Reviews — From the December 2017 issue

Dead Ball Situation

A philosopher’s flat-footed meditations on the beautiful game

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A big subject, then, for a “little book” focused “on the delight, on the poetics of football.” It’s a laudable ambition and a welcome rebuke to the claim made in 2015 by the Belgian writer Jean-Philippe Toussaint that no one would like his book Football because “intellectuals . . . aren’t interested in football” while football lovers would “find it too intellectual.” Toussaint was right in one regard: his book was roundly panned because he’d misjudged what has become a well-served appetite for intelligent books on every aspect of the game. The French rapper MC Solaar expressed the current state of play far better than Toussaint with a rhyme that yoked together exponents of philosophy and goalkeeping in his song “Temps Mort”: “J’étais naïf comme Rousseau, pas le douanier, le philosophe / Mais toujours alerte comme Dino Zoff.

Understandably, Critchley finds Toussaint’s approach “disappointing,” but his preferred approach — to “use the method of what philosophers call phenomenology” to ask why football is “beautiful and in what does its beauty consist?” — disappoints in its own way. Replay the quote about his method again in slo-mo and note the tonal gap that is assumed between the author (who knows what phenomenology is) and the reader (who does not have access to this area of esoteric knowledge). I also wonder whether, as was often said of Manchester United’s former manager Alex Ferguson, there might not be some mind games going on when Critchley keeps referring to his “little book” (three times in four pages). There’s nothing wrong with “little.” Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams is an epic in miniature and Nietzsche’s approach to philosophical problems — in and out quickly, as if from a cold bath — is exemplary as long as one is capable of conjuring lightning flashes of insight. But doesn’t referring to his book as “little” suggest that Critchley might have other, heftier volumes in what the disgraced former manager Ron Atkinson inexplicably used to call the onion basket? “Little” makes us think that he might have more magnum lurking in his opus when actually he only does little. In 2014, he published The Memory Theatre, a “novel” of seventy-two pages. And in spite of his variety of subject matter, he tends to do versions of the same little book.

It’s not just that he hasn’t developed as a writer. He’s still not fully a writer, has not made the transition from lecture hall or seminar room to the swarming solitude of the desk. His books read like slightly extended research papers. An obvious symptom of this is that he is constantly telling us what he will do in these books. In Things Merely Are (2005), the book on Stevens, he helpfully explains what to expect: “It will be my general claim.” Twelve years on we know what to expect — that he will still be explaining what to expect: “In this little book, I will use . . . ” The habitual conflation of writing (a book) with delivering (a paper) is manifest most obviously in the trope of the redundant plea. To deploy another Atkinsonism, he sets out his stall in the very first line of his little book On Bowie (2016): “Let me begin with a rather embarrassing confession.” In the new book, a fondness for a way of proceeding that serves mainly as an impediment to progress shows signs of turning into full-blown addiction: “Let me confess something,” “Let me try and explain,” “So, let me try and make some gestures,” “Let me pause here and say something a little weird,” “Let me risk a further speculation here,” “Let me give a couple of examples,” “Let me summarize,” “Let me fill out this line of thought,” and (my favorite) “Let me risk another analogy with Heidegger.”

You feel like responding: it’s your book, dude, you can do what you want — just stop doing that. But there’s no stopping him, of course. Why quit when he can invite us to join the party? “Let’s turn more closely.” A variant of this rhetorical shift from singular to plural is particularly telling: “Let’s just say that it’s complicated,” “Let’s just say that it is far from clear,” “Let’s just say that the atmosphere was tense.” Let’s just say that what good writing demands is more than just saying. Almost inevitably the redundant request for permission is balanced by the equally redundant imperative: “I must say,” “I must admit,” “I can’t resist,” “I must confess.” Just saying, as they say. For lecturers, asking permission to do or say something is an acceptable way of enlisting attention or participation; it helps keep the audience focused or, at the very least, awake. In books it takes the reader away from the page and back to the lecture hall.

And it doesn’t stop there. More accurately, it doesn’t even start there. Having asked our permission — “Let me try and make some gestures in the direction of a poetics of football” — Critchley treats us to a little more warm-up: “I’d like to begin by thinking about.” After the warm-up comes some further limbering up: “In order to do this, I will lean heavily on.” Those examples are from within five lines of one another, but variants abound throughout the book: “There are two features to which I’d like to draw attention,” “I’d like to extend this poetics,” “I would like now to talk about,” “I’d like to think about the experience of time in relation to football.” Reiterated expectation inevitably generates reflexive retrospection: “As I said, there will always be defeats” is followed three pages later by “As I said at the beginning of this book.” A section is devoted to the experience of being in the moment, but Critchley’s stylistic idea of being in the moment is to explain what he is and is not trying to do at any given moment: “I’m not saying that this is right, nor am I particularly proud of the fact, but just explaining what many of us do when it comes to football.”

At intervals he does seem conscious that something is awry, but acknowledging the “slightly ugly wording” of a formulation is a lot easier than fixing it. “I know this is going to sound odd to those who don’t follow football but self-evident to those who do, but I want to claim that there is a genuine intelligence at work in being a football fan.” Well, yes, now that you mention it, that sentence could be read as an oddly garbled guide to the dos, don’ts, and buts of clear style.

For the most part, Critchley seems unaware of his symptoms even while accidentally revealing the cause of the problems: “I have spent my entire academic career listening to people give papers, thousands of them.” So what do you expect? What he should have been doing is reading his own stuff more attentively. Were he to do this he’d also pick up on the idle scatter of superlatives whereby the diverse likes of Johan Cruyff, Gianni Brera, Brian Clough, Roberto Carlos, Mário Zagallo, Eric Cantona, Matt Busby, and Bobby Robson are all identified as “great.” Similarly, the “legendary” Bill Shankly (former Liverpool manager) is joined not only by “Liverpool legend” Kenny Dalglish but also by “the Brazilian legend Sócrates.”

Credit where it’s due: Critchley refrains from citing the Monty Python sketch in which two teams of philosophers, German and Greek — the latter featuring Socrates, naturally — take to the pitch. He also avoids quoting the old Camus line about how everything he learned about life he learned from playing football. These, sadly, are virtues of omission; by the time we learn of “a sadly predictable defensive error,” “sadly” has cropped up with some predictability. Marx “sadly” wasn’t thinking about football when he wrote of the free association of human beings, the fights between hooligans are “sadly legion,” theater has been “sadly ossifying,” and — “sadly” — Liverpool lost two consecutive finals of the Carling Cup.

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’s new book, The Street Philosophy of Garry Winogrand, will be published next spring by Texas University Press. His most recent review for Harper’s Magazine, “Tennis Lessons,” appeared in the September 2016 issue.

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