P&P Reading Club: Patrick Dubuque on The Art of Fielding Chapters 53-72

he art of fielding by chad harbachI first read Siddhartha in my mid-twenties, the perfect time.  I had performed all the necessary rites: earned my useless liberal arts degree, failing classes and writing awful songs for the guitar.  I had lived overseas and returned; I found a low-paying professional job and wore ties.  I joined a bar-league softball team.  I joined a book club.

I read Siddhartha and discovered that I hadn’t been wasting my life; I’d just been honing myself, voyaging unknowingly on a lifelong journey, often in circles but inevitably forward.  I was hunting for my Kamala, throwing dice and laughing.  Naturally, I ate this up.  I brought my notes to the book club and drank other people’s merlot, mostly to insert pauses in my own conversations.

What I found so enthralling was the book’s sense of velocity, its unending pace toward wisdom or destitution or both.  Everything to me was progress, each day a matter of new wisdom and new experience.  For the athlete, particularly the baseball player, this is not so.  By the time they gain sufficient wisdom, a workable change-up or plate discipline and strength, they have already begun to die.  Their every effort must be design to combat this; every misplayed ball, every lazy workout bends a man further from perfection.

In The Art of Fielding, Schwartz uses a machinery metaphor to explain the baseball player, rendering him soulless.  There is no sudden beauty, no art, only reliability.  Henry, the ideal ballplayer, never deviates, never rests.  Finally Henry-the-Machine breaks down and baptizes himself in the lake, no longer able to live among the world without belonging to it.  One of Harbach’s themes is the shunning of the effects of time: Affenlight hiding from old age, Schwartz adulthood, Henry perfection.  The following chapters see Henry efface himself, tear down the temple he has built to himself and baseball, the muscles and sinew eroding.  Each day he sleeps through, each decimal of body fat raised, feels like a tragedy.

By the end of Chapter 72 we and Henry have reached a crossroads: where will Harbach take him from here?  Siddhartha is dragged from the river by his friend Govinda and finds enlightenment in his emptiness.  Will Henry find his own, and what form will it take?  Will it be in baseball, a return to the simple joy of the game Aparicio hated to leave?  Or will it require the casting off of baseball, a return to the idyllic pasture of the Midwest?

I’m in my thirties now, still wandering in circles.  I’m still reading Siddhartha, still pontificating in book groups.  It’s no coincidence.  I don’t have the sort of character, the capacity to achieve Henry’s level of greatness, nor his level of misery.  I’m not driven enough, not myopic enough to concentrate on a single task, put all my chips on one number.  Perhaps it’s cowardice.  But I can’t help but disagree when Henry claims that “the only life worth living is the unfree life”, because he doesn’t understand freedom.  He sees the cigarettes and women and knowledge as freedom, or an attempt at it, when all they are is another reach for control over one’s life.

Freedom is what we see in Owen, in name the Buddha, in reality opportunistic hedonism made practical.  Owen needs nothing and takes what’s available.  It’s not life free of pain, as Schwartz hopes for, nor life ignorant of it; it’s life free of the fear of pain.   It’s illicit merlot.  It’s Aparicio’s vision of the game, a samurai code that cannot be broken because it is continually being remade.  Sometimes, it’s a double-header at shortstop, hoping each ball is hit to you, another chance to do something brilliant.

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