Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Joyce Carol Oates: On Boxing

Joyce Carol Oates is a prolific writer, a well-known writer, and a writer of epic fiction. "On Boxing" is a tiny little book- an essay on boxing (right?)- an essay with pictures- that defies categorization. It's a look into boxing for a person like me, I think, who knows nothing about the sport, but likes to think about sports in a deeper way, more of a lingering, why we do what we do kind of way. Oates grew up watching boxing with her father and one quickly gets the feeling that she is as deeply immersed in boxing as I am in baseball, only one can't call her a "student of the game," since she doesn't see boxing as a sport. "There is nothing fundamentally playful about it," she writes when discussing how boxing is categorically different from other sports, "nothing that seems to belong to daylight, to pleasure... Boxing is life, and hardly a mere game... One plays football, one doesn't play boxing." Other sports might be a metaphor for life: one might "play out" (my words) life on a field or court, but Oates rules out boxing as "a metaphor for something else." Rather "life is like boxing in many unsettling respects. But boxing is only like boxing." She describes the clinching, the punching, the crowd: this is life mirroring boxing, not the other way around. Even more, boxing is not symbolic, it is what it is.

I've never seen a boxing match. I've seen movies about boxing, though the younger me wouldn't have dreamed of it: gross, gratuitous violence. Now I can watch, because I know in the movies, the violence is fake. Boxers have to overcome one human instinct: to keep fighting even when they can't fight anymore (fight or flight) and chose another, much more primitive: the aggression of smashing someone until they're dead. They must do this to someone who they really have nothing against. And then thousands of people pay to see two people (almost always men) to do this to each other. I opt out, because I don't like violence, but maybe there' something else: "To watch boxing closely, and seriously, is to risk moments of what might be called animal panic- a sense not only that something very ugly is happening but that, by watching it, one is an accomplice." Oates nails it here: there's something about watching men pound each other to possible death, intentionally, that is as ugly as participating. And yet we do it. I opt out, but we do it. And does boxing then become a metaphor for other things- war? capitalism?- or is it still life that mimics boxing?  "The spectacle of human beings fighting each other," she continues
is enormously disturbing because it violates a taboo of our civilization.  Many men and women, however they steel themselves, cannot watch a boxing match because they cannot allow themselves to see what it is they are seeing. One thinks helplessly, This can't be happening, even as, and usually quite routinely, it is happening. In this way boxing as a public spectacle is akin to pornography: in each case the spectator is made a voyeur, distanced, yet presumably intimately involved, in an event that is not supposed to be happening as it is happening. The pornographic "drama," though as fraudulent as professional wrestling, makes a claim for being about something absolutely serious, if not humanly profound: it is not so much about itself as about the violation of a taboo.
I opt out of pornography, as well. By opting out, I also opt out of facing reality: these taboos exist, but I won't violate them. Pornography is theatrical and staged, Oates reminds us, but boxing and the violence is real. Are those who don't opt out somehow facing the reality of violence in a more authentic way, if one follows Oates' logic about life being boxing?

This little book by Oates is a good one. She touches on masculinity and feminism and how race and poverty play into the non-sport, discusses the obvious homoeroticism of boxing. She addresses the fundamental racism in the anti-boxing folks, though I'm not sure I agree with what she comes up with (boxing is a way out for poor people of color). Oates sees a connection between artists and writers and boxers and boxing in a way that is beautiful. She asks big questions: "What is sport?- and why is a man, in sport, not the man he is or is expected to be at other times?" Who do athletes (on the field or in the ring) stand in for? The book operates in and out of the theoretical and the chronological- almost the history of boxing melding in and out with a boxing match itself, following a path that is easy to follow while hard to describe. The accompanying pictures, while dated, are powerful. "On Boxing" is an odd little book, but worth a read for any student of sport, whether you want to call it that or not.


Juliet Malloy said...

LOVE THIS ENTRY!!!! Thanks for helping me actually understand this book lol love your blog!!!!!


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