The young men float on their backs, their white bellies bulge
to the sun, they do not ask who seizes fast to them, They do not know who puffs and declines with pendant and bending arch,
They do not think whom they souse with spray.10
This part of “Song of Myself” is often cited in queer literary studies because Whitman identifies across gender in order to conjure an erotic intimacy between men. At first glance, it looks like a form of literary drag adopted by the poet in order to express forbidden homosexual desire, in which the woman acts as a “cover” for that which cannot be expressed. However, the geometry of this scene is even more complicated than this. In principle, another boy would be welcome; his presence would not disturb the pleasure of the scene. If this woman’s presence were to be discovered, however, the liquid erotics of the poem would evaporate. Were she to be seen, it would ruin everything. When the poet identifies with her, then, he identifies with both her desire to participate and her exclusion from participation–with the sense, too, that when she enters the water (itself a feminine space to which she belongs, but from which she has been banned), she makes something latent into something painfully visible. She produces sex (as a possibility, as difference) and takes (their) pleasure away. The artist Julie Tolentino has “(I Am) the 29th Bather” tattooed on the inside of her upper right arm. She hides lines of the poem in the setting for her performances, scrawled on strips of paper tucked out of the audience’s sight. Even as the poem seems to require the 29th bather’s invisibility, that invisibility gives Tolentino permission, under the cloak of parentheses, to enter the space of performance.
Most representations of men and sport focus on images like the one observed by the twenty-ninth bather–men and boys being men and boys together, unselfconscious and “in” their bodies. Such work takes on this scene without her critical engagement, without the “misrecognition” by which she imagines this kind of being-together as formed around an openly shared erotic. Such scenes are, of course, formed around a shared and psychoanalytically classic disavowal of that erotic connection. Take the affection that marks It’s Only a Game?: The Diary of a Professional Footballer, Eamon Dunphy’s memoir describing his last year playing for Millwall, the london professional soccer club infamous for the hooliganism of its fans:
When you share a job with somebody in football, a relationship develops between you, an under- standing that you do not have with players doing a totally different job. If you are just knocking a ball between you, on a training ground, a relationship develops between you. It’s a form of expression– you are communicating as much as if you are making love to somebody. If you take two players who work together in midfield, say, they will know each other through football as intimately as two lovers…It’s a very close relationship you build up when you are resolving problems together, trying to create situations together. It’s an unspoken relationship, but your movements speak, your game speaks… You don’t necessarily become closer in a social sense, but you develop a close unspoken understanding.11
The cover of Dunphy’s book carries an endorsement from novelist nick Hornsby, who declares “what sets Dunphy’s memoir apart is its honesty and lack of sentimentality.” This is a strange thing to say about both Dunphy’s memoir and soccer culture. I am not sure if it is possible to write an honest memoir about soccer without sentimentality, or at least without engaging its sentimental rituals. The emotional intensity of daytime soap operas pales in comparison with the operatic scale allotted to men’s feelings when the match of the day flickers onto the screen. Then you will see guys wrap their arms around each other in drunken tenderness. They will sing show tunes when their teams need encouragement (like “You’ll never Walk Alone,” a song from the musical Carousel, made famous by Doris Day and Judy Garland, and a Liverpool FC favorite when the chips are down). Their shoulders will heave as they weep at a momentous loss, and tears of joy fall from their cheeks when a last minute goal wins them an improbable victory. Their eyes mist over as they remember the glory days of Baggio, Garrincha, or Best, and they indulge in nostalgia for a time when the game seemed more honest, and the men more real.12 Hornsby’s assertion is more nearly a symptom of the common fantasy that men’s relationships to sport are somehow not sentimental, and that sports culture unfolds in a separate sphere from which all things womanly have been expelled. The Football Factory (Nick Love, 2004) thus opens with a gang of white working class “hooligans” beating down Tottenham fans they’ve smoked out of a local north london pub. A woman passing by screams at them, calling them out as a bunch of losers. The film’s protagonist stops to listen to her. As he does so, he takes a hard punch on the side of his head and is pulled back into the fray. In a voiceover, he muses on how he’d rather be brawling with these men than sitting at home in a sexless marriage. In this opening sequence women literally represent a dangerous distraction. Watching the men grapple with each other, it was hard to miss the way such scenes convert desire into hate, intimacy into violence and the way that sex (as possibility, as difference) is the point around which all this energy pivots.
If anything, as the above passage indicates, Dunphy is remarkably honest about the tenderness of his emotional attachments to the game and the men who play it with him. Elaborate protocols of reading and viewing manage how we see and experience these scenes of intimacy and belonging, even in art criticism (which you would think would be a more hospitable environment for the queer read than sports journalism). Douglas Gordon and Philippe Perrano’s Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait (2006), for example, is not unlike Dunphy’s memoir. Multiple cameras reproduce for us the experience of keeping company with the athlete in the middle of the arena during a football match. The film exploits what Eve Sedgwick calls the “privilege of unknowing” which allows us all to luxuriate in the spectacle of Zidane’s athleticism without, however, considering what it is that we are doing as our eyes linger over the crook of Zidane’s neck, as we admire the sweaty sheen of his skin, or contemplate the sublimity of the athlete’s weathered face.13 Take Michael Fried’s remarkable appreciation of Zidane’s total absorption in the game:
- Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself,” in Leaves of Grass (New York: Norton, 2002), sec. 11, II, 199-216.↵
- Eamon Dunphy, Only A Game?: The Diary of a Professional Footballer (2nd ed. London: penguin, 1998), 30.↵
- The only book about soccer devoid of sentimentality of which I am aware is a comparative economics study by Stefan Szymanski and Andrew Zimbalist, National Pastime: How Americans Play Baseball and the Rest of the World Plays Soccer (Washington: Brookings Institute Press, 2005).↵
- Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “The Privilege of Unknowing,” Tendencies (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993), 23-51.↵