Sunday, June 9, 2013
Summer of Jest Part the Sixth: More of Chapter 10
Just as I seem to be sympathizing more with James Orin Incandenza than his son this time around, I'm newly fascinated with another fixture at Enfield Tennis Academy that I've usually just treated as local color: Gerhardt Schtitt. He is a striking, incongruous figure to find there even before he dons his leather aviator helmet and goggles and starts tooling around in an old BMW motorcycle with Mario in the sidecar. That alone, even before we get into his philosophy of education and junior level competitive sport, makes him someone I dearly wish I could have actually seen, riding the streets of the greater Boston area behind the jogging files of ETA students on their daily conditioning runs.
But his philosophy intrigues me more, even as it makes me a bit melancholy. In Schtitt's view, education, and sports at the junior level (and perhaps even beyond?), are chiefly valuable as training for citizenship -- an outmoded idea to be sure, even more so now than when IJ was written, I sometimes think, for the focus on education as training for the assumption of some economic role or niche seems greater than ever, and how is competitive junior level tennis in any way preparation for that, unless you really are training little pros to entertain the masses in big Grand Slam type events someday?
But that old-fashioned idea, that competitive sport prepares one to be a citizen by training him to submit to the needs of a team and to a set of rules, that's still a very, very good one. I'm not sure Schtitt -- or anyone -- achieves his goal in IJ, but of all the agendas at work in IJ I think Schtitt's the most admirable. Which makes Mario's dialogue with him in Chapter 10 all the more wistful and disappointing and sad, because Mario casually leads the discussion to its most depressing conclusion. Tennis is not a team sport, he posits, and Schtitt agrees: it's just you versus the other guy. Ah, but, Schtitt says, your opponent is not the other guy; the other guy is your partner in your competition with yourself. Then how, Mario asks, is playing tennis different from suicide -- the ultimate defeat of the self. Schtitt cannot answer, and neither can we, and suddenly we're back in Kate Gompert territory and IJ suddenly starts feeling like a gigantic suicide note written decades before the deed.
Because what all of the interconnected plots in the book have in common is people desperately trying to find something worth giving themselves away to -- sport, drugs, or, as we are gradually watching in the medical attache updates, mindless entertainment. And nothing ever really fills the hole, but will gladly take over your life. And give what in return?
That's all I've got the energy for today, but there is hope on the horizon, for the bizarro figure of Helen Steeply awaits. Which means we're soon going to meet the weirdest terrorists, maybe EVAR.