I came to the Brooklyn Library, today, intending to celebrate Roland Barthes’s birthday by finding whatever they had of his books and paging through them, allowing my eyes to land on sentences, randomly, since Barthes is one of few writers whose writing allows for such aleatory exercises. I searched through different stacks on different floors—his works traverse genre, and so books could be found in literary theory, literature, history, art, music, photography, etc. Well, at least that’s what the catalog told me. The Rustle of Language, a book I’d begun reading a few months ago, wasn’t where it was supposed to be. Another book I was in the middle of, A Lover’s Discourse, was missing. Empire of Signs, The Responsibility of Forms, and Criticism and Truth were all out or in storage. Fortunately, Mythologies (a book I’ve read a couple of times) and What Is Sport? were both on their respective shelves. I’m reading the latter now, beside a man who’s working at a library computer terminal. He’s talking to himself, laughing, creepily, at times, “fucking” the word he mutters most often. The noise coming out from the earbud-wearing person across from me sounds like birdsong, albeit shrill, mechanical, and cold, as if it were a sped-up recording twittering finches. (The man beside me just laughed as I wrote the previous sentence.) Despite this interruptive soundtrack, I’m reading What Is Sport?, which feels like a collection of outtakes excised from Mythologies, which itself has insightful extrapolations of wrestling and bicycle racing. The book is an erotics, a phenomenological poetics of sports, well, of five sports, namely, bullfighting, car and bicycle racing, hockey, and soccer.
You might sum up Barthes’s thesis as follows: Spectator sports are mirrored theaters, the reflections producing myths, of the hero; of courage, skill, and victory; of accident, violence, and death. Barthes writes: “[S]port is a great modern institution cast in the ancestral forms of spectacle” (59). Here are some more quotes from the book:
“What is style? Style makes a difficult action into a graceful gesture, introducing a rhythm into fatality. Style is to be courageous without disorder, to give necessity to the appearance of freedom” (9).
“[W]hat will function very fast must first be tested very slowly, for speed is never anything but the recompense of extreme deliberation…” (12).
“A wrecked machine generates something like the sadness caused by the death of an irreplaceable being even as life continues around him” (23).
“Man’s failure is yet more intense in the face of the triumph of ineffable things than in the face of heavy things” (51).
“Sport is the entire trajectory separating combat from a riot” (55).
“Why? Why love sport? First, it must be remembered that everything happening to the player also happens to the spectator. But whereas in the theater the spectator is only a voyeur, in sport he is a participant, an actor. And then, in sport, man does not confront man directly. There enters between them an intermediary, a stake, a machine, a puck, or a ball. And this thing is the very symbol of things: it is in order to possess it, to master it, that one is strong, adroit, courageous. To watch, here, is not only to live, to suffer, to hoe, to understand but also, and especially, to say so—by voice, by gesture, by facial expression; it is to call the whole world to witness: in a word, it is to communicate. Ultimately man knows certain forces, certain conflicts, joys and agonies: sport expresses them, liberates them, consumes them without ever letting anything be destroyed.
In sport, man experiences life’s fatal combat, but this combat is distanced by the spectacle, reduced to its forms, cleared of its effects, of its dangers, and of its shames: it loses its noxiousness, not its brilliance or its meaning” (59-61).
John Madera is the author of Nervosities (Anti-Oedipus Press, 2024). His other fiction is published in Conjunctions, Salt Hill, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His nonfiction is published in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other venues. Recipient of an M.F.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University, New York State Council on the Arts awardee John Madera lives in New York City, Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.