- Baseball As Aesthetic Ideology: Cold War History, Race, and Delillo’s “Pafko at the Wall”
“What’s a ballgame to make us feel like this?”—Don DeLillo, “Pafko at the Wall”
1. Fascism, Aura, and the Media
Don DeLillo has long been fascinated with crowds and people’s collective urge to be a part of something larger than themselves, to surrender to a power that would explain the felt alienation of their lives and to protect them from a recognition of their own mortality. 1 Mao II (1991) with its frightening evocations of crowds—a mass wedding ceremony performed by Reverend Moon at Yankee Stadium, the suffocation of people pressed against a restraining fence at a soccer game, and the mass hysteria at the Ayatollah Khomeini’s funeral—has been DeLillo’s most extensive treatment of this matter. Yet DeLillo’s depiction of a thoroughly American crowd in his recent novella, “Pafko [End Page 285] at the Wall” (Harper’s, October 1992), pushes the issue further through its examination of baseball as an aesthetic ideology that masks troubling political realities; in “Pafko” people’s desire to experience religious transcendence through baseball can be named by a shorthand term—aura. 2 An important discussion of the dangerous implications of aura is Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” in which aura is a negative concept because it cloaks the work of art in its cultic and ritual function (225–226). 3 In this essay, Benjamin speaks approvingly of the way technologies of mass reproduction destroy the aura of the high culture work of art that fetishizes origin: if high quality prints of the Mona Lisa can be infinitely reproduced and disseminated, it is no longer necessary to travel to the Louvre and stand in hushed respect before timeless genius. Benjamin, of course, hoped that film and photography could recuperate aura in a Marxist context (to politicize the aesthetic), but in the epilogue of his essay, Benjamin, a firsthand observer of Hitler’s National Socialists, notices that in the Nazi appropriation of culture, it is not just art but the media “which is pressed into the production of ritual values” (243). Far from simply destroying aura, the techniques of reproduction (particularly the newly emerging electronic media) could reconstruct a specious aura. If Hitler could construct an aura by using newsreels and radio to amplify the impact of his parades, rallies, and sporting events, then there was a link between mass reproduction and the manipulation of the masses (Benjamin 253). For Benjamin, then, one of the defining features of fascism is its ability to transform political conflict and class struggle into objects of aesthetic contemplation. 4
In DeLillo’s postwar America, there is no Führer figure attempting to manipulate the masses; nevertheless, there operates what might be termed a postmodern, decentralized totalitarianism in which the mass media—often linked to advertising—constructs an aura around popular culture events. 5 Obviously the storm-trooper, anti-Semitic violence of National Socialism cannot be equated with advertising in American culture; nevertheless, Benjamin’s uneasiness with German fascism’s aestheticizing the political serves as a bridge to DeLillo’s American consumer culture, a culture in which he repeatedly finds political and economic matters overwhelmed by aesthetics. It is precisely baseball fans’ auratic identification with the game that DeLillo’s novella makes problematic as it raises a question: Why on a particular day in [End Page 286] our history—October 3, 1951—does one cultural event, a baseball game, eclipse a moment crucial to the construction of the Cold War?
Since his highly acclaimed comic novel White Noise (1985), DeLillo has muted an element—an overt satire of American culture—that had formed part of his fiction from his first novel, Americana (1971), and turned toward what Linda Hutcheon calls historiographic metafiction. Libra, Mao II, and most recently “Pafko at the Wall” all exhibit historiographic metafiction’s self-conscious blurring of the boundary between history and fiction, which reminds the reader of the fictional moves that always form part of any attempt to write history. This blending of history and fiction, for Hutcheon, creates a purchase for...