Christopher Jackson’s book, ‘Roger Federer: Portrait of an Artist’, is not the kind of book you’d read if, as a Federer fan, you wish to learn something new about Fed’s life or the ATP tour. Rather, it is an attempt to explain the cultural significance of the great man and, more broadly, of sport and its appeal. With a philosophical bent, it will not be to everyone’s taste; indeed, there is a chapter on the history of aesthetics which could be criticised for moving too far away from the subject of the book’s title, to the extent that one wonders whether Jackson wished to force an old university essay about the history of art into a book about a tennis player. On the other hand, such explorations can be interpreted as an attempt to broaden the significance of Federer, to not limit the book’s focus to a biography of the Swiss, but, rather, to place him in a far-reaching cultural and philosophical context and, thereby, to argue that Federer embodies universal values and might even, to some extent, be the summation of them.
Summary of the Book
The fact that this book is not a biography of Federer entails that its focus is not the man but an idea of the man. This idea is explored through six short chapters, each entitled, ‘Federer and X’, where X refers, in order, to ‘History’, ‘Beauty’, ‘Morality’, ‘Power’, ‘Time’, and ‘Meaning’. These chapters set out a number of themes, the most interesting of which (in my view) will be summarised below, but in terms of the idea of Federer, I think that two main conceptions are presented: Federer as an artist whose medium is tennis; and Federer as the commercial brand and darling of the corporates, who, through his sporting successes, has come into possession of great wealth, influence and power. Jackson argues that these two identities do not always sit comfortably together, but that, on the whole, Federer has managed to make them cohere, thereby giving the sense that his life is complete. The fact that very little is mentioned about Federer’s family life in the book (where both Marx and Freud believed that that is one of two pillars on which the modern identity is built [the other being our work]) underscores the idea that the author is focusing on selective conceptions of Federer and not the real, living individual.
What is it about these conceptions of Federer that has led him to be endowed with such cultural significance, in Jackson’s view? In answering this question, the author chooses to challenge a tradition in Western culture where games (and the body) are denigrated in favour of spiritual and/or intellectual pursuits. The ancient Greeks and the men of the Renaissance defied this tradition, and Jackson applauds this, but given the prevalence of sport and its myriad fans in the modern world, one wonders whether he has chosen a straw man to challenge (despite the ability of sport’s opponents to appeal to the generally inane nature of sports commentary, which, Jackson argues, derives from a cultural fragmentation which promotes division between the intellectual and sporting spheres, amongst others – this being a motif in philosophy since Schiller, in particular). This aside, using Christopher Hitchens and other such intellectuals as a foil enables him to present his thesis on the value and appeal of sport, in general, and of Federer, in particular, as one of sport’s greatest exponents.
Three main arguments for the value and appeal of sport are presented by Jackson. The first focuses on the importance in itself of kinetic beauty, which, according to the author, eluded the artistic strivings of the ancient Egyptians and, to a lesser extent, the ancient Greeks; was realised in the Renaissance and in Neo-Paganism; was subsequently lost in Baroque art, Impressionism, Cubism, and other 20th century artistic movements; and which has now largely been bifurcated into movement, on the one hand (explaining, in part, our interest in sports), and beauty, on the other (explaining, in part, our interest in celebrity), but which does find a unified expression in the tennis of Federer – hence the latter’s great appeal. I will not explore this argument, but will simply raise the question of whether we should consider the Swiss as a sportsman first and foremost, and, indeed, whether it helps our understanding of him to categorise him as an artist at all?
The second argument refers to Jonathan Swift’s idea that sport is a substitute for warfare, and is therefore an expression of the success of civilisation with all of its trappings, such as decency, friendship, cooperation and even romance – all of which can be, and have been, witnessed on the professional tennis circuit, Jackson avers. Nevertheless, the view of sport as a morally neutral contest to be enjoyed by the civilised spectator and participant is, to some extent, a normative ideal, for Jackson argues that fans can have a tendency to revert to warfare mode and to create heroes and villains where there are none. The allure of Federer, he maintains, in part derives from the fact that his fans see him as morally better than, say, Nadal on account of his more beautiful tennis. The implicit philosophical assumption, inherited from Plato, is that ‘the beautiful is good, and the good beautiful’ (i.e. that Federer’s game doesn’t only make him a better player than Nadal but also a better man). Jackson believes that this assumption is false, and claims that, throughout his long career, Federer has occasionally been prone to petulance in defeat whilst Nadal has reacted with philosophical resolve. This said, in keeping with this second argument for the value of sport, Jackson does believe that, on the whole, the Swiss has conducted himself in a sporting way, with decency and decorum.
The third main argument is that sport is a means of escaping a chaotic, complex, fragmented and often violent world. Furthermore, Jackson argues, with the collapse of ‘religion, class and local life’, the love of a team or an individual – and Federer is the beloved sporting superstar par excellence – can give a structure, orientation and coherence to our lives, which the traditional social supports often fail to do. Furthermore, building on his claim that sporting contests are, and ought to be seen as, morally neutral and immune to the kind of life and death struggles whose existential seriousness impels human beings to find a moral meaning for them, Jackson believes that the experience of sport can enable us to return to an original innocence whereby we can experience the joy and splendour of the games without suffering true despair when our team or player loses. He likens this experience to an Eden-type state, in which we can exercise our human capacity for leisure and lead a more complete life for it. Furthermore, and again in line with the paradisiacal state before the Fall of Man, he argues that absorption in the sporting spectacle enables us to (temporarily) relieve ourselves from the consciousness of our own mortality and inevitable demise.
Here, then, are three arguments put forward in defence of sport as a cultural phenomenon: sport as kinetic beauty; as civilisation; and as escape from our cultural and existential predicaments; and Jackson sees Federer as delivering us with all of these goods, hence his cultural significance (bolstered by his wealth, power, influence, and global recognition). However, drawing on the famous essay by David Foster Wallace, Jackson argues that the meaning of Federer’s tennis is to be found in those ‘Federer moments’ where the Swiss has executed shots or patterns of play which defy his audience’s belief. It is these moments, Jackson claims, that draw our attention to the minutiae – the figurative microscopic details of movement and play – which, in turn, enables us to gain a deeper appreciation of reality as we penetrate the veil of beauty and observe beneath it the actual structures of life. These ‘moments’ are Federer’s gifts to us, they are rare, and, related, they are a reminder of the transience and eventual demise of all human endeavours. They will last longer than the ageing physical player (whose longevity, Jackson believes, is a product of psychological, technical, and artistic factors), but their beauty – according to Jackson’s thesis – is intrinsically linked to their essentially fragile and finite nature. Whether this is a philosophically sound argument is outside the scope of this review.
Evaluation of the Book
In so far as Jackson’s book is considered as an argument, it stands or falls on the strength of its explanations for the Federer phenomenon. One theme that I’ve deliberately not focused on much above is the power that Federer’s wealth, status, and celebrity have brought. He is a brand, and he and his team have been adept at transforming and promoting (and protecting) his image. Such PR can, and arguably has, contributed greatly to Federer’s cultural significance. Certainly, the fact that he is an extraordinarily gifted and successful tennis player has enabled his PR machine to succeed to a degree to which the PR machines of lesser celebs have not. But this does not alter the fact that these latter machines can be very effective.
In short, in order to explain the cultural significance of Federer, do we need to refer to anything more than his extraordinary talent and his stellar PR (which might include his own articulate, multi-lingual abilities)? Philosophy can illuminate the true feelings and motivations of people, which had been inchoate or hidden to them, and it might be the case that Jackson’s does. However, I will end this review by asking Federer fans to ask themselves whether their fanaticism is motivated by any of the following explanations that can be detected in Jackson’s book, and, if so, to what extent:
- The beauty of Federer’s graceful game.
- The desire to more deeply appreciate the actual structures of life as expressed through ‘Federer moments’.
- The idea that Federer is morally superior and noble.
- The idea that Federer is, in some sense, heroic.
- The desire to escape from a complex, difficult and sometimes threatening and confusing reality into a simple world where your identity is stable and coherent and allegiances clear.
- The desire to escape from such a reality into a realm of innocence.
- The desire to escape from such a reality into a realm of leisure.
- The desire to escape from a consciousness of your own mortality and inevitable death.
For my part, only one of the above underpins my fandom, and it is the first on the list, but there are others which are not listed.