Of Pale Kings and Paris

 

I saw pale kings and princes too …
—John Keats.
“La Belle Dame Sans Merci” (1819).

… and the pale King glanced across the field
Of battle, but no man was moving there …
Alfred Tennyson.
Idylls of the King: The Passing of Arthur (1871).

 

“It’s difficult,” the lady from Boston was saying a few days after the attacks in Paris, “to play other courses when your handicap is established at an easy course like this one.” She was referring to the golf course to which I have repaired following an excellent autumn season at Medinah Country Club: the Chechessee Creek Club, just south of Beaufort, South Carolina—a course that, to some, might indeed appear to be an easy course. Chechessee measures just barely more than 6000 yards from the member tees and, like all courses in the Lowcountry, it is virtually tabletop flat—but appearances are deceptive. For starters, the course is short on the card because it has five par-three holes, not the usual four, and the often-humid and wet conditions of the seacoast mean that golf shots don’t travel as they do in drier and more elevated locations. So in one sense, the lady was right—in precisely the same sense, as I suspect the lady was not aware, that Martin Heidegger, writing at an earlier moment of terror and the movements of peoples, was right.

Golf course architecture of course might be viewed as remote from the preoccupations of Continental theory as the greens of the Myopia Hunt Club, the lady’s home golf course, are from, say, the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Yet, just as Martin Heidegger is known as an exceptionally, even historically, difficult writer, Myopia Hunt Club is justly known to the elect as an exceptionally, even historically, difficult golf course. At the seventh U.S. Open in 1901—the only Open in which no competitor managed to break 80—the course established the record for highest winning score of a U.S. Open: a 331 shot by both Willie Anderson (who died tragically young) and Alex Smith that was resolved by the first playoff in the Open’s history. (Anderson’s 85 just edged Smith’s 86). So the club earned its reputation for difficulty.

The nature of those difficulties are, in fact, the very same ones those who like the Chechessee Creek Club trumpet: the deeper mysteries of angles, of trompe l’oiel, the various artifices by which the architects of golf’s Golden Age created the golf courses still revered today and whose art Coore and Crenshaw, Chechesee’s designers, have devoted their careers to recapture. Like Chechessee, Myopia Hunt isn’t, and never was, especially long: for most of its history, it has played around 6500 yards, which even at the beginning of the twentieth century wasn’t remarkable. Myopia Hunt is a difficult golf course for reasons entirely different than difficult golf courses like Medinah or Butler National are difficult: they are not easily apparent.

Take, for example, the 390-yard fourth: the contemporary golf architect Tom Doak once wrote that it “might be the best hole of its length in the free world.” A dogleg around a wetland, the fourth is, it seems, the only dogleg on a course of straight holes—in other words, slightly but not extraordinarily different from the other holes. However the hole’s green, it seems, is so pitched that a golfer in one of the course’s Opens (there have been four; the last in 1908) actually putted off the green—and into the wetland, where he lost the ball. (This might qualify as the most embarrassing thing that has ever happened to a U.S. Open player.) The dangers at Myopia are not those of a Medinah or a Butler National—tight tee shots to far distant greens, mainly—but are instead seemingly-minor but potentially much more catastrophic.

At the seventh hole, according to a review at Golf Club Atlas, the “members know full well to land the ball some twenty yards short of the putting surface and allow for it to bumble on”—presumably, players who opt differently will suffer an apocalyptic fate. In the words of one reviewer, “one of the charms of the course” is that “understanding how best to play Myopia Hunt is not immediately revealed.” Whereas the hazards of a Butler or Medinah are readily known, those at Myopia Hunt are, it seems, only revealed when it is too late.

It’s for that reason, the reviewer goes on to say, that the club had such an impact on American golf course design: the famed Donald Ross arrived in America the same year Myopia Hunt held its first Open, in 1898, and spent many years designing nearby courses while drawing inspiration by visiting the four-time Open site. Other famous Golden Age architects also drew upon Myopia Hunt for their own work. As the reviewer above notes, George Thomas and A.W. Tillinghast—builders of some of the greatest American courses—“were influenced by the abundant placement and penal nature of the hazards” (like the wetland next to the fourth’s green) at Myopia Hunt. Some of America’s greatest golf courses were built by architects with first-hand knowledge of the design style pioneered and given definition by Myopia Hunt.

Coore and Crenshaw—the pale kings of American golf architecture—like to advertise themselves as champions of this kind of design: a difficulty derived from the subtle and the non-obvious, rather than simply by requiring the golfer to hit the ball really far and straight. “Theirs,” says the Coore and Crenshaw website, “is an architectural firm based upon the shared philosophy that traditional, strategic golf is the most rewarding.” Chechessee, in turn, is meant to be a triumph of their view: according to their statement on Chechesee’s website, Coore and Crenshaw’s goal when constructing it “was to create a golf course of traditional character that would reward thoughtful, imaginative, and precise play,” and above all to build a course—like a book?—whose “nuances … will reveal themselves over time.” In other words, to build a contemporary Myopia Hunt.

Yet in the view of this Myopia Hunt member, Coore and Crenshaw failed: Chechessee is, for this lady, far easier than her nineteenth-century home course. Why is that? My speculation, without having seen Myopia Hunt, is that whereas Coore and Crenshaw design in a world that has seemingly passed by the virtues of the past, the Massachusetts course was designed on its own terms. That is, Coore and Crenshaw work within an industry where much of their audience has internalized standards that were developed by golf architects who themselves were reacting against the Golden Age architects like Tillinghast or Ross. Whereas Myopia Hunt Club can have a hole—the ninth—whose green is only nine yards wide and forty yards deep, the following generation of architects (and golfers) rejected such designs as “unfair,” and worked to make golf courses less “odd” or “unique.” So when Coore and Crenshaw come to design, they must work against expectations that the designer of Myopia Hunt Club did not.

Thus, the Golden Age designers were in the same position that, according to the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, the Pre-Socratic philosophers were: in a “brief period of authentic openness to being,” as the Wikipedia article about Heidegger says. That is, according to Heidegger the Pre-Socratics (the Greek philosophers, like Anaximander and Heraclitus and Parmenides, all of whom predated Socrates) had a relationship to the world, and philosophizing about it, that was unavailable to those who would come afterwards: they were able, Heidegger insinuates, to confront the world itself in a way different from those who came afterwards—after all, the latecomers unavoidably had to encounter the works of those very philosophers first.

Unlike his teacher then, Edmund Husserl—who “argued that all that philosophy could and should be is a description of experience”—Heidegger himself however thought that the Pre-Socratic moment was impossible to return to: hence, Heidegger claimed that “experience is always already situated in a world and in ways of being.” So while such a direct confrontation with the world as Husserl demands may have been possible for the Pre-Socratics, Heidegger is seemingly willing to allow, he also argues that history has long since closed off such a possibility, and thus forbade the kind of direct experience of the world Husserl thought of as philosophy’s object. In the same way, whereas the Golden Age architects confronted golf architecture in a raw state, no such head-on confrontation is now possible.

What’s interesting about Heidegger’s view, as people like Penn State professor Michael Berubé has pointed out, is that it has had consequences for such things as our understanding of, say, astronomical objects. As Berubé says in an essay entitled “The Return of Realism,” at the end of Heidegger’s massive Being and Time—the kind encyclopedic book that really emphasizes the “German” in “German philosophy”—Heidegger’s argument that we are “always already” implicated within previous thoughts implies that, for instance, it could be said that “the discovery of Neptune in 1846 could plausibly be described, from a strictly human vantage point, as the ‘invention’ of Neptune.” Or, to put it as Heidegger does: “Once entities have been uncovered, they show themselves precisely as entities which beforehand already were.” Before Myopia Hunt Club and other courses like it were built, there were no “rules” of golf architecture—afterwards, however, sayings like “No blind shots” came to have the weight of edicts from the Almighty.

For academic leftists like Berubé, Heidegger’s insight has proven useful, in a perhaps-paradoxical way. Although the historical Heidegger himself was a member of the Nazi Party, according to Berubé his work has furthered the project of arguing “the proposition that although humans may not be infinitely malleable, human variety and human plasticity can in principle and in practice exceed any specific form of human social organization.” Heidegger’s work, in other words, aims to demonstrate just how contingent a lot of what we think of as necessary is—which is to say that his work can help us to re-view what we have taken for granted, and perhaps see it with a glimpse of what the Pre-Socratics, or the Golden Age golf architects, saw. Even if Heidegger would also deny that such would ever be possible for us, here and now.

Yet, as the example of the lady from Myopia Hunt demonstrates, such a view has also its downside: having seen the original newness, she denies the possibility that the new could return. To her, golf architecture ended sometime around 1930: just as Heidegger thought that, some time around the time of Socrates, philosophy became not just philosophy, but also the history of philosophy, so too does this lady think that golf architecture has also become the history of golf architecture.

Among the “literary people” of his own day, the novelist and journalist Tom Wolfe once complained, could be found a similar snobbishness: “it is one of the unconscious assumptions of modern criticism,” Wolfe wrote, “that the raw material is simply ‘there,’” and from such minds the only worthy question is “Given such-and-such a body of material, what has the artist done with it?” What mattered to these critics, in other words, wasn’t the investigatory reporting done by such artists as Balzac or Dickens, Tolstoy or Gogol, but rather the techniques each artist applied to that material. The human misery each of those writers witnessed and reported, this view holds Wolfe says, is irrelevant to their work; rather, what matters is how artfully that misery is arranged.

It’s a conflict familiar both to literary people and the people that invented golf. The English poets, like Keats and Tennyson, who invented the figure of the Pale King were presumably drawing upon a verse well-known to King James’ translators; literary folk who feared the cost of seeing anew. The relevant verse, imaginably the source of both Keats and Tennyson, is from the James translation of the Book of Revelations (chapter 6, verse 8):

And I looked, and behold a pale horse:
and his name that sat on him was Death,
and Hell followed with him.

But opponents of the Auld Enemy saw the new differently; as novelist John Updike once reported, according the “the old Scots adage,”

We should be conscious of no more grass …
than will cover our own graves.

To the English, both heirs to and inventors of a literary tradition, the Pale King was a terrible symbol of the New, the Young, and the Unknown. But to their ancient opponents, the Scots, the true fear was to be overly aware of the past, at the expense of welcoming in the coming age. As another Celt from across the sea, W. B. Yeats, once put the same point:

Be not inhospitable to strangers,
lest they be angels in disguise.

Parisians put the same point in the aftermath of the shootings and bombings that Friday evening on Twitter by using the hashtag “#PorteOuverte”—a slogan by which, in the aftermath of the horror, thousands of Parisians offered shelter to strangers from whatever was still lurking in the darkness. To Parisians, like the Scots before them, what matters is not whether the Pale King arrives, but our reaction when he does.

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Please let me know what you think! Also, if you are having trouble with posting a comment, please feel free to email me personally at djmedinah@yahoo.com. Thanks for reading!

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