Thinking about the season’s presidential and vice-presidential debates, I find myself consistently returning to a line from George Orwell’s Diaries. In 1936, while gathering material for what would become The Road to Wigan Pier, he went to see a politician speak and wrote afterward: “it struck me how easy it is to bamboozle an uneducated audience if you have prepared a set of repartees with which to evade awkward questions…” With both awkward and not-so-awkward questions, candidates simply say what they planned to say, and some listeners actually do, somehow, believe what they hear…
Posts Tagged ‘George Orwell’
Posted in Uncategorized, tagged Andrea Daniels, Christopher Hitchens, Critical Moment, Detroit Free Press, Detroit News, Downtown Boxing Gym, George Orwell, Huffington Post, James Carter, Johnnie Bassett, M.L. Liebler, Proud to Be from Detroit, RJ Spangler Trio, Steven Gulvezan, Terry Blackhawk, UDetroit Cafe, Vanity Fair, Zilka Joseph on July 11, 2012 | Leave a Comment »
While I usually aim to post more than just links to other sites, there are a few recent items out there I happily recommend:
- The Detroit News profiles blues guitarist Johnnie Bassett today. The article includes info on some of his upcoming appearances but fails to mention that he’s slated to sit in this evening (7 pm) at the M.L. Liebler-orchestrated Detroit Tonight Live event at the UDetroit Café (1427 Randolph Street) along with the RJ Spangler Trio. Andrea Daniels, Steven Gulvezan, Zilka Joseph and I will also read some poetry. Bassett’s latest record kicks off with “Proud to Be from Detroit,” which I look forward to hearing.
- This past weekend, The Free Press ran a long piece on saxophonist James Carter that also merits a look. Having seen Carter perform many times in various places over the years, I definitely consider myself a fan.
- Poet Terry Blackhawk has a moving piece on the power of poetry over at Huffpost Detroit.
- Vanity Fair spotlights two of my favorite writer via an excerpt from Christopher Hitchens’s introduction to George Orwell’s Diaries.
- Finally, my article on the Downtown Boxing Gym can be read in the summer issue of Critical Moment and on the paper’s website.
Posted in Essays, tagged Albert Camus, Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon, Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell, Jean-Paul Sartre, Joseph Conrad, Logos, Michael Scammell, Paul Berman, W.H. Auden on June 17, 2011 | Leave a Comment »
To write a single book of true literary merit and enduring influence is no small accomplishment. Biographer Michael Scammell sees value in works by Arthur Koestler other than Darkness at Noon – mostly because of their prescience on politics – but it’s really because of that novel that anyone knows Koestler’s name.
And it’s impossible to consider Koestler’s work, life and legacy without invoking the names of other giants of twentieth-century literature, as I demonstrate in a Logos essay. Orwell, Camus, Conrad, Auden, Sartre and Hemingway, among others, factor into his story – and not always in exclusively literary ways.
Koestler sometimes vacillated on the core principle of his best writing – that ends do not justify means – but Darkness at Noon expresses it superbly and powerfully. Paul Berman sensibly groups Koestler with Orwell and Camus, whom he deems the best writers on totalitarian themes of their era. That trio still has few rivals.
Posted in Essays, tagged Christopher Hitchens, Fighters & Writers, George Orwell, Jazz, Letters to Monica, Literary biography, Philip Larkin, Poetry, The Atlantic, Ugly on Purpose on April 14, 2011 | Leave a Comment »
The fact that I’ve written a fair amount about both Christopher Hitchens and Philip Larkin alone would be a sufficient reason for me to direct readers to “Philip Larkin, the Impossible Man,” Hitchens’s review of Larkin’s Letters to Monica in the May 2011 issue of The Atlantic. Both authors factor in “Dedicated Writers,” for instance, an essay included in my Fighters & Writers. In passing, Hitchens notes that Larkin’s uneasy affection for jazz “helps furnish a key to his muse,” an idea I examine closely in “Ugly on Purpose.”
But a more substantive explanation also exists. Hitchens echoes points I’ve tried repeatedly to make, and I welcome the amplification. He argues that individuals with repellent characters can still produce exceptional art. Perhaps it’s inevitable that some readers will look to writers’ lives to make sense of their work. “It is inescapable that we should wonder how and why poetry manages to transmute the dross of existence into magic or gold, and the contrast in Larkin’s case is a specially acute one,” Hitchens writes. Still, biography can’t explain literary alchemy any more than it should be used to condemn or dismiss the fine work of wretched men. One can be a loutish bungler and still be a great writer – a point I stress in another Fighters & Writers piece, one about George Orwell (whom Hitchens invokes in the Atlantic article).
Posted in Essays, Fighters & Writers, tagged Adam Kirsch, Cambridge, Columbia, Essays, Fighters & Writers, Frank Kermode, George Orwell, Humanism, Literary criticism, Literature, London Review of Books, Martin Amis, Matthew Arnold, New Republic, New York Review of Books, Nonfiction, Obituary, Personal essay, Slate, The Second Plane, The War against Cliché on August 26, 2010 | 1 Comment »
Does the death of literary critic and scholar Frank Kermode on August 17 signal the impending end of a cultural epoch?
Adam Kirsch, senior editor at the New Republic thinks so. Kermode “was one of the last exemplars of an ideal that dates back at least to Matthew Arnold: the ideal of the literary critic as the humanist par excellence,” Kirsch writes in Slate. “What gave the critic his special authority was the way that he thought and wrote at the intersection – of the classics and the contemporary world, of literature and society, of the academy and the common reader.” In addition to teaching at Cambridge and Columbia, Kermode authored or edited more than fifty books. He wrote regularly for publications such as the London Review of Books, which he helped initiate, and the New York Review of Books.
As it happens, one of the essays in Fighters & Writers germinated with an NYRB review Kermode wrote of a collection of nonfiction by George Orwell. A reference Kermode made to an accusation that could have radically altered Orwell’s reputation prompted me to investigate the charge, delve into books about Orwell, revisit his work and produce a personal essay about his lasting impact on me.
Fighters & Writers also includes a piece on Martin Amis, whose The War against Cliché Kermode discusses in a biting passage Kirsch quotes in his obituary. Kirsch wrote one of the more astute assessments of another Amis collection, The Second Plane, as I note in my essay about that book.
I’d like to think Kirsch is wrong about a literary era’s death coinciding with Kermode’s. I mention the connections with my work simply to illustrate that the intersection Kermode mapped still sees some traffic.
Posted in Fighters & Writers, tagged A.J. Liebling, Albert Camus, An Illustrated History of Boxing, Arthur Krystal, Benicia, Boxing, California, Charles Dickens, Dublin, Farnborough, Fighters & Writers, George Orwell, Heavyweight champion, Herman Melville, James Joyce, John C. Heenan, Nat Fleisher, New York, Sam Andre, Stephen Dedalus, The Benicia Boy, The Half-Life of an American Essayist, Tom Sayers, Troy, Ulysses, William Makepeace Thackeray on June 26, 2010 | Leave a Comment »
James Joyce is not one of the many authors I write about in Fighters & Writers, but he could have been.
I discuss many of my favorites in the book. Some of them, such as Albert Camus and A.J. Liebling, also wrote about boxing. With others, such as Herman Melville and George Orwell, connections between their work and the sport are less immediately apparent. Joyce might appear to fit in this category as well. His name doesn’t immediately bring pugilism to most readers’ minds, I’d bet. Yet with Ulysses he attempted to pack an entire world, or at least an entire city, into a novel, and he reinvented the literary form in order to do so. With all he put in there, it should come as no surprise that boxing shows up in its pages.
With characteristically fine craftsmanship, Joyce constructs a few alliterative sentences describing an image from a colorful moment from boxing history. Our hero Stephen Dedalus stops at a Dublin shop:
In Clohissey’s window a faded 1860 print of Heenan boxing Sayers held his eye. Staring backers with square hats stood round the roped prizering. The heavyweights in light loincloths proposed gently to each other his bulbous fists. And they are throbbing: heroes’ hearts.
According to boxing chroniclers Nat Fleisher and Sam Andre, “there are some tales which the fight fan is never tired of hearing,” and here Joyce alludes to one of them.
John C. Heenan fought Tom Sayers in the first contest for the title of world heavyweight champion. Known as “The Benicia Boy” for having worked for a steamship company in that California city, Heenan was actually born in Troy, New York, on May 2, 1833. As Joyce certainly knew, the American was of Irish descent. The 195-pound, 6’2” Heenan outweighed his 5’8” opponent by more than forty pounds when they met in Farnborough. Though small, Sayers was considered exceptionally clever, and, in An Illustrated History of Boxing, Fleisher and Andre call him an all-time great.
The first fight between American and English title holders saw the still-common practice of fans regarding athletes as upholders of national honor and declaring their allegiances accordingly. In the 37th round, when Heenan had his opponent trapped against the ropes, Sayers supporters cut through the ropes to save their man. Though the referee fled the out-of-control scene, the bare knuckle boxers agreed to fight five more rounds without an official. After two hours and twenty minutes, the fight ended in a draw, though according to boxing lore, British observers were certain Sayers won, while Americans knew Heenan would have won had Sayers partisans not interceded. Both men received championship belts. When Sayers retired from the sport, Heenan was recognized as the world champion.
Though Fleisher and Andre don’t say whether the novelists were among the ring rope severers, they do note the presence of Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray in the audience on April 17, 1860. In The Half-Life of an American Essayist, Arthur Krystal mentions the pair being there as one of many, many examples of writers with an interest in fighters. He doesn’t mention Joyce, but he could have.
Posted in Uncategorized, tagged A.J. Liebling, Albert Camus, Anne Fadiman, Anne Hathaway, Bloomsday, Favorite books, George Orwell, Herman Melville, Ian McEwan, James Joyce, Joan Didion, John Hersey, Joseph Conrad, Martin Amis, Moby-Dick, P.T. Barnum, Philip Larkin, Philip Roth, Ralph Ellison, Robert Louis Stevenson, Salman Rushdie, Susan Orlean, The New Yorker, Tim O’Brien, Tom Wolfe, Ulysses, Zadie Smith on June 16, 2010 | Leave a Comment »
The books writers name as all-time favorites reveals something about their interests, outlook, attitudes and perhaps even their values. Illustrating this very point, The New Yorker’s Book Bench blog posted Susan Orlean’s list of the books that changed her life. She cites works by Joan Didion, John Hersey and Tom Wolfe, and it’s not hard to see why the author of The Bullfighters Checks Her Makeup, The Orchid Thief and other works of nonfiction would regard them as influences. She also includes fiction that I would include on my list, such as James Joyce’s Ulysses (appropriate for a Bloomsday post), Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick and Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.
In the same spirit of giving some sense of what I’m about, here’s an incomplete first attempt at such a list of the books that made the most impact on me (in no particular order).
- George Orwell’s Ninety Eighty-Four, Animal Farm, Homage to Catalonia and his essays – just about all Orwell, actually.
- Herman Melville’s The Confidence Man and The Piazza Tales as well as M-D.
- A.J. Liebling’s The Sweet Science and A Neutral Corner (Liebling raised writing about boxing to an art, and Fighters & Writers certainly owes something to his example, if only in aspiration.)
- Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love and Saturday
- Albert Camus, The Plague and The Myth of Sisyphus, at least
- Philip Larkin, Collected Poems
- Salman Rushdie, Step across This Line
- Philip Roth, The Counterlife, The Facts and The Human Stain
- Ralph Ellison, Shadow and Act
- Martin Amis, The War against Cliché
- Anne Fadiman, At Large and At Small
- Robert Louis Stevenson, Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
- Zadie Smith, On Beauty (which I liked better than the novel that inspired it)
- Joseph Conrad, The Heart of Darkness
- Anne Hathaway, The Year of the Goat
- The Life of P.T. Barnum, Written by Himself
This is by no means exhaustive…
Posted in Fighters & Writers, tagged Bernard Hopkins, Boxing, Chris Byrd, Don King, Felix Trinidad, Football, George Orwell, Heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson, James “Buster” Douglas, Jess Willard, Joe Louis, John Ruiz, MikeTyson, Muhammad Ali, Nationalism, Olympics, Racism, Rumble in the Jungle, Soccer, Sports, Thrilla in Manila, Tribune, Vitali Klitschko, Wladimir Klitschko on June 11, 2010 | Leave a Comment »
When people inclined to share my enthusiasm for soul-sustaining arts like literature and music learn that I’ve written a book partially about boxing, they often ask how I became interested in the sport. (To date, no one has wondered aloud in my presence why I care about the post-ampersand part of the title Fighters & Writers. I don’t know if this means reasons for an interest in books are self-apparent or if reading is simply safe and uncontroversial.) The implied question seems to be: What’s a cultivated, educated individual doing mucking around with something like that? Certainly there are plenty of literary types who share my enthusiasm. I write about many of them in my essays. Yet a lot of people seem to require an explanation.
To some extent, this might have to do with a snobbish attitude toward sports in general. Sports invite dismissal by serious types. Plenty of reasons for righteous condemnation present themselves: they’re dangerous, they bring out the worst aspects of human nature in both participants and spectators, they’ve morphed from wholesome exercise into perverse industry, games waste time, and they ain’t what they used to be.
Boxing especially excites its critics. Amplify the common objections to sports and boxing haters will want to turn up the volume louder still.
Danger? In boxing, fit individuals aim to render opponents unconscious. Injury and death obviously ensue. How can punching at people’s vital organs and making their brains bounce about in their skulls be a good idea? With dispiriting regularity, boxers die after bouts. News of their deaths sparks fleeting outrage among the civilized set, who cannot fathom how society can condone such atavism, and rote calls for reform from those who either don’t wish to see the sport go away or know it never will.
As if the physical damage were not enough, what about the ugliness boxing brings out in people? George Orwell, in a 1945 Tribune column titled “The Sporting Spirit,” objected to sports generally and to boxing in particular for precisely this reason. When games cease to be about fun and fitness and start to shoulder symbolism, things go straight to hell: “as soon as the question of prestige arises, as soon as you feel that you and some larger unit will be disgraced if you lose, the most savage combative instincts are aroused.” Orwell worries especially about athletes becoming national representatives.
At the international level sport is frankly mimic warfare. But the significant thing is not the behaviour of the players but the attitude of the spectators: and, behind the spectators, of the nations who work themselves into furies over these absurd contests, and seriously believe – at any rate for short periods – that running, jumping and kicking a ball are tests of national virtue.
While Orwell frets about football (i.e. soccer) and cricket as well as the Olympics enflaming vicious patriotic passions, he dislikes boxing because race hatred rears up among those seated around the ring. “One of the most horrible sights in the world is a fight between white and coloured boxers before a mixed audience.” He said that in the mid-1940s, and while I’d like to think racism has dissipated somewhat in subsequent decades, fight fans continue to assign some sort of meaning to the color of the skin boxers expose while fighting. When boxers from different countries fight, nationalist fervor invariably intrudes. It even factors into the promotion of events, with bouts pitched explicitly pitched as battles between boxers’ homelands. When Bernard Hopkins threw the Puerto Rican flag on the ground before fighting Felix Trinidad in 2001, he might not have been expressing his feelings about the place so much as trying to get its loyal fight fans to buy tickets. While Don King may have had custom made a characteristically understated jacket featuring a sequined American flag on the back, on fight night he would not be without flags of other nations ready to wave if a boxer from elsewhere were fighting, especially if he won and King wanted to sign him to a promotional contract. I’ve been at fights where it was immediately evident that the loudest shouters (1) didn’t know what they were talking about when it came to boxing itself and (2) based their preferences entirely on criteria not related to athletic ability. Put another way, countless idiots root for who they root for mainly or exclusively for racial or nationalistic reasons.
It’s easy enough to argue that the costs of sports are unjustifiably high. I’ve sat in ringside seats as a correspondent that I never would have been anywhere near if I’d had to pay for a ticket. The prices for fights at major venues can be outrageous. While I don’t think other sports routinely have four-figure prices for the best views, I certainly have heard people complain about how much money it takes to attend an event. Even viewing at home can be ridiculously expensive, whether it means paying fifty dollars or more for a pay-per-view bout or just paying the monthly bill for the multitude of television stations that broadcast sports. And all that time people spend watching TV is time not doing … something.
Besides, boxing, like all sports, was better in the past. Sure, there are good boxers nowadays – always have been, always will be – but they can’t compare to the real greats. Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko? Sure, they’ve got some skills and, between them, won the major sanctioning bodies’ heavyweight champion belts. But they can’t compare with [insert preferred boxing great from earlier era here].
I wouldn’t dispute a single one of these charges. Of course boxing is dangerous. I’ve questioned what I was doing by deliberately witnessing an activity that ended with participants carried out on stretchers. Yes, boxing can bring out ugliness and stupidity in those who base their allegiances on blood and land. I’m fully aware of and utterly disgusted by exploitative practices rife in the business of boxing and despair that the worst predators enrich themselves at the expense of both fighters and paying fans. As far as talk of a Golden Age, or at least a better time, goes, I’ll admit that while I’ve interviewed heavyweight title-holders like Chris Byrd and John Ruiz, I don’t delude myself that this can compare with interviewing, say, Muhammad Ali in the 1960s or 1970s or Joe Louis in the 1930s or 1940s. I’ve viewed the Rumble in the Jungle and the Thrilla in Manila multiple times, but can’t say I’ve ever seen a bout featuring either Klitschko brother that I’d want to sit through again.
So, why boxing? The answer should already be apparent. Put crudely, as something to write about, boxing can’t be beat. As a dangerous, disreputable and dirty endeavor, but also as a demanding, difficult and inherently dramatic activity, it couldn’t be more intriguing to anyone interesting in examining what it means to be human. That fighters risk their lives is no reason to turn away from it. Indeed, their willingness to do so warrants close attention. There’s much about boxing to which sensible, sensitive folks can object. As Orwell knew, this can be done in writing. The characteristics associated with successful promoters – unscrupulousness, double-dealing, disloyalty, “trickeration” – are the stuff that schemes are made of, and they reward scrutiny. Action occurs in the ring, but what happens behind the scenes is another story, or, rather, a never-dry well of stories.
There’s also much to respect – about boxing and especially about boxers. The qualities that define accomplished boxers – determination, dedication, tenacity, “heart” – should never be discounted and cannot be discredited. Boxing, as fight fans habitually have to explain, is not about brutes brawling (though some of the partisans mentioned above might wish it were). It entails technique honed through training. Despite what looks like the elemental simplicity of nearly naked people hitting each other, boxing involves much strategy and thought as well as character and skill. This is no small stuff.
Saddling athletes with more symbolism than anybody can reasonably be expected to bear is a boxing tradition. It may be absurd to take any single person’s punching power or defensive abilities as indicative of the virtue of a race or a nation, but this happens, and when it does it reveals something, perhaps about the boxer, but definitely about the attitudes of those who take him (or her) to be a representative figure.
While boxing has produced countless remarkable individuals of indisputable talent, frequently in combination with great charisma, it has also had moments when the top man in the heaviest weight division fails to inspire. After Jack Johnson comes Jess Willard. After Mike Tyson, Buster Douglas. But even the boxers who never transcend the sport or who never make best-of-all-times lists, do something few people have the guts to do: they test themselves, in public, at the risk of humiliation and physical damage. I can’t help but admire that sort of courage, and all that makes boxing smell disreputable to many people only makes the fighters themselves that much more noble.
Posted in Fighters & Writers, tagged A.J. Liebling, Albert Camus, Boxing, Christopher Hitchens, Darin Strauss, David Remnick, George Foreman, George Orwell, George Plimpton, Henry Rollins, Ian McEwan, James Braddock, Joe Frazier, Joe Louis, John McCain, José Torres, Joyce Carol Oates, Larry Holmes, Martin Amis, Max Baer, Mike Tyson, Muhammad Ali, Norman Mailer, Oscar Wilde, Philip Roth, W.C. Heinz on May 21, 2010 | Leave a Comment »
As I write this post, Fighters & Writers is at the printer. Here’s a bit of background on my forthcoming book.
Fighters & Writers is neither a traditional sports book nor a conventional collection of literary essays. It blends literary criticism, journalism and memoir and considers both the lively body of literature directly related to boxing and the ways the sport relates to writers not usually identified with it.
Essays in Fighters & Writers discuss works about boxing by authors such as Albert Camus, W.C. Heinz, A.J. Liebling, Norman Mailer, Joyce Carol Oates, George Plimpton, Philip Roth, New Yorker editor David Remnick, Darin Strauss and José Torres – a boxing champion who became a writer – as well as the cultural impact made by boxers like Muhammad Ali, Max Baer, James Braddock, George Foreman, Joe Frazier, Larry Holmes, Joe Louis and Mike Tyson. Rodwan also considers the sport in connection with figures such as Martin Amis, Christopher Hitchens, John McCain, Ian McEwan, George Orwell, Henry Rollins and Oscar Wilde.
The title essay surveys a selection of the mammoth body of literature involving boxing in addition to writing on closely related topics such as confidence games. “The Ali Act” considers writers’ undiminished interest in one extraordinary boxer. “The Fighting Life” looks at two prominent writers’ use of boxing in their fiction. “A First-Class Sport” assesses boxing’s frequently overlooked positive aspects by examining the memoirs and autobiographies of several boxing enthusiasts, including a former heavyweight champion, a well-known trainer and television analyst, and prominent public figures including a former president and a U.S. senator. Other pieces in the collection explore how boxing inserts itself in writers’ imaginations even when they write about other subjects. Essays on diverse topics such as book dedications, Orwell’s Spanish Civil War memories, digressions, tattoos and weight loss reveal the close, if not always recognized, connections between fighters and writers.
Carlo Rotella, author of Cut Time: An Education at the Fights, called Fighters & Writers “a spirited and far-ranging meditation on boxing that’s also a thoughtful inquiry into the relationship between the writer’s craft and the fighter’s.”