Sunday, January 15, 2017

Pindar and Christina Perri sing of people as a Shadow of a Dream: Sports glory, defeat and loneliness

This week after Cristiano Ronaldo won his best player award I remembered two things: one, an ancient greek song about glory and defeat in Sports, and, second, a sad love song by an Italian-American singer, Christina Perri. What a coincidence that Cristiano and Christina share a male/female pair of the same Christian name!

Glory in sports always reminds me of one of the most celebrated ancient Greek poets, the singer Pindar. Almost all of his surviving poems are Victory Odes, songs made to celebrate the victors at Greek games such as the Olympics. In the ancient world, only the wealthy had time to practice sports, therefore the winners of the Olympics and other games were usually rich and they would receive more wealth and admiration upon their return as heroes to their towns. Pindar wrote his poems and songs to praise his employers, the victorious sportsmen, yet he did so with an elegance and beauty that remind us that life is a brief period full of struggles, that not everyone is a celebrated winner, and that the winners of excellence and glory achieve victory only after years of hard labor, grit and persistence.  That is why the sports winners are admired by the gods, their countrymen, and even the jealous defeated. Pindar’s most famous poem, the Pythian 8, dedicated to a famous wrestler, is believed to have been written in his old age and in just a few lines mentions all these motives of hardship and fame.

The Greek bard reminds his listeners that winning is more than mere boasting. Very few are the lucky ones who became wealthy without effort of their own, and for some heroes victory is bittersweet for they return home and may find that a loved one died and will not celebrate their victory. The poet also sings that one’s victory is the defeat of many others, and just like in wrestling the glory raises up some men and crushes others into the ground. For those who fail to win often the aftermath is miserable and their previous supporters, perhaps not even their mothers, give them any comfort or celebration party:

“He who boasts gets tripped, in the fullness of time, by his own violence. (…) At home, though, the hero Adrastus’ fortune will be the opposite. For he alone of the army of Danaoi will have to gather the bones of a son who died. (…) Justice stands beside the sweet-singing victory procession. I pray that the gods may regard your fortunes without envy. For if anyone has noble achievements without long toil, many think he is wise, that his life is well. But that is not ordained to be for men. It is a god who grants fortune; raising up one man and throwing down another. Enter the struggle with due measure. (…) Returning to their mothers, sweet laughter does not rouse delight in them: hidden in alleys, they avoid their enemies, bitten by misfortune.”

Meanwhile the glorious victor celebrates his success, the respect and admiration of everyone is even more important than the material wealth gained.  Yet if the winner is wise, his happiness is disturbed by the knowledge that victory is a fleeting moment in the here and now, and often victory will quickly be followed by a defeat, when everyone will forget his past achievements.

“But whoever has as his lot something beautiful in the here and now, in a time of great splendor, such a man soars driven by his aspirations, lifted high in the air by his feats of manliness, thinking of that which is greater than wealth. In a short time the delight of mortals grows, but just as quickly it falls to the ground, shaken by adverse opinion. Creatures of a day are we. What is someone? What is a no one? Man is the dream of a shadow. But whenever the radiance of Zeus comes, a bright light and gentle life pleases him.”

This is probably Pindar’s last work, he would have been an old man by now, and he sees that both successes and misfortunes are transient and ephemeral. Joy is insubstantial, the dream of a shadow. Men is the creature of a day, nothing more than fleeting dream. Only the worship of religion and the gods, “the radiance of Zeus” gives lasting wisdom and guides our lives. Perhaps this is a lesson for athletes and also sports’ fans today – we must find higher meaning in our lives, rather than just watching silly games. Both famous people and the unknown ones will all be forgotten one day. In fact, Pindar’s most famous line “Man is the dream of a shadow” echoes the thoughts of other Greek tragedians such as Aeschyllus (“The race of mortals thinks only for today and is no more to be relied on than the shadow of smoke.”), Sophocles (in his play Philoctetes, the hero Neoptolemus does not realize he fought against a mere phantom, the shadow of smoke) and even of the Bible, in particular the book of wisdom, the Ecclesiastes (“Who knows what is good for mortals while they live the few days of their vain life, which passes by like a shadow?”). St. James said our life is but a vapor.

That is Pindar’s song: one day we are a great success, another day we are a humiliated loser. How many athletes and coaches today can say they shared this feeling before? Everyone. Cristiano Ronaldo must have felt this feeling and he even shared a tragedy mentioned by Pindar for once he won a game with Portugal’s team, only to find out that his father had passed away.

All of us, normal people, non-athletes, surely shared the same feeling many times. How many times did we look in the eyes of our spouses, partners or even our parents, just to find a feeling of deception and disappointment? Christina Perri sings exactly of this in her chilly song “The Lonely”. Perri wrote the song about her relationship with no one, "nobody or with this ghost of somebody": “Crying off my face again. The silent sound of loneliness wants to follow me to bed. I'm the ghost of a girl that I want to be most. I'm the shell of a girl that I used to know well.”

The major losers today are the unloved ones. Our society is particularly obsessed with those who are less beautiful, unloved and lonelier, and that is why we invented the internet, Facebook and many of the social media, so we feel more in-contact and less alone by ourselves. Probably in the ancient world, such as Pindar’s time, this kind of loneliness was not as common, because people stayed in their hometown and close to their families all their lives. Only a few brave ones would move alone to other cities to study for college and find jobs. Today even people as young as freshmen college students will have felt feelings of loneliness, abandonment, lack of love and rejection, all of this at an age as young as 18!

I end with the links to two translations of Pindar’s poem and Christina’s beautiful song:

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