Our polarized cultural landscape erupted once again after Meryl Streep’s politically charged acceptance speech at the Golden Globes. And, once again, you could chart the reactions along partisan lines with a fairly high degree of accuracy. In short, there’s been applause and handwringing in nearly equal measure. Interestingly, the part of Streep’s speech that invited the most scrutiny was not her plea for the press to put pressure on President Trump to uphold the tenets of free speech, but her offhanded dismissal of the sport of Mixed Martial Arts.

Beginning on a provocative note, Streep stated that Hollywood, along with foreigners and the press, constitutes one of “the most vilified segments in American society right now.” (No mystery on who bears the responsibility for all this vilification in Streep’s eyes; she’s only too happy to return the favor, if somewhat obliquely.) She quickly followed up these remarks by name-dropping a number of international actors, most of whom could be seen beaming in the audience, and concluded with this odd warning: “So Hollywood is crawling with foreigners and outsiders, and if we kick ’em all out, you’ll have nothing to do but watch football and Mixed Martial Arts, which are not the arts.”

Celebrity failure is failure writ large, and large-scale failure is nearly always a reminder of the tenuous nature of all human striving, of our own inevitable demise.

In response to Streep’s apparent equation of MMA with American provincialism (and football for that matter), Kerry Howley argues convincingly that Mixed Martial Arts is defined by its cosmopolitan culture, boasting an international pedigree that runs all the way from Brazil to Belgium. Were Streep ever to grace a match with her presence, she would likely encounter as many nationalities surrounding the Octagon as she did in the audience at the Golden Globes. As for Streep’s sweeping claim that martial artists are in fact not true artists, like, say, actors, directors, and cinematographers, Howley counters, “The fighters that I know self-identify as artists. They’re people who are seeking out a life that is very likely not going to make them wealthy, that is very difficult, and that is openly stigmatized, as we just saw. And they’re doing it because there’s something beautiful and strange about the experience of opening yourself up to this kind of violence. It was very easy for me to spend three years with these men because they shared a lot of the values of the artist community that I have here in Iowa City.”

The three years Howley spent chronicling this unique community were finally distilled in her book, Thrown (she’s employing the term in the Heideggerian sense), an immersive exploration of the MMA world, and one of the more unusual pieces of creative non-fiction this writer has encountered. Drawing inspiration from Jill Marsden’s After Nietzsche: Notes Toward a Philosophy of Ecstasy, Howley describes her three years with two cage fighters through a fictional narrator named Kit.

A student of continental philosophy (phenomenology is her specialty), this verbose narrator paints her subject in the abstruse language of academia, while displaying a devotion that can only be described as religious in its zeal. Kit’s musings on her first accidental foray into a cage fight in a hotel in Des Moines give us a glimpse of this eccentric fervor:

“My experience echoed precisely descriptions handed down to us in the writings of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Artaud, in which disturbing ritual—often violent—rendered each of their senses many times more acute, as if the dull blunt body were momentarily transformed into a tuning fork, alive, as Schopenhauer put it, ‘to sensations fine and fleeting.’ Some have called the feeling ecstasy. I believed in this spectacle-provoked plentitude of sensation as one believes in Pangaea and plundering Huns, but until that night in Des Moines I associated that state with antediluvian rites not accessible to modern man. Around midnight on an Iowa highway surrounded by that deep darkness only cornfields can conjure, I thought, ‘This exhibition, whatever it may be, has ushered ecstatic experience back into the world.’ ”

The purpose of Kit’s research is therefore to establish “the phenomenological basis of ecstasy.”

This is not your typical sports book.

But it’s not long before Howley takes on a dismissive tone of her own: “Of course if you’re not inside the world, you only see Ronda Rousey and you might say, ‘Oh, she’s after fame and B-movie parts.’ But, of course, most fighters are never going to be Ronda Rousey and are well aware of that.” The implication that Rousey’s fame discredits her commitment to her chosen sport seems misplaced, especially when it comes from a successful writer who has achieved so much notoriety with the publication of her first book.

For all her fame and “B-movie parts,” Rousey has arguably brought MMA to public consciousness like no other female fighter. Her meteoric rise to fame is equaled only by her uncompromising dedication to the sport. In this regard, her list of accomplishments speaks for itself. But behind this list is a truly heroic work ethic that puts most of her peers to shame, with Rousey reaching these professional heights before turning 30 years old. Clearly, “most fighters are never going to be Ronda Rousey.” Like so many promising young athletes, Ronda Rousey seemed unstoppable.

We’re talking about Rousey again because Rousey lost again. It took Amanda Nunes a concise 48 seconds to defend her reigning women’s bantamweight champion title against her opponent. Just 13 months prior, Rousey surrendered that title to Holly Holm, a pastor’s kid from Albuquerque with disconcertingly compassionate eyes and an odd habit of displaying much more civility outside the ring than most fighters. (The same cannot be said of Nunes or Rousey, both of whom are exquisite “trashtalkers.”) The loss precipitated a personal crisis for Rousey, and many people wondered whether she would ever return to the Octagon; friends and family members wondered whether she would survive the ordeal.

Rousey resolutely avoided the spotlight before her confrontation with Nunes, and this withdrawal sparked lots of public speculation. Insiders like Holm, for instance, worried that this was an indication of her former opponent’s weakening mental resolve. Others just assumed that this famously committed fighter was unwilling to break the focus of a rigorous training regimen. By the time Rousey walked back on camera for the fight, her winnowed physique and matching hollow demeanor seemed to provide conclusive evidence for both camps. No doubt, the conclusion of the fight did the same.

Some of our most schizophrenic cultural tendencies announce themselves loudly in the context of celebrity failures. Admiration and idolization give way to instant disgust and condemnation. Whether it’s a case of infidelity, drug abuse, or something as simple as the gaining of a few extra pounds, we love to celebrate the misery of those who suffer through these trials in the spotlight. Hence a now-familiar tirade of taunts and insults followed the Nunes vs. Rousey fight.

Then there were the questions: Was Rousey outmatched? Did she overtrain? Did she undertrain? Was she psyched out? Did she never recover from the Holm fight? Was she simply tired of this sport that had consumed so much of her life? Was she, as Nunes repeatedly suggested, not a real fighter after all? Is Rousey a fraud?

“Good Old Neon” is one of David Foster Wallace’s most moving stories. In it, we meet a gifted narrator whose extravagant attempts at defying his sense of being a fraud only serve to confirm him as one. He dubs this conundrum “the fraudulence paradox”:

“The fraudulence paradox was that the more time and effort you put into trying to appear impressive or attractive to other people, the less impressive or attractive you felt inside—you were a fraud. And the more of a fraud you felt like, the harder you tried to convey an impressive or likeable image of yourself so that other people wouldn’t find out what a hollow, fraudulent person you really were. Logically, you would think that the moment a supposedly intelligent nineteen-year-old became aware of this paradox, he’d stop being a fraud and just settle for being himself (whatever that was) because he’d figured out that being a fraud was a vicious infinite regress that ultimately resulted in being frightened, lonely, alienated, etc. But here was the other, higher order paradox, which didn’t even have a form or name—I didn’t, I couldn’t.”

I can’t, either.

Could it be that our greed for celebrity failure is little more than a perverse reflex of our own fear of being found out as frauds? We live in an age when self-expression has largely become the only accepted means of asserting one’s identity. The term “fluidity” is generously appended to words that used to demand a deeper measure of stability: relationship, gender, identity, and the like. But how do you express yourself with any confidence in such a slippery context? Well, one powerful way to do it is through achievement. Compile a list of accomplishments impressive enough to silence all your naysayers. One problem remains: How do you silence your ultimate naysayer, that persistent voice in your head that continues to tell you that all this relentless effort, all this fervent striving, all this desperate performing only serves to confirm that you’re a fraud? Your success confirms your deeper failure.

What do you do when the inevitable human limitations set in? When you lose the scholarship, the job, the fight? When your body, your mind, your spirit gives out? The voice in your head will only tell you that this is what you’ve been all along; this is what you’ll always be, nothing more. This failure is your mirror.

Neither success nor failure can deliver you; there is no way out of the fraudulence paradox.

The narrator of Thrown longs to escape herself, and she looks to the primal struggles of cage fighters to grant her this kind of deliverance, to “take… away… that insistent corporeal yawp (‘Eat this! Sleep now!’) …” In a word, Kit wants transcendence. But the self, along with all its intractable limitations, invariably blocks her efforts. Try as she might, Kit can’t escape herself. Neither can Rousey, Nunes, or Holm. Neither can I, and neither can you. Perishable flesh reaps a perishable harvest. Celebrity failure is failure writ large, and large-scale failure is nearly always a reminder of the tenuous nature of all human striving, of our own inevitable demise. In this particular instance, Rousey is guilty of reminding us of this unpleasant reality. Perhaps a better question to ask after her most recent loss is this: “Who will deliver me from this body of death (Romans 7:24)?”

Colossians 3:3 offers an answer to Wallace’s fraudulence paradox. The apostle Paul is writing to those who know firsthand the failures of the relentless effort, the fervent striving, the desperate performing; he’s writing to those who, like Kit, are seeking deliverance from the self: “For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” For many of us, that first sentence sounds ominous. It should. It means that the fraudulence paradox has given way to a deeply Christian paradox: We cannot truly live unless we first die, and this death involves abandoning all of our elaborate attempts to forge our own identity, to justify our existence—the very pursuits that Wallace’s narrator identified as our deepest source of fraudulence. If Christ made us, He alone knows who we are. We can’t figure out who we are until we figure out who he is.

Still reeling from her loss to Holm, Rousey once asked, “What am I if I’m not [a winner]?” It’s a very understandable question coming from someone so accomplished. But I think it’s more than idle speculation to suggest that both Wallace and Paul would agree that this question demands an outside answer, that Rousey can’t answer it herself. But I think Paul would go further and say that the question needs rephrasing: “Who am I in Christ?”

It’s a question I hope Rousey is asking.


Image: MMA Weekly

1 Comment

  1. I’ve noticed more and more mid-life men and women who are either mid or post-career who “still don’t know what they want to be when the grow up.” I think what they’re really communicating is that they don’t know who they are. As you put it, “We can’t figure out who we are until we figure out who He is.” What a crucial message we must delicately convey with our witness! Great article.

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