and I will admit that any title you have to explain the meaning of probably isn’t the right one.
"Vacation Days" came to me one day out of thin air. It seemed totally right—especially once I’d expanded the focus of the essays.

I still like the phrase "Always in the Woods," however, and kept it as a section title, where it won’t do much harm. I’ve pasted in the intro to that section here:

“Many years ago I worked at a canoe camp for a few summers. We took kids, sometimes only a few years younger than ourselves, “on the trail” for a week or two in the BWCA and sometimes further north into the wilds of North Ontario. We’d arrive back at camp worn out but exhilarated by our adventures, take a blistering sauna, enjoy a hearty meal with real meat and real potatoes, and then engage in a ceremonial evening around a fire in the camp’s oldest log structure. On one occasion my fellow counselor (we usually went out in pairs) gave the introductory speech as we sat in the dark in rickety canvas chairs with the light of the fire flickering in our faces. He concluded his little peroration to the campers with the remark, “…so wherever you go in life from this point on, you’ll always be in the woods.”

I can’t say whether it was exhaustion, the utter relaxation brought about by the food and the sauna, or the smoke from the fire, but when I heard those words, “you’ll always be in the woods,” I had to muster every bit of self-control at my disposal not to burst out laughing. The expression “in the woods” (as you probably know) has the same idiomatic sense as “out in left field.” Today we would say that someone who’s “in the woods” is essentially clueless.

That’s not what my friend meant, of course. He was trying to suggest that the experience of being in the woods affects us at an elemental level, giving us a radically different perspective on life, not through brilliant intellectual constructs but viscerally, in ways we can’t describe, and seldom feel the need to. Perhaps it’s odd that I should remember that trivial event, but it’s stayed with me like a Zen koan, and I’ve even come to believe that the deepening in perspective we derive from wilderness travel is related to the condition of being clueless—in a good way. I guess the joke was on me.

During those years when I spent my summers in the North Woods, I also worked at the Bell Museum of National History on the campus of the University of Minnesota. I’d sit on the tile floor in front of those beautiful dioramas of timber wolves, elk, and moose, surrounded by obstreperous grade school kids, one of whom would invariably raise his or her hand as if to ask a question and then say, pointing proudly, “My daddy shot one of those.”

I sometimes spent a few minutes in the break room with the other guides, too, and in the course of time I developed a scheme to describe the varieties of nature-enthusiasm I met up with there. Some people cultivate a relationship with nature through hunting, fishing, and woodcraft. Some satisfy the need to work out-of-doors through scientific research, examining the pollen in pond muck or charting the growing season of the dwarf trout lily. Some see nature largely as a playing field within which to pursue extreme sports. And some take an entirely poetic stance, exploiting nature as an environment within which to probe life’s mysteries in solitude and silence, while drawing upon it as a font of metaphor or moral instruction.

These approaches are not mutually exclusive, of course. It seems to me that nowadays we sometimes place too much emphasis on ecological analysis at the expense of poetic insight, leaving ourselves with the unpleasant impression that nature will do just fine—so long as we’re not there. Only rarely do we catch wind, at parks and government-funded nature centers, of the long tradition of reverence toward nature, both poetic and metaphysical, that extends back through time from Gary Snyder, John Muir, and Henry David Thoreau to the Romantic poets of the late eighteenth century, the Neo-Platonists of the Renaissance, the Chinese poets of the Tang Dynasty, and the Pre-Socratic philosophers of ancient times.

Perhaps it’s significant that the word Plato uses to describe the primordial stuff of matter actually means “wood.”

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Two Films

How often does it happen that you see two really top-flight films back to back on consecutive nights? Two films, moreover, that differ radically in tone while harboring the same import?

That pretty well describes my week-end—aside from the attack of gout.

Last night we went to see Io Sono l'Amore (I Am Love), a lavish Italian production that has been compared to the best works of Lucino Visconti. The comparison is only superficially apt. Visconti’s works are carefully designed and cinematographically dense—even such black-and-white productions as Obsessione and La Terra Trema--but the films are also but rather stagy. The Italian version of The Leopard may be Visconti's best film … but come on, it stars Burt Lancaster!

The distinctive thing about I Am Love is that although it’s cinematically rich, it’s un-stagy. It seems we’ve been given a “fly-on-the-wall” point of perspective on the comings and goings of a wealthy multi-generational Italian family. I don’t have the background to say that it’s entirely accurate, but the presentation is certainly natural and artful, rather than forced and “arty.”

The first ten minutes concern themselves with snow falling across modern-day Milan. Sound exciting? It isn’t. But it is mesmerizing. During the next quarter-hour, we follow members of the Recchi family as they gather to celebrate the paterfamilias’s birthday. Everyone greets one another, hugs are exchanged, we see the cooks and maids scurrying here and there, and we attempt to decipher, by picking up stray snatches of conversation, who these people are and what, exactly, is going on. The camera focuses on any number of odd but interesting details, as if to rid us from the notion that we’re following a specific narrative thred and force us to settle back in our seats and watch this family’s life develop.

The lifestyle itself is opulent … but conservative. The family members are well-mannered, considerate, sincere. Yes, Edo lost the race that morning, breaking family tradition. (We’re never told what kind of race it was.) His grandfather is disappointed but Edo is unperturbed—the better man won, he says. That evening the old man announces he’s retiring from the family’s clothing corporation and names his successor. The choice comes as a surprise to many people sitting around the table.

Meanwhile, the man who beat Edo in the race arrives to present a cake he’s baked as a sort of apology. He’s a chef named Antonio. He works in his father’s restaurant, wants to start his own. He’s not of the same caste as these folk, but Edo seems almost to be in love with him. (Edo’s arriviste fiancée is already pregnant.)In a later scene at Antonio's family villa in the mountains north of town, the two discuss how the financing of the new restaurant can be arranged.

No one disputes that the man is a genius in the kitchen.

Tilda Swindon, in the role of Edo’s mother, attends not only to his concerns, but also to those of her just-coming-out lesbian daughter, her other son, her square-jawed and rather lackluster husband, and her mother-in-law (played by Merisa Berenson, whom you may remember from Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon of a few decades back.) The scenes flow one into the next, we’re not sure which threads are the important ones.

And that’s what makes the film so interesting. It’s as if the director, Luca Guadagnino, wants us to see not only the most dramatic turn of events but also the paintings on the wall, the tile on the floor, the glaze on the shrimp, and the insects buzzing amid the clover. He’s equally interested in the reactions of the brother-in-law and the maid, as interested in the shape of the distant hills as the health of the family’s clothing factory and the aroma rising from the fish soup.

There are a few excesses. In his efforts to extend the sex scenes, for example, Guadagnino intersperses naturalistic details that seem drawn from junior high “birds-and-bees” filmstrips. But considered all-in-all, I Am Love maintains a level of intelligence, intrigue, and visceral appeal that I haven’t seen in movie theater in a long, long time. Marks of character are delineated in a single line or glance, each one contributing to the larger picture without drawing undue attention to itself. The score by composer John Adams (No, not John Williams) intensifies the emotional effect at many turns of the path.

On the face of things, no film could be more dissimilar from I Am Love than The Hidden Blade, a samurai film by Japanese director Yoji Yamata (Twilight Samurai). The camera angles are restricted, the dwellings are earthy, the living conditions humble for the most part. Yet the themes are exactly the same—honor, romance, caste.

The film focuses on Munezo, a samurai whose father had been forced to commit hari kari to preserve the honor of the family when the town council discovers some irregularities in the accounts, though he had personally done no wrong. Munezo’s friend Yaichuro has left their clan's fiefdom on the northwest coast of Japan to work for the shogunate in far away Edo, and Munezo lives modestly with his mother, his sister, and a local farm girl named Kia who serves them as a maid.

Both Munezo’s sister and Kia evenutually marry, though Kia’s domestic situation proves oppressive and Munezo is driven to rescue her from her husband's family and re-install her as his personal maid. When scandal erupts he sends Kia back to her father's farm. And when his friend Yaichiro returns home in disgrace as a military prisoner, things go from bad to worse. Yaichiro escapes and Munezo is ordered by the clan elders to kill his old friend. Yaichiro had been the better swordsman when they studied together, but their instructor Toda entrusted the secret of the "Hidden Blade" only to Munezo.

The entire story, of which I've only mentioned a few salient details, takes place within the context of the introduction of firearms to Japan. Munezo exhibits all the modesty and circumspection we've come to expect from Yamata’s heroes. The final duel between Munezo and Yaichuro is gripping, but it isn’t the end of the story. What will become of sweet, innocent Kia, and the clan elders who drove Yaichuro to revolt in the first place?

Rent the DVD and see.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

BWCA : Elemental

It was supposed to be an easy trip … and for the most part, it was. We camped at Trail’s End campground after the long drive north and headed south on Seagull the next morning, intending to camp for a few days at the south end of the lake at a favorite spot.

The weather was iffy, however, and that first night at Trail’s End we ate our dinner (sandwiches from the Coho Cafe) in a drizzle while sitting in the steamy confines of the car. A hawk was perched above our heads on a dead tree a few feet away and he continued to keen the entire evening—a single, sharp, mournful, high-pitched note with a slight rise at the end of it, repeated again and again.

A half-hour after dinner the sky had cleared and we walked out onto the cliffs above the lake, half-wooded and half-burnt to a crisp, as is most of the landscape in that region nowadays. Evening sun glancing off the straw-colored grasses, raspberries and blueberries everywhere.

The stars that night were brighter than I’d seen them in years. The gas clouds in the midst of the Milky Way were plainly visible, and minute stars were twinkling everywhere with a strange intensity against the jet-black enormities of space.

We awoke the next morning to the sound of wind. It wasn’t so bad on the back channels at the north end of Seagull Lake, but once we’d past the Palisades things got pretty fierce. I got down on my knees—to paddle, not to pray—and we both donned our life-jackets. There were squalls on top of whitecaps, and we struggled to pass the open reaches between islands, knowing full well that half way down the lake the islands give out, with several miles of open water still lying ahead.

When we reached a little sand bar at the south end of the last island, it was obvious that the open lake was too rough to traverse, so we headed down the back-side of Three-Mile Island and found a ragged but sheltered campsite which (as is invariably the case) became more attractive and even cozy once we’d set up camp and spent some time there. I cleared a few trees that had fallen across the path to the privy, Hilary scooped up some of the assorted twigs and branches that were littering the site, and we settled in for a long afternoon of reading, swimming, berry-picking, and aimless staring off across the bay at the cliffs and hills on the far side. It was what we’d intended to do all along, and the fact that we were doing it in an unfamiliar place merely added to the fun.

At one point two Canada jays paid us a visit. One of them spotted a stray peanut and found it to his liking. He then hopped over to the zip-lock plastic bag full of Chinese cracker snacks lying nearby. He had difficulty puncturing the bag, however, and made an attempt to fly off with the whole thing, at which point I found it necessary to intervene.

We listened to the call of the white-throated sparrows—a simple but not quite monotonous series of notes that was repeated endlessly from every part of the woods behind our camp. The sputtering chuck-chuck song of the song sparrow, less frequent but still seemingly ever-present, offered a pleasant point of contrast, while the occasional twardle and cluck of the cheery robin sounded down-right suburban. At long intervals a winter wren would start in on his extremely long and rapid-fire sequence of notes and squawks, which might be rendered typographically as follows: x!ptew#utut?+?+slewphew* .

As usual, I found that the books I’d brought didn’t really hold my interest in the face of the elements all around me—their density, their immediacy. Opening The Temptation to Exist by E.M. Cioran, I read, “At whatever level our life is lived, it will be truly our own only in proportion to our efforts to break its apparent forms. Ennui, despair, abulia, will help us here, on condition, of course, that we make our experience of them complete, that we live them through to the moment when, risking surrender, we rise up and transform them into auxiliaries of our vitality…”

But in the north woods the forms are few, simple, and impossible to break. Paddle, observe, eat, listen, sleep…. The wind continued to rise, disquieting in its gustiness, though when it stopped for more than a few seconds, the flies and the heat began to reassert themselves.

Every now and again, as I sat in my Thermo-rest camp chair (which is merely a couple of plastic braces with webbing into which you strap your air mattress, making a sort of back support while sitting on the ground) trying to digest Cioran, I would hear a low-pitched, hollow clank as the canoe, bobbing in the cove at the far side of the camp, brushed against the shore or the dead tree to which it was hitched. If it blew off with the wind we’d be in real trouble—we’d never catch it by swimming—though unless the metal clasp actually ripped off the bow, I was confident it wasn’t going anywhere. On the other hand, if it did break free... I went over to check it about fifteen times in the course of the afternoon. No harm in taking a little stroll from time to time.

In the evening we watched a family of red-breasted mergansers—a mother and six or seven fluffy chicks—pull themselves up on a flat rock twenty feet off shore and settle in for the night. The cedar fire burned easily—plenty of dry, light cedar trunks everywhere, just waiting to be cut up and burned—and the scent in the air reminded me of the many piñon fires we’d enjoyed in the Southwest. The sky was always changing—one half might be utterly blue while the other was covered with a blanket of ominous gray clouds. In each passing phase we tried to read our fortune for the coming day. The moon? A little short of a quarter full, with a line of craters half-covered in shadow along the curving edge.

This is simple, elemental stuff, I realize, and it doesn’t make much of a story, but it’s what occupies your attention when you’re in the north woods. It puts you in an entirely different frame of mind, like a weekend love affair with plants and sky and wind and birds and danger, that doesn’t relate to anything in your normal life … but shifts everything into a slightly different perspective.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Steiner and Croce at Leech Lake

The modern age is no less rife with ignorance, superstition, and down-right silliness than any other, I suppose. (The “post-modern” age is merely an academic fashion, an afterglow at best, and ought not to be considered an epoch in itself.) And among the silliest of its theories is the one suggesting that our expressive capabilities are somehow limited, and perhaps even dictated, by language. The idea is that because the language we use has a finite number of nouns, verbs, and adjectives, some parts of our experience will remain unexpressed, and in fact inexpressible, due to a lack of vocabulary. It has even been suggested that our experiences themselves are flavored, and perhaps even shaped, by the terms we have at our disposal when committing them to memory. The French have eighty words for love, but no word for “child.” Certainly this must affect how they see and describe the world?

I was reminded of this odd and misguided, but widely-held notion not long ago while sitting in the lobby of a motel in Walker, Minnesota, on the shores of Leech Lake. It was 5:30 in the morning, and I had begun to thumb through a book of essays by polymath George Steiner that I’d brought along to peruse in just such an hour. I had delved briefly into an essay called “Heidegger’s Silence,” hoping that it would shed light on his experiences alone in his rustic cabin. The actual subject, Heidegger's troubling silence concerning the Holocaust, didn’t much suit the mood of the occasion, so I moved on to an essay called “The Retreat from the Word.”

Here Steiner suggests that the Western tradition has been guided since ancient times by the idea that, as he puts it, “all truth and realness—with the exception of a small, queer, margin at the very top—can be housed inside the walls of language.” Following a brief discussion of musical expression and Tantric transcendence, Steiner spends the greater part of the essay examining how the rise of mathematics as a symbolic language since the seventeenth century has eroded our faith in the primacy of words and changed our understanding of the cosmos. That argument was not very interesting—not to me at any rate—because Steiner was setting it in opposition to an initial premise that was wrong-headed to begin with. Language does not “contain” thought.

In our effort to explore the issue, I think it would be a good idea, first of all, to divest it of the clumsy metaphor Steiner has draped it in: “Truth housed inside the walls of language?” Is that what thinking is? To cast about for a suitable “house” within which to settle our thoughts? I don’t think so. But if it were, then there are many, many such houses available. The English language, which is the world’s richest in vocabulary, has upward of 650,000 words; the average speaker knows perhaps 20,000 and uses 2,000 in an average week.

But the fact is, when we attempt to express ourselves, we don’t simply look around for a suitable single-family dwelling on a good-sized lot; we build a new house, making use of whatever scraps of vocabulary we have at our disposal. And when we poke our nose into a new book by Steiner, Nietzsche, Melville, Whitman, or anybody else, we’re looking for entertainment and enlightenment … but we're also looking for building materials. Such materials are virtually limitless, as I noted a moment ago, and the moment we begin to combine words into phrases, sentences, stanzas—which is what writing is, after all—we enter new and uncharted territory, putting the stamp of our personal experience on the production.

Steiner opens his essay with a reference to the famous passage from John, “In the beginning was the Word….” He goes on the suggest that this Word, this Logos, is the Hellenistic concept to which Western civilization owes its essentially verbal character.

Monoglot though I may be, I fear that Steiner (who speaks four or five languages fluently and read the Iliad in the original Greek at the age of eight) has somehow missed the boat here. For what is the actual meaning of the term “logos?” We translate it as “word,” but it’s clearly a very special word, if it’s in the presence of God, and is, in fact, God, as the evangelist suggests. Everything came about through this “word,” according to the text, and the life which is the light of mankind came about within it. This word is not just any word.

No doubt Steiner was making use of this reference as a rhetorical trope, a means to open his essay about language, but the richness and indefinability of the word “logos” as it functions here might better be taken as an example of the opposite case—of how powerful and inexplicable language, and even a single word, in a foreign language no less, can be.

Consulting an on-line dictionary at random, I am confirmed in my understanding that “logos” carried a wealth of meanings in ancient times. To the pre-Socratics, it was the principle governing the cosmos, the source of this principle, and the human reasoning that struggled to illuminate it more fully on a personal level. The Stoics held a similar view, though they more explicitly associated it with God as the source of all activity and generation, and with “mind” (nous), which, through the power of reason, develops the wherewithal to bring order to experience and even, on occasion, make an associative leap to the divine. Among the Sophists, “logos” took on a more arid meaning of the topics and necessary implications of rational arguments—in other words, formal logic.

What we derive from all of this is that “logos” is not merely “the word” or language, but a form or logic that unites the cosmos and the individual in some sort of quivering harmony. I am reminded here of the quivering mosquito twins in the Book of the Hopi that sustain the universe, and the musical meters which, in the Satapatha Brahmana, are the cattle of the Gods.

But perhaps I've begun to nod off here, as the sun rises over Leech Lake and the TV news creeps in from the motel breakfast room. I’ve begun to dream of the mosquitoes we swatted and the cattle we passed in the course of our bike trip through the Shingobee Hills south and west of Walker yesterday. (And where does the word "Shingobee" come from?) Let me return to my point: the Western tradition does not rely over-much on the “word.” In the Lysis Plato takes up precisely the question of the “logos” in relation to the “ergon,” the word in relation to the deed, and this theme runs throughout the history of the West, both religious and secular, from that day to our own. What this amounts to, for example, is a consideration of the goodness of an act, as opposed to the logical rigor of an ethical theory defining what goodness is; the beauty and power of a phrase or an entire novel, as opposed to the correctness of a grammatical theory defining the limits of what we can express. It may be true that among linguists and theorists such as Steiner himself, “language” can sometimes be a more interesting phenomenon than the things that have been expressed with it. Indeed, as Benedetto Croce observes at one point,
The revolts against logicism in theory of language have been as rare and have had as little effect as those against rhetoric. Only in the romantic period … did there develop, among certain thinkers, or among certain circles, a vivid awareness of the imaginative or metaphorical nature of language and its closer tie to poetry than to logic.
Herein lies the crux of the issue. Speech, writing, the use of language to cloth and preserve our thoughts, is a deed, not a word. Every utterance we make expands the language in which it is cast—or has that potential. The words and syntax we have at our disposal act, not as a limiting force, but as a powerful set of tools, or an expansive field of play, if you like, within which we express ourselves through verbal dance (can’t you see me skipping here), choosing this or that phrase, this branch, that flower, to construct a new hut which reflected the logos of our personal experience no less than that of the surrounding countryside. Anyone who knows the language is welcome to enter, to join us, and share in the music.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Kundera - The Curtain

Milan Kundera has charmed readers with a mix of brilliant story-telling and historical insight for decades, and his recent efforts—Slowness, Identity, and Ignorance—have been shorter than the masterworks of middle age but hardly less engaging. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, such “Eastern European” offerings have lost some of their cache, and Kundera himself was denounced as an informer a few years ago. But he keeps finding new things to occupy his attention. Ignorance, for example, deals with The Great Return, by which Kundera means the émigré’s return from exile. And in the recent seven-part essay The Curtain (2005), Kundera also returns to re-examine, from a more mature perspective, some of the material he dealt with in The Art of the Novel (1986).

One section of The Curtain originally appeared a free-standing essay in the New Yorker, and at the time I found it so brilliant that I cut it out and stuck it in my copy of The Art of the Novel. In that piece Kundera defends the practice of reading literature in translation, even going so far as to assert that it is only through translation that literature from small countries will ever escape the tyranny of nationalistic enthusiasm to make its mark on the wider world.
The broader theme of The Curtain is the history of the novel itself, and very early on Kundera makes a stab at underscoring why that art form is so important.
“…human life as such is a defeat. All we can do in the face of that ineluctable defeat called life is to try to understand it. That—that is the raison d’être of the art of the novel.”
Kundera’s approach to the subject is freewheeling; he refers again and again to a fairly small selection of authors, jumping back and forth in time to suit his purpose: Cervantes and Rabelais, Sterne and Fielding, Balzac and Flaubert, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, Musil and Broch, Kafka and Gombrowitz. At one point he contrasts his approach to the more strictly chronological one we often find in conventional histories.
“ ‘History as such,’ the history of mankind, is the history of things that no longer exist and do not join directly in our lives. The history of art, because it is the history of values, thus of things we need, is always present, always with us; we listen to Monteverdi and Stravinsky at the same concert.”

This analysis is not entirely sound. History of every sort concerns itself with things that remain valuable and conjoined to us. But in the history of art those connections become blatant.

Kundera analyses the density of Dostoyevsky’s plot-constructions, Flaubert’s attempt to de-theatricize fiction, and Tolstoy’s success an exposing the largely random musings that pass through a character’s mind, even during moments of extreme crisis. He explores the significance of the fact that until recently, the French language had no word for “kitsch,” and jostles Hegel’s theory of lyricism just to see what will fall out.

Music and poetry, Hegel says, have an advantage over painting: lyricism. And in lyricism, he continues, music can go still further than poetry, for it is capable of grasping the most secret movements of the inner world, which are inaccessible to words. Thus there does exist an art in this case, music that is more lyrical than lyric poetry itself. From this we can deduce that the notion of lyricism is not limited to a branch of literature (lyrical poetry) but, rather it designates a certain way of being, and that, from this standpoint, a lyric poet is only the exemplary incarnation of man dazzled by his own soul and by the desire to make it heard.

We may be reminded here of the Italian sage Benedetto Croce’s simple maxim: Art is lyricism. Yet just a few pages further on, Kundera underscores the anti-lyric conversion a novelist must undergo to establish distance between himself and the characters he’s creating. He credits Cervantes for tearing through the curtain of self-identification. “..his destructive act echoes and extends to every novel worthy of the name: it is the identifying sign of the art of the novel.”

At this, as at other points in Kundera’s argument, we might be tempted to offer counterexamples. In particular, Kundera’s theories are better fitted for comic literature than to some other kinds. Indeed, at one point he observes: “Humor is not a spark that leaps up for a brief moment … to set us laughing. Its unobtrusive light glows over the whole vast landscape of life.”

But the problematic character of some of Kundera’s assertions do not diminish the dazzle of his wit, the jaunty music of his prose, or the estimable brevity and heedless courage with which he takes up such issues as depth, soul, tragedy, history, and meaning itself.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

World Cup

In the past three weeks I have succeeded in catching all or part of fifteen or twenty soccer matches, most of which have become fused in memory into a single lump of high-class entertainment. The ball goes back and forth, people clip and trip one another, dive theatrically or hold their hands in the air in an expression of mock-innocence—“I didn’t touch him!” Free kicks and yellow cards are given, off-sides is called, fairly and unfairly. Points are scored (rarely) and they almost invariably come out of the blue, off a potshot from thirty meters out or a “corner” just like all the rest, except that the ball arcs perfectly and the subsequent header (miraculously) goes in. Deflections are often part of the equation.

Occasionally points are scored during counterattacks, and these three-on-two or two-on-one situations bring the crowd roaring to its feet. As often as not they’re muffed, however, and we eventually reach the conclusion that the better side doesn’t necessarily win. And yet, every once in a while, the ball does hit the back of the net, putting a bulge in the old onion bag (as they say) and the team that’s scored run around the field as if they’d just won the lottery or gotten the news that their incurable cancer is in permanent remission. After all that we’ve been through, sitting at home in front of the computer screen, we can hardly blame them.

This, in a nutshell, is the art and pleasure of soccer.

At a certain point, you begin to notice which teams control the ball, win the challenges. You begin to see the risky challenges and surreptitious shoves. You begin to remember names. Wasn’t Snidjer in the UAFA Cup final this spring with InterMilan? Didn’t I see Torres score a couple of galloping one-on-one goals in a Premier League game I watched on cable with a friend? Wasn’t it Klose that scored on a header very early in a match against the US many years ago? (Perhaps not.) And what ever happened to Ronaldhino?

The group play games are now a distant memory. You may remember the seven goals Portugal scored against…who? North Korea? But that’s because it seemed like a homerun derby or a scoring clinic—the kind of back-flicks and crosses that none of the better teams would allow you to get away with.

The semi-final match-up between Germany and Spain was a classic. Spain controlled the tempo, as was to be expected, and Germany waited for counter-chances that materialized occasionally but led to nothing. I think it was the cleanest game I’ve ever seen. Very few fouls, very little diving, no yellow cards. The Spanish ball control was remarkable, the German zeal no less impressive. I’m glad Spain won, because it will make for a better final, and besides, Spain has never been in a final before.

Would it be churlish to observe that the Spanish players seem to have a bit more flair or character? Yet the German team is less Teutonic than in tournaments past, and eleven of the players could have played for other nationalities, including the Bosnian-Serb, Brazilian, Ghanaian, Nigerian, Polish, Spanish, Tunisian, and Turkish sides.

"We had great plans but it didn't work out," commented Germany coach Joachim Loew after the game." Spain are a wonderful team who have played together now for two or three years. I am sure the Spanish can win any game because they are dominant and it's hard to contain their attack. .. They are the masters of the game. You can see it in every pass. They can hardly be beaten. They are extremely calm and convincing. Spain were just better than we were and they deserved to win.”

The Spanish coach, a little less gracefully perhaps, said, “The Germans weren’t as good as we thought they’d be.”