Showing posts with label David Foster Wallace. Show all posts
Showing posts with label David Foster Wallace. Show all posts

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Give Me Words: some thoughts on athletic genius as we approach the Olympics



"Lewis, give me words."

 --Ashton Eaton to NBC announcer Lewis Johnson, shortly after breaking the decathlon world record







The Olympics is on everyone's mind in the running world. Though I wasn't able to watch the 10,000m trials, I did manage to follow it pretty well by refreshing on the letsrun.com message board. I'm psyched to see that Ritz and Teg made the team along with Rupp (who of course was the favorite) as I count those guys as part of my generation. (1)

Though I never approached the elite levels of the sport, I guess I got close enough to understand just how extraordinary these runners are. When I watch swimming or gymnastics or the NBA finals, I am impressed by the athletes, inspired by their efforts, and I can see the spark of athletic genius. But when I watch the distance runners, that genius comes through in a way that is simultaneously more intimate and less understandable, if that makes any sense at all.

As David Foster Wallace explains in "How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart," athletic greatness is the most visible form of genius. "Great athletes are profundity in motion. They enable abstractions like power, grace, and control to become not only incarnate but televisable. To be a top athlete, performing, is to be that exquisite hybrid of an animal and angel that we average unbeautiful watchers have such a hard time seeing in ourselves." What's strange about the visibility of this genius -- and this is the point of DFW's essay -- is that its source is opaque. Athletic genius is simultaneously obvious and literally unbelievable.

The unbelieveability of the runners in this year's trials 10k hits a distance runner with special vitality. I know what it means to run a 64 second quarter. Ten kilometers is a distance that is written pretty deep in my bones. But the two things together -- 64 second quarters for 10 kilometers -- leaves me speechless. As familiar as I am with these numbers, with the 400m oval, with the attitudes and habits of training and racing, I still cannot fathom these performances. This contrast between the familiar and the unfathomable is what keeps me riveted. My experience in the sport brings the genius of these runners into a sort of clarity that I don't find when watching other sports.

This is from a great photo essay by the Oregon Register.
Kant had a special concept for the experience I am talking about here: the sublime. He said that the feeling of pleasure that we get is due to the stimulation of our intellectual faculties. We want to apply a concept to what we've seen, but the concept refuses to fit, so we continue to "play" with the disjunct between understanding and experience. The sublime play of the beautiful points us toward unknown possibilities of experience and expands the human horizon.

After these great performances, both in the trials and eventually at the Olympics, we will be treated to all manner of post-race interviews, human interest stories, and professional analysis. Chances are pretty good that the talk will be dissatisfying, cliched at best, cheesy at worst. After Ashton Eaton's world record this weekend, he fielded countless questions that wanted to know exactly how it felt to be a transcendent athlete. All he could do was smile, give credit to his competitors, the community, talk about work and effort, being in the moment, waiting for it to sink in.

That's because athletic genius can't be put into words by the athlete himself. When reading DFW's essay, it starts to be clear that athletic genius and verbal genius are two different things entirely. Athletic performance is deep and inarticulate. The poetic and expressive mind has nothing to do with it, and in fact can only inhibit the deep focus required to do great things. DFW concludes his essay with the paradoxical thought that "we spectators, who are not divinely gifted as athletes, are the only one able to truly see, articulate, and animate the experience of the gift we are denied. And that those who receive 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."

I don't think DFW means this as an insult to athletic genius, and I don't take it to be a comment on the intelligence of athletes. There are intelligent and articulate athletes but their articulateness, I submit, has little to do with their athletic genius. Reflect, for instance, on our your own moments of personal genius. I think you will find that at the heart of them there is something that resists articulation. A blindness and a dumbness. Even as he was writing this essay, I understood DFW to be reflecting upon his own artistic gift, on the arbitrary nature of his own ability to string together a work of genius, and the irony that he could write with lucidity on the nature of athletic genius, but that when it came to the meaning and purpose of his own life, he remained blind and dumb, even in the face of critical success. (2)

What is the lesson in all this? While we watch these geniuses, I think we should appreciate them. But we should also appreciate our own reactions to them. It's us, the fans of the sport, those who watch, who bring these performances to life. The doing depends on the athlete, but the athlete depends on us to give meaning to that doing. This dependence forces a sort of responsibility on us to meet their effort with ours, to try to articulate and demonstrate the fullness of what we see and relate it to our own lives. The marketers get this, but I think that the rest of us should get in on the action. (3)

The Olympics is a chance for athletes, but just as essentially it's a chance for us to see something beautiful and to respond to it. It's in this response that the Olympics finds its meaning for the rest of us. After four years in which the media has been pretty fixated on how to respond to the ugly, I'm hoping we haven't forgotten how to respond to something beautiful. The athletes need the Olympics, but it seems to me that the rest of us need them even more.

*  *  *

(1) In fact, I remember reading an article way back in high school about Ritz's training. He was a year or so younger than me, but training harder. That article spurred my first attempt at 70 miles per week, an attempt that led first to ITBS, but eventually to running the sorts of times that made me a varsity level college athlete.


(2) I am alluding here to the fact that DFW took his own life quite savagely, and that in spite of his prodigious talents left behind a relatively small literary opus.

(3) I have to admit, I really like this Nike ad.

Monday, June 27, 2011

A long and self-indulgent post that has very little to do with running and which raises more questions than gives answers, sorry about that.

I've been working my way at intervals through David Foster Wallace's The Pale King. The book, like much of his writing, is a meditation on the ways in which we keep ourselves from encountering reality, our selves, and each other. DFW's writing is simultaneously penetrating and distancing. He shows us directly the pathos of reflective thought--how it is always reflective, never direct--always skimming over its object. His work sits squarely in the genre of postmodern meta writing because he takes the constant indirection of experience as his direct object of inquiry. But unlike other postmodern authors in which indirection becomes something like a game having stakes only for the art-world, for DFW indirection is a concrete strategy for his characters; it is a learned habit, one that protects them from experience, sheltering them in a state of interiority that is somehow both fecund and infertile.

Click, and it will get bigger.

To read DFW is to realize simultaneously the infinite possibility of thought and the infinite distraction of thought. It's to reflect on the tremendous intellectual achievement of something like the tax code--which of course no single mind could comprehend in all of its complexity and nuance--while simultaneously recognizing that precisely because it is an achievement beyond the comprehension of any mind, its value is incalculable at best and downright stupefying at worse. The book suggests that language itself is like the tax-code: a jumble of meanings through which a few experts can weave more or less intelligent paths, but which in the end adds up to so much sound and fury as a whole, just as likely to signify nothing at all as it is to add meaning to life.

The life of DFW is horrifying. The guy had a tremendous mind. He was intelligent beyond measure. That intelligence was not a total waste; he left us books that will stand the test of time. But he could not use that intelligence to find wisdom. He ended up miserable, depressed, and he killed himself.

It seems to me that his life is representative of the problem of culture in America today. The connection between intelligence and wisdom is tangential at best. Our minds are growing, but their growth is erratic, becoming bureaucratic monstrosities like the tax-code. Who can make the connections between Afghanistan, global warming, rising unemployment, gas prices, radical Islam, immigration, unions, Hugo Chavez, the budget crisis, education reform, obesity....? What mind could process such a set of problems? And yet, we all encounter them, almost daily, as if we have a responsibility to deal with them adequately. Not to mention all of the ordinary problems of daily living like going to work and paying the bills and cooking dinner and cleaning up every now and then. Am I the only one that finds this situation demoralizing?

Reflection doesn't always solve problems.

My sense is that the only intelligent or wise way of dealing with these problems is through the strategy of indirection. As individuals, we can't deal with them, so we have to learn how to distract ourselves from them, or at least from most of them, so that we can tackle the tiny part of maybe one of these problems that we are prepared for. So, we learn not to deal with reality. We put all these screens in place: small screens, big screens, all of these screens that allow us not to deal with reality by substituting high definition for reality. They serve their dream function: just as vivid as reality but fortunately Not Real. The sun being quite too bright to stare at, we climb back down into Plato's cave, thank you very much.

So here we come finally to the grand meta-problem. Reality is one of those things that you can't live with but can't live without. We have to learn to distract ourselves from the problems of life as a mode of protection. But we also cannot bear to live lives of total distraction: that's depression itself. How can we find the right balance between distraction and engagement? How can a mind trained in distraction and self-deception as a mode of the preservation of sanity not destroy itself through those very same operations? How can reflection both protect us from reality through the production of fantasy but also occasionally direct us to reality in order to deal with the problems that face us?

It strikes me that this is a balance that each person has to find for themselves. It also strikes me that such a balance is incredibly difficult and would be very rare to hit without some sort of explicit effort (which I'm not sure how many of us are putting forth). My sense is that we first world middle class whitish Americans tend to err on the side of fantasy and protection from reality. Our politics is a fantasy: Paul Revere? The Gold Standard? Flat Taxes? Global Peace? Hope? Change? When we aren't discussing these fantasies, it's onto the NFL or the latest iPad or how many miles per week did you run or something of that sort.

Yes, running too is deeply involved in fantasy; I love it most because its form of fantasy draws so deeply on reality while remaining fantasy. It's not a daydream; it's a bodily fantasy, with actual feeling, pain, suffering, elation, problems, breakthroughs, effort, determination. All the stuff of life in High Definition.

But don't we want the stuff of life in actual real life, not just as a way of dealing with it?
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