Saturday, August 22, 2009

Brett Favre, Shakespeare, and Scapegoats

I'm fully aware that the world doesn't need someone else to opine about Brett Favre, but after going back and forth all week, and changing my mind several times, I've finally determined to go ahead and give it a shot and write about him.

I get the sense from monitoring media (and facebook statuses) in both Wisconsin and the nation that the quarterback is the subject of just a little bit of enmity. He's faced a splattering of allegations, ranging from being too addicted to public acclaim to relinquish the spotlight to calculatingly wiggling out of training camp duty. But at the heart of all invectives thrown Favre's way is a great impatience with his admittedly absurd degree of equivocation. It's a cliche to describe the American public as "forgiving," and though I don't generally disagree with the notion, I do think that Favre is learning the same lesson that presidential candidates do every election cycle-- we despise public "flip flopping," and we will punish those who engage in this activity.

The notion that resoluteness is a virtue, albeit at times a tragic virtue, is imbedded in our cultural DNA. Shakespeare has Julius Caesar state that "I am constant as the northern star, Of whose true-fix'd and resting quality There is no fellow in the firmament." (Though his intractability, most notably in his refusal to listen to warnings, is of course one of his tragic flaws). Yet on the flip side, many attribute Hamlet's tragic end to his legendary indecisiveness. Going back ages further, Sophocles made a career out of creating and subsequently killing characters on the basis of their unwavering resolution to a certain cause. To bring the discussion back to our home soil, the great American novel, Moby Dick, is constructed around a central figure who pursues his "monomania" to the point of destruction. And then there is The Great Gatsby, which speaks to both sides of the issue. The titular character is decisive, resolute, and ultimately suffers a tragic fate, while the supporting characters are indecisive, irresolute, and ultimately suffer the perhaps worse fate of a shallow and empty existence.

The point of invoking these literary examples is to ponder the degree to which we have historically been fascinated with projecting our own anxieties about commitment and resolution onto characters. And I believe Brett Favre is now (if he wasn't before) a national literary character, with all the rights, priveleges, and curses that this designation confers.

But why should we have anxiety about commitment and resolution? For good reason, actually. You can start with the oft-repeated fact that 50% of marriages end in divorce. But less dramatically, who among us hasn't committed an act of extracation? We RSVP that we will be at the wedding, but then something comes up. We accept the job offer, but then realize that we just can't go through with it. We join the club, team, or organization, make a commitment to be there, and then hope that no one notices when we slink away. And this behavior is contrary to what has been instilled in us. And it can be argued that it is instilled in us for good reason-- society would fall apart if there was no sense that statements of declaration have consequences, that social ties and obligations can be severed at the behest of the merest whim.

So because of our unwavering resolution about the importance of resolution, but also because of our collective guilt and anxiety about our unwavering irresolution, two types of scapegoats emerge. In the spirit of jealousy, we need to create and then kill figures who put us to shame with the power of their convinctions (and so the violent ends of Julius Caesar, King Oedipus, Captain Ahab, and Jay Gatsby). But we also can't let anyone too openly flaunt a contempt for resolution. And this is why Hamlet was killed, why Ross Perot was made a national punchline nearly two decades ago, and why Brett Favre is getting the reception he is today.

But unlike a fictional character or a politician, Brett Favre's final narrative is not ours to construct, but his. And in this way, he truly does have the power to assert resolution. If he can guide the Vikings with the constancy of the Northern Star, sports fans will acknowledge that he has no fellow in the firmament. Otherwise, as always, there will be a consensus that there is something rotten in the state of Minnesota.


Blogger Nanette said...

This is an interesting take, Azur. It's fitting for you to discuss the plights of gods, kings, princes, and noblemen, since our culture bestows similar status to today's millionaire athletes.

Of course, for me the most tragic uber-resolute figure of our time is our last president, who stuck to his guns on so many wrong-headed decisions despite repeated warnings. He will go down in history as a naive failure, in large part because he was unwilling to change his mind. You are exactly right to question Americans' glorification of resolve, as though changing direction is some kind of weakness. Often it's a sign of wisdom.

But there's something else we project onto our hero-athletes - and that is youth. I believe much of the Favre enmity is coming from folks who fear their own aging and consequent loss of strength and power. The last thing they want to see is a once vital powerhouse display any kind of weakness, because that will remind them of their own inevitable downward slide.

I see ol' Brett as a positive role model for middle-aged people like me. Follow your dream, he says. Don't let the kids force you to the sidelines.

Sure, he was indecisive. Who isn't from time to time? It's a shame that his changes of heart were made under the harsh glare of TV cameras (while most of ours are kept private), but that's the price of fame, I guess.

What I've always admired about him is his sense of humor about himself. We'll see more of that as he ages further and (probably, but you never know) falters on the field.

Hey, it's better than selling Viagra on TV.

12:32 PM  
Blogger KD said...

Azur, you've left me speachless:)

11:06 AM  

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