One can experience the gamut of human emotions through sport

What I know most surely about morality and the duty of man I owe to sport.

— Albert Camus

If you aren’t a digital native — admittedly this columnist is not one — and yet you have been an active sports writer for as long as the internet has existed, then you somehow tend to believe that almost everybody has said almost everything there is to be said on almost every subject in sport.

While we do live in a comment-is-free age where sport is one of the most commented-upon activities undertaken by our species — only religion and politics might get their noses ahead, even though not by an Usain Bolt-like margin — you sometimes get the feeling that the essence of sport, and its real meaning, are often beyond the reach of most commentators.

As the American author Jonathan Franzen said in a recent essay, reproduced in The Guardian (http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/sep/13/jonathan-franzen-wrong-modern-world) the “yakkers and braggers” of the world of techno-consumerism are happy to trade real significance and meaning for Facebook ‘likes’.

If what Franzen calls “shallow forms of social engagement” are particularly prevalent in the world of sports, it left me wondering what kind of association, emotional or otherwise, some of humanity’s great thinkers — philosophers and scholars, for instance — have had with sport.

Albert Camus, the French-Algerian master of existentialist philosophy, immediately came to mind. Camus, who was a goalkeeper for the Racing Universitaire Algerios junior team (RUA), nurtured ambitions of playing football at the international level before poor health intervened.

What Camus pointed to when he talked about his debt to football was merely an admission that the game instilled in him a sense fair-play — and, at a deeper level, the fact that sport itself has the capacity to nurture your moral/ethical compass.

Each time you watch Lionel Messi come up with a piece de resistance, as if he were football’s incarnation of a Nijinsky or a Nureyev, gravity and various other laws of physics commandingly and rapturously put on hold, you instantly realise why men who normally spend their waking hours pondering the meaning of life should care so much about ball games.

But to me, many things I then (in my mid-teens) knew about life, or, to be precise, many things that I found profoundly meaningful in their isolation, were the reward for poring over everything that Camus (whose birth centenary falls on November 7) had written in his short life.

It began on a stormy monsoon afternoon of lazy browsing (of the pre-internet kind) at the old Moore Market complex in Chennai more than forty summers ago. The sweet smell of old books, far more intoxicating than the cardamom tea and ginger biscuits that were served as breakfast, lunch and dinner in a dilapidated old, Indo-Saracenic colonial red-brick building, was at once irresistible and soul-lifting.

Camus’s The Stanger and The Plague, and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov lay alongside Neville Cardus’s Cardus in the Covers and Jack Fingleton’s Quietly Fades the Don, all to be had in a day’s picking if you were willing to relieve your pathetically thin wallet of all its contents.

Meaninglessness and meaning coalesced as Camus and Dostoevsky and Friedrich Nietzsche competed for nocturnal attention in an ill-lit bedroom with some of the greatest sportswriters that ever lived — among them Ernest Hemingway and Norman Mailer, literary giants who dabbled occasionally in what is largely a domain of scribblers such as this writer.

But sport, particularly football — a game through which one can experience the gamut of human emotions — remained the sole solid bedrock of sanity and stimulation at a time when one struggled to embrace the frightening randomness of life, seeking meaning and hope while being tossed by monstrous waves of existential anarchy.

Then again, for every single person — philosopher or layman — who has found life-enhancing meaning in sport, there is another who thinks athletic activity is for the intellectually challenged ones.

The American essayist Henry Mencken said “It’s impossible to imagine Goethe or Beethoven being good at billiards or golf,” but Benjamin Franklin believed that “sport lubricates the body and mind”.

George Orwell and Bernard Shaw were rather brutal when it came to putting sport in its place. Orwell saw sport as “an unfailing cause of ill-will”, while Shaw deemed that games were “for people who can neither read nor write.”

Great art exists only “to negate our nothingness,” wrote Andre Malraux. From time to time, watching a Maradona or Messi, a Senna or a Federer, a Warne or a Tendulkar, lesser men than Camus and Dostoevsky, ones such as myself, tend to agree with Malraux — although many in the upper reaches of the world of intellect would consider it a sacrilege to conflate sport with ‘great art’.

I feel ill-equipped to counter such a charge. In the event, the late David Foster Wallace’s immortal words are recalled for support.

“Great athletes catalyse our awareness of how glorious it is to touch and perceive, move through space, (and) interact with matter,” wrote Wallace (who took his own life in 2008 at 46, the same age at which Camus died in a car crash) in a New York Times essay titled ‘Federer as a religious experience’.

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