The Wonder Boy

Such latter-day disfigurements leave out
All mention of those older scars that merge
On any riddled surfaces about.
—Weldon Kees, “A Good Chord on a Bad Piano”

Muhammad Ali, as a result of his touching, or poignant, or pathetic, or tragic (take your pick) appearance at the torch-lighting ceremony at the 1996 Olympics Games in Atlanta, has become, for new generations that did not grow up with him and for the older generations that did, the Great American Martyr, our new Lincoln, our new Martin Luther King, Our Father Abraham, Our Father Martin, Our Father Muhammad: the man whose hands, once unerring pistons of punishment in the prize ring, tremble from boxing-induced Parkinson’s disease; the man whose voice is such a slurred whisper that he, who was once called the Louisville Lip because he loved talking so much, does not like to speak in public and rarely does; the once-uncompromising black nationalist now reduced, like Orson Welles at the end, to performing magic tricks for the crowd as if he were parodying his own pop-culture greatness, exposing it as an illusion, just as his nationalism had been, just as his cultist/religious self had been. Everything in popular culture throbs with impermanence, its significance threatened by the triteness it cannot hide, by the banality it bloats into eminence through a personality that blends the public and the private. And no one embodied American popular culture, its excesses, its barbarities, and its disarming densities, more than Muhammad Ali.

The public rarely responds to the demise of a great popular performer with anything approaching good sense or objectivity, and almost certainly with nothing approaching gracious humor, something that, in this case, the subject himself seems to be trying to instruct us in how to achieve. This is even less likely to happen when the figure in question is a black man, a cunning archetype who is already so burdened by the baggage of both sentimentality and taboo as to be likely to be virtually a walking expression of the culture’s irrationality, as he would be even if his old age had been a bit less marked by illness.

To be sure, Ali has been a lightning rod for the culture’s irrationality all his life, sometimes provoking it purposely, sometimes being a veritable representation of it himself. This was, after all, the man who not only brilliantly playacted a combination panic attack/nervous breakdown at the weigh-in of his first championship fight with the dreaded Sonny Liston in 1964; served as the redoubtable black trickster to Howard Cosell’s liberal Jewish straight man; had a highly publicized religious conversion to a strange, if influential, cult that disliked whites but wanted to be a perfect imitation of them, aggrandizing its importance while humanizing its stark doctrine; and who said that no Vietcong ever called him “nigger.” He also believed for some several years that a mad scientist named Yacub invented white people by grafting them from blacks, that satellites from Allah …

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