1 – Unlike most other traditions, our monotheistic legacy has culminated in American narratives that offer only two fundamental mythic images: the hero and the villain. These two in turn give us sub-categories such as winners and losers, or predators and victims. This zero-sum, winner-takes all world gives our inner fantasy worlds very little room for nuance. It is a profoundly diminished condition of the soul and it has ramifications in every aspect of life, from our health to our relationships to our economics to our politics. Casey and the unnamed pitcher begin as hero and villain, but he ends as loser or victim. In another mythic universe, Casey would not have been so arrogant as to ignore those first two pitches. (Or this: the Hall of Fame pitcher Robin Roberts claimed that his greatest thrill in baseball was seeing Micky Mantle come to bat with the wind blowing out in the 1953 All-Star game and bunting).
2 – Our radical obsession with individualism demands personal accountability, except of course for large corporations. For the rest of us the message is clear: if a man succeeds he does so not because of communal support networks or family inheritance, but alone, having “pulled himself up by his own bootstraps” (a phrase that first appears in print in 1834, nine years before “manifest destiny” does). This belief, American to its core, is both mythological and theological. “This is America,” said Jerry Falwell, our best-known televangelist a hundred years after Casey, “…If you’re not a winner it’s your own fault.”
This is crazy-making. On the surface, Americans, until very recently, have always held hugely unrealistic expectations of themselves compared to Europeans. This (along with our racist bellicosity) is what makes us Americans. As John Steinbeck said, “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”
But under the surface, we are all, as James Hillman said, psychologically Christian. We are not simply Protestants in character but Puritans. We’re losers – or self-proclaimed sinners – and many studies have shown that when we perceive ourselves as falling backwards in the rat race – or when we lose the blue-collar jobs that once provided us with middle-class lifestyles – we really do believe that it’s our own fault. Crazy-making. For a deeper dive into this issue, see my series “A Vacation in Chaos”.
3 – But perhaps the most profound thing that characterizes us as Americans is our refusal to look at our own darkness. How much easier it is to project our self-contempt upon convenient scapegoats. This is the root of that racist bellicosity that, for much of the world’s people, cancels out our invitation to prosper in the primary colors of capitalist progress. But Casey doesn’t even have that luxury; he simply fails.
A Ballad of the Republic, Sung in the Year 1888: It is significant that Ernest L. Thayer wrote Casey at this time and that it soon became massively popular. The ancient jihad against the external Red Other (the Native Americans) had only recently been displaced onto a new Red Other – communism. There were literally thousands of incidents of strikes, dozens of anarchist bombings and countless incidents of vicious police repression in these years. The Haymarket riots (which led to International Worker’s Day on May first) had happened only two years before.
Why was there so much agitation? Because it was the height of the “Gilded Age,” when the “Robber Barons” and other industrialists were accumulating unprecedented, massive fortunes and millions of (white) Americans were sinking down for the first time – despite the prevailing Horatio Alger myth of rising up by one’s own bootstraps – into severe poverty. Reconstruction had ended twelve years before. The South was well on its way to reversing most gains that African Americans had made since the Civil War and instituting a rigid system of Jim Crow segregation. And for white American males, to fall back or sink down economically was to risk having the boundary line between them and the Black Other erased. For some, this meant to unite with blacks and fight the oligarchs together; but for most whites it meant supporting any bigot politician who promised to re-instate that boundary line, just as the baseball owners were doing.
Does this sound similar to our own time? The massive extremes of wealth and poverty certainly should. The workers did, however, counter the ideology of “blame yourself” with the socialist and anarchist philosophies of “we can do this together.” Many of them were recent immigrants from Europe (which lacked both our heritage of extreme individualism and our Puritan tradition of blaming the victims), and they threatened the power structure as in no other period in American history.
Perhaps this is why the gatekeepers of racial purity went to such great lengths to shift blame for the economy and its periodic financial crashes onto the familiar internal Other (blacks) and the new external Other (reds). There were at least 5,000 lynchings between 1890 and 1930. The vast majority of the victims were black men. But not all: in 1891 a New Orleans mob murdered eleven Italian Americans, two years before the financial panic of 1893.
For the first time, most white Americans were finally acknowledging that they too were losers in this game. But the communal thinking that might have offered real alternatives was forced underground by massive repression. Still, Populists, Progressives and Socialists would persist in agitating for real change. Eugene Debs, imprisoned for his opposition to U.S. involvement in World War One, campaigning from jail, received nearly a million votes for president in 1920. But it would be nearly a century before an American politician would sense that the winds might be changing and proudly (if tepidly) describe himself as a socialist.
Winners and losers. Throughout these hundred years, the elites have counted on the fact that millions will identify with those fascists who could most easily manipulate their emotions, from the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s to Father Coughlin in the thirties, to Joe McCarthy in the fifties, to Ronald Reagan and Trumpus, whose most virulent insult is “loser.”
Yes, most of us, most of the time, are losers, but it sure feels good when he describes someone else as one. How sweet to have that burden lifted and dropped onto someone else. And how it pulls us out of our depressed (in more than one sense) state to identify with a self-described “winner.” How sweet to hear him describe the corona virus as the “Chinese virus”. But the exhilaration, like that of any addiction fades.
So Casey loses, and we lament his failure (unless we were pitchers when we were young, but then only the best players were pitchers or shortstops), because we know what it’s like to fail. Or perhaps we appreciate the sweet irony of his downfall – there’s that arrogance, after all – it’s a guilty pleasure to see the high and mighty brought down to earth. It’s the pleasure that lives in the shadows of our cult of celebrity.
This is a fourth characteristic of American myth in what Joseph Campbell described as our demythologized world. Prior to the ascendance of monotheism, tribal and pagan cultures had always provided multiple images of the great archetypal forces that move through psyche and culture. For over 150 years, however, we have lived with the “toxic mimic” of that imaginal world – the cult of celebrity, as embodied primarily not even by people but by images of people on screens and pages.
But archetypes are images of perfection, and no celebrity, be it Elvis, Marilyn, Casey or Trumpus can hold the projections and hopes of millions without eventually revealing their all-too-humanness. Then, woe to them, because as much as we love them, isn’t it one of the guiltiest of pleasures to see them fall from grace! Hall notes that
…hero-worship is dangerous and needs correction, especially in a democracy if we will remain democratic. To survive hero-worship we mock our heroes; if we don’t, we become their victims.
It can – and should – be profoundly disturbing to discover that we have projected our deepest selves – our inner royalty – upon celebrities, only to inevitably discover that they are quite imperfectly human. Better to rejoice at their catastrophes (“to move downward”) than to ponder our own willingness to give ourselves away, and to turn our gaze toward some other image that may carry our dreams for a while. To read more about both the Gilded Age and the cult of celebrity, read my essay “We Like to Watch: Being There with Trump.”
So our response to Casey’s failure is complicated indeed, and always will be. Or at least as long as we know what it is to lose when mass culture is constantly encouraging us to improve, to progress, to move up the food chain, to make something of ourselves, to “be all you can be,” or even to “Do What You Love, The Money Will Follow”.
In America, to acknowledge one’s expendable condition under capitalism is to open up the floodgates of repressed anger. For some, this can lead to rejecting the philosophy of every man for himself and joining the common struggle. But for others the temptation to let that anger out onto scapegoats provided by the media is overwhelming. And for a small but influential minority, that anger regularly turns into extreme violence.
But it is also true that becoming familiar with the shadow side of our mythology can also feel surprisingly comforting. How the pressure dissolves – to win, to succeed, to produce, to be number one, to be exceptional, to maintain phallic dominance, to rise in status, to keep up with the Jones’, to be a man, to police and save a world that has never appreciated our smile of Christian charity.
Donald Hall, before he died, gifted us with an alternative (not a re-write) to Casey:
Old Timer’s Day
When the tall puffy
figure wearing number
late for the fly ball,
like a lame truckhorse
startled by a gartersnake,
this old fellow
whose body we remember
as sleek and nervous
as a filly’s,
and barely catches it
in his glove’s
tip, we rise
and applaud weeping:
On a green field
we observe the ruin
of even the bravest
body, as Odysseus
wept to glimpse
among shades the shadow
(Talking about heroes, who is the tall, puffy figure? Hint: He wears # 9 and Hall lived in New England. Read John Updike’s classic essay, “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu”.
For more great literary writing on baseball, the anthology Baseball I Gave You the Best Years of My Life includes Robert Kelly’s “A Pastoral Dialogue on the Game of the Quadrature,” from which I glean some of the more mystical material in this essay.
Finally, some thoughts about losing from the American mystic and poet Adyashanti:
Enlightenment is a Gamble
Time to cash in your chips, put your ideas and beliefs on the table.
See who has the bigger hand, you or the Mystery that pervades you.
Time to scrape the mind’s shit off your shoes
Undo the laces that hold your prison together
And dangle your toes into emptiness.
Once you’ve put everything on the table once all of your currency is gone
And your pockets are full of air
All you’ve got left to gamble with is yourself.
Go ahead, climb up onto the velvet top of the highest stakes table.
Place yourself as the bet.
Look God in the eyes
And finally, for once in your life, lose.