For some time now, the literature of the sporting world has offered one of the most agreeable ways of experiencing revisions of public reality. Perhaps this is why it is hard to read Howard Cosell’s best-seller I Never Played the Game without a sense of deja vu. “In the beginning,” he writes, “I had romantic ideas about sports,” but 15 years as a television announcer had forced “vast changes in my thinking.” He wants to dispel those misconceptions, particularly since the young of the 60’s and 70’s, having grown up in a terrible time, now want truth, not fiction. As he put it in his earlier Like It Is, “the religious acceptance of the doctrine of purity which has previously enshrouded the world of sport” is simply too much for any thinking person. The time needs an “anti-hero like Mohammed Ali.”
It may not be clear to all Cosell readers why he calls Ali an antihero, since Ali in his salad days had so much in common with an old-fashioned epic hero like Beowulf, who managed to confound the odds-makers of his day by overcoming the reigning monster, Grendel, just as decisively as Ali overcame Sonny Liston. Ali was even a boaster in the tradition of ancient heroes—something never permitted the modern antihero, who has adopted desecrating obscenity in the place of boasting as a sign of antiheroic authenticity. Perhaps it was Ali’s lack of respect for the boxing establishment, that once tried to deny him his rightful honors, that makes him for Cosell the same scourge of middle-class hypocrisy that the late Lenny Bruce was for others.
But Ali is incidental to larger issues here. In his way, Cosell is writing postromantic literature and is himself the antihero of a book in which he is no more bothered by false modesty than Ali. As a trustworthy revisionist, he is in the tradition of the modernists and postmodernists, with connecting lines to Flaubert at one end and Thomas Pynchon at the other. In this tradition, the recurring conflict is between romantic and realistic (sometimes nihilistic) views of reality with the latter generally emerging triumphant, though on occasion with regrets, as in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.
Most discovery-of-illusion stories that are not personal records can be read as disguised autobiography. In an important sense, Fitzgerald is on the air mattress when Jay Gatsby is murdered, and Flaubert joins Emma Bovary in a communal meal of arsenic so that he can say with some truth afterwards, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” Such stories are also about survival under testing circumstances: The author, having put all in hazard, has passed through the veil of illusion, and perhaps gone through hell in the process, but like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner has come back to tell his story for the benefit of an audience of less-privileged mortals.
It was clear enough in the early realists that there is a romantic excitement in the discovery of the fraudulence of romantic or idealistic vision—especially when the discoverer runs the risk of establishment opposition, as Cosell lets us know he did. The discoverer even repeats the formula of all true romance: no living without loving and no loving without risking, except that for him loving is not a self-transcending and life-enhancing commitment to another person (who may turn out not to be worth the risk) but to truth. And here, too, Cosell returns us to familiar territory—territory occupied for some time now by the antihumanist poststructuralists who have been trying to teach us that the pursuit of the truth (even if the truth is pursued from the faith position of a dogmatic skepticism) can be less complicated and more exciting than the pursuit of the human person. This suggests that, mutatis mutandis, many sports lovers will prefer John Madden’s Hey, Wait a Minute! to Cosell’s new book for much the same reason that many lovers of literature still prefer Lionel Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination to Paul de Man’s Allegories of Reading.
There is something very boyish about the American’s disillusionment with the world of sports and games. The disillusionment is a painful end of innocence laced with nostalgia for a pastoral of childhood when games were played for their own sake, the way poets are supposed to make poems. “Children who play life,” Thoreau writes in Walden, “discern its true law and relations more clearly than men, who fail to live it worthily, but who think that they are wiser by experience, that is, by failure.” The true law and relations of life are never more scandalously violated than when athletes, whether amateurs or professionals, defect from their ascetic code for fame or power or money. The 1919 White Sox scandal still ranks in infamy with Teapot Dome, Watergate, and Ezra Pound’s broadcasts for Mussolini. In Hemingway’s “My Old Man” and Sherwood Anderson’s “I Want to Know Why”—both racetrack stories in which sensitive youths are traumatized by the moral defections of adult sportsmen—it is the failure of the adult world to support the innocent expectations of adolescence in all matters, not simply in sport, that is at issue. Similarly, in Ring Lardner’s “Champion” the boxer Midge Kelly stands for all the boorishness and hypocrisy in American culture.
Wasn’t Lardner right. Maxwell Geismar once asked, “in believing that a nation’s sports (like an individual’s humor) was the real key to its character”? On the evidence of his book, Cosell would have to agree. After all, he is a serious writer, concerned ultimately with issues that transcend sport, just as Thoreau is concerned with issues that transcend the flora and fauna of his Walden habitat. Every chapter of I Never Played the Game is headed with a quotation from a writer not generally the topic of lockerroom conversation: Byron, Scott, Shaw, Machiavelli, Emerson, Camus, Milton, Homer, Frost, Sam Johnson, Dana, and St. Paul. Whether the quotations are indications of the more literate heights from which Cosell has descended or have been contributed by editorial assistant Peter Bonventre, they have the effect of reinforcing the book’s concern with duplicity, incompetence, and greed. Cosell is, in fact, as much in the tradition of Puritan didacticism as Thoreau, who cannot eat a fried rat without making the event an occasion for a lay sermon.
One consequence is that Cosell, like Thoreau and the exposé journalists, must rank honesty and courage ahead of charity and prudence. The traditional ranking is the reverse of this, the reason being the hard-learned lesson that unless the priority of charity and prudence is honored, even institutionalized, honesty and courage can easily go to fanatic or destructive extremes. If it is honesty, not charity, that covers a multitude of sins, then the covering may only be a way of liberating the sins so effectively that they masquerade as virtues. If it is courage that is the master virtue, then society may have to find a way not only to live with but also to honor some of its most ruthless enemies.
The trouble is that charity and prudence are slow virtues, designed to keep human affairs moving at a manageable pace. Those imbued with them are inclined to presume, for instance, that if they can restrain their impulses to take immediate corrective action, then what appears to be contradictory in many personal, social, or political situations may turn out to be complementary, or what appears to be justice may turn out to be revenge. Such disciplined forbearance assumes a faith that manifest defects in the social or political order do not argue against its basic congeniality with human need. People like Thoreau and Rousseau, for whom society as currently organized is absurd or morally offensive, or who, like Cosell and Alceste in Moliere’s The Misanthrope, experience the contradictions and hypocrisies of society as an almost intolerable burden, either do not have that faith or have painfully lost it. The world being the way it is, they tend to live in an atmosphere of crisis in which charity and prudence are at best unaffordable luxuries and in which only the fast virtues of honesty and courage promise salvation. In their darker moments, it may even seem to them that hypocrisy and cowardice are the engines that make society go.
In our society it is quite proper to let others know that one has honesty and courage—especially if one has first passed the risky money test. The publication of this fact may even be a display of bravery: One is not afraid of being called a boaster. In a world made hypocritical and cowardly by money, one may even, like Thoreau, feel morally obligated to hold oneself up as a model. Thus Cosell, who had the honesty to “tell it Like It Is” about the NFL, needed the courage, as he tells us frankly, to give up “millions of dollars” and “suffer tremendous vilification in print” for his actions.
If society does not institutionalize its valuation of courage, it will not survive long enough to discover its capacity for charity or prudence. Society also depends at all times on the willingness of some to tell it Like It Is, whether they risk Socrates’ hemlock or the loss of a profitable connection with ABC. Therefore, society has no alternative to honoring the courageous truth-tellers. The problem at any given time is to distinguish those truth-tellers who put charity and prudence first from those who do not. The latter, especially in a message-crammed, pluralistic, and skeptical world such as ours, might be honestly concerned with improving the world and might even improve it, but they are also likely to be scandalmongers addicted to the pleasure of discovering and publicizing the falsity of established truth, or pointing to the rot behind the facade of gorgeous growth. They risk becoming captives of the romance of corruption in which the distinction, crucial to civilization, between responsible truth-telling and scandalmongering is blurred or obliterated. They may appear to pass the money test even as they enrich themselves with best-sellers.
The romance of corruption is demystifying, secularizing, and reductive, so that among possible interpretations of action only the lowest, the meanest, the most demeaning, the rottenest, or the ugliest is considered authentic. In this romance the good news is that the supply of the right kind of bad news, unlike the supply of oil, is beyond danger of depletion. The wide appeal of this romance has made the production and circulation of exposé literature a growth industry. Nor is the romance confined to the world of tabloid journalism; the exposé impulse is conspicuously at work in all levels of writing, particularly in biography, where the reader has learned to expect both the warts and the hairs on the warts.
It would be a mistake to oversimplify the appeal of this romance, as if it were an utterly perverse kind of muckraking. Exposé literature gives a double pleasure: the pleasure of a vision of life in the high places of power, prestige, or virtue enriched by the pleasure of a demystifying second version of that vision. The exposé literature purporting to tell the dirty truth about John F. Kennedy does not so much cancel out the legend of Camelot as feed on it. As Dan Jenkins, author of Semi-Tough, says of I Never Played the Game: “If you don’t like this book, you don’t like finding out the truth about sports and having fun learning it.”
This double attraction, in which the traditional order of virtue is reversed in favor of honesty and courage, if not simplified by omitting charity and prudence altogether, is an important feature in movies like Death Wish 3, Rambo: First Blood Part II, and To Live and Die in L.A. Such movies are exposé entertainment, the inside dope about the rotten establishment, in which a moralistic celebration of honesty and courage keeps impulses to charity and prudence from contaminating the self-indulgent and popcorn-nourished pleasure of sadistic violence. To the extent that they are ways not of contending with evil but of exploiting it for pleasure, they are insincere in their apparent commitment to good social order. Of course, any dramatization of honesty and courage, regardless of context, might have redeeming personal or social value, since it is always possible that particular viewers will transvalue the context. However, movies of this kind strenuously resist such transvaluing. They imply, as does so much exposé literature, a voguish and sentimental conviction that civilization, as it is constituted, is bound to deteriorate no matter how much virtue is expended in its defense—as if their makers had read and never recovered from Rousseau’s two discourses on the effects of the arts and sciences and the origins of inequality.
If honesty and courage are to be adequately defined as sufficient virtues, they need a dramatic context in which charity and prudence are defined as being hypocritically on the side of evil. This is the way it is in Rambo, and the effect is relief from the burden of distinguishing between revenge and justice, just as Christina Crawford’s Mommie Dearest and Kenneth Anger’s two Hollywood Babylon books give relief from the burden of distinguishing between scandalmongering and the kind of charitable and prudent truthtelling that does not simply replace one hyperbolic interpretation with another.
The problem, of course, is the human appetite for revenge and the human capacity to blur the distinction between revenge and justice in the interest of feeding that appetite. It is easy enough to conclude while watching Death Wish 3 that the audience is greatly enjoying the experience of revenge and that the movie is conniving with the audience by making it easy to identify the passion for revenge as a passion for justice. But this might be true for part of any audience watching Shakespeare’s Lear or the much-admired movie High Noon. In each, the dramatic pitch demands a parity between violent crime and violent punishment, so that each can serve as a blank check to be filled out by each viewer according to his need for vengeance. An important difference, however, is that Lear and High Noon, unlike Death Wish 3, offer significant resistance to any attempt to blur the distinction between justice and revenge and to detach honesty and courage from all considerations of charity and prudence—a detachment that characterized the public’s initial reaction to Bernhard Goetz’s heroics in the New York subway.
The priority of honesty and courage helps to articulate victimization in a world where the sense of victimization is as pervasive as the discontent with civilization from which it is inseparable. Articulated victimization is an important factor in the success of Cosell’s I Never Played the Game. Who cannot empathize with a “loyal employee” who for 30 years “had busted his ass for the network” only to be treated shabbily? Victimization, violently correctible by individuals or groups acting outside established but ineffective or corrupt regulations, is what Rambo: First Blood Part II, Death Wish 3, and To Live and Die in L.A. are about. It is also what the IRA and Shiite Hezbullahs are about, so that such movies can be said to explain terrorism by giving the experience of it from the terrorists’ point of view. This is an agreeably simplified philosophy in which justice and revenge are synonyms; it is ideal for all those who have too long busted their asses for unappreciative masters or who have been tricked into investing too much of themselves in enterprises that were probably fraudulent to begin with. Now undeceived, they are able to see themselves not as having been imprudent simpletons but as innocent victims whose radical honesty, having been cynically exploited, is now courageously identified in full view of the victimizers.
The disillusioning revisions of the exposé writer have much in common with the Indian purification ritual known as the “busk,” which Thoreau encountered in William Bartram’s late-18th-century account of his travels in the southeastern United States and about which he writes admiringly in Walden. This ritual, a cultural spring housecleaning, involved a gathering together of the worn out, the filthy, the useless, and the rotten in order to throw it away or burn it. Thoreau sees it as a sacrament; indeed, as R.W.B. Lewis notes in The American Adam, Walden itself can be read as a “metaphoric expansion of Bartram’s busk.”
It is hard to imagine a nonbusking society. Perhaps one could write a history of the human race in terms of the motives and composition of its purifying bonfires. Such a history might very appropriately begin with the busk of the Garden of Eden as depicted in Milton’s Paradise Lost and end with the ironically observed grand busk that is intended to be a fiery preliminary to the return to Paradise in Hawthorne’s “Earth’s Holocaust.” Somewhere in the darker chapters there would have to be accounts of Savonarola’s busking of scandalous books and artifacts in the late 15th-century Florence and the Goebbels-directed busking of books displeasing to the Nazis in 1933 Berlin. Along the way, of course, one would read of countless ritual burnings of witches, heretics, traitors, and other political, ethnic, or social undesirables—to say nothing of the busking of such master buskers as Savonarola and Hitler themselves.
Perhaps an appendix to this history could take note of a form of busking much favored by those disaffected souls who, driven nearly mad by the hypocrisy, pettiness, and all-around venality of bourgeois life, prefer a purification by excrement. In correspondence with Turgenev in the 1870’s, for instance, Flaubert writes that he is so overwhelmed by public stupidity that he is planning a book (Bouvard and Pecuchet) “in which I shall try to spit out my rancor” and hopes “not to die before having emptied a few more buckets of shit on the heads of my fellow men.” The excremental imagination (see it at work in the fiction of Norman Mailer) substitutes the flushing toilet for the cleansing fire. Its aim is less charitable renewal than adequate revenge. Its proper hero is Hercules, who, after he had diverted two rivers to flush 30 years of cattle droppings out of the Augean stables, killed King Augeas in revenge for refusing payment.
The ritual of the busk is about the paradoxical interdependence of destruction and recreation that has in the past two centuries led both wistful and frustrated Utopians to place so much value on iconoclasm, trashing, and desecration. The interdependence makes it hard to distinguish between savior and terrorist, justice and revenge, piety and obscenity. Obscenity, for instance, is valued as a way of telling it Like It Is in the interest of a temporary or lasting liberation from the overawing pieties that threaten autonomy and authenticity, and is therefore traditional piety transvalued. In movies as in fiction now, it is the conventional lingua franca with which one honestly and courageously assaults the barriers of censorship that protect the institutionalized injustices and hypocrisies of society. It is a revenge for the crippling refinements of language and the impoverishment of fife that they entail. In Death Wish 3 and the Rambo films, it works in synergistic combination with the copious flow of blood to effect a violent and vengeful busking. The blood, like the obscenity, is the evidence that these movies refuse to flinch and must therefore be taken seriously. Its counterpart is the flow of semen in pornographic films, which are busking desecrations of overawing sexual pieties.
It may be that such movies express the culture’s inability to distinguish between positive and negative buskings, even its inclination to perceive the effort at making this distinction a sign of cultural rot, but in their own way they pay homage to the human need for regeneration through self-transcendence, if only in the form of an avenging discovery of our common victimization. The demonstration that there is enough honesty and courage around to make such an experience possible is itself a comfort: At the very least it promises more of the same.
This promise is common in the literature about Hollywood that tells it honestly and courageously Like It Is. Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon II, published about the same time as Cosell’s book, is a good example. Anger is as entertainingly undeceived about the likes of Tallulah Bankhead, James Dean, Grace Kelly, Joan Crawford, John Belushi, and Busby Berkeley as Cosell is about Reggie Jackson, Herschel Walker, Carol Rosenbloom, Sonny Liston, Casey Stengel, and Pete Rozelle. Since his book is a romance of corruption, it is no more likely to discourage moviegoing and star worship than I Never Played the Game is likely to discourage fans from watching Monday night football. For all its moralism, it can be read as catering to the public’s need to admire an elite of privileged souls, whether movie stars or rock stars, that is courageous and honest enough not to accept restraints on its appetites.
One might say that Cosell’s and Anger’s books tell us less about the way the world is than the way it can appear in a currently favored perspective that promotes negative busking. Nevertheless, in the books of each there is the imprint of another more traditional, even conservative, perspective: The disillusionment is measured against an implied ideal state of affairs, as it must be if the disillusionment is to have both nostalgic enrichment and critical bite. For Anger it is what Hollywood would be if its most favorable vision of itself were taken straight: a place where beautiful people live beautiful lives in circumstances where there is no distinction between ethics and aesthetics. Since such a bedazzling place exists only in our duped imaginations, it deserves a vengeful and liberating trashing. For Cosell it is a golden time when games were played purely for fun and were un-self-conscious displays of manly virtue for civilized and admiring spectators—a time analogous with what Rousseau imagined nascent civilization to have been before things began to go downhill. Burt L. Standish’s Frank Merriwell played grandly for Fardale Prep and Yale in such a time. Once for Yale, in a spirit of utter self-transcendence, Merriwell hit a game-winning home run that would have made Reggie Jackson’s famous tape-measure blast in the 1971 All-Star Game look like a Texas Leaguer. But that was long ago, before the rot set in.
For Cosell, as for many others, the rot becomes apparent to the degree that the once civilized and admiring spectators become possessed by the “‘fan’ kind of thinking.” This kind of thinking, in Cosell, is a fanaticism that “results from the disproportionate emphasis placed upon sports in America” and is connected with our proneness to assassination attempts. The subject, he concedes, “is deeply psychological and complex”—hardly to be explained, as he says later in Like It Is, by too much beer-drinking in the stands. Jeffrey Richards has much to say about the complexity of this subject in “The Hooligan Culture” [Encounter, November 1985), an analysis of the barbarous and often lethal conduct of British soccer fans. Richards put Cosell’s “fan kind of thinking” in a broad cultural context, seeing it as a breakdown of value systems that put a premium on good manners and self-discipline. But the value systems to which Richards refers (and their counterparts in American culture to which he might have referred) encourage good manners and self-discipline because they assume a structuring order of virtue that inspires faith in the “slow” virtues of charity and prudence and at the same time makes it hard to reduce good manners to hypocrisy and self-discipline to a craven fear of one’s creaturely self This is a hard faith, constantly put to the test in the recurring crisis of the human condition, in which honesty and courage become the virtues of desperation.
The fan kind of thinking always goes with the bonus of an easy self-transcendence in circumstances where to face up to the complexity of motivation and multiplicity of options is to risk boredom, frustration, or anomie. It is therefore a morale-raising response to the demoralizing reductions of exposé revisionism, just as Harlequin and Candlelight romances are morale-raising responses to a demoralizing skepticism about the possibility of self-transcendence through passionate love. One of the ironies of imprudent and uncharitable truth-telling, therefore, is the ease with which, by virtue of its own impassioned and often vengeful simplifications, it can create a faith-vacuum into which rush even more passionate simplifications. The demystifier, having failed to take into account the human uneasiness with disillusioning reductions, becomes an accomplice to remystification—which seems to have been the fate of Albert Goldman, despite his efforts in Elvis to deflate the legend of Elvis Presley.
But if the fan kind of thinking is a form of mystification, it is at the same time perfectionist in its implied commitment to a state of affairs so manifestly and securely just that it would no longer need the support of fanatic effort. Whether we see it acted out in the sports arena or in the violent buskings of IRA bombers and Shiite terrorists, it anticipates as its justification a world so utopianly structured by the old order of virtue that both heroes and antiheroes could be decently retired. Indeed, those who put the fast virtues of desperation first must often enough, in the interests of their own morale, find a way to defer to the priority of charity. Thus Rambo, speaking for himself as well as his duped and victimized comrades in arms, wants “our country to love us as we love it.” So his M-15 survival knife (replicas of which are available commercially for $4.00) is just as much a charitable instrument as a Jacobin guillotine, a Shiite jihad, or a Soviet gulag.
Apparently it is not always easy to deny our charitable impulses, no matter how the virtues are reordered. Perhaps even Flaubert should be given a charitable benefit of the doubt. Suppose that somewhere deep in his cantankerous and bored soul there flickered a hope that the buckets of shit he longed to empty on the heads of the hated bourgeois would in the long run turn out to be fertilizer for a vigorous and utterly inoffensive new life. Nevertheless, prudence (which must always stay close to charity to protect it from dangerous transvaluations) suggests that he was the kind of rot-detector for whom such an eventuality would have been the worst kind of good news.