Tag Archives: Peking

Michael Phelps

26 Jul

Another favorite athlete.

Michael Phelps, of course, has been let out of the mothballs of American moralism for a few months now.  He brought his polis glory at Olympia, did good by the friggin U.S. of A for a long time and then was clapped in the stocks and packed away into a closet for the major crime of having taken a bong hit of some plain old weed like everyone else.  Subway, I think, never totally withdrew their sponsorship, but, in general, the kid was abandoned for years till some commercials started reappearing again recently – but the whole thing, until the absolute eve of the Games, has been kind of low key and sotto voce.  “60 Minutes” had an interview with him Sunday night that I didn’t stand to watch for cringe of the sorries and guilts and mea-culpas that his p.r. people are probably still making him recite.  In any event, it’s obvious from the spate of light porn ads we’ve been subjected to that Ryan Lochte is the media’s swimmer sex-star for these Olympics, though there’s no indication — as London preliminaries have shown — that he’s as fierce a swimmer as Phelps.

Here’s a piece that I wrote back in 2009 when Mikey committed his major crime because I was so enraged by the whole incident, complete with American sheriff huffing and puffing about putting the bad guy away.  It’s not just about Phelps; it’s about athleticism, manhood, heroism and the twisted, perverted notions of all of the above that contemporary America suffers from, and as America goes, the rest of our world; one always wants to hope not, but one’s hopes are usually disappointed.


February 2009


I’m writing to everybody because I think it’s important for as many of us as is possible to speak out against one of our most recent episodes of moral nonsense: the Michael Phelps issue with the bong picture and the whole issue of the criminalization of marijuana generally

My main intent is not to argue in favor of the decriminalization of marijuana use, but I have to start there to move further.  There are people better equipped than I am to argue that case, but I just need to state clearly that keeping marijuana use illegal is ridiculous and that eventually it’ll be recognized as an even bigger and more futile moral absurdity than Prohibition was.  Unfortunately that recognition will not help the people who have been harassed and incarcerated for it, the young people whose records have been pointlessly marred with meaningless arrests, the minors trapped in America’s private jail gulag, or those whose already underprivileged lives have been damaged irreparably by these laws.

I’ve never even smoked pot, but the moral randomness of this position is so mind-boggling that it makes my hair stand on end.  I’m not a doctor or a biochemist, but I can tell you for a fact that marijuana use is not even close to as destructive as even casual alcohol use can be.  And I can tell you with even more certainty that it’s not nearly as damaging to the body and spirit as the garbage that two-hundred million obese Americans shovel into their mouths every day without any legal interference at all.  McDonald’s will kill you or radically lower the quality of your life far faster than pot will – in fact, I think it should be illegal.

But beyond that, what I most want to put out there is my disgust at the spiritual and aesthetic bankruptcy of American culture that this whole circus has once again revealed: not just the trite outrage, the moralizing, the canned language of the ridiculous apologies and Protestant confessions, or the Puritan hand-wringing which always carries with it that nasty whiff of pure persecution that it has so often slid into in our history and into which it can easily slide again.  Spiritual and aesthetic bankruptcy are equivalent states – I can’t think of a better way to put that right now; how about “it is meet and right” to honour the beautiful — and even more than the unjust scapegoating and even real civil rights abuses this kind of stupidity can lead to, it’s another kind of emptiness that galls me: the fact that Michael Phelps is nothing for us but someone we can rip apart like this; that we’ll commodify him or trash him, but no sense of greater meaning ever comes from who someone like him is.

What do I mean?  I mean that in a healthy civilization Michael Phelps would put on his crown of laurels, call a press conference and say: “I’m Michael Phelps and fuck all y’all…”  And he wouldn’t even raise his voice.  “Look at me. I got fourteen gold medals. I’m a god.”  And step away – sorry, no questions.  Because gods don’t even apologize for their crimes, much less their little pleasures that are none of your business anyway.   But he can’t do that because we’re too little.  We’ve lost the sense of awe or worship or grandeur that could have received that.  We no longer understand a radical assertion of self; shitty selfishness we get alright — in the disgusting immorality of our politics and of our business and economic practices — but a radical assertion of power or beauty or manhood just freaks us out and we’re blind to the spring of good things that assertion can become for all of us.  We don’t know what to do with him.  We don’t even know how to destroy him, how to dismember him and eat him like some captive Aztec deity in the hope that we’ll gain some of his strength that way or be saved or whatever it is one wants out of absorption of the numinous.  So we make this magnificent kid grovel and humiliate himself for no reason.  And then we feel better about our own misery and impotence and impoverished spiritual world.

Carlyle said: “Great souls are always loyally submissive, reverent to what is above them; only small, mean souls are otherwise.”  Mean souls is right.  The whole sickening schadenfreude again, which that poor pendeja Paris Hilton didn’t even deserve, much less Phelps…  The wholly squirrelly attitude of  “ha, ha, big stud who thought he was above the law gets taken down a notch…put in his place…” even from intelligent quarters like the New York Times, like this inane piece of pettiness and daddy-preaching from George Vecsey.  We’ve lost any sense of real pride in a phenomenon like Phelps, but we’re all so quick to point out hubris when we think we see it.

Everybody is so happy to call him a dork now, a stoner, a callow fratboy.  But if we see him as nothing but a callow fratboy, that’s our problem, not his; it’s because we don’t recognize the Divine in anything anymore.  If you can look at Michael Phelps and not see the innocence of a Parsifal or a Galahad, you’re the callow one.  And if you don’t see that innocence, it’ll never be transformed into the heroism or strength of a Parsifal or a Galahad either.  You’ll dumb him down and box him in with ethical pettiness — meaning castrate him — so he stays like you.  You just see fratboys, so you’ll get fratboys; all that’s proof of is how far your spiritual imagination extends and that we’ll continue to progressively slide even further into a nation of callow fratboys than we already have.  Every culture gets the culture it deserves.

Kellogg’s dropped their sponsorship of Phelps….  Oooooo….  We’ve let Kellogg’s – Kellogg’s, malaka! the cereal! the vendor of bad carbs and high fructose corn syrup! — become a voice in this fake moral debate.  I wonder what the folks at Oscar Meyer have to say…or Wonderbread…or Pop-tarts, though I’m sure one company owns all of them.  We obviously haven’t turned a single page since the 50s then, and we deserve no sympathy.

Meanwhile, the first thing I thought when I saw that photo and the only real moral issue that it raises for me — the issue of who that scumbag was, the “friend” or fellow partier who took that picture and distributed it to the media — isn’t ever even mentioned!  The betrayal, the cheapness, and the way we cheaply use this traitor’s cheapness as an opportunity to do our moralizing and to turn Phelps into Hester Prynne, that he was probably even rewarded for it…. THAT doesn’t seem to scandalize or bother anybody!  Apparently betrayal and opportunism are now American moral ideals but the simple pleasure of a bong, enjoyed by a kid who more than deserves it and made us so proud…THAT’S a crime….

So, here’s some Cavafy that I think says it all — at least for those who “understand and step aside:”

One of Their Gods

“When one of them moved through the marketplace of Seleucia
just as it was getting dark—
moved like a young man, tall, extremely handsome,
with the joy of being immortal in his eyes,
with his black and perfumed hair—
the people going by would gaze at him,
and one would ask the other if he knew him,
if he was a Greek from Syria, or a stranger.
But some who looked more carefully
would understand and step aside;
and as he disappeared under the arcades,

among the shadows and the evening lights,
going toward the quarter that lives
only at night, with orgies and debauchery,
with every kind of intoxication and desire,
they would wonder which of Them it could be,
and for what suspicious pleasure
he had come down into the streets of Seleucia
from the August Celestial Mansions.”

(Translated by Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard)

So step aside creeps and shut up — and be grateful you were there to see him pass.

(Below is the original Greek and a Spanish translation too)


Ένας Θεός των

Όταν κανένας των περνούσεν απ’ της Σελευκείας
την αγορά, περί την ώρα που βραδυάζει,
σαν υψηλός και τέλεια ωραίος έφηβος,
με την χαρά της αφθαρσίας μες στα μάτια,
με τ’ αρωματισμένα μαύρα του μαλλιά,
οι διαβάται τον εκύτταζαν
κι ο ένας τον άλλονα ρωτούσεν αν τον γνώριζε,
κι αν ήταν  Έλλην της Συρίας, ή ξένος. Aλλά μερικοί,
που με περισσοτέρα προσοχή παρατηρούσαν,
εκαταλάμβαναν και παραμέριζαν·
κ’ ενώ εχάνετο κάτω απ’ τες στοές,
μες στες σκιές και μες στα φώτα της βραδυάς,
πηαίνοντας προς την συνοικία που την νύχτα
μονάχα ζει, με όργια και κραιπάλη,
και κάθε είδους μέθη και λαγνεία,
ερέμβαζαν ποιος τάχα ήταν εξ Aυτών,
και για ποιαν ύποπτην απόλαυσί του
στης Σελευκείας τους δρόμους εκατέβηκεν
απ’ τα Προσκυνητά, Πάνσεπτα Δώματα.



Cuando uno de ellos atravesaba el ágora
de Seleucia al caer la tarde,
en la figura de un hombre joven, alto y hermoso,
perfumada la negra cabellera
y la alegría de la inmortalidad en sus pupilas,
los que al pasar le contemplaban
se preguntaban uno a otro si alguien acaso le conocía,
si era tal vez griego de Siria o un extranjero. Pero algunos
que le observaban más atentos
comprendían y se apartaban.
Y mientras él, bajo los pórticos,
entre las sombras se perdía y la luz tenue del crepúsculo
hacia los barrios que despiertan
sólo en la noche para la orgía,
la embriaguez y la lujuria y todo género de vicios,
admirados se preguntaban cuál de entre ellos era éste
y por qué placer equívoco
hasta las calles de Seleucia descendía desde la augusta
beatitud de sus moradas.

Versión de José Ángel Valente

For other Phelps posts see:  “An angry man — that is my subject.” “Ποιόν σοι εγκώμιον προσαγάγω επάξιον, τι δε ονομάσω σε, απορώ και εξίσταμαι”“…απορώ και εξίσταμαι.” , which explains the title of the other Greek-heading post; and “I told you they wouldn’t leave him alone” or check out tag box at lower right.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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