Games played with the ball, and others of that nature, are too violent for the body and stamp no character on the mind. 

Thomas Jefferson in a letter to his adolescent nephew, 1785

It would be anachronistic to hold this one against ol’ Teej. He couldn’t have known about Dr. Naismith’s daring experiment or the rife subculture, literary tradition and generations of edified young folks it has nourished for twelve decades; it’s an epistemological limit for which we’ll have to grant him a pass. Yet, in the same breath, he was able to prefigure so exactly a different strain of then-nascent American life that has remained salient to this day:

As to the species of exercises, I advise the gun. […] While this gives but moderate exercise to the body, it gives boldness, enterprise, and independence to the mind.

Oh, the perspicacity!

This nifty little letter to a 15-year-old Peter Carr — rumored in the margins to be the real father of Sally Hemings’ Jeffersonian offspring — has been anthologized (included in the abstemious selection of letters in The Portable Thomas Jefferson), idolized (by 2nd Amendment fetishists) and psychoanalyzed (I wrote about it in my diary the other day) but compared to his remarkable, lengthy epistolary exchanges with, say, atheist patriot Thomas Paine or Revolutionary financier/soldier/printmaker Dr. Benjamin Rush it’s really kind of a throw-away. So what keeps it so germane, so ripe for re-reading across the centuries? The answer is, naturally, Gilbert Arenas.

Mmmm mmmm.

Anyone who watched the Magic after the big trade, and therefore any number of scrub guards evade Gil like he was Al Capone’s taxes, knows that basketball has certainly done much violence to our protagonist’s body. I swear sometimes I can hear his knees creaking. But anyone who saw him play his way from second-rounder to All-Star with the Wizards (née Bullets) or listened to him speak almost ever knows that he has “character” for days.

He sports his own sneaks during games these days, abjuring an endorsement deal that might cramp his style. For years he kookily sported the number 0 on his jersey, as if in some semiotic gesture which argued that he’s not just signified – no – he signifies. His award-winning blog often took on a confessional (read: actual person-esque) tone. Bethlehem Shoals once characterized his demeanor during the post-“finger guns”/Javaris Crittenton debacle press conferences as resembling “somewhere between a suicide note and the grizzled drop-out who could’ve been a contender.” He once said the following in response to allegations that he was cheating in Halo 3:

“It’s a glitch,” he explained. “It’s a glitch in the game. I seen some kids that were like 600s, they won 600 Halo games and we only had that game for two weeks. And all the kids go to school.”


But the fact remains that Gilbert, despite his erratic shot selection and ¡Ole! style of defense, is one of the most belovable players on the Orlando squad and [due to contract constraints] looks like he will be for some time. For an explanation as to why, perhaps Jefferson’s letter might again be instructive. I’ll leave you with my favorite passage.

Though you cannot see, when you take one step, what will be the next, yet follow truth, justice, and plain dealing, and never fear their leading you out of the labyrinth, in the easiest manner possible. The knot which you thought a Gordian one, will untie itself before you. Nothing is so mistaken as the supposition, that a person is to extricate himself from a difficulty, by intrigue, by chicanery, by dissimulation, by trimming, by an untruth, by an injustice. This increases the difficulties ten fold; and those who pursue these methods, get themselves so involved at length, that they can turn no way but their infamy becomes more exposed.

It is of great importance to set a resolution, not to be shaken, never to tell an untruth. There is no vice so mean, so pitiful, so contemptible; and he who permits himself to tell a lie once, finds it much easier to do it a second and third time, till at length it becomes habitual; he tells lies without attending to it, and truths without the world’s believing him. This falsehood of the tongue leads to that of the heart, and in time depraves all its good dispositions.

And of course, this:


6 thoughts on “GILBERT

    • This post is a gesture towards the following –

      *This letter, which I think is a wonderful one, is weirdly explicative of certain strains of American culture. Namely, GUNZ R AWSOME, ball-games are less classy and perhaps actually more violent for the body than others such as those played with horsies and long green courses, and games played with the ball are famous for being dominated by folks with questionable character (Dennis “I’m not gay, I’m actually a misogynist” Rodman, Ron “Hennessy” Artest, Kobe “Jane Doe v.” O’Bryant, college football recruiting scandals, Ben Roethlisberger, baseball steroids, point-shaving, Air Jordan sweatshops, “thuggish” perceptions of intimidating black dudes, Kerem Ozkan, Pete Rose, all NBA referees, and so on). “…[S]tamps no character on the mind” might, to some, seem pretty prescient.

      *Gilbert Arenas weirdly embodies every element of the parts of the letter that I mention. He is/was an avid collector of firearms, he is/was a preeminent player of a ball-game that we love as well as one who has been career-changingly injured by it.

      *But — the crux of my quarrel with TJ — I think Gilbert is actually a shining example of the contrary. Despite his flaws he is stamped with abundant character, maybe in excess, but still.

      *And here’s where I draw upon the last bit of the letter: it is keenly important to tell the truth, for good or ill. More important than anything else, according to Tom. No one has ever disputed that Gil is a truth-teller. In my mind, he’s maybe even one of Foucault’s parrhesiastic tellers of the truth, one who does so categorically, almost as an ascetic act. He’s a devoutly truthful person, and that unravels to some extent Jefferson’s argument.

      Basically, I was saying the remarks about ball-games are entertainingly true in some aspects — they will fuck up your body and probably make you a little rough around the edges personally — and so is the bit about guns. Gilbert represents both the rule and the possibilities of ignoring, maybe even transcending it, by being who he is.

  1. There’s a profound pleasure in finding something in the unexpected, especially when it’s found in the body itself. Penny poses a “nifty” way of reading sports and society here, one pulling at the sinewy tendons bridging discrete moments in time. When we materialize history and ascribe meaning to Gilbert’s pantomime gun-slinging and to Jefferson’s (somewhat) prescient dictum, we see moves on the court marrying musings on the milieu: style and substance, that vaunted sexy synthesis.

    Gerald Early, in his book “Body Language” says “[Such] questions suggest the incredible magnitude of sports and organized play in our lives and how an understanding of, and not necessarily an appreciation, of sports, is essential in understanding how modern life is structured and desire sublimated. For what is our play but an expression of our restlessness, of our fitfulness as human beings, ‘the great unrest of which we are a part,’ as Whitman said (xi).
    Bang, Bang!

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