What is it about March? The giddiness of spring when nature breaks forth in all its fecundity. Festivals like St. Patrick’s Day, Carnival, Mardi Gras. But also Caesar dead at the base of Pompey’s statue, the Crucifixion, as well as the death of Egypt’s firstborn before the exodus of the Israelites. Death in the midst of rebirth and renewal.
The month itself was named by the Romans after Mars, their god of war, because it marked the time when they finished planting their crops and could go back to fighting their enemies. March as a time of incipient growth but also as a time to kill and die. Madness indeed.
March in Durham, North Carolina is a special time, especially if you are a fan of the Duke Blue Devils. Duke versus UNC. The ACC tournament. The NCAA Championship. We’re talking basketball here, and when a game is on, the streets are empty, it’s hard to find a clerk in a store, and there is no room at the bar.
In 1872 Friedrich Nietzsche published his Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music. In it he gave a new account of tragedy and Greek life that was derided by his contemporaries but that has come to dominate our view of Greek drama, philosophy and religion. He believed that the great dramatic festival of ancient Athens, the Great Dionysia, was not just a series of plays but the reappearance of the god Dionysus, the god of wine, of madness and ecstasy, of frenzy, of the wild flute, the liberator, the wild one, the masked one, the god of the mysteries, riding in a chariot pulled by panthers, surrounded by Satyrs, Centaurs and Sileni—half-men, half-animals—the god who was annually reborn, first of Zeus and Semele but then, after being torn to pieces by his own worshippers, restored each year, reappearing from the eleventh to the fourteenth of Elaphebolion (“the time of deer hunting”), the Greek month that extended from what is now mid-March to mid-April, brought to life again by the dances and songs, the wild music, the ecstatic revelry of his initiates, the maenads swinging their thrysei, and shouting ita Bacchai, ita Bacchai. March madness—a religious festival with music and dancing and libretti by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides.
The ancient Theater of Dionysus, whose remains are now a tourist attraction in Athens, held about 14,000 spectators. It was built into the side of the Acropolis, just beneath the temples to the other gods. Originally it was circular with an upper and a lower set of seats. The drama took place in the center, which was called the orchestra. Gradually the place of dramatic action moved to one end of the theater and the orchestra was then occupied by a chorus, of first twelve and later fifteen dancers/singers/chanters. In the beginning, the presentations were performed entirely by the chorus. There were no individual actors. Nietzsche argued that tragedy originated out of this choral performance, this incantatory music that called the god to his “epiphany,” his appearance. Gradually, however, individual actors began to emerge from the chorus, first one, then two and finally three. And the songs and dances in honor of the god began to take on a mythological form that was acted out by the individuals on stage, all of whom carried large masks, almost certainly to honor their god, Dionysus, the god of masks.
The Greeks’ March madness differed from our own, but is there a hidden parallel? Watching a basketball game at Duke in Cameron Indoor Stadium is certainly an extraordinary experience. The stadium itself is sometimes described as a shrine or as the mecca of college basketball, and almost every tourist who visits Duke wants to see it. Most are disappointed: “It’s not very large.” “It’s like a big high school gym.” Or my favorite, “It’s much more impressive on TV.” And so it goes. But fill it up with fans when UNC is in town and it’s a different place. Then you begin to understand why some have suggested changing Duke’s motto from “Eruditio et religio” to “Eruditio et basketballio.”
Students camp outside for weeks to obtain prime spaces on the bleachers around the court. When admitted on game day with faces and bodies painted blue and white, they are transformed from intellectually gifted students into “Cameron Crazies.” The season ticket holders come in more slowly, filling the upper seats, an older crowd with many years of experience as Blue Devil fans, but also adorned with Duke paraphernalia. At the north end of the stadium the pep band plays Duke fight songs against the background of national championship banners. On the edge of the court a dozen or so young women clad in Duke blue and white are dancing, waving their pompoms, and cheering to rally the crowd. A strange halfhuman creature, blue and horned, wearing a cape and carrying a trident, appears and cavorts over the court. The cheerleaders and students begin to chant, as they sense in the dark tunnel the arrival of the Blue Devils, who finally appear from a space beneath the stadium, coming out of their cave and into the bright lights to the wild music of the band and the ringing cheers of the crowd. The Crazies bow in adoration. Soon the other team also appears, the hated Tar Heels who almost everyone in the arena hopes will be beaten and humiliated. Both teams are ready, but before anything can begin the national anthem is played—apparently to remind everyone that both teams and all of the spectators are of one people, and that this is not a battle to the death but just a game. Right.
Nietzsche argued that Greek drama was a religious experience, the mystical unification of all of the worshippers with their god and thus with one another. A real community. Thus, while the individual plays had various plots that reworked established myths, Nietzsche was convinced that they were all reenactments of the epiphany and death of Dionysus. He even claimed that all of the actors up to the time of Sophocles were merely masks for the god himself. The slaughter of Agamemnon is thus in reality the slaughter of Dionysus. Nietzsche recognized, of course, that this was not apparent to the spectators. Indeed, he believed it was crucial that they not see this truth directly lest they be thrown into agony and despair. Their god, the joy bringer, the life granter, the orgiastic source of procreation— slaughtered. The true meaning of the event was rather communicated to them indirectly as a myth, a story of individual human beings struggling against their fates. The members of the audience knew these stories and hoped for their heroes’ success, although they also knew that in the end they would inevitably fail. They are, after all, tragedies. The Greek experience of tragedy, however, did not lead to despair but to joy—Nietzsche surmised—because it revealed the truth at the heart of the Dionysian experience, the eternal fecundity of life itself in sacrificing its highest forms in order to produce something higher still. The deaths of all the tragic heroes in Greek tragedy are thus for Nietzsche just masks and markers of the drama of Dionysus, a symbolic expression of life itself, broken into individual forms, constantly in competition with one another, seeking to overcome one another.
When the game begins the spectators are rapt. The cheerleaders wave their pompoms wildly and the Crazies in a frenzy leap up and down, waiting for the ball to be thrown into the air. Their excitement is irresistible. The whole crowd rises, cheering for what is to come. The ball is up and the game swirls up and down the court, each basket an agony or an ecstasy, each foul a wound for one side or the other, the crowd manic in its excitement for a breakaway dunk or a three point shot or a ball swatted away by one of the defenders. The intensity is broken only by time-outs to let the players recuperate (and the media advertise). During these periods the band plays, the cheerleaders perform different rhythmic dances and seek to engage the crowd in cheers of “D-U-K-E!” or “Rip’em up, tear’em up, go Duke, go!” During an early time-out the Crazies call out to the “Crazy Towel Guy,” an aging fan in the upper seats still imbued with the madness, who eventually stands up and, to the delight and raucous cheers of the Crazies, waves a towel around his head. Halftime. The Dancing Devils appear to entertain those who stay around the court. Most go out into the corridor for a chance to express their wonder or to lament the play of the team with friends. To drink or eat. To refresh themselves. Then move along with the close-packed crowd as they struggle to get back to their seats for the second half. The game begins again and seesaws back and forth, as time runs down until the horn finally sounds. Elated, the fans spill onto the court, embracing their victors; or, silent and dejected, find their way back into their individual lives. No curtain falls, but the play is done.
Greek tragedy in Nietzsche’s view was a combination of Dionysian and Apollinian elements, of the communal and the individual, but at its core it communicated the mythic story of those engaged in a life and death struggle for preeminence, all under the hegemony of Dionysus. In Nietzsche’s view, only this drama could justify and redeem human existence by giving it an aesthetic form, representing the abysmal and horrifying truth of human existence in a way that was not merely bearable but beautiful. To watch this drama was thus to be carried away, to forget oneself, to become drunken, wild, liberated.
Likewise, a Duke victory over their hated rival or a national championship has one inevitable result. Students pour out of the stadium and their dorms looking for something to burn, benches from frats are torn up and sacrificed to the fire, beer flows freely, people run and jump, waving their arms and signs and shirts around their heads. Streakers appear. The festival reaches its Bacchic crescendo as the crowd circles round the towering flames while cameramen in helicopters overhead broadcast the scene to a distant public.
The pre-Socratic philosopher Empedocles claimed that everything in the world was a mixture of love and strife. A similar claim was made by Francesco Petrarch, the fourteenth-century humanist: “Mother nature has created nothing without strife and hatred. From the foremost of the angels to the smallest of the worms—the battle is unceasing and relentless.” Modern thinkers from Machiavelli and Hobbes to Kant and Hegel sought to show how these two elements might be combined by men or God to realize the good. Theodicy, the invisible hand, the cunning of reason and historical progress were all invoked to support this point. In rejecting these notions, Nietzsche argued that there could be no final reconciliation, no peaceful end, no divinely established harmony. He saw such idealistic dreams as a flight from reality into an imaginary world of peace and stability. Such an attempt distorted the glorious but terrifying brokenness at the heart of things. Existence, for him, was a life and death struggle, but a struggle through which life reproduced and strengthened itself—always, though, by sacrificing the individual and his happiness for something greater.
The college basketball season ends with the NCAA tournament, or as it is popularly known, March Madness. In 2010 it involved 65 teams in a series of elimination games, in which the winners played on and the losers went home: a tournament, therefore, with 64 losers and one winner. Stretching over three weeks, it is one of America’s most popular sporting events and marks for many the transition from winter to spring. It brings together the best collegiate teams and captures the attention not only of the rabid partisans but also of a much broader public that watches the drama unfold with all its twists and turns: the domination of perennial powerhouses, the unexpected Cinderellas, the clutch plays, the upsets, the last second shots, the stunning reversals. There are no surrenders, for every team knows that if they lose there is no tomorrow. It is thus at least in symbolic form a life and death struggle.
As fans we become absorbed in the spectacle of it all. Many of us have made our guesses about the outcome of every game, participating in office pools. Some have wagered considerable amounts of money on their favorite teams. Most watch on TV but many travel long distances to be at the games. It seems to them that to be there in the midst of that excitement is to be alive more intensely, more fully than at any other time of their lives. With each stage of the competition the frenzy grows greater, the significance of the game more profound. And in the end with only one team left standing most of the fans are … well, that is one of the most interesting aspects of the Madness. After 63 of the 65 teams have been eliminated, defeated, laid low, and their fans left depressed, distraught, dismayed, one might expect that interest would wane. But in fact most fans do not abandon the tournament because their team has lost. They adopt another team to love or hate, or are simply captivated by the struggle, the agon at the heart of the competition.
The announcers constantly seek to fit the games into some preconceived story, almost invariably based on mythological stereotypes they themselves do not know or understand. In describing the 2010 Championship game between Duke and Butler, for example, the announcers turned to the movie Hoosiers, itself built on a mythological sterotype of the weak or poor or downtrodden triumphing over the strong, the rich or the powerful. With Hoosiers they invoked and deployed a familiar cultural trope to enhance their story but also thereby conveyed a message deeper than they knew. In this respect the announcers are as superficial as most of their viewers. But superficiality is not necessarily a bad thing. Nietzsche characterized the Greeks of the tragic age as similarly superficial but, he added, superficial out of profundity, superficial because they knew how to stop at the surface and avoid peering into the abysmal depths beneath the mask. We may glimpse these depths opening up momentarily beneath us as we contemplate the misfortune, the injustice, the tragedy that competition always reveals, but we also have the healthy sense not to look too deeply and instead turn off the set and walk away, saying to ourselves, “It’s only a game.” Then we don’t have to face all the unanswerable questions about human striving that this mere “game” reveals.
The unbearable recognition of the transience of all living things, of mortality, of the inevitability of loss is played out over and over again in both Greek drama and in the NCAA basketball tournament. There is a great deal of losing in both, as characters and teams follow one another off the stage and into oblivion. And for many of the players their college careers are over and they will leave the carefree days of their youth behind for the rigors of adulthood. All but a very few thus end their lives as college basketball players in despair. In On Nature, Lucretius remarks that humans arise out of darkness and are fortunate to dwell for a short time on the “coasts of light” before sinking back into the darkness from which they came. March Madness focuses on the light. At the end there is a champion, a team that has been elevated above the darkness, to dwell for “one shining moment” in the light itself, triumphant and, because of that, immortal.
Woody Hayes used to say that it is not whether you win or lose but whether you win that matters. Those who take British sports, the aristocratic ideal of amateurism, or the notion of fair play as their model find his expression tasteless and the source of all that is wrong in American sports. However, throughout most of human history sports have been about winning. This was especially true for the Greeks. Many Greek athletes, for example, feigned injury when they thought they had no chance of winning. If they lost, they knew they could never honorably go home again, and would live out their lives in shame. Similarly, in the Roman arenas there were no moral victories—except perhaps for the Christian martyrs. Victory was not just a good thing, it was everything. At the level of the state, it meant survival and prosperity rather than death and enslavement. At the level of the individual, it meant glory and admiration, a seat in the front row for all public gatherings, enshrinement in poetry and stone, and, if an athlete won all five of the great athletic competitions, the right to use the name Heracles, and almost certainly the establishment of a hero cult to preserve and exalt one’s name forever. To win was to become like a god.
One of the most moving elements of the NCAA tournament is the moment of victory in the championship game, the moment when the commentators finally fall silent and the spectators have an unmediated moment with the deliriously happy victors as they embrace and pile themselves on top of one another, victorious not as individuals but as a team, ecstatic in that moment as only the young can be, forgetful of injury, of creeping age, of disease and misfortune, and for that one moment golden and gleaming as they will always be remembered. Perhaps as close as we can come to perfection.
It was a very hot day in Washington, D.C. We sat on folding chairs on the White House lawn just next to the Rose Garden. The Duke Blue Devils had won the 2010 Men’s Basketball Championship and were about to receive the congratulations of President Barack Obama. Everyone was looking for some shade or fanning themselves with sheets of paper or sipping their bottled water, hoping for a bit of relief from the pitiless sun. The North Carolina Congressional Delegation was there as were all of the political appointees in the executive branch with some connection to Duke. There were many officials from Duke itself: the President, the Provost, Athletic Director, etc. We’d been waiting for quite a while, but despite the heat no one considered leaving. It was another one of those magical moments one did not want to miss.
The President appeared, coming out of the Oval Office with Coach K. The team was lined up behind the podium and the President walked to the microphone in front of them to speak. After a few jocular remarks, the President—a huge basketball fan—went on to describe the championship with all of the glittering adjectives that any partisan could desire. He seemed to be enjoying himself, perhaps not surprisingly, given that his other problems—Iraq, Afghanistan, the American economy—were less likely to end as happily as this one had. As nice as it was, however, there was certain sadness to the ceremony, for it seemed more a coda to March Madness than a part of it, a period at the end of the period of exaltation. Life would now return to normal and the players who graduated would go their way and the rest of us turn our attention elsewhere—until the new season began, of course.
A last question remained. Why was the most powerful man in the world talking basketball? And why were we all there in the heat of the midday sun listening to him? Who and what was being honored here? The players, their famous coach and even the President seemed not so much real individuals as actors in a ritual drama. We too, it seemed, were bound up in a sacred ritual as part audience, part chorus to those on stage. What was the meaning of this ritual? Near the beginning of his essay on the German Constitution, Hegel asserts that “a people without a metaphysics is an absurdity.” The young Nietzsche thought such a claim absurd because he believed there was no consistent metaphysics or philosophy that could make sense of things. In his view we lived in a tragic, contradictory world and could only hope to be a people through the transformative power of art. America is often characterized as a civilization without a culture and when one looks to the traditional arts this does not seem an outrageous claim. But perhaps sports play this role for us, reaching down into the core of our being and giving its mysterious source a symbolic expression. Perhaps the rituals of sports such as basketball represent what we are better than more intellectualized forms of art—perhaps they are better able to move us and, however obscurely, to reveal something that is hidden from us. Many certainly think of sports as mere entertainment, or an appendage of a culture industry that caters to the lowest tastes, and thus as shallow and inconsequential. But if so, how should we think of the Greeks, who thought as highly of their sports as of their drama? Should we not at least consider whether, to use Nietzsche’s phrase, our experience of sports is not superficial out of profundity?