Until I was eighteen, sport played a large, even dominating, part in my life (music was my other passion). I was a scholar of movement. My PE teachers expected me to become a PE teacher myself, because I was clearly mainly interested in sport and also not too shabby with the book thing. They seemed nonplussed when I announced I was going to university to study psychology (where's the excitement there?). But my intellectual life took off around this time and the opportunities for sport were not as routinely available at university as they were at school. The result was that at university sport largely vanished from my life, to be replaced by books, late nights and sitting around all day drinking coffee. I did on a couple of occasions tag along with a friend who was involved in university gymnastics, but three things put me off: the skin peeling off my palms while practising on the high bar; being hit in the mouth and breaking a tooth while supporting someone else; and all the talk among the student gymnasts about broken backs. Studying the mind seemed much safer. I would still trot out my serial headsprings or my horizontal balance – mainly to impress the girls – but systematic sport disappeared from my life for about four years. It was nerd time for me. I suppose I needed to get my career together, as well as my love life, and it was the late 1960s and early 1970s, when sport was not much appreciated culturally; in any case, I let it go.
I never thought I'd leave Manhattan. I had lived there for fifteen years, quite happily, five of them with my house in Long Island, hub of my sporting activities. I'd reached the point where I had seven kayaks in Mastic, three long and four short, three windsurfers, two surf boards, a table tennis table, a mountain bike, two traction kites (of which more later), two skateboards (off-road and on), rollerblades, a discus, a javelin, a pole vaulting pole, a pair of air rifles, several tennis racquets, my original boogie board and assorted accessories. Oh yes, I also owned a nineteen foot power boat, a Monterey, originally intended for water skiing, as well as my Zodiac. In the summers, from May until September, I'd be there, contentedly working at philosophy in the mornings and doing sports in the afternoons (usually with some more work before dinner). I found this routine conducive to intellectual labour and wrote several books in Mastic Beach (The Making of a Philosopher, Mindsight, The Power of Movies, Shakespeare's Philosophy). It was a pretty agreeable life: no complaints (despite the mud and the mosquitoes). But then the summer would come to an end and I'd have to go back to the city and to teaching, with only the odd weekend to prolong my summer routine. Hardly a death sentence, to be sure, but it would be eight months before I could properly resume my athletic life. Those months could feel awfully long, and fiercely cold, and I’d find myself longing for the summer to begin. I did go on ski trips in the winter, but they only lasted a few days and anyway didn’t substitute for my aquatic enthusiasms.
Sport has been important in my life, but I never thought I would write a book about it. Sport and writing were separate spheres of activity, the one in contrast to the other. But when I was asked to contribute to The Art of Living series, sport was the topic that most took my fancy: now I could bring the two spheres together. This required a new kind of writing from me: more about bodies than minds.
The book takes the form of a memoir, from childhood to the present (in this it resembles my intellectual memoir The Making of a Philosopher). This struck me as the best way to present sport as it is experienced from the inside, as a participant. It also enables me to bring out the concrete aspects of particular sports, their structure and demands. I am not dealing with sport as a detached sociologist or “cultural theorist”, but as a philosophically minded practitioner. Accordingly, there is little here about the social and economic aspects of professional sports; my focus is on sport as part of the good life of an individual – as something anybody can engage in. I am interested in the value of sport as a human activity. And I am advocating it as an essential part of living well.
I have lived in America for the past twenty years, and much of my narrative relates to this phase of my life. However, I have also included my earlier British sporting years as well. The result is distinctly transatlantic, and I have been aware that my readers are likely to be from one place or the other, with different sporting cultures.
In previous chapters, I have approached sport by considering in some detail a variety of particular sports, using my own experience as a jumping-off point. I have done so in the conviction that the best way to understand sport is to immerse ourselves in the specifics of individual sports, letting more general points emerge naturally, rather than trying to work out from the abstract concept sport what sport is all about and why it matters. For one thing, the concept is vague and not susceptible to straightforward definition (it's a family resemblance concept). For another, what is interesting and distinctive about sport resides in the nature of the particular activities that are so classified. Indeed, I needn't have employed the general category Sport at all in this book; I could have simply discussed a series of activities – gymnastics, pole vaulting, tennis, windsurfing and so on. For a third thing, sport lends itself to narrative exposition, because there is an inherent drama to it; this is why sport enjoys the media saturation it does – it's a story of stories. Every game or match is a story in itself – it has a beginning, a middle, and an end – and the process of learning a sport has its own narrative arc (will there be success or failure?). Sport, play, stories: they all go together. Also, the sports a person engages in are part of the overall story of his or her life: how it starts, where it leads. This is certainly true of my life. Trying to discuss the meaning of sport by abstracting away from the details of specific sports strikes me as a fruitless procedure.
I started my running in Oxford, past those dreaming spires, damp and ancient. My usual route took me through University Parks, rain or shine, round the back of Magdalene College, where the deer gather, and back home again to Bardwell Road. I would do about thirty minutes at a decent clip, most days. I had my companions in locomotion, pounding around the park. I recall a short Asian fellow, probably a graduate student in one of the harder sciences, pushing himself ridiculously hard, always with a look of absolute agony on his contorted face, short thick legs pummelling the ground. We'd nod respectfully at each other. I wasn't prepared to go that far, but it wasn't a leisurely jog for me; I ran close to my limit (although my Asian friend might disagree). I always speeded up at the end to extract the remaining reserves of energy. I inhaled that Oxford air, moist and peaty, deep into my heaving lungs. Afterwards I hit the weights for twenty minutes in my bedroom. I was the Wilde Runner in Physical Philosophy, among other dedications. Physical exertion was back in my life and hasn't left it since.
I continued my running in Manhattan, past glowering towers, brash, modern, closely packed – first when I was a visiting professor there in 1988, and later when I moved there permanently. From 1990 I lived on the Upper West Side, quite near the Hudson River, just off Broadway, wide and teeming. My typical run began at 86th Street and went up to Columbia University at 112th Street, along Riverside Drive, the Hudson at my shoulder.
Two early experiences of sport are burned indelibly into my memory. In one, I am at school – infant school in Gillingham, Kent, circa 1955 – and I am pulling myself along a horizontal beam while suspended underneath it from my arms and legs. I was about five years old and this was the first time I had held my own weight like that. I felt the pull of gravity on my small body, about three feet above the ground; a fall, although not disastrous, would have been distinctly unfortunate. There was risk, but also the sense that I could control it. As I shinned along the beam in this inverted position, aiming for the opposite end, the teacher exclaimed to the other children, “Look at Colin, he's like a monkey!” I remember feeling flattered, but also slightly miffed: she was clearly impressed with my agility (and strength!), but the feat was also deemed not quite the proper thing to do. Did she think I was “showing off”? That would never do, showing off being a mortal sin in English society. To be thought to be showing off was mortifying, blush-inducing, and really not true … but then maybe a little, at least once I had been noticed. But primarily, it was gratifying to be compared thus to a monkey: have you seen how well they climb? Nobody joined me under the beam, however: lack of talent, I surmised.
All sports require three basic elements: a human body, a piece of equipment and a source of power. The part about the body is obvious, but the other two become evident on reflection. Tennis needs a racquet, high jump needs a bar, surfing needs a board, darts needs a board too, pool needs a cue, soccer needs goals, cricket needs wickets and so on. You might think running races are an exception, but even these need a finish line – as well as a suitable surface to run on. All sport is equipment-dependent, with some equipment being more complex than others. The mechanical power can have a number of sources, but something has to make something else move: it might be the arms and legs, or it might be a wave, or it might be the string of a bow, or it might be a swung bat, or it might be the wind. The body controls the power through the equipment (sport is a triadic relation, as we analytical philosophers like to say). Sailing is a sport in which power is supplied by the wind, and its equipment is a floating vessel affixed to a sail. Windsurfing is a type of sailing invented in the early 1960s that employs a very special type of equipment. In order to do it, you need intimate knowledge of the equipment and how it functions. The wind won’t let you get away with anything less. Windsurfing is equipment-intensive. It’s all about the gear.
It all started with a humble piece of Styrofoam, four feet by three – a great watershed, so to speak, in my life. That was the seed, the singularity. My son Bruno (now a fully grown doctor) was visiting me in the US – he was fifteen at the time – and we decided to take a road trip to Florida from New York, a good eighteen hour journey. He lived in Cornwall then and was a keen body-boarder, equipped with wetsuit, fins – the works. He suggested we rent a board, also called a “boogie board”, for amusement at the beach. We checked out Ron Jon's in Cocoa Beach, a huge surfing shop (I'd never been into one before), and found that the boogie boards were on sale, so I bought one with a dark green bottom and grey plastic top for about sixty bucks. It wasn't top of the line, but it was serviceable enough, and it was only going to see a couple of weeks of use. Little did I know what would grow from that initial germ!
I had always regarded the beach with some misgivings. I'd walk on it in Blackpool with the dog, but I had no great interest in lingering there. On summer holidays to Greece or Spain I'd dutifully acquire a bit of a tan, but found myself generally bored on the sand. I didn’t much like to read on the beach, because of the glare of the sun, and after an hour or so I was just too hot and bothered. I’d go in the water for a dip and a perfunctory swim, but that palled quickly too. I was constitutionally beach-averse; I didn’t even like the sand clinging between my toes.
Not everyone is perhaps familiar with the vernacular term “mindfuck”, although the constituent words themselves are suggestive of at least some of its sense as a composite expression. The term brings together a pair of incongruous elements – one mental, the other physical – to produce a kind of internal semantic dissonance (lexical friction, we might say). It feels oxymoronic, yet intelligible. Hearing the expression, we naturally form the idea of some sort of assault on the mind, an invasive operation performed on the psychological state of the person. The sexual meaning of “fuck” suggests something unusually intimate, and potentially violating, even violent, although a connotation of the pleasurable is not ruled out. But it is a type of fucking directed towards the mental part of a person, not the bodily part (not that regular fucking has no mental target). The online encyclopedia Wikipedia has defined it succinctly thus: “Mindfuck means either a thing that messes with the minds of those exposed to it or the act of doing so”. The HarperCollins American Slang has the following entry under “mind-fuck” (they retain the hyphen): “To manipulate someone to think and act as one wishes”, and it equates the word with “brainwash”. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) offers a greater variety of definitions. As a noun, the word is defined as “An imaginary act of sexual intercourse” and “A disturbing or revelatory experience, esp. one which is drug-induced or is caused by deliberate psychological manipulation.
What I have to say in this section will be much more controversial and speculative than what I have said so far. My aim is to determine whether the concept of mindfucking can shed light on a range of distinct subjects: does it provide a useful and illuminating way to conceptualize certain figures, movements and disciplines? Here I shall perforce be brief and dogmatic, because the range is large and inherently disputable. Still, it seems to me of interest to enquire how far the concept may be extended.
Frankfurt wonders whether there is more bullshit in the world now than in earlier times, and he links this question to the pervasiveness and power of the media. He suggests that people feel the need to pretend to a competence they do not really possess, and this leads them to bullshit often. There is simply more pressure to bullshit. That may well be so, but my question is different (although related): is there more mindfucking now than ever before? I think the answer is complex. On the one hand, the rise of the media, particularly the internet and television, enlarges the scope of potential mind fucking considerably: we just have more stuff coming at us, and it is less and less regulated by agreed standards of rational cogency. A collective mindfuck is easier to perpetrate if there are that many channels available to promote it (and simple repetition is a powerful force).
I have now assembled the conceptual components of the complex concept mindfuck. They comprise: trust, deception, emotion, manipulation, false belief and vulnerability. With these materials in hand, we can now consider some examples of the phenomenon, and attempt a rough taxonomy. To my mind, the classic example of the mindfuck occurs in Shakespeare's Othello, with Iago's deception and demolition of the “noble moor”. Iago has a reputation for directness and honesty, solid soldier that he is, although he is actually deceptive and devious, demonically so. He puts his sturdy reputation to effective use in persuading Othello that his new wife, Desdemona, is being unfaithful to him with his lieutenant Cassio, producing in Othello intense and violent jealousy, leading finally to the murder of Desdemona by her crazed husband. Iago's procedure is insinuation and reluctant admission, not so much direct lying (although there is some of that); he plays on Othello's vulnerabilities perfectly, timing his suggestions with exquisite psychological acuity. One of his chief tactics is to exploit Othello's sense of racial difference, suggesting that Desdemona cannot really love a black man, at least beyond an initial infatuation at his sheer novelty. He creates in Othello's susceptible and credulous mind a lurid fantasy of gross sexual licence on Desdemona's part, which is totally at odds with the facts. This results in the complete breakdown of Othello's hitherto robust personality, along with homicidal urges in relation to his wife.
In the previous section we became accustomed to the term and how it can be used; now we must analyse the phenomenon to which it refers more carefully. We want to know the nature of the mindfuck, what its constituent components are. I suggest it belongs to the same family of concepts as lying and bullshitting, which is not to say that they are identical, but that they resemble each other in signifi– cant respects. Our first task, then, is to locate the concept of mindfucking in relation to these other concepts: how is it similar and how is it different? (I shall here be considering the negative kind.) The chief respect in which they resemble each other is that they all involve deception in some way, or at the very least lack of transparency; they are not honest. The value that guides them is not truthfulness, or the desire to achieve truth. The lie is the easiest of the three to understand; its deception is the most straightforward. It deceives about two things: how the world objectively stands, and how things stand in the liar's own mind. If I tell you a lie to the effect that your spouse is unfaithful, I mislead you about two matters: the state of fidelity of your spouse, and what I believe about this matter. I lead you to believe that things are other than they really are in the world, and I lead you to believe that my own beliefs are other than they are.
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