Madman in My Family

No this isn’t an exposé (in case anyone in my family saw the title).  Nor is it a confessional, although I am talking about myself.  I might be a bit whimsical in my use of the word “Madman,” still in the metaphorical shadow of Melancholia, a film whose madness is infectious.


Nietzsche: spectator

Nietzsche could have been talking about hockey or football (meaning the American variety, although perhaps Friedrich might also have nodded to that other football, the one called “soccer” in North America) when he spoke of the Apollonian and Dionysian tendencies.  For anyone reading this, if you are noticing that your mouth is taking on a condescending sneer of dismissal, quick now.  Did you know that Nietzsche said all this in admiration of the operas of Wagner?  Before you toss my analysis aside, remember that Friedrich’s analysis—so useful in the theatre world—wasn’t really meant for some discussion of Arthur Miller or method acting.  Nietzsche was a died-in-the-wool Wagnerian, looking at opera as a (or should I say “the”?) successor to the Athenian tragedies of Aeschylus & Euripides.  If you –those of you who hate opera—can use Nietzsche to prop up your ideas about a theatre devoid of music (surely a wacky idea), you probably should hear me out as I contemplate another kind of theatre, admittedly populated by muscular dudes in helmets.  As soon as i typed that i was struck by the resonance with the popular (and maybe erroneous) image of Wagner: big men and women in another sort of helmet.  But if we think of ancient Greece and the Athenian theatre, the faces are covered and identities masked in ways very similar to what we get in football or hockey.

Sure, I’ve long felt that pleasures of sports are not so different from the pleasures of the arts: a position that is much easier to state in the presence of other die-hard sports fans.  For those who abhor violent sports as mere expressions of testosterone, the notion that sports are art will elicit laughter.  There’s no point trying to persuade those who have no interest in these sports, although it is fun, sometimes, to make people laugh.  While i didn’t write this big long looping essay to make people laugh, i’m happier with that reaction than indifference.

Forgive me, I am veering off topic, a bit self-conscious in this forum where I usually address artsy issues among fellow artsies.  But what I want to say about football and hockey is also a commentary on performing arts, and a back-handed stab at something similar to Nietzsche’s theorizing of human tendencies.

First, as I praise one sport I will complain about the other.

The big news in the football world this week?  A coach whose team was on top of the world recently was brought down to Earth in humiliating fashion. Sean Payton of the National Football League’s New Orleans Saints has been suspended for the entire 2012 season –an unprecedented penalty as far as I know—because of a system of “bounties”.  While the news is probably shocking to some (that players on the Saints were paid to deliberately hurt opponents), I am thrilled & delighted with the news.  The penalties imposed by the NFL commissioner attempt to bring some order to a chaotic game.

I say this as I watch the National Hockey League, who lack the decisiveness of the NFL. While rules are changed from time to time, hockey referees seem to cave in partway through the season, allowing the game to again be captive of its macho thuggish culture.

I am conflicted about this, which is where the title comes in.  Last season I thrilled to Boston’s victory in the Stanley Cup final, yet I was simultaneously troubled by a key absence.

Sidney Crosby was en route to one of the greatest season in NHL history.  Crosby can be abrasive at times, but he’s a creative artist with the puck.  Unfortunately the artist was knocked out of the NHL for most of the past year.  And so, when Crosby should perhaps have been crowning his season for the ages with another Cup, he was instead on the sidelines, wondering if he’d ever play again.

In fairness, both the NHL and NFL have been struggling with the head injury problem.  Struggling because their games seem designed to reward dangerous behaviour.  The bounties that came to light –leading to several penalties imposed on the New Orleans Saints—helped the Saints win a Superbowl.  Brett Favre was one of the players targeted, a key player for an opposition team.  The NFL can’t tolerate the practice of rewarding players who deliberately seek to injure, because to do so would de facto condone the practice.

Violence and brutal physical contact is the obverse side of the elegant plays in hockey or football.  A quarterback carefully times their throw to arrive in the hands of a receiver when they arrive at a precise point.  Disrupting this perfection is the job of the defensive players, who do so in acts of wilful chaos.  One tries to obstruct the ball, the players, the view… One distracts or delays.  The enemy of order is disorder, like a wooden shoe sabotaging a machine.  More fundamentally, the order of precise timing falls apart in the presence of fear induced by intimidation or even insults.

Hockey is a faster game than football because it’s on skates.  Because the top speeds are higher, and because the pucks are insanely fast when shot at a goalie, sometimes smacking players in delicate places, the possibilities for accidental injury are immense.  As the players get bigger and stronger it seems inevitable that hockey’s balance must tip ever further in the direction of chaos.

I recall the paradigm shifting shock when Canada faced the Russians in their summit series in 1973, on those big Russian rinks (with a larger ice surface).  When players are forced into a smaller space, as they sometimes were in a few arenas with smaller surfaces (the old Boston Garden for example), there was even more likelihood of physical contact, while the more spacious rinks helped pure skating teams like the Soviets.

We could conceivably re-invent the sport.  I recall seeing an article in the Toronto Globe and Mail by John Allemang, a very courageous attempt to propose rule changes.  The comments to this article were often unpleasant, reminding me that the fans for the NHL are simply not as ready to change as the NFL, who have often changed their rules with wild abandon.

My favourite idea among Allemang’s proposals is good because it not only improves the game but could rescue teams in financial trouble.  Imagine a rule-change that could save the ownership money!  Here it is: reduce the number of players on the ice.

It’s been done before.  At one time hockey was played by seven players, whereas it’s now played by six.  What if instead of six, we put five on each team (like basketball)?  Rosters could be smaller, and the ice surface would seem bigger without necessitating any construction projects.  If five is good, why not four?  From time to time penalties leave us with four a side: usually the most exciting part of that game, as players skate freely without any obstruction.  What we’re seeing is the removal of friction –entropy—and an injection of creativity, order, and dare I say it, beauty.  If a man can skate without being obstructed chances are it’s better than having him stopped.  The only good thing about the obstruction is how it helps mediocre teams compete against talented ones.  But if talent were rewarded?  I can dream.

Never mind Apollo & Dionysus, gods Nietzsche would associate with order & intoxication, respectively.  Art –and sport—are much more than celebrations of our Apollonian & Dionysian tendencies.  They are a constant battle between two much more fundamental principles, namely order & disorder.

Chaos and Order wear many guises.   We may see characters in a play or film who embody the conflict, one figure rebelling (think of Carmen or The Wild One) against the order signified by the other(s).  Sometimes they inhabit the same moment, in voices that are simultaneously musical and noisy.  When I think of Maria Callas or Janis Joplin, and their relationship to more harmonious approaches to vocalism in their chosen idiom (compare Callas to Joan Sutherland, or Joplin to Joni Mitchell), their struggle is personal as well as the one they perform.  Every physique trained to dance, to fight, to run, to skate, to play the piano, to sing, or just to stand in front of a camera & look gorgeous faces the ravages of age.  Each of us, regardless of our sport or art, fights off the encroachment of physical and mental limits.

I am conflicted about the physical side of hockey.  Watching all the collisions, I identify naturally.  I may dream of order, but I also revel in disorder.  There is something Dionysian in the pure mayhem of body contact on the football field or hockey rink.  Part of me craves order, part of me loves to see disorder thrown into chaos by the subversive violence of defensive players.  We have both tendencies, and as an aging man, I sometimes envy the fluid skating of youthful players, even as I admire their grace.

At times, though, human beings enjoyed watching bears baited, bulls speared (still done in places), cockfights, dogfights, and assorted barbarity.  I have dreamt of hockey where the only contact is clean: hip checks rather than sticks swung at heads.  In the meantime, players are getting horrible head injuries, due to the unavoidable consequence of immense speed and size, in small confined spaces.  There are limits to what protective equipment can accomplish.

And so, while one part of me dreams of an ideal form of the game, the other part of me loves these savage sports just as they are.  At one time I thought sport could be a substitute for war, a safe place to act out our aggression. OR maybe we need to learn to outgrow those impulses, both on the pitch and in  every other part of the world.  Ha… talk about the impossible dream.  No wonder i need to watch sports.

In the meantime, the spectacle in the stadium or arena might make Wagner grin with a kind of satisfaction.  The music at the kickoff or the ritualistic playing of Freddy Mercury tunes such as “We Will Rock You,” bring the crowd into a kind of unified exaltation that may not be so different from the ancient Athenian Festival of Dionysus.

Party time.

This entry was posted in Personal ruminations & essays, Psychology and perception, Sports. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Madman in My Family

  1. Jim says:

    What, then, does it say about me that I have never cared very much one way or the other about the outcome of sporting events? Winning a trophy or bragging rights seem like hollow victories; in a year’s time all will be forgotten and the slate made ready for the next bit of competition. Lives are not held in the balance….or, at least, they shouldn’t be.

  2. barczablog says:

    First, thanks for commenting.

    Second (related to the first), there’s a fascinating concept i got from Linda Hutcheon, namely “discursive community”. I think it’s a more sophisticated notiong than simply dividing us up by race or religion or country. We hang together in groups based on conversational interest: which in 2012 means, that our “community” is based on shared interest. Opera-lovers find other opera-lovers, football fans talk (or SCREAM) at other football fans, and the conversations, whether friendly, passionate, acrimonious or violent, are at least a sign of shared interest. And so –concerning the first point– it’s nice that you commented, granting me the benefit of the doubt in so far as we seem to have a kind of conversational common ground (a literal community of discourse) even though i transgressed our usual boundaries, by speaking not of opera singers or pianists, but hockey and football. For this reason, thanks for extending yourself, making the effort to read this.

    All that preamble (HA as i promise: “no short-cuts”…except hyperlinks of course) leads to your question ==> “what does it say about me that I have never cared very much one way or the other about the outcome of sporting events? Winning a trophy or bragging rights seem like hollow victories; in a year’s time all will be forgotten and the slate made ready for the next bit of competition. Lives are not held in the balance….or, at least, they shouldn’t be.”

    I come back to the notion of discursive community. Football doesn’t speak to you. Nor does hockey. They’re forgotten by those who aren’t watching, whereas to those who treat them as a near-sacred festival, they are indeed remembered. And maybe lives shouldn’t be held in the balance, but I believe they are a version of the Dionysian Festivals of ancient Athens. (NOTE i should also apologize Jim, and to anyone who is a follower: that i often modify what i post… THIS ONE was decidedly unwieldy, and i simply wanted to get a version of it ‘out there’, sleep on it, and then add some more today. Hopefully it will be a bit less self-indulgent and make more sense in its finished form). Your cats speak to you, as does your garden. We all –ideally–have some version of a community that matters, whose conversation forms the context for our values. I am luckier than most, because i have so many realms. I am a lucky guy.

  3. barczablog says:

    Oh…. and it has come to my attention that i had a brain fart (unavoidable!). When I wote…
    “when Canada faced the Russians in their summit series in 1973,”
    …. it should of course read “1972”.

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