Pelé as a Comedian
by Brian Phillips · September 2, 2010
I’m thinking about David Foster Wallace’s essay on Roger Federer, the famous one that ran in the New York Times’s now-defunct sports magazine, Play, in 2006. If you don’t remember it for the argument, you might remember it for the title, “Roger Federer as Religious Experience,” which even back in ’06 felt like a strange combination of terms. It’s a little hard to remember this now, with Federer’s career having settled into its gentle downward glide, but at that point Roger Federer was annihilating sports. He won everything, always, and not in a Jordan’s-flu-game/supreme-effort-combusting-into-fiery-triumph way, but easily, without sweating, in polo shirts so white they reflected every light ray. (Not even the sun could score on him, I remember thinking.) Luxury-gauche Federer, the cream-blazered Rolex hawk, was still a short way in the future, and so was ennobled-by-adversity Federer: Rafael Nadal was a niche specialist who only ever won the French Open. Federer, as far as anyone could tell, was just a mild young man who happened to play perfect tennis, tennis so perfect, and so predictable in its perfection, that anyone who rooted against him did so for the same reason you’d root against a brick wall. His game wasn’t boring—it’s never boring to watch someone do an extremely difficult thing—but as a narrative, as a story that holds your interest by keeping its outcome in suspense, it was about as thrilling as an iPhone launch.
A religious experience ought, at the very least, to be thrilling, so it was strange to see Wallace draw on the raptures of the saints to describe his admiration for Federer. “Roger Federer as Clockwork,” or “Roger Federer as a Movie You Love but Have Just About Memorized at This Point,” would have made more immediate sense. But as it turned out, Wallace wasn’t talking about narrative at all, and if he was using religious experience as a metaphor, it was a metaphor that was close to the literal truth. While acknowledging that in that year’s Wimbledon Federer had “provided no surprise or competitive drama at all,” Wallace saw Federer’s game as epitomizing the beauty of sports, which, as he wrote, has to do with “human beings’ reconciliation with the fact of having a body”:
David Foster Wallace, “Roger Federer as Religious Experience,” Play Magazine, August 20 2006
There’s a great deal that’s bad about having a body. If this is not so obviously true that no one needs examples, we can just quickly mention pain, sores, odors, nausea, aging, gravity, sepsis, clumsiness, illness, limits — every last schism between our physical wills and our actual capacities. Can anyone doubt we need help being reconciled? Crave it? It’s your body that dies, after all.
There are wonderful things about having a body, too, obviously — it’s just that these things are much harder to feel and appreciate in real time. Rather like certain kinds of rare, peak-type sensuous epiphanies (“I’m so glad I have eyes to see this sunrise!” etc.), great athletes seem to catalyze our awareness of how glorious it is to touch and perceive, move through space, interact with matter. Granted, what great athletes can do with their bodies are things that the rest of us can only dream of. But these dreams are important — they make up for a lot.
Living in a body means contending with pain, the fact of death, and the limitations of our own wills—means enduring the fact that, in essence, something is always wrong in our position in the universe. But the beauty created by a great athlete playing a game can help us dream of transcending our own physical limits, can give us the sense, fleetingly, in what Wallace calls “Federer Moments,” that our bodies aren’t at odds with our wills, that we can do what we can dare, like honest Tottenhams. Federer as a religious experience therefore has nothing to do with the thrill of competitive drama or even with an individual style of play. It has to do, instead, with the reconciling beauty of a great athlete doing the apparently impossible. That’s what Wallace, who was serious about tennis, wanted. And that’s what Federer gave him, at least at moments.
I’ve been thinking about David Foster Wallace not only because we’re coming up on the second anniversary of his suicide but also because of Pelé Week. The two arguments against wholeheartedly embracing Pelé that popped up again and again during our series of posts were (1) that we can’t appreciate Pelé because the “Pelé narrative” is too monumental and FIFA-stamped and inauthentic in its postmodern-media-fascist way to see past when we watch his highlights and (2) that Pelé’s perfection as a player is so complete that he’s not really interesting; he always won, he had no weaknesses, and his game was so ideal that it stands outside history and has no point of contact with our lived experience of the sport. I see the force of both those arguments (I think I originated one of them), but I don’t think either one of them tells the whole story.
That may be just because I want to like Pelé. But watching him through a complete game, as I’ve done as often as I could over the last two weeks, reveals a player who is neither alienatingly mediated nor tediously flawless: After a while, you’re just watching a famous 25-year-old play soccer, which is not an unusual experience for a soccer fan. And what’s wonderful about this is not that you get to see Pelé humanize himself by missing shots or committing questionable tackles, although he sometimes does both those things, but precisely that you get to watch a player whose game is almost perfect; you get to watch him fulfill the argument of “Federer as Religious Experience.” He makes acts that are extremely difficult to perform look easy. In the process—and this is incredibly obvious, but given the general resistance to Pelé that I and others have felt, it’s worth asserting—he creates moments of fantastic delight for the spectator.
If you’re used to aestheticizing sports by thinking about “style”—i.e., a way of playing as a window onto an individual human character—then you may be inclined to look at the shallowness of Pelé’s public image and assume that he couldn’t have had a real style, not in the way Garrincha or Cruyff did, because what would it reveal? He’s a living Mastercard commercial. But Wallace’s essay suggests a form of aesthetic appreciation based on something different from and possibly deeper than character or self-expression: our innate sympathetic connection with other people’s bodies, and the thrill of seeing intention freely realized over and against all physical impediments. Put simply, Pelé, even more than Federer, maybe more than other athlete I’ve seen, traffics in Federer Moments.
There’s a case to be made, of course, that soccer is uniquely adapted for the creation of Federer Moments. Unlike tennis, which augments the player’s physical capabilities with a racket, soccer takes an essential physical tool—the hands—away from the player and forces him to compete in a state of artificial clumsiness. Soccer thus emphasizes the limits of the body and the difficulty of realizing intention. When a player does something amazing, we’re apt to see it not as a superhuman feat (he made the ball travel 150mph!), but as a human victory over what’s essentially an everyday difficulty. If the crisis of having a body is that it’s resistant to our will, soccer exaggerates the crisis, moves what you want to do even further away from what you can do, then gives us athletes who do what they want to anyway. That may be why moments of beauty in soccer, compared to those in other sports, nearly always feel like consolations.
There are moments in Pelé’s games when he dribbles straight into a crowd of three or four defenders. He seems to have done that often, though in the videos now it’s sometimes hard to say who he’s playing against or what year it is or even what the score is or how much time is on the clock. He’ll dribble into a crowd of three or four defenders, which is suicide for a footballer, even in Brazil in the 1960s; it’s almost impossible to keep the fine control you need to take a decent shot when all the defender needs to do is wallop the ball away from you. Pelé dribbles into a crowd of players who have put themselves between him and the goal and whose whole purpose is to get the ball away from him, to keep him from scoring, which again is infinitely easier than the task facing the attacking player, and often in these situations, instead of trying something dazzling or virtuosic, Pelé will just stop. He’ll come to a sudden halt, with his foot lightly resting on top of the ball, and a ripple of confusion and wrong-footedness will go through the crowd of defenders as it tries to react and not fall over. Pelé will do one of those dancing shivering whole-body fakes he excelled at, dropping his shoulder, say, as if he’s about to lunge to the left, but almost simultaneously hinting right with his hips, and rolling the ball just slightly in a teasing way under his toes. Half the defenders start to guess one way and the other half start to guess the other way, but they recover, they’re professionals paying attention, and then just at the precise moment when it looks like a stalemate Pelé knocks the ball through the semi-opening created by their split-second almost-guess and tears through after it, so that one of them falls over and one of them whips around in the wrong direction, and then he’s one-on-one with the goalkeeper and it’s easy to flip the ball up into the corner of the net, in that afterthought way that characterized a lot of Pelé’s strikes. He leaps up in the air to celebrate, that famous happy hop, and the surprising thing about the way he jumps is always how much he seems to belong on the ground; there’s something physically dense about him, something that looks like it wants to sink, so that you sometimes have the impression that the game is keeping him afloat the way the ocean keeps up a battleship. So he comes down, and you laugh, because you have just seen an intelligence perform the remarkable task of solving the complete problem represented by the presence and position of the defenders and the need to control the ball without the use of hands, and you have seen a body so perfectly balanced and controlled that it could act transparently as the agent of this solution even where the solution itself required timing, strength, speed, and awareness far surpassing what most athletes possess. You have seen a thousand different soccer players face this position, and Pelé probably faced it a thousand times, but even if you were reluctant going in, the effect of the Pelé Moment is that for as long as it lasts you are prepared to swear that no one who ever got into this situation got out of it quite like Pelé.
People who have religious experiences typically describe them as something ecstatic, transporting, and revelatory. I suppose there are smaller-scale “Counterpane”-type visitations in which one simply feels a mysterious presence nearby, but that’s not what Wallace is talking about. He describes the Federer Moment as “ecstatic”—ecstatic meaning literally out-of-body, being outside oneself—and it’s the mystic saints who tend to traffic in ecstasy, who are lifted up out of their corporeal shapes into a higher plane of existence where they experience a radiant consciousness of the connectedness of all things. What’s strange about this as a metaphor for watching Federer or for Pelé is that the feeling that generally seems to remain with the mystic saints once the mystic experience has ended is not one of peaceful acceptance of the body but a profoundly unsettled desire to exit the body again, one sign of which is that if the mystic saints are not actually prone to becoming suicidal, they nevertheless tend to become magnets for all kinds of physical torture, dismemberment, burning, impaling, crucifixion, whipping, and strangulation, and they tend to to accept all these things more or less willingly and with an eerie equanimity, not because their religious experiences have left them reconciled to their bodies but because their religious experiences have taught them that their bodies are prisons they want to escape.
Wallace interrupts his story about Federer at two points to write about a seven-year-old boy named William Caines, who served as the honorary coin-tosser at Wimbledon in 2006 after he “contracted liver cancer at age 2 and somehow survived after surgery and horrific chemo,” Wallace writes. The crowd, he says, roars its approval, but as William is ushered off a strange feeling comes over the spectators: “a feeling of something important, something both uncomfortable and not, about a child with cancer tossing this dream-final’s coin.” The feeling has a “tip-of-the-tongue quality” that “remains elusive for at least the first two sets.” Later in the essay, Wallace returns to the theme:
According to reliable sources, honorary coin-tosser William Caines’s backstory is that one day, when he was 2½, his mother found a lump in his tummy, and took him to the doctor, and the lump was diagnosed as a malignant liver tumor. At which point one cannot, of course, imagine…a tiny child undergoing chemo, serious chemo, his mother having to watch, carry him home, nurse him, then bring him back to that place for more chemo. How did she answer her child’s question — the big one, the obvious one? And who could answer hers? What could any priest or pastor say that wouldn’t be grotesque?
I’ve always wondered what Wallace meant by circling back around to talk about William in the middle of what is for the most part a genuinely happy-seeming celebration of Federer. The image of the cancer-stricken child seems to have no part, that is, in the enthusiasm that motivates the essay, and yet the edge of unease it introduces brings a powerful and not unreligious strain of skepticism into the pseudo-theology of Federer. Clearly no athlete and no delight in sport can answer the “big, obvious” question about what could possibly justify a tiny child suffering a devastating physical illness. If Federer is there to reconcile us to the fact of having bodies, Wallace hints, then the reconciliation he offers has limits and outside those limits is a large and unanswerable despair. I called the awareness of this despair “not unreligious” because while it may seem like a mere challenge to belief, a sort of renegade anti-Federer atheism, the feeling that seems to follow it into the essay seems to me to have more in common with the longing for bodily mortification that is often a weird corollary of profound religious experience. That is, if we begin with a sense that something is intolerably wrong, and the power of Federer or Pelé is to make us feel that that thing is actually right (or at least tolerable), then William introduces a larger sphere of consciousness in which we realize that the reconciliation was flawed and the thing is actually wrong and intolerable after all. But that second, larger wrongness, as I read it in Wallace’s essay, and this may be unfair, because again, William is only a tiny grain of doubt within what is generally a really positive piece of writing—that second, larger wrongness doesn’t stem from an apprehension that the reconciliation Federer offers is false, it stems from an apprehension that the reconciliation Federer offers is incomplete, that it doesn’t go far enough, it doesn’t stick. It only lasts a moment, and then you’re left not knowing when God will take you up again, which is an anxiety that actually bubbles up at times in the writings of the saints. And that seems to be a condition in which a heightened consciousness of mortality, one that may well express itself as a yearning toward suffering and breakdown, is hard to escape.
For that reason, while I think “Federer as Religious Experience” gives us a way to appreciate perfection in sports that is both right and beautiful, I also think it wraps itself in the wrong metaphor, one that makes it operate on a level too deep for its real content and that thus, inevitably, undermines it. “Religious experience” freights sport with a justificatory purpose that religion itself is not able to perform a lot of the time: Not only can Federer not answer big questions, he can’t answer any questions, and it’s a grim stacking of the deck to suggest that sport is therefore a hollow shell outside which lurks despair. In fairness, Wallace doesn’t exactly suggest this, but it’s the conclusion I reach every time I read his essay, including when it originally appeared.
I don’t know if these experiences are comparable, but watching Pelé over the last few weeks, what I have felt is a frequent, temporary delight that seems to be woven into and essentially a part of my everyday, untranscendent existence. A Pelé Moment might make me shout, or jump out of my chair, but more than anything they seem to make me laugh. There is, for instance, the famous lob over Bengt Gustavsson in the 1958 World Cup final, when, as a 17-year-old, he somehow controlled the ball with his chest to elude one defender in the area, flipped it way up into the air over the head of the second defender, wheeled around the onrushing Gustavsson, got to the ball just before it hit the ground, then volleyed it into the net. On YouTube, it’s amazing; watching it in the context of the full match, it a hundred times more amazing, because it comes from nowhere. You don’t know it’s about to happen. Then it happens, and it’s impossible even though it’s happening, but it’s happening even though it’s impossible. Everything that’s wrong—the difficulty of controlling the ball, the interposing defenders, the fact that he can’t use his hands—suddenly seems right, because it merely provides the occasion for the astonishing thing he improvises. You laugh, because it’s exhilarating, and you laugh because the consolation it offers is not a consummate, religious consolation, but an imperfect, fragile piece of momentary happiness. It’s a consolation that was made to make you laugh.
Pelé doesn’t strike me as a religious experience, then. He strikes me as a comedy, or better, as a comedian: not as a stand-up comic or a satirist, but as the opposite of a tragedian, the author of the kind of classical comedy that always ends with a wedding, the kind that revels in turning the order of things upside down so that it can give you the giddy satisfaction of seeing them turned right-side up again. This kind of comedy is in the business of reconciliation: The king turns out to be wise, the lovers love each other, and the villains reveal themselves to be failures, however things look for a while. When Titania is in the forest with Bottom, everything is wonderfully backwards: The queen of the ideal is enslaved to clumsiest physicality. Then Puck flies through, Pelé scores his goal, and all the faculties go back to their right places. It has no effect on the real world, or on whatever moves in the dark, and if the real world is a place of despair, then the most it can do is to keep despair at bay. It’s rigged, like all art, and it feels like a game because it is a game. But there are worse things than keeping despair at bay. The terrible thing about happiness is that it can’t answer any questions. But when it comes, you don’t need it to. And when it goes, well, what would you want it to say?
Actually, they weren’t against the act of embracing him so much as against the possibility of embracing him: The idea was that try as we might, we can’t possibly appreciate Pelé.
When “the jaw drops and eyes protrude and sounds are made that bring spouses in from other rooms to see if you’re O.K.,” as Wallace writes.
A popular way to criticize Pelé is to point out that he never played in Europe. I’m increasingly convinced that this is nonsense, for the simple reason that most of the great Brazilian players of his era never played in Europe: they played in Brazil, against Pelé. Santos didn’t prove how good it was only by winning those two Intercontinental Cups against Milan and Benfica, they proved it by dominating some very good Brazilian competition, limitations of the state championships aside. It’s as impossible to compare footballing cultures as it is to compare eras, but you could just as easily argue that George Best was overrated because he never had to face Brazilian competition at a time when Brazil was clearly the best soccer country in the world.
And yet William is apparently a tennis fan.
Do we need this kind of theoretical groundwork to appreciate perfection? I recently heard about a choreographer who, when he was young, didn’t use Mozart in his dances because he found the music too easy, too perfect, and therefore too boring. After years of making dances to other composers, he went back to Mozart and suddenly understood that this perfect ease was the least boring thing on earth.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a little like soccer, come to think of it.
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