The Fight That Takes It Out Of You; Or, Why You might Want To Avoid Greatness
There’s an old saying attributed to the German writer Goethe: “Das Urbild ist das Bild ist die Spiegelung.” In English that means, “The original image is the image is the reflection.” Whatever’s going on in the universe is fractal in nature, visible in realms as diverse as biology and culture, flowers and cities. How far down (or up) it goes, to some ultimate substrate or some ultimate nothing, is a question for physicist, metaphysicians, and theologists, not tired semi-successful writers crafting blog entries in the middle of the night.
Similar to Goethe’s saying, not to mention a bit more succinct and pithy (and in English to boot), Joyce Carol Oates once said that “Life is a metaphor for boxing.”
Is it true? Is boxing the “Ur-Stoff,” from which other realms can be extrapolated or at least contextualized? I think so. Let’s go from pugilism to the arts—men punching each other to people painting—just to test Dame Oates’ theory.
In boxing, there is the dreaded “fight that takes it out of you.” Everyone in the sport knows what this means. It’s the kind of fight where two men of equal resolve, will, and skill meet in their primes, clash, and put on a show for the ages. Usually it’s a bloody, exhaustive affair, as cathartic and stirring for the fans as it is for the fighters. It becomes the stuff of legend, or at least feature-length documentaries and retrospective interviews in which the two pugs meet again years later, shake hands, sit down in canvas-backed chairs in some TV studio, and reminisce with some jock-sniffer of a host seated between them.
These kinds of fights cement the legendary status of the fighters involved, and make great memories for the fans, but they also take their toll. These are the kinds of fights that make men old overnight. Like Philip Dick’s replicants, their shining ultrabright comes at a terrible price. Only boxing is even crueler than the Tyrell Corporation, accomplishing in thirty-six minutes what it would take a replicant’s self-destructive programming three years to achieve.
Am I being dramatic? I don’t think so. The truth of my words is there in the purple scar tissue above the eyes of many a pug, drooping and swollen like overripe plums. It’s in the slurred speech, the weird bowlegged gait that makes men walk as if they’re navigating minefields. I’m not going to say any names. It would be unseemly, bordering on indecent.
Nor am I going to dwell on the boxing half of the analogy any longer. It would be too depressing.
Moving on to the arts, though, and with it my main point, I think an artist can give so much to their work—a painter to one canvas, an actor to one performance, a musician to one album—that they’re never the same afterwards.
The difference, of course, between boxers and artists is that artists don’t have a literal opponent before them, a dance partner who is just as iron-willed and unbending, prepared to suffer brain damage or even death to prove his point.
Some artists view the creation of their work as a kind of battle, a war against the doubts and despair that every day sap our energy and make us not want to try anymore. And artists, just like fighters, have primes, those years where they are most confident in their abilities or at least most ornery in fighting off the doubts, the indifference, critical mockery and outright rejection.
One could maybe argue that a director regards his actors and crew as opponents in a certain sense, as Jack Nicholson once suggested of Stanley Kubrick. And then there is Hemingway’s likening of the blank page fed into the typewriter as “Facing the white bull.” But a metaphor for a fight will never be confused for an actual donnybrook. A blank page may be daunting to the writer just starting out his task (it always is to me), but it doesn’t literally punch back. And aside from on-set dustups between actors and directors, fists don’t literally fly in that act of creation. Actors, even the most agonizingly method of them, do not suffer renal failure and piss blood, requiring dialysis after their performances, no matter how much of themselves they give or how invested in their roles they are. The only possible exception might be Daniel Day Lewis, who I heard put so much energy into playing a paralyzed man in a wheelchair in My Left Foot that he literally broke some ribs.
What about De Niro, that other ultra-method madman? He’s probably the most apt guineapig in our little experiment, as he is a man in whom the two halves of the metaphor fuse to become a perfect instantiation. He not only played middleweight, perpetual motion machine, Jake “Bronx Bull” Lamotta, but went full method, learning the secrets of Fistiana firsthand from Lamotta himself, who, having trained De Niro, asserted Bobby could have gone pro at that point.
Did De Niro take some stick in the ring, actually get hit with shots while trying to “pass punches,” as the old-time stuntmen call it?
Maybe, but it hardly matters, as Bobby Milk gave so much of himself in that performance—breaking down and crying from within the quivering mass of his soul while banging his head against a prison wall, gaining massive amounts of weight—that I think he emerged from the experience in some way compromised, permanently tired. Even rest and recuperation after the performance, along with acknowledgment from his peers in the Academy, was not enough to restore him to the actor he was before he went a round or two for a pound or two with Scorsese.
Yes, he had some great performances afterwards, and continues to turn in respectable and sometimes even admirable jobs as an actor in between assignments clearly taken to meet his nut for his Tribeca restaurants and hotel properties.
But nothing seems to come close to that Oscar-winning performance, regarded not just as his best but perhaps the deepest and most committed, most sacrificial and vulnerable ever put on celluloid.
Bobby didn’t just lose something with that performance, either. He gained something which he’s never been able to shake, a tic that might seem minor to the casual fan but which his army of impersonators always incorporate into their mimicries.
Watch De Niro in Raging Bull as fat post-retirement Lamotta, with his bloated overhanging beer belly stretching the fabric of his shirt and hiding the buckle of his belt. Listen to him when he’s on the phone with his wife, Vicky, pleading for her to come up with bail money so he doesn’t have to stew in a Florida hoosegow on that corruption of a minor charge. Hear the wheeze, that strange, strangled breathing, as if a hard snorer had put his apnea mask on wrong.
De Niro never breathed like that prior to that performance, and he never ceased to do that huffing and puffing afterwards. It’s there, every time he speaks in an interview today, mixed in among his squirming and hemming and hawing (he obviously hates doing interviews.)
What gives? In her autobiography cowritten with Thomas Hauser, Vicky Lamotta demystifies the De Niro rasp. Jake, you see, had broken his nose in fights so many times that air could barely escape his nostrils. But, being pigheaded and stubborn to the max, he still continued to try to force air out through his nose, producing that weird sound that resembles Luca Brasi’s silent gag in the first second of his garroting in The Godfather.
De Niro, being a quick and careful study, picked up Jake’s little mannerism and never put it down. He even fooled Vicky (with whom he almost went to bed), calling her late one night and using the Jake voice so convincingly that she shouted, “Leave me alone, Jack!” into the phone’s receiver before realizing it was Bobby and not her unhinged and perpetually jealous ex-hubby.
Something similar, I think, happened to Johnny Depp, whose stream of consciousness mumble became much more pronounced after he bonded with Hunter Thompson, who kept a cigarette holder clenched in his jaws and spoke as if trying to navigate a belfry’s worth of bats spreading in entoptic tracers before his constantly tripping eyes.
So yes, Joyce Carol Oates, while perhaps being coy or hyperbolic in her assertion that life is a mere reflection of boxing, wasn’t quite wrong. And it’s not only fractal all the way down. One can work laterally to prove the same point.
Move away from the method actors and look at literature.
Charles Bukowski was fond of saying that Ferdinand Celine’s bleak postwar picaresque Journey to the End of the Night was the best novel written in the last two thousand years. He was also quick to point out, though, in the same breath, that the creation of such a book, which took its maker to the absolute limits of his inner darkness (hence the title) broke something in him, left him more tired, dissipated, and cynical than he had been when he started out on his journey. And Celine had started out already quite broken and cynical after his experiences in the Great War.
It all begs a question which it didn’t even occur to me to ask until now. Should we fear perfection rather than pursue it? Should we hold something back when we perform or create, rather than give it our all? Seasoned trainers in the fight game call this “Boxing within yourself,” the refusal to give either your opponent or the paying audience your very last ounce of sweat and final drop of blood. You stick with a gameplan, ignore the bait offered by the other man trying to lure you into a war, as well as the smattering of boos that break out when you use your feet to reset and fence capably and responsibly behind the jab.
This last question, about how much to give versus how much to hold back, is the only one I’ve raised thus far tonight that we’re going to leave laying where it is without even attempting to solve it. There’s another Buk quote, though, that’s relevant to the question of whether or not to give it one’s all when creating. “Hemingway tried too hard,” Buk observed. “You could feel the hard work in his writing.”
Try too hard for the knockout in boxing, and many times you start to “load up” on one shot, using the same hammering blow over and over rather than setting up the shot with a punch meant to misdirect and change the opponent’s point of focus. And if you don’t get the other boxer out of there with your blitzkrieg assault of haymakers and wide, looping blows, you’re going to be so tired when you finish that the opponent, responding to that withering fire with his own fusillade, will be able to knock you down (and maybe out) with a feather duster-soft one-two.
Perhaps there’s a lesson here for the arts, too. Don’t try too hard. Or, even more succinct and bleak, and chiseled as an epitaph on Buk’s headstone in Green Hills Cemetery, in Ranchos Palos Verdes, California: “Don’t try.”
Trust the process and let the knockout come.
Focus on the prosaic details like grammar, varied sentence length and flow, and let the Muse enter when she will, rather than making passioned imprecations to her on her Doric column-framed cloud. Don’t write standing up, as “Papa” Hemingway was rumored to have done.
I’ll have to think about it some more later on. Goodnight for now.