Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Prizefighting

The proverb, that no man is a hypocrite in his pleasures, applies with peculiar force to the class whose pleasures are necessarily few and occasional. Nothing can throw a stronger or a more curious light on certain points of our national character than the investigation of its chosen amusements. That a part of the population which is not altogether insignificant in number, and which has considerable importance if it be viewed as a sample of the raw material of English society, should really believe in prizefighting—should have a theory about it, investing it with various moral, not to say religious, virtues—should patronise a branch of literature which commemorates its notable occurrences, and should regard and reward its professors with admiring sympathy—are facts upon which more than, one observation might be founded. To know the virtues which the worshipper attributes to his idols is an important step towards a knowledge of those which he would wish to possess himself. It is no less strange than true, that even the most brutal and vulgar pursuits are not prosecuted without some kind of occasional reference to some sort of ideal. People rarely do evil, advisedly and deliberately, as evil. Probably even thieves and housebreakers sometimes think, or fancy they think, themselves something better than mere selfish depredators. We may hope that some vague notions that they are martyrs to a falsely organized society, or protesters against the oppressive rights of property, may soothe the ennui of the inhabitants of Portland Island and of the colonists of Dartmoor. From this point of view the aspirations of the British blackguard become interesting. They are probably very different from those of his French, Italian, or German congener, and therefore deserve such notice as we can bestow upon them.

The Law and the Prophets of Prizefighting are two books entitled respectively Boxiana and Fistiana. Boxiana constitutes the Pandects, Fistiana the Institutes of the profession; and from these books and the Acta Sanctorum as represented by Bell's Life, our best views of the subject may be derived. It is from Fistiana that the prizefighter's ideal is to be deduced; for therein are contained, not only the rules of the ring, but those moral exhortations by compliance with which the prizefighter's occupation may be elevated to the rank which it ought to fill amongst liberal professions, coupled with a glowing description of the advantages, moral and physical, which he may ultimately expect to reward his exertions. The task is by no means a difficult one. Nothing can be more definite, either than the ends or the means; and they are both detailed with a certain stately gravity of language which has something about it highly moral and deeply respectable. The injunction of the Catechism to keep the body in temperance, soberness, and chastity, is expanded by the author of Fistiana into some five or six pages of very good advice, very forcibly put, but addressed to an audience which apparently requires a degree of plain-speaking which we hope is not universally necessary. Some notion of its magnificence and force of language may be derived from the following denunciation of drunkenness:--
‘He was then comely, fresh-coloured, fleshy, muscular, strong, agile . . . . in fine, he was a useful member of this social, stirring community of ours . . . . and perhaps he had raised an altar to himself in the one most fitting place to erect one—in the heart's core of some devoted woman. He is now (drunkenness has done the deed) ugly, pale, haggard, nerveless, feeble, tottering . . . . . shunned by his former friends, given up as lost and worthless by his relatives, and oh! “unkindest cut of all,” abandoned, “more in sorrow than in anger,” by that guardian angel upon earth who once gloried to call him husband or lover.’
There is, however, balm in Gilead. Suppose that one of the pupils of the author of Fistiana has over-indulged himself -- there is still a locus panitentia. First of all, the patient must “drop his indulgences piecemeal, and then wholly, one by one.” He thus becomes “comparatively temperate and chaste.” Let him not be dismayed at feeling the change trying; but “pour into the body, not in large portions, plain and nutritious aliments.” He is to “begin with broths,” to go on gradually, to “your lean and lightly-done mutton chop"—and at last to broiled rump-steak. In course of time, “you will be able to exclaim, ‘Richard's himself again!’” and you “may—but mind how you do it—kiss once more the wine-glass rim, never to be tasted but temperately.” With all its pompous turgidity and vulgarity, there is a good side to this kind of writing. The inherent foulness and unmanliness of the vices which are denounced are recognised, though in a clumsy sort of way. To be sober in order to be athletic, is not perhaps the highest view of morality, but it is good and wholesome as far as it goes; and the stentorian grandiloquence of the author of Fistiana, though it be somewhat animal and materialistic, is at least infinitely preferable to the grovelling filth which such writers as Xavier de Mont├ępin and Dumas fils teach a certain part of young France to consider as the result of a profound acquaintance with the world. It would, however, be unjust to the professors of the noble art of self-defence to suppose that they considered physical health the only object of life. They raise on this foundation a superstructure of moral virtues. “It is,” we are told, “because we conscientiously feel, the positive advantage which society will derive from the study of the boxing art, that we now strenuously recommend its diffusion in all parts of the empire.” The benefits in question are, we also learn, courage, love of fair play, confidence, and contempt of personal suffering. In happier times, “even little children imbibed the spirit of these rules, and in their childish combats adhered to them as strictly as to the moral truths enforced at their mother's knee.” So, too, “the feeling of superiority” which the practice of boxing gives an Englishman over a foreigner in private quarrels, is carried into the field of battle; for the boxer—whose art must, we suppose, be an invaluable protection against being knocked to pieces by a cannon ball, or blown up in a mine—“cannot think of turning his back on a foe whom he has always deemed his inferior in combat.” Courage is the first essential, bottom is the next, and the rules for the fight itself are conceived in a similar spirit:

‘Whenever you hit, take care that the steam is well up, and that determination of body and mind go hand-in-hand. No half measures will do, and the ‘tapping system” must be thrown overboard, for though pretty it is powerless. Regardless, therefore, of consequences, forthwith make play, let fly smack with your left—at the first glimpse of an opening dart into action at once, resolved to “conquer or die,” and it is not impossible that this very display of fearless confidence gains for you the “vantage ground,” which you may preserve throughout the fight.’

However sceptical one may feel as to the moral excellences so strenuously claimed for boxing, there can be no sort of doubt as to the light which the love of it throws on the character of its admirers. Whatever they may be, they obviously want to be thought a bold, fierce, energetic generation, despising pain and fatigue, hating to do things by halves, “letting fly smack with their lefts” at whatever may come in their way, and, generally speaking, believing in the British lion as the be all and the end all of human excellence. There are certainly worse frames of mind than this. The one virtue which the patrons of the ring admire and honour certainly is a virtue, and a very great one. Far be it from us to deny that courage, in all its forms, is a very great gift indeed, and still further be it from us to join in the pitiful cant which depreciates what is obscurely called “physical" in comparison with what is as obscurely called “moral” courage. To our apprehension, it is much worse to be burnt at the stake than to be laughed at. Every one, of course, must speak for himself; but if it came to the point, most men would find it infinitely less of an effort to be the whipping-post of the most brilliant two columns of sarcastic wit that ever adorned the Times, than to allow the experienced Bendigo or the amiable Tipton Slasher to “hit away” at him “with his short-armed hits,” or administer “that most fatal of all falls, the cross-buttock,” on the proper performance of which “your heels will go in the air, you go over with tremendous violence, and he falls on your abdomen”—some thirteen stone of solid bone and muscle. We suspect that the gentlemen who talk so glibly, on philanthropic platforms, of the superiority of the courage which braves ridicule over that which braves pain, would joyfully consent to be the objects of universal execration and contempt for a month together, rather than pass a second quarter of an hour in this kind of improving intercourse, after going through a first. Notwithstanding the current commonplaces to the contrary, we believe that it is not only a most valuable but by, no means a usual gift to be able to defy and encounter violent glaring dangers. Mere passive fortitude is far commoner than active courage. At the storming of the Redan, fifty men were found willing to be mowed down by the Russian bullets for one who would rush on their bayonets; and we greatly doubt whether hundreds of those who hold both achievements very light indeed in comparison with the courage of the schoolboy, piously brought up, who refuses to lie or to swear, or of the man who “bears a faithful testimony” by reproving improper conversation in society, would not find, if they were tried, that they are not half so indifferent to bayonets and cannon-balls as they imagine. It is no small accomplishment to stand being beaten to a jelly without losing your temper, and to have sufficient vital energy left to blacken your antagonist's eyes immediately after he has knocked several of your teeth down your throat.

Whilst we wish to do full justice to whatever is good in the temper which the admiration of prizefighting evinces, we do not, of course, mean that prizefighting is in itself a desirable institution. The popular admiration of it is a symptom of some good qualities, just as certain diseases are symptomatic of a strong constitution. A weakly man is not likely to die of apoplexy – a gouty patient has probably, at some period of his life, had a good appetite-boils and eruptions on the skin may show too much richness of blood—and in the same way, prizefighting is not exactly the amusement of a nation of cowards or sluggards. But no one can doubt for a moment that it is essentially blackguard and brutal, though it has its origin in feelings which are neither one nor the other. When we turn from the precepts of Fistiana to the practice of Boxiana, we see at once that, though there may be some good feeling on the part of the idolaters, the idol is as ugly, dirty, and debasing as fetiches usually are. A certain amount of real piety may be involved in a negro's prayers to Mumbo Jumbo, but, for all that, the sooner Mumbo Jumbo is made into firewood the better; and though it may be quite true that it is the less base part of the British blackguard that admires the heroes of the ring, it is no less true that prizefighting is a brutal indecency which ought not to be tolerated for a moment. The mere nomenclature of the profession shows its essential blackguardism more strongly than anything else can. Conceive of human creatures rejoicing to be known by such names as “Gadzee alias Cat's-meat,” “The Fighting Snob,” or “Swousey.” Imagine men going down to posterity on the strength of such a set of Newgate Calendar entries as the following:—“Shephard Jack ft. Clarke, purse £15 a side, in a room at Seven Dials; but an alarm of traps being given, all parties mizzled.” Or—“Skinner of Birmingham bn. y Dukes (fatal to Skinner, who was killed in the thirteenth round); or, again, “Thompson (a Paddington baker) bn. b Mike Murphy, at Whetstone. Fatal to Thompson.” Indeed, the Newgate Calendar itself is wholesomer reading than Boxiana. The transactions which it records are so essentially disgusting that they have to be translated into the most unearthly slang before they can be rendered interesting even to the profession itself. The men whose lives it records were, generally speaking, miserable creatures, many of whom died worn out in the flower of their age, after a life in which coarse triumphs and coarse defeats alternated with the grossest debauchery.

Indeed, there is no kind of brutality and blackguardism which is not inextricably mixed up with prizefighting; and amongst other ways in which it operates injuriously, one of the most important is, that it brings discredit on the single virtue which it professes. Physical prowess is an excellent thing, and boxing and wrestling are noble exercises; but if they are diverted from this, which is their legitimate purpose, to become the stock in trade of professional gladiators, they become inaccessible to decent people. A poor man of respectable habits and character is debarred from almost every kind of physical education—and a very heavy loss it is—by the brutal coarseness, drunkenness, and evil of all sorts with which it is mixed up. Sparring, singlestick, or wrestling would be a far wholesomer relaxation for many a man who passes his days bent over a loom or spinning-jenny, than a constant succession of novels and newspapers; but at present he can only obtain such amusement by forfeiting all claim to decent society. Many a man of higher rank would be greatly the better for developing his muscles as well as his brains; but it is impossible for him to do so at the price of listening to the nauseous slang of some blackguard who lives upon his artificial hardihood and constitutional insensibility to pain. Brutality and ferocity—the pleasure of witnessing or of inflicting pain—have no necessary connexion with personal strength and hardihood, though they are amongst the temptations to which strong and hardy people are exposed. Courage produces prizefighting, but we have a strong suspicion that prizefighting is very inimical to courage. It frightens timid people, and does not encourage brave ones. Nay, with all due respect to Mr. Bell, we suspect that it increases the use of the knife. If we are all to start fair, we may trust to the weapons which nature has given us; but if there is strong reason to suspect that your antagonist has studied under Swoucey, or the Chelsea Snob, there is some excuse for resorting to means of defence against which cross-buttocks and upper-cuts, and all the rest of it, will do very little good indeed. Within the last thirty years, prizefighting has happily gone down in the world; but who can say that our race has degenerated? Some classes of the poor, no doubt, may have lost something of their former hardy vigour by the enormous growth of towns and manufactures, but the rich are surely as fine a race of animals as ever existed. Gentlemen do not now-a-days fight with boatmen and cab-drivers. Even at the Universities, town-and-gown-rows have almost entirely died out; but the popularity and the variety of athletic amusements has increased enormously. There are twice as many cricket clubs now as there were twenty years ago. Every autumn, the railways enable many hundreds of tourists to explore, on foot, every pass and every mountain-top in Europe. Forty years ago, there was not a single eight-oar on the Cam or the Isis—at present there are upwards of sixty; and a man who has been up Mont Blanc, or pulled from Putney to Mortlake in a University boat-race need not envy the stamina of a prizefighter. These amusements, and others like them, are in the highest degree honourable and manly, and deserve every kind of encouragement; and if wrestling and boxing could be purified from their brutal and degrading associations, we should be delighted to see them equally popular. But the very first step to such a result must be the destruction of the disgusting trade which debases them. Prize fighting is a public nuisance, especially to all who wish to see physical education take its proper place amongst us; and, as a public nuisance, no less illegal than it is disgusting, it ought to be put down.

Saturday Review, November 22, 1856.

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