Woody Allen once said that he didn’t want to become immortal through his works. He wanted to become immortal by not dying. It’s hard to get much distance from Skakespeare’s puzzle about our posture towards death, but this episode is not about the fear of death, but about the fear of not achieving immortality through one’s works, of dying without having become the best at what one does best. So it is about how one should lead a life. Should one live in pursuit of singular achievement in a field, regardless of how narrow, or should one aim for some sort of balance and appreciation of life’s many pleasures and resources? Is the relentless pursuit of excellence in some endeavor (any endeavor?) the highest imperative? How should a life be ordered, and our purposes and goals prioritized?
“A Game of Pool” doesn’t try to answer these big questions completely, but it does examine the consequences of organizing one’s life around the singular pursuit of greatness. Jesse Cartiff is an expert pool player, but he stands in the shadow of Fats Brown, now deceased, but still the best pool player ever. How do you demonstrate that you are better than the legend? In the Twilight Zone that’s accomplished by recalling the deceased from their resting place and having them respond to the challenge, in this case, of a game of pool.
The game between Jesse and Fats is fascinating, both in terms of the game and the exquisite skill and love of the game revealed by both players, but also by what is shown about the character of each, and their attitude toward the game and the craft they love. Fats is confident and cool. Jessie is nervous and uncool. But Fats is also worldly, while Jessie is narrow, and Fats, who remains the legend that Jesse has to beat, councils Jesse that there’s more to the world than pool, that there are places to see, and people to love, and that being the best pool player isn’t worth it if everything else has to be sacrificed to attain it. Perhaps the message Fats is delivering to Jessie and to the rest of us is that greatness of character isn’t a one talent thing. It’s a package deal. Fats has the package. Jessie does not.
Yet Jesse’s total engagement captures something important about the pursuit of attainment, namely the thrill of achievement, of the sheer joy of the execution of a shot, or of a movement of the body in the service of making a shot. There’s something there that is part of what human greatness is all about. It is what Dreyfus and Kelly try to capture in All Things Shining. When Fats describes pool as “geometry in its most precise form,” we witness human shining.
Jesse comes to grips with his predecessors via confrontation. But that is also the result of a kind of narrowness in his view. Relinquishing resposibility for being the best is something that Fats Brown is happy to do. Rising to the top isn’t just about being the best, it means shouldering the responsibility for being the best.
Dreyfus, Hubert, and Kelly, Sean Dorrance, All Things Shining (Free Press, 2011)