I used to play a lot of football, or ‘soccer’ as the Americans call it (‘soccer’, I am told, is the shortened version of ‘Association Football’). I was not bad at it but neither good enough nor big enough to play at a high level. I was just a relatively skilful pub team player.
There was a real thrill in doing something physical well, and scoring goals was the best feeling of all. Then I felt like Gary Lineker in the photo below:
Incidentally, this looks to me like a real goal celebration, something a member of any tribe in the world and throughout history could understand. However, the more recent choreographed football celebrations look contrived and arrogant to my eyes: men wanting to look cool rather than expressing what they feel. I find ‘cool’ a very unattractive trait.
I think you get this goal-scoring thrill in all sports. Occasionally I watch boxing. My dad used to watch it on TV when I was young and I never quite lost the habit. After going to university I felt as if I should dislike it since every civilised person is supposed to abhor violence in all its forms. But I don’t abhor boxing, enjoy watching it and winning a fight must be like scoring a goal, only better.
Nowadays I sometimes even watch Mixed Martial Arts. I don’t watch it because I like it; it actually scares me to death. I watch it more for educational purposes and to measure just how much of a wimp civilisation – or my genes – has made of me. I want to know what varieties of men exist out there in the world. I know there are serial killers and rapists and men who like fighting. If I didn’t watch boxing and Mixed Martial Arts I might start to imagine that all men are naturally well-mannered English teachers who read Russian novels and like to discuss current affairs politely and non-confrontationally. In short, I might mistake the small protected bubble I live in for the whole world. Watching fights reminds me of just how domesticated and docile I am. I wouldn’t have the slightest clue what to do if something or someone feral from the dangerous world outside came crashing through my door.
MMA fighters are like a different species, some kind of throwback to a primitive age and their roughness is impressive. They need virtues like courage, determination and self-reliance. Once you are in a boxing ring or a fighting cage there is no use expecting help from your family, your friends or the welfare state. It’s just you against the other man so you had better have some confidence in yourself. These all strike me as virtues worth cultivating.
One of the reasons I gained respect for fighting men was after reading Man is Wolf to Man and Kolyma Tales, books about the Soviet gulags. Well-educated, urbane intellectuals, on being sentenced to ten years in a Siberian gulag for laughing at a joke about Stalin would suddenly find themselves in the company of the scariest men you are ever likely to meet. The genuine criminals in the gulags were nasty, vicious and violent. Against such savages, political prisoners had little chance. Either they had to toughen up and make some allies or go under. Being able to talk nicely about literature or economics was of little use once life had been pared down to its most basic and brutal.
I myself would like to toughen, not because it’s likely that I’ll end up in a Russian gulag some day, nor in a fighting cage, but because being tough seems a good thing in itself, and certainly preferable to being soft, weak and vulnerable.
Anyway, I digress. I wanted to say that being good at something physical brings with it a feeling that, in my opinion, intellectual prowess can’t match. I’m sure that Christopher Hitchens got a rush of adrenaline whenever he made an opponent look foolish during a debate, and a philosopher or scientist, on being proved right on some intellectual question must experience the warm glow of vindication. Yet this glow must surely pale alongside what a primitive hunter feels when he brings down some large and dangerous prey, or what a man feels when he prevails against another man in a fight for survival.
Probably all pleasures are at bottom physical pleasures. Even when Archimedes had his Eureka moment his ecstasy was felt as physical pleasure, with nice chemicals flooding his brain. His thinking might have been what caused the floodgates of chemicals to open but the pleasure was all physical. He would probably have felt just as elated had he simply injected the same chemicals directly into his veins and foregone all the difficult mathematics.
When Gary Lineker scored a goal he felt elated and was aware of this feeling. This is not true of all activities. I, for example, generally have no idea what I am feeling when watching a film, reading a book or surfing the internet. With such activities I have almost ceased to exist. Ceasing to be conscious of what you are feeling wouldn’t be a bad thing if you were undergoing a painful operation or being tortured but why would you want to be unaware when doing something enjoyable?