“Everyfan” (Reading in Praise of Athletic Beauty)
As promised, I’m sharing my reading notes, thoughts, and questions on Hans Gumbrecht’s In Praise of Athletic Beauty. Today, I want to look at the opening section of the book, entitled “Everyfan,” which occupies the place and fills the function of a preface or introduction.
In terms of structure, “Everyfan” consists of five very short sections. In the first four, Gumbrecht recalls a variety of personal experiences of watching sports. He first recalls in detail watching, as a novice fan, the then-young Montreal Canadiens goalkeeper Patrick Roy in a game at the Forum. The second section involves watching on screen: sumo wrestling on television at the Kansai Airport and clips of Jesse Owens at the 1936 Berlin Olympics from Leni Riefenstahl’s famous propaganda film. In the third, he moves back to an early memory of watching a minor childhood soccer hero (the goalkeeper Egon Loy) in person during his youth, and then running into Loy after a match. This leads him, in the fourth, to an even earlier memory (“the first individual sports event he would remember”) of listening to the 1954 German World Cup victory on the radio, to a memory, a decade later, of an aging Loy beaten on a goal by Hamburg’s Uwe Seeler, to, finally, the memory of listening to “Cassius Clay” cleverly respond to interviewer’s questions after his title fight defenses. In the final section, he reflects on what these memories might suggest about the feelings involved in watching sports, the role of memory and time in those feelings, and the potential value of trying to understand and convey the power of those experiences.
Perhaps the most striking quality of Gumbrecht’s writing here is its meandering concreteness. Initially, I found this somewhat frustrating as I was expecting a more direct introduction to the issues the book would take up and the positions he’d be taking. Instead, his writing immerses us in sensory detail (the nicotine smell pervading the Forum) and seemingly marginal aspects of the athletic performances (Roy’s physical tics, the pre-match ritual choreography of sumo, the woolen cap Loy always wore. He seems to want here to thrust us directly into the kinds of experiences that might give rise to an impulse to praise athletic beauty and perhaps, in the process, to prompt us to journey into our own memories, as I certainly did, recalling, for example, as I have many times, the time I saw Kareem and Wilt Chamberlain (not to mention Oscar Robertson and Jerry West) play in person at the Dane County Coliseum in Madison, Wisconsin when I was seven.
This immersion into the sensory world of Gumbrecht’s (and possibly our own) memories of fascinating sporting performances leads to a couple of different more general themes that will be important to the book. Though Gumbrecht doesn’t use these terms, I found it useful to group these themes into the categories of “conditions,” “experiences” and “tools.”
The key condition Gumbrecht identifies as “distance.” It emerges as he shifts from Roy and Jesse Owens to the lesser known hero of his childhood Egon Loy:
It need not always be the objectively greatest of all times and the best of the world for sports to transfigure its heroes in the eyes of passionate spectators. All that it takes to become addicted to sports is a distance between the athlete and the beholder—a distance large enough for the beholder to believe that his heroes inhabit a different world. For it is under this condition that athletes turn into objects of admiration and desire.
I like this proposition because it seems to me both obviously and simply true and deceptively complex, so that I found my initial assent quickly complicated by a number of questions. How do we define the boundaries of the worlds that our athletic heroes and we ourselves supposedly inhabit? How do we measure the distance between those worlds? What is the role of proximity in that experience? After all, while that distance may be essential, I think we’re only likely to perceive it and experience it and the thrill it supposedly delivers, if we are also somehow close to those heroes—close either physically or in some other, metaphorical sense.
This same passage offers the first reference to the two primary “experiences” that Gumbrecht explicitly identifies in this section of the book: “transfiguration” and “fascination.” There’s a kind of chain of equivalence or association that stretches across these three sentences in this passage that makes me think that “transfiguration of heroes” = “addiction to sports” = “turning athletes into objects of admiration and desire” — all of which occur under the “condition” of “a distance large enough for the beholder to believe that his heroes inhabit a different world”. Later, that “transfiguring power” will be described in terms of its effect: “drawing his gaze to things he would no normally appreciate, like grotesquely overweight wrestlers, woolen caps with shields, or half-naked bodies that hold no sexual interest.” (p. 16)
But that makes the experience of the transfiguration of athletes appear as the flip side of what is happening to us in that same moment: namely, “fascination” when something “irresistibly captures the attention and imagination of so many people like himself” or “a phenomenon that manages to paralyze the eyes, something that endlessly attracts, without implying any explanation for its attraction” (p 16).
It’s in view of this that Gumbrecht’s decision to open the book with a series of vividly described sensory memories begins to make more sense and operate more powerfully. For he’s interested, in a nutshell, in the material, sensory experiences that arise between two (or more) bodies involved (as participant or witness) in a sporting performance and he wants to isolate and convey the involuntary and pre- or ir- or extra-rational dimensions of those experiences. And this makes sense to me when I recall what I know of the history of aesthetics, which began as a philosophy of sensation (the word “aesthetics” comes from the Greek aisthesis which just means “sensation” — we might consider this in relation to the term anesthesia). If Gumbrecht’s book is about athletic beauty and we think of aesthetics as philosophical thinking about beauty, then I see here that his first contribution is to assert very strongly, in form, style, and content, the irreducibly material quality of athletic beauty.
This emphasis on materiality, on the bodies involved, may also explain Gumbrecht’s brief meditation on the difference between remembering an athletic performance and witnessing one in the present. “Watching sports,” he reports, was about “being there when and where things happened and forms emerged through bodies, in real presence and in real time” (p. 14). In this sense, memories are a second best to “lived experience.” But that doesn’t make them useless or irrelevant. He describes a kind of mutual complication and intensification arising from the interaction of memories with lived experience whereby the past is recharged by the present and the present is complicated or enriched by the memory of the past. What strikes me as interesting here, though I don’t know whether Gumbrecht explicitly intends it or not, is that he’s suggesting that another complicated interplay between distance and presence or proximity is important to the sporting experience: the temporal distance between past and present.
Finally, Gumbrecht confesses that he really doesn’t know why this is so fascinating to him and he’s not even sure that the attraction will “become more intense if he knew its reasons. (p. 16). He’s certainly quick to say that sports don’t need “this kind of wordy blessing.” But he concludes that “he would not want to exclude the possibility that trying to understand his fascination may intensify his pleasure, and help him learn how to praise the achievements of his heroes, then and now” (p. 16).
I like this. I like it a lot. I like the idea that understanding may deepen pleasure (something I’m often trying to impress upon my sports fan students: that understanding need not be the enemy of love; perhaps even that true love cannot do without understanding). I like that the impulse to understanding is related to an impulse to speak, to praise, to affirm, not because sports needs that affirmation, but because, it seems, Gumbrecht can’t help himself; the impulse to praise is irrepressible. But I like it finally because he wants to do it well, he wants his writing in praise of athletic beauty to be as beautiful, as fascinating, as transfiguring as the performance itself. He wants, in other words, to do in words what his athletic heroes have done with their bodies: on the ice, the field, the mat, the ring, the court.
I want that too.