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  • Norman Mailer:Boxing and the Art of His Narrative
  • Christian K. Messenger (bio)

A language and a style are data prior to all problematics of language, they are the natural product of Time and of the person as a biological entity. . . .

—Roland Barthes, Writing Degree Zero

So I do not care to approach the public as a lover, nor could I succeed for that matter. . . . I seem to have turned into a slightly punch-drunk and ugly club fighter who can fight clean and fight dirty, but likes to fight.

—Norman Mailer, Advertisements for Myself

The Body as Arena

Of all major writers in contemporary America, Norman Mailer is the most challenging to position in relation to sport and play. He does not believe in school sport romantics as did Fitzgerald. He possesses no [End Page 85] sense of wonder at play's strong currents as did Faulkner and has none of the self-reflexive, world-projecting impulses of his fabulist contemporaries such as Barth and Coover, who present fiction as a doubly playful exercise. Finally, the rich traditions of American team sport have never engaged his imagination on a symbolic level as is the case with Malamud, Roth, Updike, and DeLillo.

Although Mailer ignored or discarded all the forms and conventions that he might have chosen to work with, there is the certainty that in a diverse body of work over four decades he has told us more about the meaning of aggressive male competition and the roots of its compulsion than any other current American writer. His language in relation to sport has been more primally powerful, more relentlessly inquisitive. He has not always transformed this language of competition into story or novel but has used the language to explain his form.

Fredric Jameson best expressed Majler's commitment to "some more primary form of the agon or ontological combat" that points not merely to "unresolved aggressive impulses" (a favorite psychoanalytic shorthand for critics dismissing what they believe to be Mailer's privatizing tendencies) but rather to

some hypostasis of competition itself as a social and historical mode of being. It is as though within the competitive society Mailer had chosen not to repudiate the dominant value but to adopt it with the fanatical exaggeration of the newly-converted, to live it to its ultimate existential limits. . . .


Mailer's instincts are those of a warrior-athlete. He is always advancing in battle or defending his territory. He does not want to describe the athlete in the arena as much as he wants to be in the arena itself, or, to take it one step further, his strongest desire has been to become the arena with his body as the warring ground. In the most radical act of the Ritual Sports Hero, Mailer will become the space for battle and identification. To "get back to" such a unity for Mailer is to become that ritualized warrior. He is writing of the heroically engaged individual who enacts, as he has said, form as a war ("The Political Economy of Time" 370). The form of his recording narrative is for him the form of his sexuality. He has had a continual horror of all experience and reaction that has not been self-contained: indeed, the inner cry of his first adept killer-hunter, Sam Croft in The Naked and the Dead, has been Mailer's as well: "I HATE EVERYTHING WHICH IS NOT IN MYSELF" (130). The sensible would become the intelligible. No mediation of play is attempted or desired.

On one level, this is the agonized cry of "the natural," that lonely, gifted, isolated figure of so much American sports fiction—Malamud's Roy Hobbs in The Natural, Updike's Rabbit Angstrom in Rabbit, Run, Knowles' Phineas in A Separate Peace —but Mailer drives the vision to [End Page 86] pathology in an overdetermination of the individual hero. Mailer is a "natural" in the sense that nothing beyond his sensibility may truly impinge on his consciousness without its conversion to his personal physical form. Mailer's role in the collective world is always imagined as physical crisis and then converted to spiritual crisis. He privileges the male body as...


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pp. 85-104
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