Thursday, July 1, 2010

Football, at Sea (reading the World Cup through Moby Dick)

I was challenged to connect The World Cup to Moby Dick.  Readers of the novel and fans of the beautiful game will see points of intersection just as peculiar as what follows here.

Moby Dick: the Jabulani 
"...none can hit it with any very considerable degree of exactness... "  (from the chapter, "Of Monstrous Pictures of Whales")
Dubbed "the ball of confusion" by the LA Times, Adidas's World Cup ball is fast, unpredictable, and, most importantly for qualifying as Moby Dick's analog, unknowable.

Ahab: Maradona
Then, tossing both arms, with measureless imprecations he shouted out: "Aye, Aye! and I'll chase him round Good Hope, and round the Horn, and round the Norway Maelstrom, and round perdition's flames before I give him up. And this is what we have shipped for, men! to chase that white whale on both sides of land, and over all sides of earth, till he spouts black blood and rolls fin out. What say ye, men, will ye splice hands on it no? I think ye do look brave. ("The Quarter Deck")
The captain of all captains, a man obsessed, a man who pursues the white whale long after his career has finished - a dubious and yet gifted and absolutely inspiring character, he is willing to bend the rules of the game to meet his ends. Team Argentina is rising to his call - they are not playing for a man, they are playing for God.

Ishmael: Call him us
Since I have undertaken to manhandle this Leviathan, it behoves me to approve myself omnisciently exhaustive in this enterprise; not overlooking the minutest seminal germs of is blood, and spinning him out to the uttermost coil of his bowels. Having already described him in most of his present habitatory and anatomical peculiarities, it now remains to magnify him in an archaeological, fossiliferous, and antediluvian point of view....Fain am I to stagger to this emprise under the weightiest words of the dictionary. And here be it said, that whenever it has been convenient to consult one in the course of these dissertations, I have invariably used a huge quarto edition of Johnson, expressly purchased for that purpose; because that famous lexicographer's uncommon personal bulk more fitted him to compile a lexicon to be used by a whale author like me....To produce a mighty book, you must choose a might theme. ("The Fossil Whale")
We see the whale-chase through his eyes, he theorizes the whale from all available angles, and inventories the whaling industry and everything connected to it and more. Ishmael is the blogger and pundit.  It's Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski, thinking they can predict a glorious future for India, using the logic of economic markets (ridiculous - the All-India Football Federation's management of the game is so atrocious as to defy all rationalist arguments about the game's development in that country). It's me, arguing with Kuper and Szymanski, and seeing FIFA's black helicopters everywhere. It's Eduardo Galeano, writing his poetic manifesto - seeing in the game a metaphor for all that's beautiful in living, and also all that sucks the joy out of life.  It's Eamon Dunphy, narrating his year of playing disastrously for Millwall.  It's this very post.

Queequeg: Zinadine Zidane
Through all his unearthly tattooings, I thought I saw traces of a simple honest heart, and in his large, deep eyes, fiery black and bold, there seemed tokens of a spirit that would dare a thousand devils.  ("A Bosom Friend")
The harpooner is Ishmael's best friend. The novel opens with their "marriage" - before taking to sea, the two share a bed and sit up all night under the covers talking the hours away, "A cozy, loving pair."  He is a figure for the Other, and the Other's magnetism. Melville can't get enough of him, he luxuriates in thick descriptions of his fearsome beauty. His is a complex presence within the narrative - through Ishmael's interaction with Queequeg, Melville launches a sustained critique of Judeo-Christian mores. Ishmael may identify Queequeg as a "savage" and as a "cannibal"(figuratively), but as he also asserts that Queequeg's approach to life is both more ethical and worldly than that produced at the chapel pulpit.

Queequeg must be a player. And a player who is a good friend to the game, one we can't get enough of, too, as a spectacle. But I can't think of anyone on the pitch right now who meets this standard.

Queequeg also figures prominently in one of the crazier passages in Moby Dick, when fellow harpooner Tashtego takes "a head-first accidental plunge into the depths of the oil-case in the whale's head." The whale carcass is alongside the ship, in the water - Tashtego by all rights should have met his end there. But Queequeg comes up with a great save:
How had the rescue been accomplished? Diving down with the sinking head, Queequeg slashed it with his knife near the bottom, reached in, grabbed Tashtego's leg, tried to pull him out -- couldn't -- fished around for Tashtego's hair, and grabbing it, turned the Indian around and effected the delivery! All the while sinking, sinking -- their lungs bursting, bursting for air . . .
He's a rescuer.  One might say, then, that we should pick a defender - but I think the rescue fantasies laid on the shoulders of my nominee are more in scale with the symbolic and literal function of Queequeg within this novel.

Zizou's spectacular beauty is well known (note Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait), and he hovers over squads as a talismanic presence (e.g. Algeria). He represents an "alien" and alienated generation, and, of course, is famous for an unusual incident involving the head.

The Pequod: Fabio Capello

The ship is as much a character in this novel as is the whale. It is the leaky structure all must inhabit.  That could be Fifa. But this is awfully literal, and would lead us to aligning Ahad with Sepp Blatter who does not have the character to merit such a comparison.

I prefer to see in the following description, traces of the England manager:
She was a ship of the old school, rather small if anything; with an old-fashioned claw-footed look about her. Long seasoned and weather-stained in the typhoons and calms of all four oceans, her old hull's complexion was darkened like a French grenadier's, who has alike fought in Egypt and Siberia. Her venerable bows looked bearded. Her masts-cut somewhere on the coast of Japan, where her original ones were lost overboard in a gale-her masts stood stiffly up like the spines of the three old kings of Cologne. Her ancient decks were worn and wrinkled, like the pilgrim-worshipped flag-stone in Canterbury Cathedral where Becket bled. But to all these her old antiquities, were added new and marvellous features, pertaining to the wild business that for more than half a century she had followed.
I will stop here, and try to think about something else for a few hours. Starbuck, anyone?


  1. Jennifer,

    Thank you so much for bringing the Zidane film to the Hammer last night. Being a fan of Douglas Gordon, Mogwai and Ronaldo/Beckham (ha ha), it was such a treat to see this on film in such a great venue. The film is now one of my favorite sports films of all time.

    Again, thank you so much. Your effort to bring this film to LA was greatly appreciated last night.

  2. dear jennifer,

    i have YOU to thank for bringing this beautiful film to the hammer. i first read about it 4 years ago during the last world cup & had to see it. alas 4 years later and i still had not seen it. but tuesday night that all changed...

    i thought your intro was fantastic & you spoke with such passion & eloquence. i had always found zidane intriguing but had not paid that much attention. boy was i wrong & that all changed with the 2006 world cup. while others i knew balked at the final, it all only heightened my interest. i felt very alone watching zidane exit the pitch while my friends were happy for italy. i was not & my passion for this player went into high gear and has never let up. i cannot quite explain why at that moment i became obsessed (haha) but i did. while i've watched every second (just about) of the 2010 world cup zidane's absence is very present for me. thanks for bringing such a surprise back tuesday night at the hammer. THANK YOU!

    your analysis of moby dick is brilliant. i am now addicted to this blog and due to your recommendation have subscribed to the podcasts on kpfk. as a native angelen(a) i cannot thank you understand!!


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