Even the most neutral of spectator can be excused for wondering if football, which used to disseminate elegant black-and-white glyphs, like the images of the great Hungarian midfielder Flórián Albert, can compete in a world filled with Celtic tattoos, ritual antagonism, and ever more animated and grisly episodes of violence. We are a few days after Chelsea’s captain, John Terry, came under a FA investigation for racial abuse, and a few weeks after an allegedly similar incident between Patrice Evra and Luis Suarez sparked a disturbing development among the rival teams of Manchester United and Liverpool, each vigorously defending their player, as Gary Andrews writes, on mere grounds of partisanship and locker-room solidarity, letting the issue of racism slide in the background. The seventeenth anniversary of Mauro Tassotti’s flying elbow against Luis Enrique, meanwhile, has just passed on a note of reconciliation: Tassotti himself has grown almost saintly as an assistant coach, his face a surface of lesser reflectance of the violent waves that informed his playing in a fullback position, when he was mean, self-absorbed and tough as a blacksmith of the Nativity.
Didn’t Aristotle say that taunting words are always flying about? At such times, it’s helpful to remember a passage from Rabelais’ episode of the Frozen Words, from the cycle of novels Gargantua et Pantagruel, describing a sea-visit by the hero, Pantagruel, to a strange place where unseen worlds converge and frozen words can be discerned. Sounds but no sources; voices but no faces—like the multicolored mockery heard on the soccer pitch.
The Captain-narrator remembers that near this spot, at the beginning of the winter that is now ending, a battle took place on the ice. What Pantagruel and the other characters hear are the sounds of that battle. In the meltdown, words dissolve into noise, “a barbarous gibberish”, which Rabelais delights to catalog: “tick, tock, taack, brededin, brededack, frr, frr, frr [. . .], trrr, trrrrr, on, on, on, on, on, on, ououououon, gog, magog.” The pilot lingers on the sounds of the charging squadrons, the shock and neighing of horses. Then the narrative moves briskly on.
Rabelais is not the only author to have heard colors an sounds. In Norton Juster’s children’s novel, The Phantom Tollbooth, the Soundkeeper in the Lands Beyond boasts that her vaults contain “every sound that’s ever been made in history.” To prove it, she pulls out a small brown envelope, peers into it, and, sure enough, is able to perform “the exact tune George Washington whistled when he crossed the Delaware in that icy night of 1777.”
Like much of the best fiction, these two scenes illustrate how writing well consists on knowing what to leave out. How does each narrator perceive sound, anyway: by seeing it or by hearing it? And how can Pantagruel be so sure that the half-congealed sound was the singing of Orpheus’ severed head, having floated there from the river Hebrus? An excess of blackness, according to Renaissance medicine, can be cured by hearing green melodies. Luis Suarez’ taunts of Patrice Evra or the MLS brawl after the match between the New York Red Bulls and the Galaxy of L.A. may not really be the same rough noise made up by George Washington (these scenes, in fact, would be much better without it), but we peer through them, from the terrace of the stadium or from a tabloid half-frozen in the metro, rather than actually cocking an ear toward them.
Racism is less constrained. Even Sir Isaac Newton was convinced that colors could be heard—or at least that color perception worked like hearing. In a letter to the Royal Society in 1675 Newton explains that colors, like sounds, result from vibrations. Just as bodies of lesser or greater volume and density produce lesser or greater sound waves in the media (the racial mocking of Second Division teams being somewhat too sugar-melted to be heard at all), so too football violence sets up vibrations that eerily move from the ear drum to the optic nerve.
Soccer is a both ritualistic and ethereal medium for sound vibrations. Its light, ephemeral rays meddle the substance that, Newton believed, permeated planetary space beyond the layer of air—and even the space between particles of air and other matter here on earth (OED, “ether” 5.a). Sportsmen and supporters of the game come to master the language of race, like an author had mastered the art of omission while writing his novel’s opening chapters. A boy of indeterminate age and suffering from near-clinical listlessness (“Nothing really interested him,” laments his older sister, “least of all the things that should have”), comes home from another dull day at school to find a large valve object in his room. The earliest drafts of his homework is not the business he’s about, but the wild-eyed strikers he watches on TV are, and his parents are debating whether or not to let him. By the time the boy assembles the idea that violence and mockery on the pitch—or unfair behavior, like diving—is ‘GENUINE BULLSHIT’, the language of race has already passed his mind’s gates, and is driving inside like an electric toy car past the allegorical Lands Beyond.
Although the game advances a sunny, mid-20th-century message about the virtues of revenue from Champions League fixtures, the charm of football hasn’t got much to do with order or common sense. (Besides soccer’s obvious debt to Barnum and the Marx Brothers, one routinely detects the influence of those agents of chaos, the players’ managers.) The need for a resolution to the longstanding feud between the cities of Dictionopolis and Digitopolis—between the mathematical and the aesthetic—is just the sort of moral a young footballer might be expected to endorse, especially in the years following Cristiano Ronaldo’s near-erotization of fandom and in the growing gulf between money and sportsmanship.
Yet a spirit of mischief and mockery runs away with the game—quite literally, it turns out among the ogres who pursue the enemy in a climax of taunting. The situation in which a cruder kind of heroism generates a profound nostalgia for an earlier mythological generation is one that Homeric characters normally exhibit. One conspicuous feature, for instance, of the Philoktetes episode is that Odysseus, the figure par excellence of ‘mentality’ and ‘cunning intelligence’, with a penchant for ‘treachery’ and ‘deception’, is referred to as “the violence of Odysseus”—a naming periphrasis familiar to Homer but otherwise never used for Odysseus, which clearly serves to emphasize how, during Philoktetes’ mistreatment, the Greek hero has to look beyond the persuasion of speech and plunge instead into the powerful constraint of force.
A prankish writer like Truman Capote, penning a hardboiled novel while sharing a Brooklyn Heights row house, would have found a way to concoct a description of this extenuating type of footballing heroes—the ones we find in communal weeping at the table of Menelaos—and to helpfully strike out all those needless redundancies. For the sole purpose of vexing his illustrator, Capote would have made a Suarez sketch as well as a Tassotti miniature—one tall and thin, one short and fat, both beyond the ability for harmony and moderation.
Angels or demons of Compromise, the chances of a defender to ‘do a John Terry’, to taunt like a line of soldiers from World War II, seem less pertinent to children than to adults. To dress up in a sharp and dandified manner for a rehearsal, and then to insult someone for the color of his skin, is a dubious thrill that even at age nine, I felt, was grown-up stuff.
Later on, in the Homeric plot, Helen tells Menelaos and his guests—Telemachus included—a story of Troy as an entertainment during dinner. Her entertaining story, however, begins on a note of grief. All the characters listening to the story are personally involved, and we would expect its words to arouse instant grief, had Helen, before telling he tale, not put ‘drug’ in their wine: a pharmakon, a foreign concoction that makes you forget. From the standpoint of an audience listening to the medium of soccer, the narrative tradition of the Odyssey can apply. Racial taunts are just the newest song to make its rounds with the game’s followers. Like the prime characters of Homeric epos, the racist footballers are the most inimical figures precisely because it is their function to blame. Epos and sport are parallel in their affinity to oppose praise and blame of the poetry implicit in the game. A good sportsman should do like Eurymachus, presented by Homer as somebody ‘reproaching his belly’—for those insulting, lovers-of-reproaches bellies are the emblem of a footballer’s readiness to adjust his themes in accordance with what his immediate audience wants to hear. ♦