Ludwig Wittgenstein, David Foster Wallace, Thierry Henry & the Pursuit of Athletic Beauty


“If a lion could talk, we would not understand him.”

–Ludwig Wittgenstein

“But that begs the question: if a lion could talk, we probably could understand him. He just would not be a lion any more; or rather, his mind would no longer be a lion’s mind.”

–Stephen Budiansky

While preparing a lecture for a group of aspiring sports journalists, I reread “In Praise of Athletic Beauty,” written by Stanford University philosopher Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht. This book –one of my favorites- is meant as a defense of sportsfandom against the charge that it is somehow beneath the dignity of the genuinely intellectual. His point, summarized in a review of the book in Metapsychology Online,  is that “ Sports… do not need such a defense; they have the intransitive quality of being ‘for themselves’. …The attraction of sports [is that they are] “a fascination in the true sense of the word — a phenomenon that manages to paralyze the eyes, something that endlessly attracts, without implying an explanation for its attraction.”

Among the many reasons that I am transfixed by sports is indeed the sense of ocular paralysis that Gumbrecht describes. That said, I am also puzzled by the constant prodding question of why I care so much about sports. Upon completing the book, Gumbrecht’s idea of beauty returned to me over and over. It reminded me of that fantastic passage from David Foster Wallace’s “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart,” where he said:

“Plus they’re beautiful: Jordan hanging in midair like a Chagall bride, Sampras laying down a touch volley at an angle that defies Euclid. And they’re inspiring. There is about world-class athletes carving out exemptions from physical laws a transcendent beauty that makes manifest God in man. So actually more than one theory, then. Great athletes are profundity in motion. They enable abstractions like power and grace and control to become not only incarnate but televisable. To be a top athlete, performing, is to be that exquisite hybrid of animal and angel that we average unbeautiful watchers have such a hard time seeing in ourselves.”

The interesting interplay between the perspectives of Gumbrecht and Wallace is that they each offer slightly different perspectives on our desire to know the athlete. Gumbrecht asserts that, at base, there is nothing to know or understand about sports except that they are beautiful, and he tells us that “counter to many academic (and highly incompetent) “readings” of sports, athletic competitions do not express anything, and therefore do not offer anything to read.” Wallace, though, takes a slightly different perspective and tells us that could know them, but we don’t because we are simply so different from the athletes we love so much:

So, we want to know them. These gifted, driven physical achievers. We too, as audience, are driven: watching the performance is not enough. We want to go intimate with all that profundity. We want inside them; we want the Story. We want to hear about humble roots, privation, precocity, grim resolve, discouragement, persistence, team spirit, sacrifice, killer instinct, liniment and pain. We want to know how they did it. What goes through their minds? Is their Agony of Defeat anything like our little agonies of daily frustration? … Real indisputable genius is so impossible to define that maybe we automatically expect people who are geniuses as athletes to be also geniuses as speakers and writers, to be articulate, perceptive, truthful, profound.

The real secret behind top athletes’ genius, then, may be as esoteric and obvious and dull and profound as silence itself. The real, many-veiled answer to the question of what just goes through a great player’s mind as he stands at the center of hostile crowd-noise and lines up the free-throw that will decide the game might be : nothing at all .

It may well be that we spectators who are not divinely gifted as athletes, are the ones truly able to see, articulate and animate the experience of the gift that we are denied. And those who receive and act out the gift of athletic genius must, perforce, be blind and dumb about it- and not because blindness and dumbness are the price of the gift, but because they are its essence.

Wallace’s analysis suggests a disconnect between the way that elite athletes think about what they do and how fans and commentators do. We are obsessed with narrative, context, the past, the future, what it means, and how they did it. They must necessarily only focus on the ball, the hoop, the body, their craft, the moment, the game. Broadening their mind beyond the banalities that coaches and players offer in frustratingly terse postgame interviews is not just a way station to defeat, it is simply counter to the very nature of what made them able to do the thing we are asking them to describe with eloquence.

I thought about all of this as I watched this video of my favorite athlete (person?) ever, Thierry Henry.

The video is not completely useless; it offers some interesting and useful training tips, but as I watched it, I was a little amused at some of the drills and advice: pick a corner, approach the ball quickly but take your time, be calm as you strike. That’s all well and good, but it doesn’t offer much more than a bare mechanical description of a ridiculously complex act taken within a dynamic fast-moving circumstance. It’s barely better than, say, suggesting to an aspiring painter, ‘find something interesting and paint it beautifully in a manner that expresses a deeply complex and human understanding.’ Okay, true, but… how? There’s just a profound incommunicable gap between what Henry knows –and is- and what these youngsters could understand. That, I suppose, is one useful enough definition of genius.

It just may be the case that none of what you see here can be taught:

As Gumbrecht might suggest, Thierry Henry simply is, and the very people who want most eagerly to comprehend it/him are also those least well equipped to actually understand him –or any elite beautiful athlete. Or, as Wallace might assert, the answer to the “why do we love sports?” question that Gumbrecht sees as a pointless non-question is that our fascination is a combination of our utter captivation with athletic beauty and the inscrutability of the people and moments we so desperately want to understand.

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