Tom McCarthy

Against Commentary: a Comment

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For a long time now, I’ve harboured a fascination with the figure of the sports commentator. ‘If I weren’t a writer,’ I used to say to myself, ‘that’s what I’d want to do.’ In my twenties I would fantasise: ‘Perhaps I can publish a few novels, then retire and take up commentary as a second career.’ The idea of being a cricket commentator appealed to me in particular. Where football comes in frantic 90-minute bursts, a cricket game (in its purest version, the Test Match format) stretches over five long days, affording endless variations in mode and tempo, cross currents and eddies, correspondences and sub-texts, with chance encounters prising open unexpected windows onto global vistas.

To take just one example: fifteen or so years ago, when England were playing the West Indies in London, one of the BBC radio team providing constant coverage of the game noted in an offhand way the coincidence that the name of the great Antiguan bowler Curtly Ambrose found an echo in his English counterpart and on-field opponent James Kirtley. Two or so hours later, an email sent in by a listener was read out over air: No coincidence perhaps, it claimed; James Kirtley’s grandfather had been a Scottish preacher in the Caribbean, where it is a custom for congregants to baptise offspring with their pastor’s name. By tea-time on the same day, or perhaps lunch on the next one, English Kirtley’s mother was located in the stands and brought into the press box. Yes, she confirmed, my late father was indeed Mrs. Ambrose’s pastor; the West Indian bowler was indeed named after him (although I wonder if the spell-change was a small act of subversion on the West Indian mother’s part: no placid subject, Ambrose would terrorise English batsmen with his short, i.e. aggressively high-bouncing, 90 mph deliveries; to condescending English journalists he was habitually curt). Everyone in the press box had heard about Mrs. Ambrose: she was well known on Antigua, where, sitting on her porch, listening to the radio while Curtly tore his way through an opposition’s top order, she would, each time he claimed a new scalp, ring a loud bell that hung there, sending the news echoing about the valley. Hearing of this practice, timid English Mrs. Kirtley, whose son was a far lesser bowler, had taken to ringing her own little silver-service tea-bell on the rare occasions that he claimed a wicket. As the West Indian Marxist CLR James points out, the entire history of empire and of post-colonial politics and culture is on replay every time a cricket game takes place.

More recently, it’s struck me that my planned career change was unnecessary, a redundant doubling. Why? Because the writer, narrating events, drawing into focus social, haptic and dramatic tableaux, is already performing a function very similar to that of the commentator, and vice versa. It’s been this way for millennia. A battle takes place just outside the boundary walls of Troy, a drawn-out set of actions, moves and countermoves, trajectories, reversals; and a guy called Homer has to tell us about it — convey it, bring it back to life. Or, if we opt for Robert Graves’s Celtic, rather than Hellenic, version of the origin of poetry and literature: a young man is ceremonially required to speak for an extended stretch, to keep a set of words and phrases issuing from his mouth to a rhythm beat out by a ring of tribal cohorts; if he loses the beat or runs out of things to say, he’s executed. Nothing’s worse than silence, than dead air. The modern presence of the radio, that great feat of techné and poesis, of assembly and dissemination that masks both author and audience at the very moment it connects them, raises a question Roland Barthes asks of all writing: Who is speaking, and to whom?

Photo: Tobias Zielony for Münchner Kammerspiele (2018/2019)

Don DeLillo, in his brilliant 1992 novella Pafko at the Wall, re-poses this question through his character Russ Hodges, radio commentator covering the National League pennant-clinching 1951 baseball game between the New York Yankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers. ‘They’re smuggling radios into boardrooms,’ Hodges muses. ‘They got it in jail. They got it in taxicabs and barbershops… The game and its extensions. The woman cooking cabbage. The man who wishes he could be done with drink. These are the game’s remoter soul.’ Hodges’ back-story involves him cutting his professional teeth by doing ‘ghost games’ — in other words, commentating from the isolation of a windowless room on a game he’s not at and can’t see, embellishing from data sent in on a telegraph-ribbon and transcribed on a typewriter into ‘standard baseball cryptic.’

‘Someone hands you a piece of paper filled with letters and numbers and you have to make a ball game out of it. You create the weather, flesh out the players, you make them sweat and grouse and hitch up their pants. You construct the fiction of a distant city, making up everything but the stark facts of the evolving game.’

The fiction of a distant city indeed; and the fiction, too, of presence. Was Homer actually at Troy? Who knows. Structurally, according to the logic of event and iteration, it doesn’t matter one way or another: all that counts are — once more — the techné and poesis, the overall configuration of transmission, of Sendung.

We do know, in DeLillo’s story, that Hodges is in the stadium for the Yankees-Dodgers game; and so are Jackie Gleason, Frank Sinatra and J. Edgar Hoover — these last three seated together in the stands, personifying the perennial unholy alliance of art, media and power. In the fifth innings, Hoover receives a private communiqué informing him that the Soviet Union has just successfully conducted its first atomic bomb-test. The news is bad, almost disastrous — but Hoover consoles himself with the thought that (thanks to his spies) President Truman will announce the detonation before the Soviets do, so that ‘People will understand that we’ve maintained control of the news if not of the bomb.’ Politics, too, is a matter of commentating. Just as the small ball-game between Curtlys/Kirtleys blossoms out, when narrated, into wide, complex spreads of geo-history, so here does the proscribed contest held within the boundary suddenly expand into a worldwide and even apocalyptic one in which the spectre of a dead air that is universal is borne by the very air from which death threatens to descend.

A more recent study of the themes with which DeLillo’s novel grapples can be found in a piece that, if I weren’t so painfully aware how sadly white and male it would be to say this, I would call the first monumentally great artwork of the twenty-first century: Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno’s 2006 film Zidane. Running at ninety minutes — the same length as a football match — the work covers most, but not all, of a 2005 La Liga meet-up between Real Madrid and Villareal. The match’s final few minutes are not included, since Zidane is sent off just before the whistle for an attack on his opponent Pepe Reina; but the time lopped off is made up for by the roving of the film-makers’ camera-feed at half-time as they provide us with an overview of world events taking place during the game: flooding in Serbia-Montenegro; the recording of plasmawave sounds at the solar wind termination shock boundary; a twenty-four hour marathon reading of Don Quixote; and (as on almost every other day during that period) a car-bombing in Iraq — a still-frame from which last scene shows us a wounded man wearing a blood-soaked Zidane t-shirt. Thus — once more — the bound event space of the football stadium opens, through the duplication of a name, onto a global realm of terror, violence and (above all) mediation.

Which itself is also a duplication, since what else is the football game in the first place? Gordon and Parreno’s brilliance as artists, and Zidane’s genius as a footballer, consist almost entirely in their understanding of the own modality as not a ‘natural’, ‘expressive’ or ‘authentic’ one, but rather as inherently, pre-emptively, always-already mediated. ‘As a child,’ Zidane’s text-over tells us,

‘I had a running commentary in my head, when I was playing. It wasn’t really my own voice; it was the voice of Pierre Cangioni, a television anchor from the 1970s. Every time I heard his voice, I would run towards the TV, as close as I could get, for as long as I could. It wasn’t that his words were so important; but the tone, the accent, the atmosphere, was everything.’

Far from being experience’s goal or endpoint, media is its precondition, where it all begins. This inversion of the conventionally-presumed order of things plays games not only with the aesthetic and ideology of presentness — to put it in classical deconstructionist terms, with the ‘metaphysics of presence’ — but also with those of the present in the tensal sense; indeed, it disrupts any sense of smooth, uninterrupted linear temporality. ‘Sometimes,’ Zidane tells us, ‘when you arrive in the stadium you feel that everything has already been decided. The script has already been written.’ He recalls playing ‘in another place, at another time when something amazing happened. Someone passed the ball to me, and before even touching it, I knew exactly what was going to happen. I knew I was going to score.’ What plays out on the field, the space created for and by and as the countless instruments of its own mediation, scrolling text-boards and embedded cameras, movement sensor-relays, data-acquisition software (even the grass is mown in pixellated squares) — what plays out there, under the grammar of the future perfect, is a form of originary replay: the re-enactment of what will have happened.

What’s more, this cross- or mid-temporal logic, this logic of re-mediated temporality, spills out beyond the bounds of Gordon and Parreno’s work. The Real Madrid-Villareal game takes place in April 2005; the film receives its general release in September 2006; between those two dates, Zidane is sent off in the world cup final here in Berlin for his head-butt on Materazzi — an act of violence so monumental and epochal that it, too, seemed pre-ordained or ‘scripted’. Thus his red card-earning scratching of Reina in the La Liga game becomes, once more, a re- or even pre-enactment of what will have been, comment on an event that’s yet to come to pass.

Photo: Tobias Zielony for Münchner Kammerspiele (2018/2019)

As will be clear, I’ve been not so much simply drawing a parallel between the worlds of art or artistry and commentary as showing how these are entangled in inseparable loops and feedbacks, Moebius Strips, great Gordian or Borromean Knots. Why, then, the title, Against Commentary? The contrarian impulse on my part stems from a conviction, more recent and more firm than my young career-path reflections, that art, all art and artists, and especially those of us whose medium of choice is literature, should resist the demand to provide a kind of running commentary on real-time, real-world events. The demand is like a siren call, repeated endlessly on all frequencies (institutional, commercial, social), amplified in times of supposed crisis, such as (for example) that posed lately by the appearance of Covid 19, pulsed out more subtly, sub- or supra-sonically, in supposed ‘normal’ times. But if these terms, these metrics — ‘commentary’, ‘real-time’, ‘real-world’ and, not least ‘event’ — are not thoroughly interrogated, shaken down so rigorously that they unravel, then the artist’s, the writer’s, work risks being penned within the most narrow and reactionary of boundaries. Art may, as I’ve suggested, stand in an intimate, specular relation with time, spectacle, power, violence and all the rest — but the relation is a dynamic, fluid and recursive one whose terms are never fixed. Art isn’t there to furnish some kind of insta-metaphor translator, some user-friendly lens or software-interface of parable or allegory or even straight-up narrative. DeLillo — a writer whom, as I hope is also clear, I admire — has written a 9/11 novel, but I haven’t read it since a) I’m all but certain that it will, through structural necessity, be a dud; and b) his other novels were already 9/11 novels, avant la lettre. So, for that matter, were The Iliad, The Aeneid and the entire Trojan canon: what do those works involve if not a vehicle full of hidden terrorists, or at least enemies of a certain state, being driven into this state’s very polis or metropolis, bringing its high towers low, trapped citizens hurling themselves from the burning roofs and windows?

Consider these lines from T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land:

What is the city over the mountains
Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air
Falling towers
Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
Vienna London

The script, as Zidane so astutely notes, has already been written. The feedback loops here — between history and fantasy and record; mediation and catastrophe; past, present and future (each of which, in Eliotic fashion, both contains and spills or disgorges the others) — are so convoluted and so mobile as to defy any definitive freeze-framing, to elude all reductive designations. One thing, though, we can say with certainty: the poem is not the comment.

As for falling towers, so for contagion. My first reaction — indeed, my only reaction, as a writer — to the onset of masks, lockdown, tests, and so forth, was to mail my editor in London and urge him not to publish, in a year or so, any ‘corona novels’. He promised not to; but someone will. They’ll have titles like ‘The Covid Chronicles’ or ‘Journal of the Plague Year’, and they’ll all be awful. If you want to read about contagion, read Ovid’s account of the plague at Aegina, or Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, or almost anything by William Burroughs — or, in a German context, Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. In the case of this last text, you might well find that what’s most interesting about Mann’s take on illness is — as for Zidane-Gordon-Parreno — the way it disrupts received models of time. When you are ill in bed, muses the tubercular Hans Castorp,

‘All the days are nothing but the same day repeating itself – or rather, since it is always the same day, it is incorrect to speak of repetition; a continuous present, an identity, an everlastingness – such words as these would better convey the idea. They bring you your midday broth, as they brought it yesterday and will bring it tomorrow; and it comes over you – but whence or how you do not know, it makes you quite giddy to see the broth coming in – that you are losing a sense of the demarcation of time, that its units are running together, disappearing; and what is being revealed to you as the true content of time is merely a dimensionless present in which they eternally bring you the broth.’

A similar disruption is described by Maurice Blanchot — linear temporality, our grasp on it through consciousness and representation, our aspiration that through these last two we might enter into, take possession of, even command some kind of future, all being overturned by an event so fundamentally, so foundationally disruptive that it could be said to contain the characteristics and dimensions proper to illness, violence, death and all order of calamity yet at the same time to exceed all these, looming about us in a spectral mass to which we can can give no other name than, vaguely and almost sacredly, ‘the disaster’. ‘We are,’ he writes,

‘on the edge of the disaster without being able to situate it in the future: it is rather always already past, and yet we are on the edge or under the threat, all formulations which would imply the future – that which is yet to come – if the disaster were not that which does not come, that which has put a stop to every arrival. To think the disaster (if this is possible, and it is not possible inasmuch as we suspect that the disaster is thought) is to have no longer any future in which to think it.’

The title of the work in which these lines appear is ‘The Writing of the Disaster’, and its central thought is that the art of writing should be understood as standing, always, in relation to this overwhelming presence, which is also overwhelming and abyssal absence, negative totality from which it will never extricate itself and yet which it can neither contain within writerly commentary. The disaster is what writing orbits round; the disaster is itself already writing and writing’s undoing (it ‘de-scribes’, claims Blanchot — that is, writes and unwrites in one and the same act). In a gesture that for me harks back, not so much to Graves’s Celtic poets as to the sub-linguistic rhythm that both underpins their iteration and carries, with each repetition, the spectre of its, and their, own end, he adds, in an admonition that I’ll take as my cue to surrender to dead air:

‘To want to write: what an absurdity. Writing is the decay of the will, just as it is the loss of power, and the fall of the regular fall of the beat, the disaster again.’

About the artist

Tom McCarthy is a novelist whose work has been translated into more than 20 languages. His debut Remainder (2005) was adapted for the cinema. His novels C (2010) and Satin Island (2015) were Booker Prize finalists. He has held visiting professorships at Columbia University, the Royal College of Art and Städelschule. He contributes regularly to The New York Times, London Review of Books, Harper's, and Artforum. In 2013 he was awarded the Windham-Campbell Prize for fiction by Yale University.

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