Monday, April 5, 2010

The Tragicomic Tiger Woods

From the current edition of The Catholic Key:

The Tragicomic Tiger Woods

By Santiago Ramos

I was walking through downtown New York in January when a billboard made me ponder the unhappy trials of Tiger Woods. The billboard was an ad for the cable channel Spike TV, which recently earned the rights to syndicate the HBO show, Entourage. The billboard read, “Entourage: Now Every Guy Can Get Some.” There is an obvious double meaning in the pun: Every guy can now get some Entourage (even those without HBO); and, now every guy can now get some, period.

What is interesting about the ad is the way in which it captures a thought that is never explicitly articulated in the show, about the relationship between money and sex. The show deals with four friends who strike gold in Hollywood, and this success affords them all the carnal luxuries they can dream of. But while the ad hints at the idea of some sort of erotic democracy, the show itself is a universe wherein only robber barons can get some.

The ad made me think of Tiger Woods, because he has lived by the same logic of the characters on Entourage: get it while you can, while the getting is good, while you can still afford it. In his press conference, Woods would regret the “temptations” that he succumbed to, adding that “Thanks to money and fame, I didn’t have to go far to find them.”

But the use of the word “temptations” means we’ve entered the realm of moral judgment. In his conference, Woods was standing before judges. “I convinced myself that the normal rules don’t apply,” he told them. “I ran straight through the boundaries that a married couple should live by. I thought I could get away with whatever I wanted to.” After I heard these words, I was reminded of something else I saw in New York—Theodor Dreyer’s brilliant 1928 silent film, Joan of Arc, which deals exclusively with the martyr’s trial before the Inquisition, with long scenes depicting her confrontation before her judges.

Tiger Woods is not a martyr, of course, but it is interesting how quickly the rest of us, in pondering his misdeeds, can make the leap from Entourage to Inquisition. Money is a sort of Ring of Gyges, which makes us invisible while we engage in the naked pursuit of certain ambitions. But when the Ring falls off, we have to face up to the “rules” that were broken. The problem is not that, since everyone is a sinner, no one is in a position to judge—if this were the case, then any sort of moral judgment would be impossible. Rather, the problem is that few among us can articulate just where those “rules” that Woods refers to come from, and why we should follow them, and what, if any, relationship they bear with human fulfillment. Janis Joplin once sang that “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose,” but we are trending towards a sadder definition (cribbing from Andy Warhol): Freedom as another word for what we can get away with. But once you get caught—once the Ring slips off—you must grovel before the rest of us.

What compounds Woods’ tragedy is that it is, in a certain sense, comic. Brace yourself, reader, for some density. The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard writes (in his Concluding Unscientific Postscript), that “To be infinitely interested in relation to that which at its maximum always remains only an approximation is a self-contradiction and thus is comical.” It is natural for a human being to be infinitely demanding of life, to always want more than what the finite Earth can give us—St. Gregory Nazianzen acknowledges as much when he says, “Were I not yours, my Christ, I would feel a finite creature.”

Woods, however, channeled this infinite demand onto other finite human beings, which he converted into objects. As we click through the online slideshows, we laugh, precisely for the reason Kierkegaard says we ought to laugh: when we become infinitely interested in something that is obviously finite, the result is comical. Tiger has made a sort of idolatrous ideology of a certain type of busty, blonde female. (Yes, I realize some of them are brunettes.) Worst of all, in his misguided quest for fulfillment, he has betrayed his wife and children, who were given to him as companions on a real quest for fulfillment, rather than what he has reduced the rest of the world to: a set of objects.

Yet he is sorry for what he did, and I believe him. And when we judge that he has done wrong, we are of course correct, even if, with our degraded moral language, we cannot fully articulate why. Within this whole affair we can see an inextinguishable—though perhaps faint—sense of decency which bubbles up within us in spite of our shortcomings. If we think harder, that sense can grow.

Santiago Ramos is a graduate of Rockhurst University in Kansas City and has written for First Things (online), Commonweal, The Pitch, Traces, Image Journal and various blogs. He is currently studying toward a Ph.D. in Philosophy at Boston College.