Any sports fan who grew up in the Sixties has seen the intro to ABC’s Wide World of Sports hundreds, maybe, over a thousand times:
Of course, here, “the agony of defeat” makes better theater than “the thrill of victory.” Watching fans hoisting a futbol hero on their triumphant shoulders or a grand prix racer popping a cork in the winner’s circle lacks the high drama of witnessing an Olympian pinwheeling off of a ski jump ramp or a motorcyclist skipping stone-like across a lake of asphalt.
Even as exhilarating as it is to see a big wave surfer survive a precipitous drop and then ascend the crashing slope of a breaking avalanche, I’m still not sure that it produces the vicarious adrenaline rush of one of those Wagnerian wipeouts that make you grit your teeth and shudder in wonder. [Warning, in addition to harrowing wipeouts, this compilation has a soundtrack that might make Sid Vicious cringe].
* * *
If you’re a Southerner born near Charleston, South Carolina, in the early Fifties, you grew up in the shadow of defeat. When I was a child, the “War” my granddaddies talked about wasn’t Korea, or WW2, or the Great War, or the Spanish American War. It was the War Between the States.
Among the fanatical, that defeat was a miasma that hung in the air like an enervating narcotic. My friend Don Doyle convincingly argues in New Men, New Cities, New South: Atlanta, Nashville, Charleston, Mobile, 1860-1910 that citizens from Charleston and Mobile were so traumatized after Appomattox that they couldn’t bring themselves to do business with Northerners, perceiving it as treasonous – unlike folk from Atlanta and Nashville. While those two cities readjusted to postwar changes and modernized, Charleston and Mobile stubbornly wallowed in the romanticizing of the Lost Cause, rationalized that defeat was somehow noble – tragedy, after all, being the highest of literary genres.
As late as 1988, VS Naipaul in the New Yorker wrote about his visit to Charleston when he interviewed a non-Reconstructed blue blood celibate who monklike had abandoned all worldly pleasures for a life devoted to lamenting the fall of the Confederacy. I think I encountered this person in 1978 when my late wife Judy and I lived on Limehouse Street, a block from the Battery. You could see this fellow – or one like him – assume catatonic postures as he stared out towards Ft. Sumter, not moving a muscle for something like twenty minutes. He almost seemed like an apparition.
So, if you grew up in this culture, a culture that had fetishized defeat, and you were cursed with a Romantic bent of mind, you might come to see defeat as inevitable, or worse, as preferable – defeat being more Romantic. Yeats masterfully expresses that sentiment in a gorgeous ottava rima stanza whose beauty deepens the tragedy because you realize that Yeats’ canon, too, will be disappear when the annals of civilization are wiped away.
He who can read the signs nor sink unmanned
Into the half-deceit of some intoxicant
From shallow wits; who knows no work can stand,
Whether health, wealth or peace of mind were spent
On master-work of intellect or hand,
No honour leave its mighty monument,
Has but one comfort left: all triumph would
But break upon his ghostly solitude.
“Nineteen-Hundred and Nineteen”
Indeed, there might be some truth to idea that defeat builds character in the Dostoyevskian sense of suffering being good as a regimen for redemption, or even if, like me, you think eternal life seems as about as likely as Dan Brown’s receiving the Nobel Prize in literature, repetitious disappointment can, if you live long enough, inure you, to reverse Gerard Manley Hopkins – “More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, [less] wilder wring.”
But let’s get real. Losing sucks, as does the pathology of obsessively dwelling on lost causes, whether they be wars, loved ones, or championships. Although the season of spring has been a time of loss for me in the past, I’m making the most of this spring’s beautiful weather, sitting each afternoon on the deck with my beloved wife Caroline talking about literature and art, checking out the play of light and shadow on the spartina, noting the mated robins who nest nearby as they dart back and forth, reveling in how much clearer the air seems, going through the photos Caroline has taken of Folly during the quarantine, discovering through them hidden gems never before noticed, treasuring the rich life afforded us on this funky, narrow strip of a barrier island we call home.
 I never heard any of my people call it the War of Northern Aggression, and I always called it the Civil War myself without ever being reprimanded.
 cf. Southern governors refusing federal stimulus money.
3 thoughts on “Romanticizing Defeat”
Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol was a pretty good book, but not Nobel material. You might not see the after life very feasible, but you might find it interesting that us mortals are all the descendants of something that had to be immortal, or at least infinite. I read this in a forum about what came before the Big Bang. There’s no way of becoming in a world of negative infinity (nothing) without the help of positive infinity. I know it’s crazy, but it’s a apparently a rule cosmologists go by.
Negative infinity is also wrong now that I think abt it. Anyway, I just found that whole concept to be pretty mind-blowing.
There’s a great line from Hamlet after Hamlet talks to his father’s ghost and Hamlet tells his friend Horatio (who doesn’t believe in ghosts), “There are more things in heaven and earth than have been dreamt of in your philosophy.” In other words, we puny humans have no idea about what’s ultimately out there.