The Metaphysics of Ping-Pong

The Metaphysics of Ping-Pong

Wheaton: Quest Books, 2015. 226 pp., paper, $16.95.

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 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 enjoy the playing in itself.

Guido Mina di Sospiro’s wonderful new book The Metaphysics of Ping-Pong 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 everyday.

The book’s opening chapter includes a ping-pong faceoff between Mina di Sospiro and biologist 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 odd angles and unexpected encounters that provide a rare opportunity to access an unspoken influence behind everyday façades. In Mina di Sospiro’s game against Sheldrake, we also find a hint at the wide-ranging dialogue of ideas that develops throughout the book. As the author writes in his prelude:

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. (Emphasis Mina di Sospiro’s)

Mina di Sospiro also explores the often mercurial nature of our global society through the vehicle of a popular pastime. In the descriptions of the players and personas from many nations that the author encounters, 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 personal tics, accurately portrayed here, that each country instills in its residents.

As with The Forbidden Book, Mina di Sospiro’s recent collaboration with the noted scholar of esoteric history Joscelyn Godwin (reviewed in Quest, summer 2014), there’s a resonance in this work that goes beyond the surface. Mina di Sospiro’s writing is known for its subtle craftsmanship, and it is 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 ping-pong. The closest comparison I can think of is Roland Barthes’s chapter in Mythologies on professional wrestling, but that doesn’t have the same heart.

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. Mina di Sospiro’s 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.

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, which, we can hope, 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.
David Metcalfe

David Metcalfe is the acting director for the Liminal Analytics: Applied Research Collaborative and a contributing editor for Limitless Mind on the Reality Sandwich website. This review originally appeared on The Daily Grail site.