Monday, May 16, 2005
The Ozone Crackle of Bad Intentions
The blogosphere, let’s face it, is ruthless. And we must like it that way. Even around these genteel parts, there’s been more letting off steam than improving the sensibility. Some noble among us have taken a harder road and praised the good. (Ray, Daniel, Lawrence, Amardeep, my hat’s off to you.) But, others of us . . . Well, frankly, sometimes it’s just more fun to fold, spindle, and mutilate malefactors.
Not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with that. As Conscientious Objector reminds us, criticism can, should serve the public good. And this is just a work of art. (“Break me a fucking give”—a sentence that deserves a permanent home in Bartlett’s.) But as Laura suggested some time back, there’s something a little dispiriting about a literary organ that doesn’t find it in its heart to say a positive word every now and then. (Of course, there are those who find the very idea of a literary organ dispiriting.)
I’ve been feeling bad about that and meaning to talk up some good books for awhile. If the Valve is to fulfill the mission envisioned by its impresario, yeah, it’s gotta harpoon some blowhards. But it should also be propagandizing for the unjustly neglected. (Yes, I suppose Empson and Trilling count, but they’re not exactly unknowns.) So while I’ve got a moment between great tidal currents of exams and papers, let me recommend a truly wonderful book of essays you might have missed. Ever since a throwaway post on the impossibility of teaching writing I tossed up a while ago, I’ve been thinking about Carlo Rotella’s Cut Time: An Education at the Fights. It’s a marvelous set of ruminations on the manly art of fisticuffs that, while profoundly illuminating about boxing is also concerned with some other important subjects: as its title says, education, but also work, craft, luck, class, and, of course, sheer dominance. It’s done more to shake up my ideas about teaching than any number of essays on radical pedagogy I once struggled through and have now consigned to the dustbin of memory.
Before you pass on, let me just say that I don’t know doodly about boxing, and I don’t much like it either. (I still shudder in memory of an obligatory extracurricular session from my Catholic elementary school days.) But Rotella is not a fetishist or even primarily a fan. Nor is he one of the literary glorifiers dropping in for some breathless attitudinizing. He is one of those rare and extraordinary people who can show you the meaning in something you might be inclined to dismiss and who can do it because, like the boxers he does admire, he’s a beautiful craftsman.
Since each essay is a little marvel of footwork, no quote will do justice to the beauty of any one of the book’s pieces.
But it’s tempting to play up some of the virtuouso moments. E.g., on a referee bloodied in a particularly nasty bout:
Later, at the end of the night, the referee used a stopped-up sink in the men’s room to soak his shirt. A beefy fellow with an iron-gray crewcut and copious body hair, he stripped down to a dark blue sleeveless T-shirt and was kneading his once light blue dress shirt in the pool of pink water. He had taken off his black bow tie and once white surgical gloves and set them at the edge of the sink. One of the gloves, inside out, seemed to be pointing a finger at the mess in the sink. It looked as if he had performed a successful roadside appendectomy with his car tools on the way home from an evening at the Rotary Club.
But really these are feints. The big concerns build slowly and emerge so patiently from Rotella’s deft storytelling and from a canvas (sorry!) so rich with vivid characters that to excerpt them is to ruin the rhythm. Here he is, though, heading toward one of his conclusions:
Boxers hurt each other on purpose, a simple truth with unsimple consequences. In boxing, hurt means more than nerves sending unpleasant signals (that’s pain, what a baseball player feels when he fouls the ball of his foot) or damaged bodies becoming impaired (that’s injury, what happens to a football player when he cuts left and his knee doesn’t). In boxing, hurt is what people do to each other, an intimate social act, a pessimistically stripped-to-the-bone rendition of life as it is lived outside the ring. Hurting each other is all there can be between two boxers in an honest bout. Everything else about the fights, even the arresting moments of kindness, proceeds from that basic fact. It may look like parental love when a cutman and trainer labor tenderly over their fighter in his corner, for instance, but they do it so he can get out there and hurt the other guy some more. The primacy of hurt supercharges even the smallest details—a feint, a totemic nickname, a thick gob of Vaseline on a fighter’s cheekbone as he comes out of his corner at the bell—and produces the distinctive ozone crackle of bad intentions that attracts some people to boxing and repels many others. Anything that boxing teaches, anything it can say or be, must pass through the filter of its most basic fact.
There you have it, the kind of guy who, if he’s not careful, could give English professors a good name. But really, as I say, taken from its setting, this doesn’t do the book justice. So, get the book
update: For those who do know boxing and its literature and are interested to know Rotella’s specific angle, I think it could be put this way. The queasy allure of violence--Joyce Carol Oates has that covered. The existential drama? Norman Mailer. Boxing as America’s version of the Balinese cock fight, see Gerald Early. What Rotella talks about is boxing as a form of work and skilled craftsmanship--a discipline in which training is required and that touches by implication on larger matters of employment, education, and exploitation. For a practiced viewer who knows the diverse skills and talents involved, the histories behind them, the way every bout throws them together in unique combination, there are fascinating stories to be told.
In the same vein, maybe from a different angle, I’d recommend Ralph Wiley’s Serenity, a suberb set of boxing sketches with some autobiography mixed in. At his best, before his untimely death last year, Wiley made sports writing literature.
Sounds good—I guess someone should also step up to say Liebling’s “University of Eighth Avenue” is one of the best boxing pieces ever, and one of the great New Yorker pieces--right up there with (but not nearly as great as this greatest of pieces) Mitchell’s “Joe Gould’s Secret.”
I second your comment, Joel. I highly recommend Liebling’s collection of boxing essays, The Sweet Science. Liebling is particularly good on the contrasting styles of Archie Moore and Rocky Marciano--Moore the consummate stylist, the esthete, the subtle, contemplative Mandarin, and Marciano the brutal reductionist.
An excerpt from the book is at http://www.press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/725561.html at the website of the University of Chicago Press, who has just reprinted the book.