Remembering Names

I have mentioned in previous posts the remarkable novels of Yukio Mishima that form the “masterful tetralogy,”  The Sea of Fertility. I am still working my way through the third of the four novels and it is tough going: it incorporates a great deal of information about Eastern religious beliefs regarding reincarnation. Upon completing the four novels Mishima committed seppuku and I am beginning to understand why. He is fascinated with the question of death and the possibilities of lives being transmigrated into other bodies after death. His central character continues to meet the same person in different bodies throughout his own long life.

In any event, Mishima has extraordinary descriptive powers and waxes poetic from time to time. This makes for delightful reading and his characters jump from the pages and stand before the reader in sharp detail. One such character is “Former Baron Shinkawa” who appears at a party late in the third novel and is described as  “seventy-two, grumbling and complaining without fail whenever he left home” — which he did whenever he could, since he loved to attend parties and social gatherings of all sorts. Unfortunately, he was becoming boring, telling the same anecdotes but beginning to lose his ability to recall the names of the central characters who made up those stories. “His sarcasm had lost its bite, and his epigrammatic expressions had become long-winded and shallow. He was never able to recall people’s names.” Mishima then introduces a wonderful paragraph describing in metaphorical terms the problems the good Baron seems to be having:

“His listener could not help but recognize Shinkawa’s losing battle with the invisible monster of forgetfulness. This quiet, but tenacious animal would occasionally withdraw only to reappear at once, clinging to Shinkawa, brushing his forehead with its shaggy tail.”

Believe me, I know that feeling. I have known it all my life. And the fact that I have difficulty in remembering names (and dates) has always plagued me. I am a terrible joke-teller since I often forget the punchline. But as I grow older (and older) and may finally experience dementia I find solace in the fact that the people around me will never know! (Which raises an interesting question: how would doctors ever determine that a Tea-Party Republican who suffers from chronic dementia has Alzheimer’s?) Anyway, I have always been like Baron Shinkawa and know well the feeling of the quiet animal “brushing his forehead with its tail.” I suppose, however, that if and when dementia does visit the “quiet but tenacious animal” will not withdraw. He becomes a permanent visitor. Sad, indeed.

One reads fine literature in order to deepen one’s understanding of the  human condition. If the work is also beautifully written — even in translation — then this raises the work from the level of “good” literature to “great” literature. Such is the case with the novels of Yukio Mishima.

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Is Federer the Best Ever?

I mentioned in an earlier blog that I thought any knowledgeable sports fan could recognize the great players in their sport just as an avid reader could identify the great literature that has been written. But I also noted that when it came to comparisons we were on shaky ground. Federer is a great male tennis player, all would agree, but is he the greatest who ever played? Talking heads and drunks in the bar love to argue about such things — though in the bar they would most likely be talking about the greatest football or basketball player, not the best tennis player! But it is all hokum. It is what we might call idle speculation.

To begin with, we would have to agree on the criteria of greatness. Which ones are relevant? In Federer’s case, is it the number of major titles he has won? The length of time he was ranked #1 in the world? His consistency? His records against the other top players? His skill? Clearly, in the end there is a great deal of subjectivity involved, just in determining which criteria to select. But even if we agree that, say, skill is one of the criteria how do we agree who is the most skillful player who ever played? That is precisely the key question: how do we decide? In the case of comparisons of players from different eras, it cannot be done. Would Laver in his prime have beaten Federer in his prime? Who knows? Rankings differ from year to year, depth of the field and relative abilities of the other players also vary. And so it goes. It’s apples and oranges, as we like to say. That won’t stop the speculation, but it should allow us to recognize that it is idle and will lead us nowhere.

It was supposed that computers could put an end to idle speculation in sports, but not so. There is considerable discussion in women’s tennis, and in golf, as to whether the world’s #1 player could be such without ever winning a major tournament. And just look at the mess in college football with computers determining rankings. Computers have not put out the flames of speculation; they have tossed fuel on the fire. Whether we use computers or count on our fingers, if we cannot determine what would make a claim true, then it is idle to speculate — though it might be fun to do so over beers with your friends.

But there is speculation that is not idle, and we must acknowledge the difference. Let’s call it “reasonable speculation.” We can speculate what will happen in the years to come if the human population continues to explode and the earth’s resources continue to diminish in the light of global warming. These sorts of speculation are not idle: they are essential to our survival. They are the sorts of speculation the Club of Rome engages in to determine when the earth will reach its carrying capacity, something we need to know. In this arena we not only have innumerable relevant facts, which we can determine as relevant, but we can form a basis for probabilities. In the arena of sports, we have disconnected facts but we cannot say which are germane and probabilities cannot gain a foothold. The differences are important.

When it comes to Federer, I would say that he has the most major titles of all time, and that is a fact — one of the few we could agree on. But, as a lifelong student of the sport, I would also add that he is the best ball striker I have ever seen, the most graceful payer with the best footwork. But do these factors make him the greatest male player who ever played the game? I cannot say, nor can anyone else.