Tuesday, June 14, 2011

From “Cricketing in Compton” to “The Cricketing Marxist”

I never cheated, I never appealed for a decision unless I thought the batsman was out, I never argued with the umpire, I never jeered at a defeated opponent. [….] If I caught myself complaining or making excuses I pulled up. If afterwards I remembered doing it I took an inward decision to try not to do it again. From the eight years of school life this code became the moral framework of my existence. It has never left me.—C.L.R. James[1]

“It’s Sunday in Compton, one of the world’s most notorious and violent drive-by capitals. Sergio Pinales pulls on a white vest, leaving starkly bare the tattoos that indelibly coat swaths of his skin. He positions a baseball hat atop his shaved head, grabs the leash of his pit bull and leaves his house, slamming the front door behind him. There’s a look of purpose about him as he climbs into his father’s Pontiac, which has been loaned to him for the outing. On this day, there is only one thing on his mind—cricket. ‘I guess you could say I switched my gun for a bat,’ says Pinales, 32, breaking into a smile that transforms him instantly from tough to teddy bear. ‘I mean, shit, what would I be doing with my time if I wasn’t playing cricket? I probably woulda ended up in jail. Or in some kinda bad situation. Cricket really turned things round for me.’” [….]

For the rest of this article by Lucy Broadbent for the LA Times Magazine, please see here.

I’ve never played cricket, and I know very little about the sport apart from the loyalties and passions it inspires among both players and spectators around the world, as well as the fact that this was perhaps one of the more innocuous if not beneficent by-products of British imperialism. As the article makes clear, it is conspicuous in particular for explicitly encouraging fidelity to the “spirit” of the game, in addition to the rules, and in a way that gives support to virtuous behavior generally:

Cricket is a unique game where in addition to the laws, the players have to abide by Spirit of the Game. The standard of sportsmanship has historically been considered so high that the phrase ‘it’s just not cricket’ was coined in the 19th Century to describe unfair or underhanded behaviour in any walk of life. In the last few decades though, cricket has become increasingly fast-paced and competitive, increasing the use of appealing and sledging, although players are still expected to abide by the umpires’ rulings without argument, and for the most part they do. Even in the modern game fielders are known to signal to the umpire that a boundary was hit, despite what could have been considered a spectacular save (though they might be found out by the TV replays anyway). In addition to this, some cricket batsmen, like Sachin Tendulkar and Adam Gilchrist have been known to ‘walk’ when they think they are out even if the umpire does not declare them out. This is a high level of sportsmanship, as a batsman can easily take advantage of incorrect umpiring decisions.” [emphasis added]

One of the leading black (‘Afro-Trinidadian’) intellectuals of the 20th century I’ve long admired is C.L.R. (Cyril Lionel Robert) James (1901-1989), aptly christened “The Cricketing Marxist.” His “partially autobiographical book,” Beyond a Boundary (1963), reveals the extent to which James questioned the adequacy of Marxism to treat topics outside of history, politics and economics,

“to deal with certain ‘large areas of human existence that my history and my politics did not seem to cover.’ These ‘areas’ encompassed such questions as ‘What did men live by? What did they want? What did history show that they wanted?’ To come to grips with these questions, James seems to be saying, Thackeray needed to be read together with Marx; and politics and economics needed to be supplemented by deep studies in social history.”[2]

In Beyond a Boundary, James explored a generous conception of “the political” through lens fashioned by cultural historians and social theorists. For a number of reasons, cricket became the subject that allowed him a unity of theoretical perspective and heuristic focus, “offer[ing] him an ideal terrain on which to examine the issues that interested him at a moment in his life, the mid-1950s, when certain assumptions that had guided him up to then turned out to be insufficient.” It was a work that polished a reputation during his lifetime as both “the black Plato” and “the black Hegel.” With Rosengarten, we might ask, “Why cricket?”

“Because this was a sport where many of the problems of social life were made manifest in the racial and class composition of the teams James played on and wrote about, in the significance which people of all ages attributed to the game, and in the qualities demonstrated by the sport’s greatest players: endurance, courage, strength, and above all, in James’s view, boldness and individuality. But there was another reason why cricket played such a prominent part in James’s life, and why he chose it as the main focus for his new book, and that was what he called his ‘Britishness,’ which he never foreswore. Throughout the book, James takes pains to valorize those English mores and values which were reinforced by traits of character that he had assimilated from his family. These were what he called his rigorous code of ethics on and off the playing field, and his ‘Puritan restraint,’ whose harmful effects he recognized but to whose basic standards he tried to adhere. Britishness also included an enormous respect and passion for the English literary tradition. One soon becomes aware that James would not have been the man and critical intellectual that he was without Shakespeare, Milton, Hazlitt, Shelley, Dickens, and Thackeray. Nor would he have been the man he was had he not been exposed to the Oxbridge teaching faculty at Queen’s Royal College.”[3]

[1] Quoted in Dave Renton, C.L.R. James: Cricket’s Philosopher King. London: Haus Books, 2007: 23.
[2] Frank Rosengarten, Urbane Revolutionary: C.L.R. James and the Struggle for a New Society. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2008: 234.
[3] Ibid., 236.


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