We’re talking and you want to impress something into my mind with sufficient force that this impression will endure longer than those made by the usual unrelenting stream of noise we wade through. Betting you’ll use something like metaphor, that is, you’ll talk around the issue in a way that invites analogy and in a way that usually constitutes a simplification. Thus you might reductively say of a complicated interpersonal relationship involving years of accumulated slights, perceived and actual, that the people involved interact like cats and dogs and in so saying feel you’ve usefully simplified the matter. Of these simplifications some may become so ingrained we hardly anymore register their use as such. So we say reflexively, and invariably it seems, that someone goes from being diagnosed with cancer to fighting it. That someone in the final throes is a fighter so we can expect further delay. That a new president has decided to better fight the war on poverty or drugs.
Yet truly none of the above looks like a fight, not a real fight. A hairless child is made perfectly passive with anesthesia, then operated on and wheeled around, through radiation and therapeutic chemistry, through the drawing of blood and the taking of pictures. An impossibly aged woman lies immobile on a hospital bed, the threats to her life mounting but the white bleep still forming blurry hills as it moves left to right, left to right. A president … OK, no one really knows what they do, but we do know it looks nothing like a fight.
Still, the lexical imagery persists, and like most things that persist it does so because of truth. So it might not look like a fight from the outside looking in but to the boy and the woman it damn sure feels like one. The simplification works because it makes most salient what is achingly common to the two disparate situations: what binds the bald child in the wheelchair to the participant in an actual fight. The simplification works, always has, always will; and millennia from now we’ll be saying it about half-monkey/half-robots: Don’t worry about Simianorg, he’s a fighter.
Fighting is opposition, opposition often the clashing of opposites, so if we wish to oppose simplification we need complexification. Complexification, an inartful and clunky word nonetheless perfect here, is almost exclusively the domain of high art, the higher the better.
A recent example that might illustrate. First, recall or imagine the following. A young boy in a room with his mother and father floats the possibility of engaging in a specific, highly desirable to his eyes, activity the following day. Incidentally, this kind of floating comprises approximately 90 percent of the average young child’s day. The mother expresses openness, maybe even optimism, regarding the possibility, the father does not. The entire interaction takes around thirty seconds and nothing about it fails to conform with usual human expectations: Children are need machines and that manifests itself in a great many requests and mothers are better than fathers. Like most things that meet expectation so seamlessly, the incident registers only slightly then makes room for the next.
Contrariwise, a complexification of same can linger a lifetime. In 1927 Virginia Woolf published To the Lighthouse, a devastating novel that can, at its close, make the resumption of everyday life feel problematic. It begins with such an incident. James Ramsay is six years old. He longs to go to the nearby lighthouse the following day: a bit of an expedition, it seems, and one that requires at least some forethought. We enter only after the request has been made, and the novel’s first words are his mother’s response:
“Yes, of course, if it’s fine tomorrow,” said Mrs. Ramsay. “But you’ll have to be up with the lark,” she added.
Note that at this point (yes I know it’s laughably early) we are in substantially the same position as the person recalling or imagining the scenario, although one could argue that the words fine and lark make that not so. If anything the above seems a simplification, lacking as it does any of the surrounding detail a person actually present would absorb.
However, Woolf’s high art then takes us inside the mind of James Ramsay. This is of course more than a complexification of everyday life; it is a downright impossibility and begins to explain why low art offends so deeply. Once inside we learn that James’s mere audition of his mother’s words fills him with certitude that the outing will occur and a concomitant “extraordinary joy.” Woolf then quickly and expertly sketches James. He is himself but also a member of “that great clan” highly susceptible to wild fluctuations of prospective and actual “gloom or radiance.” He is mature and seemingly capable of the kind of future accomplishment that will come in for serious evisceration but he remains a child, one who will sit on the floor cutting out pictures from an illustrated catalogue. He is vulnerable, and the right kind of reader wants to protect him. Woolf continues:
“But,” said his father, stopping in front of the drawing-room window, “it won’t be fine.”
The desolation of this is severe. Damn it Virginia, we’re on page 2.
We continue and learn that if granted access to an appropriate weapon James would have tried to kill the declarant in response. That what we suspect of Mr. Ramsay, “lean as a knife, narrow as the blade of one,” is true. That his sarcastic grin is the product of not only the “pleasure of disillusioning his son and casting ridicule upon his wife” but also of “some secret conceit at his own accuracy of judgment.” That he does not believe in ameliorative steps to disguise the truth as he sees it: Life is something to be endured. In short, we know this prick. The kind of miserable prick who won’t rest until everyone around him approaches his level of misery.
But does that make him wrong, meaning factually? For here we encounter the first way something like To the Lighthouse complexifies. Because in the everyday we can leave the room when a Mr. Ramsay enters it or stay and tune him out. Here, however, unless we abandon the book we will have to deal with him and whatever he does next. Let me state the obvious and say that dealing with Mr. Ramsay, however one chooses, is more complex than leaving a room. Let me also state that the prick could be correct. Life could be little more than endurance, right?
It certainly has the capacity to feel that way at times. If you disbelieve ask the parents of the boy wearing the cap in the wheelchair. It often felt that way to Virginia Woolf. It feels that way to you at least sometimes. Is Mr. Ramsay right then? Is it all endurance, meaning a form of fight, and does that account for the conformance pleasure we feel when we say something like so-and-so is fighting cancer?
Also, if something like To the Lighthouse represents highest-level artistic complexification of the quotidian, what constitutes a sublimity of simplification? An activity that’s not art but functions like it, admittedly in the opposite direction?
Boxing in substantially the form we see it today is about a century old. Truly major bouts, the kind whose omission would render a history of the pursuit1 incomplete, are relatively rare and not all well preserved, meaning someone looking to familiarize themselves with the entirety of its output could probably do so in about the time it takes to read Anna Karenina and, yes, incredibly, an argument is about to ensue that boxing has moments as worthy of attention and respect. Look, I know Anna Karenina and the like are brilliant elevations and God knows we need elevating. Just saying we also need distillations and none I know of exceed boxing.
If we’re to then talk about greatness in relation to this pursuit we’ll have to make a perhaps counterintuitive distinction right at the outset. Bach, Gould, Tolstoy, Woolf, are giants so we rightly turn to their work to experience greatness in their fields. Not generally so in boxing. A partial list of the pursuit’s giants is something like Louis, Robinson, Ali, Duran, and Armstrong. All brilliant, all have signature moments, but with the exception of Ali’s “Thrilla in Manila” none can match moments produced by far lesser personages. The reason is that two individuals in a boxing ring are fighting, and greatness there seems less a product of skill and talent than of concepts like will and tenacity—precisely the attributes you’ll need, not skillful intelligence, if diagnosed with cancer for example.
Two recent examples are shown to the right. On May 18, 2002, Arturo Gatti fought Micky Ward in a ten-round nontitle bout. If that means something to you now, realize that at the time it meant very little beyond the promise of an entertaining scrap. Gatti was thirty years old with four losses and Ward was thirty-six with eleven. That’s where the promise came in, because truth is every professional boxer (about twenty thousand worldwide) looks astounding on a heavy bag. To paraphrase Bruce Lee though, bags don’t hit back.
See, the pursuit’s dirty little secret is that its truly elite practitioners simply don’t get hit cleanly that often. By cleanly I mean the kind of cinematically flush, head-snapping bombs someone like Rocky Balboa specializes in absorbing.2 The most technically proficient boxer of our lifetime, Floyd Mayweather Jr., has fought professionally forty-one times and has had that happen to him maybe thrice. So if you want to see that kind of greatness go to his fights because he’s the Tolstoy of boxing and you will see highest-level, once-in-a-lifetime, skill. But if you want to see another kind of greatness you need to go down at least one level, maybe two, and that’s the level where Gatti–Ward took place, a level where fighters do get hit cleanly in something at least approaching Hollywood etc., and, because getting hit hard by another person who is good at hitting is no fun, a level where we feel we learn something visceral about the people involved.3
Until round 9 the Gatti–Ward fight conformed perfectly with this expectation as both fighters were skilled enough to deal significant punishment but not so skilled that they could avoid its return.4 But it is Arturo Gatti’s actions in the ninth round, a face he forms, a conscious decision he makes, a course he wills himself onto, that continue to linger almost a decade on. Watch the round again the way you might listen to an unfamiliar piece of music you want to form a relationship with.
The round begins with announcer Larry Merchant wondering whether Gatti can continue to absorb punishment from the stronger Ward, a concern no one would ever again voice regarding this individual. The left hook Ward lands a mere fifteen seconds into the round is almost inhumanly cruel. To truly understand these three minutes in human history you have to appreciate that even among the insane subset of humans that is professional boxers it is not the type of punch someone gets up from. (To see the overwhelmingly default reaction to such a punch when even elite boxers are involved watch this or this.)
The face Gatti wears while kneeling by the referee’s count certainly doesn’t suggest he will rise again.5 That he does and even almost wins the fight go beyond telling us everything we ever need to know about Gatti to almost beginning to tell us what we need to know about ourselves, and I am not going to explain that further beyond asking you to look at that face again.6
On May 7, 2005, Diego Corrales fought Jose Luis Castillo. Again we are on the not-quite-elite level where will tends to predominate although also on a higher level than Gatti–Ward’s.7 This time it’s the tenth round that informs: The face that lingers here is the state of Corrales’s before the round even begins, that is, before he takes two more hellacious hooks that drop him on his back and even his stomach. That he rises both times is astonishing but somewhat conventional, that the round ends with him as the victor and Castillo senseless defies credible explanation. Though apparently not to his trainer, the brilliant Joe Goossen, who can be heard after each knockdown urging his fighter to “get inside” his opponent.8
Reflect on that for a moment: The person most charged with ensuring Corrales’s safety is urging him to get inside, that he put himself in more harm’s way, and he is doing so after witnessing the two vicious knockdowns; and he was right! Again, these are not normal human interactions.
I don’t know. What intelligent can be said about these two moments in human time? Can you not download them onto the latest device, walk through the halls of Sloan-Kettering and up to the child in the wheelchair, play them, and say: This is like what you have to do, you have to get inside this thing. Are they not instructive distillations? Because they feel like that and I feel something like love for Gatti and Corrales, two men who rose not in expectation of victory but rather in defiance of defeat, when exposed to evidence of their acts. The way you might feel love for Woolf’s little James Ramsay or more likely his mother. Because the response to his father’s cruelty was not the violence the boy imagined. No, Woolf tells us that:
“But it may be fine—I expect it will be fine,” said Mrs. Ramsay, making some little twist of the reddish brown stocking she was knitting, impatiently. If she finished it tonight, if they did go to the Lighthouse after all, it was to be given to the Lighthouse keeper for his little boy, who was threatened with a tuberculous hip; together with a pile of old magazines, and some tobacco, indeed, whatever she could find lying about, not really wanted, but only littering the room, to give those poor fellows, who must be bored to death sitting all day with nothing to do but polish the lamp and trim the wick and rake about on their scrap of garden, something to amuse them. For how would you like to be shut up for a whole month at a time, and possibly more in stormy weather, upon a rock the size of a tennis lawn? she would ask; and to have no letters or newspapers, and to see nobody; if you were married, not to see your wife, not to know how your children were,—if they were ill, if they had fallen down and broken their legs or arms; to see the same dreary waves breaking week after week, and then a dreadful storm coming, and the windows covered with spray, and birds dashed against the lamp, and the whole place rocking, and not being able to put your nose out of doors for fear of being swept into the sea? How would you like that? she asked, addressing herself particularly to her daughters. So she added, rather differently, one must take them whatever comforts one can.
See? There are Mr. Ramsays, true, but there are also Mrs. Ramsays and they knit stockings for tuberculous children and they think of what it’d be like to be stuck in a lighthouse while nature emits its cruelest essays around you. Only enjoy them while you can because “Time Passes” and:
[Mr. Ramsay, stumbling along a passage one dark morning, stretched his arms out, but Mrs. Ramsay having died rather suddenly the night before, his arms, though stretched out, remained empty.]
Which, of course, only complicates things greatly with warmth for Mr. Ramsay, who after all is only stumbling around in the dark with empty outstretched arms like the rest of us.
Nothing that painful emerges without in some sense harming its creator just as Gatti and Corrales authored their moments at the expense of their bodies, which is to say their very lives. Virginia Woolf’s struggles are well chronicled, though, by design, known only vaguely to me. I do know she once closely observed a day-moth as it struggled to get through a window pane and to the light outside before falling spent onto its back and wrote in reaction that:
Nothing, I knew, had any chance against death. Nevertheless after a pause of exhaustion the legs fluttered again. It was superb this last protest.… When there was nobody to care or to know, this gigantic effort on the part of the insignificant little moth, against a power of such magnitude, moved one strangely.I know as well some biographical facts about Gatti and Corrales but am prevented from sharing them here because they are not flattering.
A quick explanation. In every criminal trial conducted in this country the burden of proof rests entirely on the prosecution. Consequently, once the prosecution has rested its case even a somnolent defense attorney will move to dismiss the case, arguing in essence that the failure of proof was so significant that the jury should not even be given the opportunity to deliberate on the matter. Well, everything legal triggers something else legal, because now the judge charged with deciding the motion is required to evaluate that evidence “in a light most favorable to the People.” I like this light, the way it shines on only the positive and assiduously avoids what’s darkest. Can you live in this light? Probably not but I still want to free it from just our criminal-justice system and apply it broadly.
Certain people are entitled to this light. They are numerous and teem and their numbers include artists, fighters, nurses, damn almost anyone who does or worries about doing. The light shines on them at their best and makes it so that this best and not what remains defines them.
On July 11, 2009, Arturo Gatti was found dead in a Brazilian hotel room; authorities would later determine that he had hung himself using his wife’s purse strap. (Those close to Gatti continue to dispute this finding, arguing that if there were one thing Gatti would not commit to it was suicide.) Diego Corrales died on May 7, 2007, when he fell off the motorcycle he was operating through the haze of a 0.25 blood-alcohol content. On March 28, 1941, Virginia Woolf filled her overcoat’s pockets with stones, walked into a river, and purposely drowned; her explanatory note to her husband explaining that “I can’t fight any longer.”
Early in James Ramsay’s joy at his mother’s opening words we learn that the lighthouse he longs to go to is separated from him by “a day’s sail.” Like everyone currently fighting we hear the echo of his request to undertake that sail through relentless dreary waves and maybe fear being swept out to sea. Except some of us don’t do fear. These people recklessly answer Yes, we’re going to the lighthouse no matter the cost and in so saying purposely forget that weather determines everything when it comes to its prisoners.￼