In the foreword to his “Green Hills of Africa,” Hemingway says:
“The writer has attempted to write an absolutely true book to see whether the shape of a country and the pattern of a month’s action can, if truly presented, compete with a work of the imagination.”
As far as I’m concerned, he succeeded spectacularly. Hemingway was an avid hunter and even if you do not share his passion, or indeed even find it acceptable, you cannot but be drawn in and fascinated by his account of a hunting safari in Serengeti.
David Foster Wallace, who used to be a ranked juniors’ player in the US in his adolescence, does something similar in the article “Federer as Religious Experience” published about three years ago in NY Times’ Play Magazine, in which he talks about his experiences of watching Roger Federer play tennis. While there is nothing fictional about the story, it does read like as great a piece of fiction as any. The piece bears several hallmarks of his usual style(1) and the two depictions of particular balls played by Federer, against Agassi and Nadal, respectively, are positively poetic. There is a fair amount of technical discussion and detail in the article (which, again, shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who knows DF Wallace) and it may well be that this is both a bit difficult as well as tedious to a reader who hasn’t played much tennis, but I honestly think that it’s well worth a bit of an effort to try and follow his explanations.
As it happens, I was lucky enough to watch another Federer-Nadal final at Wimbledon a year later, and can thus personally vouch for several things that Wallace says in the article about the top-level live tennis. I remember that feeling of being mesmerized by the combination of the intensity, raw power and ballet-like grace which really doesn’t come across in a remotely comparable way when watched from the TV. I fully agree with DF Wallace that only by being there in person you’re truly able to appreciate what he in the article terms as “kinetic beauty” – a human beings’ reconciliation with the fact of having a body. And by beholding that beauty, you’re rather painfully reminded that you too have a body–of course, a rather simple and blunt instrument even in its theoretical full potential when compared to that of Federer–but are simply wasting away its potential. By watching Federer perform at the border of impossibility, and indeed, pushing that border, a kind of phenomenological point is driven home to a spectator: our bodies are not simply vessels for our minds and identities, they are our ways of being-in-world, our ways of interacting with time and space. And just like in, say, verbal conversation, there are different levels of proficiency and fluidness in all interaction.
Incidentally, a lot what Wallace is saying resonates with Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht’s 2006 book “In Praise of Athletic Beauty”. Rather than looking at sports as a social practice or a form of amusement, Gumbrecht approaches athletics as an occasion for aesthetic contemplation, seeking and finding beauty, dignity and grace in disciplines such as bare-knuckle boxing or sumo wrestling–which are probably quite far away from most peoples’ idea of aesthetic experience. It’s a very worthwhile book to read no matter on which side of the camp–loving sports or loathing it–you happen to be.
(1) Of course, there is also plenty of tennis-related stuff in the “Infinite Jest”. Oh, and if you are at all familiar with Wallace’s writing I do not need to remind you not to skip footnotes in his article.