Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1958 draft of the second volume of his posthumously published Critique of Dialectical Reason put forth the intriguing proposition that “Every boxing match incarnates the whole of boxing as an incarnation of all fundamental violence.” More interestingly, perhaps, he also argued that the “so-called witness” to the match is in fact a “participant: he intervenes to stop a brawl or else lets it run its course—out of cowardice, sadism, or respect for tradition. [....] The brawl is a common event.” Sartre then proceeds to demonstrate how “bourgeois capitalism itself is expressed through boxing.” The “boxing” section of the Critique was likely in part (as Ronald Aronson has noted) inspired by, although rather different from, Roland Barthes’ well-known 1957 essay on wrestling.
In any case, I think Sartre’s piece might be systematically and fruitfully compared to Joyce Carol Oates’ writings on boxing, which are phenomenologically perceptive if not brilliant, albeit at times contradictory in execution. For example, she states unequivocally that “Life is like boxing in many unsettling respects. But boxing is only like boxing.” This claim is reiterated in her assertion that “boxing is not a metaphor for life but a unique, closed, self-referential world….” This approach to the “sport” (Oates does not in fact believe boxing is a sport, especially insofar as a sport is understood within the conceptual parameters of a ‘game’) is salutary in that it encourages acute perception to detail, a focused attention on the subject at hand, unaltered or disturbed by some underlying agenda or ideological goal that tends to constrict what one will perceive, allowing only that which one expects, wants, or hopes to see. Oates is explicit if not emphatic about not viewing boxing as a metaphor for something else, that “something else” which might serve to diminish or distort our understanding of what takes place both inside and outside the ring. There is at once a singularity to each boxing match and a sense in which “each fight is all of boxing” (in Sartrean terms, its ‘totalization would remain schematic and formal…if it were not incarnated in the singularity of an “uncertain contest’”).
Still, while the gymnasium loomed large in the lives of both upper class young Athenians as well as young Spartans, it seems the athletic contest proper (with training in training in wrestling, boxing, running, throwing the discus and javelin, for example) was perhaps more important to some Greek city-states (e.g., Sparta) and less so for others (e.g., Athens): Plato’s Athenian pedagogical ideal, for example, revolves around dance and music (or ‘ritual play’) as fundamental to paideia (moral socialization or education) generally, although Dorian Sparta, at least according to Plato, remained an exemplar of choral excellence. Whatever the significance of the athletic contest, music or dance among ancient Greek city-states, the contemporary boxing match is a uniquely literal and analogical incarnation of “agony” (with substitutionary atonement as one function of this brutal, stylized spectacle?). And while homoeroticism (in general, intimate, and masochistic forms) may suffuse the world of boxing, as it did the world of ancient Greece, Oates assures us that the violence of its “ritual combat” (or ‘the Sweet Science of Bruising’) is not to be confused with love (‘Love, if there is to be love, comes second.’). Nor is the “play” of ritual as expressed through music and dance, fundamentally or typically agonistic (that is, even if it is, it should not be), let alone violent (to be sure, music and dance, as Plato himself appreciated, can assume inhumane or improper if not ‘violent’ forms contrary to human reason and virtues, hence our need for humane normative psychological, moral, and aesthetic evaluative criteria for these arts). Ritual combat may partake of music or dance, but it is the violent substance of the match itself which defines essence of this cruel spectacle, in other words, it “is an event that necessarily subsumes both boxers, as any ceremony subsumes its participants” (Oates), for its violence is no longer the individual property or under the sovereign control—as Sartre informs us—of the boxers themselves. Finally, and rightly, Oates cannot but fail to appreciate that the individual life history of exceptional boxers is conspicuously “emblematic of much more than their individual lives,” she remains fascinated by “their relationship with the politics and culture of their eras, their role in the ongoing ‘racial drama’ of America,’” a reminder, with Sartre, that boxing is much more than “a unique, closed, self-referential world.”
Images (from top to bottom): Jack Johnson, Rocky Marciano, and Muhammad Ali.