Io triumphe

The ecstasy of winning.

Jessica Ennis crosses the line to win the final 800m race of the heptathlon, and the Olympic gold.

Photo source: AP

The transformation of her pretty-girl-next-door face at her Pindarian moment of triumph reminds you of something else, doesn’t it? Gian Lorenzo Bernini  got there first, in his audacious Ecstasy of St. Teresa in Rome:

Simon Schama has this right. It’s not a reductive, secular depiction of a beautiful woman in orgasm, as Lacan and other cynics would have it, rather an exploitation of a common experience as a way to get inside (ahem) a strange one:

What did rapture, after all, look like? What if he [Bernini] carved this woman, who herself had dared to describe her experience so graphically, as if at the height of her sexual pleasure, utterly abandoned to a flood of sensation, straining towards her spiritual consummation, body and soul indivisible? Who would dare challenge him? He would take his own, ample carnal knowledge and turn it into a sacred shock. ….. Some of us stubborn heathens may have a hard time kneeling when we see Theresa caught in her spasm of rapture. But we stare and stare none the less – as we stare at no other sculpture ever made. Perhaps the force of the spell comes from the realisation that Bernini has used the power of art to achieve the most difficult thing in the world: the visualisation of bliss.

It’s obvious that Ennis’ ecstasy is not sexual. The different forms of bliss no doubt use the same neurological pathways, but are distinct experiences. Very few of us will experience, and even fewer have ever seen, the mystical variety; and witnessing the sexual one is a private joy, unless you are Bernini. Sporting triumph is inherently public, and it’s a communal delight.

Are my speculations impertinent? I don’t think so. None of our loyal commenters rose to my challenge to make an ethical justification of modern élite sport. If you just look at the competitors, the many shattered losers against the one victor, it’s very hard to make the balance come out positive. You can perhaps make it work if you include us, the spectators: our vicarious pleasure reflected off Jessica Ennis’ gold medal. We may also feel a lesser sympathy for the gallant losers, at least if they are compatriots, and that also counts as good. But essentially it’s all about the gold; we cherish it with a greed as bad as Smaug’s.

I’m still uneasy though. The triumph of the victor depends absolutely on the frustrated effort, defeat, and tears of the losers: look again at the expression of bronze medallist Tatyana Chernova in the Ennis photo. Bullfighting requires the death of the bull. We recoil from Aquinas’ repellent claim (Summa Theologica, Of the Relations of the Saints towards the Damned:

In order that the happiness of the saints may be more delightful to them and that they may render more copious thanks to God for it, they are allowed to see perfectly the sufferings of the damned….the saints will rejoice in the punishment of the wicked, by considering therein the order of Divine justice and their own deliverance, which will fill them with joy.

Whoa, we really don’t want to go there, or into the Colosseum to watch the gladiators and the lions. But don’t let’s think our pleasure in modern sport is entirely innocent.

More of the 8th Pythian ode from Wikipedia (for the victors in the Pythian Games):

Creatures for a day! What is a man?
What is he not? A dream of a shadow
Is our mortal being. But when there comes to men
A gleam of splendour given of heaven,
Then rests on them a light of glory
And blessed are their days.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

9 thoughts on “Io triumphe”

  1. Bernini is astonishing. The opportunity to look at his work alone is ample justification for a trip to Rome.

  2. I think to say there are “many shattered losers” is just wrong, at least if you assume that “shattered losers” are the majority of non-gold-medalists. That young British diver who made it to the semi-finals, but not the finals — was she shattered? Carmelita Jeter, who was thrilled to have medaled in the 100 meter dash, even though another woman won the gold — shattered? I’d say both of them, and many, many others, were delighted to be there, and don’t think of themselves as “losers” even if they didn’t win gold medals, or any medal at all. And looking beyond the Olympics, all those professional athletes who didn’t win the Superbowl, or the World Series, or the World Cup — they’re not “shattered losers” either.

    1. The British oarsmen in the pairs who came second had to he belped out of the boat and wept to the intrusive TV camera, apologising to everybody for “letting them down”. Sure, there are some surprised and delighted bronze medallists; but I think more who thought they had a serious shot at the gold, and second or third place is a meagre consolation.
      The problem is, I agree, alleviated by professionalism: a domestique in a cycling team in the Tour de France usually retires with a decent string of stage wins and victories in lesser events in his CV. Also, of course, the burden of training varies by sport. Playing golf every day is quite agreeable. Not so swimming mile after mile in a pool.

  3. James,

    Thanks for another post that manifests your wonderful intellectual range. Two quick comments:

    1. NPR ran an interesting story the other day about a psychological study that found that winners of silver medals were much less happy than winners of bronze. They played a tape of a despondant Chinese athlete who tearfully apologized for failing the nation by winning a silver medal. Part of the psychological explanation of this difference was as you suggest: silver medalists compare themselves to winners; bronze medalists compare themselves to people further back. (But with athletes from countries like China there’s the nationalistic element too.)

    2. Surely all of athletics (and other activities with clear ranking systems like academic science) depend on there being people devoted to the activity who have different levels of achievement and skill. There need to be fans, amateurs, coaches, and competitors at different levels to maintain the sport and encourage people to compete. For the 99.999999% who never win an Olympic medal there must be important intrinsic rewards to engaging in the sport or watching it. While it must be very painful to lose a close competition, I imagine that those people never leave the sport afterwards, but find that they can continue to enjoy it at some level, like coaching, and are happy in retrospect that they got to such an elite level of competition.


    1. Interesting. Your point 2 gets somewhere near the cogent defence of élite sport I was asking for.
      Two niggles: a second-string academic can and usually does contribute usefully to his or her discipline. Replication of crucial experiments, say, is not intellectually very demanding, and by definition it’s unoriginal, but it’s vital. It’s harder to see the contribution of second-raters in sport, outside team sports like road cycling.
      Most mass sport is undoubtedly a good thing as it helps keep people healthy. So, up to a point, is the experience of pushing yourself to your (probably quite low) personal limits. But how important is the existence of élite sportsmen and women to this? What do weekend golfers get from the out-of-reach model of Tiger Woods? Your point about coaching is quite strong here: improvement (not to mention safety in high-risk sports like rock-climbing and skiing) requires coaches who have reached a higher level.

      1. I think important science can be and is carried out by well-trained amateurs, below the level of second-string academics. For example, bird watchers and amateur astronomers are spread around the world and can document things like migration patterns, asteroids and comets that professionals don’t pay attention to until after others have found them. A number of important comets and asteroids have been discovered by amateurs. Eg, comet Hyakutake (1996).

        I have to think more about how this sort of structure might or might not have an analogy in the sports world.

  4. “It’s harder to see the contribution of second-raters in sport, …”

    They set the bar for the first-raters. Besides, on any given day…

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