Records: An alternate view
I make no claim to speak the absolute truth at all times, but I do hope to make statements that lead people to truths. That is, I’d like to believe that people read the things I write and use them as a foundation to come to their own conclusions.
I recently wrote a column about world records. I’d like now to include an alternate viewpoint, from world class performer and freak, and my friend, Erik Sprague,
I got an email this morning [1/7/03] from a morning radio crew I did an interview with a little while back. They said they just heard about a guy getting three concrete blocks smashed with a sledgehammer on his groin and wanted to know if I would comment on it — since they were really interested in my act where I get a concrete block smashed on my groin with a flaming sledgehammer. Now, I assume the guy stacked the blocks and had all three smashed at once — since doing the act repeatedly is nothing new, I have done hundred if not thousands of times. How do I feel about it — well, I don’t care much really. I give whoever it was a certain basic respect for performing the act and putting his own twist to it with the multiple blocks (though in terms of the physics that actually makes it safer, not riskier) but in the end I would have to see it to make any real judgment. This is because what counts here is the show — he obviously didn’t just do it for himself by seeking the press, so it now becomes (to my mind) a question of whether or not he managed to give the audience something worthwhile. If he managed to in any way inspire, awe, or simply entertain people then I say more power to him.
It was this, along with Shannon’s recent piece about records on BME, that got me once again thinking about world records, or alleged world records as the case may be. I have been approached about records, probably hold a few, and I am friends with many people who now hold or have held various records — as recognized by ‘authorities’ like Guinness and Ripley’s. I can tell you that among many professional performers of such acts, that records are held in fairly low esteem and seen only as holding any value for the promotional value and resulting ticket sales they produce. Actually, it is probably more accurate to say that we [performers] often hold the record ‘authorities’ in somewhat low esteem — just like many a viewer we hold people who achieve great things with some regard — not for the appellation of a record but for the act itself. In fact, being ‘in the know’ we often see records — as presented by people like Guinness and Ripley’s — for the illusions they often are. A person’s look and connections can easily result in them getting the record over someone who outperforms them in the actual technical specs. And as for those specifications, they are often a joke — created by uninformed ‘experts’ and enforced at the whim and leisure of their directors. Take a look at their idea of what constitutes a sword for sword swallowing and then look at some of what has been used by their record holders and this is readily apparent [It was also the subject of amusing conversation at a meeting of the Sword Swallowers Association International]
Once a person realizes that the records as they are presented are often inaccurate and, regardless of this, certainly temporary the focus often returns to the perennial question of “why?”. Why seek out records, why push yourself to such extremes? Is it just for media glory and attention — that as well is certainly fleeting and likely hollow but seems to be the motivation of many. And further, it is often argued that such attention seeking via records and extreme acts is a symptom of the modern media — and to most, a vilifying one. I think this is a bit out of touch with history though. Currently, we are certainly in an upswing for attention with the popularity of various TV shows but this is just a cycle that has gone on for centuries. Our modern media has not created this, at most it has perhaps exacerbated it to a new level given the ability of world media to reach much of the globe’s population almost instantly. Contest, feats of daring and endurance, and grand exhibitions are as old as recorded history and have always been the mainstay of politics, religion, entertainment, and the human experience in general.
What purpose does this serve? There is certainly the basic thirst for knowledge at play — as with any form of trivia. We want to know who’s bigger, who’s faster, etc. I think that we also want to know about our limits and to explore them — both individually and collectively. By pursuing and seeing others pursue records we learn about what is possible and experience, even if only vicariously through the performer, a sense of striving and triumph. To me, this is where records almost certainly have value — even if they aren’t entirely accurate. They set a challenge before people, they say this is what has been done but you can try and go further. And, by attempting to go further they can inspire awe and wonder and remind people that limits are more often perceived than real. Beyond which, seeing a record may inspire a person on a journey of their own to break that record or to simply have a similar experience.
In Shannon’s article he wrote:
I respectfully disagree with him in a certain way. Remarkable acts and paths to enlightenment have long been a sideshow — and I don’t mean exploited in western entertainment but in their own respective cultures and times. Religious and political leaders historically would often perform great feats (records) in order to gain attention and following. Historically, to prove that you were really in touch with the true god(s) or nature and yourself and should be leading you would perform publicly — miracles, wonders, feats of endurance, etc. This continues today and probably will for as long as the human experience. If a man ‘walks down from the mountaintop’ with the secrets of the universe, even if they are legitimate, it will take these sorts of demonstrations to often get people to pay attention. Would anyone have listen to Jesus without the miracles? Didn’t Ghandi use prolonged fasting and other ascetic rites to draw attention? Do not many modern people use these acts for such gain? I agree that the act should be done for one’s own self first and foremost because something done solely for recognition often bears little of value over time but if it takes the enticement of recognition to get someone to go down the path, I’m not bothered by that. I’m actually willing to take the bet that once the person goes through the experience they may very likely recognize it value beyond the recognition — eventually.
For myself, as an entertainer, I love what I do and do these things with and without an audience. When I have an audience I hope to give them a sense of awe and to inspire them — if making records attempts does that, then I am all for it. Plus, it can often get me an underwriter for something I have been wanting for myself but couldn’t otherwise afford ;)