AS AN OCCASIONAL WATCHER of mixed martial arts fights on television, I particularly like it when the announcer informs the crowd of the precise means of victory. For example, after watching some bare-chested terror strangle his opponent until he is on the brink of collapse, a stentorian voice might tell us: “Defeat by rear naked chokehold.” Ah, so that’s what that was.
I find this sort of summation merely amusing, but author Kerry Howley would argue that the announcer and I have both failed to capture the implications of such a spectacle, one that very well may have, she writes, “ushered ecstatic experience back into the world.” In Thrown, a work of creative nonfiction, Howley throws some continental philosophers and 20th-century French theorists into the ring with MMA fighters to see what happens. The result is a curious alchemy of sports reportage and memoir, a tragicomic philosophical treatise about the search for transcendence, however fleeting.
The narrator of Thrown, a version of Howley, is a disaffected philosopher who leaves a stultifying academic conference in Des Moines to stumble onto a second-tier fight happening in the very same sprawling convention center. There she witnesses a “misshapen man,” Sean Huffman, taking a series of punches to the face. After he’s been stitched up, Howley tracks him down to ask if it hurt. “It feels […] like waking up,” he tells her. Which is how Howley herself felt as she watched — as if “someone had oil-slicked my synapses.” What most of her bookish colleagues would surely deem a base, lurid, rinky-dink contest is for her an exalted unfettering of consciousness, a rebirth of those “antediluvian rites not accessible to modern man.”
Buoyed by the revelation, she sets out on a mission to study the phenomenological implications of beating the living shit out of someone. I put this flippantly to emphasize her skill at translating all those punches, spinning elbows, guards, and throws into the noumenal realm. But Thrown is not meant to convert anyone to the beauties of the sport (though it may). That I, and other readers no doubt, might find these “ecstatical experiments” ludicrous in and of themselves is perfectly irrelevant to the immense success of her project.
Over the course of the book, the narrator insinuates herself into the lives of two fighters: the aforementioned Sean, an overweight pothead in his mid-30s, and Erik “New Breed” Koch, a “feather-light hummingbird of a man,” on his way to the big leagues, skilled in a wide array of techniques and, according to his own brother, a sociopath. Though compelled by Erik’s ascent to showy Pay-Per-View venues, Howley is almost more drawn to the “liminal grace” of the squalid, poorly managed Midwestern arena in which Sean finds himself. This is a world “stippled with petty kingdoms and their tweaker kings,” in which promoters run off before paying the fighters and a toppled “champion” informs his victorious opponent that he can’t relinquish his belt because he left it at home.
While Erik trains with a monomaniacal devotion, Sean lives and fights in a “suspended state of unpreparedness,” taking the narrator to ecstatic heights because of his uncanny ability to withstand punishment, an innate grace under pounding that Howley sees as a special gift to his spectators. Erik is a different beast altogether: “To watch Erik move was to watch Cartesian dualism disproved,” writes Howley, but despite his technical proficiency and monk-like devotion, she wonders whether he, like Sean, is “at heart, a Fighter.”
Howley becomes a so-called “spacetaker,” or groupie, for both: Sean’s sole companion but only one of Erik’s swelling posse. To occupy such a position is her rare opportunity to be “graced with an extra slice of firmament.” Mere observer though she is, Howley actually begins to move with the confidence of a fighter herself as her project advances, cutting long lines, talking her way past guards, and generally “spill[ing] out into spaces unsanctioned.”
Both Erik and Sean, capable as they are of tearing “a small hole in consciousness,” inspire her abject devotion. She admits petty jealousies and anxieties about her status, along with her desire to belong to an “intimate athletic sect.” And yet: when deprived of her transcendence, she can be as icy as Prince Hal rejecting Falstaff. One disappointing contest leaves her so disgusted that she refuses to pass one of her ailing, supine fighters a glass of water afterward: “For what had I to do with him, and he with me?”
Though Howley never enters the ring to practice the art herself, she does throw many a figurative punch at people leading comparatively pale lives: smug yuppies reveling in the “insidious cult of wellness”; casuistic epistemologists, officious deans, and carrel-dwelling graduate students; sportswriters “who regularly desecrate sacred encounters” from their mothers’ basements; and deskbound workers trapped in a “world of annual reports and sexual harassment training.”
These rather hoary attacks are not so different from a fighter’s blustery, pre-fight trash talk. Like those posturing contestants, Howley is occasionally, and consciously, full of hot air, especially when discussing the project itself, informed as it is by Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Artaud, and Bataille. Her research promises to be vital to “future students of descriptive phenomenology,” in a work “too bold for conventional academic minds and the nonsmoking, healthy-minded, hidebound thinkers therein,” one that will “harken backward to comprehensive works of genius such as Inner Experience and The World as Will and Representation.” This ironic persona dramatizes, perhaps, the impossibility of Howley’s quixotic ambition: to reproduce an out-of-body experience in language. As she herself admits, “any such spectacle is unalterably diminished by expression.”
But that doesn’t mean she can’t try. The charmed, unironic space at the center of her inquiry is the octagon, the enclosed battle site that in Howley’s ingenious figuring only appears when a contest reaches a divinely fevered pitch:
There is really only one octagon, and that one flickers in and out of existence over space and time, such that the very same octagon is summoned to consciousness over and over again.
That is, there exists an ordinary mat surrounded by an eight-sided fence in which the fighters engage mano a mano. But the Platonic “octagon” materializes only when, through some mystical combination of prowess and will, the combatants’ struggle resembles less a barroom brawl than Jacob wrestling the angel. Part of what makes the ecstatic experience so powerful for Howley is the infrequency with which the sublime is reached; many fights remain mired in the mundane — or worse, the “merely beautiful,” which causes her to ache all the more for having nearly witnessed perfection.
As is perhaps evident, it’s difficult to pin down exactly what sequence of right hooks and leg locks produces the rapture of which Howley speaks. Indeed, she is best not when she holds forth on the pugilistic sublime, but rather when she homes in on the quieter moments of the fighting life. One image that lingers is of Erik slumped against a wall after his pre-fight weigh-in, for which he has starved himself into such a state that even a timorous literary critic might have a chance to take him down with a shot to the kidneys (and a prayer). We next see Erik, and other similarly depleted fighters, attempting to recover from making weight with the help of cherry Pedialyte, whose slogan is “Helps Kids Feel Better Fast.” “Smiling teddy bears stared from between their thick fingers, then gathered on the floor in a growing mass of crushed plastic.”
Howley highlights the paradoxical gentleness of these gladiators. She observes that they “were more careful and solicitous with one another’s bodies than might be you or I, perhaps because they knew exactly how it was that bodies broke.” In the first match she witnesses, she describes a tap-out, a fighter’s signal that he has given up (usually while being throttled): “His fingertips touched the canvas with extreme delicacy, as if to tap a bell and summon a concierge.” Later, when watching a training session in a gym, she sees the two participants planning future moves with the caution of snake charmers, “the job being one of drawing out, wooing a body from its tight clenched coil into a single yielding line.” However, we are never allowed to forget the brutally efficient violence at the sport’s core; in an aside that reveals how much pain and damage is hidden from us when we watch these bouts, Howley notes: “Blood is a veil between you, the spectator, and the body postpenetration. Squeamish people should pray for blood.”
Such subtle observations are a necessary counterweight to the Lawrentian heft of this chronicle of an “ecstasy-seeking scholar.” Throughout, Howley cunningly mixes a sly, gimlet-eyed approach with a grandiosity that, like D. H. Lawrence’s, is thrillingly close to parody. Everything is sacral, full of “exalted dissolution,” “virile abundance,” “penetrative intimacy,” and places “dark and brave” that demand “the sacrificial will to penetrate.” This style allows Howley to portray Erik as both a high priest of violence and a cipher who spends most of his nights watching Pumping Iron or DodgeBall.
I can’t resist a quick detour here to Lawrence, who himself described the “fluid force” and “polyp”-like grip of jiu-jitsu style wrestling in Women in Love, when Gerald Crich and Rupert Birkin, two men locked in a “strange, perilous intimacy,” disrobe and wrestle each other in a carpeted room. In what surely is the undisputed champion of homoerotic passages, the men
[…] drive their white flesh deeper and deeper against each other, as if they would break into a oneness. […][Rupert] seemed to penetrate into Gerald’s more solid, more diffuse bulk, to interfuse his body through the body of the other, as if to bring it subtly into subjection, always seizing with some rapid necromantic fore-knowledge every motion of the other flesh, converting and counteracting it, playing upon the limbs and trunk of Gerald like some hard wind.
They eventually collapse upon each other in a “trance of exhaustion” before praising one another’s beauty and agreeing that their spiritual intimacy should have a physical analogue.
Though Women in Love is filled with such graphically euphoric moments, Lawrence’s characters search less for fleeting raptures than for a permanent, if illusory, “final me,” a primal state that is “stark and impersonal and beyond responsibility.” As Rupert tells Ursula earlier: “I hate ecstasy, Dionysic or any other. It’s like going round in a squirrel cage.”
Howley desperately wants to be thrown into just such a cage, which for her is a means to liberation. And so she doggedly pursues the octagon through those fighters who can summon it with their rear naked chokeholds and other forms of rough magic.