Inspiring Older Readers
On Boxing by Joyce Carol Oates (with photographs by John Ranard)
Even after reading Joyce Carol Oates’ book on what she sees as the ‘art’ of boxing, I remain fundamentally puzzled by why so many literary big-hitters find themselves intoxicated by watching two men (and now sometimes two women) slugging it out in a relatively confined space. Even if you allow for the fact that some of these boxers have quite interesting things to say when they are outside the ring, it remains the case that inside the ring these people inflict pain, they suffer and even die undertaking this activity in pursuit of money, glory or even their own personal rage. And that’s a fact I can’t reconcile myself to even when the personalities involved are as engaging and admirable as Muhammad Ali.
Oates’ book is relatively short and punctuated by atmospheric black and white photographic plates provided by John Ranard, a photographer who specialised in boxing as a subject. She approaches the topic in what seems to be a fundamentally academic and scholarly way – she probes the history and the philosophy of the ‘sport’ – but her underlying premise is unrelentingly romantic. Boxing is presented as something elemental, something almost deeper than reason and boxers are, Oates clearly believes, a special breed or maybe even a different species.
She acknowledges that her book, published in 1987, comes along as part of a long line of literary explorations of the topic ( Hemingway, Plimpton, Gardner etc.) and she makes efforts to equate the commitment to boxing with the commitment of the writer – presumably seeing the physical single-mindedness of the boxer’s training as similar to the total immersion of the writer.
Oates would certainly have you believe that some of the most successful and famous boxers are philosophers – the book is peppered with the knowing and gnomic statements these fighters have made during the course of their careers. But in truth I don’t believe it’s their intellect she’s really interested in. It seems to me that she is fascinated by the maleness of the boxer and describes it with a sort of appalled relish – refusing to acknowledge she enjoys the boxing for its animal brutality and determined instead to imbue it with a grander, more worthy metaphorical significance.
Oates does touch on some of the aspects of boxing which make people like me doubt the ultimate ‘nobility’ of two men fighting but she does so very briefly and I think rather grudgingly. She acknowledges that boxing and poverty are inter-linked and that for the poor it has represented a way out of their marginalisation – but what she doesn’t do is to properly examine just how the economics of boxing works. This is a corrupt world dominated by betting where often wealthy people watch relatively poor people draw blood for entertainment but you’d not really know this from Oates. She also acknowledges the issues of race and ethnicity that dominate the sport but she doesn’t skewer the fundamental racism inherent in the whole concept of boxing as an entertainment.
Oates concludes this extended essay in this way:
In the brightly lit ring, man is in extremis, performing an atavistic rite or agon for the mysterious solace of those who can participate only vicariously in such drama: the drama of life in the flesh. Boxing has become America’s tragic theatre.
The unanswered question is why. What Oates is writing about here is America’s boxing heritage – few foreign or overseas names are to found profiled in this book. The psychology and physicality of boxing and all its rituals seems to belong to the US and it would have been good to see Oates question why it is that American society has produced a ‘sport’ that makes heroes and millionaires of those most able to inflict pain and damage on another man.