David Foster Wallace‘s essay “Federer as religious experience” is several years old now. I did plan to read it a couple of years ago when I first came across it but, somehow, I didn’t. However, this week, Lisa at ANZLitLovers reviewed a David Foster Wallace essay collection which includes this essay*. She decided not to read it because tennis “is just running around on a court hitting a ball with a racquet”. I suggested in my comments that there’s some congruence, affinity perhaps, between sports and the arts in that sport is (can be) about drama, beauty and character. She dared me to review the essay on my blog, so here I am! Never let it be said I’m a wuss!
Unlike Lisa, I have read David Foster Wallace. Hmm, I’m cheating a little when I say this – something Roger Federer, the god of modern tennis, would be above I’m sure – because I’ve only read one short story, “All that”, which I reviewed two years ago. A couple of commenters on that post suggested that Wallace’s essays and magazine articles are a good place to start. I enjoy essays, so liked the sound of that.
Wallace does not specifically discuss the “drama” and “character” aspects of tennis, although drama is implied at times such as in his description of the 2006 Nadal-Federer Wimbledon final as a “revenge-narrative” and he does touch on some players’ personalities. However, I was thrilled to find the following discussion of “beauty” on page 2 of my printed out version:
Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. The relation is roughly that of courage to war.
Of course, in men’s sports no one ever talks about beauty or grace of the body. Men may profess their “love” of sports, but that love must always be cast and enacted in the symbology of war: elimination vs. advance, hierarchy of rank and standing, obsessive statistics, technical analysis, tribal and/or nationalist fervor, uniforms, mass noise, chest-thumping, face-painting, etc. For reasons that are not well understood, war’s codes are safer for most of us than love’s…
Beauty is not, really, the goal of literature either, but those of us who love reading love it best when the writing is “beautiful”. That beauty can take many forms, but we all know it when we see it – not, of course, that we all agree, but that’s partly the fun and challenge of it all. I’d say that Wallace’s writing in this essay is beautiful. It’s there in the way his language slides between the formal, the journalistic and the colloquial; in the way he slips in appropriate classical, literary and pop culture allusions expecting us to get them all even though he’s writing about something as pedestrian (!) as sport. It’s there in the touches of satire, the slices of tongue-in-cheek wit, and the sly digs at some of the hallowed aspects of the sport. (“Wimbledon is strange”, he writes. “Verily it is the game’s Mecca, the cathedral of tennis; but it would be easier to sustain the appropriate level of on-site veneration if the tournament weren’t so intent on reminding you over and over that it’s the cathedral of tennis”.) And it’s also there in the essay’s very structure and its shifts in tone. Despite all this beauty, though, I did get a little lost in the blow-by-blow description of an actual point played between Roger Federer and the hunky Rafael Nadal. Wallace is clearly a connoisseur of tennis.
To my mind, the best essays are deeply personal (that doesn’t necessarily mean autobiographical) and deeply engaged with issues and ideas. And the best essays show that the name of the genre is also a verb, so they demonstrate a mind in process–reflecting, trying-out, essaying.
Wallace’s essay embodies all of these. Wallace clearly loves the sport and knows his stuff. Not only can he identify all the tennis strokes, from cross-court backhands to forehands with topspins, but he knows the history of the game and has his own views on who was the progenitor of the power-baseline game. I particularly enjoyed his analysis of the game’s trajectory in the modern era and his assessment of Federer’s impact on it. There is also a sense, as Atwan likes, of his working out as he goes along what makes Federer Federer.
I would, though, add to Atwan’s definition, that the best essays have to be interesting (durr) and, I think, they need to surprise the reader with some new angles or fresh ways of seeing. Wallace does this too. He doesn’t knock Federer-worship – in fact he’s a worshipper himself – but he explores Federer from what he calls metaphysical and technical points of view. And he entertains us while doing so. That to me is a good essay.
David Foster Wallace
“Federer as religious experience”
Published in August 20, 2006
Available: Online nytimes.com
* The essay is apparently retitled “Federer Both Flesh and Not” in this collection.