Chuck Palahniuk is a man that you love or hate. There are no half measures. In his 2005 novel Haunted the American writer presents a group of men and women who have decided to participate in a retreat for writers, answering an ad that says secret retreat for writers – abandon your life for three months – live the life you’ve always dreamed posted on the wall of a cafe in Oregon. The group, following the instructions of the ad, makes the acquaintance of Mr. Whittier, organizer of the event. Whittier tells them to wait for a bus that will take them and warns them to bring with them only a single suitcase.
The next day, the group, Whittier, and his assistant, Ms. Clark, head to an abandoned theater. Whittier closes them all inside the theater, telling them that they have three months of time to write their works before he can allow them to return to their lives. Meanwhile, the man assures them: theyll have enough food and water to survive, as well as heat, electricity, bedrooms, bathrooms and a washing machine. In short, they only have to write. To give vent to their words. Or, as one from the group would later say, to give voice to their resentment.
A simple retreat for writers, nothing more. Something similar to what must have been experienced by John Polidori, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley and his wife Mary in the beautiful Villa Diodati in the summer of 1816, three days in which the artists had spent their time creating and telling each other stories (perhaps not so accidentally following the example of the group of ten young storytellers of Boccaccios Decameron) and which, among other things, seems to have been the site of conception of Mary Shelleys masterpiece, Frankenstein.
All is well, at first. But Mr. Whittier seems to have a different idea from the one professed by his invitation. He decides to observe how the group starts self-destructing in the belief that they could become more famous using the fact that the Devil Whittier had them locked inside the theater without any possibility of contact with the outside world. The group invents an antagonist, a demon, someone who have caused a tragedy, a drama, the same drama that would have covered them with money once they had left that place. The characters begin to sabotage their own survival, with the sole purpose of increasing the drama of their stay that should have appeared, in the eyes of the public, forced. The characters thus force themselves in a struggle to survive hunger, cold and darkness. And this is what humans love. The drama, the conflict. We need a demon, or we’ll create one. There is nothing wrong in this, says Palahniuk. It’s just the way humans are made.
Here now, we imagine not a retreat for writers, but a retreat for tennis players. Without all that pain that the characters of Palahniuks novel cause themselves, obviously. We do not want our players to get hurt, no, no. But people want to know everything about them. This is how things are. People are curious, people want to know, people want to see into their lives, to understand everything, as if they were movie stars. Hands up who has never trawled their twitter profile. Or their instagram. Or facebook. To know what they had for breakfast. To know who went out with whom the other night. To know whos the last boyfriend of who. Oh my god, did you see that she does not follow her on twitter anymore? Did you see the last photo shoot? To me it seems that her nose was bigger. No, it sure is photoshop. Or maybe something else. Some clinical touch-up. Who knows. And this? Did you hear about him flirting with her on twitter? But wasnt he married? And we judge, and judge, and judge them. How the good old Chuck would say, the camera behind the camera behind the camera. They are. We are. Its Us, a sort of Big Brother. Us, a sort of Mr. Whittier. We invite them to our retreat. Secret retreat for tennis players. Not so secret, because in reality there would be millions of fans watching them, even if they dont know. Or maybe yes.
They can be found sitting in a circle in the middle of a tennis court. A grass court, perhaps. But it is not open, it would be too easy. Too little Palahnukian. No lights, just a candle in the middle. And the all-seeing eye, the Big Brother, Us, we are waiting for one of them, anyone, to start talking. To tell us something. Maybe to tell us what did they have for dinner yesterday. Which movie did they watch. Just talk. Start saying something. Something that satisfies our curiosity. The camera behind the camera behind the camera. Someone gets up. Seems to be a woman. Zoom on her. Yes, it is Marion. Marion with her IQ of 175. I mean, an IQ higher than Albert Einsteins. Marion starts. She looks at her companions and says: “If everyone agrees, I would start a debate about beauty.” Obviously everyone looks bored already. But its Marions decision. A debate about beauty. Marion says: “Beauty is a combination of qualities that give pleasure to the senses. Human beings have the innate instinct to appreciate the beauty, in whatever form it appears. A beautiful object fills our hearts with joy and pleasure. The soul is stirred by the exterior view of beauty.” 175 IQ.
Marion, mocked for her extra pounds. Marion, who according to some people is certainly not a model. As if a tennis player needs to appear like that. Marion, who many people say is just not able to play tennis. All judgments spit out by those who certainly do not have a Wimbledon trophy in the middle of their living room, and never will. Marion says: “What would you answer if someone asked you to give a definition of beauty in relation to tennis? Someone says “Here we go again.” Someone else replies: “My backhand. If this is not synonymous with beauty, I do not know what is. Actually, everything I do on court, is synonymous with beauty.”
Oh god, how boring, Roger. Seriously, stop talking already. Who did write this script, your fans? We want something more. Big Brother wants something more. There is a girl who shyly raises her hand. She claims to be American and to be 19 years old. Everyone turns to look at her. Victoria says: “When I beat Samantha at home, it was beautiful. To have all eyes on me during that last point it was beautiful. Jumping for happiness was beautiful. People chanting my name was beautiful. It was even better when I defeated that other opponent, a year later. That was really beautiful. Perhaps more beautiful.” We, the Big Brother, Mr. Whittier, we continue listening. “I was sure I wasnt going to play tennis anymore” says a voice. “When at 13 I underwent that heart surgery, I did not think I would have taken a racket in my hands anymore. But then I did and I became the number one in the world Shuai says. “Is it beutiful enough?” Yes, yes, we say from behind our camera. We like it. it really is. “It was beautiful when I beat Serena” says Maria.
This time the line was written by Serenas fans, Big Brother supposes. “It was beautiful when I beat you” says Alla. Well, yes, says the Big Brother. Mr. Whittier. Us. It was just great. A few seconds of silence, and then someone raises her hand and politely asks to speak. Zoom. “I lost to you, Maria. But it was beautiful anyway. It was beautiful because I surprised everyone, and even before others I surprised myself. It was beautiful because I pushed myself to the limit. It was beautiful because I was not afraid. And Alexandra smiles. And We, the Big Brother, Mr. Whittier, we smile too. But she cant see us. Although we would like she could. The camera behind the camera behind the camera. Victor says “I had to wait twenty years to be able to roll on the ground for joy like a little boy… It was beautiful.” It was, without a doubt.
Rafael tells us that it was beautiful to get back to winning a tournament after nine months, and sitting on the bench crying like a baby. Yes, it was. Then, “It was beautiful to surprise a billion people. It was beautiful to make that billion people feel to be the center of the world, even if only for thirty seconds, and not only because Zhongguo this means, the center of the world. Those thirty seconds in which that billion people could listen to their hymn and be proud of it, just because of me. But it was beautiful even two years later, when I was finally reaching my dream, touching it almost with my hands, but then I fell. Once, twice. And with me my dream fell too. But then I got up. Get up after falling, coming back, pick up where you left it. Cry, but be determined to come back even stronger. This was beautiful” says Na.
And We, the Big Brother, Mr. Whittier, need a Kleenex. Even so, from behind our camera, because we see a big girl getting up and go hug little Victoria. Zoom on her. Alisa. Alisa says: “I do not know what else to say” and that’s okay to us. Because this is what we really wanted. We wanted emotions. The Big Brother, Mr. Whittier, this time did not want dramas. We wanted emotions, true emotions. We wanted the moment. That real, unique moment, that one moment that leaves you speechless. Because its happy. Because its frustrating. Because its sad. Because its true. And the more is true, the more is beautiful.
Marion was right to pull out all this talk about beauty. Because beauty is not only a technical act, as perfect as it may be. Beauty is the moment when you realize that you were able to lift a trophy when you hardly hoped for it, and you know that you were the first in the Dominican Republic to be able to do so. Beauty is when you realize that you made a nation proud, and you bring it on your shoulders, and you’re the first Chinese tennis player to bring on Center Court, in Paris, the anthem of your country. Beauty is when you defeat an opponent too much bigger than you, whether you are a 19 years old American girl or a 25 years old young woman from Moscow. Beauty is when you’re a Russian girl who was one step away from defeating the number two in the world, you’re about to leave the court after more than two hours of fight, a fight that you lost but in which you have given everything, and in response the public stands up and applauds you as you try to hold back the tears, because you do deserve that applause. Beauty is in the moment, nothing but the moment. But the moment, the moment of beauty can be lived and relived hundreds of times, thousands of times, without ceasing to be beautiful. Without stopping for a second to be beautiful.
We, the Big Brother, Mr. Whittier, we decide that it’s okay. Its enough for us. We turn on the lights, open the door. They can go. They are free. No drama, as in Chucks novel. They will return to their lives, we will return to ours, but with something more. We now know that they are human, just like us. And this is how they have to be seen. We thank them because they have taught us something. We put the tape on rewind and listen to them talking again, and we remember that in Villa Diodati, in that summer of 1816, the one missing was John. John Keats, the romantic poet who left us in a simple verse the absolute truth about beauty. A thing of beauty is a joy forever.