August 5th, 2012

Jessica Ennis crosses the line to win the final 800m race of the heptathlon, and the Olympic gold.

Photo source: AP

The transformation of her pretty-girl-next-door face at her Pindarian moment of triumph reminds you of something else, doesn’t it? Gian Lorenzo Bernini  got there first, in his audacious Ecstasy of St. Teresa in Rome:

Simon Schama has this right. It’s not a reductive, secular depiction of a beautiful woman in orgasm, as Lacan and other cynics would have it, rather an exploitation of a common experience as a way to get inside (ahem) a strange one:

What did rapture, after all, look like? What if he [Bernini] carved this woman, who herself had dared to describe her experience so graphically, as if at the height of her sexual pleasure, utterly abandoned to a flood of sensation, straining towards her spiritual consummation, body and soul indivisible? Who would dare challenge him? He would take his own, ample carnal knowledge and turn it into a sacred shock. ….. Some of us stubborn heathens may have a hard time kneeling when we see Theresa caught in her spasm of rapture. But we stare and stare none the less – as we stare at no other sculpture ever made. Perhaps the force of the spell comes from the realisation that Bernini has used the power of art to achieve the most difficult thing in the world: the visualisation of bliss.

It’s obvious that Ennis’ ecstasy is not sexual. The different forms of bliss no doubt use the same neurological pathways, but are distinct experiences. Very few of us will experience, and even fewer have ever seen, the mystical variety; and witnessing the sexual one is a private joy, unless you are Bernini. Sporting triumph is inherently public, and it’s a communal delight.

Are my speculations impertinent? I don’t think so. None of our loyal commenters rose to my challenge to make an ethical justification of modern élite sport. If you just look at the competitors, the many shattered losers against the one victor, it’s very hard to make the balance come out positive. You can perhaps make it work if you include us, the spectators: our vicarious pleasure reflected off Jessica Ennis’ gold medal. We may also feel a lesser sympathy for the gallant losers, at least if they are compatriots, and that also counts as good. But essentially it’s all about the gold; we cherish it with a greed as bad as Smaug’s.

I’m still uneasy though. The triumph of the victor depends absolutely on the frustrated effort, defeat, and tears of the losers: look again at the expression of bronze medallist Tatyana Chernova in the Ennis photo. Bullfighting requires the death of the bull. We recoil from Aquinas’ repellent claim (Summa Theologica, Of the Relations of the Saints towards the Damned:

In order that the happiness of the saints may be more delightful to them and that they may render more copious thanks to God for it, they are allowed to see perfectly the sufferings of the damned….the saints will rejoice in the punishment of the wicked, by considering therein the order of Divine justice and their own deliverance, which will fill them with joy.

Whoa, we really don’t want to go there, or into the Colosseum to watch the gladiators and the lions. But don’t let’s think our pleasure in modern sport is entirely innocent.

More of the 8th Pythian ode from Wikipedia (for the victors in the Pythian Games):

Creatures for a day! What is a man?
What is he not? A dream of a shadow
Is our mortal being. But when there comes to men
A gleam of splendour given of heaven,
Then rests on them a light of glory
And blessed are their days.

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5 Responses to “Io triumphe”

  1. Byomtov says:

    Bernini is astonishing. The opportunity to look at his work alone is ample justification for a trip to Rome.

  2. etv13 says:

    I think to say there are “many shattered losers” is just wrong, at least if you assume that “shattered losers” are the majority of non-gold-medalists. That young British diver who made it to the semi-finals, but not the finals — was she shattered? Carmelita Jeter, who was thrilled to have medaled in the 100 meter dash, even though another woman won the gold — shattered? I’d say both of them, and many, many others, were delighted to be there, and don’t think of themselves as “losers” even if they didn’t win gold medals, or any medal at all. And looking beyond the Olympics, all those professional athletes who didn’t win the Superbowl, or the World Series, or the World Cup — they’re not “shattered losers” either.

    • The British oarsmen in the pairs who came second had to he belped out of the boat and wept to the intrusive TV camera, apologising to everybody for “letting them down”. Sure, there are some surprised and delighted bronze medallists; but I think more who thought they had a serious shot at the gold, and second or third place is a meagre consolation.
      The problem is, I agree, alleviated by professionalism: a domestique in a cycling team in the Tour de France usually retires with a decent string of stage wins and victories in lesser events in his CV. Also, of course, the burden of training varies by sport. Playing golf every day is quite agreeable. Not so swimming mile after mile in a pool.

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