Some years ago I invented a parlour game. An aunt of mine once submitted a board game based on the chemical elements to a manufacturer only to have it turned down as too complicated. Mine was straightforward. It was based on Plato’s metaphor of the cave, with the cave transformed into a theatre. The question to each player was: which seat were you born chained up in, thus limiting your view of reality.
It was not a competitive game, but it got people to talk. When I tried it out it livened up some dinner-parties and introduced open conflict into others. ‘You haven’t given me enough information!’ was one friend of a friend’s rather social-service-influenced way of telling me she wasn’t playing. A philosopher disappointed me when he claimed he was born in the bar. Call me a spoilsport, but you couldn’t nip out of Plato’s cave for a drink, nor could you in my game, which depended on a conventional auditorium for its coherence.
To willing players I tried to explain that, as I saw it, some people are born so close to ‘what’s happening’ that the spit hits them in the face. Life is thrilling but, sitting so close to the action, it’s difficult to have good judgement. Those born in row A spend their reflective days trying to ‘step back’. By contrast row G types enjoy a broad grasp of reality without being totally sacrificed to the moment. Less in danger of falling under the wheels of the chariots than row A-ers, those in row G are nevertheless fully engaged in the to-and-fro. To me row-G-ers are life’s natural successes, their outlook balanced from the cradle. ‘Oh, so that means I’m a failure,’ said one player who otherwise refused to give his existential location. But, again, that wasn’t what I meant.
It’s an intution about ourselves, the seat where we were born. It’s a fixed position but the game allows that over time we can work the chains loose. It’s called correcting one’s failings. Row-Aers probably need to cultivate their analytic capacity, if they’re not going to destroy themselves in the heat of intensity. A quite different correction would be needed by another friend, born, she said, in the upper circle, peering down at life quasi as a voyeur. A philosopher with more self-assurance than the first claimed he had been born back in row Z, but had gradually worked his way forwards. One Row-G-er was happy with his lot, but insisted on some lateral variation, G1 or G30, because he didn’t enjoy the prominence that came with being so able. Finally a good friend told me he was born in a box. Wealth and privilege put him at a painful distance from the reality he wanted to be part of.
The usefulness of the cave game is that it sets up a simple abstract scheme for self-understanding without blame. Recently my husband came with a new add-on: not a theatre this time, but a football pitch. This time the question is not of where you’re born but how you handle it. Which is your natural position? Striker? Defender? Midfield? Are you best at setting up goals for others, or do you demand the glory for yourself? Do you care enough to make the run? Perhaps you’re the goalkeeper. ‘God forbid,’ said my husband. ‘To be people’s last hope would be terrible.’
The new season of our favourite annual parlour game has meanwhile come round again. When I described grand slam tennis in these terms it flopped totally on the one person I tried it out on. ‘I don’t get it.’ But I’m going to persist. For tennis is par excellence a game about two competing individuals. The scores describe stages in the lives of two rivals in relation to each other. To get to 40-0 is utterly sad if the high scorer goes on to win the game. You never stood a chance. But more gripping than sob stories are fabulous contests fought out at 30-30. Struggles at deuce, when both players have 40 points, more than any other stage of the game most resemble the ups and downs of normal life. After a certain age the advantage one person scores over another may be more thanks to fluke than skill. He gets ill, perhaps at least you can outlast him. He recovers, you lose your job. A Djokovich or a Murray or a Federer will not give way. They keep fighting. But then one of them has to yield. It’s a heartlessly Darwinistic (I’m not blaming Darwin himself) version of life and I can quite see why tennis was sidelined as in the old Communist world, where officially everything concerned team cooperation. But like all our games some truth lurks there. Will the ball unexpectedly pass you by this year, or will you just get it back over the net once more?