Not perhaps since the time of Pindar has any athlete been such catnip to the intellectuals. Muhammad Ali is the fisticuffer of choice for all manner of deep thinkers. Norman Mailer perceived that Ali did nothing so mundane as trade punch for punch with muscled fellows more shallow than he. His distinction was to “trade metaphysic for metaphysic with anyone.” (What was Sonny Liston’s metaphysic?) Mailer’s Ali is “the swiftest embodiment of human intelligence we have had yet,” and “the first psychologist of the body.”
Finding recondite meanings in the videotapes of Ali’s matches has become a cosmic (and comic) pastime. Ali (then Clay) said that he was blinded in the fifth round of his first Liston fight by something on Liston’s gloves. Nothing so prosaic would do for the British art historian Peter Fuller, who decided that Ali was blinded, like Oedipus, by a realization that he was slaying a father figure, that “Clay had displaced the idea of phallic struggle on to the eyes, so that blindness symbolized castration for him.” Ali was still feeling guilty “about what he did to Liston” in 1971, when “a powerful unconscious wish to lose” made him succumb to Joe Frazier. (What had made him win in the interval, a desire to keep doing in Liston?) Ali never gets beat, in Dr. Fuller’s book, just because someone could outfight him.
Where Fuller invokes Oedipus, Jan Philipp Reemtsma, a German philologist, needs the help of Odysseus, Proteus, Theseus, Hannibal, and Caesar to explain the many things that made Ali “the first postmodern strategist.” He seems more at home dealing with fictional myths than with the living legend of Ali himself. Thus much of his book is devoted to a deconstructive analysis of the Rocky movies. By the end of his brief book, Reemtsma feels he must create a whole new historiography to explain Ali. He finds in Europe three stages of personality, each with a counterpart, thus:
The associated(cult-member)individual The cult leader
The balanced (classical) individual The eccentric
The dissociated(modern)individual The megalo-maniac
Ali is a creative megalomaniac, making himself a principle of order in a disordered world. The only other examples Reemtsma gives of such in-spired megalomania are philosophical literary critics—the densely radical Theodor Adorno, the jokily conservative Karl Kraus, and Arno Schmidt, the plumber of deep meanings in Poe. One can only imagine a symposium of these Big Four in the postmodern Elysium, Kraus and Schmidt offering different readings of Ali’s poetry while Adorno unreads the readings and Ali corrects his interpreters.
Though Reemtsma invokes classical myths and heroes for an understanding of Ali, he never looks at the most obvious places in classical literature, which just might have something to say on the subject—the boxing matches that occur in poetry and art. After all, when Epeius, Homer’s boxing champion, predicts the outcome of his match (Iliad 23.669), he makes the boast of Ali himself: “I …