Short Reviews

Mythologies

by Roland Barthes, translated by Annette Lavers
Hill and Wang, 158 pp., $5.95

Brown Bomber: The Pilgrimage of Joe Louis

by Barney Nagler
World, 236 pp., $7.95

The Washington Pay-off: An Insider's View of Corruption in Government

by Robert Winter-Berger
Lyle Stuart, 341 pp., $10.00

During spring training in March, 1962, Roger Angell, fiction editor for The New Yorker, started writing casually about baseball “at a distance and in retrospect,” unhampered by the daily sportswriter’s continuous race with deadlines. These pieces, all published originally in The New Yorker, are the result—a decade’s worth of meditations and observations on the metaphysics of the game.

For Angell, in baseball there’s always “something more to be discovered.” He is intrigued by the geometrics of the game, the pitcher on the mound holding “the inert white ball, his little lump of physics,” while the batter, “wielding a plane, attempts to intercept the line”; and its mathematical lineaments, the box score, for example, is “not only informative, pictorial, and gossipy but lovely in aesthetic structure.”

Angell’s commentary on the 1962-71 pennant races and World Series is as sharp as a curve that breaks perfectly at the letters: the Dodgers’ Maury Wills is “a skinny, lizard-quick base runner”; the incomparable Koufax didn’t merely overpower hitters, he “dismantled” them; Rico Petrocelli was “subject to fatal spells of introspection when approaching ground balls”; pitcher Lolich worked “like a man opening a basket of cobras”; the Yaz of 1967 suffered “all the prizes and ugly burdens we force on the victims of celebrity.” Occasionally Angell becomes waspish (he scorns the franchise-hopping greed of some owners and sneers at Judge Hofheinz’s Astrodome and its artificial turf—“I had the sudden feeling that if I unzipped it, I might uncover the world’s first plastic worm”), but usually he’s searching for the Higher Game, the cosmology behind each pitch, each swing, each “shared joy and ridiculous hope” of summer’s long adventure.

Although Mythologies, published fifteen years ago in France, may seem a lamentably late arrival on these shores, it is still the gamiest of structuralist studies. In these short, spirited essays, Roland Barthes investigates what he calls “petit-bourgeois culture” (what we call “Pop”). However, beneath the raffish subject matter—“The Face of Garbo,” “The Brain of Einstein,” “Operation Margarine”—a systematic “unmasking” takes place. Toys, for example, are really a microcosm of the adult world: “they are all reduced copies of human objects, as if in the eyes of the public the child was, all told, nothing but a smaller man, a homunculus to whom must be supplied objects of his own size.” For Barthes, “wrestlers remain gods because they are, for a few moments, the key which opens Nature, the pure gesture which separates Good from Evil, and unveils the form of a Justice which is at last intelligible.”

These statements, perhaps, taken out of context, sound portentous or absurd. But Barthes is a wily observer of “naturalness” and the “falsely obvious.” A vivid polemicist (Marx, Freud, and Sartre are part of his well-equipped arsenal), Barthes has something too of the classic artistry of Montaigne. Indeed, unlike most structuralists he is a pleasure to read. Of course, in methodology he owes an immense debt to Ferdinand de Saussures, the great Swiss linguist who died in 1912, but Saussures could…


This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.