But Boxing Is Only Like Boxing

No one whose interest in boxing began as mine did in childhood – as an offshoot of my father’s interest – is likely to think of boxing as a symbol for something beyond itself, as if its uniqueness were merely an abbreviation, or iconographic; though I can entertain the idea that life is a metaphor for boxing – for one of those bouts that go on and on, round following round, jabs, missed punches, clinches, nothing determined, again the bell and again and you and your opponent is you: and why this struggle on an elevated platform enclosed by ropes as a pen beneath hot crude pitiless lights in the presence of an impatient crowd? – that sort of hellish-writerly metaphor. Life is like boxing in many unsettling respects. But boxing is only like boxing.

this is from Joyce Carol Oates’ masterful book On Boxing, which I often recommend to detractors of Oates’ vast work.


8 thoughts on “But Boxing Is Only Like Boxing

  1. I’ve disliked the sound of Oates’s books enough not to read any of them. I can’t say that this quotation changes my opinion. She was drawn to boxing by her father – and then what? Life is a metaphor for boxing. This is simply a reversal of the subject and object in a trite sentence. And then writing is like boxing. Maybe if she finds it so challenging she should become an accountant. I don’t think she’s found her true vocation.

  2. Writing about sports is difficult to do well. I think Oates is stunning and her work belongs to classic works like “Beyond a Boundary” and is certainly better than, for example, Mailer’s book about the sweet science (“The Fight” it’s called, I think). That sentence, it’s not just a reversal. The last sentence especially, it is about the difficult task of writing well of something as odd, violent and almost mythical as boxing without breaking it down into easily digestible “x is like life” wisdoms. The penultimate sentence then describes her writing about life, and although I am not a huge fan of hers, she does try and apply these skills, then, to life, and writing about it. Her work seems like an enormous amount of iterations of an identical impulse. (any oates fans reading this, correct me if I’m wrong).

  3. My understanding is that she usually writes about rather brutal crimes, which would be consistent with her interest in boxing. Boxing to me resembles cockfighting more than human life, unless one thinks everything boils down to endurance and brute force, with a little dancing around. It doesn’t. There is also the mind, and Muhammad Ali, for example, is not a terribly bright fellow.

    My father was also interested in boxing, which was consistent with his military experience of killing Germans during World War II. He was not a well-adjusted person and shot himself in the head at age 50. I don’t think the boxing metaphor was of much value in his case.

  4. Yes, Oates’ work reflects an ongoing engagement with violence. This doesn’t mean she glorifies it or is sick in the head. I’ve found her to be a writer of immense range and compassion.

  5. There is actually a rather large amount of well-adjusted, pretty brilliant people with an interest in boxing and while to perform well, one doesn’t need to be brainy, one does need to have more than brawns. Pure sluggers, like Mike Thyson, perform well for a while and drop off soon enough. That said, I think that intelligence plays a much smaller role in life as one might think. Far more is about roles, and tactics and instincts, and similar considerations, I would say, which is a point that in the work I read, Oates keeps stressing.

  6. Though I don’t really follow boxing, I’m aware that some boxers are relatively intelligent, for example George Foreman or Lennox Lewis. They seem to have planned their careers carefully from a financial standpoint and stopped boxing before sustaining serious brain injuries. However, the majority of boxers have historically been managed like the bulls in bullfights, with organized crime in control of the process (I think On the Waterfront depicts this well.).

    You’re right in the sense that pure intelligence plays a small role in life, but there is also a kind of natural intelligence that creeps in everywhere, is more difficult to discern, and often makes a big difference.

    I think an apt word to use with respect to boxing is “visceral.” What many of us miss in our lives is the same sense of danger and physical challenge that dominated the lives of our ancestors. We would rather be running through the woods barefoot and throwing spears at mastodons. This is a deep instinct that draws us to boxing, football and other sports. But for someone like me, who is drawn more to ideas, the whole thing is rather stupid. When I see a crowd in a stadium cheering on a team, all I can think is that these people are idiots. The idiocy spreads outward to nationalism, war and terrorism.

    When I think of Joyce Carol Oates sitting at her desk in her well-paid job at Princeton, I think of a woman whose instincts have been so suppressed by the world of abstraction in which she lives that she compensates by thinking about that brutality. To me, this is not the best kind of art, and for the same reason I don’t read Norman Mailer.

  7. Well, I only recently got back to Oates after overdosing on her a few years ago, but I really don’t recognize her in Paul’s description – if anything, the excellent “Rape (A Love Story)” is an examination of exactly the sort of consuming mob mentality you describe. Though it’s true that Oates tends to examine society from one person’s horizon – an inside-out perspective rather than the other way around (viz her deconstruction of not just Hollywood but the entire idea of an independent self-image in “Blonde”), but I wouldn’t say it comes across as theoretical or distanced in any way.

  8. I have to disqualify myself as a commenter on Oates’s fiction. I’m mainly commenting on boxing and sports. I’ve read several of Oates’s essays and find her knowledgeable and clear, but not particularly insightful or interesting.

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