Graydon Gordian is the author of 48 Minutes of Hell. His HustleJunkie column runs weekly here at HP. This week he reflects on David Foster Wallace and human beauty.
David Foster Wallace, aside from being a brilliant novelist and an insightful cultural critic, was a bold and thoughtful sportswriter. His passion was the game of tennis. He was an accomplished player but he never achieved the dizzying heights on the court that he would in his discussion of it. His most notable piece of sportswriting was entitled “Roger Federer as Religious Experience.” In the essay, he establishes an expansive vision of sports, in which games have an aesthetic value that few intellectuals of his caliber are willing to grant it:
Beauty 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.Amidst Wallace’s prose lurks the origin of much of my thought on the same subject. In fact, it wouldn’t be inappropriate to interpret the entirety of “Speak, Body” as an attempt to elaborate upon Wallace’s conception of “kinetic beauty.” But in this brief quote, he takes the interrelationship of aesthetics and sports a step further, and he does so with one word: reconciliation.
The human beauty we're talking about here is beauty of a particular type; it might be called kinetic beauty. Its power and appeal are universal. It has nothing to do with sex or cultural norms. What it seems to have to do with, really, is human beings' reconciliation with the fact of having a body.
When people discuss “beautiful” moments in sports, they typically focus on the types of plays that end up on highlight reels: walk-off home runs, last-second prayers, game-winning penalty shots. And it would be difficult to argue against the immensity of such moments. They are the cornerstones on which a lifetime of myth and memory can be built. But if you’re really going to capture what Wallace is getting at, you have to look at the dystopic along with the utopian. We must consider the beauty of fouls.
For those familiar with the Wallace article quoted above, this may seem like an egregious misreading of his thought: the cited passage is from an examination of Roger Federer, a man whose style of play closes in on perfection. How could the beauty of fouls possibly be what Wallace is hinting at? Yes, Wallace’s reflection is focused on our perception of Federer as miracle made flesh, but it is in the relationship between the surpassed and the surpassing that lies the need for reconciliation.
Our bodies, although vehicles of joy, are also simultaneously the primary vessels of pain. Obviously the human body is inflicted with aches and pains, but existential pain can just as easily manifest itself in our muscles and bones. Federer’s charisma derives from the stark contrast his abilities immediately draw with our own (certainly it doesn’t derive from his calm and collected demeanor). Wallace may understand Federer’s play in terms of its divine inspiration, but it is only the writer’s limitations that allow such light to be shed (I would like to note that Federer’s eventual decay can be mined for just as much significance. When we one day compare his finest matches to the level at which he will play in the winter of his career, the same sense of human limitation will be forced to the forefront).
But still, how does Wallace’s inability to play tennis professionally make a foul in basketball beautiful?
During Wallace’s essay, he includes an interesting detail. He notes how another tennis player, Jonas Borkman, referred to competing against Federer as having “the best seat in the house.” It seems that Wallace searched for catharsis amidst the same sense of personal limitation experienced by Federer's competitors as well. If anything, the experience is all the more visceral: the sweet-stroking Swiss is kicking your particular ass. And somewhere in that unique relationship lies the beauty of the foul.
Physically, it is a mess. The complete antithesis to any balletic potential that may lurk in the game of basketball. Flesh slaps, limbs flail, bodies smack against the hardwood. Most people’s first reaction wouldn’t be the word “beautiful.” Neither would most people’s second, third or fourth reaction either. But there is an acknowledgement in the foul that doesn’t occur during other plays. In some ways it is the most intimate moment in all of basketball: By fouling, you are letting your body honestly and openly communicate your vulnerability. You cannot stop your opponent unless you break the rules.
Fine, you may say. Fouls reveal something about the fouler. But beauty exists in the sky, not in the mud.
Hardly so. The history of human shortcoming and suffering is the history of the artistic impetus. Our earliest poems describe war, our earliest theater incest and murder. Canonical art confronts our imperfection head on, mud or no mud. It does not disguise it by playing in the clouds. Acrobatic dunks and late game heroics may strike you as a revelation, but oftentimes it is in those brutish and brushed-aside moments that the most is revealed. It is easy to find peace in moments of victory. It is when we fall short that we must reconcile with ourselves.