Mythologies- Barthes on… Wrestling

I intend to cover each of the essays of Roland Barthes’ Mythologies individually. It’s a wonderful book which highlights the hidden natures and symbols of everyday life. I begin today with essay #1- wrestling.

Barthes begins with wrestling exactly because of the transparency of actions and symbols. It is a spectacle of excess. Every single action has to be exaggerated, and has the character of the ancient Greek theatres. What makes it like the ancient Greek theatres? Firstly, it is the seating and lighting, the character of the view. “A light without shadow generates emotion without reserve”.

This lack of reservation is also shown in the outfits, particularly the masks. As with the masks of ancient Greek Theatre, they represent the internal life of the character. Purely on the wrestler’s physical appearance we are meant to judge which is the hero and which is the villain, and this is given a deliberate transparency. Barthes goes as far as to say that the end of the fight is unconsciously clear within the opening moments of the fight.

The wrestler is an expert theatrical craftsman. Each action and gesture is a symbol corresponding to the character and story of the match. Every action has to be exaggerated, and every action is culminative- the defeats of the villain are more exciting, the wins of the hero are increasingly vindicating. These theatrical expressions are perfect examples of semiological iconography because wrestling, unlike other sports, is about each moment. In boxing, the matches are played in rounds, the wins and loses are clear, and judged through binary categories. In wrestling, it is the moments which give the audience what they want, not the outcome. As the audience, we impose the story, and the actions of the wrestlers are the moments in that story.

Each moment in wrestling is a paroxysm. To be defeated in the match isn’t a binary win or loss. A win is the vindication of good over evil. The loser produces exaggerate actions of suffering, ‘the cross and the pillory’. The suffering is an enactment of a crucifixion, a veritable putrefaction. When the winner wins, everyone cheers, when the loser loses, everyone cheers. Wrestling is a social institution, an exercise in moral or political values.

The villain, or as Barthes calls them, the Bastard (capital ‘B’), is so understood not only in their symbolic actions, attire and physique, but in their total meaning. The symbolic Bastard transgresses the rules of the match. The Bastard abides by the rules only when the rules suit them. The Bastard is unpredictable. Barthes calls him ‘the Bastard’ exactly because he has an emotional identification, he symbolises that which we hate. Therefore, when the hero defeats the villain, there is a parallel in which we see the symbolic saving of social order. Predictable actions are heroic actions. When the audience cheer the final paroxysmal cry of the villain, the world is again their world.

Euphoria is the mood of every match because in life symbols are ambiguous, but in wrestling the symbols are of perfect clarity. For the space of a match, we can securely feel that good and bad are clearly cut. “Wrestlers remain Gods because they are, for a few moments, the key which opens Nature, the purest gesture which separates Good from Evil, and unveils the form of a Justice which is at last intelligible”.

What we learn from this essay is that we observe a spectacle in the hope of seeing our shared worldviews solidified. In this perfect spectacle, every action is exaggerated to deliver the ultimately desired pathos which the spectator so voraciously descries. The object is not in winning or losing, it is in saving social order. We don’t need to discourse on the ambiguities of justice or equate limits to punitive measures, at least for a brief spell of time- all is clear, and it feels good.

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Thank you for reading.

This post is in series. To read the others CLICK HERE.

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