August 21, 2006KR Blog

The Beauty of the Athlete?

It’s nearly September. Summer’s fled too quickly, as usual, which sends everyone back to work, back to school, back to the press of Fenway Park, back to the football practice fields and pre-season games, and (my favorite) back to Flushing Meadows for the final Grand Slam of the tennis calendar: the US Open. I’d be more embarrassed coming out as a sports fan in a literary blog were it not for precedent set recently by David Foster Wallace (who needs no introduction) and Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht (who does).

To begin with the familiar, David Foster Wallace (see his 2005 Kenyon College commencement speech) has published a lengthy meditation on the tennis genius of Roger Federer called “Federer as Religious Experience” in The New York Times. This essay’s practical suggestion for a more fulfilled life is to see Federer play live at Wimbledon, that “cathedral of tennis.” But Wallace aims at the quasi-religious ecstasy of athletic prowess. “Beauty,” he writes, “is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. The relation is roughly that of courage to war.” Amen. But this particular kinetic beauty has everything to do with “human beings’ reconciliation with the fact of having a body.” Sport is available to us in so many forms (TV, radio, satellite radio, and cell phone) that it can be easy to forget those currents of electric excitement that seize us when we watch sport. The human body was perhaps better designed than any cell phone or laptop to receive wireless signals: longing, rage, anguish, exhilaration, and triumph, to name a few.

This is precisely Gumbrecht’s point. He’s spent serious time at Stanford teaching and writing about literary, philosophical, and cultural phenomena of many kinds and has recently published a slim but stirring book called In Praise of Athletic Beauty. Gumbrecht’s point? Intellectuals are too inclined to pooh-pooh sport, to reduce it to ideology, and to fail to capture in language the extraordinary beauty embodied physically by athletics of all varieties. Gumbrecht wants to explore and expand how we understand the beautiful, and he also wants to examine the idea of praise for such athletic beauty. Taking cues from Pindar (since it seems the praise of sport begins, like so many other things, in ancient Greece) and Kant, Gumbrecht wants to know what makes athletic events so beautiful and what our praise of such beauty might teach us. He reflects on those sublime moments in sport, the “unexpected appearance of a body in space, suddenly taking on a beautiful form that just as quickly and irreversibly dissolves.” If David Foster Wallace wants communion with the metaphysical genius of Federer, Gumbrecht wants to be utterly undone. “I feel drawn,” he says of intense moments of athletic beauty, “toward the material world around me, into an openness that makes my own claims to agency appear marginal, vague, and almost random.”

Such was the purpose of poetic meter and rhyme in the ages before the advent of free or open forms: the wildly structured release of the self into a more expansive whole, which we might also call crowd-surfing. If that seems far-fetched, just remember that A. Bartlett Giamatti started writing about Edmund Spenser and ended up not only the president of Yale but also the 7th commissioner of Major League Baseball. (A Great and Glorious Game collects his writings on baseball). Surely there’s something appealing about expanding beauty to include a larger pull to a kind of communal, sacramental experience as we participate as spectators in the exercise of athletic genius. But, without taking anything away from Roger Federer, David Foster Wallace, Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, or the beauty of the athlete, how often does The New York Times devote, say, 20 pages to poetry? And you can tell me all about beauty the next time I get swallowed by a crowd of Red Sox fans on the T going to or from Fenway Park.