Strange that while standing in a dingy basement boxing gym watching two men head-butt each other into unconsciousness during an underground mixed martial arts event in the Bronx, I found myself thinking about Philip Roth.
A few weeks before, Roth – the great chronicler of 20th-century, first-generation ethnic America – had announced that after 50 years as a novelist he was hanging up his typewriter forever. As a longtime devotee, I didn’t know how to process the news when I heard it. Weeks later, standing in that boxing gym, I still didn’t. I had never properly mourned the end of Roth’s life as a writer, and now, like all unsettled ghosts, he was popping into my head at the oddest moments.
It was in my early Twenties that I first discovered Philip Roth. After picking up Portnoy’s Complaint on a whim in a bookstore in Tokyo, I went through nearly everything he wrote in a matter of a few years, which meant something considering Roth wrote a book almost every two years for half a century. During those impressionable years he was everywhere for me – my sensualist, materialist, nihilist guru – passing on to me a whole worldview, one that fit so snugly it felt like it had been mine all along, just waiting for me to snatch up and claim. Roth helped me understand what it is to be an agnostic Jew in America, how to be a disenchanted intellectual in the late 20th century, how to be both a lover of words and a lover of bodies, how to find the humor in hostility, how to truly care about the shared passions and disappointments of humanity without giving into “caring."
In his “obituary” for Philip Roth (Roth had so long before taken himself out of life as anything but a writer that his decision to stop writing was essentially a death), New Yorker Editor David Remnick recalled a conversation he and Roth had had four years earlier in which the novelist admitted he had tried, briefly, to experiment with a fuller, more varied life in an attempt to break what he called the “fanatical habit” of writing:
“So I went to the (Metropolitan Museum) and saw a big show they had,” Roth said. “It was wonderful. Astonishing paintings. I went back the next day. I saw it again. Great. But what was I supposed to do next, go a third time? So I started writing again.”
This is an example of what Christopher Hitchens (another great anti-sentimentalist) called the “shrug” of every Jewish ironist “from Spinoza to Woody Allen.”
Fair enough, but why am I writing about Philip Roth for a mixed martial arts online magazine? It’s a reasonable question (as far as I know Philip Roth has no interest in, opinion on, or even exposure to MMA) and one I have no good answer for except to say that I felt the need to write about the one man I could conceivably call my mentor on the occasion of his retirement, and my only outlet as a writer is a mixed martial arts online magazine. After thinking long and hard, I have justified it to myself this way: In my early 20s I loved the writings of Philip Roth, in my mid-30s I love mixed martial arts, and everything is connected and nothing comes from nothing. Surely there was something in Roth’s work that got me to a point (however many steps down the line) where I would devote my professional life to writing about human beings fighting.
I’ve since decided it has something to do with the acceptance of the body, of the imperfect and of the desirous. It goes back to my first admissions (motivated by Roth) that my body had interests my head couldn’t stomach but that needed to be dealt with anyway, before they ate me alive. For me, that acceptance started with sex: Portnoy’s Complaint cured me of any lingering masturbation shame, and Sabbath’s Theater cured me of pretty much all the remaining sexual shame I had or ever would have (particularly as it related to libraries, telephones, cemeteries, and adultery). For Roth the body is the only knowable thing, and the battle between lust and inherited morality is the greatest human struggle. His most famous novel, Portnoy’s, is really just one extended no-holds-barred fight between lust and duty – between the body and the brain.
Eventually, though, it became clear that if I hoped to truly complete my unsentimental education, my resignation to the base fascinations of my flesh would have to move beyond sex and make its way to violence, a world I had never known, never been comfortable in, but was always ashamed I was fascinated by. I had to admit the connection between the lust for flesh and the lust for harming flesh. And so, one day I let mixed martial arts into my life. First, just a dip of one toe in the pool where a portly Russian swam, then a couple of pay-per-view UFC cards, then staying up late to watch replays of old UFC cards, then the Muay Thai classes and the boxing classes, then the sparring, then the writing, then the staying up late to re-watch replays of old UFC cards, then the job in Brooklyn editing an MMA magazine, and finally a dingy basement boxing gym in the Bronx, where you can stand so close to the ring that blood splatters in your face; where you can sense the thwack of a shin smacking into a jaw on your own jaw; where you can feel, with terrible sensitivity, the pain of one head smashing into another; where you relish in the sound of human beings calling out for violence – praying for it with all their lustful hearts -- and then retreating happily and peacefully back into the New York night once they’ve been sated, leaving the fighters alone with their bruises and their waning adrenaline.
This, I thought to myself, is where opening the door to the lusts of the body will lead you. This is the kind of influence a man like Philip Roth can have. Thank god he won’t be around to lead any more young men astray.