The Mystery of the Ring

Every talent must unfold itself in fighting.

—Friedrich Nietzsche, “Homer’s Contest”

In the brilliant and unsettling fragment “Homer’s Contest,” found among Nietzsche’s unpublished writings after his death in 1900, the philosopher returns to obsessive themes originally explored in his first book, The Birth of Tragedy Out of the Spirit of Music (1872): namely, that contrary to the reigning morality of his time—a Protestant-Christian morality, at least officially—it is not “natural” not to fight; it is not “natural” not to fight to the death, in the service of allowing “hatred [to] flow forth fully”; indeed, a “noble culture” is one that, like the ancient Greek culture, arises from “the altar of the expiation of murder.”

Far from being barbaric, the stylized Greek, or Homeric, contest gives, in Nietzsche’s view, a crucial ritualistic form to mankind’s most murderous instincts, in this way containing the horror of anarchic violence: not brutality per se but the brutality of chaos is the true horror of humankind. In the Homeric world—the world of stylized art—we encounter “artistic deception” of a kind that renders such horror bearable. But

what do we behold when, no longer led and protected by the hand of Homer, we stride back into the pre-Homeric world? Only night and terror and an imagination accustomed to the horrible. What kind of earthly existence do these revolting, terrible theogonic myths reflect? A life ruled only by the children of Night: strife, lust, deceit, old age, and death.

Out of the struggle with mankind’s most brutish instincts there evolves a ritualistic appropriation of uncontrolled violence, whether the competition—the “contest”—is athletic, aesthetic, or pedagogic; as the youths of Athens were educated through contests with one another, so their teachers and trainers were also engaged in contests with their peers. Where nineteenth-century sentiment disapproves of the “personal fight” in an artist, the Greek, in Nietzsche’s interpretation, knows the artist “only as engaged in a personal fight.” Orators, philosophers, sophists, dramatists as well as athletes and warriors must claim, as in these (imagined) words of Plato: “Look, I too can do what my great rivals can do; indeed, I can do it better than they…. Only the contest made me a poet, a sophist, an orator.” To remove the “contest” from Greek life is to “immediately look into that pre-Homeric abyss of a terrifying savagery of hatred and the lust to annihilate.”

Though Kasia Boddy’s ambitious Boxing: A Cultural History frequently blurs the lines between boxing and fighting, her interest in the mythic underpinnings of this oldest and most controversial of “sports” is not extensive. Her introduction begins with a disappointingly literal (and dubious) statement:

The symbolism of boxing does not allow for ambiguity; it is, as amateur middleweight Albert Camus put it, “utterly Manichean.” The rites of boxing “simplify everything. Good and evil, the winner and the loser.”

And, at her conclusion, there is a quote attributed to Sonny Liston: “It’s always the same story—the good guy versus the bad…

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