Pyrrhic Victories: An Essay On Polite Differences

Pyrrhus, sir? Pyrrhus, a pier.

All laughed. Mirthless high malicious laughter. Armstrong looked round at his classmates, silly glee in profile. In a moment they will laugh more loudly, aware of my lack of rule and of the fees their papas pay.

— Tell me now, Stephen said, poking the boy’s shoulder with the book, what is a pier.

— A pier, sir, Armstrong said. A thing out in the waves. A kind of bridge. Kingstown pier, sir.

Some laughed again: mirthless but with meaning. Two in the back bench whispered. Yes. They knew: had never learned nor ever been innocent. All. With envy he watched their faces. Edith, Ethel, Gerty, Lily. Their likes: their breaths, too, sweetened with tea and jam, their bracelets tittering in the struggle.

— Kingstown pier, Stephen said. Yes, a disappointed bridge.

Welcome, readers!

I haven’t disappeared; I’ve just moved this blog’s critical content to a new, bigger venue. You can find my latest critical articles at SpliceToday, a wonderful site that pays me for my writing (and publishes new thinkpieces at a dizzying rate).

A few things are still rolling out on this site, though. The remaining chapters of Retreat will all be published here (first). Furthermore, sometimes — when I’m arguing in my spare time, and can accept going somewhat less viral — I will post here. This is one of those moments. (Usually these moments are inspired by Tom Hitchner, and today is no exception.)

Tom has written a terrifically entertaining new post on hot dogs, sports debates, and language. It’s up on his blog The Spiel. Like all good critical essays, Tom’s specific concerns ultimately lead him towards something universal: namely, a discussion of what it means to be “right,” or “wrong,” about matters of semantics and sports.

Most serious semantic analyses wind up as discussions of etiquette. Tom’s examples are all, at bottom, about what is or isn’t done, as people used to say. If I see an ostrich, and tell you I’ve seen “a bird,” what am I doing? Maybe I’m employing a humorous understatement. Maybe I’m being sullen. Whether I’m being knowing, or deliberately unhelpful, the fact is that “bird” does not really mean “ostrich.” For the sake of clarity, Tom pauses here to describe the relevant linguistic theory of “prototypical” meaning. Personally, though, I’m unconvinced by Lakoff and Johnson’s “prototypes” and “categories.” Theirs is a watered-down Platonic vocabulary that refuses to call one big thing, socialization, by its rightful name.

I’ll explain my objection further in a moment, but first let’s take note of a couple more examples. Our notion of “sandwiches” doesn’t really include “hot dogs,” even though a case for the hot-dog-as-sandwich can easily be made. The proof once again rests on the social contract: if I’m told to bring sandwiches to a picnic, and I bring hot dogs, then I have committed a breach of etiquette. Still another example (this time from Lakoff/Johnson) involves bringing chairs to a dinner party, an act that depends on a shared concept of “chairs.”

But civilization always produces its discontents, and I think they are worth noting here. It’s exciting to think that “a bird outside” might be an ostrich at your door. The example itself, which amounts to saying “this bird is, sadly, not an ostrich,” yearns for the spectacular and the exceptional, just like a prototypical sports fan. Furthermore, hip restaurants are always pushing the limits of what we can define as a sandwich; doing so is a good way to sell sandwiches.

Tom suggests that Spring is a time of unprovable theses: I may be hoping and claiming that my fantasy team will be unstoppable, but the season is young, and there’s no way to be sure. Secondary debates, like the hot-dog-versus-sandwich debate, serve as the delightful second-string of unwinnable wars, conducted without bloodshed, often on Twitter. What was once fought to the death is now sublimated into a harmless pastime.

Twitter is fun that way, but that’s not how baseball thinkers work. There is a right answer to every question, they insist. DH or no DH? Answer: keep things like they are. How many batters = “batting around”? Answer: 10.

I’m going to address the ostrich in the room, so to speak: we are governed by the seasons more than we like to admit, and Spring is the moment when we return, full of trepidation, to a wider world of social calls. Forget family reunions, winter holidays, and posting on Facebook about the things we’re thankful for — now it’s time for cookouts, beach trips, shared vacations, late night apartment-based “dance parties,” and potlucks. Potlucks. POTLUCKS.

In short, Spring marks the beginning of another year spent acknowledging the troublesome, baffling existence of other people, with their preoccupations, excuses, shortcuts, depravities, sentimentality, and secret darknesses of every description. And the heat underneath April tweeting is a flame lit by those first signs of life, including those first bottles of wine that somebody definitely brought, but which are, y’know, noticeably cheap. Those first moments watching someone dissect away, on their white paper plate, everything to which they are allergic, palatally sensitive, gastrically intolerant, or morally opposed. You can go all winter and never have a discussion about olives, but you can’t throw the ol’ baseball ten feet in Spring without hitting one dead-center.

You can hear the pleading, in Lakoff/Johnson, for a universal set of prototypes that would serve as referees: “We can all agree on the meaning of the word ‘chair,’ can’t we? Can’t we, people?” After all, sooner or later, the game is finished and the scores are tallied up. Some pitchers are better than others: I don’t care how much you like the knuckleball, Nolan Ryan was better than Bob Tewksbury, day in and day out. Fantasy scores are objective. Reality, on the other hand, is subjective. So we go on, playing our social games of inches, in the gathering dusk, waiting for a final decision, and listening for a whistle that no-one will ever blow, saying it’s over, you were right, you were right all along — that other couple really did behave infamously. They’re odder than…than…a pair of ostriches!


PS. Regarding the practice of “having a catch,” I demur. You can have one if you want. You can even use Instagram to post sepia-toned pictures of it. But this ain’t the Polo Grounds, I don’t pitch with a straight leg-kick, my baseball glove doesn’t have five fingers, and when I play catch, I play it.