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By any standards, Joyce Carol Oates’ On Boxing is one of the high-water marks of boxing writing[1].  It routinely appears on lists of greatest boxing books[2], usually near the top.  Largely on the strength of this one piece (though she has written others on the subject), no less a figure than Nigel Collins, long-time editor of The Ring (when that title really meant something), has named her as one of his two favourite living boxing writers.

But Oates is not just a boxing writer: far from it.  Her output is as varied and as torrential as it is highbrow.  The author of over forty novels, she has also produced plays, novellas and poetry, as well as non-fiction: she has won a hatful of literary awards, and has twice been nominated for a Pulitzer.  In her spare time she is also, somehow, a professor at Princeton.

The reader who fears that a bluestocking in an ivory tower could never get to grips with the dirty world of boxing may take encouragement from The New York Review of Books’ description of her work as “a kind of Grand Guignol of every imaginable form of physical, psychological and sexual violence: rape, incest, murder, molestation, cannibalism, torture and bestiality”.  In addition, although the nitty-gritty of the boxing business is not her principal topic, she shows a genuine understanding of it, remarking wryly “[t]hat boxing is our most controversial sport, always, it seems, on the very threshold of oblivion, has not prevented it from having become a multimillion-dollar business.”

What is true, however, is that the present work is not necessarily aimed at the general boxing fan.  Indeed, it is not clear that On Boxing is “aimed” at anyone at all in particular.  It seems, rather, to be a very personal attempt on Oates’s part to come to grips with her own responses to boxing, and with some profound questions that, she feels, boxing raises. These are:

  • what is boxing? (in particular, is it, as it is usually unthinkingly described, a sport?)
  • why do we watch it? why do we like it?
  • what does this tell us about ourselves, the audience? what does it make us?

Oates’s attempt to address these questions is serious and substantial.  Her conclusions are unorthodox and sometimes profound.   They deserve the attention of anyone who takes boxing seriously.  But they are not immune to challenge.

On Boxing displays several flaws common when literary writers take on topics which are, for want of a better word, philosophical.  Firstly, she often says things that simply are not, and sometimes cannot possibly be true. The very first sentence of the preface reads “[n]o other subject is, for the writer, so intensely personal as boxing”, a sentiment unlikely to be endorsed by anyone who has read, for example, Paul Celan (as Oates surely has)[3].  This habit forces the reader to work hard: if she can’t mean, or believe, what she says, what does she want to say?  Secondly, she has a habit of overblowing what turn out to be mundanities.  She writes, for example, that to the boxer, his opponent is “a dream-distortion of himself in the sense that his weaknesses, his capacity to fail and to be seriously hurt, his intellectual miscalculations – all can be interpreted as strengths belonging to the Other . . . my strengths are not fully my own, but my opponent’s weaknesses; my failure is not fully my own, but my opponent’s triumph. He is my shadow-self, not my (mere) shadow.”  Even after multiple readings, it is not clear to me that this passage expresses any more than the truism that a boxer can only measure himself against an opponent.  Thirdly, she contradicts herself, sometimes spectacularly: early on, she writes “[l]ife is like boxing in many unsettling respects.  But boxing is only like boxing”, then spends large parts of the rest of the book discussing the ways in which boxing is like, among other things, religious ceremonies, story-telling, dance, music, pornography, and sex (straight and homosexual).  And finally, she is maddeningly imprecise in her use of terminology, including some of the terms most important to arriving at grasp of her views.

This dense and complex work is hard enough to follow as it is without these offputting habits, which may be a consequence of Oates’s methods of composition.  She herself describes the essay as “mosaic-like”, apparently foregoing a single narrative theme as she tries to build a picture from scattered, individual elements which do not always cohere with each other.

However, with effort, some key themes emerge, as follows.

  • Boxing is, or expresses, something ancient and primitive (“Boxing inhabits a sacred space predating civilization”): it may be anti-civilization and anti-rational, or even insane (“[t]he boxing match is the very image . . . of mankind’s collective aggression: its ongoing historical madness . . . “’Free’ will, ‘sanity’, ‘rationality’ – our characteristic modes of consciousness – are irrelevant, if not detrimental, to boxing in its most extraordinary moments . . . the great boxer must disrobe himself of both reason and instinct’s caution as he prepares to fight”).
  • Boxing is not normal or natural; indeed it is “contrary to nature” in that “’normal’ behaviour in the ring would be unbearable to watch, deeply shameful: for ‘normal’ beings share with all living creatures the instinct to persevere, as Spinoza said, in their own being”, that is, to survive and avoid damage or destruction.
  • For this reason boxing gives rise to a “theoretical anxiety” about our self-image.  (“Clearly, boxing’s very image is repulsive to people because it cannot be assimilated into what we wish to know about civilized man . . . [boxing] violates a taboo of our civilization”).
  • The fighter is essentially physical (“a boxer ‘is’ his body, and is totally identified with it”), and essentially masculine (“[t]he physical self, the maleness, one might say, underlying the self”).  The masculinity boxing reflects is “unthinking, unforced . . . beyond all question”.
  • Oates has “no difficulty justifying boxing as a sport because I have never seen it as a sport”: rather, boxing is more like an art form, with a fight being compared to a story (albeit one “without words”), to music, to dance, and to tragic theatre.
  • There is nothing metaphorical about boxing: it is something real.  “Nor can I think about boxing in writerly terms as a metaphor for something else . . . as a symbol of something beyond itself . . . For boxing isn’t metaphor, it really is the thing in itself”.
  • Watching (self-destructive, masculine) boxing and particularly thinking and writing about it, puts us in touch with “the lost ancestral self”, and forces us “to contemplate not only boxing, but the perimeters of civilization – what it is, or should be, to be human”.
  • Boxing makes spectators into voyeurs of violence.  “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”.
  • But as viewers, we too seek not just to watch but to participate in the contact with our pre-civilized selves: “the desire is not merely to mimic but, magically, to be brute, primitive, instinctive and therefore innocent. One might then be a person for whom the contest is not mere self-destructive play but life itself; and the world, not in spectacular and irrevocable decline, but new, fresh, vital, terrifying and exhilarating by turns, a place of wonders”.

Firstly, a boxing match is nothing like a “story”, and the boxer is nothing like the writer.  A story is separate from, and tells us about, the thing or events about which it is a story.  But a boxing match doesn’t represent or depict anything, and doesn’t point to, or tell us about, anything outside itself (this is why boxing cannot serve as a metaphor for other things: it is, in Oates’s Kantian formulation, “the thing in itself”).  While not representative of anything, boxing can certainly be expressive, what it expresses being facts about the nature of the participants & audience in particular, and (perhaps) humanity in general.  In this sense, as Oates says, “boxing as performance is more clearly akin to dance or music than narrative”, though since it is improvised and unpredictable, more like jazz than the orchestral music Oates alludes to (and again, nothing like a story – a story can be retold, but a boxing match cannot be refought).

These ideas are highly suggestive.  But then what does boxing “express”? In the first instance, and most directly, it expresses something profound about the fighters.  Oates is characteristically exaggerating when she says boxing “contains nothing that is not fully willed” – there are plenty of accidents in the ring – but, I think, on the right lines, when she says that in boxing “[a]ll is style”[4]. Style can consist only of willed actions, and so expresses character, something which boxing is uniquely able to reveal.

On the other hand, it is important to understand that Oates is simply wrong to depict boxing (as she does repeatedly) as something purely physical or corporeal.  There is more to a person, and certainly more to a fighter, than his body.  Firstly, boxing’s cognitive element is surely indispensable: without concentration, strategy and intelligence a fighter is lost.  Oates herself admits as much, when she discusses how “intelligently ferocious” Sugar Ray Leonard was, or how one boxer seeks to profit from the “intellectual miscalculations” of another.  Secondly, boxing’s demands are as much conative as cognitive: while it may be true that boxing “dramatizes the limitations . . . of the physical”, it – surely – can only do so by dramatizing, equally, the overcoming of the (merely) physical, through (to use Oates’s own word) will, or (to use an alternative term) heart, which ranks among boxing’s highest virtues. It is a complete human being who fights, not just a body, and there is no such thing as “the physical self . . . underlying the self”.

The question of will gives rise to some other issues.  As we saw above, for Oates, boxing is abnormal and “contrary to nature” because it is unnatural to “seek out” pain.  But elsewhere she writes that the boxer “must learn to exert his will over his merely human and animal impulses, not only to flee pain but to flee the unknown”. So which “nature” is the boxer overcoming by this act of will: his civilized, learned nature, or his pre-civilized, “animal” nature?

The answer, of course, is that the fighter needs to overcome both his instinctive and rational fears, and thus to control both his “atavistic” and civilized “selves” (if such there be).  It is clear, therefore, how we should answer Oates’s question whether boxing is “[m]adness? – or merely discipline? – this absolute subordination of the self”.  Boxing requires discipline, not madness, and epitomizes self-control, which is the very opposite of insanity. It is exactly backwards to say “the great boxer must disrobe himself of both reason and instinct’s caution as he prepares to fight”.

Similar considerations apply to Oates’s association of physicality, irrationality and anti-civilization with an “unthinking” masculinity.  “Values are reversed, evaginated: a boxer is valued not for his humanity but for being a ‘killer’, a ‘mauler’, a ‘hitman’, an ‘animal’, for being ‘savage’, ‘merciless’, ‘devastating’, ‘ferocious’, ‘vicious’, ‘murderous’”.  But it is a poor, indeed etiolated vision of masculinity that only includes brute, irrational, physical violence: men, after all, had a hand in the creation of civilization, and are no less masculine for it.  If there is something masculine about boxing – and I think Oates is undeniably right that there is – it lies precisely in boxing’s requirement for what she calls the “absolute subordination of the self”, in applying one’s reason and will to control and exploit (to use a Nietzschean term, “sublimate”) one’s own urges (both for fight and for flight) in order to take on one’s opponent.

It is for all these reasons that Oates is wrong to say that boxing “is about being hit rather more than it is about hitting, just as it is about feeling pain . . . more than it is about winning . . . the boxer prefers physical pain in the ring to the absence of pain that is ideally the condition of ordinary life”.  In fact it is almost never true that boxers want to be hit (and in fact when they do – one thinks of Oliver McCall against Lennox Lewis, and perhaps also Mike Tyson against the same opponent – not only are they are not boxing, they risk disqualification for breaching the referee’s explicit instruction to “defend yourself at all times”).  It is one thing to accept pain as the price of success, quite another to prefer it.  So it feels like Oates’s line of thinking here reduces to the commonplace that fighters understand the need, and are willing, to suffer (both in training and in the ring) in order to succeed.  Apart from being less than revelatory, this surely finally refutes the suggestion the boxer is irrational – what could be more rational than enduring something now in return for future reward? – as well as the suggestions that fighters are “unnatural”, “abnormal” or “other”.

There are further difficulties with Oates’s treatment of the relationship between boxing and civilization, a crucial term, but one which she uses loosely.  So, at one point, she draws a distinction between boxing, “a highly complex and refined skill, belonging solely to civilization”, and fighting, “something predating civilization, the instinct not merely to defend oneself . . . but to attack another and to force him into absolute submission”.  Everywhere else in the book, however, Oates uses the two terms interchangeably – rightly so, since a boxing match is always a fight, and as she says boxing “isn’t metaphor, it is the thing in itself”.  Consequently, and for all the reasons given above for doubting that boxing (or fighting) is something irrational, unthinking or primitive, it does not seem to me that there is any reason to locate boxing, or the source of its appeal, outside, or prior to, “civilization”.

I have suggested elsewhere that it is because a boxing match is a real (if stylized) fight that boxing should not be regarded as a sport.  Sport is what we do instead of fighting, and in this sense a sporting event, unlike a boxing match, is a metaphorical fight (this is how I read George Foreman’s oft-repeated aphorism, quoted by Oates, that “boxing is the sport all other sports aspire to be”).

However, Oates’s own arguments against regarding boxing as a sport are weak, based as they are on the observation that “[b]aseball, football, basketball – these quintessentially American pastimes are recognizably sports because they involve play: they are games. One plays football, one doesn’t play boxing”.  True enough: but then you don’t “play” swimming, running, cycling, diving, or ice-skating either, and they are certainly all sports.  This is partly, but not only, a question of English grammar: someone engaging in sports whose name comprises the gerund “Ving” is said to “V”, not to “play Ving” (we run, swim and cycle, we don’t play swimming, running or cycling[5]).  But these other sports don’t “involve play” either, and not all sports are games.  Someone running a marathon or riding a bicycle up an Alp is engaged in a sport, but not a game, and isn’t playing.  Likewise, anyone claiming that boxing isn’t a sport or a game because it “cannot be assimilated into childhood” hasn’t spent much time around children lately.

More promising is Oates’s suggestion, referred to above, that boxing is, or is akin to, an art.  We suggested above that boxing may be disqualified from being representative art by virtue of being something real (i.e., a match is a real fight), rather than symbolic, but allowed that it might be more correctly described as expressive, at least of the character of the fighters.  We have rejected Oates’s characterizations of boxing as (in her sense) masculine, abnormal and unnatural, essentially because we cannot see it as irrational or “brute, primitive and instinctive”, as something essentially predating “civilization”.  What is left?

Just as there is no such thing as a “physical self”, there is no such thing as an “atavistic self” which might be opposed to a “civilized self”.  There are only complete human beings, physical, intellectual and moral – and of course human nature, which varies with the times, but which also involves the permanent truths and values that make us human.  And it is because boxing (at its best) can express those truths and embody those values so uniquely well that Oates is right to say it displays the “full spectrum of the human condition”, and (it seems to me) why it is so appealing.  As Oates writes, a great fight is “a joint response to the will of the audience which is always that the fight be a worthy one so that the crude paraphernalia of the setting – ring, lights, ropes, stained canvas, the staring onlookers themselves – be erased, forgotten.  (As in the theatre or the church, settings are erased by way, ideally, of transcendent action.)”

This, I think is what Oates is driving at when she talks about boxing being “superior to life”, and also what gives it its artistic character.  Fighters are pushed to the limits of human existence in a way other humans are not, and can show us those limits in a way no one else can.  So, “[b]oxers 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”.  In other words, boxing’s appeal lies in the fact that what it expresses and embodies is not something ancient – after all, why should we care about that? – but something timeless[6].

Great boxing expresses the dignity of man through the extremes of life: in other words, exactly what Greek tragedy expresses.  We may therefore disagree with the route by which she gets there, but still agree with Oates’s conclusion that “[i]n the brightly lit ring, man is in extremis, performing . . . 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 comparison can be pushed too far – boxing expresses these things through athleticism rather than plot – but we need not pull back from it entirely, as Oates elsewhere seems to, when she suggests (contrary to her comparisons between boxing and writing, dance and music) that boxing is “an art form . . . with no natural analogue in the arts”.  (Indeed, it is when she draws out this comparison that Oates is arguably at her best.  Certainly, it is hard to think of a better sentence in boxing writing than this: “If boxing is a sport it is the most tragic of all sports because more than any human activity it consumes the very excellence it displays – its drama is this very consumption.”)

It follows, however, that the appeal of boxing to its audience does not simply reside in a desire “to be brute, primitive, instinctive and therefore innocent”.  Indeed, if this were so it would be hard to see how an audience could “will” that a fight should be “worthy” or “transcendent”.  It is true that a fight crowd responds to the violence, but also that an audience admires athleticism, heart, courage, intelligence, determination and skill: the highest of humanity, and not only the lowest.

A final consideration.  While fighting may express the whole of humanity, its “transcendence” can lead us to see the fighters themselves as somehow other than human, even superhuman.  This is especially true given the nature of boxing, where the opponent is not “merely” an opponent, but also, as it were, stands in for both the ball and the goal.  Without measures to protect the fighters (from themselves, their opponents and the “will of the audience”) the dangers of their being pushed beyond what is humanly bearable are obvious.  This, I think, is what Oates means when she writes that “so central to the drama of boxing is the referee that the spectacle of two men fighting each other unsupervised in an elevated ring would seem hellish, if not obscene”.  But there is something deeply unsettling in Oates’s further observation that “[t]he referee makes boxing possible . . . . He is . . . our moral conscience extracted from us as spectators so that, for the duration of the fight, ‘conscience’ need not be a factor in our experience”.  If we spectators have to be thus temporarily parted from our “moral conscience” to enjoy boxing, what does that make us?  More than voyeurs, I would suggest: and this, I think, rather than any roots in “pre-civilization”, is the source of the “theoretical anxiety” that boxing certainly gives rise to in the thinking observer.

On Boxing is not an easy read, and not only because it deals with difficult topics.  There is much in the book to disagree with.  Oates arrives at her insights via questionable routes, and often appears not fully to appreciate their true meaning or importance.  But it is, nonetheless, both deeply insightful and deeply important.  A boxing fan who has not read it and thought carefully about its themes is missing a lot, and in a way is doing a disservice both to himself as a spectator and to boxing’s participants.  For all these reasons, it is one of the few works on the subject that can truly be described as indispensable.


[1] In its most recent edition, the essay On Boxing is anthologized with some of Oates’ other writings on the subject, notably her pieces on Tyson and Ali and her review of Unforgiveable Blackness, Geoffrey Ward’s immense biography of Jack Johnson. The present review will deal only with the original essay.

[2] For example, http://www.theguardian.com/books/2010/feb/08/top-10-boxing-books-markus-zusak; http://www.goodreads.com/list/show/6672.Best_Books_on_Boxing_and_Boxershttp://www.proboxing-fans.com/merchandise/best-boxing-books/

[3] Celan, whose parents died in an internment camp in Transnistria in 1943 after he had failed to persuade them to flee, most famously wrote Todesfuge as a response to Theodor Adorno’s suggestion that “after Auschwitz, to write a poem is barbaric”.

[4] Which is not the same as saying that, in boxing, “all is stylishness”, a distinction apaprently missed by Anatole Broyard in his New York Times review (http://www.nytimes.com/books/98/07/05/specials/oates-boxing.html ), in which he surprisingly asks “can the word ‘style’ be applied to Rocky Marciano or Mike Tyson?”.

[5] Interestingly, one can be said to “play” the Celtic sports of hurling and curling (but note that these are also games, and the players neither hurl nor curl).

[6] Oates, it seems to me, misses the importance of her own comment that “[t]he fight itself is timeless”, which she makes in her discussion of the importance of time to boxing. (For example, “[w]hen a boxer is ‘knocked out’ it does not mean, as it’s commonly thought, that he has been knocked unconscious, or even incapacitated; it means rather more poetically that he has been knocked out of Time”.)