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On Death and Youth

Posted By Dr. Chesapeake Marchpane On December 11, 2008 @ 2:45 pm In Uncategorized | 4 Comments

On a slate and snowy day in February 1958, a plane attempting to take off from the Munich-Riem Airport skidded on an icy runway and, crashing through the airport fence, slid across a road before breaking apart, its port wing shearing into a house, its fuselage colliding with a Nissen hut, its cockpit smashing into a tree. The house, home to a family of six, burst into flames which, in the madly whirling snow, must have appeared subdued and lifeless, merely roseate, particularly in comparison with the far larger explosion which engulfed the Nissen hut, in which had been contained a truck filled with tires and fuel. The flight, which had only been allowed to attempt take-off in the driving snow following careful and, as it would appear, fateful deliberations between the pilots and the airport staff, included among its passengers the Manchester United football team nicknamed the “Busby Babes” on account of their youth and promise. By the time rescue workers gained access to the wreckage of the Airspeed AS-57 Ambassador that lay strewn across the road and throughout the adjoining neighborhood, 21 of the passengers, including seven of the Busby Babes, were dead.

In considering the thrill or shudder that passed into the world as a result of this incident, the properties of which, though they are not concretely enumerable, have as one of their consequences the popularity of the current Manchester United team, it is perhaps not immediately necessary to allude to the ritual practice of the Aztec priests at Tlalocan, who extracted the fingernails of infants in order to placate, with their tears, the wrath of the rain god Tlaloc. We may begin merely by noting the words of the unnamed monk at the Abbey of Schäftlarn (which, perhaps not by coincidence, the Busby Babes had passed over on their flight into Munich from Belgrade) who, in the abbey’s thirteenth-century annals, had written of the Children’s Crusade of the year 1212 that the 20,000 boys and girls who, as I believe, participated in this falsely discredited pilgrimage had expected the Mediterranean Sea to open before them “just as the dry path once was offered to the Israelite people.” Instead, of course, they were driven to make their way by ship, and only then did the sea open beneath them, as a whirlpool of unknown origin swallowed their vessel without a trace before they could reach Jerusalem.

The drowning of the infants in the Children’s Crusade of 1212 is an apt point of comparison for the deaths suffered by eight of the Busby Babes, for in both instances there was released into the world an uncanny energy that, through a combination of mass grief, public furor, and an almost exultant commitment to the release of ritual commemoration, demonstrated the peculiar power, what might be described as the negative allure, contained in the suffering and dying of the young and, as the phrase would have it, “full of life.” To understand the character of this power it is perhaps enough to list the attempts made by human culture to formalize and control it, particularly by incorporating it into religious practice in the form of human sacrifice. I refer not only to the practices of the Aztec clerics but also to the chthonic fertility rites of Persephone and other deities venerated by the early Greeks; the ceremonial killing of children by the priests of Ba’al at Carthage; the mysterious cannibalism of the young in Minoan Crete; the ecstatic violence of the various druidic cults; and the perhaps literally unspeakable rituals performed at the Tophet or “roasting place” of the Canaanites. In all such rituals the human faculty of sympathy is overwhelmed by a combined feeling of horror and powerlessness which, transposed into a sensation of panic which cannot by any means be acted upon, eventually finds its outlet in a surge of narcotic delight. Though it should be stipulated that in our time mass outpourings of this emotion are apt to find their expression in more sedate and less delirious forms, particularly that of extraordinary grief, just as, in the time of the unnamed monk at Schäftlarn, they were apt to be expressed in the form of profound piety.

Like all activities which are in nature simultaneously physical and ecstatic, football exists on the point of equipoise between life and death, between, so to speak, the natural vitality of vigorous physical play and the suicidal or self-transcending annihilation which may be experienced in, for instance, the complete immersion in a crowd, or in the universalizing elation that follows upon certain goals. Football has also, according to the long-standing thesis of my research, proved a willing receptacle for all forms of popular or folk magic as they have been, one by one, prejudicially discredited by the gatekeepers of modern civilization.

It will hardly be found surprising, therefore, that in an age which has put an end to child sacrifice and to the ecstatic violence of the fertility cults, football should be one of the “containers,” if you will, into which those deep, venerable and baleful powers should flow. It is not the case, of course, that players are killed outright (though what is a game but a kind of sublimated death, and what do we feel at the sight of a player lying face-down, mud-spattered and weeping if not that same sacrificial catharsis?) However, the dark powers of sexual renewal and purification through anguish sought after by far bloodier sacraments cannot have occurred to my mind alone among all who have witnessed the annual commemoration in Scotland of the death of John Thomson in 1931, when the Celtic goalkeeper, just 22 years old, died on the pitch of the “fearful head injuries” he sustained after diving into the path of a Rangers striker. Nor can anyone who witnessed the collapse of Sunderland’s Jimmy Thorpe at Roker Park in 1934, when a kick from a Chelsea player sent him into a coma from which he never awoke, have been entirely immune from the sense of having discovered the source of an uncanny and incomprehensible power.

Young men who were, in the colloquial phrase, “in the flush of youth,” who died abruptly and by violence, who must now be commemorated by rituals that are, in a certain sense, re-stagings of a death we putatively abhor yet feel ourselves compelled revisit. It was not hyperbolically that another thirteenth-century monk, the well-known Salimbene of Parma, compared the children of the failed crusade of 1212 not merely to Israelites who died before reaching the Promised Land but also to Jesus Christ, who began by walking on water, but who revealed his true power only when he lay shattered on a board, bloody, wept over, and dead.


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