Tribute to Bruce Carlson: A Sportsman of Unrivaled Metaphysical Aptitude

by Arvid Adell

Although I had been informed of Bruce Carlson’s athletic prowess when he was a scholar-athlete at Minnehaha Academy, until two summers ago when this Journal sponsored the First Ivar Wistrom Memorial Golf Championship at Bay Lake, Minnesota, I had never had the opportunity to witness it personally. The two competing threesomes in this event had a distinctive Pietisten flavor. Editor Phil Johnson and frequent contributors Ralph Sturdy and Willie Pearson were matched against then Navigator and Poetry Editor, Bruce Carlson, Poet Laureate Arthur Mampel, and myself, recently appointed Philosophy Editor.

The Pascalian types who know a good wager when then see one, quickly installed the Johnson-Sturdy-Pearson triumvirate as categorically superior in athleticism and therefore as prohibitive favorites. However, they neglected to factor in the creative, crafty, and some might say disingenuous metaphysical bent of our late, beloved friend, Bruce.

Assuming the role of Captain (there never was a referendum, as Art and I recall), Bruce informed us that our team would operate according to the arcane philosophy of Pythagoras whose eponymous theorem gained him a great deal of fame posthumously. Pythagoras had advocated a rather unique view of reality. He stated that numbers existed before physical objects and events of this world, thus enjoying a privileged status. The created world had to conform to the heavenly arithmetic, rather than vice-versa.

Bruce’s application of this ontology to our ensuing golf game was sheer genius. A priori, before our first shot was fired, our scores were recorded. As I remember, we totaled a four-under-par 68 which we assumed our formidable opponents would find too imposing to seriously challenge.

Of course, it is one thing to assert that mundane events like golf shots must conform to numbers and quite another to show it. In this heated contest, our ability to demonstrate this conformity was an essential requisite for our credibility since the adversaries in our rear view mirror appeared to be rank empiricists, demanding visual proof that “such and such” was the case.

Again, Bruce’s unmitigated improvisation saved the day. Consider the first hole. Mampel thought that the shortest distance between two points was an out-of-bounds asphalt road and quickly launched two Top Flights which indeed had remarkable distance but were unfindable. My pop-up over the fairway tree was aesthetically pleasing but of no consequence when it came to reaching the green in regulation. Here is where our partner came to the rescue. Although his drive appeared to the casual observer to be a severe shortish hook into the marshy rough, it was declared by our Captain to be a wonderfully played slight draw with just enough overspin for maximum yardage. Since his ball had disappeared from sight in the swamp, and since our team had already pencilled a three or four (Pythagoras could be somewhat flexible when necessary), and since he had a degree in Law and thereby had the authority of jurisprudence, Bruce adjudicated that surely the ball came to rest a mere 100 yards from the green. Embolden by these fortuitous happenings, we took dead aim at the flag and after several re-putts (on the first hole, one always has the option of reloading since it is impossible to determine the speed of the greens without due experimentation) we were able to achieve the score which the Pythagorean method had preordained.

Let us consider one more episode (many others occurred) which demonstrates how felicitous this weltanschauung was to our game. The ninth hole, over 400 yards with a menacing pond fronting the green, appeared to be a disaster-in-the making. Art and I offered our best shots, both of which drowned considerably short of their intended destination. It was up to Bruce to salvage our round; however, he was nowhere to be seen. When we stumbled defeatedly into the clubhouse, there was our Captain, unperturbed and enjoying a beverage for the mature. Here we were told of a most remarkable revelation given to Bruce (by whom was never disclosed) that the number “nine” was inoperative on this particular day, and therefore the last hole on the front nine did not exist and no score was required. After this extremely fortunate subtraction, our final 68 not only looked possible, but highly probable!

On and on throughout the afternoon at Bay Lake, the Pythagorean dictum triumphed. The other threesome, whom later we labeled as “cultural despisers” for their disavowal of our philosophical scheme, exhibited hyperbolic doubting of Cartesian magnitude about our final tally, especially since no one had seen Bruce even once on the back side. It was no use explaining to them that his presence was irrelevant since his numbers had already been indelibly recorded. Graciously, we made no effort to claim the Wistrom Trophy. Our victory was not in winning “a crown which soon perishes,” but in aligning our games with a most admirable philosophy of life.

Two brief apologetic postscripts are necessary lest a reader or two entertain the notion that somehow the integrity of the game had been comprised by us.

First, with his education in Law, Bruce was well aware of the widely accepted, populist notion that in the service of fairness and justice, rules are to be strictly followed. There are those who might accuse us of not adhering to the rules of golf and thereby being unjust and unfair. In response, we invoke the distinction made by the philosopher Nietzsche between “slave” moralists and “master” ethicists. The former are defined by their willingness to allow others to impose their values and proscriptions on them; the latter “sail on uncharted seas” creating and embracing their own existential latitudes and boundaries. We espoused the latter.

The second apologetic concerns the teleology of sports. For what purpose does one engage in “the joy of victory and the agony of defeat?” Bruce was heard to say more than once that “God was an aesthete and the teleos of creation was aesthetic.” The redeemed are those who purse the divinely sanctioned, higher pleasures of life, such as excellent music, exquisite cuisine, enlightened discourse, inspirational poetry, beautiful worship, and, yes, “golf by the numbers.”

Arvid Ardell is a retired Professor of Philosophy at Millikin University, Decatur, Illinois.

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