31 December 2010

Two: Two hundred and twenty-seven Lears

Part two of two (plus appendix!). Part one here. Appendix here.

There is the tension and there is, in theory, the release. We are given to seeing the tension purely in terms of its release: a necessary prologue, a set-up for the punchline. The release is the reason we are gathered here today; you work at a mathematical problem in order to find a solution, after all. The release – or its product, at any rate – is what will live on in the Ozymandian eternity of our collective and individual memories, in the myth we feel compelled to create from what we experience.

And yet. The Tourmalet climb did indeed move the story of the maillot jaune on to a resolution: Contador achieved precisely what he needed to, thus practically securing the overall win. But from the perspective of the viewer (this viewer, at least – ymmv, dear reader), it was not from this that the full glory of the contest came. There was no great release: just a slow, slow unwinding, which amounted to a different kind of tension. It was like when we look at some great immensity – the night sky, say. We don’t just unthinkingly regard it: we undergo a shift in scale. Our own personal universes of which we are the centre usually seem so vast as to fill all available space, like expanding foam in a speed camera. But we look up, and we find that our co-ordinates are useless. And with the shift in scale comes a shift in perspective. We no longer look out from ourselves; in fact, our selves shrink in relevance. We turn our focus back on ourselves and then zoom out, and see that we are no longer the little emperors of our perception, but just things, clicks of background radiation. Like any transition between states, this has the potential to disturb. But why can’t we look away?

Watching sport is at least a little bit like this at any time; the Tourmalet was just an extreme example. It’s moments like that where the essential passivity of watching sport is most apparent. We surrender, temporarily giving ourselves over to a greater force, willingly rendering ourselves minuscule and helpless. We allow ourselves to be strapped in and transported to the crest of the track, and we experience, in the words of the poet A. E. Stallings, ”the vertigo of possibility”, as the anticipation of a lurching stomach or an involuntary freezing.

Maybe this is a somewhat melancholic thought, like the dying echo of the fat bastard singing “you fat bastard” at the professional athlete. It’s not just that we do all this: it’s that we need to. I’ve banged on at various times about the gap between the spectator and the spectacle (not in a Situationist way, unless that’s your bag, you crazy fucker), and this seems to confirm that separation. It reinforces the notion that we have no real control over something we may love with a genuine intensity. I once wrote this (aye, I’m quoting myself. Whisht, right?):

Such is the power of what we see that we unwittingly give prominence to our own perception of it; we are convinced that we watch sport simultaneously with its happening. But we are in a philosophically luxurious position: we actually experience the game on a kind of satellite delay. The game is presented to us as a fait accompli, as a set of data to be assessed years from now, next week, a second later. To us it is, in effect, inevitable — something like destiny. The spectator lives the game as a perpetual past, but the athlete lives it as a perpetual present. Our entry point is the telling of the story, which has already been written by someone else. The athlete's entry point is a vast nothing, a void where "destiny" is an advertising slogan for indulgence-pedlars and perfumers. It is they who must forge the reality we end up, however we may try not to, taking for granted. We feel engrossed, as if we are undergoing the full tumult, but we are really at one remove from the white-hot centre. That one remove makes all the difference.

But at the moment where nothing really happens, we transcend the gap. The error of parallax is eliminated as our “perpetual past” moves to align with the athlete’s “perpetual present”. Sport is a world dense with human-interest stories, ultra-confident stabs at ESP, post-hoc rationalisation presented as the wisdom of the ancients, and armchair psychology of the highest-proof bullshit. But it’s at the apsis of the rollercoaster that we gain the greatest insight into what we watch, because we temporarily inhabit something of the same outlook and share something of the same oxygen-depleted air. For the spectator, this is the difference between the event being a tableau and a living entity ...

… Okay, look: I have a confession to make. I’ve been pawing the ground in front of me for something-thousand words, swearing I was about to say it, thinking better of it, trying to avoid it. But no longer. Here goes:

I once bought a Shed Seven single.

Okay, that’s not it. (I did, though. Long story.)

Over the unmourned corpse of the World Cup final was exchanged some short-order nostalgia for the previous evening's entertainment. If I cared what you thought of me, I'd worry you'll misread what I'm about to type as hypocrisy: I enjoyed Germany-Uruguay. Yes, mere days before, I described the third-place match as "just a chummy natter between two benign ghosts — ie. the boring-as-shite kind". Which is true, in that the game takes place to one side of the stream of madness that defines the competition: it's a kickabout among semi-deflated balloon animals. This does not negate the possibility of a fine game of football, of course. Indeed, by unplugging from the mains and tapping into alternative sources of motivation, the third-place match may even be more likely to be such. I can't remember one that was devoid of interest or fun in some way, and that run continued this year, right down to Diego Forlán's last-kick free which so wrongly clattered against the crossbar. I loved it.

(That’s not it either...)

After the final, the world's mood was chilly, like outside a cinema after a disappointing sequel. I remember tweeting something to the effect that I was glad I had sat through the first ninety minutes in order to get to the last thirty. I think I was trying to chime with the prevailing sentiment — what with the climax of the tournament to which we'd devoted so much of our time and energy having turned out to be something less than heaven on earth and all — while offering some small counterweight. After all, extra time was exciting, utterly unpredictable, even — yes! — pretty at times. For example, it contained the most thrilling moment of the tournament, when Arjen Robben was put through on goal, one-on-one, delaying his move and delaying it again and again, to be denied by what can only be described as Iker Casillas. And it at last yielded a goal, scored by Andrés Iniesta: one of the least unlikeable footballers around, reprising his Stamford Bridge showstopper. (A bit of trivia for you: this is the only World Cup final goal to be scored by a Caroline Wozniacki lookalike.) Of course, if I was half in disagreement with everyone else, I was half in agreement. But not a second after I sent that tweet (it would just have to be after), I realised that I was lying to myself: at no point during the match had I been bored. The tension was too exquisite for such indulgences. I was enthralled by the whole thing.

(There we go...)

I could easily have been fed up with the relative lack of high-quality football on show. In a perfect world, especially considering the involvement of this Spain team, it could have been an asethetic apotheosis of sorts. As it was, it didn't bear the figurative stamp of Xavi so much as the literal one of van Bommel. It was far from picturesque: I would truthfully only watch it again if it was edited with de Jongian brutality. Yet it hardly mattered. I had my preferences as to what kind of World Cup final I would like to see and, even with prior experience in mind, some hope that they may be realised. But on this occasion, I was carried along by the occasion. That the match wasn't as conventionally beautiful as I may have wished wasn't irrelevant, but it certainly didn't spoil matters. Moreover, even the ugly blotches which ruined the appetites of so many became part of the game’s unconventional beauty, because they made stronger that elemental connection I would again experience four days later watching Contador and Schleck stretch the twig of sport to melting point.

Now, I'm not claiming any great wisdom here. I don’t have any special insight: I didn’t watch the match in the lotus position on a bare floor deep within the cave system constructed here at SIATVS Hectares by the world’s finest philosophical geoplasticists (it’s like the cave system at the Google campus, only without the wifi). Chance, mood, weather, blood sugar level, pollen count: any, all, none or more of these factors may have played a part in setting my mind to appreciate the game in a particular way. I'm not trying to convince you that the game was actually sporting perfection; I don't begrudge anyone their disdain for the match, nor do I believe it is necessarily mistaken. But nor do I believe I am mistaken. That feeling was there to be had, and I'm glad I had it.

But, as I say, I could just as easily have missed it. One of the snares awaiting the deeply engaged fan is the aul’ woods/trees conundrum. It can arise when our hopes for what we are about to witness harden into, if not dogma, then a kind of loose ideology. It prompts an pre-empting: in effect, an effort to control how we will feel about the event. But the essential nature of spectating is that we ultimately don't have this control. We've all experienced this nature as an immense frustration, but so have we experienced it as a profound joy — almost as a liberation as we transcend our station. Not that an immersion in the culture of a sport — our home city, to wind things back to the start — necessarily limits one's enjoyment of it. That would be absurd, really, like saying that a knowledge of musical theory and history is an automatic block on musical appreciation. Fundamentally, the pre-empting comes from love. But — speaking for myself, natch — it's notable how much easier it can be to recognise the wonder of sport when it happens in unfamiliar surroundings. Thinking back only over the history of this blog, the events that have most touched me have mainly been in sports other than football; this is out of proportion to the amount of time I spend paying attention to the non-soccer world. No doubt this is partly because, when I watch other sports, it's less likely to be the necessary preliminaries and more likely a Wimbledon final, a world 200m final or a decisive Tour stage. But it's also, I suspect, because my guard is down — the pressure is off. When your comprehension of a language is less than total, it's the sheer music of the thing that gets to you before its meaning. When it's your mother tongue, sometimes the meaning overwhelms all else, whether the meaning is real or pre-conceived by the listener.

It's that paradox again. To closely follow a World Cup takes considerable investment: not just in that condensed month, but, to really get it, in the sport as a whole, in all its quotidian madness and mundanity. Such is the expectation thus generated that it's no wonder someone might feel almost offended when it doesn't quite work out as they had hoped. Something like the World Cup gets built up so much that the only way for it to match the bombast is for it to be magnificent on an historic scale. I certainly wasn't the only one who was initially unfavourably measuring this final against past editions. But this concern with where a game fits in an eternal ranking goes against one of sport's main drives. Most art worth a damn take time to properly appreciate, and so lasts longer in the mind. But sporting drama is, by definition, ephemeral. There is no way to adequately capture the spirit of a match and carry it around with you. It feels like there should be, dammit; hence sport's constant yearning to preserve and revere itself. It leads us to wonder how many angels could dance on the head of Rafael Nadal's racquet, or to too quickly rush to the brink of smugness that we happened to be alive when something wonderful happened, or to beat ourselves up because everything wonderful that's happened did so before we were around to witness it, or to load so much significance onto a single match that, regardless of its stature, it could not possibly bear it.

In her recently published history of ballet, Jennifer Homans says (according to the review in the Sunday Times, hence no link) that dance is an art "of memory, not history". As with dance, so with sport: it's experienced in the moment, and it's in the memory that the moment is stored. A version of the moment, that is. The problem is that the memory leaks — no matter how often one tries to recall it, it will never amount to the same thing. It's nuclear fallout, a residue. It's an image of the moment, not the moment itself. Instead of letting history look after itself, we want a Polaroid, and we want it to be a perfect facsimile. We create monuments to our own perceptions.

The key is to strike a balance between enough openness to the magic to let it choose you, as it were, and not allowing sophistication to become something you merely get entangled in. Too must cynicism clogs the arteries; too much sensitivity leaves you like a peeled apple. But perhaps "strike a balance" is too optimistically active a formulation. It requires a lighter touch than that. It probably even requires cynicism as a safety valve at the very least, so that you don't end up watching the football forever. Maybe you just have to hope you don't miss too much.


The Tooting Trumpet 31/12/10 11:23 PM  

Dazzlingly lyrical as ever Sir! Chapeau.

I wrote this http://tootingtrumpet.wordpress.com/2010/12/31/epics-on-two-wheel/ in the immediate aftermath of Landis' extraordinary ride. The feeling was snatched away very quickly. I was a cycling-tragic from about 1981 right up until Tyler Hamilton's positive and then I jacked it in. I get seduced back though, like a forlorn lover.

Fredorrarci 1/1/11 5:42 AM  

Cheers! And re Landis: *ouch*. I'm wondering what it will take to push me over the edge. In fact, the promised appendix deals briefly with this very issue.

Anonymous,  1/1/11 5:49 PM  

"monuments to our own perceptions" is your 'mobled queen'. Delightful, cheers.

The Tooting Trumpet 1/1/11 10:37 PM  

Even Marco didn't push me over, and I was a huge fan. I watched eight hours of his ride to Les Deux Alpes in the rain when he saw off Ullrich and went to Paris for the last stage.

But Hamilton was a very bright guy who did not grow up in the drug culture handed down from patron to new recruit in the criteriums. But he still cheated! I cancelled my Procycling and Cycle Sport subscriptions once the news broke.

Don't reall care about LA one way or the other.

Ted Harwood 1/1/11 11:29 PM  

The Iniesta/Wozniacki line made me laugh in public.

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