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A little-known gem, the text of Barthes’s What Is Sport? was never reprinted in the Seuil editions of his Complete Works—neither the three-volume version nor the later five-volume edition. It is published here in a graceful and faithful English translation by Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Howard. Originally commissioned by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation as the text for a documentary film directed by Hubert Aquin, What Is Sport? was written three years after the publication of Barthes’s Mythologies (1957) and bears considerable resemblance to that work. Some of Barthes’s best writing seems to have been inspired by popular culture.
Once again blurring the distinction between high and low, the great French literary theorist muses philosophically on the question: What is sport? In investigating the phenomenon of sport, Barthes considers five national sports: bullfighting (Spain), car racing (America), cycling (France), hockey (Canada), and soccer (England). For Barthes, sport is spectacle and serves the primary social function that theater once did in antiquity, collecting a city or nation within a shared experience. The real pleasure of this book, however, lies less in its generalities than in its fleeting, strangely haunting moments of insight. It makes an appropriate gift for any sport enthusiast as well as those interested in the writing of Roland Barthes.
French lit bigwig Barthes here offers more of a meditation on the nature of sport than an analysis of playing. He focuses on bullfighting, car racing, cycling, hockey, and soccer. Along with the author's philosophical musings, the book includes numerous monochrome photos.
DIRECTOR Hubert Aquin TEXT Roland Barthes NARRATOR Robert Gadouas MONTAGE Robert Russell MUSICAl Baculus MUSICAL MONTAGE Malca Gillson SOUND Kathleen Shannon MIXING Ron Alexander GENERAL DIRECTION Guy Glover
What need have these men to attack? Why are men disturbed by this spectacle? Why are they totally committed to it? Why this useless combat? What is sport?
Bullfighting is hardly a sport, yet it is perhaps the model and the limit of all sports: strict rules of combat, strength of the adversary, man's knowledge and courage; all our modern sports are in this spectacle from another age, heir of ancient religious sacrifices. But this theater is a false theater: real death occurs in it. The bull entering here will die; and it is because this death is inevitable that the bullfight is a tragedy. This tragedy will be performed in four acts, of which the epilogue is death.
First, passes of the cape: the torero must learn to know the bull-that is, to play with him: to provoke him, to avoid him, to entangle him deftly, in short to ensure his docility in fighting according to the rules.
Then the picadors: here they come, on horseback at the far end of the ring, riding along the barrier. Their function is to exhaust the bull, to block his charges in order to diminish his excess of violence over the torero.
Act Three. The banderillas.
A man alone, with no other weapon than a slender beribboned hook, will tease the bull: call out to him ... stab him lightly ... insouciantly slip away.
Here comes the final act. The bull is still the stronger, yet will certainly die.... The bullfight will tell men why man is best. First of all, because the man's courage is conscious: his courage is the consciousness of fear, freely accepted, freely overcome.
Man's second superiority is his knowledge. The bull does not know man; man knows the bull, anticipates his movements, their limits, and can lead his adversary to the site he has chosen, and if this site is dangerous, he knows it and has chosen it for this reason.
There is something else in the torero's style. What is style? Style makes a difficult action into a graceful gesture, introduces a rhythm into fatality. Style is to be courageous without disorder, to give necessity the appearance of freedom. Courage, knowledge, beauty, these are what man opposes to the strength of the animal, this is the human ordeal, of which the bull's death will be the prize.
Furthermore what the crowd honors in the victor, tossing him flowers and gifts, which he graciously returns, is not man's victory over the animal, for the bull is always defeated; it is man's victory over ignorance, fear, necessity. Man has made his victory a spectacle, so that it might become the victory of all those watching him and recognizing themselves in him.
And what do they recognize in the great car racer? The victor over a much subtler enemy: time. Here all of man's courage and knowledge will be focused on one thing: the machine. By the machine man will conquer, but perhaps by the machine he will die. So that here the relation between man and the machine is infinitely circumspect: what will function very fast must first be tested very slowly, for speed is never anything but the recompense of extreme deliberation; first of all, the gears must be verified, for a great deal will be asked of them: up to 2,500 changes of speed an hour; the site of the competition must also be carefully checked, the track first of all, its angles, its curves, its levels ...
Next, in order to try it out, to race alone, with no other enemy but time, and to confront in this effort both the machine and the terrain together, for it is all three at once that the racer must first of all conquer before triumphing over his human rivals.
Finally and above all it is the engine that must be prepared and where we find an embarrassment of riches, much like those found in an inspired brain: here twelve sparkplugs must be changed every five laps.
We are at Sebring in Florida; this is a twelve-hour race among different types of cars. Once the race starts, an implacable economy will govern each atom of movement, for time is henceforth everywhere.
On straight drives, it is the motor's effort that is most important, yet this effort remains human in its way: in it are deposited the labor, the inventiveness, and the care of dozens of men who have prepared, refined, and checked the most difficult of equations: an extreme power, a minimal resistance, whether of weight or of wind.
But on the turns, apart from the machine's suspension, it is the racer who does everything; for here, space is against time. Hence the racer must be able to cheat space, to decide whether he can spare it ... or if he will brutally cut it down; and he must have the courage to drive this wager to the brink of the impossible.
It is not only the racer who struggles against time, it is his whole team. At Sebring the track is a former airfield, on which tires are quickly worn down; some teams manage to change them in a minute and a half: to them too belongs a share of the final victory. In this combat against time, terrible as the consequences may sometimes be, there is no fury: only an immense courage focused on the inertia of things. Hence the death of a racer is infinitely sad: for it is not only a man who dies here, it is a particle of perfection which vanishes from this world. But it is precisely because such perfection is mortal that it is human. No sooner is everything lost in one place than other men will begin again in another.
Here is the start of one of the world's Grand Prix races: it is a crucial test, because the more powerful the machine, the heavier it is, and from this paradox the greatest speed must be derived: hence there is no starter on these cars: to suppress a few kilos is to gain a few seconds.
It is these preparations for starting that give the car race its meaning: that of a victory over weight and the inertia of things. At rest, these cars are heavy, passive, difficult to maneuver: as with a bird hampered by its wings, it is their potential power that weighs them down. Yet once lined up, approaching their function, which is combat, they already become lighter, grow impatient.... Once started, these machines will gradually transform their mass into agility, their weight into power; no sooner are they in their element, which is speed, than they will wrap the entire world in it, on the most varied tracks and circuits: at Nürburgring, the most dangerous; at Monaco, the most tortuous; from Monza, the most exhausting, to Spa, the fastest.
To stop is virtually to die. If the machine fails, its master must be informed of the fact with a certain discretion. For a great racer does not conquer his machine, he tames it; he is not only the winner, he is also the one who destroys nothing. A wrecked machine generates something like the sadness caused by the death of an irreplaceable being, even as life continues around him.
This is the meaning of a great automobile race: that the swiftest force is only a sum of various kinds of patience, of measurements, of subtleties, of infinitely precise and infinitely demanding actions.
What this man has done is to drive himself and his machine to the limit of what is possible. He has won his victory not over his rivals, but on the contrary with them, over the obstinate heaviness of things: the most murderous of sports is also the most generous.
Each year, in July, there occurs in France a spectacle that captivates the entire nation: the bicycle Tour de France. Glamorous stars ... a dozen teams, regional or national ... a month of racing, some twenty stages. A formal start like a military revue or the arrival of a head of state.
Delicious rides followed by great combats, that free rhythm of serious efforts and amused idleness, so characteristic of the French; drama, humor, emotion: such is the prodigious spectacle beginning this summer morning when the great army of racers and onlookers slowly gains momentum.
By its extension, the Tour is incorporated into the depths of France; in it each Frenchman discovers his own houses and monuments, his provincial present and his ancient past. It has been said the Frenchman is not much of a geographer: his geography is not that of books, it is that of the Tour; each year, by means of the Tour, he knows the length of his coasts and the height of his mountains. Each year he recomposes the material unity of his country, each year he tallies his frontiers and his products.
Such is the theater of combat: all France. It is in the setting of a great war that a whole army of followers will play the part of the general staff and the commissariat. This army has its generals who stand, eyes fixed on the horizon. It has its light cavalry, entrusted with liaisons, it has its thinkers and its mathematicians ... it has its gymnasts ... its historians ... and its press correspondents.
It also, and especially, has its commissariat, its heavy convoys loaded with supplies, machines, or food. For always, without stopping, men must eat and drink.
As in old wartime images, someone hands the marching combatant something to drink.... And even if the racers cannot drink wine, wine must be present in the Tour, for the Tour is all France. This great month long war consists of successive campaigns. Each day has its battle, each night its victor: water, flowers, kisses ... all this before the day's winner dons the yellow ritual insignia of his victory. War has its peaceful moments, the Tour its happy ones: as in the earliest combats, at evening weapons are suspended, once more everything becomes peaceable: this is the warrior's rest, these are the warrior's ministrations.
There is the dance on the public square ... the crowd strolling and diverted by the sight of the enormous publicity cortège that follows the Tour.
There is the narrative of the day's epic, which the Tour broadcasts across all France, for the Tour has its writers ... its inspired poets. Elsewhere there is the combatants' fraternal meal, the winner's commentary, the silence of those who are defeated. Finally there is the preparation of tomorrow's weapons. For tomorrow, at sunrise, everything must begin again.
Because the Tour is not only a splendid story, it is also a serious struggle. A struggle against what? Against men and teams, of course. But as almost always in sports, this combat is a competition, it is not a conflict. Which means that man must conquer not man but the resistance of things.
And this combat is so much everyone's business that in the Tour, men's mutual assistance overflows the barriers of the spectacle, and of the combat: not only does the crowd actively participate in the racers' effort, it assists them, feeds them, races with them ...
But the rivals themselves unite when one of them seems likely to give up the race. For that is the stake of the Tour: to hold out. To hold out against anger, against suffering. To hold out, which means to begin again. The racer's real enemy is time. Time is usually other men's time. But sometimes, in certain cruel stages, it is pure time, watch time.
The racer sets out, alone; he will ride as fast as possible every second, as if there were nothing in the world but time and himself. He never feels his victory. It is his watch that abstractly tells him of it, and it is because, in this sport, resistance proceeds from things and not from men, that men can so easily help each other, even when they fight each other.... To help each other-sometimes to slow down and wait for each other-and occasionally even to give each other a push. For the stake of the combat is not to know who will defeat the other, who will destroy the other, but who will best subjugate that third common enemy: nature. Heat, cold, it is these excesses, and worse still their opposites, which the racer must confront with an even, inflexible movement; it is Earth's resistance he must add to the resistance of objects ...
The severest ordeal that nature imposes on the racer is the mountain. The mountain: weight. Now to conquer the slopes and the weight of things is to allow that man can possess the entire physical universe. But this conquest is so arduous that a moral man must commit himself to it altogether; that is why-and the whole country knows this-the mountain stages are the key to the Tour: not only because they determine the winner, but because they openly manifest the nature of the stake, the meaning of the combat, the virtues of the combatant.
The end of a mountain stage is therefore a condensation of the entire human adventure:
There are the winners.... There are the unlucky ones.... There is despair. There is self-control.
Muscle does not make the sport: that is the evidence of the Tour de France. Muscle, however precious, is never anything more than raw material. It is not muscle that wins. What wins is a certain idea of man and of the world, of man in the world. This idea is that man is fully defined by his action, and man's action is not to dominate other men, it is to dominate things.
Of all sports-loving countries, Canada is one of the most often frozen, yet of all "pedestrian" sports ice hockey is the fastest: sport is this specific power to transform each thing into its opposite. And it is in this renewed miracle that a whole country participates, by its crowds, its press, radio, television: behind the scenes, before the combat, however fierce, there is the physical relation of a country and its inhabitants.
What is a national sport? It is a sport that rises out of the substance of a nation, out of its soil and climate. To play hockey is constantly to repeat that men have transformed motionless winter, the hard earth, and suspended life, and that precisely out of all this they have made a swift, vigorous, passionate sport.
The children seem to be fighting, but they are merely learning to inhabit their country, and what the mothers' eyes follow in their progeny's first adult gestures is not so much the outcome of a battle as the development of an initiation. This first law of the climate is entirely contained by the gesture that prepares the space of the combat: a little frozen water, and hockey is possible.
All that remains is to make this space into the object of a rule: of a strategy, of an idea. In this rapid sport, thought can be only a reflex, and this reflex learned like any other. All foreseeable maneuvers become the object of a lesson: to seize the puck in flight and then to conduct it through a thousand obstacles; in this fashion one learns to score a goal ... and even to stop.
Here is everything that will occur in the game that now begins. One rule dominates the game: that no player penetrate the opposing side ahead of the puck; whence the irresistible, liberating aspect of these great collective deployments. It is as if the men were sucked up less by the opposing goal than by the malicious object that leads them to it. The spectators' choral manifestations punctuate the duration of the match. By its massive exclamations the crowd comments on the spectacle. Every moral value can be invested in the sport: endurance, self-possession, temerity, courage. The great players are heroes, not stars.
A goal scored is, as in all sports, a great victory, but in hockey the game is so fast, the puck so tiny, that a failed goal is not only a defeat, it is virtually a wound, intense as a pistol shot: for man's failure is yet more intense in the face of the triumph of ineffable things than in the face of heavy things.
The goal is empty. Why?
Because hockey is a game of offensives, in which the pleasure of attack justifies every risk. Occasionally one team's leader decides to pull the goalie in order to be entitled to increase his attack group by one combatant and thereby to bring the war without intermission into enemy lines.
Excerpted from WHAT IS SPORT? by roland barthes Excerpted by permission.
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