Jul/Aug 2006 Nonfiction

Tragedy Lite: or How to Spin a Classical Lesson Into PC Farce

by Jim Gourley

Art by Victor Ehikhamenor

In the mid-seventies, when I was a student at a major university in the mid-south, I had a small second-floor flat not far from the home field of the university's baseball team. Although it was the national sport, college baseball there didn't draw much of a crowd. This was baseball in the wings, not the main stages and extended seasons of Florida and California. I have seen more bleacher seats in Greybull, Wyoming, larger gatherings for softball games at family picnics.

But the pack of fans the home team drew were a rabid brood, and as anyone familiar with baseball knows, the bites from those dogs can be sharp and vicious. As I passed the field one cool and cloudy afternoon, I was drawn closer by the cacophony of animal hoots. The bleachers behind the plate were full of student supporters who were on their feet, whipped into a froth. The entire pile of them was a very fraternity white. The home team was in the field, and the visitor at bat was a young, dark Hispanic man. The monkey howls and racial slurs that were thrown his way were at once both appalling and chillingly fascinating. I could imagine myself in his position turning to the ump, raising a hand to signal a brief time out, then stepping out of the box and around the edge of the cage into the frenzied zoo area, then racing into the stands and taking out as many as I could with my bat. But he didn't, and play continued as he stroked a single over the shortstop's head. Man on, which was the point. This guy knew it, the reason why he was there and the rest of us weren't. This was the ball game, and the purpose was to win it.

The aspect of the game that we tend to overlook is that the very same words are carried onto the field by some of those who play the game at the highest level. Though there are sinister and low-browed reasons for some of this behavior, the primary purpose is discombobulation, a loss of focus that will add to reduced performance on the part of the opponent, thereby giving your team an edge. We don't want to know that some of our dazzling heroes outrageously malign the good names of their opponents' wives, mothers, and sisters, call into question their maternity and paternity, both intra- and inter- species, hurl the basest racial and ethnic slurs as easily as they order up a pizza, extra cheese / no anchovies. The best of them let it roll, wave it off as they would a buzzing gnat. This is why they have risen. When one with the ability to rise chooses (yes, chooses) not to, this is the stuff of tragedy.

There is so much being made of the Marco Materazzi slur and the Zinedine Zidane reaction to it that even world leaders—despite Zizou's mother calling for the castration of the self-admitted boor Materazzi—are weighing in for reasons of very political correctness: "Poor Zizou! We love you anyway. How could that Italian (notice I didn't say 'dago') say such horrible things about your family? It's okay. Really. We would all want to head butt anyone who said anything about our mother." That some don't is what makes them better.

The fact is that whatever was said doesn't really matter. In the world of fierce competition—and the 2006 World Cup gave those of us on the sidelines an intimate glimpse into the subterfuge and ferocity that is required to win at that level—there are rules in place to protect the bodies of those who hurl themselves furiously at each other (apologies to James Wright). What's whispered or grunted on the field as bodies tangle is, for the most part, confined to the private world of the tanglers. And despite the commercial frenzy of the media dogs, the lip-reading pundits and slo-mo techs aren't able to put Humpty Dumpty back together either, as well they shouldn't.

As Zidane, head bowed in what I understood to be shame and an overwhelming sense of acute defeat—his loss of control and abandonment of team—walked past the Cup he would never get to hold, he was my tragic hero, the one who succumbed to anger and allowed his "common man" to blind him to his greater purpose, a purpose shared by a team and a nation, all of whom he had just dramatically let down. In a very real sense, he failed. And in a very real sense, we all know it. To stroke him to make him feel better is total farce. We should leave him alone and let him suffer. But instead, he and his anguish have become a commodity, and, I imagine, he'll make millions on the talk show circuit. And the winner, Materazzi the Boob, will spend his days thumbing through a borrowed dictionary looking up "terrorist" in the reflected light of the World Cup.

We need our tragedies and tragic heroes. We need to see them ingloriously fall, to remind us that we are not the gods, that perfection, despite our monumental efforts to achieve it, is not within our reach, despite what we may momentarily believe. We are of the earth, the same stuff of rocks and trees and waste of all shades and odors. That sometimes we fly for a few brief moments above it all is an amazement, and something that we should see as nearly divine.

So let him be sacrificed. Let him be scorned. Let him steal quietly into the Parisian night, so that later we can move ourselves to possibly forgive him when we point him out at the Café Tragedie: There's the blind man who slept with his mother beside the woman who murdered her children. Across the table is the guy who sacrificed his daughter to still the winds. And just to the right is the one who head-butted the Italian whatshisname when he lost control at the worst possible moment. And that vacuous, drooling kid in the corner with the nasty wax burns? Well, he tried to fly too close to the sun.


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