Thursday, August 26, 2010

illuminating the wild scene

I just finished a book about a tennis match that has been called the match of the century--meaning the 20th century. It was the rubber match of the 1937 penultimate round of the Davis Cup between the United States and Germany. Don Budge played against and eventually defeated Gottfried von Cramm. The book is called, A Terrible Spendor.

Unless you are a sports zealot and a tennis aficionado as well, I wouldn't recommend the book. There is a good deal of tennis detail and the author jumps around so much--without a pattern that at least I was able to discern.

However, the book is more than about the game. The backdrop of the event is the rise to power of Hitler's Germany. Gottfried von Cramm would not join the party and for various reasons was playing for what must have seemed to be his life.

The title of the book comes from a Thomas Carlyle quote: Fate envelopes and oveshadows the whole; and under its lowering influence, the fiercest efforts of humans will appear but like flashes that illuminate the wild scene with a brief and terrible splendor, and are lost forever in the darkness.

As it relates to the horrors of the Nazis, the quote is accurate. But I think for most eras the quote is not only inaccurate but dangerous. If we assume that we are dust in the wind, simply unable to overcome fate except for brief flashes of illumination which will eventually succumb to the darkness, then there is no hope for progress or self love or love at all. Why work toward anything if we assume that we are overwhelmed by fate.

I like Don Quixote and used to say to anyone who would be willing to listen, that the windmills never have a chance. And I believe this for the most part. Yes, there are times when fate does overwhelm us. And in totalitarian regimes people do not have the freedom to help themselves. But for those of us who live in bona fide democracies, the idea that all we can have are flashes that will illuminate for short durations is to take an easy road. We have our chances to keep the scene lit.

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