Monday, April 14, 2014
Schopenhauer and Sports as Performance Art
"If life—the craving for which is the very essence of our being—were possessed of any positive intrinsic value, there would be no such thing as boredom at all: mere existence would satisfy us in itself, and we should want for nothing. But as it is, we take no delight in existence except when we are struggling for something; and then distance and difficulties to be overcome make our goal look as though it would satisfy us." - Arthur Schopenhauer
Schopenhauer was a 19th century German philosopher. His best known work is called "The World as Will and Representation." In it he states that the basic human desire is not only the basis of ourselves - but of the world in general. This desire or "Will" is not rational and therefore the world is not rational. Our own desires are the root of our pain - because we rarely fully obtain that which we desire - and even when we do "every satisfaction lays the seeds of some new desire, so that there is no end to the wishes of each individual will."
The conundrum of life is that our desires lead to pain, or if attained, simply to new desires - and yet the answer is not to have no desires - because then life would be meaningless. For Schopenhauer the best we can do is to lower our expectations for how we will feel when we've accomplished what we desire. We also have to understand that life is made up of the actions we take to realize our goals - rather than the attainment of those goals - which can feel empty and embarrassingly vain once we attain them.
The other important concept in Schopenhauer's writings are related to the difference between the thing in itself and a representation of that thing. This is an idea that comes from Plato - with his allegory of the cave. Schopenhauer thought that music and visual art are important because they allow us to experience a concept (love, loss, joy etc) in a more abstract way then how we experience them in real life. In art (aka aesthetic contemplation) we no longer simply perceive a thing - but we become immersed in that thing to such an extent that the perceiver and perception become one. In that moment of aesthetic contemplation, we are actually released from the pain of desire.
He thought that the Dutch still life paintings were some of the greatest art - because they focused on the beauty of everyday objects. Sports are, in a way, also a representation of concepts that are deeply human. Competition, physical prowess, determination, struggle - all of these very human concepts are in play with sports. Many times people ridicule sports "fanatics" because they seem to care about something so deeply that "doesn't really matter." I think Schopenhauer would say that's the point. I can't sit in the chair in Van Gogh's painting of his room at Arles - I can't sleep it its bed. But I can get a sense of the coziness of such a room - and what it would feel like to be in it.
Sports allow us to feel real struggle - without it being a true life or death situation. Yesterday I ran 17 miles in some miserable weather. It was in the mid-40's, raining, and windy. At first it wasn't too bad - but about half-way through it started pouring. I was soaked to the bone - my legs started to go numb at one point. And yet I was happy with myself. I didn't see one other runner the entire 17 miles - Kendra said "Well that's because you were crazy to be running out in that weather!" She's probably right - but I think why it made me happy is that I got to feel as if I was overcoming some great obstacle for some higher purpose. That purpose probably doesn't really mean anything to anybody other than me - but that's exactly why it matters. That run was a struggle - but it was more an aesthetic contemplation of Struggle - and therefore it allowed me to detach from the things in this world that cause me actual suffering. In running I get to a place that, as Schopenhauer would say, is "pure, will-less, and timeless." I think if you ask any artist - that's exactly the place that they attempt to obtain when they perform.
Here was my training from last week:
Monday - 4 mile run (30 minutes)
Tuesday - Morning: 1500y swim (30 minutes)
Afternoon: 36 mile bike (2 hours)
Wednesday - Morning: 3000y swim (1 hour)
Afternoon: 6 mile run (45 minutes)
Thursday - 4 mile run (30 minutes)
Friday - Morning: 3000y swim (1 hour)
Afternoon: 6 mile run (45 minutes)
Saturday - 56 mile bike (3 hours) followed by 4 mile run (30 minutes)
Sunday - 17 mile run (2 hours)
Total - Swim: 2.5 hours Bike: 5 hours Run: 5 hours (12.5 hours)