‘The national game’ – Arthur Streeton, 1889 (Art Gallery of New South Wales) – Wikimedia
Brendan McNamee is my newly invited guest on ‘The Dawn Within’. Brendan is an independent scholar and lecturer with a PhD at the University of Ulster in Ireland. He is the author of numerous books and essays on a wide range of writers, including John Banville, Michel Houellebecq, Gerald Murnane, Elizabeth Bowen, Sean O’Casey, Flannery O’Connor, W B Yeats and others. I’d like to present here one of his essays called ‘The Mystic Heart of Sport’. My attention was one day drawn to this eloquent title, while browsing through the platform ‘Academia’.
The text speaks about sport in general, using here the example of football, and mingling its wonderful argument with quotes by William Blake, Meister Eckhart, or W. B. Yeats. Brendan McNamee shows that “the conflict” on the football pitch is “between gods and mortals”, between “time and eternity”, both “inextricably entwined”. At its best, a game of football can give birth to “moments that justify sport at its best being called ‘poetry in motion’. Moments of sheer grace” when “skill and spontaneity join hands and, momentarily, dancer and dance are one.” I hope you will enjoy Brendan’s skilful writing and exposition as much as I have…
“Eternity is in love with the productions of time.”
~ William Blake
The Mystic Heart of Sport
In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Arthur Dent makes the startling discovery that white mice, rather than being the objects of experiments carried out by humans, were in fact carrying out experiments on humans. I wonder if a similar principle might be applied to sport. Take any high-stakes football match. Passions run high. The passion, on the parts of both players and spectators, is primarily for victory. The players receive a huge ego (and cash) boost, and from the fans’ point of view, a win for their team is, by some mysterious process of osmosis, a win for themselves. This lust for victory is so intense that the other source of sporting joy, the quality of the game itself, is often relegated to a secondary position, rendered lip service, of course, but seen really as essentially a means to an end. This, I would contend, is topsy-turvy. I want to argue here that it is the lust for victory that should serve the game, not the other way around, and that this order of things reflects a wider truth about life itself.
“Eternity,” wrote William Blake, “is in love with the productions of time.” (Eternity here being understood as a state of timelessness, rather than an endless expanse of time.) A game of football is a production of time, painstakingly worked out and evolved. But for what purpose? Two teams are pitched in combat. Naturally, each wants to best the other. This ego-based desire is an intense drive, the need to control which necessitates strict rules which the participants, in their lust for conquest, forever strain against. But out of the cauldron of this drive and this straining (provided the leash is not broken) can come something which transcends the desires of individuals to achieve personal glory, and this something is what really inspires that part of the sports fan indifferent to which side comes out on top. These are moments that justify sport at its best being called “poetry in motion”. Moments of sheer grace that stop the breath and remain forever etched in the memory. These moments are the white mice in the equation. Blake’s glimpses of eternity. The participants imagine that they hone their skills, put in punishing hours of practice, and follow rigidly prescribed dietary regimes in order to emerge victorious from the contest. They imagine that those sublime moments of grace (which come, if they come at all, only after such gruelling preparation) are simply a means to victory. And seen from their own personal points of view, they are. Their dreams, we may be fairly sure, are of the glory and adulation that will follow victory. Avid young fans may be enthralled by the skills their heroes display, but they too dream of one day holding aloft the Cup at the end of the contest.
But there is one crucial difference between the dreams of glory that spur on a team and its fans, and those so memorable moments of grace. It is a difference which, I hope, justifies the use of a lofty and ethereal term like “eternity” in such a down-to-earth context. The difference is this: the dreams of glory can be trained for, planned for, worked toward; the moments of grace are spontaneous eruptions, deaf and blind to the plans and schemes of ordinary mortals. To employ the mystical phraseology of Meister Eckhart, it is the difference between attachment and detachment. Eckhart establishes a link between attachment and temporality: “A man attached to things is stretched between a ’before’ and an ’after’, or between past and future. He lives in duration, while detachment dwells in ’this present now.’ A detached man lives in the instant.” (Schurmann 14). A footballer lives mostly in duration, in the world of plans and projects. The scheme is: project, realise, possess: train for the game, play the game, win the game. If this plan is adhered to, all the way to the end, few tears will be shed if it is achieved without poetry.
But some will. Despite our saturation in the egoism of winning, there is still a quiet voice within which longs for what Wallace Stevens calls in ’The Blue Guitar’, “a tune beyond us, yet ourselves” (42). For magic, in effect. We imagine that we invent these conflicts in order to win at them and so stroke our egos, but perhaps they are really invented to allow that magic enter the world. Perhaps they are, as Yeats has it, “forms created by passion to unite us to ourselves” (82). Pragmatism is, of course, vital. In a football match a player has to be fit and ready for the contest. Such readiness is no guarantee that a sublime moment of genius will occur, but it will almost certainly not occur otherwise. And the ego is equally important. Both teams must desperately want to win, otherwise you end up with, at best, a high-class kickabout. So why refer to these moments as detachment when they so clearly cannot be detached from the time-bound structures through which they come into being? Are they not serving the ultimate purpose of victory in the same way as all the other elements such as training, tactics, effort, will, etc? True, they can end up serving it, but seen from the ideal sports lover’s point of view, this is merely accidental, a by-product. Winning in sport is one kind of joy that needs its corresponding sorrow simply to exist. There can be no winners without losers, and from this point of view, both sides are simply serving a higher purpose. Heraclitus’ intriguing aphorism, “Gods and mortals, dying each other’s life, living each other’s death” (Yeats 68) can find some traction here. The conflict on one level, the time-bound level, is between two teams, but on another, the detached level, it is between gods and mortals, and here it is a more creative conflict because these participants, time and eternity, are inextricably entwined. The gods need the mortals because it is only through media — the game — constructed by mortals that their magic can take form. When that magic occurs, there is a sense in which mortals, as time-bound ego-driven creatures, momentarily cease to exist. Mortals need the gods because without them they would die of boredom. And indeed, it may be said that, when immersed in our time-bound ego-driven selves, the gods are dead. The gods within us are dead.
Robert Rossen’s 1962 film, The Hustler, features a pool shark called “Fast” Eddie Felson. At one point in the film he tries to explain to his girlfriend the true nature of his passion. It has nothing to do with the money, or with being seen to be the best. These are quantifiable objectives, untransformable phenomena of the everyday world. No, what really inspires him, he says, are those rare moments when the pool cue seems to become an extension of his arm, when he can simply do no wrong, when everything — himself, the game, the world — become one, indivisible process, a living work of art. Bringing religious terminology to the matter, there is the 1981 film about Olympic runners, Chariots of Fire. One of the athletes is a devout Christian who postpones a trip to the Far East, where he is to work as a missionary, in order to take part in the games. When his equally devout wife chides him for this selfish, unchristian attitude, he replies, “God made me fast, and when I run, I feel his pleasure.” Eternity opens a chink in the armour of time and Blake’s “love” is made manifest. Or, to put it in more down-to-earth terms, skill and spontaneity join hands and, momentarily, dancer and dance are one. It may be no accident that the words “happen” and “happy” have the same root, “hap”. A great sporting event is a happening, an event, because of its element of spontaneity, the anticipated, longed-for lifting of the soul out of the mundane treadmill of linear time. These are our moments of greatest, most intense happiness, when we are living — if, most of us, only by proxy — on the edge. It is why people climb mountains and skydive. The other kind of happiness, the kind we more habitually chase after, is the happiness of security, which might more accurately be called contentment, the great danger of which is its tendency to sink into boredom. These are the poles of life, the Scylla and Charybdis of tension and tedium: the one exciting but dangerous, the other safe but boring.
The philosopher E. M. Cioran has written, “History divides itself in two: a former time when people felt pulled towards the vibrant nothingness of divinity and now, when the nothingness of the world is empty of divine spirit” (6). It may be that in our ultra-secular Western world, whose oppressive nothingness the advertisers keep us distracted from, sport affords one opportunity to touch, or to witness, the sublime heights that were once the province of religion. But it appears to be a losing battle. The white mice may have to think up another concept.
Text by Brendan McNamee
Painting by Arthur Streeton (1867–1943)
Brendan McNamee’s page in ‘Academia’…
You can read a longer version of Brendan McNamee’s essay in ‘The Brazen Head’…
Listen to the podcast with Rupert Spira and former rugby player Jonny Wilkinson: ‘The Art of Flow State and Staying in the Zone’…
– Blake, William. Complete Writings. Oxford: OUP, 1966.
– Cioran, E. M. Tears and Saints. Trans. Ilinca Zarifopol-Johnston. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.
– Hudson, Hugh. Chariots of Fire. Screenplay by Colin Welland. 20th Century Fox, 2004.
– Schurmann, Reiner. Wandering Joy: Meister Eckhart’s Mystical Philosophy. Great Barrington, MA: Lindisfarne Books, 2001.
– Stevens, Wallace. Selected Poems. London: Faber and Faber, 1953.
– Yeats, W. B. A Vision. 1937. Rev. ed. 1962. London: Macmillan, 1962.
– ‘Grounded Visionary: The Mystic Fictions of Gerald Murnane’ – by Brendan McNamee – (Peter Lang Publishing Inc)
– ‘The Quest for God in the Novels of John Banville 1973-2005: A Postmodern Spirituality’ – by Brendan McNamee – (Edwin Mellen Press Ltd)
– ‘Against the Grain: essays on Michel Houellebecq, Flannery O’Connor, Gerald Murnane, Francis Stuart and Clarice Lispector’ – by Brendan McNamee – (Paupers’ Press)
– William Blake (Wikipedia)
– Meister Eckhart (Wikipedia)
– Wallace Stevens (Wikipedia)
– W. B. Yeats (Wikipedia)
– Robert Rossen (Wikipedia)
– Emil Cioran (Wikipedia)
– Chariots of Fire (Wikipedia)
– The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Wikipedia)
– Arthur Streeton (Wikipedia)
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