Wednesday, April 17, 2013

42, baseball, and mythic time

 Over the weekend, my colleagues Bobby Cummings, Keith Champagne, and I had the chance to go see the newly released film “42” (opening on the anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s first game with the Brooklyn Dodgers) with the predominantly African American student Living Learning group, “Students of the Dream.” Afterwards, as we talked over the movie,  I found myself thinking about the structure of the film in light of anthropologist Bradd Shore’s classic discussion of baseball symbolism, developed in Chapter Three of his book, Culture in Mind:Cognition, Culture, and the Problem of Meaning (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).

To begin with, Shore argues that baseball, more than any other sport, dramatizes and mediates core tensions between American communitarian and individualist values.  This is enabled by the curious asymmetry of the game (odd numbers of players, odd number of innings, the striking contrast between a sole player at bat and the entire fielded team that he faces, and so forth) and by the unusual quality of temporal experience during the game, ungoverned by “clock time” , so that a game in principle could go on forever, in an eternal Field of Dreams. These qualities, among others, make baseball especially well suited to metaphorical or mythical reflections by Americans on the nature of  American society.  The emphatically pastoral and agrarian dimensions of the game, played in a “park” and resisting the industrial tyranny of clock time, lend it a generally nostalgic air, generating associations with an endless summer of youth regained, located within a reassuring annual cycle of rebirth each spring.

“42” initially challenge, and then returns to, this standard cultural logic of nostalgia for the era of youthful innocence. The film initially presents the game, in the immediate postwar period, as illustrative of the national affliction of racism. During a rendition of the National  Anthem, the camera pans through the line of players, coming to rest on Robinson for the line “Land of the Free,” to highlight the failed national promise. Taken as a whole, though, the film presents baseball as cure for that which ailed us.  In that sense, the film allows us all a return to a dreamed-of national childhood.  At one point, Dodgers team executive Branch Richey overtly thanks Robinson for in effect redeeming baseball, for giving the sport he loved as a boy back to him.  Significantly, images of boys are prominent in the film; from the African American boy to whom Robinson tosses a baseball from a train (who grows up to be a Major League player) to a white boy who initially joins in his father’s racist jeers at Robinson, but who then pauses, his face transformed, as he recognizes Robinson’s grace on the field.  Through baseball, in effect, we are all returned to pre-Lapsarian era of national innocence.

Elsewhere, Shore has noted that baseball is especially illustrative of  American cultural tensions between home and away. The ultimate goal is to hit the ball out of the park, escaping all confines of one’s environs, in order, paradoxically, to return “home.”  Such a tension is nicely evoke in the film final scene: Robinson, having hit the ball out of the park, lopes around the bases, and rounding third, finally heads, larger than life, for home.  As in all rites of passage, upon returning out of the liminal zone, everything is the same, but everything is different. As his foot touches home plate, he is once more back home, but his home, our national home, is an abode transformed.

The film steers rather clear of the political in any direct sense, emphasizing Jackson’s fierce individualism. At one point, he snaps at his guide and protector, an African American journalist,  that he doesn’t like depending on anyone.  There’s hardly any allusion to the political pressures in the late 1940s pushing for desegregation in baseball or elsewhere in society; rather, this is a morality play of individuals, of Robinson’s stalwart discipline, Richey’s ethical grit, and a few white teammate’s salty (if belated) decency, out of which emerges the collective glory of the team in the 1947 pennant victory, and by extension the restored glory of the republic.  And that is the mythic, paradoxical alchemy of baseball as a ritual system: transmuting individual achievement into collective glory, without necessarily engaging fully with the domain of the social, beyond the borders of the park itself.

Other thoughts on the the symbolism of race, the nation and regeneration in the film?

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