“Euclidean geometry is the geometry of plain surfaces and three-dimensional space, but non-Euclidean geometry is the geometry of curved surfaces, hence it is indeed an appropriate term for this kind of ping-pong.”
– Rupert Sheldrake in a note to author, Guido Mina di Sospiro
We live in a world of spin, above us the spinning, ever watchful orbits of satellites, our minds filled with the twists and turns of media spin doctors, and our lives lived in the spinning maze of global commerce, there is no escaping it. Yet the question, really, is not one of escape, but how to join the game without losing, or if a loss is inevitable, then at least how to enjoy the playing in itself.
In the complexity of the world, there are lessons to be learned through turning to something simple for guidance. I’ve been tending fires, allowing mental habits trained up in the spinning contemporary world to burn away with the wood I’ve carefully gathered and cut. In thinking on this, I’ve been drawing from Guido Mina di Sospiro’s wonderful new book The Metaphysics of Ping Pong for inspiration.
There is something very unique about this work which brings the reader on a journey through a playful, personal and deep relationship with the everyday, under the auspices of Mina di Sospiro’s quest to discover the intimate secrets contained in the fine art of ping pong, and in the process the fine art of spin. Along the way is woven an intricate image of how subtle influences attend even the most mundane acts. If we pay attention we’re given clues into how the profundity we often seek in more exotic pursuits can be found in the most basic elements of the every day.
I call the vast majority of players using inverted rubbers metaphysicians; the remaining minority, empiricists. These two labels apply to their approach not only to table tennis, but to life, as they perceive it and take it on. It’s one of the great lessons I’ve learned from table tennis.
In writing on ping pong, Mina di Sospiro provides an opportunity to explore the often mercurial nature of our global society through the vehicle of a popular pastime pursuit. If you are like me, questions of ‘inverted double rubbers’ on a ping pong racket have never entered your mind, and yet in the course of the book such references begin to take on the qualities of ritual symbolism, reflective of individual qualities indicative in the unique insights each player brings to the game.
Mina di Sospiro’s writing is known for his care with subtle craftsmanship, and it quite surprising to read a book that manages to work in international relations, cultural differences, and personal anecdotes while focusing on philosophy, physics, and initiation, all seen through the lens of an intimate portrait of ping pong. The closest comparison I can think of is Roland Barthes chapter in Mythologies on professional wrestling, but that doesn’t have the same heart.
In reading the descriptions of the various players and personas that Mina di Sospiro encounters in his quest, the reader is invited to feel the essential elements that define each nation’s identity. Anyone who has traveled or explored other cultures will laugh and be touched by the quirky, yet accurate personal tics that each country instills in its residents. Similar to The Forbidden Book, his recent collaboration with the noted scholar of esoteric history, Joscelyn Godin, there’s a resonance in this work that goes beyond the surface.
The slow shift from the unfamiliar to the revelatory is balanced by Mina di Sospiro’s own journey into the sport itself. Through character portraits of those he encounters, reflections on philosophy, history and spiritual teachings, and the material grounds of the game itself, we are opened to a macrocosmic reversal of microcosmic concerns.
Although the effect of digital communications has often been suggested to have flattened the globe, in reality, within the orbit of satellites and seductively spinning media, we are encircled in an imaginal world that interacts and reacts to our every inclination. The global game is not on a flat board, but in the circular fields that Sheldrake mentions in the opening quote.
In thinking on strategy and gaming, we often tend to think of chess as an applicable allegory, a game played on a flat chess board created from a linear grid of alternating squares. Yet, an article in Business Insider on a recent, highly anticipated international chess match shows why this can lead us into a dead end:
Anand encountered a “mild surprise” in the opening moves that left him “flying blind” (meaning the board was in a position with which he had not previously studied) and because of that he decided to not keep pursuing the game. He just engineered a draw.
Ping pong’s non-euclidean nature provides the opportunity for unabrasive instruction in the reality of a spinning world. The revelations found in the chess game of world champion Viswanathan Anand and the young Magnus Carlsen, show us that perhaps we need to begin rethinking our standard models of sport comparison in order to fully embrace the historical moment we are in. Certainly, prior to our entry into the celestial sphere with the pursuit of space travel and the faux limitless potential of information, chess provided a suitable model, and still does in many areas, but that which truly needs to be overcome to play the game of life well is not found in a flat space.
Evidence of this can be seen from the increasing interest in a popular science that rejects binary arguments based on preconceived, and often artificial limitations, it can be seen in the controversies over corporate influence in politics, and the general dissolution of trust in official narratives which are leading us towards more easily manipulated, de-centralized ideological groups.
We live in a counter intuitive time, where freedom of choice manipulated within the bounds of an encircled conditions becomes narcotizing. We must become masters of spin to play this game properly.
Compared in some reviews to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,The Metaphysics of Ping Pong is actually much more direct in its reflections of the interstices of daily living and deeper thinking, and doesn’t have the cultural baggage associated with Robert M. Pirsig’s well known work. The prose reminds me a bit of J.K. Huysman’s creative reworking of observational realism, where the frame of anecdotal experience holds together an insightful exploration of human, and humane, existence. One doesn’t get the sense of an attempt to explain more than the work, or author, can hold. Mina di Sospiro is too enraptured with the subtle mysteries of life to invite the reader to ruin the play of existential light and shadow with artificial theories.
The opening chapter of the book includes a ping pong face off between Mina Di Sospiro and Rupert Sheldrake which provides the philosophical motivation for a new understanding of table tennis, and its ability to capture some of the stranger nuances of our current culture. It is these kinds of odd angles and unexpected encounters that provides a rare opportunity to access an unspoken influence behind everyday facades. In the particular case of Mina di Sospiro’s game against Sheldrake, we also find a hint at the inclusive and wide ranging dialogue of ideas that develops throughout the book.
“Down the centuries Taoism, Zen and Sufism have created a large repertoire of short and seemingly mundane stories whose goal is that of violating logics and challenging our assumptions. Twentieth-century traditionalists have done much of the same, by turning received notions upside down. Ping-pong, as I will show, has so many baffling and refreshingly illogical qualities about it that, whenever I happened to play an occasional game, somehow it echoed inside me in a new and increasingly more resonant way. And as a result of that I marveled all the more at how magical it was to spin that little ball and make it fly, bounce on the table and off the opponent’s racket in mysterious ways.”
Long listed for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award and praised by Publisher’s Weekly editor Seth Satterlee, the book has already received a number of positive reviews, and hopefully will open the door for readers expecting standard sports journalism to a more nuanced relationship with their experiences. Erudite, experimental and engaging, Mina di Sospiro has given us a work that breaks new ground in sports writing. Whether or not you ever pick up a paddle, The Metaphysics of Ping Pong provides an initiation into a visionary life, igniting the fires of inspiration through an intriguing intimacy with the mysteries of daily experience available nowhere else.
Click Here to learn more about The Metaphysics of Ping-Pong (Quest Books, 2015) and become one of the initiated.
Note: This article was originally published at The Daily Grail