On realism, Walter Benjamin and cricket commentary

Lisa Gorton

Lately, driving here and there, I have been listening to cricket on the radio. In truth, I take no interest in the game; but talk has its genres, too, and I have been amusing myself by trying to classify cricket commentary. It seems to offer the comfort of realism. Here are men talking together, looking over the same field: a green field of shared experience.  Listening to the men talk, it seems as though this pitch, this green field, has been fenced off from all that Walter Benjamin notices in his sad and brilliant essay, ‘The Storyteller’. In this he remarks – the phrase has haunted me for years – ‘A generation that had gone to school on a horse-drawn streetcar now stood under the open sky in a countryside in which nothing remained unchanged but the clouds, and beneath these clouds, in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile human body’. In cricket commentary, the field is fitted to the scale of the human body, and the commentators’ ideal is the impassivity of clouds.

What is so intriguing about cricket commentary is that the commentators hardly ever describe, moment to moment, what they are seeing. They invoke it, rather: the field opens out of their prepositions. This field, the place of continuous repetitive activity, is present in the listener’s mind not as a sequence of actions, but as a sort of background hum, or green vibration. That explains why cricket commentary suits the experience of driving, when thought works within the rhythm of familiar gestures. All the commentators’ talk is held inside the image of the field; it offers, in place of possible revelations, the trance of habit.

I was talking about all this with a friend who likened cricket commentary to Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. I see what he means; I don’t agree. Yes, the men do go on. Yes, the arrival of Pozzo could be likened to having listeners call in. But in Waiting for Godot there is always the sense of time building up like a storm front. It is the task of the cricket commentators to dispel that sort of pressure. Occasionally they break off: they cry out; something has almost happened. But it hasn’t, and they resume their sentence at exactly the point where they broke it off.

Not events but talk, not talk but chat, constitutes time in cricket commentary. A pleasant and peculiarly weightless tedium is the commentators’ achievement: not an easy one. The commentators resist those epic forms which Benjamin calls the shaping force of stories. They are resolutely small in their ambitions. They work through a series of anecdotes: so many small chains their talk loops together. They keep a reserve of mockery for any commentator who attempts anything larger. What holds them together is not loyalty to each other, but to the nature of this talk. Benjamin talks about the archaic representatives of the storyteller: the tiller of the field, the returned traveller. Here, the archaic representative is surely the group of men sitting around their beers. The interest I feel in it is a cold interest: their talk is not my talk. I think: what might it be like to be able to talk with that ease of authority, which derives from a shared field of experience, which closes itself in?

Not Vladimir and Estragon: no, the commentators remind me of those characters Shakespeare sometimes brings on at the start of a tragedy: Kent and Gloucester at the start of The Tragedy of King Lear, Barnardo and Francisco at the start of The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Demetrius and Philo at the start of The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra… These tragedies start with the men gossiping; the ones who share a worldview which it will be the play’s business to disrupt or irrevocably break. These plays open with that tone of realism; after that, the real stuff starts.

Poetry is more real than realism, don’t you think? It has not that sense of complacent authority; it cannot assume a field of shared experiences. Every poem has to invent the game, set the images in motion. The phrase comes from another part of Benjamin’s essay, which has alike haunted me: ‘Today people live in rooms that have never been touched by death, dry dwellers of eternity, and when their end approaches they are stowed away in sanatoria or hospitals by their heirs. It is, however, characteristic that not only a man’s knowledge or wisdom, but above all his real life—and this is the stuff that stories are made of—first assumes transmissible form at the moment of his death. Just as a sequence of images is set in motion inside a man as his life comes to an end—unfolding the views of himself under which he has encountered himself without being aware of it—suddenly in his expressions and looks the unforgettable emerges and imparts to everything that concerned him that authority which even the poorest wretch in dying possesses for the living around him.’