Thursday, August 03, 2006

The Narnian, The Rivals, and Different Goals

When one reads two books back-to-back, one sometimes sees connections that would not ordinarily appear. In somewhat similar fashion, I once opened to the NT book the Letter of James, thinking it was Paul's Letter to the Hebrews. Starting from the chapter and verse I was seeking, I read for half-a-dozen verses before something cued me I was in the wrong place. But in that short passage, I saw both books in a different light. Had Paul actually said what I was reading in James, it would have a different flavor and emphasis.

It's a Jorge Luis Borges sort of approach - to read Cervantes as if Shakespeare had written it, to read Pindar as if Fitzgerald had written it. Cute idea, but don't spend more than a few minutes per attempt on it. It's not that illuminating, though it is fun.

The Narnian is Alan Jacobs' biography of CS Lewis, perhaps the best so far. The Rivals is a sports history, following the rivalry of Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell.

You wouldn't necessarily connect those two, eh?

Jacobs tells more of the story of the falling out between Lewis and Tolkien than is available in other biographies. While their relationship never stopped being congenial, it did become more distant. Tolkien disapproved of much of Lewis's writing, on a variety of grounds. Chief among them was Lewis's practice of writing only one draft, or a second at most, before sending a manuscript to the publisher. In contrast, Tolkien rewrote ceaselessly, perpetually not quite satisfied with his magnum opus, The Lord of the Rings. Nearly as important was Tolkien's insistence on pure subcreation, creating a world utterly consistent and true to its own internal logic. Lewis allowed his books to be invaded - by differing mythologies, by the voice of the narrator, or by ideas from his other books.

In passing, it is perhaps significant that Tolkien's earlier book, The Hobbit, had a tone and an interruptibility similar to the Narnian Chronicles. Perhaps Tolkien was critical of a method he felt he had tried and left behind.

Their goals in writing were different, and this seems not to have occurred to either of them. Because of their enormous similarities of interest, profession, age, location, belief, and habits, it would be natural for each to think that the other was trying to accomplish the same goals in writing, and indeed in living. Tolkien judged Lewis according to his own goals, unable to step back and see if something different were afoot.

The sportswriter stereotype of Chamberlain and Russell was that Wilt was the more talented and dominant player, amassing impressive personal statisitcs and calling the shots wherever he went far more than other players, but that Bill was the better, indeed consummate team player, leading to the unequaled string of championships for the Celtics in the late 50's and through the 60's.

I had wondered if the stereotype was wrong and unfair to Wilt, who missed several championships by the slimmest of margins and the merest of chances. Surely, he must have wanted to win as badly as Russell did?

Not really. The stereotype turns out to be true. Wilt sabotaged the coaching nearly everywhere he went and frequently left his teammates out of the mix, forcing them to adjust to his style whether it was the best winning strategy or not. He was determined to win on his own terms, proving that his talent trumped mere method. He nearly did so. He was that good. Even being out-thought and out-strategized by Russell, Wilt nearly succeeded in having it all.

To the outside observer, it appeared that the two players had the same goal, and that Russell was succeeding while Wilt failed. This was heightened by the impression that sports fans have that the team goal should be the more important goal. I certainly subscribe to that myself. I grew up on the Chip Hilton books and the constant sermons that there's no "I" in "Team," etc. To win championships was the Real Goal, the Only Good Goal.

It was Russell, speaking at Wilt's funeral, who identified the difference. He noted that he had gotten what he wanted, and Wilt had gotten what he wanted, and I think that insight was genuine and perceptive on Russell's part. I don't believe it was just a polite and kindly thing one might say at a funeral. I think it was a real insight.

Two pair of great men, each forever associated with the other, pursuing what seemed to outside observers to be the same goal. Even the men themselves often assumed that the other was identical in orientation, and had good reason to think so. But it just wasn't so.


Bird Dog said...

Read it. Wonderful read.

Ben Wyman said...

Yeah, I see the parallels, but... that's quite a stretch. There are infinite numbers of people whom are forever linked in our minds as everlasting partners wanting the same things, but the differences in humanity seem to make that impossible. I wouldn't be surprised to see that Churchill and Roosevelt were actually surprisingly divided in some ways. Maybe Lewis and Clark as well. The Wright brothers. Laurel and Hardy. Who knows.

Ask the Beatles, Led Zepplin, or any member of British royalty. Success together does not sufficiently attest to having the same goals.

It's part of our human mentality, I think - we love the idea of a partnered team working together for greatness, covering each other's weaknesses and increasing each other's strengths. It makes us believe that even if we don't seem to be destined for greatness, we might be just one new friend away from taking the world by storm.