“In short, I set out to write a book about the darkness in men, but I ended up with a book about how men keep the darkness in check.”
I have a problem with violence.
The problem is that I like it.
I like watching it. MMA is the only sport I watch any more and I rate action movies on their fight scenes. I like reading about it. Martial arts manuals and websites that break down fights are some of my favourite reading material. And I love training in how to be better at violence. Grappling and trying to strangle people is my method of self-development.
But I do struggle with it. I struggle with the concussions and what the effect that will have on fighters in the future. We are all complicit as fight fans. But so too as rugby fans, or NFL, AFL, or Hockey. The beauty of MMA is in it’s honesty. Other sports aspire to be a fight, they talk about battle, use the language of combat but it’s metaphor. In MMA it’s the truth.
“People have the wrong idea about the gloves. They think they civilize the sport, but they are the soul of it’s barbarism.”
I’m a nice enough guy who’s never been in a fight and never plans to. The disconnect is clear but I’m not smart enough to delve it’s depths. So I read books by people smarter than me. People like English Professor Jonathan Gottschall.
Frustrated by missing tenure he starts MMA in an attempt to get fired or get beaten up trying. Or maybe there’s a book in it. The result is The Professor in the Cage: Why Men Fight and Why We Like to Watch.
The story is familiar by now, one followed by Mailer and Plimpton and many others. I’ve read them all, written about some. Done right this is my favourite type of memoir, and the Professor in the Cage is the best on Mixed Martial Arts.
It’s a hell of a book. A late entrant for the best book I’ve read this year. Smart and true and well informed. Fighting and thinking are closer than most people realise.
The Professor in the Cage
Gottschall writes well. I took loads of notes and have never used so many quotes in a review. The fact he read widely shines through. From the Monkey Dance in Meditations on Violence, to the history of dueling. This is a book with a strong foundation of the writers and fighters who have gone before.
What I enjoyed most was how he wrote about training. It wasn’t always fun but when it went well it made up for the bad times. Sounds familiar.
“The blubbery, congested sensation of incipient middle age gives way and I feel young again, and strong. When I’ve competed well, and especially when I’ve held my own in sparring, I leave the gym feeling so awake, my whole system revving with something purer than a runner’s high. I drive home knowing that I’ve been going through life half asleep, and I feel a euphoric gratitude for my living muscle and bone and blood.”
Sometimes after training I feel like I am floating down the street. I’ve fought and struggled. Maybe won, maybe lost. But I’m alive and I survived. Every bruise and strain is a reminder and I wouldn’t trade them for anything.
Carlson Gracie’s quote about entering like a kitten and leaving like a lion comes to mind on those days. While it’s about staying humble, it does a man good to know he can roar.
Masculinity has a poor reputation in many quarters. ‘Toxic masculinity’ is heard in these heady days of Trump and Putin. But are we throwing the baby out with the masculine scented bathwater?
“In higher education generally, and literary study specifically, masculinity is associated with everything oafish, bullying and oppressive. Masculinity is a problem. It’s not something that should really be tolerated, much less celebrated.”
The literary world Gottschall comes from does not always celebrate masculinity. He concludes that masculinity is simple strength and toughness. You can be many other things as a man but you need to be strong.
But being strong does not mean that you cannot be soft, or gentle or kind. Because strength means that you have the capability to endure and lift things up. That can be yourself or the people around you. Strength in itself is not bad.
Gottschall digs into the evolutionary side of fighting. It seems every culture had a form of play fighting to train their warriors, today we know this as sport. This leads further into dueling and how men turn everything into a contest. Along the way he covers topics like left-handedness and how boys and girls differ in how they play. As a father to a young boy it is fascinating stuff.
Should I Read it?
The Professor in the Cage is the best book on training and martial arts that I have read. Like any good book it opens up new areas of thought as it answers questions along the way. I’ll continue to look at violence and my feelings towards it. But I’ll keep training.
And reading. There are plenty of interesting books mentioned and I will read more from Jonathan Gottschall.
If The Professor in the Cage intrigues you, hit the Amazon link and get it heading your way. Also, purchases made through the links help me keep reading.