The Nation's Pulse

Fighting Words

Joyce Carol Oates brings boxing back to Manhattan.

By 6.4.07

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Following a reading from her wonderful thirty-sixth novel The Gravedigger's Daughter in Manhattan last week, Joyce Carol Oates, prompted by a question from the audience, spoke for several minutes with a borderline rapturous enthusiasm and a tinge of sadness about boxing.

Specifically, the National Book Award winner and Princeton University professor rued the decline of this primal art form -- she is as loath to call boxing "a sport" as she is to hear it dismissed as "brutal" -- a downtrend she attributes to two factors: First, she said, you have to really want to hurt someone to be a championship boxer, "and there aren't many people with that kind of rage anymore and less and less as time goes on." Second, many born into the rough-and-tumble circumstances which typically engender the burning desire for aggressive physical catharsis so frowned upon in the Therapeutic Age (my term, not hers) are now more likely to turn to illicit drugs (which preclude serious physical training) or crime than give wings to such impulses in a legitimate forum.

I'm not entirely sold on the argument, but, in fairness, Oates was speaking off-the-cuff, and brilliantly at that. What was most remarkable about the scene, however, was that boxing was discussed in a philosophical, appreciative way -- or, really, at all -- during a literary forum.

Her eloquence encouraged me to purchase Oates' recently revised and reissued 1987 paean, On Boxing. In one particularly memorable passage Oates writes,

Each boxing match is a story -- a unique and highly condensed drama without words. Even when nothing sensational happens: then the drama is "merely" psychological. Boxers are there to establish an absolute experience, a public accounting of the outermost limits of their beings; they will know, as few of us can know of ourselves, what physical and psychic power they possess -- of how much, or how little, they are capable.

Perhaps an aversion to "public accounting" has something to do with dwindling interest in boxing? Or could it be "civilization" has finally overtaken the last outpost of the masculine? As Oates observes in On Boxing, "inside the ropes, during an officially regulated three-minute round, a man may be killed at his opponent's hands but he cannot be murdered. Boxing inhabits a sacred space predating civilization." As our extended bout of affluence sends softened individuals scurrying toward the corpulent teat of the collective, public accountings "of the outermost limits" and sacred spaces "predating civilization" are sure to continue losing popularity. No one wants to feel bad about re-labeling societal weakness as strength of character.

Frequent AmSpec contributor Paul Beston has also written on the state of boxing in a culture "deeply conflicted about the meaning of manhood": "For many Americans nourished at the counter of political correctness and baptized by the Church of Tolerance, boxing is simply barbarism," Beston argues. "Americans love violence, but only if it retains a synthetic quality, a stylized irony perfected by Quentin Tarantino. In boxing, violence lies beyond the consolations of irony..." It is a sentiment echoed by Oates in On Boxing: "The punishment -- to the body, the brain, the spirit -- a man must endure to become even a moderately good boxer is inconceivable to most of us whose idea of personal risk is largely ego-related or emotional."

IT ISN'T DIFFICULT to see how Oates could love boxing. Characters in her novels rarely shy away from violence and, so, as creator of those worlds, neither does she. After reading from The Gravedigger's Daughter Oates explained giddily that her protagonist eventually "gets revenge, and it's a good revenge" on his anti-Semitic torturers. Oates paused, and then, almost as if holding in a secret too good to keep, giggled that one anti-Semite ends up with a swastika carved into his forehead. "Hey, I'm from Upstate, so..." she said, when scattered groans greeted this description. (Apparently these fans had skipped her grueling novel Zombie.) "I'm at Princeton now," she reassured the crowd mischievously. "We don't do that kind of thing. We call lawyers instead." She also dished out a zesty, tough retort to the audience member who groused, "It could be better," when she asked whether the microphone projected her voice well enough. "'It could be better' is a profound philosophical statement, almost metaphysical," Oates said. "We're not going to touch that."

Beyond violence, though, no one who has read We Were the Mulvaneys, You Must Remember This or even The Gravedigger's Daughter could fail to observe Oates' dedication to generational remembrance in her work. Nor would readers likely be surprised to learn her love for boxing is rooted in trips to tough-as-nails 1950s matches with her father.

DURING HER MANHATTAN appearance Oates spoke of the writing process; of her novels as "nests," in which she could see "little things from my own life woven in" among "the twigs" and structural bits that ultimately made the whole "an impersonal thing." She talked about the difference between writing and life. "As a writer you learn you cannot do justice to the multiplicity of life, because it becomes too choppy," she said. Through revision, it must be distilled, a lesson from fiction that has nonetheless informed Oates ability to extract the sublime from mano a mano struggles.

Again, from On Boxing:

To turn from an ordinary preliminary match to a "Fight of the Century" like those between Joe Louis and Billy Conn, Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali, Marvin Hagler and Thomas Hearns is to turn from listening or half-listening to a guitar being idly plucked to hearing Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier perfectly executed, and that too is part of the story's mystery: so much happens so swiftly and with such heart-stopping subtlety you cannot absorb it except to know something profound is happening and it is happening in a place beyond words.
As Oates describes boxing, so too could we describe her writing.

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