Both Members of this Club
Welcome to Bellows' Lunchbox, a new blog dedicated to exploring the historical, cultural, and aesthetic relevance of pugilism, while also covering the contemporary trials of boxing in the twenty-first century. I should say up front that I am not a boxer, nor have I ever boxed. In fact, I have never punched another human being in my entire life. But I have long been fascinated by boxing, for many of the reasons that Joyce Carol Oates lays out in her superb collection of Boxing Essays, On Boxing. In one notable passage, Oates describes boxing as being "the very image, the more terrifying for being so stylized, of mankind's collective aggression, its ongoing historical madness." As a historian myself, that phrase resonates with the unique attraction of boxing as a brutally elegant dramaturgy of physical strength and suffering, bloodlust and cruelty, that for me is best captured in the agonies of the ring, where men predominantly from society's lower depths chase fame and wealth, putting their bodies on the line for the enjoyment of passive spectators who urge them on from the safety of the stands or, more commonly, from their living room sofas.
The first time boxing ever made an impression on my mind was during my first trip to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, which was located about 35 miles from my childhood home in Annapolis, Maryland. As a young child growing up in the Baltimore-DC corridor in the 1980s, boxing had made little impression on me. Other than the bloated Rocky movies and Mike Tyson's reign of terror in the heavyweight division, I knew virtually nothing of the sport. But on that first visit, the nearly four by five foot oil painting of George Bellows, Both Members of This Club, stamped its image in my mind. Painted in 1909, Both Members captured the essential savagery of the boxing world, as it depicts the two fighters whose faces are obscured by blood and shadows, writhing in a kind of agonizing dance that contorts their lithe muscles into an expression of almost existentialist suffering. More importantly, beyond the ring and leering from the benches we see the individual faces of the crowd, their facial features deformed by the their gawking delight at the spectacle in the ring.
Perhaps one should be repulsed by such a representation of humanity, but I found something recognizably communal in it, a shared experience of fury and violence that is almost contained within the fight itself, and that honestly confronts and embraces the very human desire for aggression. In this way, there is something eternal about boxing, something that reaches back to the dawn of human societies. But simultaneously, the sport also exists within a particular context of industrial capitalism, where the working classes of the world search for heroes that arise from within their own ranks, overcome the impossible odds of the marketplace and obtain a brief measure of glory, for which the best and worst fighters alike all too often pay a terrifying price thanks to the accumulated damage of thousands upon thousands of blows received to the head and body.
Boxing, for me, is the celebration of the individual: both the winning and losing fighters who risk themselves in the ring and use physical force, agility, and guile to defeat their opponents and advance within the industry. Although the symbolism of the sport often embraces the loyalties of race and nation, boxing is largely immune to the displays of ostentatious patriotism that have largely taken over American culture.
It is within the context of the ongoing and relentless deification of the American military that I have decided to begin a boxing blog. For while much of mainstream society continues to reject boxing's brutality, it has fully and enthusiastically embraced the savagery of unending American imperialism, where the American soldier has become an instrument of conquest and destruction all around the world, celebrated in endless hosannahs to the flag and the fighter jet.
Soldiers fight for the nation and its interests. Boxers fight for themselves. For myself personally, I would much rather celebrate the man who uses his fists to conquer an opponent and earn the plaudits of the crowd than the man who picks up a gun (or commands a drone) that kills others in the interests of an imperial government. But what I regard as most dangerous is the way that the routine violence of the state today can spread all over the world, yet remain cloaked by the symbolism of the nation. I much prefer my violence to be honest than for it to be blinded by devotion to an abstraction that serves a lesser cause.
If we shall be violent, let us be honest about that violence, as Bellows was, and as this blog aims to be. Boxers are, for me, the ultimate heroes of a society stuck in the passageway of late capitalism, navigating a treacherous and bloody business in the hopes of securing their own personal triumph, or, if not that, physical survival. All of them--the champions and their defeated opponents--command my respect. This blog is dedicated to them.