Winning at sport is no compensation for a lack of purpose in one's life

Let's be grateful for the self-knowledge that only those who are lost can find themselves by winning
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The Independent Online

So here we are laid low again. After all the delusional expectations - so much pie in the sky, so many châteaux en Espagne, as our equally deflated neighbours put it - normal service is resumed. No good at football, no good at rugby, no good at one-day cricket, and no better at tennis than our accustomed Wednesday of the second week. What ails us?

So here we are laid low again. After all the delusional expectations - so much pie in the sky, so many châteaux en Espagne, as our equally deflated neighbours put it - normal service is resumed. No good at football, no good at rugby, no good at one-day cricket, and no better at tennis than our accustomed Wednesday of the second week. What ails us?

Nothing, is the answer. We just excel at other things. Losing, to name one. We are the best, we are the world champions, at losing. And I don't mean that to be facetious. Not to have the will to win is a negative possession of immense worth. It's winning that's the pathology, not losing.

Only look at America.

Regular readers of this column will know better than to read that as an invitation to bash Bush, deride the neo-cons, compute the number of bombs America has dropped on the innocent since Vietnam, and otherwise rehash the Michael Moore almanac of easy outrage. We do not say there is no legitimacy in any of Moore's charges; we only say a child can make them. Just for once, anyway, let "Only look at America" be a call to sympathy. How terrible to be as Americans are. How lucky we are to be different.

And wherein lies the difference? In Bowling for Columbine, shown on Film Four last week, Michael Moore found a quintessentialising image for le malaise américain in the Columbine High School massacre, and sought to lay the blame for that tragedy on guns, American foreign policy, institutionalised racism, the absence of a welfare state, capitalism, Charlton Heston, and the manufacture of fear. Scatter enough pellets and some will draw blood. An unfortunate metaphor in the context, I agree, but blame Michael Moore for that. Fight fire with fire and you risk becoming as indiscriminately belligerent as those you oppose. "The reason you don't need to tote a gun," I kept expecting someone to tell him, "is that you are a gun."

I was unpersuaded early, let's leave it at that, by the newsreel footage of American bombs falling on the usual catalogue of victim states. Vietnam, El Salvador, Iraq, Kosovo ... Come again? Wasn't Clinton's crime, in the eyes of most liberals, that he didn't have the cojones to begin bombing Kosovo earlier? If, as Michael Moore speculated, there was a profound psychic connection between the Columbine High School massacre and the bombs which had rained on Kosovo the night before, then it is immaterial whether a country uses arms in a good cause or in a bad. Whatever we do, short of doing nothing at all, we destabilise our kids.

The truth is, our kids are already destabilised if they happen to be American, by simple virtue of where they live. Assuming it isn't already in constant use by those who study the psychology of nations and nationhood, I would like to coin a term for what destabilises them - New World Neurosis.

Not to put too fine a point on it, living in a new country - new to the people who have colonised it, that is - makes you ill. I have never met an Australian yet who isn't melancholy as a matter of national temperament. When you turn up from overseas, they cannot conceal their eagerness for news. When you depart, no matter how pleased they think they are to see you go, they cannot conceal the resentment they feel that yet again you are leaving them marooned as on an alien star, a million miles from home. Melancholy isn't violence, I grant you. But there was never yet a sunny-tempered killer.

Visit the Edward Hopper show at Tate Modern and you will see the same story told about America. The cliché has it that Hopper is the poet of the desolate urban landscape, painting the tawdriness and alienation of modern life. Such certainly preponderate, but they are at the service of a grander insight: that in America nothing has happened yet, nothing in the way of individuating history or experience has been laid down, and as a consequence every person in every bar and hotel room is in a state of dull expectancy, waiting for their purpose to be explained to them.

So much of the art we call modern has played with the fag end of our civilisation, finding inspiration in the non-fulfilment of our long-hatched hopes and schemes. In Hopper it is as though those hopes and schemes are not only still to be fulfilled, but still to be disclosed. His nudes sit on the edges of their hotel beds, with neither before nor after to animate them. Compare their emptiness with that of any Sickert nude, also despondent in the faceless city, and you realise that all loneliness is not the same; that you can be desolate with the weight of the experience you bear, and that you can be desolate simply with absence of eventuation.

Sickert often paints the aftermath of crimes of the heart, the atmosphere sickly with disenchantment and betrayal. Failure of trust.

Failure of love. All the oppressions of past time. Hopper's world, by contrast, is achingly innocent. Without narrative because without history. The seduction of what we have come to think of as the characteristic Hopper pose - someone gazing into nowhere - lies in the appeal to us to complete it. Each of his figures awaits the meaning we might give him, like the first Adam, a thing of dust, awaiting God's animating breath. In an individual this would be considered a dangerous psychosis. The person has no self. What do we call this vacuum in a nation?

So am I saying that it is Hopper with his evacuated cityscapes who explains why America is still searching for something it can call a soul, and not Michael Moore with all his flailing political indictments? Reader, I am. In the meantime, let's be grateful that here we bear the burden of an ancient self-knowledge. Part of which is to recognise that only those who are lost need to find themselves by winning.

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