A Good Conversation is Like a (Good) Game of Tennis
Benjamin Markovits on the Value of Making Contact
At the end of Blow-Up—Antonioni’s 1966 movie about a photographer who discovers a dead body in one of his pictures of a London park—a bunch of fashion yahoos crowded onto a sort of army jeep lurch raucously toward a public tennis court. They’re wearing overalls and stripes and their faces are powdered white. A couple of them, a man and a woman, walk on court and start to play tennis with an imaginary ball—the others (maybe a dozen) line the chain-link fence and react silently to the game.
Strict rules are not observed. The woman serves underhand from two feet inside the baseline, and her opponent spends most of his time in the no-man’s-land between baseline and net. When he loses the first point, and angrily throws his imaginary racket on the ground, he has no one but himself to blame.
All of their movements are exaggerated, to show movement; they’re always on the verge of losing their balance.
The actor Michael Caine, who was making his name around the same time, tells this story about his early career. He was doing rep theatre and supposed to appear drunk in a scene. But he couldn’t get it right, and finally the producer pulled him aside. A drunk man, he explained, is someone trying to walk straight; you’re trying to walk crooked. The tennis players in Blowup are trying to walk crooked.Tennis is the sport most often compared to a conversation.
Last week, I sat and listened to a series of job talks for a position teaching creative writing at the university where I’m a professor. Candidates had to discuss their teaching practice in the light of their own work—it’s an awful thing to ask them to do. In effect, you are trying to steer them into the kind of confession which if they were making it over drinks at a cocktail party you would desperately try to steer them away from. And then we were somehow supposed to judge between them. It’s a bit like replacing a tennis match with a conversation about a tennis match and seeing who wins. Where one player says, I serve the ball, really hard, right in the corner, and the other responds, I lunge and reach it with my racket and send it screaming cross-court, dipping just over the net and inside the line . . .
Tennis is the sport most often compared to a conversation. Part of the point of academic philosophy, so far as I can tell, is to make sure that what when people have conversations or arguments those arguments actually make contact with each other—the two parties are playing with the same ball. This is why philosophers say things to you like (my sister and brother are both philosophers), I don’t understand what you think you mean. They mean, you haven’t actually hit the ball; or maybe, you’re not even really playing with a ball at all. And even though it annoys me when they say it, I often feel when talking about books (what’s good and isn’t, and why), that what I’m doing is reacting on the sideline to that game of tennis in Blowup, where people without a ball are pretending to play, and people are pretending to watch, and the only way you know that anything is going on is because of the exaggerated reactions.
I never have this feeling when playing tennis; mostly what I feel when playing tennis is, I suck. The ball isn’t going where I obviously intended to hit it.
One of the things I try to teach when teaching creative writing is that self-expression doesn’t come naturally to people. Even honesty doesn’t come naturally—meanings, like tennis balls, don’t often go where we want them to. This is a complicated argument, because even playing badly is a form of self-expression, and platitudes and self-delusions can also qualify as “honest reactions.” But what I like about playing sports is that the obviousness of the outcomes forces you to get serious about the means. It’s also what I found depressing when I tried to be a basketball player, because other people were clearly better than me, and I didn’t have the character or talent to overcome this fact.
It’s also what makes watching sports so interesting. Henry James in his letters home to his philosopher-brother William from his first adult tour of Europe (where he was so constipated that he marveled at “the utterly insignificant relation of what I get rid of to what I imbibe”) eventually wrote, “I feel at last, almost for the first time since my departure, as if some real speech had passed between us.” They were hitting the same ball. Watching tennis is like watching real speech—which, like all true conversation, ends up revealing you in ways you did not anticipate and may not like. Because after a tournament the players have genuinely been revealed to themselves, which isn’t something that happens to most of us very often—one of them is a winner, and everybody else is not.
Eventually the couple in Blow-Up knock the imaginary ball over the chain-link fence and into the grass, where the photographer (played by David Hemmings, later of A Team fame) is standing. They gesture towards him, and he slowly wanders over the field and stoops as if to pick something up. Then he takes a few sudden steps and swings his arm in their direction, but it’s worth looking at the expression on his face after he pretends to throw it back – for some reason you can hear the sound of racket and ball.