March Madness is Divinest Sense


March Madness Image

In a recent Chronicle of Higher Education Kevin Dettmar, a professor at Pomona College, wrote about the misunderstanding of rock lyrics. He points out rather comic misunderstandings on the “psychoacoustic level.” First, the belief that Creedance Clearwater Revival sang, “There’s a bathroom on the right” instead of “there’s a bad moon on the rise.” And second, and perhaps a bit more  consequential, the conviction that Jimmy Hendrix’s chorus in “Purple Haze” contains the line “’scuse me while I kiss the guy” instead of “scuse me while I kiss the sky.”

So apologies to Emily Dickinson whose title for her short poem, “Much Madness is Divinest Sense”  I have deliberately heard in my own way. I offer a bigger apology for the way in which I have suggested in the title of this post that following the NCAA’s annual basketball extravaganza is ratified by God Almighty. It is contrarian Dickinson’s intentions to show that the dissenter from the prevailing wisdom is defined by a “sane” and tyrannous majority as a dangerous creature to be placed in chains. What follows are the musings of a writer who you might find “straightway dangerous.”  (Dickinson’s short poem is reproduced at the bottom.)

It’s been my experience that the followers of the NCAA brackets may tolerate your indifference, but they will not tolerate your disbelief in the importance of this spectacle. The dominant culture demands belief if not zealotry. You’ve got to take part in the office poll. You’ve got to meet the crowd at Buffalo Wild Wings to watch the struggle between NDSU and SDSU.

Why such fervor? In the recently published “Culture and the Death of God” literary critic Terry Eagleton sets out to explain the various ideologies and belief systems that have been offered by philosophers, psychologists, scientists, and artists since Nietzsche proclaimed “God is Dead”  in 1882, a statement  that became the center piece for a 1966 Time magazine issue whose cover provocatively asked “Is God Dead?” Where can the source of the  sacred-transcendent or the basis for a moral life or the glue of community be found after God was displaced from  his thrown, or, even more disturbingly, after we discover that there never was a throne to begin with? Some of the contenders according to Eagleton: the visual arts and literature, especially poetry; psychoanalysis; Communism, pharmaceuticals. And sports.

Here is what Eagleton has to say about the global phenomenon of sports in the late 20th and early 20th century:

“Our own era has been high-minded in its pursuit of second-hand gods. The contemporary version of religion is sport. It is sport, with its sacred icons, revered traditions, symbolic solidarities, liturgical assemblies and pantheon of heroes, which is the opium of the people. It is also the culture of the people, in both major senses of the world: a communal form of life, but also a chance to display or appreciate the kind of artistry from which the mass of citizens are otherwise largely excluded.”

It is easy to elaborate on Eagleton’s overview: the lavish municipal sports palaces that dwarf aging cathedrals; the face-painted fanatics who faint at last-second buzzer-beating redemption; the rabbinical interpretations of the massive NCAA regulation book; the automatic bible-based comparisons of David vs. Goliath when a #15 seed knocks off a #2.

Although Eagelton spends much more time on Continental existentialism and American abstract expressionism than he spends on sports and even though his point has been made convincingly by other cultural critics, his analysis is undeniable. Some would argue that some denominations of this new substitute religion -– like the Super Bowl or the World Cup — are more powerful and absorbing than The Final Four, but no one would deny that the NCAA fans are legion and its revenue generating capability ($11 million for the TV rights to one game alone) are incredible. A strong case has been made that the tournament is the greatest event in sports.

It is interesting to me that the three weeks of the tournament coincide with the Christian Lenten season. A glut of basketball runs parallel to the time of self-denial. Countless more hours are spent reading the profiles of high-paid coaches than the Lives of the Saints.  When Easter falls within the span of tourney’s final week, it is more often seen as the rest day between the semi-finals and the finals — a last chance to lay down a wager on the outcome of a game — than a time to rejoice in the Resurrection. The promise of eternal life is the opportunity to play just one more game. Such are the paradoxes of our culture.

To the extent that our Christian liturgies have been grafted onto pagan seasonal calendars, the end of March Madness, just two weeks after the vernal equinox, comes closer to our animal rhythms than do professional hockey or basketball whose seasons end in June when the baseball season is already two months old. The connections between pagan revelry and social control are suggested by a 1939 article “March Madness” in the Illinois High School Associations magazine. Henry Porter, an official with the ISHA, offered this rationale for the championship of high-school hoops: ” A little March madness may complement and contribute to sanity and help keep society on an even keel.” Porter could not have imagined how his casual phrase, now a registered trademark of the NCAA, would be popularized by sportscaster Brent Musburger and, by the 21st century, would become a meme recognized by most of the American population.  I doubt that he could have envisions the ways in which sports have supplanted religion in many ways far beyond their role as instruments of social stability. As Eagleton suggests, Marx’s idea that religion is the opium of the people no longer applies. It’s the massive distraction of The Big Dance that disables us from more meaningful pursuits.

Dickinson’s Poem:

Much Madness is divinest Sense –

To a discerning Eye –

Much Sense – the starkest Madness –

’Tis the Majority

In this, as all, prevail –

Assent – and you are sane –

Demur – you’re straightway dangerous –

And handled with a Chain –



About Dr. Michael Cunningham

Dr. Michael Cunningham is Professor Emeritus in English.

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