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Viennese Theology

Vienna

from Chapter 7 (“In a Weak Moment Ulrich Acquires a New Mistress”) of The Man Without Qualities, by Robert Musil, translated by Sophie Wilkins:

The fascination of such a fight, he said, was the rare chance it offered in civilian life to perform so many varied, vigorous, yet precisely coordinated movements in response to barely perceptible signals at a speed that made conscious control quite impossible. Which is why, as every athlete knows, training must stop several days before a contest, for no other reason than that the muscles and nerves must be given time to work out the final coordination among themselves, leaving the will, purpose, and consciousness out of it and without any say in the matter. Then, at the moment of action, Ulrich went on, muscles and nerves leap and fence with the “I”; but this “I”—the whole body, the soul, the will, the central and entire person as legally distinguished from all others—is swept along by muscles and nerves like Europa riding the bull. Whenever it does not work out this way, if by some unlucky chance the merest ray of reflection hits this darkness, the whole effort is invariably doomed.

Ulrich had talked himself into a state of excitement. Basically, he now maintained, this spirit of almost total ecstasy or transcendence of the conscious mind is akin to experiences now lost but known in part to the mystics of all religions, which makes it a kind of contemporary substitution for an eternal human need. Even if it is not a very good substitute it is better than nothing, and boxing or similar kinds of sport that organize this principle into a rational system are therefore a species of theology, although one cannot expect this to be generally understood as yet.

Ulrich’s lively speech to his companion was probably inspired, in part, by vanity, to make her forget the sorry state in which she had found him. Under these circumstances it was hard for her to tell whether he was being serious or sardonic. In any case it might have seemed quite natural, perhaps even interesting, to her that he should try to explain theology in terms of sport, since sport is a timely topic while nobody really knows anything about theology, although there were undeniably still a great many churches around. All in all, she decided that by some lucky chance she had come to the rescue of a brilliant man, even though she did wonder, betweenwhiles, whether he might have suffered a concussion.

Ulrich, who now wanted to say something comprehensible, took the opportunity to point out in passing that even love must be regarded as one of the religious and dangerous experiences, because it lifts people out of the arms of reason and sets them afloat with no ground under their feet.

True enough, the lady said, but sports are so rough.

So they are, Ulrich hastened to concur, sports are rough. One could say that they are the precipitations of a most finely dispersed hostility, which is deflected into athletic games. Of course, one could also say the opposite: sports bring people together, promote team spirit and all that—which basically proves that brutality and love are no farther apart than one wing of a big, colorful, silent bird is from the other.

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Viennese Theology

by Brian Phillips · June 24, 2008

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