Monday, April 14, 2014

Of Warriors and Worriers

The recent death of the professional wrestler James Brian Hellwig--a.k.a. the Ultimate Warrior--became an establishment-conservative topic of discussion when National Review posted this eulogy.  It turns out that in the late 1990s, the former body-builder, WWF (now WWE) champion, and face-painting ’roid cycler had embarked on becoming a self-taught conservative scholar. 

He read Russell Kirk, Barry Goldwater, and Dinesh D’Souza (well, two out of three ain’t bad).  He also read Mortimer Adler and, as a result, some of the Great Books of the Western World.  Had he lived to run for office and won, he probably wouldn’t have served the public any worse than certain other erstwhile bodybuilders or pro wrestlers turned politicians.

He legally changed his name to “Warrior” in 1993.  (Given the “hair-roid” mane that he had sported during his heyday, he could’ve satisfied his mononymic cravings by changing his name to “Hellwig.”)  And should George W. Rutler ever decide to write a sequel to his fascinating historical study Coincidentally, he might point out that Hellwig was born 130 years to the day after the birth of the real ultimate warrior: the Apache chief Geronimo.  

The overlapping portion of Hellwig’s and Geronimo’s Venn diagram is pretty small.  Yes, they both painted their faces for battle, but Hellwig only pretended to hurt people and only then according to a script.  Geronimo not only hurt his opponents for real but also killed and scalped them whenever he could.  

And whereas Hellwig, during his post-wrestling days on the conservative-speaker circuit, drew fire for uttering the manifestly true statement “Queering doesn’t make the world work [translation: Buggery and fellatio do not comprise going forth and multiplying],” Geronimo was given free rein to wax politically incorrect.  

In the chapter of his 1906 as-told-to autobiography titled “The Mexicans,” Geronimo details the battles against Mexicans that he led and-or took part in as vengeance for their having attacked and killed many Apaches--his mother, his first wife, and several of his children among them.  He concludes the chapter titled “Geronimo’s Mightiest Battle” thus: 

I have killed many Mexicans; I do not know how many, for frequently I did not count them.  Some of them were not worth counting.  It has been a long time since then, but still I have no love for the Mexicans.  With me they were always treacherous and malicious.

For what it’s worth, Geronimo probably didn’t think much of queering either.

Roland Barthes, on the other hand, did.  Maybe that’s why the seminal semiotician enjoyed watching nearly naked men cavort in the squared circle.  At any rate, he produced history’s most illuminating analysis of why something as obviously low-brow as professional wrestling (which Hellwig once defined as “getting paid big money to behave a lot like kids”) has captivated large segments of the public imagination ever since it was devised.

In some ways, Barthes was the Ultimate Worrier.  Continually anxious that authors and readers--no matter how counter-cultural, deconstructive, or interactive--might simply be putting one over on each other, he spent his life trying to stay one step ahead of a literary game that he believed was as saddled with predetermined outcomes as anything devised by Vince McMahon, Jr.

In wrestling, however, he found respite.  “Wrestling is not a sport,” he wrote, “it is a spectacle.  And it is no more ignoble to attend a wrestled performance of Suffering than a performance of the sorrows of Arnolphe or Andromache.”  

Maybe.  Except that the authors of wrestling’s story lines aren’t exactly in a league with Molière or Homer.  These days, they’d be lucky to land gigs scripting soap operas.  As for the grapplers themselves, they’re stuntmen first and actors second.  Not for nothing have such wrestlers-turned-actors as Rowdy Roddy Piper, the Rock, and John Cena failed to garner Oscar nominations.  

But if Hellwig’s cartoonish matches fell far short of Greek tragedy, there was, at least, something classically tragic about his fatal heart attack: It occurred three days after his induction into the WWE Hall of Fame guaranteed him a place among wrestling’s dubious immortals.

Barthes would’ve been more accurate had he compared wrestling to politics.  Whether one considers the Republicans the “baby faces” and the Democrats the “heels” or vice versa, he often subliminally suspects that both sides are enacting roles, sharing the same dressing rooms, and jollily going out together after C-Span extinguishes its cameras for an evening of non-partisan drinking and wenching--and that they’d both distance themselves from a Mexican-hating real warrior like Geronimo faster than you can say “reservation Casino.”

Once, while trying to conceive of a wrestling character that hadn’t already been conceived of (it wasn’t easy seeing as how there’ve already been sheiks, bikers, poets, wild men of Borneo, and zombies), I came up with a wrestler who would be known simply as the Tickler.  He would possess a modicum of basic abilities (being able to give and take headlocks, armlocks, body slams, and chairs to the noggin) but would prove most effective by whispering Helen Keller jokes into his opponents’ ears during tight clenches and coochie-cooing their love handles and armpits.  Reduced to helplessly breathless laughter, they would submit like little kids crying “Uncle.”

After mowing through the competition, the Tickler would end up in a pay-per-view main event in a title match against the world champion.  Alas, just at the crucial moment, the champion would prove not to be ticklish, thus depriving the Tickler of his only weapon.  Stunned into vulnerability, the Tickler would immediately fall prey to whatever the champion’s finish moving happened to be and lose.

Thus would he who has no sense of humor triumph over he who has.  And thus would wrestling finally dramatize real life in a way that, if not Molière or Homer, at least Jonathan Swift (and perhaps even the author of the Book of Job and his many alleged fans) could appreciate. 

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