Sunday, March 29, 2015

'There is No More a Problem of Truth in Wrestling Than in the Theater': The Genius of Roland Barthes and Wrestlemania 31

WrestleMania 31 is several hours away.

My predictions have been made.

My WrestleMania meal is decided. Braised beef short ribs with mushrooms and pancetta.

My WrestleMania drinks are selected. Black cherry and lemon lime sodas, Coke, and Kirin beer in the tall metal can.

It is an annual ritual, one where the story-lines for a year are resolved and new possibilities are brought forth.

Professional wrestling is physical storytelling, "a soap opera for men", and low culture with the characters and narrative conventions of classic mythology.

In many ways, professional wrestling channels the monomyth.

Like so many millions of other people around the world, I love professional wrestling because it is a constant in my life. We can age, grow older, reminisce about our childhoods, recall fond members of family, hand our love of it down to our children, and complain about its stars, writing, and presentation. Like old curmudgeons we scold the present by appealing to the past: today's professional wrestlers are nothing compared to the titans of our childhood! How could this not be so, for it is a comment not so much on professional wrestling as it is on how the years and time have unrelentingly elapsed during our own lives.

Ultimately, for smart marks and other serious fans of professional wrestling we can't not love this thing. My use of the double negative is intentional as it captures the mixed emotions and confusion that often surrounds our feelings towards professional wrestling.

Roland Barthes wrote the definitive essay on the cultural meaning(s) of professional wrestling.

There is no better explanation for why professional wrestling is so compelling and rich for those who understand its signs, symbols, and the action in the squared circle:
We are therefore dealing with a real Human Comedy, where the most socially-inspired nuances of passion (conceit, rightfulness, refined cruelty, a sense of 'paying one's debts') always felicitously find the clearest sign which can receive them, express them and triumphantly carry them to the confines of the hall. It is obvious that at such a pitch, it no longer matters whether the passion is genuine or not. What the public wants is the image of passion, not passion itself. There is no more a problem of truth in wrestling than in the theater. In both, what is expected is the intelligible representation of moral situations which are usually private. This emptying out of interiority to the benefit of its exterior signs, this exhaustion of the content by the form, is the very principle of triumphant classical art. Wrestling is an immediate pantomime, infinitely more efficient than the dramatic pantomime, for the wrestler's gesture needs no anecdote, no decor, in short no transference in order to appear true. 
Each moment in wrestling is therefore like an algebra which instantaneously unveils the relationship between a cause and its represented effect. Wrestling fans certainly experience a kind of intellectual pleasure in seeing the moral mechanism function so perfectly. Some wrestlers, who are great comedians, entertain as much as a Moliere character, because they succeed in imposing an immediate reading of their inner nature: Armand Mazaud, a wrestler of an arrogant and ridiculous character (as one says that Harpagon** is a character), always delights the audience by the mathematical rigor of his transcriptions, carrying the form of his gestures to the furthest reaches of their meaning, and giving to his manner of fighting the kind of vehemence and precision found in a great scholastic disputation, in which what is at stake is at once the triumph of pride and the formal concern with truth.
WrestleMania 31 will turn another page in a decades-long storybook, one where we have seen and read every story...until we have not seen and read every story told in exactly that same way. This moment of surprise mixed with familiarity and appreciation for the storytelling form is why we, the fans, keep returning to it.


kokanee said...

Enjoy! Most likely, I'll be listening to your latest podcast simultaneously with WrestleMania. ;)

chauncey devega said...

You are a pro wrestling fan? You continue to impress and amaze.

kokanee said...

Ha ha - no reason to be impressed nor amazed. I won't be watching WM31. I don't even have cable. I meant I'll be listening to your podcast while WM31 is going on but not that I'll be watching it. The last time I was a pro wrestling fan was when Rowdy Roddy Piper was wrestling in the Pacific Northwest league before he went national. That was a long long time ago...

chauncey devega said...

That is classic old school. Great territory up there. One of the few that let black wrestlers get some shine during that era. You can always watch online.