A few years ago when I watched Darren Aronofsky’s haunting film, The Wrestler, I found myself in a strange state as the credits rolled—one of un-containment. Once I re-contained my self, I ran to my laptop and typed in some notes, yelling to my husband in the next room that I wanted to write my thesis on this film, which, sadly, I didn’t. I had only experienced this feeling two other times at the end of films (if it happened with more three-dimensional moments, I cannot recall them, which in itself intrigues me): the first after the long and beautiful Jacque Rivette film, La belle noiseuse (where no hand-to-hand fighting took place, that I remember), and the second after David Fincher’s Fight Club. After watching Michel Piccoli, Jane Birkin, and Emmanuel Béart in a ring shaped like a triangle, I left the student union theater running, and I didn’t stop until I’d run out of breath on a dark, wet sidewalk in Minneapolis. After watching Brad Pitt and Edward Norton fight “each other” in Fight Club, I hopped into my ‘77 Chevy Scottsdale, revved the engine, peeled out of the parking lot, and drove as fast as I could through West Des Moines, and almost drove straight into a Krispy Kreme for a truck full of glazed doughnuts just to keep my then-named “rush” going. Years later, I came to understand this rare surge/escape as an experience of the ecstatic: an experience that feels unrepeatable, unpredictable, and ever leaves the residue of wanting to understand that which culminates in such experiential overflow. The transcendent moment of losing self became something I came to identify with watching others on screen live fully, unbounded, focused, without striking “balance” in their lives.
So, imagine my thrill when I read about Kerry Howley’s book of creative non-fiction, Thrown, a phenomenological look at the world of mixed martial arts (MMA). The bonus for me was that Howley was researching and writing from a “home” base of Iowa, my home state, and was also doing so at the possible expense of an academic life, which she (as the narrator) didn’t as much question, as denigrate, much to my commiserative relief.
The titular reference to Heideggerian throwness gives us the grand opening to the investigative ride we are about to get on with Kit, Howley’s avatar in this textual yet virtual game of MMA and philosophy. This immediate (re)minding of being in and with in the world is a near-perfect stage setting for the octagonal ring Howley doesn’t so much as welcome us to enter, as rightly assumes that we are already in. There is very little preamble to beginning this innovative story: On the third page, Howley tells us, “The story is this: I showed up, a spectator, to a fight in Des Moines. Moments previous I had been at a conference on phenomenology, where a balding professor stunningly wrong about Husserlian intentionality dominated the post conference cocktail hour” (3).
From this initial wandering into, Kit then becomes an intentional spectator and begins to follow (she calls it “space-take”) and research two fighters, Sean and Erik. They both have the potential to be great fighters of mixed martial arts. Each chapter focuses on her time with one of them only—she keeps her relationships with them, as her writing about them, separate—though each man’s story informs the other’s in terms of what one has, the other may lack, and vice versa. Both fighting lives are key to understanding Kit’s quest for the ecstatic.
Given the juxtaposing of caged fighting and the highbrow halls of academe, I began to also read the shift from periphery to more focality regarding not only MMA, but also of transdisciplinary endeavors within university studies and their departments. A sport such as MMA spent so long as an illegitimate child of all the “pure” forms, that Howley writes (about Rio de Janeiro), “Fighting had to be born in the one place where ecstasy remained the organizing principle, the seedful incipience of all life. ... Where, I ask you, has pure lust overcome every low instinct of race and tribe to produce the most roilsome gallimaufry of glorious miscegenation?” (268). Today, academics and non-academics are so used to inter- and transdisciplinary programs and projects that perhaps it is easy to forget that not very long ago (and in some arenas, still today), the narrow categorizing of disciplines—specialization—was the only way to move forward. Any tainting of one with another lessened the legitimacy of a field of inquiry or the mastery of the inquiring mind. As in studia, so with stadia.
Howley gives enough “tastes” of academia so as not to forget that the university is the arena in which she is supposed to be playing/fighting. But the book isn’t heavy with blatant comparison. Not at all. This book is about fighting, and the philosophical implications therein. It is about the body—about training the body, watching the body, breaking the body, so that it becomes about the disembodied:
Sean said, "Well, I’ll probably take a lot of punches to the face." I realize that such a statement will shock the sort of person who tends toward overuse of the word “wellness,” and were Sean a little girl he’d spend a lot of time in the guidance counselor’s office being counseled to take a temple-like attitude toward himself [ … ] Pay anxious attention to the sheath, which is vulnerable to burn and aridity, which ought not be overstretched, which when torn, spills forth in precisely the way no one around you wants to see. None will be more revered than the man who can stitch the shell back together, keep the insides in and the outsides out. And if at some point it all feels like hanging curtains in a jail cell, like replacing the buttons on a strait-jacket, well, you might find yourself on a couch with a man who feels the same way. Still, it won’t fit anyone’s definition of healthy, wanting to break out of the cage that you are. (152–153)
Of course it is not meaningless that Howley’s first person narration is not Kerry but Kit. Writing is also a spectator sport, one that needs the body, but doesn’t hold it up in reverence in order to smash it. Kit attempts to tell her story straight and simply, but Kit can’t help but tell us she is harkening back to Bataille and Schopenhauer (she gives only titles of works here, however, because Kit still wants us to know things, even as she purportedly shuns the higher educative for the high instruction of the gym). This is not a criticism of Howley’s writing but an observation of how finely wrought this work is. She is, after all, teaching us something about the ecstatic by way of the ring, and in lieu of having ring girls catwalk large signs with didactic information across the stage/page, Howley knows just how and when to deliver the phenomenological punches:
The glorious heightening of the senses, I had come to believe, was only the first stage of an ecstatic moment, after which the feeling changed from that of a body made extraordinarily powerful to escape from the body altogether. It wasn’t enough to say that one could see a flow of dancing atoms where others saw a static cage [ … ] The categories of sight and sound no longer applied; for a mind in the throes of ecstasy had expanded outward, beyond these round tools of perception, to greet the universe without the interference of anything so frail as an eye or an ear. (163)
There is nothing sentimental about this book. Howley’s writing strikes subtle notes, however, when discussing Sean’s impending failure as a fighter due to his desire to be successful as a father. Howley is savvy at twisting her own theory of the sublime; if escaping the body is the answer, how does procreation fall into this—the seminal act can be an escape in ecstatic terms; perhaps even the ineffable feeling for one’s child may be of the transcendental realm (how many times do we hear a parent say of having a child that it helped him or her get out of oneself?), but damned if the result isn’t in creating yet another cage of a body and then having to preserve and protect not only the child’s cage but your own for the child’s sake. Not only did one not escape, but one fortified the structure/obstacle. But this fortification is “natural,” commonplace. What Howley was seeking over these years of study was the rare genius who fights his way out. What Howley has given us is a way in to a fighter’s world that might otherwise be left to its subculture corner. She’s crossing it over. Thrown takes a rare and brilliant position, but Howley’s moves are fluid. She will not allow herself to fix or be fixed. If this debut is any indication of what’s to come, and of course it is, she will definitely make it to The Big Shows.
Mullin resides in Des Moines, Iowa, with her husband, Bill, and her dog, Beatrice (no, not named after Dante’s Beatrice, but the divine French actress Dalle). Mullin is currently a media and communications doctoral candidate at European Graduate School, Saas-Fee, Switzerland.