In terms of how we live, what we long for, and what we find beautiful—so often the nexus of it is something that is absent. Absence drives our existence more than just about anything. Absence, I suggest, galvanizes us in our protestations against apathy, malaise, and debilitating continence. It gives us a reason to be passionate, to burn brightly and agonize over things like truth and beauty. It gives us hope; and we need hope.
Every Fourth of July I get a little nostalgic. I also get patriotic, but mostly it’s just nostalgic. Can you relate? I think most of us can. This grand holiday is at once a momentous celebration of American independence, a celebration of American history and culture, but also a day of memories. In fact I’d say that more than 50% of my day this Fourth of July will be spent thinking fondly back to the various Independence Days of my youth, and this is not in the least a sad or pathetic thing.
I’ll be thinking back to the summers in Oklahoma when the neighborhood kids would get together and set off fireworks on someone’s driveway, when we’d prance around under the humid summer moon, sparkler in one hand and melting popsicle in the other.
Or I might recall the various summers I spent at Grandma and Grandpa’s house in Colorado, when the whole family was there, eating homemade vanilla ice cream and apple pie, waiting for me and my cousins to perform Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to Be An American” (complete with hand motions!).
Then there was the Fourth of July my family and I spent in San Francisco, watching fireworks explode over the Golden Gate bridge, or the year I was in Boston, watching fireworks on the banks of the Charles River, Boston Pops playing in the background. Or the insanely hot Fourth of July my family and I spent in New York City, watching an afternoon ballgame at Yankees Stadium, baking in the upper deck as peanuts and hot dogs and beer sizzled in the July heat.
And I remember one time, the summer after the Persian Gulf War (I think it was 1991), we neighborhood kids in Broken Arrow (Oklahoma) marveled as a local war veteran shot off some special “scud missile” firework. That was such a quick, clean, wonderful war. It was one we could name fireworks for.
I’m not sure Fourth of Julys are ever really about patriotism, at least not as much as they are about family, and the glory of summer, and the making of memories. And perhaps above all it is a holiday about time… It’s a day that celebrates America’s past, which is a rarity for a country that so thrills in the future. But it’s also a day that lets us stop what we’re doing and sink into the present, losing ourselves in the mesmerizing flashes in the sky, the Sousa marches, the barbecues.
It’s a day that captures what is ineffably American, and it has nothing to do with trite slogans (“United We Stand!”) or Gap flag shirts. It has much more to do with the sorts of complexities pointed out by people like F. Scott Fitzgerald, who described in The Great Gatsby how the “fresh, green breast of the new world … pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the first time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.”
It has to do with Melville’s whale, or Hawthorne’s letter “A,” or Bob Dylan’s harmonica. It is crystallized in Citizen Kane’s Rosebud sled, or the moment in Badlands when Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen dance in the cold prairie darkness to Nat King Cole’s “A Blossom Fell.”
It has to do with loss, and grace, and all that is good and bad about man’s ambition in the world. And perhaps Jack Kerouac captures it most clearly in his drug-addled prose in On the Road:
“So in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, and all that road going, all the people dreaming in the immensity of it, and in Iowa I know by now the children must be crying in the land where they let the children cry, and tonight the stars’ll be out, and don’t you know that God is Pooh Bear? The evening star must be drooping and shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie, which is just before the coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all rivers, cups the peaks and folds the final shore in, and nobody, nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old…”
I’m not really sure what any of this means, just like I’m not really sure what America means—especially these days. But I do know that things don’t have to be crystal clear or black and white (or red, white and blue) in order to be beautiful. We can and should be thankful for this country, for our place in it, even if we don’t always understand it.
“Always, after he was in bed, there were voices—indefinite, fading, enchanting—just outside his window, and before he fell asleep he would dream one of his favorite waking dreams: the one about becoming a great half-back or the one about the Japanese invasion when he was rewarded by being made the youngest general in the world. It was always the becoming he dreamed of, never the being.” -F. Scott Fitzgerald, This Side of ParadiseNote: This is the first of a three-part post series on competition in the American psyche. Coming on Sept. 10 is part two: “The Battle of 9/11.”
A documentary film was recently released in L.A. called The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. If it comes to a theater anywhere near you, please go see it. The film's subject matter at first appears rather frivolous: competitive videogaming, specifically the battle for world records in “classic” arcade games from the early eighties like Donkey Kong. Indeed, for much of the first third of the film, you’ll wonder if it’s a mockumentary (in the vein of Christopher Guest). All the talking head stars of the film are about as nerdy as stereotypical gamers get.
But the film isn’t chiefly about making fun of pasty, aging slackers with mullets and fingerless gloves who play arcade games all day. It is extremely funny, don’t get me wrong—one of the funniest films I’ve seen all year. But beneath the ironic 80s soundtrack (everything from The Cure to Animotion) and geeky earnestness of the whole competitive gaming world, Kong is a rather profound—and deeply moving—film.
It’s all about competition—and how obsessive, ingrained, and life-consuming it is. Especially in America. Especially for men. There is this drive within us to be the best at something. Whether it’s winning a gold medal, becoming a successful sauce salesman, being the world’s “foremost military superpower,” or simply holding the world record Pac-Man score, we all desire that glory; that “top dog” status.
The King of Kong follows two men—Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe—and their vicious rivalry to see who will ultimately hold the world’s top score in Donkey Kong. Mitchell, a hot sauce salesman from Hollywood, Florida, held the top score from 1982 to 2006, when Wiebe—a 7th grade science teacher and family man from Washington State—came out of nowhere to take the title away. On one level the film is a classic tale of good (Wiebe) vs. evil (Mitchell), but really it is an examination of the pride of victory and the sting of second place, and the ultimate dissatisfaction that comes from both positions.
When we win at anything it is definitely a good feeling, but after reaching any summit, there’s always some other mountain to climb, something else to go after. Being in second place is perhaps preferable: at least there is a definite goal to work toward, an end to focus upon, a definition to our life’s pursuit.
As we see in the Fitzgerald quote above, the becoming of something great—not the being of it—is where the glory lies.
Kong is a beautiful little microcosm of American life. We are a country founded upon competition and an always optimistic ethic of tomorrow: what we don’t have is within reach, what isn’t here today might come tomorrow, who you are today is not who you will always be, etc. It’s a glistening sentiment that makes the patriotic heart beat stronger, but beneath it lies the sad reality of human nature and earthly existence: there will always be someone better, glory is fleeting, legacies are tenuous, and the greatest of the great is still just a candle in the wind.
Even so, competition is a good thing, and certainly no more pointless or temporal than anything else in this life. Competition pushes us forward, and Hegelian progress is made (through the friction of dialectics), even if there are casualties along the way. Competition is innate to humanity, and people like Plato recognized that from very early on. Plato had a term called thymos, which is the essential part the soul wherein man desires recognition, demands respect of his dignity, and feels pride. It is this part of the human soul that allows us to act in contrary (e.g. sacrificing ourselves for some greater purpose) to our reason and other instincts. It is in thymos that our innate sense of justice exists, and—as contemporary scholar Francis Fukuyama argues—where noble virtues of selflessness, idealism, self-sacrifice, courage, and honorability originate.
Thus, while competition can be painful and the fruits of winning rather unsatisfying, it is still the engine that drives a successful society. It is the chief means by which man can begin to understand his identity and see glimpses of his self-worth—and in the process realize that any worth he might have cannot come from anything he can ever do (because even the greatest achievements in the world leave us ultimately unworthy before the vastness of sin and mortality), but rather from some grace-giving Other.