End Notes: The Play’s the Thing

The first time I heard the story of the saint who said he’d just go on playing billiards if he learned he was to die in five minutes, I was surprised that the news came to him at the billiard table. Try to imagine Saint Sebastian with a cue or Saint Lawrence racking up the balls. Games and seriousness, let alone sanctity, seem antithetical.

The language conveys this, as in “ludicrous” and “interlude,” which both derive from ludus (“game”). The amusing becomes derisory, the diverting evanescent—a pastime. Remember Saint Teresa, lamenting the time she wasted as a girl reading romantic novels. That kind of sternness seems just right to us—as we head out to the golf course.

Let us not confuse games with exercise. Exercise has become the asceticism, the prayer and fasting, of a materialist age. Plato employed the analogy of gymnastics in speaking of the moral life, the practice required for virtue being likened to sweating it out in the gym. Mens sana in corpore sano, as Plato didn’t put it. Saint Paul likened the lifelong struggle for salvation to a race. Nowadays, exercise stands only for itself, but of course its justification is severely utilitarian. It is meant to prolong a life that has no transcendent meaning.

Games have no point. There is the story of the golfer confronted in the club bar. “Here you sit, drinking, smoking, eating fatty snacks. How can you call yourself an athlete?” “I’m no athlete. I’m a golfer.”

Summer is the season of games in those parts of the country that have seasons. Players young and old, male and female, swarm over the golf courses of the nation now, teeing it up, going for the long one, slicing, hooking, missing putts, giving up on lost balls. Other balls are whacked back and forth across nets, pursued and pummeled by sweating shorted citizens, with visions of a very different kind of play dancing in their heads as they flail away.

Sport at its best is speculative, an aesthetic enjoyment of the exertions of others. We watch black millionaires, shaven-headed, shod in pneumatic shoes, loping back and forth on the hardwood, stuffing a ball through a hoop.

But baseball remains the national sport—at least until football starts again. It appeals to the accountant in us, providing us with endless irrelevant statistics. Aristotle started it, making a list of the winners of Olympic games.

The astronomical salaries of the players—call them ludicrous—add to the fun of it. They mock our pursuit of money, trivialize it. A few years ago there was a commercial in which an athlete, just become a multimillionaire by putting his autograph on a contract, shows his erstwhile buddies around the estate his affluence has brought him. They come to the pool. It is filled with ice water in which thousands of cans of beer are afloat.

A cool one on a hot day is a good thing. So a thousand must be a thousand times better, nicht wahr? Unimaginable amounts of money are as pointless as the skill that brings them. In a materialist age, the baffled beneficiaries of all this loot can only be regarded as less enlightened consumers than they might be. The point of life is acquisition, but beer? Of course, it is consumption, things, possessions, that are called into questions—or so a Plato and Saint Paul might have pointed out.

P. G. Wodehouse, classical thinker that he was, saw golf both as an end in itself and, inevitably, as a metaphor of life. Reading him takes us back to another day of the sport, of course, like seeing those recently discovered films of the great turn-of-the-century British golfers. One about to drive in a Wodehouse story takes sand from a nearby box and makes a little mound of it as a tee for his ball. And so the drama begins. Perhaps games like golf will be a prelude to the return of moral seriousness. “How do you lie?” may be the most poignant question in sports.

On the other hand, to divorce games from any sane sense of the whole in which they form a part has predictable results. When sex was so divorced from its relatively minor role in an integrated human life, it was called recreational sex. The phrase represents a debasement of both components.

Meanwhile, buy me some peanuts and crackerjacks, and take me out to the ball game or, short of that, put some popcorn in the microwave, chill the Pepsi, and turn on the Cubs. Losing, too, has its heroes, but with Wrigley Field and Harry Caray, who cares?

It has been going on from the beginning of recorded history. Games with balls, races, wrestling, feats of strength with no significance beyond the showing. And looking on, the prototypes of all the fans to come, egging on the athletes, taking sides, betting on the outcome.

World War I may have been won on the playing fields of Eton. It is certain that the Vietnam War was lost on college campuses. Had all those scholars been goofing off on the golf course or returning serves on the tennis court, the nation might have been spared its only military defeat. Alas, that generation was not mature enough for games. Now they occupy the White House. And jog. But they golf, too, so there is hope. The play’s the thing in which we’ll catch the conscience of the king.

  • Ralph McInerny

    Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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