Paul Scholes, or Multi Leveledness in Football

The career of Paul Scholes is a paradox, far beyond the fact that his retirement has been reversed, it collapsed, and it turned into the charades of an original, unexpected, late style. The midfielder’s diagram is isomorphic; the weight shifts, as in the different levels of a waterfall or for multistage loops. It is only a matter of intuition and aesthetic preference, determined by what we feel is natural, whether or not we recognize that, in a funny sense, the young man is still ‘inside’ the older self. Now are we, fans and observers of Scholes, also sucked into ourselves by virtue of looking at him? Not really. We manage to escape that particular vortex by being outside of the system. And when we look at the picture—by which I mean the real picture on the pitch, not its dry distillation into colored heat-maps or chalkboard arrows—we try to understand how even a small blemish or imperfection suggests the feeling of something astonishingly pictorial, so deeply woven into the fabric of his playing.

When Scholes is on, either for a few heart-pounding minutes, as a fixer who is trying to reschedule trains after too many wrong turnoffs, or from the beginning, as in the recent 2-1 against Liverpool, matters of physical inclusion become issues of concrete representation, and different kinds of “in-ness,” both amusing and disturbing, shuttle from arbitrary enjoyment to a satisfying logic. What is mentally in becomes artistically in—a vortex where all levels cross, a strikingly beautiful illustration of that cyclonic eye of Tangled Hierarchy a soccer midfield is always supposed to be.

There is a 1956 lithograph by the enigmatic and celebrated Dutch artist M. C. Escher, Print Gallery (reproduced above), that seems to operate at this very level, as a way to connect the top with the half below. What we see is a young man standing, looking at the image of a ship in the harbor of a small Mediterranean town. (Perhaps the town is Maltese or Cypriot, given the presence of several flat roof-tops and cupolas.) The boy stares, only to realize that his gesture finds a graphic correspondence in the woman looking down, afresh, from another route; the whole picture looks as a discussion of the classical Paradox of the Liar, credited by Diogenes Laertius (2.108) to the Megarian school of logicians.

Like a fractal cube or other cross-over cuboids, we can take Escher’s puzzling picture at face-vale, and consider it a contrived footnote to a secular debate in logic. In this vein, Laurence Goldstein insists that Escher’s use of self-referential shapes allows us to transcend the impasse of statements deemed to be either true or false [1]; to put it in footballing terms, Paul Scholes would possess an enigmatic elegance similar to that of a shrill Parmigianino mirror-figure, and he would deliberately pay attention to the contrast between ‘possible’ and ‘impossible’ as the boy in Print Gallery.

Another relevant point is raised by E. H. Gombrich in Art and Illusion, when he discusses Escher’s woodcut Other World (1947): “The print is an artist’s meditation on space, but it is also a demonstration of the beholder’s share; it is in trying to work out the intended relation of things and sights that we realize the paradoxes of his arrangement” [2]. As usual, Gombrich’s sensitivity is directed toward indexicality. To return, once again, to the green park, the figures that Paul Scholes rehearses and produces are, in Gombrich’s terms, pointers to a deeper footballing Truth—something at whose center presents an idea of multilayered whirl, simultaneously intertwined and looping like Marcel Duchamp’s Rotorelief of 1935.

A drama of cognition is thus mapped onto Paul Scholes, and it is precisely because of his late style—the delayed gratification we associate with a player’s ultimate synthesis—that we are invited to retrace the labyrinth of his visual field, to see at what point our eyes and brains have been led astray. As atop a tower or a terrace, we discover the intricacy of fantastic figures. The corners are tilting, and the words ‘beginning’ and ‘end’ don’t seem to work in a Euclidean fashion but rather following the reverberating, three-dimensional worlds created by Escher. In his book Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Braid, Douglas R. Hofstadter refers to this experience as a circular movement or endless process called Strange Loop: the “phenomenon occurs whenever, by moving upwards (or downwards) through the levels of some hierarchical system, we unexpectedly find ourselves right back where we started” [3]. Simply enough, it is possible to arrange for a central midfielder to return exactly to the starting point, even though this figure might or might not support Hofstadter’s accentuation of powerful and complex visual realizations as a parable of incompleteness. In other words, the mastery of Paul Scholes in the creation of loops does not need to be used to show him merely as a self-referential artist.

As a pattern, the loop is primarily a framework with which one could analyze the function of a master at work. Fascinated by Giambattista Vico’s cyclic theory and its slowly ascending spiral or vortex, James Joyce found the loop a convenient structure to use—a symbol, perhaps, of the Daedalean fashion in which as an author he moved around his work. A passer in midfield, by nature a navel-gazer, also directs his energies toward the loop framework in a similar way. Ultimately both Joyce (or Escher) and Scholes stand outside their media, like Barbara Stevens Heusel writes, “like gods paring their fingernails, seeing their material objectively while being seen participating in the process of creation” [4].

Joyce’s movement outside his fiction is a sequence that goes from the diary-form in A Portait of the Artist as a Young Man to the epiphanies of the Dubliners, and from the newspaper headlines and chapter-long sentences in Ulysses to the multilingual puns of Finnegans Wake. Escher’s willingness to reflect his own image very distinctly in his work is playfully carried through a number of graphic means, such as in Three Spheres II, a distorted, mirror-like borrowing from another medium: a framed world, or fictive window, that contains various surfaces that reflect and magnify both the artist’s eyes and the writing table.

Paul Scholes and his work reflect in part portraits of himself; that early Paul was every bit like the Stephen-hero of Joyce’s narrative, whereas during his recent return to Manchester United Scholes achieved a less personal and more abstract style, working out, like Bloom in Ulysses, the polarities of his own nature. As in Joyce, so for Scholes: form and typography are especially significant to capture the author’s ideas. Paul’s signatures are contained in his footballing style (irony and juxtaposition), even his typography—all of those black marks covering the pitch and the elaborate pyrotechnics being set off in our heads. (When watching midfield artists such as Scholes himself or Xabi Alonso, it takes a considerable time to appreciate that they have been tricking us with a structural pattern in the same way Escher does visually; one must retrace a labyrinth of behavior to realize shockingly that we have been anxious voyeurs, allowing us a glimpse of ourselves seeing.)

Those vivid, indeed Homeric initials P. S. reverberate in the United midfield like the black dots of punctuation ingrained in Joyce’s mind by the Jesuits. They are in comparable states of materializing and dematerializing: flat, static marks of passing coming to life. They call attention to what has been missing: a real passer in a playmaker’s role. There is something undeniably, hopelessly romantic in Alex Ferguson’s attempt at resurrecting Paul Scholes as a figure-and-ground grid of midfield floors. His metamorphosing creature emphasizes Ferguson’s preoccupation with medieval pedagogy and comments on the relationship of image to object, suggesting that the central area of United has been presumably too opaque for people perennially marching toward the upper-corner of the English league.

It is helpful to imagine Paul Scholes superimposed on what appears to be a two-dimensional representation of square beams and triangles resting upon each other. Without exaggerating either the mathematical or the architectural component—for the figure does remind us of the Cretan paradox of Epimenides—we can then imagine Scholes making the loop tighter, with a one-step self-reference followed by a two-step arch, or else opening it wider, by choosing to insert any number of intermediate levels, arcades, and buildings. One cannot help being reminded of music as well. The modulation schemes used by John Coltrane in “Giant Steps” would offer a great comparison, and this is even more true of Bach’s Musical Offering.

Roger Shepard, the psychologist who drew the tone scale shown above, observed that when Bach returns to C, it is an octave higher than at the exact original pitch. In footballing terms, a through-ball from midfield works on parallel scales in several different octave ranges. Each pass is weighted independently, and the notes always tend to rise, the weight to shift. With every curly stroke—almost a signature in the soccer grammar of the young Mesut Özil at Real Madrid—you make the top gradually fade out, while at the same time, if you’re stretching vertically the focus of play, you are gradually bringing in the bottom octave. In this way you can go up and up forever, and the illusion is bewilderingly strong. In his book J. S. Bach’s Musical Offering, Hans Theodore David writes: “Throughout the Musical Offering, the reader, performer, or listener is to search for the Royal theme in all its forms. The entire work, therefore, is a ricercar in the original, literal sense of the word” [5].

I think this is true of Paul Scholes; one cannot look deeply enough in his career. There is always more after one thinks one knows everything. There are tricky notes, some improvisations, and variations on a Ferguson’s Theme; there are complex fugues; there is beauty and extreme depth of emotion and commitment; even an exultation, as an old footballer, of the many-leveledness of the work that already came through. Like Joyce and Escher expressed the many-voiced fugue of the human mind, how appropriate it is for Scholes—how appropriate that an English canon would also be a rising Canon. ♦

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NOTES

[1] L. Goldstein, ‘Reflexivity, Contradiction, Paradox, and M. C. Escher,’ Leonardo, vol. 29, no. 4 (1996): 299-308.

[2] E.H. Gombrich, Art and Illusion (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1960), pp. 243-44.

[3] D.R. Hofstadter, Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Braid (New York: Vintage, 1980), p. 10.

[4] B. Stevens Heusel, ‘Joyce and the Drama of Cognition: Escher as a Visual Analogue,’ Twentieth Century Literature, 34 (1988): 400.

[5] H.T. David, J. S. Bach’s Musical Offering (New York: Dover, 1972), p. 43.

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  1. […] which the disorder and urgency of fiction coalesce [6]. Similarly, the deep-lying playmaker works in a hollow whirlpool, spinning the narrative out of a central point. When you step completely outside the football […]

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