Birds and Brush Strokes

Cody Walker
February 23, 2014
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As readers, we have certain lines (or stanzas, or paragraphs) that we can’t get out of our heads. Maybe it’s just a phrase: Dickinson’s “Buccaneers of Buzz,” Larkin’s “not untrue and not unkind.” In Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist, the narrator proposes an anthology made of single lines (“They flee from me that sometime did me seek,” “I had no human fears”) and even single words (though he quickly admits, “That’s not going to work”). My own ever-changing anthology consists—this week, anyway—of two prose paragraphs: one by Donna Tartt, one by Bill James. I’m guessing these two authors have never been discussed in the same essay before (although the world seems bent on surprising us, so who knows).

At the end of Tartt’s The Goldfinch, Theo Decker, the book’s narrator, waxes lyrical about the Fabritius oil painting that has occupied his imagination for so many years:

It’s there in the light-rinsed atmosphere, the brush strokes he permits us to see, up close, for exactly what they are—hand worked flashes of pigment, the very passage of the bristles visible—and then, at a distance, the miracle, or the joke as Horst called it, although really it’s both, the slide of transubstantiation where paint is paint and yet also feather and bone. It’s the place where reality strikes the ideal, where the joke becomes serious and anything serious is a joke. The magic point where every idea and its opposite are equally true.

Theo sees in the painting what Keats saw in Shakespeare: “Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”* He lands where Fitzgerald landed, in his definition of a first-rate intelligence: “the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” Tartt’s passage calls to mind the opening of every Persian fairy tale (as quoted in Barry Sanders’ A Is for Ox): “Yeki bud, yeki nabud: ‘There was one, there was not one; this happened, this did not happen.’”

Why choose only one? As Ernie Banks said, “Let’s play two.”

Here’s the passage from The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract that led me to write this brief essay:

In American society, our ways of teaching about baseball are better than our ways of teaching about anything else. No matter how it is that your mind works, baseball reaches out to you. If you’re an emotional person, baseball asks for your heart. If you are a thinking man or a thinking woman, baseball wants your opinion. Whether you are left-brain or right-brain, Type A or Type Z, whether your mind is bent toward mathematics or toward history or psychology or geometry, whether you are young or old, baseball has its way of asking for you. If you are a reader, there is always something new to read about baseball, and always something old. If you are a sedentary person, a TV watcher, baseball is on TV; if you always have to be going somewhere, baseball is somewhere you can go. If you are a collector, baseball offers you a hundred things that you can collect. If you have children, baseball is something you can do with children; if you have parents and cannot talk to them, baseball is something you can still talk to them about.

James rounds the bases, in charming if predictable ways, and then, in that final sentence, a miracle occurs and the game becomes serious. Later in the book, James calls Mark “The Bird” Fidrych (baseball’s late great poet/performance artist) “more fun than a barrel of butterflies and a bucket of mud.” Anything serious, remember, is also a joke.



* Keats died on this date, in 1821, in Rome—his name writ in water and in marble. And he’s not dead.

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