There’s something tedious about the endless desire to win, whether it’s on the tennis court or the battlefield

In children, we call a refusal to lose a fault of temper. It shows an unsocialised nature

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The Independent Online

Let us, for the fun of it, yoke some heterogeneous ideas by violence together. Tennis and terrorism. Andy Murray and Isis. Militancy, you see, is my subject. Militancy being a quality the incendiaries of Isis have in abundance, and Andy Murray, at least when he comes up against Novak Djokovic in Australia, doesn’t.

I don’t say that only an army of jihadists can now defeat Djokovic in Melbourne, but beating him would appear to require a single-mindedness, not to say a weaponry, not possessed by men who think more or less as we do – that is who, after failing to hit a ball past him, just want to say fuck that for a game of soldiers, get off the court, and let the gluten-free, failurephobic wonderman from Belgrade collect another trophy.

That isn’t, I know, a fair description of Murray’s loss last week. Murray did hit balls past Djokovic, more often, according to the stats, than Djokovic hit balls past him. Scroll back to what should have been the middle of the match and Murray was winning it. What happened then remains a matter of inconclusive speculation. He choked. Fell prey to a species of gamesmanship that frankly, reader, wouldn’t have fooled my seven-year-old granddaughter. Preferred to beat himself than his opponent. Looked into the eyes of success and failure, and was more beguiled by what he saw in the latter.

For my part, though at the time this reversal was a blow to the heart – a grief compounded by the English cricket team’s implosion in the same neck of the woods – I am learning to find a sort of grace in it. What is so admirable, in the last resort, about winning at all costs? Whatever strange things go on in Murray’s psyche, how much stranger must it be in Djokovic’s. We think it manly to be resolute. But peer through the fog of conventional admiration, reader, and do you not see derangement? Win, win, win, win. The sheer bloody tedium of it. Unless, in the soul of a champion, ennui is an unknown emotion. In which case it’s even worse in there than we suspected.

In children we call a refusal to lose a fault of temper. It shows an unsocialised nature, a fixation on the self, a maniacal perfectionism that can only lead at last to psychopathology. We might not want them storming out of kindergarten shouting fuck that for a game of soldiers, but we look kindly on the equability of toddlers who take fortune’s buffets and rewards with equal thanks. You win some, you lose some, is philosophy. You win everything, isn’t.

I doubt these remarks will cause the militants of Isis to rethink their militancy any time soon. For in them the desire to win is deeply rooted in shameful memories of perceived defeat. We have to beware, these days, of identifying some cultures as more given over to the murderous cycle of shame and revenge than others. Cultural anthropologists don’t like it. Smacks of Edward Said’s Orientalism. But it remains the case that an unappeasable sense of humiliation, following a real or imagined defeat, is not universally shared. You choose to see your history that way or you don’t.


I’m not sure, for example, that the word humiliation figures importantly in the Jewish consciousness, though there have been defeats enough. They would rather not be killed, but take what others see as humiliation with a pinch of salt. This could be because Judaism is not a warrior culture. It has, over a long period, learned to value safety over victory, a reflective studiousness over dreams of conquest. (“Please sir,” I see little George, jumping up and down in his seat with his hand up, desperate to interpose, “please sir, what about Israel?” To which, as his teacher, I reply, “If Israel isn’t all we would wish it to be, little George, that is partly the fault of those who never wished it to be at all.”)

In an intriguing essay on Wordsworth’s “Judaic qualities”, the critic Lionel Trilling notes the absence in both Wordsworth and the rabbinic fathers of the language of struggle and conquest. The rabbis, he writes, “never speak of courage. There is not a word to suggest that the life of virtue and religious devotion requires the heroic quality.” In them he finds, as he finds in Wordsworth, an undemonstrative quietism, a mildness, a contemplative accord, at odds with “the militancy of spirit” which characterises modern sensibility.

This brings to mind, for Trilling, the character of Leopold Bloom, all-suffering hero of James Joyce’s Ulysses, whose humbleness he prefers to the “armed pride, the jealousy and desire for prestige, the bitter militancy” of the novel’s alternative hero, Stephen Dedalus. Leopold Bloom, “stripped of every shred of dignity” except that of Wordsworthian “innocence” – the honourable state of just being there, like rocks and stones and trees, fired by no longing for vengeance or redress.

(“Sit down!” I order little George.)

Trilling is not without doubts about this “indifference to heroism”. What happens when it declines into passivity? How much must the non-militant, to put the question another way, cede to their opposites before they cease to exist? The Six Day War, in the course of which, by virtue of not losing it, Israel went from victim to villain, caused a convulsion in Jewish consciousness that is still felt today.

If you wonder why some Jews have all along opposed the very idea of Israel, here’s part of an answer: they hanker for the innocence of the unaffiliated scholar. And you, little George, what do you hanker for? A simpler world where, if we agree to lose, everyone else will agree to lose as well; where Murray can remain in love with failure and still beat Djokovic; where militancy will succumb to friendly persuasion; and where the quiet and the contemplative – the Leech Gatherers of the spiritual life – can survive to study texts without recourse to arms? Me too, little George. Me too.