Benjamin and Soccer. A Russian Tableaux

For S/J

For years now I have been haunted by a page in Walter Benjamin’s Moscow Diary, a hibernal physiognomy of the Russian capital written in 1927, where along with men at work, soldiers, and neighboring pedestrians strolling on the asphalt, soccer itself makes an appearance, an unparalleled feat in the annals and the boulevards of writing of this extraordinary thinker. It is a lyric passage for the soccer ball to be caught in—stumbling around the cavities of the paved sidewalk with a bric-à-brac of old cups, trinkets, cutlery, dog collars and lampshades; its idle rolling the best way to tangle up the afternoon in the net of the evening, or as Benjamin later wrote in Paris in one of his most orthodox Marxist statements, “a demonstration against the division of labor.”

Like an electric omnibus rattling on the Stock Market Square, the peculiar irresolution of the amateurs and the passersby opens a furrowed walkway toward modernity, where the gentle gait is finished and dexterity for speed prevails. “I wandered,” remembers the German-Jewish writer, “in the bitter cold through the construction sites, parade grounds, and churches on the left bank of the Moskva. I watched the Red Army soldiers drilling as children played soccer between their ranks. Young girls emerged from a school. Across from the stop where I finally took a streetcar home, there was a luminous red church with a long red wall extending to the street, a tower and domes. I was all the more drained by my wanderings because I was carrying an unwieldy package containing three little houses made out of colored paper, which, for the enormous price of thirty kopeks, I had with great difficulty procured from a stall on one of the main streets of the left bank.” The architecture of this page is like a peculiar Muscovite cake, written as if what mattered was to become a friend of the great outdoors.

By 1945, when the Dynamo Moscow came to England for an exhibition tour, cheered from the field at Chelsea and warmly received upon their arrival in Cardiff, the playful soccer exercises of the children on the street and the drills of the soldiers would be virtually indistinguishable; as velocipedists replaces boatmen and coachmen, the skills of football players was hammered in gymnasia and arenas, with only a touch of that old indecision—contained in Schiller’s phrase “the hesitant wing of the butterfly”—which is so characteristic, in Moscow, of streetscapes and vodka intoxication. Like the flâneur, soccer is a great observer of the marketplace; his task is to know the industrial trends and upheavals to spy for the capitalists, for the Party or for the plutocrats. After a late and controversial 3-3 draw with Chelsea, even Radio Moscow admitted that Dynamo’s finishing was weak, but the reactions from the British side were much warmer. Charles Buchan, former England captain, wrote for the News Chronicle to compare Dynamo to the Austrian wunderteam of the 1930s, and characterized the Russian style as ‘Scottish’. Arthur Grimsdell, another former captain of England, was convinced that Dynamo played in the old Corinthian way: “they excelled in trapping, interchange of position and crisp passing with the ball kept on the ground as much as possible.”

Benjamin’s speculation gives sports (and music) only a small place, but it is possible that his Russian diary captures the prehistory of this stylistic fluctuation with the economy of a single brush of ink—an annotation that is all the more suggestive because it takes shape against the gloomy background of a group of poor, eradicated intellectuals trying to find tickets to see a production of Gogol in what amounts to an elusive, and rather unsympathetic, representation of institutional failings. Benjamin’s admiration of soccer drills is genuinely bohemian and phantasmagoric: it feels as though there was still a regular stagecoach line between Scotland and Moscow.

In the measure in which Benjamin’s Moscow Diary paints the dilemma of a writer seduced by the Revolution yet unwilling to commit, and the account of a masochistic love affair with his Latvian host Asja Lacis, the soccer tableaux seen in a moment of laissez-faire on the street is a “constellation of awakening.” The Corinthian-style football of the era, so similar to that of Bethlehem Steel FC across the Atlantic, comes only in lightning flashes, its textuality the intermittent rolls of thunder that follow. To encompass both Lenin reading Pravda and the origins of Dynamo Moscow would mean, to use yet another image from the later Passagen-Werk, drawing the spirit of contemporary Russia like a bow, with which knowledge shoots the moment in the heart.

Invariably, cultural representations of soccer, like the 1938 novel The Goalkeeper written by Lev Kassil (with a thinly veiled reference to Plato’s Republic) alternate between the interior and the exterior, as between the capacity of the football park to project or absorb light. With greater distinction than in other aspects of the social life of working class people, in the contours of the game survive equal parts of stagnation and prognostication. Soccer, fittingly for Benjamin’s philosophy, is made of one side that is ‘forward-looking’, ‘lively’, ‘positive’, and another side which is abortive, retrograde and obsolescent. The nature of the game is a sincere, unalienated human activity described by Marx in the Grundrisse of 1865 when he contrasts the paid scribbler to the authentic poet, who produces his work “like the silkworm produces silk, as the active affirmation [Betätigung] of his own nature.” The founding concept of soccer in Moscow is not progress, but actualization. The full force of the panorama opening out to Benjamin has every reason to incorporate, rung by rung, Alpine landscapes and golden bombs, glass architectures of the type of Paul Scheerbart’s novels, and the cascading comets of Dynamo players—for the aura of novelty, like the glasses tingling in a Bill Evans recording at the Village Vanguard, is always the aura of the habitual. ♦

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