Michael W. Gray

Kerry Howley
Sarabande Books, $15.95 (paper)

While the respectable sporting world is busy wringing its hands over the level of violence in professional football, a small but fervent cohort has determined “the body more a thing to be used—pushed and penetrated—than worried over.”

In Thrown, Kerry Howley’s inventive nonfiction debut, inflicting injury is the point: two half-naked men, inside a metal cage or “octagon,” punch, kick, and grapple using a combination of techniques, often leaving one another bloody and broken. This is mixed martial arts (MMA), a spectacle that gives the impression of being rather nasty and brutish, at base. The fight ends with one of the brawlers unconscious, deemed unable to defend himself, or asking for quarter. There is also the matter of the clock running down, but ending a bout this way smacks, a bit, of failure, unless one fighter has taken an excess of punishment yet remains standing to the last, in which case the loser “wins.”

Since the 1990s, MMA has had rules and referees—no elbowing your opponent’s spine anymore, or hooking your fingers in his mouth—but it remains a mark of pride that the fighter isn’t, as Howley puts it, “on the side of civilization.” Perhaps this explains why MMA is often dismissed by outsiders as the pastime of morally and intellectually bankrupt rural kids—doubtless amped up on violent video games—performing for an audience of conscienceless cretins. Howley, though, offers the counterintuitive possibility that the fighter’s refusal of the civilizing impulse allows him access to a higher, wilder state of being, unbound by normal societal, or even mortal, strictures. To be a fighter is to battle against the human condition. And so in Thrown, as Nietzsche wrote, “We sail straight over morality and past it, we flatten, we crush perhaps what is left of our own morality by venturing to voyage thither.” Howley does not so much engage in the debate over the place of violence in entertainment as recast it completely—for how can we judge something that’s trying to set us free?

Howley knows that to consider a sport of lower than average brow in the context of philosophical inquiry may seem odd. She uses that oddness to advantage, not only mining the juxtaposition for humor but also significantly exaggerating it through the deployment of a fictional narrator-persona. Kit, as she is called, bears somewhat less relation to Howley than David Foster Wallace’s neurotic napkin scribbler did to that author, but like him takes pleasure in styling herself a fish out of water, using far bigger words, for instance, than an ordinary person might choose, often waxing hyperbolic. She is a doctoral student in philosophy and speaks in the tones that occupation implies, extended to the point of parody.

The assumption that performative violence can shake the viewer out of complacency, lifting her to a higher, more aware state, has a long history.

Yet, other than her blazer, glasses, and attitude of mild distain, she is fairly abstract, with no known friends, family, or romantic partners. And once fallen into the world of MMA, she quickly shears off her commitment to study, too. She compares herself to latitude lines—an organizing principle, no more. In a way, she exists only in the context of her project: a phenomenology of the contemporary fighterly world. That a person of this bent is so taken with MMA gives the book a bit of extra quirk, a kind of attractive eccentricity that seems very “now.”

Kit is a tragic figure, and without her tragedy Thrown might not be much at all. MMA may not be, as Aristotle defined the tragic art, “an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude” (though it may be close), but Kit’s struggle against herself surely is.

• • •

As the book begins, Kit finds herself at a phenomenology conference in Des Moines, disturbed by the “aggressive health” and stupidity of her colleagues. Having nothing to do “beyond explore Husserl with nonsmokers who did not understand him,” she wanders into a hotel conference room and is confronted by the sight of a man being brutally punched in the head. To her surprise, she is entranced: “I had the oddest feeling of a cloudiness momentarily departing. It was as if someone had oil-slicked my synapses, such that thoughts could whip and whistle their way across the mind without the friction I’d come to experience as thought itself.” Kit undergoes what she describes as a Heideggerian “throwness”—“the poignant sense of having been hurled into the world without preparation or consent.” Her idea of being an individual separated in time and space is violated, and a Dionysian ecstasy, of a kind she’d thought existed only in books, achieved. She spends the next three years searching to repeat, understand, and document that experience.

The fighter on the receiving end of those blows in Des Moines is Sean Huffman, a grizzled thirty-two-year-old might-have-been known for the thickness of his skull. In short order, Kit attaches herself to him as a “space-taker,” a monstrously evocative term for a member of the fighter’s crew. Later, once her obsession has grown such that a single fighter is no longer enough to feed it, she takes up too with Erik “New Breed” Koch, a pale, twenty-one-year-old prodigy who seems destined for glory in the “Big Shows.”

The book is a good deal of fun—an uneasy truth, given its subject—and the best of the fight scenes do have an ecstatic quality to them. When the octagon shows up, Howley is suddenly in the present tense, her words coming fast and hard:

Erik leans low and right and swings his left shin high into Cisco’s head and the head whips out of rhythm and Cisco drops like a dead man and Erik lunges onto Cisco and [referee] Steve Mazzagatti jumps in between them because Erik Koch is the winner and the champion and millions of people are watching and the whole room is standing and grown men are moaning and as I look at my hands wet with my tears Erik flexes every muscle in his body—hands fisted, arms low—and screams.

Howley is a talented stylist outside the ring as well. Her evocations of everything from a Las Vegas buffet to a screaming child have a thrilling pleasure of their own. In fact, there is far more ecstasy in her prose than in its subject; she crafts a world of such heightened, cinematic scope that watching Sean or Erik fight on YouTube seems mundane. The sight of a man’s hand being driven into another man’s naked face provokes in turn incredulity, loathing, repugnance, and then shame. Or else, sometimes, nothing at all—a shrug, a sense that it is all far more trivial than Howley makes out.

The assumption Kit dramatizes—that performative violence can shake the viewer out of complacency, lifting her to a higher, more aware state—has a long history, finding its most direct echo in the work of that lunatic French dramatist Antonin Artaud, whose “theater of cruelty” was to be a place where the assault of spectacle would liberate the viewer from societal repression. Kit believes MMA has the potential to liberate one from the unseemly repression of health, from servitude to the body’s whim. As she sees it, Sean has “sworn off protection of the self he was given” and so can escape his corporeal prison “through the slice in his forehead, the knuckle-cuts, the rip down the line of his nose.” If the sight of one man beating another bloody disturbs you, that is only because you are, like most people, trapped in worldly delusion, have a “ghostly, corpselike” attachment to “healthy-mindedness,” and pursue a life of “quietest self-preserving conformism.” You likely do yoga, in other words, eschew gluten.

This is fair enough, to a point. In certain circles, to be thin, fit, free of wrinkles, disease, and deformation does seem on the level of moral achievement arrived at through personal work (“working out”) and self-denial, while the broken, diseased, abused, or neglected body—fed by cigarettes and parents who take their children to McDonald’s, say—is the subject of moral disgust. Of course, this morality of health is bound pretty tightly to class, an aspect of MMA that Howley doesn’t examine at all, though poverty is there in her sweaty basement gyms, teen pregnancies, and porches littered with cracked up plastic toys. If it weren’t for Kit’s baggage of philosophical justifications, Howley may have had to dive into the question of why these men don’t care for themselves in the way society would have them do. But Kit is so rapt in her own phenomenological “research” that she doesn’t distinguish between her motives and theirs, and so Howley needn’t either. To Kit, the fighters are not so much ubermenschen as tools, which perhaps explains why, outside the ring, their lives are fairly dull—Erik preoccupied with oversized burritos, Sean too lazy to commit to much of anything. Kit’s gratitude is real, but they are Promethean heroes to her and must suffer horribly for being useful. She doesn’t so much understand their experience as borrow it in order to shake up bourgeois sensibilities.

MMA’s fascination seems less about ecstasy than about wresting control over one’s own bodily disintegration.

Indeed, the proper question might not be why Erik and Sean decline to care for themselves but whether they don’t. Combat sports have a strange, twisting relationship to the physical. The fighter is dedicated to his body—he hones it, works on it, controls it. He is, until he enters the ring, at least as ascetic as anyone in your Bikram class. He fights for the preservation of life. But in the octagon everything changes: the fighter is there to risk his body, to destroy the product of all the work he has done. As Joyce Carol Oates wrote of boxing, so too MMA “consumes the very excellence it displays.”

Some might call this courage or a kind of demented pride. In many ways, it looks like madness, being also futile. Violence here, unlike that of real warfare, is affective rather than effective, not meant to achieve anything, not even the demolition of the moral category of health. It doesn’t direct ecstasy—or disgust, for that matter—toward anything other than itself, or, for Kit, a formless academic ambition. Yes, people tell you the fighter is there to experience limits, to discover the furthest reaches of where the body will take him. People say you cannot know yourself until you’ve been in a fight. They say it makes you more alive. It serves this function for Kit, who looks to it for an echo of the longtime Army slogan “Be All You Can Be.” But must we accept this? In a world filled with actual, non-mimetic violence, illness, and suffering, is there anything wrong with wanting and pursuing a more sensitive, healthy, and peaceful life, absent any sanctimony on that count? One wonders why freedom and self-realization are so often attached to the destructive, rather than creative, impulse.

I am about Kit’s age, and it’s true that right around thirty one begins to be aware of death in a way one wasn’t before. Age is, as Kit puts it, a “sealing in,” the point at which the demands of our bodies begin to exceed those of the outside world and subjectivity wins out, irrevocably. It is against this sealing in that she sets ecstatic experience. Her purported goal—her addiction, in a way—is the abandonment of everything, including self, its extinction in unity. But what she is really running from are the very limits the fighters push against, the unavoidable facts of breakage, mortality, and decay. “I remembered then why I had chosen him,” she writes of Erik. “Here was health itself, a perfect machine right off the line.” When, after much hesitation, she visits her hometown in Wisconsin, she encounters an acquaintance “grown monstrously old” and is overcome with fear and grief. Running back to her car, she tries to comfort herself by thinking about Sean’s injuries, which “hardened back into the same miraculous substance” after each fight, as though this were evidence of a kind of hope, a site of possible resistance. “It seemed that even death and age could not come for Sean,” she writes, “that he would elude them with his lazy last-minute grace.”

Inside ecstatic experience lurks sadness and terror, and the primal unity of the octagon arrives seldom and briefly. Kit, set apart from the Dionysian chorus of fighters, is a tragic actor whose fear-driven obsession is such that she believes everyone shares it, but she seems not quite able to make much of what she’s learned. Ecstasy is after all little more than a psychophysical state, an abnormality, whether in the direction of illness or genius. It has no real value aside from the effect it has on consciousness and a person’s understanding of the world. Howley could have put Kit in South America and fed her ayahuasca; she could have put her in a convent and had her contemplate God. But Kit, disembodied as she is, seems fixated on the weakness of the body rather than the greatness of the mind or spirit or soul. Her distaste for health may be provoked by the realization that her own is not without limit. The fascination with MMA seems less about ecstasy than about wresting control of one’s own bodily disintegration—another kind of asceticism, also on the side of life.

By the end of the book, as in any tragedy, one sees that the world is always as it already was. For all her pomposity and pretension, Kit has been “thrown” into the same world we all know. Even Erik breaks eventually, revealing that he, like everyone, is caged in physicality. Watching Erik and Sean fall to injury and worldly attachment, Kit is confronted with a shift in herself as well. She traces her face in the mirror and mines its timeworn imperfections. “I was thirty years old, and very afraid,” she writes.

To Nietzsche, the Greek tragedian was an artist of both intoxication and dream, combining the realness of Dionysian ecstatic unity with Apollonian individuation and artifice. Just so, Howley is there, working behind the screen. As Kit runs toward another fight and another fighter, toward the intact, the young, the as-yet-undefeated, it is Howley sending her running. It is in her hands, not Kit’s, that ecstasy becomes something more than a way to avoid the real. With art and artifice, she restores to ecstasy its creative force.