Arsène Wenger: The Man Who Expresses Mirth
It’s with an eerie smile that Mr. Wakefield, in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s eponymously named short story, leaves his wife for twenty years to secretly take up residence a block over from his house in London, giving her no information on where he’s going, for how long and why. Knowing her husband’s love for mystery Mrs. Wakefield doesn’t question the smile–she knew him as a man of quiet selfishness, muted vanity, a keeper of secrets hardly worth keeping. In London this week Arsène Wenger has with a wry smile, I’d like to think, promised Arsenal fans “super-quality” signings. Not quality, but super quality. How, when, and whence, you ask? Well that is a mystery hidden behind a singular and solitary Frenchman’s smile, and one begins to wonder whether the secret is worth keeping.
On Monday, Arsenal announced the biggest deal in The Championship when they signed Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain for 10 million pounds from newly promoted Southampton. A winger for Arsenal fans starved for a celebrity center-back. (Oxlade-Chamberlain turns 18 next week.) With 10 goals and 2 assists last season he was one of the driving forces for the Saints’ promotion and is considered to be one of the top prospects in that league, but the deal was hardly enough to placate an Arsenal fan base that has been demoralized by a disastrous end to the last season, a somewhat lackluster preseason, and the rumored restlessness of some of their best players.
However, there is a glimmer of hope in Wenger’s statement, a whiff that suggests Arsène will surprise everyone. In a trailer for the adulatory “Forever Forward” (a video commissioned for Arsenal’s 125th anniversary) Spike Lee says that Arsène is “a visionary, and any time that one’s a visionary, you’re going to have your critics because you’re doing something that not everyone else is doing.” It is perhaps a facile thing to say, as there are very many legitimate reasons to criticize Wenger, but there is an element of truth in it. Wenger is a unique, stubborn character who both succeeds and fails spectacularly, on his own terms–who finds magic where there seems nothing and misses or ignores what seems obvious. Amid the darkness, the Arsenal fan senses that there is something still there, that Arsène might yet have a trick up his sleeve.
In suffering the two decade long absence of her husband, Mrs. Wakefield had the profound sensation that she was not a widow, and she was right. Even in the depths of his sedentary and self-imposed exile one street over, and while still staying faithful to his role as husband, he was still there, still watching her most nights, watching her wither away in sadness. Wenger seems to some outside commentators as the calm intellectual, constant in his endeavors. Though he may not be cold hearted and unimaginative like Hawthorne’s Wakefield, he still shares the rigid reticence towards the clamoring Arsenal supporters who want a more open skipper. Arsenal fans know and recognize Wenger’s secretive behavior and can dismiss it with a look just as Mrs. Wakefield can, but there is still a certain uneasiness or fear that in his sojourn to find new players he goes out with a vague or distorted understanding of fan’s needs. The disconnect between Mrs Wakefield’s conception and the image into which Mr. Wakefield has transformed himself causes her to not recognize her husband even as she bumped into him in broad daylight.
On that cold autumn night, 20 years after his departure, when he abruptly returns to his house and his wife, finally able to make it past that first step outside his door, he greets her with that same eerie smile he departed with, the same he left as a memory for her to think back upon during the time he was gone in wonder. It was a familiar and happy moment where our imperfect memories are greeted with reality, compared and contrasted in our heads forming impressions. Arsenal fans haven’t gone twenty years without a happy memory but they’ve gone six without a trophy. Wenger is his own man, secretive, vain but certainly faithful. He recognizes his team’s supporters and he knows that those happy moments they strive for are created only through spontaneous moments on the pitch, moments that keep the Gunners together, united in triumph. But, knowing this, Wenger needs to show up at the doorstep once more with something worth the wait. Or, like Wakefield, he risks losing his place forever.
Thanks to @pytambi for the Spike Lee tip