“You’ve heard about the ancient Mayans and this game they played, an early form of basketball?”
“Something about,” Maxine dimly, “…vertical hoop, high percentage of fouls, some of them flagrant, usually fatal?”
“We were outside trying to hail a cab, and out of nowhere Dotty said something like, ‘The enemy most to be feared is as silent as a Mayan basketball game on television.’ When I politely pointed out that back in Mayan times there wasn’t any TV, she smiled, like a teacher you’ve just fed the right cue to. ‘Then you can image how silent that is,’ and she slid into a cab I hadn’t seen coming, and disappeared.” (Pynchon, 442)
“Mayan basketball,” or pitz, originated in Mesoamerican culture around 1,400 BC. The game was played both recreationally and ritually by a large portion of Mesoamerican culture, involving players hitting a nine-pound rubber ball with their hips, back and forth between opposing sides. The goal of the game was to keep the ball constantly in play, with vertical hoops being added later to add point value and difficulty. In Mayan culture specifically, the sport had strong ritual purposes. The loosing team, i.e., the team that dropped the ball the most or scored the least amount of goals, often had players sacrificed as a result (Maya). Archeological experts have noted that the game is strongly rooted in the idea of war, often used to settle executive and territorial disputes, along with promoting a war-ethic in society (Reichard). The following exchange is made between Maxine and Xiomara after meeting to discuss Windust’s troubled past. In this case, Xiomara is describing a scenario in which she met Windust’s then-wife Dotty for lunch in D.C. a few years prior. As the two women discuss Windust, at this point much more troubled than when he was briefly married to Xiomara, Dotty ends the conversation by making the above comment regarding Mayan basketball and leaves via taxi. The comment troubles both Xiomara and Maxine, not sure whether Dotty was simply referencing Windust’s soul, or something far more serious.
I find Pynchon’s reference to Mayan culture interesting, more because of the symbolic meaning of the pitz ballgame regarding sacrifice and war. The game is strongly associated with the idea of death, in which individuals battle each other on teams of 2-4 people for the prize of glory and retaining their lives. While the idea of imminent death is certainly reflective of Windust’s timely demise, the concept of war is a large point of interest. Leaders of empires or even communities often sent representative players from their districts to play pitz against opposing dynasties—the winner gaining control over the losing empire’s people and territory (Reichard). The idea of this concept—each community or empire battling another for a winner-take-all victory and often deaths of the losers—engages with some of the international issues occurring during 9/11 as well as the nature of the dotcommer age. This lead me to the New York Times articles of August 2001, one month before the terrorist attack that took over media sources everywhere. The United States was in a series of precarious international affairs, including tensions with Latin American relations as well as in the Middle East. In the short time before 9/11, President Bush’s nominations of officers to take charge of Latin American rights included those involved in policy quarrels over the area in the 1980s (Marquis). Aside from recent U.S. involvement with Chile and Pinochet, this issue caused tensions regarding if the nominations were truly the right decision for international relations. In addition, Middle Eastern terrorist organizations were on the rise, inflicting distress in the Middle East as well as confusion within the United States regarding their involvement. Israeli-Palestinian conflict was at a high, the U.S. and Saudi relations held in a precarious position. Force was ignited against Middle Eastern countries and terrorism continued to pose issues in society (Freeman). Meanwhile, the World Trade Organization was grappling to deal with it all.
Pynchon’s reference to Mayan ball games is quite reflective of the previous state of American affairs with the Middle East. The U.S. was involving itself in Middle Eastern disputes that were also a fight over territory, largely resulting in death for the losing party in the end. Some died of injury while trying to achieve victory, whether the injuries were from suicidal terrorism or in defense of enemy forces. The Middle East was largely a power struggle at the time with severe consequences, a much more amplified reflection of the Mayan’s view of their ritual ballgames. In addition, the nature of the dotcommer world in itself was quite winner-take-all indeed. For example, as depicted in the novel, hashslingrz.com bought out various Internet firms that were struggling at the time, such as hwgaahwgh.com. The entire dotcom business was in jeopardy, with smaller sites being bought out by larger Internet monopolies and other sites failing to consistently meet society’s growing demands, such as kozmo.com. All and all, my research led me to a variety of sources, suggesting that the Mayan reference is reflective of both precarious U.S. relations with the Middle East, a life or death battle, and the winner-take-all, competitive, and brutal nature of the dotcom industry circa 2000-2001.
Pynchon’s engagement with history in the form of a Mayan ballgame reference allows the reader to interpret his references, however historically accurate or inaccurate, as an interaction with both the state of affairs surrounding 9/11 as well as the digital age. Just like the Mayan ballgame, the dotcom industry and American affairs were a precarious balance between opposing sides, the outcomes of which resulted in victory for one party and death (whether literally or figuratively) for the other. Pynchon’s various historical references, whether Pinochet or activities within the Clinton or Bush administration, are a launching point for closer interpretation of American affairs, the nature of which is reflected in the affairs of the digital as well.
Freeman Jr., Chaz W. “A Relationship in Transition – And Then 9/11.” Middle East Policy Council. 4 Sept. 2003. .
Marquis, Christopher. “Bush Latin America Nominations Reopen Wounds.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 31 July 2001. .
“Mayan Ballgame.” William P. Palmer III Collection. University of Maine. .
Reichard, Joshua D. “Life and Death Overtime: Sacred Play of the Ancient Mesoamerican Rubber Ball Game.” American Academy of Religion Midwest Region, 4 Apr. 2009. .