The Slump Themes
by John Updike

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The Slump Themes

(Short Stories for Students)

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At the end of this story, the narrator notes that he finds it hard to care about his slump. Although he does not care about his own existence, he cannot force himself to believe in the importance of baseball, either. This is given as the final clue to what is bothering him, but it cannot be read as the only or most pervasive cause. He does, in fact, realize the value of some things throughout the story. He longs for the feeling of being important to his wife and children, and he fondly remembers the adulation of fans and other players. He can see things that make life worth living, but he does not know how to attain those things. It is not life but action that he finds futile.

In some way, this speaker seems to feel that futility is a liberating force, freeing him to act only when he knows that nothing important will come of it. He speaks of the tension that followed him from home to the ballpark when he was hitting well, how he had to behave in a certain way for his fans and for the other players. During the slump, though, he drives along, singing, and feels no compulsion to talk to his fans. A telling detail is how well he can hit the ball—just not during a game. ‘‘[I]n the batting cage I own the place,’’ he says, noting that hits come as easily to him ‘‘as dropping dimes down a sewer.’’ When there is nothing to be gained, his hitting is fine, but when his batting is supposed to count, he realizes that there is no ultimate point, that what he is doing is futile.

At the very start of this story, the ballplayer muses on the fact that everyone who observes his slump says that it is a matter of ‘‘reflexes.’’ His inability to hit the ball the way he used to seems to everyone else to be caused by too much thought, as reflexes, like instinct, rely on action that takes place automatically. Though he does not personally accept this theory, he does mention it again in the last paragraph: ‘‘for a second of reflex,’’ he says, ‘‘I see it like it used to be.’’ In that second, everything seems the way it did back when he was hitting well. He is in control of the situation, paradoxically, only when his body is acting reflexively and his mind does not control it.

Though thought might be holding him back, he knows that reflex alone is not the answer to his problem. He does have reflexes, as evinced by his ability to move quickly when his wife sneaks up on him. When he is forced to move without thinking, he can move as well as ever. His problem is that he cannot not think while playing baseball. He knows the game too well to move reflexively, and he knows himself too well, is aware of how he will react in every situation. This knowledge of himself makes it unlikely that he could ever again act out of pure reflex on the baseball diamond. Pure reflex is only for organisms that do not have the capacity to be self-conscious. As this ballplayer’s knowledge of his own situation has grown, he has lost the ability to act as a non-conscious creature would.

There is great irony in the fact that this person’s philosophical crisis occurs in the game of baseball. Fans of the game consider baseball to be one of the most intellectual sports, requiring strategy and nerve, in addition to physical prowess. Still, its status as America’s national pastime means that millions of people enjoy the game without giving much thought to its mental aspect. Like any part of mass culture, baseball is something that does not require much intellectual activity to watch, and so it would at first seem to be an unlikely platform for exploring issues of such depth.

The very fact that there is a common word, ‘‘slump,’’ to describe an inability to hit the ball, a condition that is otherwise unexplainable, is a clear sign of baseball’s philosophical side. Although many baseball fans would recoil from the idea of studying Kierkegaard, the nature of the sport is such that it addresses the very same issues about the human condition that philosophers have addressed for centuries.

The nineteenth-century philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, who is referred to several times in this story, is credited with having coined the phrase ‘‘leap of faith’’ to describe the philosophical position of having to act even when one knows that action will be futile. He is recognized as being the precursor to the philosophy of existentialism, which is prevalent throughout ‘‘The Slump.’’

At the heart of Kierkegaard’s philosophy is the concept of subjectivity. In his book Concluding Unscientific Postscript, which is mentioned in this story, Kierkegaard explains the tension between objective reality and subjective reality. According to him, these two concepts will always be at odds with one another and can never be reconciled. In ‘‘The Slump,’’ this paradox shows itself in the subjectivity of the individual player and the objectivity of the team that he is a member of, as well as in the subjectivity of the intellect versus the objectivity of physical activity. Another of Kierkegaard’s books, Fear and Trembling, stresses the dread that is a part of the human condition. This dread comes from realizing that one’s fate is always one’s choice, even though it might not seem so at times. A ballplayer in a slump, for instance, might look for all sorts of explanations in order to avoid accepting the responsibility for it.

These themes in Kierkegaard’s writing carried over into the philosophy of existentialism in the twentieth century. Because of its focus on the balance between the individual’s actions and his or her circumstances, existentialism was clearly expressed in literature, and in the 1940s and 1950s a wave of French writers, led by Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, produced plays and fiction that popularized the existential worldview. In ‘‘The Slump,’’ Updike uses his protagonist’s awareness of Kierkegaard to draw attention to the existential dilemma at the heart of a ballplayer’s inability to hit.