This piece of mine ran a few days ago in Pacific Standard. If you are moved to comment, do so there. Thanks for reading. (For those who don’t know, I grew up playing tennis with some level of seriousness; the sport is one I love.)
In the summer of 1984 John McEnroe beat Jimmy Connors in the Wimbledon finals 6-1, 6-1, 6-2. The match was, as one British journalist called it, “the most imperious victory in the history of tennis.” McEnroe made only three unforced errors. Seventy-eight percent of his first serves were in. Ten were aces. After a couple of those aces, Connors looked down in confusion, as if his shorts had dropped to his ankles. All McEnroe could say about the match was that the ball looked like “a cantaloupe.” It was as close as a tennis player had ever come to achieving actual perfection.
And that was the problem. The awful irony of McEnroe’s victory over Connors was that—in its near perfection—the performance couldn’t be sustained beyond the moment. The victory thus marked a year during which McEnroe would gradually sense what perhaps only exceptional athletes can sense: the moment of his own demise. The result of that realization for McEnroe was, McEnroe being McEnroe, an explosive moment of personal recognition, manifested, naturally, in an infamous tantrum.
Sports psychologists are quick to identify the emotional risk inherent in the athlete’s quest for perfection. They write with painful formality, noting such things as how “the extreme orientation that accompanies perfectionism is antithetical to attaining positive outcomes.” McEnroe, as he had a way of doing, had taken that “extreme orientation” to a new extreme and, upon realizing the temporality of his accomplishment, went ballistic on a Swedish tennis court in a way that was more terrifying than entertaining. The incident, thanks to YouTube, has amassed a sort of cult following. It deserves a re-visitation because, among other things, it offers rare insight into the raw emotion that marks the inevitable pain of being great.
OBVIOUS POINT FIRST: MCENROE in his prime was great beyond great. This was true because, above all else, he had what seemed to be a magical understanding of space. “He is the one player in the game,” said the tennis legend Fred Perry, “who knows exactly where his racket is and what his options are.” Tennis is basically a conservative sport. With its arcane scoring system, stuffy dress code, and clubby rituals, it’s also elitist. McEnroe’s genius was to reduce pretense and pomp to trigonometry and physics. And then slice the cantaloupe with the delicacy and precision of a hand surgeon.
Watch him play. Evidence of country club training is non-existent. He’s a pick-up player, a street urchin with nimble racket skills and quick feet. He doesn’t bend his knees, loop his strokes, or deliver shots with liquid smoothness from the sanctuary of the baseline. He doesn’t volley with his arm set in an elegant V, placing the ball safely within the lines. To the contrary, he’s pure angst driven by raw ability. He thrives on a Euclidean understanding of angles and has a habit of placing his shots on the outer tenth of the line, often catching it with nothing more than soft yellow fuzz.
But his form is absolutely atrocious. He does everything you were told not to during summer tennis lessons. But that’s what allows him to flout any convention, cheapen the virtue of any shot, sully any stroke in order to win a point. He spent his professional career chipping and dicing and lobbing and drop-shotting his way into tennis history. An infuriated Arthur Ashe remembered the one time he played McEnroe (and lost) in these terms: “It’s slice here, nick there, cut over here. Pretty soon you’ve got blood all over you.”
Blood was spilled all over in 1984. And not just on Connors. McEnroe won 78 of his 80 matches that year. It was an astounding accomplishment. For all intents and purposes, a player couldn’t imagine having a better year. Yet, for all his success, the tour was sustained by forces horrible and dark. McEnroe, winning match after match, spent the year getting angrier and angrier, cursing judges, mocking fans, and pacing the court as if it were the common room of an asylum. This anxiety culminated at the Swedish Open. It came in a match he eventually won against native son Anders Jarryd, and it came in the form of an upper-shelf outburst that would mark his inevitable decline in tennis greatness at the professionally precarious age of 25.
THE INCIDENT BEGINS MUCH as you’d expect: The chair umpire calls a serve out that McEnroe knows was in. He looks to the umpire, his face locked in disbelief. “That ball was right on the line, right on the line,” he says. “You’ve made no mistakes in this match yet, right?” (He’s getting angrier.) “No mistakes whatsoever?” (He’s now seething.) The umpire stays silent. “Answer the question!” McEnroe delivers the first two words in a measured tone. But the last one he lets explode like cannon fire. “Thequestion jerk!” Jeers and boos emanate from the grandstand of Swedes, tender people whose idea of tennis demeanor is the impossible coolness of Bjorn Borg. Half of McEnroe’s shirttail droops out the back of his shorts. He’s fuming.
The judge issues a code violation. Verbal abuse. One point penalty. McEnroe, now moving in circles like he’s feral, smacks a ball into the bleachers at a loudmouthed fan before stepping to the service line and preparing for his serve. He looks tortured. He is tortured. He’s down 1-6, 2-3. The crowd goes silent. McEnroe leans forward, tosses the ball skyward, arches backward limbo-like, and then uncoils—a machine.
The serve is brilliant. It hits the line and skips like cold water on a hot skillet. George Plimpton once wrote how McEnroe is “the only player in the history of the game to go berserk and play better tennis.” You can see in this serve the truth of that observation. But Jarryd returns it crosscourt and McEnroe, who hadn’t quite reached the net, takes the ball on the bounce and flubs a forehand, losing the game. It is then, about 10 steps into his journey to his chair for the changeover, that John McEnroe goes nuts.
THERE’S SOMETHING ALMOST SHAKESPEAREAN in a McEnroe breakdown. Professional actors have studied it, analyzing his tormented mannerisms and intonations frame by frame. Tom Hulse did so before playing Mozart in Amadeus. Ian McKellan did the same when he played Coriolanus. There’s little doubt that McEnroe’s mercurial explosions have a calculated intensity to them. “I did have an idea in mind,” he later admitted about his youthful outbursts. “I thought tennis had had enough of manners.”
The full subversive implications of this idea became manifest in the late 1970s, when McEnroe, still a teenager, started qualifying for Wimbledon. His behavior on Old World turf—really, his mere presence in the Old World—grated against Wimbledon’s unwritten codes of decency. With corkscrewed hair and verbal aggression that made the establishment gasp (he called one judge “a disgrace to mankind”) the 18-year-old underdog, who in 1978 still drove a rusty Ford Pinto and lived with his parents, made it clear he didn’t give a dollop of clotted cream for Wimbledon’s arbitrary expectations of deference. He also knew this is what made him unique. He knew that within this bad-boy disposition was lodged his persona.
He ate in the All England clubhouse with his fingers. He jammed his hands in his pockets when it was time to press dignitary flesh. He reached the quarterfinals out of nowhere and wondered aloud why one had to bow to that old hag of a Queen when “you’re not even from that country.” His petulant cavorting on the royal lawnscape was the sporting equivalent of Johnny Rotten floating down the Thames, cursing the monarchy through a bullhorn. McEnroe’s run-of-the-mill tantrums nurtured this rebellion and wove it into his identity.
But the Swedish incident was different. It was more than a display of bad manners. As McEnroe reaches step 10 on his way back to his chair, he grips his racket like it’s a golf club and starts whacking it into his tennis bag. He’s insane with rage. The match is indoors so the impact booms throughout the cavernous arena. The Swedes go crazy. They’re appalled. They want more.
And McEnroe delivers, teeing off on a bottle of water and sending it airborne across a front row of spectators. It splatters the King of Sweden as it passes by. The judge is beside himself. He’s stuck in his little tower screaming, trying to make himself heard over the mayhem: “Code violation! Code violation!” McEnroe, who was just getting ready to sit down, leaps up at this, and, like a Tasmanian devil, starts swatting with his racket everything in sight, smacking another bucket of liquid off the table and shredding a flower arrangement with a forehand. Then he places a blue towel over his head and takes his seat, spent.
Part of me wants to laugh when I watch the scene. But I never do. I can’t.
WHEN CLINICAL PSYCHOLOGISTS EVALUATE patients with anger issues they try to ascertain if an outburst was “within a normal range of magnitude.” McEnroe always berated himself a little bit when he cheated his own greatness. Under such circumstances his normal range of magnitude was modest. He’d throw his racket or yell at a fan or declare himself to be a worthless human being. But when an umpire with coke-bottle glasses was the one cheating McEnroe’s greatness, his normal range of magnitude became infinite. Given the nature of his game, given the nature of being John McEnroe, how could it have been otherwise?
His entire life was spent internalizing the dimensions of a tennis court and, in turn, fine-tuning his body to respond to those dimensions with tiny chops and hacks. His body knew tennis the way a falling ball knows gravity. The reality of McEnroe’s tantrum in Sweden was that, as he raged, he knew, by whatever intuitive calculus one knows such things, that it would never again be so perfectly awesome to be John McEnroe. The essence of his rebellion—in a match he eventually won 1-6, 7-6, 6-1—was evaporating. The judge, the stadium, and, because of the Internet, the entire world, would hear about it.
It’s a terrifying prospect to contemplate—that a great athlete can be witness to, and feel the full weight of, the precise moment of his fall from greatness. But when that judge in Sweden called McEnroe’s serve out, I suspect he changed the lines for John McEnroe, and McEnroe, much like George Washington checking his pulse at the moment of his death, knew it as well as he knew every inch of the court.
It’s not terribly fashionable to go all weak kneed over a dead white male intellectual, and you can even run afoul of some pretty politically correct rules for doing so, but I’ll take Isaiah Berlin over anyone any day.
The animal rights movement needs an Isaiah Berlin. Of course it’ll never get an Isaiah Berlin. The man was a colossal and deeply sensitive intellect without peer. But the movement could sure benefit from a thinker who spoke to the general public with deep insight and social aplomb and hard honesty while avoiding self-righteousness and turgid moral certainty. Whereas liberalism thrived because of Berlin, the animal rights movement could similarly rise from the ashes if we could somehow articulate realistic goals in a way that was pluralistic—Berlin’s forte—rather than alienating and uncompromising and just plain self-indulgent.
Perhaps what attracts me the most to Berlin was his sense of history. More than once, I’ve offered the opinion that the animal rights movement generally lacks a sense of the past. We know not what we’ve inherited. In turn, we know not what we must confront, undo, and replace. This failure to appreciate the weight of the past leads to all-too-casual calls for a complete ending of animal exploitation—as if that were a viable choice. We thus find ourselves wondering a moral fantasyland of perfection and fighting over directions. Boring. In any case, Berlin’s values were not only pluralistic, they were deeply informed by the past, and thus rooted in reality. Exciting.
Another aspect of Berlin’s thought that makes me more than a fanboy was the fact that his sense moral pluralism derived from his reading of 19th-century Russian literature. Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy nurtured Berlin’s muse, especially while he lived as a Jew in England. Russian thought in general led to his belief that the pursuit of western freedom should never trump social justice and, even more appealing to me, it led to the conviction that it took more moral courage for the intellectual to compromise strategically than to remain defiantly principled at all times. That’s defiant, by the way, of history.
If you don’t believe me, read “Two Concepts of Liberty” and check back in.
Essayists worthy of the name typically dance their dance through an artful arrangement. They situate segments collage-like to create an impression about something you never thought much mattered. The impact is layered and delayed and warrants return visits. Narration and thesis-making—although not irrelevant—are normally subsumed by some misty quality living between the lines. Personality comes through but doesn’t overpower. When I admire an “arrangement” essay, I can never really say why I admire it. A quick mental scan puts me in the mind of James Wood and Rebecca Solnit and a slew of New Yorker writers, such as John McPhee, and perhaps Roland Barthes and Anne Fadiman. And other great ones.
A special class of essayist goes further. Members of this rarified cohort—well, my rarified cohort anyway— so effortlessly intuit the art of arrangement that they give birth to the essay in full form. The arrangement happens out of sight, in utero perhaps, and the beauty for the reader comes in the ability to witness the rare act of a preternaturally gifted writer rearing something into maturity. I’ve always included David Foster Wallace and George Orwell in this category. Now, after reading Pulphead, I’m placing John Jeremiah Sullivan on the podium.
The topical range of Sullivan’s work—a Christian rock festival, a story about his brother getting electrocuted, Michael Jackson, Indian mounds, and so on —are coals that become diamonds for the simplest of reasons: he loves people. Adores them. Wants to know more about them for no other reason than he wants to know more about them. And the result of this unconditional (dare I say Christ-like?) affection for the most flawed people are essays that will make you feel a little sorry for Michael Jackson, respect Christian rock goers, admire a crazed early American naturalist who made up all kinds of shit, and buy a bunch country blues—a genre you didn’t know you loved— on iTunes. In other words, these essays, in their complete lack of pretense and irony, offer a whiff of awe about topics you had decided were of no use to life and how to live it.
Sullivan is an editor at The Paris Review. Despite the fancy credential, there’s not a hint of literary affectation to the man. Which is not to say he doesn’t have a special facility with words. An RV rolling backwards down a muddy hill “had reached a degree of tilt she was not engineered to handle.” An old book of Indian cave drawings allows one to “slip into it and get behind the eyes of the American mind for a minute.” A gas station attendant in Kentucky who makes a spot-on off-the-cuff remark “had just dropped some upper-level wisdom on us through a parting in his tobacco-browned beard-nest.” And as for that prevaricating naturalist: “His beautiful brain was wrong for the nineteenth century. He was an eighteenth-century man.” I read this stuff and I’m mesmerized, not to mention reminded why I read in the first place.
Sullivan’s most admirable quality as an essayist, given his deep affection for human creatures, is how he observes them and, with the utmost sensitivity, presents them to us. “The serious blues people are less than ten,” says one elderly student of the genre. “Country, seven. Jazz, maybe fifteen. Most are to one degree or another sociopathic.” Says one archeologist: “I can see an arrowhead in a sea of gravel.” A woman he interviewed about her experience during hurricane Katrina “told me a giant sea turtle swam through her kitchen while she perched on the counter.” When an interview Sullivan does with the drummer Bunny Wailer goes sour in Jamaica, the reggae god calls Sullivan a “ras clot” and a “bumba clot.” With signature innocence, Sullivan notes “I’m not 100 percent sure what these words mean, but apparently they have something to do with an ass rag or used tampon.”
Entertainment segues into wisdom at odd and unexpected moments. Sullivan doesn’t offer much by way of Big Picture punctuation, but when he does it’s an exclamation point in bold. “It’s the human condition to be confused,” he writes, noting how “no other animal ever had an erroneous thought about nature.” Recalling the sublime feeling that comes from being in an expensive and truly privileged “kind of paradise,” he writes, “How could anyone wish it away? It’s rather that everyone should have it.” A somewhat depraved writer he lived with in a shared condition of backwoods primitiveness bangs away manically at a typewriter. When he’s gone, Sullivan steals a glance to find one sentence. He writes, “The sentence was perfect.” Sometimes they are.
The real beauty in Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby comes from the measured flow of ideas—ideas that touch each other the way water touches water. Rational links between one topic and another blend into something larger and more forceful and the invitation could not be more clear: dip your cup into the river and sip from the places that call to you. No need for comprehensive understanding. No need for a thorough summation. Just lower your vessel when the time is right. There will be no test of this water. It’s pure.
As is often the case, I find myself first and foremost attentive to language–phrases that shed new light on what you thought was familiar. “The odysseys of viruses” and “a stone thrown in other waters” gave me pause, as did “an occupying army of apricots” and, of course, “the faraway nearby,” which is evidently how the artist Georgia O’Keefe signed letters written from New Mexico.
Beyond the beautiful turns of phrase are nuanced thoughts about pain, empathy, and the forces that propel us through the labyrinth of life. So much about living meaningfully requires thoughtful observation, the kind spawned by the first users of microscopes, men discovering for the first time “tiny swimmers in droplet seas.” As we float in our own microcosmic droplets, we know, or at least someone knows, that “what you cannot feel you cannot take care of.” Just as with the individual, so with society: “Whole societies can be taught,” writes Solnit, “to deaden feeling, to disassociate from their marginal and minority members, just as people can and do erase the humanity of those close to them.” We can forget about the water.
How can one love animals and be indifferent, or even hate, humans? Hmm. I find myself stuck on this question every now and then, and this book put it under its own sturdy microscope. Solnit writes, ” . . .the last half century has seen a vast expansion of concern and compassion for the nonhuman world, for animal species, places, ecosystems, and finally the earth itself.” And yet, as she notes elsewhere, “You can be thousand miles from the person next to you in bed.” Is there a perverse connection between alienation from the humans around us and deepening affection for Mother Earth? A compensation?
Towards the middle of the book, as the narrative boomerang is about to head back to us, some of Solnit’s apricots were “high-proof stuff that had turned golden.” It is thus with a frisson of intoxication that we experience a death, a birth, and a rebirth of sorts. Just that right amount of fluid—not enough to numb but enough to heighten our power of observation—prepares us for the realization that “most of us have a degree of obliviousness.” It is only through “a moment of rapture” and “a change of direction” that we can tap our “imaginative emotional engagement” that places every species in the same droplet sea.
Solnit’s chapter “Apricots” is followed by “Mirrors” and “Ice” in her arresting new book of essays The Faraway Nearby. I’m far enough into the book to appreciate not just the old claim that clean prose hides the painful grit of hard work, but that Solnit’s unique brilliance lies in the fine art of subtraction.
Whereas the material she covers—her experiences with her sick mother, her youthful relationship with books, her quest for impulsivity, the rise and fall of a romantic relationship, an interpretation of Frankenstein, the life of Mary Wollstonecraft and such—would, in the hands of a competent writer, be a handsome block of marble, in Solnit’s they’re the sublime stuff of sculpture.
She’s chiseled into reality something so delicate and detailed and beautiful you don’t know how it was done but you do know a rare gift was involved. The opening image of hundreds of apricots in various stages of decay strewn across her bedroom floor has been with me all week, and it sunk deeper into my psyche when, out of nowhere, they reappeared as preserves between women telling stories.
At one point Solnit notes—and I’m paraphrasing because I want the message to settle into my mind—that when we read a book the story that emerges, once filtered through the sieve of our own consciousness, becomes our own story rather than the author’s. In a way, we steal the narrative and warp it to fit the curve of our own bias, the way water shapes a stone. Evidence of this benign appropriation and gentle yielding is found in the highlights we make, the passages we read aloud, the marginal notations that determine why the book, which I now technically and emotionally own, will now flood my mental storehouse of thought, leaving behind patina of a slightly new tint.
Solnit, in “Mirrors,” takes us to the “autumn after the apricots, when everything was at its worst.” The summer of our discontent, I thought. She recalled the powerful pull of places, and how secure and safe places “give us continuity, something to return to, and offer a familiarity that allows some portion of our own lives to remain connected and coherent.”
Whereas a place—or, as I was reading it, an ideology or a creed we etch into our mental armature—can serve as emotional assurance, it can also keep you complacent, prevent you from “getting out of yourself, into the larger world, into the openness in which you need not clutch your story and your troubles so tightly to your chest.” Too many returns to our special place, our seductive little rabbit hole, and we forget, especially when times are tough, that there’s “an outer border to my own story,” a frightening border where my story ends and another’s begins.
The deeper implication of failing to abandon, however momentarily, the comfort of ideology becomes especially clear in “Ice.” Returning to the same place over and over again eventually has the effect of distancing ourselves from ourselves, much less those on the mental margins of our story. When the setting is always the same, when the sun always rises in the morning and sets in the evening, we forget who we are. We stop seeing ourselves. “Not to know yourself,” explains Solnit, “is dangerous, to that self and others.” It can lead us to hypocrisy and myopia, a fear that literally leads Solnit herself to contemplate the many virtues of the Arctic.
“You see the not knowing,” she writes, “in wars in the reality of death, the warm, messy, excruciating dismemberment of bodies, the blood and the screams, and the unbearable bereavement of survivors, is abstracted into collateral damage or statistics or overlooked altogether . . .” Because, alas, our place, which we have decorated to feed our own tastes, tells us we are forces of goodness. When we never leave our place, never venture to the Iceland of the imagination, never imagine what it must be like to work as an Australian farmer, we fail to recognize the damage we cause, ensconced as we are in the security of place, holding our creed to our chest like a child clutches the blanket he will one day have to give up.
In her elegant new book of essays, The Faraway Nearby, Rebecca Solnit observes how “too often, stories saddle us, ride us, whip us onward, tell us what to do, and we do it without questioning.” These stories can, one might add, also be so unassuming in their dominance that we’re unaware that we’re being driven by unrecognizable forces to places we’ve never contemplated and, if we had, would never go.
“The task of learning,” she continues, is to break free from the controlling narrative and “become the storyteller.” The example she provides is Scheherazade, who “talked her way out” of death by seducing her abusive sultan with stories. She “seized control of the means of production” and, in so doing, she lived.
Much of what we do here is question dominant narratives (this is a quality we all share) and then become our own storytellers (this is where our cacophonous symphony starts). Solnit notes how the most common form of counter narrative is the fairy tale. And why not? Not only are fairy tales almost always stories of the powerless, but they routinely involve hurdling a daunting obstacle. “They are full of overwhelming piles and heaps,” she writes, “impossible tasks that include quests, such as gathering a feather from the tail of a firebird who lives at the end of the world.” It was nice to see her use the word “who.”
This fairy tale rumination had me reaching for my pen to make some notes. “Should we seek goodness in the world through fairy tales?,” I wrote. “Are they the stories that will enable us to seize the means of production and transform darkness into light?” I’ve never much liked fairy tales, much in the way I don’t like science fiction or other kinds of fantasy-driven creations. My aesthetic preference has always been for realism. Hard realism. I’ve put away childish things, as it says to do somewhere in that big book of stories called the Bible. I’ve moved on.
But wait. Then there’s Rebecca Solnit, wielding her own pen, challenging my narrative preference by weaving her own a fairy tale of sorts—the essay I’m writing about here opens with her sitting a bedroom with hundreds of apricots on the floor—into the nit and grit of the reality of her mother’s demise. It’s rare stuff, these words. Ones made all the more transformative by her remark that the powerless never triumph through power in the fairy tales they tell. Rather, and this is the key thing, they “thrive on alliances, often in the form of reciprocated acts of kindness—from beehives that were not raided, birds that were not killed but set free or fed, old woman who were saluted with respect.”
Thus we are seduced and, for all our preconceived narrative notions, ready to hear something new. Another kind of story.