PUBLISHERS OF LITERARY FICTION SINCE 1983
At first sight, the idea that two such hothouse orchids as Medlar Lucan and I might concern ourselves with Sport seems incongruous in the extreme. The only sort of running either of us has done is that of a bath full of unguents and rose petals; the only time we have vaulted a bar was to get at an exceedingly rare bottle of absinthe we had spotted at Ludovico’s in Venice; and the only time we employ ‘Higher – Faster – Stronger’ is as a mantra in our search for the perfect narcotic.
This is not to say that we are entirely indifferent to sport and sporting events. I have a clear memory of the seminal moment in 2005 when it was announced that London had been chosen as the site for the 2012 Olympic games. Medlar and I had been living in Cuba for several years and we were listening to the news as it came crackling through in Spanish on the radio of our 1961 Pontiac Bonneville while cruising the muddy streets of Baracoa. Both of us were jubilant. Not because we have any particular affection for London. Quite the contrary. The city is nothing more than a collection of undistinguished villages which draws in more and more vulgar spivs every year. No, the reason for our jubilation was the prospect of witnessing a massive expenditure by the capital on an extravagantly pointless event which would have had any heavily bemedalled despot clapping their hands in delight. If ever you are looking for evidence of a nation in decline, the single-minded desire to host a major international sporting event is it. Small wonder that the word ‘ludicrous’ is derived from the Latin for a game.
At the time of the announcement, of course, conditions were such that the whole project had at least a slim chance of success. The moment was opportune. A buoyant economy. No sign of recession. Imagine, then, our increasing delight as the global economic crisis turned what seemed to be a bold venture into one of supreme foolishness. (It was also at this time, by coincidence, that Medlar was spending more and more time in Greece, the birth canal of the Olympics, watching with fascination as that country sank into a mire of debt). The stage was set for us to sit back and enjoy a performance of hubris and futility by a decayed imperial power which, like Norma Desmond, refuses to believe it is a has-been and embrace its own decline. “Oh, to be a Decadent in such an age when downfalls are everywhere and every inch of common air throbs a tremendous prophecy of greater catastrophes yet to be.” This is not exactly what Walt Whitman wrote, but I like to think it is what he meant.
But the question remains: Why this book? What possible link is there between Decadence and Sport?
Before Medlar and I arrived in Havana in early 2000, we would have answered this question with an unequivocal: “There is none”. However, our first lodgings in the Cuban capital happened to be a suite of splendidly decrepit rooms on the piano nobile of a crumbling 19th century town house which also housed a fine old Havana boxing club. Up through the floorboards each day drifted the perfume of youthful sweat and leather, the sweet dull sound of padded fist against flesh accompanied by staccato grunts. Each time we passed the massage room on our way out of the building we caught a glimpse of the hardened bodies of young athletes glistening like dark armour stretched out on the tables. Some were injured and receiving treatment. Undoubtedly, there is no more beautiful sight than that of a polychromatic bruise or a bead of blood against dark skin. I was immediately transported back to the time we spent in New Orleans, and in particular to the Fencing School there. It was not long before Medlar and I, irresistibly drawn into the atmosphere of the boxing club, found ourselves acting in an unofficial capacity with regard to its young denizens. We became self-appointed... what? ‘Spiritual advisors?’ That might be too strong a term, although ‘sports psychologists’ or ‘motivators’ would be simply hideous. The correct title does not occur to me at the moment, although we now perform a similar role for a Women’s Gymnastics team. More of that anon. Let us return to the subject of bruising.
Pain, the Athlete and the Decadent
One area where the Athlete and the Decadent meet and embrace is on the field of pain. The Athlete confronts pain, courts it, risks it, whether from pushing the body beyond its natural limits, or through violent contact with other bodies. The Decadent likewise embraces pain, seeks it out, whether it is self-inflicted, inflicted by others or on others. Both Athlete and Decadent seek to break through the barrier of pain; the one to gain self-overcoming, the other to find transcendental pleasure. Are not all Athletes masochists at heart?
Ever since my boyhood I have known that writing about and describing the nature of pain is exceptionally difficult, as slippery as the depiction of any ecstatic moment. Some would say that pain destroys language, stops up the voice, makes writing impossible. (Nietzsche could only write by anaesthetising himself with ferocious medicines). Or else it causes the body to revert to the noises and cries which only emerge when language gives out. This is why certain crazed physicians have developed dolorimeters and sonic palpometers to measure pain scientifically. It is noteworthy that the medical profession knows next to nothing about the one thing it deals with daily. This is a bit like the Catholic church admitting that it does not really understand what Sin is. (I can assure you, dear reader, that the Catholic church understands everything there is to understand about Sin). So, in a spirit of investigation, I set myself the task of carrying out some research into the matter of describing pain, which I am sure will make a major contribution to our body of knowledge.
Early on in my searches I came across a very exciting-sounding article on this subject. It was entitled Camp Sports Injuries: Analysis of Causes, Modes and Frequencies. I wondered what might count as a ‘camp sport’, let alone a ‘camp sports injury’. Drag queen cage slapping, perhaps? Or feather duster fencing? I imagined the dislocated wrist, the handbag cut, the agony of the broken fingernail or smudged lipstick. In reading the article I found out that it was concerned with injuries sustained by 7 to 15 year-olds in an American summer camp. Here was precisely the sort of academic research for which Medlar and I are particularly well qualified. I lost interest however when I realised that the point of the article was to suggest ways in which such injuries might be prevented.
Next I turned my attention to pain indexes, or indices (depending on whether one protects oneself with Durexes or Durices). Despite the difficulty of giving an accurate account of pain, some have attempted to go even further and to categorise it, to ascribe a value to different levels of pain. One such is the Schmidt index. Designed by entomologist Justin O. Schmidt, it purports to describe and rank the pain experienced from insect bites and stings. Hence:
1.0 Sweat Bee. Light, ephemeral, almost fruity. A tiny spark has singed a single hair on your arm.
1.2 Fire Ant. Sharp: sudden, mildly alarming. Like walking across a shag carpet and reaching for the light switch.
1.8 Bullhorn Acacia Ant. A rare, piercing, elevated sort of pain. Someone has fired a staple into your cheek.
2.0 Bald-faced Hornet. Rich, hearty, slightly crunchy. Similar to getting your hand mashed in a revolving door.
2.0 Yellowjacket. Hot and smoky, almost irreverent. Imagine W. C. Fields extinguishing a cigar on your tongue.
2.2 Honey Bee and European Hornet. Like a match head that flips off and burns on your skin.
3.0 Red Harvester Ant. Bold and unrelenting. Somebody is using a drill to excavate your ingrown toenail.
3.0 Paper Wasp. Caustic and burning. Distinctly bitter aftertaste. Like spilling a beaker of hydrochloric acid on a paper cut.
4.0 Tarantula Hawk. Blinding, fierce, shockingly electric. A running hair drier has been dropped into your bubble bath.
4.0+ Bullet Ant. Pure intense brilliant pain. Like fire-walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch rusty nail in your heel.
This index is of course absurd, a mixture of hyperbole and the surreal, accompanied by a numerical value which relates to nothing at all. It fails to convey even a vague sense of the nature of pain. This is because it is obviously not rooted in personal experience. How can Herr Schmidt possibly know what it feels like to fire-walk with a three inch rusty nail in his heel? Besides, the whole point about fire-walking is that the walker feels no pain. No, this won’t do.
A more engaging read is the McGill index which goes to the opposite extreme, attempting to furnish a broad, common vocabulary for levels of pain. Sufferers are presented with a list of adjectives to choose from:
Flickering, Pulsing, Quivering, Throbbing, Beating, Pounding
Jumping, Flashing, Shooting
Pricking, Boring, Drilling, Stabbing
Sharp, Cutting, Lacerating
Pinching, Pressing, Gnawing, Cramping, Crushing
Tugging, Pulling, Wrenching
Hot, Burning, Scalding, Searing
Tingling, Itchy, Smarting, Stinging
Dull, Sore, Hurting, Aching, Heavy
Tender, Taut (tight), Rasping, Splitting
Fearful, Frightful, Terrifying
Punishing, Gruelling, Cruel, Vicious, Killing
Annoying, Troublesome, Miserable, Intense, Unbearable
Spreading, Radiating, Penetrating, Piercing
Tight, Numb, Squeezing, Drawing, Tearing
Cool, Cold, Freezing
Nagging, Nauseating, Agonising, Dreadful, Torturing
Reading this index reminds me of a weekend house party which Medlar and I attended recently in Montevideo. It is more of menu than a description. One could imagine arriving at one of Berlin’s more recondite establishments and ordering ‘some no. 4 followed by no. 10 and a side order of no. 20.’ But again, this index is too inconsistent. How can pain be simultaneously ‘annoying’ and ‘unbearable’? The problem with these indexes is that they are all terribly negative. They fail to register, or even acknowledge, the extent of pleasure which can be derived from pain.
In response to the inadequacy of existing indexes, my own efforts in this area have resulted in the Lucan and Gray Colour-Coded Index of Decadent Pain, based largely on E. M. Cioran’s idea that the limit of every pain is an even greater pain. The index reads thus:
Blue – this is the level of pain which evokes the involuntary gasp, the uncontrolled whimper, a point at which the body speaks directly without the will of the speaker. Medlar is very keen on the distinction between pain which causes an inhalation, as if the body wants to take in the intensity to control it, and pain which causes an exhalation, as if the body wants to expel the sensation. For the Decadent of course the former is by far the preferable course of action. Anyone who has felt the spiteful bite of the cane will recognise this.
Green – tears and sweetness. Often this level of pain is accompanied by other physical sensations such as the scent of rotting lilies or a feeling of sanctity. This pain can be administered by somebody close to you, or else a stranger. It results in feelings of deep-seated gratitude towards the perpetrator. The narrator of Venus in Furs writes: “The blows fell rapidly and powerfully on my back and arms. Each one cut into my flesh and burned there, but the pains enraptured me. They came from her whom I adored, and for whom I was ready at any hour to lay down my life”.
Black – dark pain. Depression and fear and anxiety. It becomes a companion and tormentor, one which never leaves your side. You may attempt to befriend it. You may even take it as a lover, in the hope that this will transform it in some way. The horror of this pain is that it has no source and no cause.
Red – the scream. This is that pain which one feels of such intensity that it leaves one teetering on the edge of the abyss, quite uncertain as to whether or not one will plunge headlong into unconsciousness. It is that liminal state across which the spirit wanders back and forth, like a brain-damaged boxer.
Purple – the moment of sublime beauty. The moment when pain becomes so intense that it surpasses all understanding and perception. It is no longer something that happens to the body; it is the body. This is the point where pain is both closest and furthest away. In other words it is where pain threatens to become transcendent, or even sublime. To misquote Antoine Artaud:
The purple horror
Of exceeding oneself
In that extreme pain
Which will no longer be pain in the end.
That is what I never stopped thinking.
White – this is the rarest and most exquisite of the stages. The moment should be looked out for and yet any anticipation of white pain will change its nature. The body has to be taken unawares. Often it lasts little more than a second or two and it precedes a loss of consciousness. At first there appears to be no pain at all. There is a moment of great calm, like the eye of a storm, before an explosion of hurt where the body, the mind, and the soul disappear. The degree of pain experienced is such that it fills the entire universe.