Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Wrestling Camp

At the risk of taking myself too seriously (which, more and more, is a phrase people use lest they be taken to be serious at all), I see wrestling, all forms of it, including pro wrestling and wrestling fantasy, as ritual, one that comes damn close to defining the limits of my own brand of spirituality, my personal variety of religious experience. In fact, the origins of wrestling may, in fact, be religious: 
  • The ancient Olympic gods reportedly wrestled each other, thus the sport's centrality in the original Olympic Games (thus the blasphemy of the IOC's plan last year to drop the sport) and in Greek culture, whose palaestrae (wrestling schools) were the bases of classical Greek education, wrestling signifying, to the Greeks, the perfectly balanced discipline of body and spirit.
  • The Hebrew patriarch Jacob wrestled the angel of the lord in the Book of Genesis, an angel many theologians believe might have been the Hebrew god himself.
  • The Japanese sport of sumo wrestling is linked to the practice of the Shinto religion (even today).
  • Hanuman, the monkey hero of the Ramayana, a prominent Hindu mythic adventure, is regarded as the "patron saint" of wrestlers.
  • Before he became the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama was reportedly a highly skilled wrestler (as well as a practitioner of other martial arts).
  • Primitive totemic religions often incorporate wrestling ritualistically, to determine guilt or innocence or to dispel evil spirits.
  • The prophet Muhammad won at least one convert to Islam by wrestling him, and according to various lives of the prophet, wrestling was a commonplace activity among the first Muslims.
  • In the Norse Prose Edda, Thor, the god of thunder, wrestles an old woman, Elli, who turns out to be the personification of old age.
Wrestling may be the original bloodless form of competition, a step our prehistoric ancestors took towards civilization, abandoning (or downgrading) human sacrifice, cannibalism, and other blood rites. It was and still is a more benign form of "violence." It also had, as I thoroughly explore in this blog, erotic associations. Again, looking back to the Greeks, depictions of Eros (god of love) wrestling Anteros (his twin and god of reciprocated love) occur in some of the earliest myths and in classical art (sometimes decorating the above-mentioned wrestling schools).

I say all this, hoping to explain my frequently mentioned recoil response to attempts at making wrestling overtly "comic" and "trite"  (I think particularly of Chikara Pro, amusing enough as kids' entertainment, but altogether soulless when compared to the great pro wrestling events of the early and mid twentieth century, which involved a certain gravitas that's now mostly missing--or when compared to submission wrestling, whose long, often paralyzed clenches some people find boring, but I find absorbing, almost like a form of meditation or spiritual exercise). I'm not unaware, however, of the religious pedigree of comedy, too, the word deriving from Comus, the son and cupbearer of Dionysus, god of wine. Also, some of my favorite wrestlers--Big Sexy, for one--are equally wits and dead-serious combatants.

Which brings me to camp, as in "high camp" and "campy fun," which, as Susan Sontag noted back in the 1960s, is the homosexual male's great contribution to twentieth-century sensibility. As Sontag also observed, "camp" is not just making fun of something (bad movies, kitsch, 1950s interior design, etc.) but also taking it serious, even with a certain level of ritual reverence--the old-school drag queen "camping it up" is both ridiculing "femininity" and luxuriating in it, through monstrous excess of gender signifiers. The hyperbole of drag (and all forms of camp) suggests both lampoon and celebration. The odd mix creates a new and distinctive tone, which I know so well as a gay wrestling fan, of knowing both the ludicrousness and the transcendence of something one loves, deep down, with all one's heart. It's as much a different kind of "seriousness" as it is a different kind of "humor."

What drag performance traditionally has been to femininity, wrestling is to masculinity. The excess of masculine signifiers is both comic overkill and genuinely, jaw-droppingly impressive. And for some of us, namely me, it is enormously lust-inducing, even though some part of my brain also registers its ridiculousness. But beyond its campy exploration of male stereotypes, pro wrestling also taps into primal feelings, not just about sex, but also about good and evil, justice and cruelty, beauty and terror, domination and submission, and unification and atonement (at-one-ment, as wrestlers' bodies coil and merge into one being). This is the transcendence I feel* when I watch a really good wrestling match, and even in "real" sport wrestling on the mat, I sense I am watching something that means much more than just the toting up of game points: something bigger, like the balance of the cosmos and of human existence, about the merger of the left brain and the right brain, about love, both its lusty carnality and its self-effacing idealization, which I see in wrestling's chess-like concentration, strategy, and mental sharpness.

The screen caps above are from Krushco's latest release, a re-release and re-edit of a match I reviewed almost four years ago, pitting Krush, usually the most saturnine of wrestlers, against comic-book masked villain (comic-bookish, I guess) Haruki Hatori. It was an early attempt to "lighten up" the Krushco product, and it works, for the most part. I'd like to see Haruki make a comeback. Check the video out for yourself, though. It's good. And the new edit enhances the match's tone of goofy fun--with some real thrills included.

*I felt exhilaration, too, when I used to wrestle friends and lovers. Whether I sensed this as "transcendence" back then, I cannot remember, but I do remember the feeling of total absorption in whomever I grappled with and the heightened sense of concentration (concentration that involved my body and mind in totality) on that guy. I felt at least halfway in love with anyone who wrestled me and had no interest in wrestling guys who gave off (for lack of a better, more rational word) "bad vibes."


  1. What a great analysis -- you make enough interesting points in this posting to fill about 5 articles! I agree -- wrestling, like sex, can inspire powerful spiritual feelings. I also like your comparison between drag as the ultimate celebration and lampoon of femininity and wrestling as the ultimate celebration and lampoon of masculinity. Interesting thought.

    When it comes to wrestling's abundant masculine signifiers and macho overkill, we also ironically see hints of femininity -- pink boots, a long blond hairstyle, a glittery cape. Why is that if the focus of the performance is supposed to be on males and masculinity? These aspects are presented perhaps as comic relief to the otherwise violent brutality, or perhaps to emphasize the other man's uber-masculinity by contrast.

    The ironic flipside is also true of drag performance. Some drag queens will wear a beard or mustache or speak with a deep raspy voice. This is perhaps meant to be funny, or to keep us fully aware that the performers are, in fact, males and proud to be men. So now your article has me thinking that both pro wrestling and drag performances celebrate and lampoon male masculinity as well as male femininity.

    1. I like your take on the drag/wrestling analogy even better than mine.



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