By Scott Wilkerson
Cut Time: An Education at the Fights
Houghton Mifflin $24
In her masterful study, On Boxing, Joyce Carol Oates observes: “One of the paradoxes of boxing is that the viewer inhabits a consciousness so very different from that of the boxer as to suggest a counter-world.” Given this radical formulation, it is indeed a supreme act of imaginative élan to write about that which we can scarcely perceive. Thus are boxing writers only those possessing the most sophisticated perceptual gifts. With his new book Cut Time, Carlo Rotella assures his place among them.
Subtitled, “An Education at the Fights,” this splendid work is both an authoritative scholarly exploration of the fight game’s conceptual complexities and an engaging, accessible encounter with the boxing world at street level. Indeed, it is Rotella’s compelling fusion of these two motifs that distinguishes Cut Time from, on the one hand, a mere recitation of the baroque archetypes inhabiting every gym or, on the other, a turgid academic treatise.
Whether he is describing Larry Holmes’s work-out routine or developing a phenomenology of boxing, his argumentation is always a model of clarity, and his prose strikes the perfect harmonoic between wisdom and wonder:
“Boxing self-consciously takes form around the impulse to discipline hitting, to govern it with rules, to master it with technique and inure the body to its effect…Because hitting wants to shake off all encumbering import and just be hitting, because boxing incompletely frames elemental chaos, the capacity of the fights to mean is rivals by their incapacity to mean anything at all. There is an education in that, too, since education worthy of the name knows its limitations and does not explain things away.”
Rotella correctly perceives that boxing, like writing, is also an act of the imagination, driven by turbulent forces and projected onto the blank white space of experience. And we sense the deep intimacy of this relation as we witness a mismatched professional “opponent” discovering his creative impulses in the ring or as we follow Rotella through his training exercises in seeing the fistic world.
Withal, Cut Time is a virtuosic performance, a fearless plunge into paradox, contradiction, parody and pain, arrving finally at a synthesis, a luminous moment in which boxing becomes a metaphor for the world we surrender to gain knowledge of ourselves.