Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Magic, Religion, Wrestling...

I was at dinner last night at Baraka, a Tunisian place, and one of my friends was performing magic tricks for us with a deck of cards. Really amazing stuff- like MIT's better version of David Blaine. I apparently performed well as an audience to this- I was totally in awe, and giggled hooted whenever the trick played out. Anyway, the waitress, who was muslim, started telling us about how she doesn't subscribe to ideas of magic, because the only magic comes from god and we must only believe in his powers, not in the trickery and illusions of power that man can perform. My friend the magician noted that god's magic can be performed through the physical actions of man, which the waitress agreed with, but she still wasn't on board with magic-- she thought it was really dangerous to have man believe in, or play along with, this idea of illusion of other-wordly power.

At the crux of the debate was the point that the waitress saw magic as evidence without truth, and religion as truth without evidence (my reductive words, not hers). So as a humble, good person, one should always privilege truth rather than evidence.

Having been talking about the wrestling seminar before all this went down, and having just read the Stone and Oldenberg 's account of wrestling transforming from 'work to play to professional sport to drama', I realized the same debate is at the center of professional wrestling. Stone and Oldenberg give a careful account of the context and causes for the shift away from 'truth' in wrestling and into illusion, and this circumstance is described in a tone that reinforces the glorification of the days of wrestling as an honest sport, with challenges that were legitimate enough to place bets on.

But I'm left wondering whether it's actually appropriate at all to favor sport over drama. I think the amazing thing about wrestling is its liminal, overlapping position in truth and evidence-- the physical act is real, and so is the drama. The audience, even if they know what's coming, or know that it's predetermined as dramatic performance, can still have the feeling I had when I saw the magic tricks, and the fact that it's a trick doesn't make that feeling of awe and shock and admiration any less authentic or worthwhile.

Over the couscous, we asked the magician if he believed in magic. He said he 'believed in believing in magic'. This seems like the tack taken by many wrestling fans-- if you don't believe in believing, there's no point in going along for the ride.


Sam Ford said...

Well put, Kate, and it reminds me of two things...first, the connections between wrestling and carnival. In our classes at MIT, we've read some about P.T. Barnum and the appeal of being tricked. One person said of Barnum, and I'm paraphrasing, that he could steal ten bucks from you and you'd pay him another five to tell you how he did it. The whole idea of hoaxes and tricks and magic in our culture has always had a fascination, and wrestling positions itself well here.

It's about the performance, not the "truth," to some people and this complicates the sporting folks' derision of wrestling and also the bemoaning of the evolution of the wrestling product by Lou Thesz. What is the balance of spectacle and realism? Of course there has to be a balance between the two, just as you don't want the magician to obviously show you the trick is "fake."

Omar said...

Before this class, I was unconvinced of wrestling as a legitimate sport. I didn't deny the athleticism of the wrestlers; their high-flying acrobatics did deserve some credit. I simply didn't understand how anybody could be entertained by fake combat.

In watching the documentaries and reading some of the articles, I came to realize that I was missing the whole point of wrestling. It's not like people don't know that punches rarely hit their mark. To truly appreciate wrestling spectacles you really have to give into the performance. You want to believe that the two big guys in the ring really have it out for each other. You want the heel to get his ass kicked. You want to be entertained. Championship belts and any sort of formal title-holding are secondary to the performance in wrestling.

I have discovered a whole new level in wrestling. I'd be lying, however, if I said I still didn't wish matches were real shoots. I really enjoy watching competitive sports. But I will say that I have developed an appreciation for wrestling and am beginning to understand its value as a form of entertainment.