II. (This is a continuation of the topic in a previous post.)
The bubble in the world of baseball card collecting grew steadily throughout the 1980s; the air came out in the early 1990s. It grew as a result of the overvaluation of the cards of contemporary players. The fact that these stars were new, hot, present, and capable of raising or dropping their stock with every at bat inflated their values; they got traded up. At core, the general sense was that these cards would eventually be the Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays rookie cards of a new generation. That's what casual hobbyist's assumed. I can recall being at a baseball card show in 1987, when a young Eric Davis had risen to the fore of the game, even inviting a Sports Illustrated cover story that wondered provocatively if he was the next Willie Mays. That Saturday afternoon in 1987, in a day game, Eric Davis hit three home runs; it was all the chatter; and the value of every piece of Eric Davis merchandise in the hotel convention room went skyrocketing. What people were unwilling to understand was that the value that these older cards had was due not to the deeds of the players, but do to their low numbers. There were smaller printings to begin with (America was smaller), and the children of the 1950s and 1960s, save for those fastidious, can’t-have-the-shoes-in-the-closet-touching types, handled their cards destructively. They stuck them in bike spokes, and punched holes in them with hole-punchers so they could string them up in decorative festoons in their bedrooms. I would not be surprised if one or two wasn’t spread with peanut butter and fed, to an unsuspecting dog, who probably would have been game for as many as peanut-buttered slathered cards as the neighborhood kids were offering. The cards that survived, that ended up in a shoebox, untouched, were generally thrown away by mothers.
The point is that though Eric Davis might have been thought of as the next Willie Mays, (rather, even if he had BECOME the next Willie Mays), a 1985 Eric Davis card would never be a 1951 Willie Mays card. Though I might have the same nostalgic response in the year 2064 (should I live that long) to a photo of Eric Davis as he was, the card would never trade that way. The conditions could never be right. There were millions of cards on the market in the late 80s. Topps was joined by Fleer, Donruss, Score, and finally Upper Deck. People were trading on these newer cards, Mark McQuire rookies and such, as if they had a scarcity that they’d never have. $7 for a Mark McQuire rookie in 1987! It was a great time to open wax-packs. His first full year in the league, his cards were already being sealed up in plastic, and being kept away from the conditions that would have given them actual value. Nobody was going to be putting these in spokes. It was an obvious bubble, and like all bubbles, it popped.
You have a bubble any time people behave as if there is value when there isn’t value. I suppose, in that light, that the foil ball could be perceived as a bubble – or if not a bubble, a relative species of a bubble. In the case of the ball, you have a man out there in the world, filling his pockets with foil as he walks along, let us say, 125th St. On one level, it is a personal overvaluation of trash….) Anyway, when this bubble popped in the early 1990s; all the inflated values of these newer cards plummeted. Many of the older cards were knocked down a notch in the process. There were some new strategies employed to get value into the new cards, and in many ways these were successful. Personally I found them disturbing, as a pond stocked with fish is mildly disturbing. (Man's conscious hand at the rudder in such matters causes you to feel not in reality, but in proxy, ersatz reality....) For instance, there was implemented an extremely harsh grading system that would reward only the one card in ten thousand that was, in the lingo, “gem mint.” This drew value from the many and imparted it onto the few in a relatively closed system. There was also the attempt to use fancy materials, to stamp gold-foil onto the cards in various places. In practice, this chintzy tattooing only highlighted the fact that it was preposterous that value would exist at all in a mass-produced piece of cardboard. Manufacturers also did some low-volume printing of ‘limited edition’ sets. Essentially they were trying to fabricate the conditions of scarcity. That someone was trying to raise the level of value on cards by simply pushing the button fewer times (I mean, this is cardboard rectangles spitting out of a machine, not Faberge-egg painting), is innately unattractive to the soul. There is something infinitely repugnant about artificial scarcity. A final thing they’ve done is to include fibers of game-worn jerseys in the cards of the best players. Sealed into a plastic window in the card itself, you will see a few pieces of authenticated thread, a snippet of a game used jersey. The collector gets to look at the jersey in the photograph on the card of, say, Derek Jeter, and know that he has a few threads of a jersey that might even be that jersey he’s looking at.
It is this last practice that is fascinating to me, and it’s started me up thinking about baseball cards in a way that I never quite have. Neil Postman used to maintain that a good question to ask when encountering a new technology is, “What is the problem for which this is a solution?” The example he always gave was the cruise-control function on a car. What problem does cruise control solve? Assailed that way, you see it solves the problem of keeping the foot on the pedal, which isn’t a problem for hardly anyone. Upon encountering a phenomenon such as this rending of jerseys, you want to ask yourself a different sort of question: “What is the religious phenomenon that this phenomenon is a secularization of?” Is what we we’re doing essentially what we used to do, only in varied form?” The idea that miraculous power inheres in the bones and teeth and garments of our greatest citizens, has deep roots in the psyche. When I feel myself, say, dressed up in catering attire, in well-pressed white jacket, clean shaven, and bending into a table to gently ask a guest, “Coffee or tea?”, I feel nothing like the member of a species that would rip apart the garments and even the teeth and hair and bones of its most revered deceased members. It is one of our most peculiar attributes. Of course it’s aboriginal, pre-Christian, the sense of the magical body, though absorbed into Christianity; it demonstrates a belief that holiness inheres in the flesh (and by extension) in the things of this world. A saint’s tooth, planted, might help create an area of holiness to protect a cathedral being built. Gandhi’s shirt sleeve pressed to the forehead of a dying child certainly cannot hurt. The belief is still in practice in Catholicism; still there are bones in altars, even in the newer churches, which retain a bit of the religion’s essential horror; i.e. What is best is torn apart (and must be torn apart) if its goodness is to be spread to all. If you find that horrifying, ah, well, then that is because it is horrifying. The world is horrifying, at least partially. As it’s a practical analogy, it’s worth pointing out that the jersey of Mario Mendoza, or any other weak player, isn’t being torn about into thousands of individual threads. Ad men and marketing men, as we all know, are the deep-sea divers of the human psyche. We learn as much about ourselves by studying the ways they attract us than by anything.
In an effort to look at what a baseball card IS as an object, (it’s a secularized icon, essentially), and also to begin to introduce the FOIL BALL, a string of connections appeared. I’d like to talk briefly about a section of a Walter Benjamin essay entitled, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” But before that, a diversion on hair:
THE HAIR TEST
A litmus test for whether you think a living writer will be immortalized is whether you would keep a lock of his hair. If you had a lock of Shakespeare’s hair, would you throw it away? Of course you would not. Likewise if you had a lock of Auden’s, Eliot’s, Proust’s, Plath’s, Tu-Fu’s, Stevens? You’d treasure it, keep it in small frame, w/ some info with it, say, a picture of the author; you’d tell people the details of it if they saw it displayed in your home or study. You’d also have a vague sense that on a rainy day, if times got rough, you could sell it. How much would such a loop of hair fetch? It could be figured out pretty easily. Let’s say I had a lock of Wystan Hugh Auden, authenticated and everything, and I announced on EBAY that the bidding was starting at $50. Someone would snap that right up. Auden’s hair could be shipped in a standard letter envelope for under a dollar.
So we must agree that the hair of great authors has value. In our innate beings, we perceive this. Thinking about it economically, it doesn’t seem preposterous to me that we might take a gamble every now and again on a snip of a current author’s hair. Logically, a great writer of today cannot issue any more hair or less hair than a writer in 1550. We can say with certainty that more hair came out of Kunitz’s head, over the course of his lifetime, than came out of John Keats’s head. In 2250, there will be no difference on how much hair a literary genius can produce. Nor can we grow any more teeth. Forgive me my grotesqueness, (and let it be remembered I got here from baseball cards), but let us say you have the opportunity to possess a bracelet that was made of Sylvia Plath’s teeth. Let us say you somehow, by hook or by crook, come to possess it. Let us suppose, when no one is around, you slip on bracelet made of Plath’s teeth, and you try to compose a serious poem. It is 2:00 AM. What happens to you? An undeniable psychological power is conferred on this bracelet by your knowledge of its source, and it influences you in some way; here are the very molars she ground up sandwiches with as she sat seaside and watched waves; here are the white flags she waved when she smiled; your wrist and her tongue are married in imagination for touching up against these teeth; perhaps the bracelet ends up blocking you, and you delete every word you write.
If we’re pricing the preserved hair (the raped locks) of American poets, we’d have to say a lock of Whitman or Dickinson would trade highest. (If you had a lock of Whitman’s hair and it was stolen, again, wouldn’t you be crushed?) Of more recent contemporaries, a lock of Kerouac or of O’Hara would be good, a lock of Ginsberg also. The value of the hair wouldn’t merely be a measure of the poetry. You’d prefer a lock of Ginsberg to a lock of Stevens, though Stevens is the superior poet. The reason for this would be Ginsberg’s much-photographed visibly unruly hair. His long lines, and those gongs at the beginnings of those lines WHO, MOLOCH, HOLY, his guru like appearance alongside Bob Dylan and other period luminaries, and also how he strove openly for a kind of unruly holiness. The hair was a part of his idea of holy unruliness. He flew it like a pennant. A streamer off a bike handle. It was an outward and visible sign. Naturally you’d want some of that more than the lock of a man like Stevens, who kept his short and sensibly parted on a daily basis.
Of living poets, let us not kid ourselves whose hair we’d want. Outside of the 6 train, the tightest I’ve ever been tuna-canned since moving to the city might have been at a KGB reading John Ashbery gave about 5 or 6 years back. There must have been 120 people in there. Wow was that a hungry audience. As Ashbery was hustled through the crowd at KGB, someone I was with laid a finger on his jacket and made the joke, “Oooh! I touched him!” an exaggeration of an actual happiness to hedge his actual happiness. Impossible not to relate to. To be smashed up against one another in such Afterwards I asked a fellow survivor of that clown car, I believe Justin Marks, the question, “Which do you think people have rather had tonight? To have seen John Ashbery read his poems or to have gone away with a lock of John Ashbery’s hair?” He voted hair. It was absurd in a way that’s agreeable to me, the thought of John Ashbery, spot-lit on a darkened stage, reading his poems from a barber chair, as a barber moved around him, snipping what he’d grown for the occasion into a metal bowl. It’d be called, “Come Not For Me But It.” He’d be spun around, raised, lowered; hopefully he’d be satisfied with his haircut, and people would go away with a piece of the poet. It would be worth filming Carolyn Casey would say the form of the act is good juju. Of greatness, we want a piece. We want it to touch us.
Why the hair test is so interesting to me is that you are repulsed by all the hair that you do not want; Not only do you not want it, you want to wash your hands. Hair as relic, as evidence that Charles Dickens’ for instance, once lived and breathed, transforms in your head suddenly into drain-clogging strands of detritus if you don't like the author, don't feel he or she is worthy or having her hair kept by you. It’s a strong reaction in your belly. Of contemporary poets in roughly my own generation, that 25-50, range, the poet whose lock of hair I’d think would prove most desirable to have 100 years from now would be Joshua Beckman. I don’t know that he’s the best American poet under 50, (he must certainly be close), but it’s something in itself that he’d be the one whose hair would come to mind. I don’t mean to dwell too much on Beckman; fantastic poet; I’ve had a long review of Take It + a larger study of his work on and off my desk for about two months now, and hopefully it will be up on Coldfront Magazine in the next few weeks.
It is awfully late this evening; I have written the majority of this with ear plugs in, and BOSE noise canceling headphones on; with multiple layers of sound protection. My neighbor downstairs is playing some hip-hop. He works in the field of music, or aspires to, and listening to tracks late at night is one of the things that he does. Super quality in a neighbor; it's like having a painter let himself in your apartment and dump a bucket of paint on your spaghetti. I like total silence to write in; total darkness to sleep in; bright light when I'm not sleeping; anyway, the equilibrium in my head feels a bit off from the plugs, etc.; I don’t have the energy I hoped to have. More from me tomorrow…..Tomorrow I will start talking some film.