Literary sport

July 21, 2010 at 1:55 pm 1 comment

Lapham’s Quarterly is among my favorite publications and the summer issue on Sports & Games deserves special mention. (I urge all those interested in either the history of games or ideas about human movement to invest $15 in this handsome magazine.) From Lewis Lapham’s introduction:

One not need be American to know that sport is play and play is freedom. It’s not a secret kept from children in Tahiti or Brazil. Dogs romp, whales leap, penguins dance. That play is older than the kingdoms of the Euphrates and the Nile is a truth told by the Dutch scholar, Johan Huizinga, in Homo Ludens, his study of history that discovers in the “primeval soil of play” the origin of “the great instinctive forces of civilized life,” of myth and ritual, law and order, poetry and science. “Play,” he said, “cannot be denied. You can deny, if you like, nearly all abstractions: justice, beauty, truth, goodness, mind, God. You can deny seriousness, but not play.” […]

The glory of [sports and games] isn’t the winning or losing, the bombastic Rooseveltian beating of the others; it is Einstein’s equation made flesh, the unity of energy and mass seen in a movement of light. Huizinga expresses something of the same thought. Play as the making of civilization, which becomes possible only when “an influx of mind breaks down the absolute determinism of the cosmos,” not serious and yet entirely serious, brimming with possibility and tending to become beautiful.

LQ’s literary treatment of sports makes for a nice segue to reference kottke’s post about the novelist Nic Brown, who challenged his friend and professional tennis player Tripp Phillips in a game to win a single point.  Writes Brown:

What I can’t do, no matter how hard I try, is win a single point. Not one. “You have no weapons,” he tells me two days later, over a lunch of cheap tacos and cheese dip. He reviews the match in this specific analytical way I’ve experienced with other professional athletes. To them, match review is engineering, not personal nicety. The performance is fact, not opinion. “No matter what,” he says, “I was going to have you off balance. And no matter what you did, I was going to be perfectly balanced. I knew where you were going to hit it before you hit it. It’s the difference between me and you. But if I played Roger Federer right now, he’d do the exact same thing to me.”

Kottke observes, “That bit reminds me of David Foster Wallace’s article on tennis pro Michael Joyce (Esquire, July ’96). Specifically, how much of a skill difference there was between Joyce (the 79th best player in the world), the players he competed against in qualifiers, and the then-#1 ranked Andre Agassi.”



Entry filed under: play, think. Tags: , , , , , .

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Josh  |  July 22, 2010 at 9:23 am

    Yo JR! Good post! How’s Africa?!

    Yes, I think Lapham is poetic, but not entirely correct (as your second point reveals). There is a difference in different types of “play,” and between “games” or “sport” and “play.”

    Sport is play with very specific rules and the intent to win. Sport is a finite-game type of play.

    Games have very specific rules, but can either have the intent to win or not (e.g., in a game like “find all of the letters of the alphabet on the license plates as you pass them” on a road trip…there is no “winner” there).

    Play is a state of being.

    My opinions.


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Jason R. Atwood

I'm an avid trail runner and doctoral student at U.C. Berkeley who studies motivation and the relationship between the mind and body. This blog is a forum to share research, news, and musings about these topics of interest. More

Play is the beginning of knowledge.

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