Illustration by Adam Q

Sporting life: Mike Brearley on sublime games

Is there room in sport for the concept of the sublime?
December 9, 2021

Is there room in sport for the concept of the sublime? Or does the very mention of the idea qualify me for Private Eye’s Pseuds Corner?

Wilfred Bion (1897-1979) was an influential, creative and enigmatic British psychoanalyst. Born in India, to English parents, he was sent to school at Bishop’s Stortford College at the age of eight, spending every holiday as a guest in the houses of friends. It was more than three years before he saw his mother again. 

In 1916, he joined a tank regiment as an officer and fought in the battles of Ypres, Passchendaele, Cambrai and Amiens. Recommended for a Victoria Cross, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for exemplary courage. He said later: “I thought I might with equal relevance have been recommended for a court-martial. It all depended on the direction which one took when one ran away.”

His early life was, then, painful and lonely. One thing that gave him solace was sport. In his memoirs he writes gnomically about the possibility of “sublime” games, and indeed of sublime religion.

“Sublimation,” he says, “was used by some for what in fact was a substitution. Games were substituted for sex; even religion was thought of by the more advanced as if it were some harmless substitute. No one thought that sublimation could mean the reaching for, yearning for, games that were sublime, a religion that was sublime and not a stopper that could dam back the noxious matter until it stank, or bury the growth of the personality till it turned cancerous.”

The young Bion loved games, especially rugby, swimming and water polo. In fact, he was, he says, “first class” at all games except cricket, at which he was “so bad that it presented no problem.” This skill meant that games “did not have to be buried under a mass of subsidiary irrelevances”—such as “winning matches,” or “keeping my ghastly sexual impulses from obtruding.” He added: “I could therefore come nearer to playing the game for the sake of the game than I ever came to working for the sake of work.”

So, games could be, or at least aspire to be, sublime, as could religion. What Bion meant by “sublime” was that they were played for their own sake, not as a substitute or “stopper” for something else (sex, aggression or a healthy mind).

This view is close to what Dutch historian Johan Huizinga held to be the essence of play. In his book Homo Ludens—roughly “man as player”—play is epitomised by young animals. It is physical, enjoyable for itself and for no ulterior motive. Aggression is moderated—lion cubs nip each other but do no harm. All this applies to young humans. 

Like Bion, Huizinga saw play as easily contaminated. Professionalism, with the intrusion of financial motives and the need to secure a living, even the need to win, are obstacles to play. Playfulness is serious but not earnest, not pragmatic, not aiming at distant ends. The playing of sport may degenerate into a form of work dominated by duty, solemnity, stiff upper lip, security. Play proper, both writers maintain, is spontaneous. When children or animals are playing in this way, they are not calculating. They simply act. They go for it as they do when painting or using blocks to build. They are totally involved. There is no distinction at this point between play and work. 

When Greg Chappell, the fine Australian cricketer and coach, wrote to me that “premeditation is the graveyard of batting,” I think he was saying something similar. He did not deny that we have to learn the discipline and technique of batting, nor that we should not or do not have background orientations in setting ourselves against certain bowlers in certain conditions. What he was emphasising, though, was that in the moment of action, we should avoid premeditation. We should be wholly open to the bowler and to this particular ball. Each delivery is a unique event. The top batsman retains this Huizinga element of playfulness as spontaneity. 

Huizinga and Bion were in a sense puritan about play. For them this for its own sake is of the essence, and all else is an obstacle to that purity. In this resides the sublimity of game-playing. 

The nearest approach I know of to an overall attitude of this kind in professional sport is that of Johan Cruyff’s aspiration towards “total football.” Perhaps not coincidentally, Cruyff was, like Huizinga, Dutch. In the Cruyff mindset, winning was not the main aim of playing sport. He said: “There is no medal better than being acclaimed for your style.” Rudolf Nureyev suggested of Cruyff that he should have been a dancer. In 2000, David Winner wrote: “The Dutch are devoted to their good football (a phrase with distinct Calvinistic moral overtones), and also have an equally Calvinist urge to proselytise their beauty and goodness to the world.” 

I agree with Chappell’s added dimension to Bion’s and Huizinga’s notions of sublimity. To reach it, we —as batsmen or more broadly—have to allow ourselves to become open to what is coming at us. We have to trust ourselves: our training, our instincts, our bodily reactions. Attending—anxiously, in the interest of technique—to parts of our body is liable to interfere with this absolute alertness. If I start thinking of the means to an end, where my left leg should go, how I’m holding the bat, the position of my head (all of which are involved in playing whatever shot I play), I will have distracted myself from the utter simplicity—however difficult that is—of the ball coming down in whatever way it will. I must not “try too hard”—that is, I must avoid trying in the wrong way. 

Bion also suggested that the psychoanalyst should try to divest him or herself of memory and desire—in order to be fully receptive to whatever the patient is expressing or communicating in the “here and now” and avoid being stuck with what is already known.

Giving up trying, refraining from a sort of intense internal or external frowning, may feel to the anxious sportsperson like irresponsible looseness. What’s more, if we aim at this openness without the requisite discipline in place—a discipline of technique that is founded on a grooving and repetition that takes years of practice—we are likely to make fools of ourselves. The state of relaxed concentration, openness, receptivity and trust is extremely hard to achieve. Even the best players only rarely reach the perfect balance of relaxation and concentration that is sometimes called “being in the zone.”

Putting sublimity—depth, magnificence, daring, beauty—at the centre is a form of puritanism. There is an idealisation of “purity,” of essence. Currants distinguish currant cakes from other cakes; but you still need flour and butter to make a cake. I see the theory and practice as a heroic restriction. I would say that winning is part of what constitutes sport; the rules of a game define what counts as victory, defeat or draw. It is intrinsic even to cub-play. 

But it is important that sport, like other activities, has these puritans: that we hear this voice loud and clear. It is also a voice of Romanticism, in its shift of sensibility from classical restraint to emotional intensity and the embrace of risk. The Grand Tour no longer involves hurrying past the Alps; it involves experiencing their changeable extremes. We need to remember that sport may aspire to sublimity, that the crudeness and over-pragmatism epitomised by the professional foul should be discredited. Winning is not all.