Leicester City has won the Premier League. This is the greatest achievement in the history of kicking balls into goals. This is like Hobbits defeating Sauron.
Yes, of course professional football is an evil capitalist spectacle and all that, blah, blah blah. But… but: sometimes things happen that remind us that it is a good thing for humankind to exist on earth. Et delectabar per singulos dies, ludens coram eo omni tempore, ludens in orbe terrarum; et deliciæ meæ esse cum filiis hominum.
Jürgen Klopp’s appoitment as Liverpool FC’s new manager may not be “the most exciting event … ever,” but it is certainly terribly exciting. I have been a Liverpool supporter ever since my youth, when, not having a TV, I started looking for soccer clips online and found Timbo’s Goals, a now long defunct LFC fan site that featured clips from the glory days of the 70s and 80s, as well as the most recent games. The clips took ages to download on our dial-up connection, but it was worth it. From Keagan and Toshak to Kenny Daglish to John Barnes and Peter Beardsley to Robbie Fowler and Steve Mcmanaman, I got to know all the greats. Gérard Houllier was Liverpool manager in those days, and the first stomach-turningly exciting moment that I had as a Liverpool supporter was watching Houlier’s team defeat Deportivo Alavés in the 2001 UEFA Cup final (on a TV at the house of philosopher Peter Colosi).
Watching Jürgen Klopp’s presentation was a little bit like watching clips of Pope St. John Paul II emerging on the loggia of St Peter’s after his election to the papacy. The comparison might seem not only to be in bad taste, but also to be misleading. “A pope’s rôle in the Church is not much like that of a manager in a football club,” my readers are presumably thinking. A lot has been written recently in the sort of Catholic blogs that I read— especially ones that to some degree share my integralism— about what popes are not. The pope is not a Soviet style dictator, or oriental tyrant who’s slightest whim is law. He is not the incarnation of the Holy Spirit delivering new revelations and so and so forth. Such warnings against exaggerated notions of the Pope’s rôle are all very well as far as they go. The Holy Father is the servant of the truth, not its creator. And the pope’s very importance as Vicar of Christ on earth can easily lead to exaggerated ideas about his power. As one of the best of the recent treatments of what the pope is not, Elliot Milco’s series against certain forms of excessive ultra-montanism, puts it: Continue reading
The eccentric French footballer Nicolas Anelka— once of Arsenal, Real Madrid, Chelsea etc., now of West West Bromwich Albion– celebrated one of his goals against West Ham the other day by performing la quenelle, a quasi-nazi salute invented by French comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala. Politically correct journalists are now suggesting that he should be hounded out of the game for this. Now, in this case the PC establishment has a point; anti-semitism is obviously evil, and making fun of the unspeakable evil of the שואה is horrible. But why is it that even when the PC machine is in the right there is something distasteful about the way it exercises its power? Anelka has claimed that la quenelle is not anti-semitic, but only “anti-système,” against the establishment and its manipulative and hypocritical system of power.
Anelka is presumably wrong about the original meaning of la quenelle, but he has perhaps hit on the secret of its bizarre popularity. Probably most people who make la quenelle do so not so much out of animosity toward the Jewish people as out of animosity toward the power of le système.
Aladair MacIntyre’s discussion of emotivism in After Virtue can help to understanding what is going on here. MacIntyre describes how the Enlightenment project of grounding morality–after abandoning both Aristotle and Revelation–failed. Modernity is marked by a lack of a shared basis for morality, and by intractable disagreements between rival moral traditions. The theory of emotivism–that moral judgements have no objective meaning but merely express arbitrary subjective approval or disapproval together with an appeal to share such an attitude (so that “honesty is good,” really means something like “honesty: YEAH!”)–makes little sense as a universal claim, but is actually a good description of the way moral language is in fact used in our cultural situation. Perhaps few people today would in fact claim to be emotivists, but moral terms are in fact used in a emotivist way by “the system.” MacIntyre notes the shrillness with which people argue about moral questions on which there is no agreement, and no movement toward agreement. I have long thought though that his point is shown even more clearly by the shrill, and almost panic rage with which those are attacked who dare to disagree about some moral judgement about which there is almost universal agreement. In an emotivist culture a great deal of importance comes to be put on cataclismic events toward which almost everyone — regardless of their moral theory — tends to have the same emotions. Hence the tremendous importance of the Shoah in the contemporary social imaginary. It is no accident that the “reductio ad Hitleram” argument is so over used nowadays; Hitler’s crimes are among the few things about which their is almost universal moral agreement.
So I think the strange popularity of the quenelle has to do with what its song calls “a wind of liberty” (un vent de liberté), a feeling of freedom that comes from mocking the firmest support that the manipulative, emotivist system has got.
So far I have been examining the discrediting of a just cause through association with arbitrary and manipulative power only in our contemporary emotivist culture, but James Chastek recently argued that this sort of thing happens in every culture; that this is “the world” in its NT sense:
Christians occasionally daydream about winning the culture over for Christ. But this would mean that belief in Christ would be policed and encouraged in the same way that our current cultural beliefs are: by manipulation of the levers of power to control spoils, intimidate dissent, and coin new taboo words and thoughtcrimes that can immediately condemn without argument and persuade without reason. [..] The closest idea of “culture” in [the Gospels] is “the world”, which persuades not by reason and freedom but taboo, intimidation, usurping parental education, control over the principles of discourse, etc.
As an integralist I’m of course somewhat cautious of this line of thought. Can’t one distinguish between an exercise of cultural power that is irrational, and one that is actually helps people to see the truth? Take the taboo in our culture against cannibalism say — doesn’t it seem that in fact just makes it easier for people to see the natural law that is inscribed in their hearts anyway? Chastek does in fact acknowledge this in an earlier post:
Taboos are the human law at its most powerful – they are the most perfect and powerful tool for what St. Thomas calls the power of law to lead to virtue. Mere statutory laws bridle behavior; taboos actually restructure thought and form the will.
Nevertheless it is worth thinking carefully about what is meant by the world. The scripture readings for this season show us in a striking way how secretly, in what weakness and poverty, the Light of the world chooses to come into that world. “No one works in secret, but he seeks to be known openly. If you do these things, show yourself to the world.” (John 7:4) Thus the Lord’s doubting relations. And St. Jude at the Last Supper asks: “Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?” (John 14:22) The answer seems to have something to do with the world’s obsession with human glory. “How can you believe, who receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” (John 5:44) Concern for the glory that comes from other men is the obstacle to seeing the light of Christ: “Many even of the authorities believed in him, but for fear of the Pharisees they did not confess it, lest they should be put out of the synagogue: for they loved the glory of men more than the glory of God.” Ratzinger has a wonderful reflection on this in a retreat that he preached to the priests of the CL movement. St. John is playing on the double meaning of “doxa” (glory). Doxa meant originally “appearance,” “splendor,” but from this two opposite meanings are developed. On the one hand doxa means opinion, the semblance of truth, what merely seems but is not. On the other hand it means the the splendor and glitter that comes from the truth itself: the glory of the Lord. The great attraction of the doxa of men is, as I have argued before, that it allows us to hide from our own misery. Hence people build up a semblance of themselves, an “image” for the sake of the opinion of others. They act not according to the demands of the good, but according to the expected reaction of those with influential opinions. In order to preserve their own image they have to respect and further the common doxa. Thus as Ratzinger argues,
The rule of opinion, of untruth is set up. The whole life of a society … comes to be dominated by a dictatorship of untruth, of the way in which things are presented and reported rather than of reality itself.
Thus the humility, poverty, and powerlessness with which the true Light enters the world seems necessary in order that people might be freed of their enslavement to the doxa of this world. But there is of course a paradox involved here. As Chastek points out in yet another post, to work toward the evangelization of all is to work toward a “Christian culture.” But the more people are convinced by Christianity the more hypocrites there will be who go to church out of respect for the doxa of the Christians. And one sees people trying to attain to influence in the Church for the sake of worldly influence. History is full of that sort of thing, and any integralist theory has to come to terms with it. One hardly needs reminders of just how much the splendor of the Gospel can be tarnished through its association with the worldly. I was recently reading an account of the Vienna Geserah, a persecution of the Jews in 15th century Vienna, and it is truly heart rending to read of how certain people decide, after torturing rich Jews for their money, try to “proclaim the good news to them:”
Afterwards they took Rabi Meinsterl with his two sons. And they flogged the sons with thorns till the blood ran down, and the father they hung on chains and made a fire under him, till he told them where his money was. After this they wanted [the father and his sons] to convert [to Christianity], but they laughed them in the face and said: “You fools, shall we exchange a living God for your foolishness?” And so they tortured them till they died a holy death.
This is an extreme and obvious case; forced baptism has always been condemned by the Church, and the perpetrators in the Geserah were obviously motivated by love of money. But the issue is far less clear with in cases of coercing the baptized to fulfill their baptismal promises. How does one draw the line between justifiable coercian and an excessive use of force that discredits the truth of the Faith?
But such cases are not entirely parallel to the case of emotivist outrage with which I began. A closer parallel would be what Charles Taylor calls “the disciplinary society.” The disciplinary society is formed by a moral, civilizing impulse. It is formed by people impatient of the “two track” Christianity of the Middle Ages, which they saw as restricting the pursuit of perfection to the monastery and being satisfied with lax standards among the many. These people are horrified by the practice of “times of exception” like carnival and “feasts of misrule.” Taylor sees the disciplinary society as contributing to secularization in to almost opposite ways — on the one hand by its success and the Weberian disenchantment that that brings, but on the other hand by the resentment and pent-up violent passions that its iron grip causes. Hence movements libertine and Bohemian movements (most powerfully in the sexual revolution of the 1960s, which had however many predecessors), rise up in protest against the moral discipline of the powerful. This is what the quenelle movement seems to be about. History however seems to show that “the system,” when it is not able to crush such protests, is able to incorporate them within itself, modifying its codes while consolidating its power. (It will be interesting to see whether Dieudonné is crushed or incorporated…)
So what can we take from all this? One thing I think (mentioned by Chastek) is the importance of the Evangelical Council of poverty. The various movements of hermits, monks, mendicants etc. are necessary again and again to revive the humility which rejects the doxa of men. (And even Giorgio Agamben seems to recognize that this is “anti-système.“) Pope Francis’s recent Apostolic Exhortation seems to be in a part an appeal for this spirit in our own time.
But the conclusion that Chastek draws in his last post is one that I continue to resist. I read him as endorsing a certain kind of secularism; an attempt to insulate Christianity from the world by privatizing it.
The medieval synthesis had all kind of weaknesses and internal contradictions, but it had a what Luigi Giusani calls “a unitary mentality.” It had “a conception of God as pertinent to all aspects of life, underlying every human experience excluding none.”
In this sense, then, the Middle Ages are not to be considered a more interesting epoch than others just because at that time everyone was more devout or capable of behaving in a less morally reproachable way. No, it was more interesting, because it was characterized by a unitary mentality.
The secularization that followed the period of the Reformation “disarticulated” this unitary mentality. And as Giussani shows at great length this disarticulation is itself a great barrier to faith. The attempt to insulate God from public life makes God irrelevant. And, as he writes in another place “Herein lies the cause of the terrible impasse confronting the religious awareness of human beings in our day.” Thus this mode of attempting to escape from the doxa of this world is just another way of surrendering to it. And the emotivist wasteland in which we live is the result.
It’s a curious fact, but the best writer on football/soccer is an American: Brian Phillips. Perhaps it something to do with the fact that in Europe football is such a plebeian game. The new England manager they tell us is “a broadsheet man in a tabloid world,” and they are at least right that the world of football is tabloid. In America on the other hand the sort of people who like soccer tend to be europhile intellectuals. But then again there are intellectual football writers in Europe as well – Jonathan Wilson, various people at the Guardian etc. – but still the way they approach the game is formed by its place in their culture. Perhaps the difference lies in the fact that Americans have an apologetic imperative – they live in a culture which considers soccer rather a bore compared to other sports. This forces them to demonstrate football’s superiority to other sports, which leads to a more philosophical account of its essence.
In a previous post I discussed Brian Phillip’s argument that football is the most beautiful sport from its suitability to produce the sort of moments described by David Foster Wallace in his Federer essay as reconciling us with having a body. In a brilliant essay for Grantland Phillip’s gives an even better argument. He begins with the “fact” of soccer’s boringness. It is so brilliant that it is worth quoting at length:
There are two reasons, basically, why soccer lends itself to spectatorial boredom. One is that the game is mercilessly hard to play at a high level. (You know, what with the whole “maneuver a small ball via precisely coordinated spontaneous group movement with 10 other people on a huge field while 11 guys try to knock it away from you, and oh, by the way, you can’t use your arms and hands” element.) The other is that the gameplay almost never stops — it’s a near-continuous flow for 45-plus minutes at a stretch, with only very occasional resets. Combine those two factors and you have a game that’s uniquely adapted for long periods of play where, say, the first team’s winger goes airborne to bring down a goal kick, but he jumps a little too soon, so the ball kind of kachunks off one side of his face, then the second team’s fullback gets control of it, and he sees his attacking midfielder lurking unmarked in the center of the pitch, so he kludges the ball 20 yards upfield, but by the time it gets there the first team’s holding midfielder has already closed him down and gone in for a rough tackle, and while the first team’s attacking midfielder is rolling around on the ground the second team’s right back runs onto the loose ball, only he’s being harassed by two defenders, so he tries to knock it ahead and slip through them, but one of them gets a foot to it, so the ball sproings up in the air … etc., etc., etc. Both teams have carefully worked-out tactical plans that influence everything they’re trying to do. But the gameplay is so relentless that it can’t help but go through these periodic bouts of semi-decomposition.
But — and here’s the obvious answer to the “Why are we doing this?” question — those same two qualities, difficulty and fluidity, also mean that soccer is uniquely adapted to produce moments of awesome visual beauty. Variables converge. Players discover solutions to problems it would be impossible to summarize without math. The ball sproings up in the air … and comes down in just such a way that Dennis Bergkamp can pull off a reverse-pirouette flick that spins the ball around the defender and back into his own path … or Thierry Henry can three-touch a 40-yard pass in the air before lining it up and scoring a weak-foot roundhouse … or Zlatan Ibrahimovic can stutter-fake his way through an entire defense. In sports, pure chaos is boring. Soccer gives players more chaos to contend with than any other major sport. So there’s something uniquely thrilling about the moments when they manage to impose their own order on it.
There is something profoundly Augustinian about Phillips’s argument here. The unique thrill of beautiful plays in football is like the thrill of underserved grace: it beauty is heightened by its contrast to the surrounding chaos. Recall Augustine’s point in Civitate Dei XI,18:
For God would never have created any, I do not say angel, but even man, whose future wickedness He foreknew, unless He had equally known to what uses in behalf of the good He could turn him, thus embellishing, the course of the ages, as it were an exquisite poem set off with antitheses.
In book XXI Augustine deepens his account, showing that the reason why God permits such antithesis is in fact to show the character of salvation as mercy:
The more enjoyment man found in God, the greater was his wickedness in abandoning Him; and he who destroyed in himself a good which might have been eternal, became worthy of eternal evil. Hence the whole mass of the human race is condemned; for he who at first gave entrance to sin has been punished with all his posterity who were in him as in a root, so that no one is exempt from this just and due punishment, unless delivered by mercy and undeserved grace; and the human race is so apportioned that in some is displayed the efficacy of merciful grace, in the rest the efficacy of just retribution. For both could not be displayed in all; for if all had remained under the punishment of just condemnation, there would have been seen in no one the mercy of redeeming grace. And, on the other hand, if all had been transferred from darkness to light, the severity of retribution would have been manifested in none. But many more are left under punishment than are delivered from it, in order that it may thus be shown what was due to all. And had it been inflicted on all, no one could justly have found fault with the justice of Him who takes vengeance; whereas, in the deliverance of so many from that just award, there is cause to render the most cordial thanks to the gratuitous bounty of Him who delivers.
Augustine’s teaching that more are lost than are saved, a teaching that many find so improbable, is based here on his aesthetics: only thus can the true nature of salvation as mercy appear; only thus can the full wonder of grace be manifested.
Having a cold makes one aware of the disjunct between the way one’s mortal body actually is, and the way one would rather expect it to be given the longings of one’s immortal soul; it reminds one to hope for the resurrection. David Foster Wallace touches on this in one of his tennis essays, “Federer as Religious Experience.” The beauty of tennis, Wallace argues, has to do with reconciling us to having a body. Great tennis players show us the wonder of a body which responds exactly to the will and thus, “catalyze our awareness of how glorious it is to touch and perceive, move through space, interact with matter.”
In another tennis essay, “Tennis Player Michael Joyce’s Professional Artistry as a Paradigm of Certain Stuff about Choice, Freedom, Discipline, Joy, Grotesquerie, and Human Completeness” David Foster Wallace submits that tennis is the most beautiful sport. He doesn’t give much justification for this position, and it seems to me that he is wrong. Not for nothing, surely is football (soccer) called, “the Beautiful Game.” There is a brilliant essay by Brian Phillips, who edits what is perhaps the most beautiful of football blogs, which uses DFW’s definition of tennis’s beauty to prove the point:
There’s a case to be made, of course, that soccer is uniquely adapted for the creation of Federer Moments. Unlike tennis, which augments the player’s physical capabilities with a racket, soccer takes an essential physical tool—the hands—away from the player and forces him to compete in a state of artificial clumsiness. Soccer thus emphasizes the limits of the body and the difficulty of realizing intention. When a player does something amazing, we’re apt to see it not as a superhuman feat (he made the ball travel 150mph!), but as a human victory over what’s essentially an everyday difficulty. If the crisis of having a body is that it’s resistant to our will, soccer exaggerates the crisis, moves what you want to do even further away from what you can do, then gives us athletes who do what they want to anyway. That may be why moments of beauty in soccer, compared to those in other sports, nearly always feel like consolations.
In his Federer article DFW points to the fact that the kind of beauty that we are dealing with is close to the glory of the battlefield:
in men’s sports no one ever talks about beauty or grace or the body. Men may profess their “love” of sports, but that love must always be cast and enacted in the symbology of war…
In a wonderful lament on the contrast between the heroic society of Homer and our own pusillanimous shop-keeper civilization Tom Howard points to the lack of any locus of glory in the modern world. Someone has posted a comment to Howard’s article suggesting sport as that locus, but of course the fact that the primary locus of beauty, glory, courage etc. in our age is “professional” sports – i.e. a highly profitable late capitalist commodity run on sound commercial principles – just supports the point which Prof. Howard has so forcefully made.
I have often been struck by the similarities between the graceful, lisping, robe-trailing, genius Alcibiades and Jose (“The Special One”) Mourinho. Recently it occurred to me that I could not be the only one to have noticed the resemblance, and sure enough Google uncovers this parallel life. They could have fleshed the parallels out a lot more of course. One thinks of Alcibiades switching his allegiance to Sparta and Mourinho leaving Chelsea etc. Plutarch writes the following of Alcibiades:
He had great advantages for entering public life; his noble birth, his riches, the personal courage he had shown in divers battles, and the multitude of his friends and dependents, threw open, so to say, folding-doors for his admittance. But he did not consent to let his power with the people rest on anything, rather than on his own gift of eloquence.
Mourinho also had great advantages entering “public life,” but it is probably true that his power with the “people” rests as much on his eloquence and Selbstdarstellung as on the fact that he is arguably the greatest football manager of all time.
I wonder what in Mourinho’s makeup would correspond to Alcibiades’ devotion to Socrates. Perhaps that kind of ability to recognize true nobility is found in Mourinho’s religion: “I pray a lot. I am Catholic, I believe in God. I try to be a good man so He can have a bit of time to give me a hand when I need it.” The motive is maybe a bit ulterior…