Barry’s Blog # 162: A Poem for the Losers, Part Two

Of course Casey, despite his “smile of Christian charity”, does arrogantly let the first two strikes go by before (we never know if he even attempts to swing at the third one) striking out. Perhaps there is some implied meaning in this image to those who’d condemn him for not behaving in the approvingly restrained, modest, Puritan manner…nahhh. Casey is a hero, and heroes are privileged to choose their styles.

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Here is the essence of our fascination with Casey. We aspire to be heroes and winners, but we identify with the losers. I have written extensively about Hero mythology in America, and I encourage interested readers to review Chapter Nine of Madness at the Gates of the City. In the context of this essay, I’d offer a few basic insights. Due to our demythologized, monotheistic legacy, American narratives offer us only two basic mythic images: the hero and the villain, or the winner and the loser. Unlike most other traditions, we are given very little nuance in our inner fantasy world. This profoundly diminished condition of the soul has ramifications in every aspect of life, from our health to our politics.

And our obsession with individualism demands personal accountability. “This is America,” said Jerry Falwell, our best-known televangelist of the 1980s, whose mega-church was in Lynchburg, Virginia, “…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 Protestant in character but Puritan. We’re losers, and many studies have shown that we really do believe that it’s our own fault. Crazy-making.

Another thing that characterizes us as Americans is our refusal to look at our own darkness. How much easier it is to project our self-hatred upon convenient scapegoats. This is the root of that racist bellicosity. 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 holy war 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, anarchist bombings and 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.

Does this sound similar to our own time? Certainly the massive extremes of wealth and poverty 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 extreme individualism and our Puritan tradition of blaming the victims), and they threatened the power structure like 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 Others (Black people) and the new external Red Other. There were at least 5,000 lynchings between 1890 and 1930. In any event, and for the first time, most Americans were losers in this game, and the communal thinking that might have offered real alternatives was forced underground by massive repression. 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.

Later, in a much more common pattern, many would 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 Donald Trump, whose worst 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 “winner.”

So Casey loses, and we lament his failure (unless we were pitchers when we were young, but then only the best players were pitchers), 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.

What’s that all about? Now let’s consider another characteristic of American myth in this 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 the last 120 years, however, we have had to live 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.

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But archetypes are images of perfection, and no celebrity, be it Elvis, Marilyn, Casey or Trump 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.

At another level, we are profoundly disturbed 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.

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. Of course, being familiar with the shadow side of our mythology can also feel surprisingly comforting. How the pressure dissolves – to win, to succeed, to be number one, to be a man, to be exceptional, to maintain phallic dominance, to rise in status, to keep up with the Jones’, to police and save a world that doesn’t appreciate our smile of Christian charity.

Perhaps Hall has gifted us with an alternative (not a re-write) to Casey:

Old Timer’s Day

When the tall puffy

figure wearing number

nine starts

late for the fly ball,

laboring forward

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

of Achilles.

(Talking about heroes, who is the tall, puffy figure? Hint: He wears # 9 and Hall lives in New England).

Finally, some wisdom about losing from the American mystic 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.

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One Response to Barry’s Blog # 162: A Poem for the Losers, Part Two

  1. Garth Gilchrist says:

    Barry, this is wonderful stuff. Just read both blogs (by the way they were both listed as “Part Two.”) Thanks so much for all this effort, insight, genius (feeling increasingly humble in your presence :)). This is actually very helpful to me personally – which I hope you’re glad to hear, that your writing is actually doing some present tense good, not just fascinating people. God, it would be wonderful if Bernie could get into the manager’s chair and martial the team, but the game is rigged.

    Garth

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